The Kyrgyz capital Bishkek doesn’t feel Asian in the slightest – quite surreal being situated slap bang in the heart of Asia. Kyrgyz make up only just over 50% of the population in Kyrgyzstan. In the north the other half are Russian and in the south Uzbek. Like all the other Central Asian capitals its changing rapidly.
Businesses in the former Soviet Union don’t like employing people over the age of thirty because they can’t adapt to the new capitalist world in which they now live; whereas the young grasp the system with both hands. In affect the older generation are left on the shelf, which at first seems unfair, but in essence they have become natures guardians of tradition – if it were possible to alter an entire populations mindset overnight at the whim of those in control, many traditions throughout the world would have long since vanished.
Though this does ponder a fundamental question: if our own capitalist system were replaced by a system consisting of genuine freedom, how would we adapt? Would we be able to rid ourselves ‘the fear’ of conforming in the capitalist world?
Every now and then, I glimpse the shadow of conformity creeping over my shoulder. Soon I’ll have the wife, the job, the kids, the mortgage, and the car… But as long as I keep moving, maybe I can outwit the bastard for a while longer…
On our journey back south, we opted for the shared 12-hour taxi, rather than the two-day rickety bus. Settling into our journey, we were blissfully unaware that we were going the wrong way. Fortunately this state of ignorance couldn’t continue indefinitely, and after two hours we were halted by Kazakhstan.
Back on track; we travelled up and over the broad sweep of mountains that divide north and south which are inhabited by nomads, seemingly in a land all of their own. Though now with another fierce winter encroaching on the snowy plateau they will again have to flee their ancient homes into the rapidly changing Kyrgyzstan below.
Descending the mountains the snow turned to rain, and as we drove through a small town, an electrical storm lit up the darkening sky. A large flash and orange glow emanated from beyond the rooftops over to the left, and as we drove nearer, we saw that the electric cable running from the homes across the street was exploding and falling from every wooden pole that connected it. The cable crashed into the street just in front of us igniting everything flammable in a brilliant white light, dancing and twisting like an angry viper in the road.
I grabbed my camera and started filming from the safety of the front seat, just as the guy driving the vehicle in front (who was now sandwiched between us and the dancing cable) started screaming in terror at us to reverse, in an attempt to escape imminent cremation. Then an unsuspecting car approached at speed on the opposite side of the road, and as everyone held their breath, I realised this was fast turning into a cheesy disaster movie. The car drove over the cable without ill affect – the cable had clearly given its last death throe. Our driver gestured towards the obstacle for permission to proceed, my boisterous grin gave the green light and we sped over the cable with our two teenage co-passengers squealing with terror from the back seat.
A full circle of northern Kyrgyzstan completed, we had just over a week at our disposal before the Chinese border closed for ten days to commemorate Chinese national day. For a spot of relaxation we headed up into the mountains once again. But this time no trekking – just to chill out in the Uzbek inhabited town of Arslanbob. The only available accommodations in town were CBT organised B&B’s. We were shown to an office and presented with photos and a description of the 14 home stays on offer. We cut out the middleman, declined them all, and made our way to the closest home stay on the list to cut our own deal. At our first mealtime an Uzbek girl in her early twenties greeted us “Hello I am Rian … I will be your service provider”. This was pretty much the extent of her English, but she was indeed an excellent ‘service provider’. For the next three days we ate superbly, whilst Rian waited on us hand and foot. Not a traditional home stay experience – this was more the colonialist/servant experience – but you won’t hear me complaining anymore.
Osh was to be the staging post for our journey into China. Being the administrative capital of southern Kyrgyzstan it is a fairly large city that couldn’t be more contrasting to Bishkek in the north. With the hustle and bustle of Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks, and virtually devoid of Russians, this was truly Asia.
Though The fact that Russianns are such a minority here in a part of a country they once considered their own won’t concern them much in comparison to sharing Kyrgyzstan’s airspace with the Americans: Two years ago the US built an air base in Bishkek for which the Kyrgyz govt. now receives $7,000 for every US aircraft that takes-off or lands here.
In terms of resources Kyrgyzstan is not very important. But a base gives the Americans more leverage in insuring their men in the region stay ‘monitored’ and that the two regional powers don’t try anything funny. The official reason is of course ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and ‘The War on Terror’.
No doubt Kyrgyzstan is making quite a lot of money from all this geopolitical maneuvering – but it remains to be seen if the people will benefit. President Akaev is seen as the most progressive of the Central Asian leaders (the best of a bad bunch) and the constitution states he must stand down in 2005. It will be interesting to see if he does, if the west turns a blind eye if he doesn’t, and just how much money he has stashed in his Swiss bank account!
We stayed in a third floor student flat in Osh, which had recently morphed into ‘Osh Guesthouse’. This place pretty much summed up the quirky nature of accommodation in Kyrgyzstan. We met Yair, an Israeli who’d been waiting several days for someone to share the costs of travelling to China. We informed him we were planning to hitch and stop off en-route, an idea that was risky since the border was soon to close but which was infinitely more appealing than a 24hr overnight $50 bus ride.
We overslept on our day of departure putting more pressure on the schedule. We then met an Uzbek woman at the bus station who was planning to head into southern Kyrgyzstan for a wedding. She had her own vehicle and had just to find a driver, so while waiting we were invited back to her house for breakfast…which soon turned into Lunch, and by 5pm we were on a way into the Pamir Alay Mountains. Six hours later we arrived in Sary Tash, high up in the Alay valley. We bade farewell to our host and soon found another to put us up for the night.
Sary Tash is a virtual autonomous town beyond the reach of the Kyrgyz authorities. Our host explained that this little town was a major stopover for smugglers in Opium and Hashish from Afghanistan via Tajikistan. Anything was available and Opium could be purchased for approx. $400 a kilo. Since it is estimated a ton of narcotics a day make their way down this mountain road to Osh, it is clear someone is making a tidy profit by turning a blind eye.
It took us four hours to hitch a ride the following morning, and it was going to be a close call if we’d make the border before it closed for the day at 15.30. The journey was sublime; Tajikistan was just 10 kms away across the valley, marked by a 60km ridge of mountains at six and seven thousand metres high, including the second highest mountain in the Former Soviet Union Pik Lenina at 7134m (the highest being Pik Communisma in Tajikistan at 7495m).
After numerous checkpoints we arrived at the dusty border with five minutes to spare. The air thick with diesel fumes as tens of Kamaz trucks waited impatiently to cross the border or pick up goods to take back into Kyrgyzstan. The scruffy gun toting border guard radioed ahead to see if he was allowed to let three foreigners cross. Then with a shake of the head and a firm ‘zaftra’ (tomorrow) he clumsily herded us back into Kyrgyzstan. We were to stay the night at the border and cross early the next morning before the border would close for ten days. The border town was a real dive, but made up for it with oodles of character and inquisitive truckers.
We awoke dusty and early to discover we couldn’t actually cross the border on foot due to the 7kms of no-mans land that separated the two nations. No trucks were crossing since they didn’t want to be trapped in China for ten days and so ironically we had to wait for the weekly bus we had earlier boycotted to take us across. The driver was a typical dick, he wanted to charge $25 each to take us to Kashgar, and if we didn’t want to pay this he wouldn’t take us across the border. Meanwhile the sleazy border guards tried all their lame party tricks to part us from our money. Fortunately a wealthy Chinese couple arrived driving a snazzy Cherokee jeep, enabling us to cross with them.
The Chinese border crossing was in complete contrast; sharply dressed Chinese, politely, efficiently and hurriedly dealt with us. The building was immaculate; equipped with modern equipment and most shocking of all – the roads had not only tarmac, but kerbs!
After filling out our customs forms and declaring that we were of sane mind and didn’t have diarrhoea (I lied on both counts) we were in!
I’ve been in Xingjian for a week now, and its special. Despite the fact that it’s a modern Chinese city, It feels more Central Asian than either Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan. The mountains along the KKH equal if not surpass those in Pakistan. But I’ll give more details of that in my next email…
Now I’m off to Karghlik where I will attempt to hitch the 3000kms into Tibet and then onto Nepal. It’s going to be bloody long and hard journey fraught with bollocks, altitude sickness and pneumonia. My girlfriend thinks the whole idea is ludicrous, so I’ll be all alone without so much as a camera. Meanwhile Ditte will travel through China and enter Tibet legally through Golmud.
So why am I doing it? – Mainly because it’s illegal, and so that I don’t have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to the Chinese authorities for the privilege of entering someone else’s country!
So despite the encroachment of conformity,
I’m still a feckless little shit!