After I left Nurgul and Naryn, I immediately encountered the non-sheltered Kyrgyzstan that my time in Naryn had magically insulated me from. Still quite excellent, the seeds of tourist-as-bag-of-money attitude were apparent. The first taxi I took to the bus station wanted 15 rather than 10 som and made a big todo about my only having 10 for him (it’s always 10). At the bus station I was immediately set upon by people asking to take me wherever, and the taxi going to Balykchy that I settled upon initially quoted me 400 before I took him down to 350 (still expensive). While nothing malicious was in these exchanges, the feeling was markedly different from what I’d experienced thus far, and the notes of Marrakesh began to worry me. Luckily, this wrestling over small amounts of money is about as bad as it’s gotten, which is to say, not bad at all.
The ride to Karakol from Balykchy was pleasant, but the scenery certainly wasn’t as fantastic as I’d been led to expect by the hype. Yes, I’m a jaded traveler. Karakol itself is dusty and quiet, and I dodged the taxi drivers on arriving and walked the long way to the center of town instead. I was shooed away from the mosque for not being Muslim (the first time this has happened to me), and as “revenge” I decided not to draw it. Downtown I received excellent help from an Eco-Tourism Info Center on which Marshrutka to take, and I found Tynchtyk’s Yurt Camp without too much trouble.
Tynchtyk also worked with IREX alongside Bakytbek, and was the one who worked most closely with Ponz throughout the exchange. I stayed five nights in total, with a massive yurt all to my own. He proposed a strange arrangement, as it landed between friendship/hospitality and business, though he certainly attempted to couch it as the former. On seeing me draw the view from the second story Dining Yurt, he offered meals for drawings of the complex, saying that I would be like their guest. This turn of phrase bothered me a bit, as well as the rather low monetary value put on my drawings, but I acquiesced anyways due to my recent musings on the relative economic powers of places and peoples. I even left my drawings with him after he scanned them in with 400dpi. They will be framed and placed around the Dining Yurt. This exchange exemplified the strange feeling of Karakol – friendliness and hospitality for a price. In this case, I was essentially selling my drawings for around $3.00 each, which is laughably low. A true exchange in my mind would be for free lodging as well, and I was tempted to reject the offer outright and instead provide the drawings as a gift. As you can see, I’m having a hard time explaining the mix of emotions and pride and practicality.
All the meals were excellent, and much heavier on vegetables than the home cooking I’d experienced elsewhere. They were clearly geared more towards foreigners, even providing vegetarian versions of foods for the European travelers. While I stayed, only two other groups were ever there at one time, one per yurt. Mostly Germans, bringing their own beer and setting off on pre-planned treks with guides. I spoke Russian with the first two sets of Germans, as they a Polish couple living in Germany for decades and a Russian couple who’d grown up in Germany. By my definition Germans, and by their definitions Polish/Russian. The Polish accent in Russian sounded quite comical to me, with the consistent substitution of “w” sounds making it sound a bit like a Looney Toon’s esque speech impediment.
I went to Жети-Огуз the first full day. Again, I experienced the mix of being taken advantage of for having money while having nice conversations and feeling like a guest. I was taken to the central bazaar by Tynchtyk’s father, who helped negotiate the price to the village, 40 som, and to the actual site, 200 som. I watched the other passengers pay 30 som to the village. I also ended up paying 230 som when getting off at the site, despite clearly having accepted the offer of 200 som for the journey. While 30 som is around 43 cents, only, it’s the feeling that makes it all the ickier. And of course, because it’s only 43 cents, it’s easier to just pay it instead of arguing. All this despite (or because of, perhaps) a nice conversation in Russian the entire way.
I spent my time in Жети-Огуз in a very relaxed manner. I hardly hiked, preferring instead to sit and enjoy the sunshine and starkly contrasting colors. I made a few quick drawings, and talked for a while with two local boys, eight and twelve years old, leading their cows around and playing with their dog, Алфа. They had excellent Russian, having been born and grown up partly in Russia, and enjoyed watching me draw. I walked the length of the town and settled on a cafe by the river, an impossibly perfect picnic site. I lounged for a very long lunch, very peaceful and relaxed, with the sound of the rushing water drowning out all others. The meal was surprisingly expensive, but I rationalized it and walked on to the park at the other end of the valley. Here I chanced upon a wedding, with loud Russian, Turkish, Spanish, and Kyrgyz music resounding through the trees while a small group of guests danced subtly with arms aloft. I was invited in but demurred, walked about a bit more, then caught a taxi returning to Karakol just as it was about to leave, for 150 som and no haggling or shenanigans.
Back in Karakol, I unsuccessfully searched for stationery before doing a few sketches and taking the Marshrutka back to the yurt camp. Feeling a bit off the next day, I stayed in all day and did a lovely nothing – or rather I worked hard to update my blog, contact various universities, plan meetups in upcoming cities, render my first forays into video production, and catch up on writing my journal entries. I also watched a lot of Starcraft.
The next day was similar, as I wandered around town to buy stationery and earphones (having given mine to Эмир). I ate a very comforting bowl of Ашлянфу (Ashlyanfu). They had chopsticks! No one was using them in the full restaurant, but I happily wiped mine off with a napkin and ate my noodles the correct way as the silly people used forks all around. Apparently only the Dungan people know how to use chopsticks (the people who make this dish). I found the Fat Cat Karakol, an expat/traveler cafe, and sat for four hours with their guitar, singing through my eclectic repertoire and likely thoroughly confusing the other guests as I went through Mandarin, Cantonese, Thai, Russian, Arabic, Spanish, English, and Kyrgyz songs. I decided to focus on Fairouz’s Ana La Habibi in anticipation of my upcoming trip to Lebanon – I later told Brent that my plan was to sing this song at people there in the hopes that they’d then like us. It had mostly worked with Пусть бегут неуклюже whenever I’d sung it anywhere in earshot of Russian speakers. On going back, I finished the drawings and ate a delicious meal of Oromok before going to bed.
I hiked my last full day in Karakol. And overdid it. Almost what in climbing we call an “epic”. But regardless, it was an extraordinary day. I set out at ten in the morning on foot, deciding to walk to the Marshrutka stop instead of taking the other Marshrutka there. This was a rather uninteresting hour, and in hindsight a pretty stupid decision. I simply wanted to avoid sitting in a hot and crowded Marshrutka and also wanted to make up for two days of not walking much. I certainly made up for that this day, hiking 28km, from 1760m in altitude to 3040m and back down.
Along the way, I asked for directions and then stopped at a summer camp in a temporary yurt by the river on the Жайлоо, or high-altitude pasture. At first I watched the performances of the young children and teachers, the dances reminding me of Bollywood dances with the head and shoulder movements. I was then invited in by a teacher, and sat happily to draw the kids doing paper crafts. I then asked for some paper and taught them how to make origami flowers. Luckily they all spoke perfect Russian. Naturally, I half instructed/half made the flowers, as a few steps are a bit difficult for elementary students. They were mostly patient and definitely fascinated, however, and it was wonderful fun teaching the impromptu lesson. A teacher invited me to lunch, and I had a bowl of hot soup and plov before heading on with their instructions, bonding with my “colleagues”, fellow art teachers.
The climb up to the Ski Base followed a road to the hotel, then no trail as I followed under the ski lift at first. This was quite soggy and underbrushy, and slightly terrifying, as the sky darkened suddenly and thunder began to rumble all around. I decided I should probably not walk under tall metal poles over unsteady ground and cut across to find the ski track instead. Rocky and devoid of grass, I was worried this would turn into a mudslide in the case of rain. It was very unclear if it would rain, however, as the thunder began to recede in all directions. All this time, after leaving the summer camp, I was completely alone. This was a bit worrisome as well. I decided to quickly get to the peak, as I had seen a wooden shelter (the floor of the ski lift) there in case of rain, and at any rate it would be better than staying in the soon-to-be-mud. Somehow, it never rained, and it was even sunny for the twenty minutes I spent at the top. I had to cut across a decided lack of trailness to reach the peak, and despite being at just 3,040 meters, it felt quite arduous to get there, like as the way was quite steep. I think it was the most accomplished I’ve felt in a while, completely alone with a panoramic view in a brief spell of sunshine. I scribbled an impression before the return of some rather insistent thunder chased me down, quite terrified, at a Terrence-going-downhill speed (quite fast).
Near the hotel, I met an old lady and her grandchild and had a soothing conversation with them, the first humans I’d seen in three hours. She was a touch worried about the rain, but showed me her massive flashlight contingency plan with pride. Apparently she followed her goats there. Back at the hotel parking lot, I sadly saw no cars at all. I’d hoped to catch a lift back, but no such luck. I walked on and down, very quickly, to the summer camp, where the kids were now playing happily outside the yurt – something like ring around the rosy, it seemed. I took a seat on the random chairs set up outside the yurt, exhausted from my quick ascent/descent. The kids came over to chat with me, and I proudly showed them where I’d walked to. A teacher then invited me in for dinner, insistently, and I followed her into the dining yurt nearby for a nibble at some Дымдама, seated at the head of the three sided table by the male teachers.
I didn’t stay very long, as I still had a ways to walk, and bid farewell to the kids and other teachers. They passed me later in cars back down the road, full to the brim and unable to take me on. Each car that passed out of the valley was similarly full, and it was only the final car before the ranger station that stopped to let me in. He stopped to chat with the rangers, then took me back to the Yurt camp. We talked the whole way, and I thought perhaps it was a hitch-hiking experience, until we arrived at I asked if I should pay and he said of course. He started with a ridiculous price of 500 som, and we eventually settled on 200 som. While apparently the normal price, according to Tynchtyk, this again felt off – a friendly exchange turned slightly sour by the exchange of money and the attitude of how it was asked for. Tynchtyk said it was balance for the wonderful experiences I’d had with the summer camp.