Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My apple garden

I don't want to leave the people in Bishkek but I like Karakol, it is my safe haven. When a hitchhiking partner leaves you, you're looking for stability. And I feel that Karakol is the place I have to be. That's where I know the most people. I don't want to leave Janela who is in Karakol but she will be working crazy hours anyway and won't have any time. Plus, her friends are really worrying about us seeing too much of each other so it is best for everyone that I flee to Karakol now. I also promised to an old lady that I met on the street that I will teach her daughter english and I am already half a week late.
I took a marshutka to Kant and from there I got Tokmok, first hike alone. Tokmok, criminal city they say and of course I stop a gang leader who used to control the north side of Tokmok. He took money from people who had plenty, kept some and gave to others who had none. Modern robin hood you might say. Now he's retired, he has been in the army as a radio control whatever and is now retired from all that also. He lived in Norway for about five years with his wife; the good one as he calls her (he's been divorced once). The good wife has blond colored hair and as we would say in France, she has generous forms. He has a house in tokmok with sheep, goats, chicken and whatnot. His house also had a Bania, which works quite often and was heated when I came in. I might have mentioned it earlier but the Bania is a ceremonial event, we heat it about once a week so the higiene in this country is very different from europe. You don't notice it though.
He likes me, my way of travelling and my challenge.
"Filip Maladyec!", he says and I am invited to his house to eat lunch. I take a shower, they wash my clothes.
Almas drives me the end of Tokmok where I catch a ride to 25 kilometers before Balachy. This ride takes me just out of politeness, they are frustrated that I didn't give them money and spend the way making stupid jokes about me. I am used to handle these situation, this is no trouble at all.
I wanted to make it to Ananyevo to sleep at my friend's place but I only make it to Cholpon-Ata. Two retired medical workers from Kazakhstan take me to their home.
"What the fuck are you doing here without money, travelling like this and all?"
"Volunteer work in Karakol. Teaching english."
The man shakes his head. He is kind hearted but cynic as a stone. He was a heart doctor, he probably had time to become a cynic. His wife, on the other hand is kind and nice as a feather.
"Your parents probably didn't beat you enough," says the cynic, "Please just take one room in out dacha and go to sleep. Eat raspberries and apples. Goodbye"
And I also get dinner, that's without mention.
Janela calls me and we talk for a long time. She's very worried, she's happy that I'm in a safe place and not sleeping in a tent. Appearently she's interested in every detail of my day, probably including the color of my socks. With some people we like ourselves, with some people we hate ourselfes. And I like myself with Janela.
In the morning, he takes me to his neighbours and tells them that this stupid guy is willing to work for free so they can just give me lunch and I'll take care of their garden. He's joking of course.
I get to Ananyevo the next day with a free taxi. Chingiz is in front of his house, on the street. He has his hands full with work, he doesn't have a lot of time but is happy to see me. He's obviously still not in America as he planned but he is working on it. I went to see Kairad next. He has gotten into a fight again but has scared his opponent away with an axe. I am not surprised anymore. This internet club of his, while being a smart business is obviously a source of trouble. People not willing to pay for the time spent online, people stealing other people's time to take it for themselves. Internet is like a drug and customers like drug addicts. Kairad needs to rule over this anarchy with an iron hand.
I get Karakol with two russian guys and a girl who are going all the way to Karakol. Both of them are called Sergey and they speak english.
Their are going to start working on the Sunhouse Hostel.
The Sunhouse hostel is one of the business ideas that have got my attention during this trip. And I have got wind of hundereds of business ideas. Selling fruits to europe, trafficking cars to georgia, buying land in Issyk-Keul, building hotels at Ala-Keul, selling Armenian specialities in a restaurant in europe, you name an idea, I've heared it. But most of these ideas are just dreams, they're not backed up by anything solid. Most of the time, people will not dare put them into practice, they will merely speak loads about how it will work great and how they will go to America.
The Sergeys they know what they're getting into. They have a Natacha in their team which makes a good thinking mix in the team.
"Karakol is the summer home of the world," says Sergey one and I could not agree more. Karakol is the summer home of the world and the Sunhouse Hostel can be it's "mise en abime", a summer home in a summer home. And that is smart.
There is a risk of course, it is the same risk with every business in Issyk-keul: we bet on the fact that more tourists will come.
It is a reasonable risk because rationaly speaking, more tourists should come. Kyrgyzstan is beautiful, its nature is more beautiful that any french mountain landscape, more beautiful than Switzerland, more beautiful than Caucase. The country has bad press because of its revolutions but I feel safer in Bishkek than I would be in Paris. In europe, I never take out my computer from its bag for fear to be stolen, here I am parading my tablet for the whole world to see.
I listen to the Sergeys talking about their project and once or twice during the event I am even thinking to invest. This is also because the Sergeys never asked me to invest, because they have smartly chosen their investors without falling into the credit black hole Kyrgyz people are enslaved in.
They are acting calmly, with motivation instead of emotion, with reason instead of hope. They want to open on December 1st because the skiing season will start.
The hostel is smartly situated in the south of Karakol, in the direction of the Skiing base. It makes a reasonable alternative for tourists who want to access the city on a timely basis and still can make it to the ski base. It is also a good transit camp. There is another camp in Karakol, it is called Turkestan Yurt camp and it is in the center. The Yurt Camp is just a good hostel for travellers looking for a place to sleep, it is kind of unusable otherwise. I remember our first expedition to Ala-keul, where we lost the Polish guys because they camp in Yurt Kamp was just to far.

The Sergeys told me that I could stay in the garden of their hostel as long as I wanted and eat all the apples and pears in their garden. And there were so many apples, I actually never got to the pears. I came to love this place as my apple garden.
"Oh no you're sleeping in a tent? Are you cold?" Janela is worse than Poly, she's as bad as my mother. But because of her high-pitched voice, her questioning is very cute.

The next day, I inform Elana that I am in Karakol and ready to teach English. Elana tells me she's too busy with school and doesn't have time to take english lessons. So I've come all the way to Karakol in vain. All the people I told I'll be doing volunteer work, will that be a lie? It won't because one day I go to charge the computer to Elana's place so she agrees to one english lesson anyway. She's 17, she wants to study in china and she basically lives under the strict rule of her parents, as most children do.

It is my first and last lesson with her but it is enough to make me an official volunteer. My next mission in Karakol is to start the charity campaign for Janela. I go on the internet in front of the school and there is a small circle of people forming arouund me.
"Hello," says the girl. And then nothing.
"How are you?"
"I'm fine and you?"
"I'm fine"
Blank. Huge blank. I am used to people throwing arount the three sentences but this girl is really trying as it was a challenge. I see her girlfriends calling her back but she has only one shot, she doesn't want to lose it.
"Parusky gavarite?"
Yeah I speak russian and I think this is really funny. She is stressed, it obvioulsy took all of her courage to speak to this stranger. She is 18 and studying finance at the university of Karakol.
"Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend?"
I say no to both of these questions, a little taken aback from what she wants. She's eighteen for god's sake, that's still a child, she could not be possibly thinking she could have a shot at a relationship with me. But different culture, different measures, so maybe this is common practice in here. It surely isn't for me. I try to get away from this unconfortable thematic but she doesn't let me.
"Why don't you have a girlfriend?"
I explain to her that I am travelling for one year and having a girlfriend in these conditions is impossible. It doesn't seem to convince her but it closes the subject.
She wants to take english lessons and I just hope she knows the difference between an english lesson and a date. Judging by the SMS I get from her, I think not.
The next day we set a meeting and she doesn't come. That's ok, I write my blog instead but then she sets another meeting for the next day. She doesn't come the next day either which is fine by me because I also have this unreliable attitude. The next day however I decide to go to the mountains. Pic Karakol is impossible to climb in this time of year they say so I decide to go to Djeti Oguz, the place of the seven miracles.

I get there in the late afternoon. Nothing special about the rides, just one guy who tries to sell me his friend's wife for fifty dollars while she was in the car. I don't have any food again, just some water and my phone just died. Theo and John just made it to Bishkek and they're calling Janela to find them a place to stay and she calls me to ask who is this John because I forgot to tell her that I gave them her number. I go to talk to some guys to ask to charge my phone. Maybe they'll invite me in and I could have lunch. The first ones are just drunks, they just want money for vodka, so I say "Rakhmat, dzakhche hal" (thank you bye bye) and go back to some other house. In the second one live two guys. It's the perfect configuration for not feeling bad as a guest.
Mountain house in Djeti-Oguz
They are lonely and bored, very much like Igor in Bishkek. Their wives are at home in the village and they are the only ones here to take care of the horses and livestock. These two guys probably know each other for ages and they have nothing to say to each other for just as long. They invite me for tea and cook something to eat. For two cowboys living in the red mountains of Djeti-Oguz, these two are open minded, open to other ideas, almost as if they had an education.
We talk about the condition of women in Kyrgyzstan, life in europe, usual stuff.
I could hardly find a more beautiful place to stay. From the relative confort of my home (it gets really freezing cold at night here in the mountains) I could observe a storm raging while the sun sets over the red hills.
Rainbow over the red hills
It is really beautiful and I am sorry I cannot share it with anyone else. And I understand that I have nothing more to do in Karakol. I like the place but the people are more important. What I really want now is to spend some time with Janela. Actually, I have a plan. I want us to hitchhike from Bishkek to Karakol through the red beach, the south side of the lake. We can sleep one night in Tokmok at Almas and one night in Khadzi-Say and see the Fairy tale canyon.

The next day I climb to some 3000 meter peak, it's harder than usual, maybe because my bag is too heavy with the warm clothes from Igor's place, maybe because I got a cold. At the top I get a call from Ayzada, the girl I am supposed to teach english to. She wants to meet with me for the lesson. At last she has time. I tell her in four hours and I run down like crazy down the peak. I want to finish these lessons as fast as I can now so I can go to Bishkek. Plus, Janela might be interrupting his work at the sewing factory so that means a lot of time.

I get a message from Janela which goes a little too far. I can handle dating or whatever we did in Bishkek, some allusions but I still have a panic fear of relationships and a phobia of marriage. And a real relationship with Janela... that would be so complicated that I just don't want to think about it. All these problems and differences, where to begin? Better to run away. But I know that Janela has a way of understanding people, not pushing. She can feel, very fast and very precisely what a person is able to handle and she doesn't try to get over the limit. She has an incredible sense for that. Therefore, it never happens that I run away. It merely happens that I get scared sometimes and then I kind of like her.
Red mountains, view from the peak

I descend 1000 meters of altitude with a 20kg bag in about twenty minutes and no broken bones.
I make it by foot to the border of kurmenty and then catch a ride to the main road with a family who wants to pay me to marry their daughter. She's really ugly for the country's standarts which means she's kind of just under average for european criteria. But thanks, no thanks. It must be really hard to be born with an ugly face in Kyrgyzstan. Even her own family makes fun of her.

I get to Karakol at 7 and I meet at 8 with Ayzada. Night has already fallen. I am surprised that she can even meet me at this hour, from what I saw until now, Kyrgyz traditions don't really allow girls to go out at night, let alone to meet with a stranger. She must have been really motivated to meet me to get through all the taboos of her society. This makes me wonder if she understands this is only an english lesson.
We meet in front on the station of the local militia. When I get there, I call her. She's coming in a minute. Several people on bikes pass me by to check me out, check if I'm alone, this is a james bond operation. A thought crosses my mind, teaching enlish is actually a dangerous profession in this country. Not only you have to worry about how to improve your student's english level, you also have to take into account her 12 brothers (these are big families) with guns who want to kill you beacause they think you want to steal their daughter and also about the daughter who maybe wants to steal you.
She comes at last. Everything is OK, she keeps a distance and she actually expects an english lesson. Good. There is obviously a gap between the text messages I am recieving and her behaviour. This is reassuring for me.
The lesson goes well but in half an hour she has to go because her mother who has been calling her every ten minutes is now going to send the twelve brothers with guns and I don't want to be there to see the fireworks.
Really, in this country, mothers are the worst.

I come back to my apple garden tonight one last time. There is a lock on the door and I have no other solution where to sleep. A police car is patrolling around. Fuck that, nobody throws me out of my apple garden, I climb across the fence, carefully avoiding the police car and slowly put up my tent. I sleep like a baby.
The next day, I am going to Bishkek.   

Monday, September 23, 2013

Saving Janela

I went a long way from the airport to the main road where absolutly no one wanted to stop for me. They didn't even slow down and me wearing or nor wearing the Kalpak didn't have any effect whatsoever. After a while some guy wanted money and shook his head in exasperation when I explained to him the definition of hitchhiking.
"I travel without money. If you want to help, go on, if not, it doesn't matter, I'll find another car"
"What do you mean without money?"
My ride is the boss of Nestlé, Kyrgyzstan

I've been in this situation a million times already. The person who takes me in the end is the head of Nestlé development, Kyrgyzstan. He's a cool guy, you can see he has eaten a little too much Nestlé but he doesn't have any in his car.
He explains to me they're trying to expand but it's not an easy task considering the Kyrgyz mentality.
Here, people don't have a consumer culture like we have in europe. Shops are full of chocolate and ready-to-be eaten products but nobody buys them. Anything imported, anything that has a brand on it is simply too expensive for the locals to afford. For the while time that I have been here I haven't been invited to a restaurant once. Everyone can cook here and can they can cook well. Many people make their own bread, their own jam and juices. Fruits and vegetables come from their garden. A fair half of Kyrgyz families has a cow and produces their own milk and all the products that come from it. Those who don't often buy from their neighbours. What's left to buy in a shop? Not much and certainly not imported pruducts of Nestlé.
However, since American television has slowly made its way to Kyrgyz homes, the consumer culture has grown too, people are buying more, especially in the capital and often at credit.

The boss of Nestlé takes me back to Igor's place. He is very kind and even speaks english. I climb over the fence at 5:30 in the morning. I see Igor asleep in his chair, in front of his TV, a glass of compot not too far. I take the remote from his hand and turn the thing off. He doesn't wake up. Poor thing, he must have fallen asleep out of sadness. I go to my bed and sleep until noon. Igor wakes up only because he hears me making noise arount the house. I don't even know if he would ever wake up otherwise... ever. He is still sad Ilona has left, we talk about it a bit. He tells me to stay one more day no problem, this is not europe. I've told him I'll see this girl Janela, who's come to Bishkek and works there. For Igor who doesn't have a wife, dating a girl when you're still young enough is quite important. The fact that me and Janela are not actually dating doesn't really matter, he has his own opinion anyway. And actually Igor happens to be more right that I thought as the time.

I meet Janela in front of Beta stores 2 in the south of Bishkek. I haven't seen her forever. She's dressed in pink with a little white, she wears giant sunglasses that are bigger than her head. She's smiling, happy and hyperactive as ever. We talk... a lot. About a lot of stuff. Considering we actually see each other for the third time it feels weird. But when you just feel confortable being with and talking to someone, why not go ahead, why be bothered by the number of times you've actually seen each other?
Taking stupid pictures in VEFA commercial center, Bishkek

We go to a commercial center and take a lot of stupid photos everywhere. In clothing stores with the figurines, in some playground for children, in front of jewlery. We eat ice cream, laugh stupidly and I wonder if I couldn't be doing something more constructive. Like go to Osh or write my blog. After a while I realize that we are acting like on a couple on a date. This is weird. Could I be dating a Kyrgyz girl and not even realize it? How lame is that? And how cool!
Or maybe this is just a Kyrgyz female trait I don't understand, I mean for example, interpreting Nata's signals was like tuning Igor's soviet radio to modern frequencies. So what do I know. However, I must say that while Janela's english isn't perfect and my russian still sucks when it comes to communicating on a deeper level, our communication is great and clear, better than with some people speaking my mother tongue. That is because Janela really knows how to listen. She is really interested in what I have to say, not just waiting for her turn to speak. She is very good at weighing another person's feelings, mine in the present case, taking them into account. She tries to find the good, positive and confortables sides of people and camp on them. That's why it is so easy to be with her. At least for me.
The most developped positive trait in Janela, just before kindness is altruism and it is also her course. She feels the need to help other people, she feels it like a mission, she exists by it. She can't not help someone, it's driving her. And it makes her sad when she can't do anything. That is why, contrary to all of her other sisters, she decided to devote her life to pay that endless credit for her family.
And that is why it is a curse, she feels the need to put her own life in front of others.

If we go deeper into a philosophical discussion, we can ask ourselves wheather true altruism truly exists. Chances are it doesn't. We do help others because maybe after they will help us. Or we help others simply because they will like us, we'll have more friends to secure our future if difficult times come. Or maybe we help people because it makes us happy so in the end, we seek nothing more than our own happiness and we are all egoists. Thinking this way, we can only approach altruism, never reach it.
If it is so, Janela is the person that is the closest to a true altruist that I know. All the actions I see, all the posessions she has, nothing is directly directed at her. It's directed at her friends, her family, me. I've never seen anyone like that.

We have a lot of differences. I mean it, a lot. She's muslim and not the least of them. Not fanatic, nothing of the sort, just a strong believer. She prays, she thinks stuff like a girl must stay pure until marriage. I even think she believes stuff like angels, god is testing us and that he makes miracles happen. But she's kind and open enough to take into account my point of view without trying to change it or make me feel unconfortable about it. And my point of view is basically: fuck all that!
She wants to marry and have a family and I have a panic fear of relationship. The only person who can construct a relatonship that I don't fear is Nata because she makes the concept of open relationship work in practice.
But weirdly enough, our differences came out in the first place and our common traits second. We both have the curse of helping people too much. Obviously she has it more than me and she doesn't see it in such poor light as I do. We are both optimists even though is it easier for me to be one than for her. We both like to go against the wind, both very heavily but her in a gentle manner which hurts as few people as possible; as for me, just give me a tank.

But similarities and differences are secundary, the most important thing is communication, I learned that on the way with my different travelling partners. I finally got close to the truth about this weird Kyrgyz tradition of bridenapping. If you haven't been following the blog for some time, bridenapping is a custom where a man kidnaps his bride, brings her to his family and forces her to marry him. It's obviously a very hard moment for the girl which men find peace in the very common russian sentence that says it all: ona privikne: she'll get used to it.
Janela got kidnapped 5 years ago, when she was nineteen. She was attending another wedding and a girl she barely knew forced her into a car on her way back to Karakol to marry some idiot she had never seen before. It was a nightmare, scary as hell, something that I wish won't happen to me and my hitchhiking partner on my way to Kamchatka. She was driven to some family house where they talked the poor and scared girl into accepting what was thrown at her with the ever-famous argument: if you go back now, shame will fall on you.
When I heard this kind of stories the first time, in an abstract time, with abstract people and narrated by men, I thought is was funny. Now that it has happened to Janela, now that I know that it happens to actual people, I just want to say: fuck you guys with your ancient traditions, don't you have any shame?
Janela escaped because she threatened to kill herself on the spot if she couldn't phone her sister. She was only allowed to say that she was happy to be married to that asshole but since none of the family members spoke a single word of english, she managed to tell her sister to call the police.
When the cops came, she got away. In Kyrgyzstan the sentence for kidnapping is seven years in jail but of course Janela didn't press charges because she doesn't wish seven years in jail on anyone. And as cruel as what these people did was, I can understand not pressing charges. Seven years in jail is hard and I'm sure prison conditions in Kyrgyzstan are pretty awful.

Meanwhile I am still staying at Igor's. It's been more than a week but the good Igor still doesn't see a problem with it. I have no idea what giant amount of money would I have to spend to pay for accomodation had I been a tourist.

Since I met Janela I have made my own judgment about how desperate the situation is. And it is obvious she or her family cannot handle it alone. My idea is to gather money by crowdfunding and hope this works. My favorite website for this is indiegogo.com, a version of kickstarter which is more oriented towards charity.
In these things, you have to get lucky and there is only a slight chance Janela does but rationaly thinking, there is no other realistic solutions besides her parents commiting suicide to erase the debt (and would that erase it?) or things like that.

So I slowly and secretly started to build that project, thinking that Janela would be against the idea but the situation escalated faster than I had ever expected.
I cannot disclose how I got wind of it but today, Janela was $200 short of paying interests to the bank for her family. Not paying interests to the bank means the house being seized and her and her family on the street, nothing less. And don't think for a second anybody would help. They would just be ashamed for having had neighbours that got homeless.
Luckily, the blog I've set up a while ago had gathered that sum. It would have gathered more if paypal wouldn't have such an unusable paying system. Unfortunatelly or should I say tragically even, paypal has become the one and only paying system on the internet, I just couldn't find an alterntive. Why tragically? Because you have to have a paypal account to donate and creating a paypal account is so complicated, such a pain in the ass that it would discourage the most willing of donators. And of course, contrary to what is advertised, paypal does not allow you to pay by credit card, at least not in europe and that's from where all my donations are from. What does it mean? It means that from all the people who wanted to donate, less than half managed to doo it. Are we living in world where spending money is made easy but you have to fight to donate it? What the fuck does that say about us as a nation?

So besides paypal sabotaging Janela's donation campaign, people have gathered the money through Orianne, my former girlfriend if France, mostly through physical cash. In a world of internet and information exchange, this is just ridiculous. I'll stress that point by saying that it was people working in Internet and Telecomunations, people who are born with the networks, people who pay online every day, these people did not manage to donate money by paypal, that is how bad the paypal paying system is. Orianne has wired it to my bank account. We managed to do this before 2 PM, the deadline being at 3. I rushed to the other side to the city to meet with Janela. She was there, completly stressed out, stil wearing hight heels, business skirt and a shirt from her business interview. All of her friends refused to lend the $200 and we all know what the next step is: take a credit in a bank at an interest rate of 15% and never pay it back.
So basically that was a huge piece of luck. If Janela hadn't met me and Ilona two weeks ago, if I didn't pressure Ilona into meeting her again and again because she was asian and exotic, if I hadn't had wind of her financial problems, if I hadn't set up the donation page a while ago, she would lose her house over two hundered dollars.
This is no exageration, losing homes over $200 happens a lot in Kyrgyzstan, I learned that fact as I dug deeper into the culture. This is not a country with a culture of demonstration but I saw despereate people in front of the "while house" where the government is seated with an inscription which reads: "I borrowed 1200 soms (240 USD) and that is the last thing I did."
I can say that after merely a month of being here, I've dived deeper into the culture than any casual tourist, actually I've dived in more than I even intended to. This is not just travelling, this is not funny anymore. This is the harsh hand of reality, and even though I am experiencing it from a second hand, it is already too much.
Janela and I run through the capital, we race through the destroyed dusty streets of south bishkek. At last we find a bank. I cannot wire the money directly to Janela because she doesn't have a bank account and my bank would probably block the wire transfer for security reasons because it doesn't know Kyrgyzstan. So I withdraw 10,000 soms and we wire them to a bank in Karakol where Janela's father is waiting to withdraw them and bring them to pay the interests.
Done. Janela's tired and ready to faint: "This is a miracle".
It might be but it would be a bigger miracle if Janela's didn't have a supernatural interpretation of how wonderful this is that god made this miracle happen, that he sent me, Ilona and this awesome Orianne who gathered all that money for them.
Celebrating the successful payment of interests

This is huge and we take some time to rest, to celebrate. Celebration takes the form of a stupid photo session in the central square in Bishkek. Basically we ask people to take our pictures in random places. That is where I meet for the first time another negative trait of the Kyrgyz culture, one that will be bothering me the most in the future: don't steal our girls.
On one hand, I can understand that. All Kyrgyz girls are beautiful and most of them look like supermodels. They are thin, not a gram of fat, they smile all the time, they cook like an average french professional chef, they know how to dress like an average professional french cloth designer, they have long beautiful dark hair and a makeup their european counterparts would only use for their wedding ceremony. They wear high heels in a terrain where their european counterparts would wear boots and sticks to keep balance. You wonder, where their keep the ugly specimens, they probably kill them at birth or hide them behind so much makeup you just can't recognize them.
Besides all this, Kyrgyz girls are prepared to give birth to 5 children while maintaining their silouhette, raise them, cook for their husband everyday and of course also work to make money because you have to be two to make a living. Do they sleep? Not much but they have the makeup to cover it.
Long story short, there is plenty of reasons for Kyrgyz boys to keep Kyrgyz girls for themselves, I would have done the same. In fact, there is no way I am dating a european girl after having crossed the border of Asia. No way in hell, never.
Not because I am looking for a slave but because of all the other reasons.
On the other hand this overprotective custom of local girls is really annoying. I cannot talk of Janelle without meeting a dozen angry looks from jealous guys. When we stay together late, that means after 6PM, Janela gets calls from her friends who check on her, approximatly one call every half an hour. Their friends are afraid she might be kidnapped (but that is a behaviour you should expect from a Kyrgyz rather than from a european, don't you think?) and they sincerly don't understand what reasons she has to spend time with me.

When we're in a bus, people stare at us like we have the pleague. When they hear english from Janela, they look at us with disgust. Sometimes I have the impression that dating a foreigner is the Kyrgyz equivalent of prostitution. By foreigner, I don't mean russian, that can be tolerated but an American?That's very bad. And don't be naive, in this part of the world, you can be French, Czech, Spanish, Algerian or Ukrainian, you'll still be American.
Janela looks for a song to sing

So spending time with Janela is hard for both of us, her more than me because it is usually the girl's fault.
Today we stay late, we go to a Karaoke bar and Janela sings. I think the name of the song is "Obmen me" in russian. She's doing good, at least I think so. And we dance 4-step rock which is very bad according to local traditions (it's a couple dance, unmarried girl with foreigner bla bla bla) but we rock. We wanted to dance on three songs but after seeing the revolted looks on people's faces we decide to flee the bar after two.

We escape to Igor's house. He's very happy to meet Janela and invites us to eat dinner, one enourmous bowl of whatever for me, one enormous bowl of whatever for her. She doesn't manage to eat a quarter of that thing which surprises Igor very much. It's not that hard to deduce she probably eat a leaf of salad for lunch when you look at her silouhette but I guess Kyrgyzstan is blind when it comes to hospitality. Janela doesn't drink Alcohol, therefore, Igor respectfully serves his "compot". He can't get why she doesn't drink it when he assures her that he didn't add any vodka to the wine.
Janela is someone who has never drunk a single drop of alcohol nor smoked a bud a weed in her life. So Igor's compot would probably be her first alcohol poisoning. Janela was embarassed beyond measure, obviously she wasn't used to be offered vodka and refuse it as we did a milion times with Ilona.
I drunk her part which is a normal behaviour but she was relieved beyond measure. Janela's emotions are all beyond measure actually. Janela thanked Igor so much for hosting me and Ilona and saving us from a certain death. She decided to buy some sweets for him, that's probably what Ilona would have done.
Igor was very happy to see Janela and Janela was very happy to see Igor. I was drunk and was talking bullshit. Every european girl would run away at this point. Date number one, I sit on the strawberries you bought me. Date number two I take you to see a drunk guy who lives in a dump and get drunk with him.  But not Janela, she seemed to find the whole thing interesting. I think I said something about taking her to Jurmala in Latvia if she comes to europe. Pretty interesting place.

Janela said that for the first time she sees light in her life. The last seven years were only about paying back her parents debt. And that life is europe. How funny is that?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Goodbye Ilona

I think we are the only people Igor tolerates. He doesn't answer his calls from his fiends, not even from his sister. "I don't want to talk to anyone, I don't want to do anything". Actually, it was a miracle that one day, he decided to make a big change in his life, he woked up, called his friend who has a car and spent one week drinking vodka at Isyk-keul. Refreshing.

After that big social event he has felt more anti-social than ever... except with us. Today, Ilona is leaving us and it depresses Igor more than it depresses me. Of course, I have my moments of doubt, thinking that this is all a big mistake but at the same time I am looking forward to new things. I am looking forward to travelling alone, people react differently in that case. I am looking forward to meeting Ana, that croatian girl I met in front of the Iranian embassy.
Maybe I should make an intermission and visit the two girls lives before I return to mine so you can better understand the events that follow.
Ana has travelled through Iran with a Polish girl because it was too hard to travel with an iranian guy in Iran. Poor Sol, Ana's hitchhiking partner was completly misunderstood by the local population and all the Farsi in the world couldn't explain the concept of hitchhiking to locals. From our correspondance, it worked better with the Polish girl besides the fact that they kept ending up at police stations for their own safety.
After that, Ana made her way through Turkmenistan alone. SHe managed it wiithout Sylvain, my french contact in Ashgabat which surprised me buy then again, she didn't have to go through Ashgabat. Either way, that girl has guts. And she's there now.

Meanwhile, Nata went west, through Iran. After we separated in Tehran, she made her way to the caspian sea with an iranian friend who lived with us there for a while. They first went to Mashad and then decided to head west, to Turkey and all the way to Istanbul. I often recieved letters from her, first when I was in Kazakhstan and then all the way to Kyrgyzstan. Pretty tight communication for two people who were never supposed to see each other. I actually doubted we would meet in Kyrgyzstan for a long time. You just can't plan that far ahead and Nata is the kind of person who knows a million people and has a million of potential travel parters willing to go to a million of different destinations. I don't even count the million other people who will try to hold her back because they are her friends, aquaintances or simply in love with her. But somehow, the plan seemed to stick and now more than ever, Nata is planning to Kyrgyzstan. She has been sending messages from Antalya, Alanya before she went up north. Alanya, I remember that city, it was a nightmare. Only place I've waited crazy hours while hitchhiking with my cousin. Only place I've fought with my cousin, called her a manipulater because she didn't want to go to Syria. It seems weird, Nata is too exotic to be in such familiar places.
Anyway, Nata has parted ways with this guy in Istanbul and hitchhiked towards the georgian border with two rainbow people from Belarus. This was a piece of luck because in Nata's book, Turkey is one of the worst nightmares. I am revolted by such thoughts, for me, turkey is a safe haven but since she has very compelling evidence to prove her point, it would be heartless to argue about it. I guess there are assholes everywhere and Nata attracts a lot of them.

What about Ilona? Ilona will fly to Istanbul and she will hitchhike to Armenia. Alone. This is brave... and maybe borderline crazy? We would have thought so before but now we feel that we have mastered Turkey so well that nothing can happen. I give Ilona a quick Turkish course. Janela calls. Asyl calls. Everyone wants to meet us, especially Ilona since she goes away.

"These are such fine ladies, I am so sorry I can't see them," Ilona says.

We try to work out a time schedule but in vain. And we have no strength to organise anything. I just decide to accompany Ilona to the airport. I'll spend the night there until she checks in at about 4:30 or 5 AM. Sleepless depressing night. And I'll hitchhike alone to Bishkek. My first Kyrgyz hitchhiking will be at night, pretty cold bath for my first moments alone. But nothing compared with what Ilona will have to face.

For Igor, Ilona going away was a harder blow than for me. At least on the short run. I have been preparing for this mentally since georgia.
He is sad, he thinks about what he can give us. It's not that he would be poor but he just can't find anything in the mess that is his house. He gives Ilona a ton of clothes but she refuses almost all of them. That is Ilona, chronic refuser of all things. I try to up the average by accepting everything, including a completly useless black costume that is too big for me. However I recieve new shoes. They are not the mountain shoes that I need but they are nice shoes to wear for the city.
He accompanies us to the Marshutka when the night falls. He finds us a taxi to the airport for 25 soms each. That's a very good price but we only take it because we know Igor would pay for it otherwise. In the end, the third passenger pays for both of us so that still counts as hitchhiking. We walk until the airport and buy ice cream. The night is going to be long, sleepless and depressing, we need the endorphines.
"Cheers," we say before eating our ice cream, a custom that has appeared since Armenia I believe.
"I'm gonna buy some eggs, I've only fifty dollars in my pocket... I'm... I'm looking for a cover, this is fucking awesome", these are our modified lyrics of a popular song that often plays on Igor's radio. We sing them again with nostalgy.

"What the hell are you doing here?" says Clark as he sees us passing his seat in the waiting room. Miri also turns around, smiley face and yellow hair, you cannot miss her.
We meet Clark and Miri again and they are leaving the country through Ukraine. Clark is going to Berlin and Miri god knows where. I have to send my french passport home. Unfortunately, I left it at Igor's place. I take a taxi back home, I have to go fast. The guy tells me it's 1500 soms there and back. I tell him OK and when at destination I tell him I change my mind, I am walking back. He takes me back for free. Thank god. At home, Igor is drinking his compot, he's already pretty far out. He tells me that I should never give this passport to these germans because they will use it to smuggle drugs god knows where and then I'll be up to my teeth in debt or even in jail.
I say yes to everything, there is no need to argue. Igor let's me go with an evil look at the taxi driver. He calls again several times after I make it to the airport. He is drunk and completly in love with Ilona. But he has some respect.

"I know that I could be her father but if I was ten years younger I would never let you go," he told her on the phone while drinking his compot. The poor guy was in a pretty bad state.
When I came back Clark and Miri were sleeping already. I put my passport in Clark's bag, if I'm lucky he will bring it to Claire in Berlin. I'll have one more option for China.

We wait with Ilona until she goes to the boarding space. Georgian goodbye.
I won't realise how I will miss you until I travel with someone else.But I will miss the safe feeling I have with you, your will to fight the assholes that bother us, the understanding of privacy, your view on religion, our phylosophical discussions, our psychological discussions, your traditional clinging of fists together that I still haven't learned properly, I'll miss the absolute comfort I feel with you without any shame whatsoever, our brotherly relationship ain't that right sis?, I'll miss your great understanding of me, our great communication, our song, our reunifications, your tolerence, ice cream toasts. Hell I'll even miss your censorship of photos, your bitching moods, your ability to be surprised to recieve an invitation even after four months of being bombarded with them.
I know you'll have a hell of a ride starting tomorrow but I also learned not to be afraid for you. You're strong as a tiger (a real one, not a Turkmen one) so give them hell sis!!
And that is exactly how I want to remember you.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bishkek at Igor's place

We got a ride to Bishkek from a village near Khadzi-Say. The driver was an old man and he had some Igor in the front passeger seat. He didn't want to take us for no money but Igor said: come on, whatever, just take them. He dropped us at his house in north-central Bishkek, we can sleep there he said. We went to some store nearby and Igor bought food. Ilona wanted to buy something as well but it only seemed to make Igor unconfortable.
We thought that like at Vacho's place in georgia, Igor is expecting Ilona to cook. But Igor knows his way in the kitchen and he prepares us a big improvised meal.
He doesn't talk much.
"Can we help?"
"Just let it be"
And this is his answer to a lot of subjects. Igor is of greek descent but Kyrgyz natinal, he is divorced and has a daughter is never sees. His garden is left the hands of anarchy. Weeds are growing unharmed and unthreathened. The most common plant after weeds are a variant of long pumpkins lying on the ground and sometimes hanging from the ceiling over our heads. Igor believes in that mess we can also find tomatoes but so far we havent seen any. Either way he knows how to use the mess that is his garden to create some edible food. Not only edible, it was actually quite good, even Ilona said she wouldn't be able to cook that stuff.
Everything at Igor's place dates from soviet times. He doesn't let any non-soviet product in his house. "Especially not these Chinese shit products that break after 2 monts."
"This clock is from 1951," he sais proudly, "I have to turn the spring only once a week and it still works"
Igor also has a radio that tunes only to one frequency. It still works but the frequency doesn't exist anymore. He keeps it anywway. "I could hit it with an axe, it wouldn't break. It would just break the axe if it's a chinese axe."
After 40 years of loyal service, his fridge he bought in 1970 finally broke. The thought of buying a new fridge from these "chinese assholes" was so depressing that he went on a mission of buying a newer but still soviet machine. He found a new fridge from 1975 which didn't work but had the parts he needed. He was now repairing it for several weeks. Igor doesn't like to go fast. He likes to get up late, slowly drink his tea and then go smoke a cigarette outside. Then, he plays with his dog a little. Her name is "Neni" and she is a beautiful hunting dog, still a puppy. She runs around the garden like crazy and jumps at everyone. After playing with the dog he eats a little something. If he is very motivated he tries to cook something from the nothing of his reserves and of his garden. If he is extremly motivated he even goes to buy something but that requires exceptional circumstances, like us being here.
Either way, Igor doesn't like to go out alone. After being isolated in his soviet home for too long, he started developping a slight fear of the outside world. Usually either me or both of us go with him.
During lunch, a raio plays always the same station, Evropa Plus, a compilation of european summer hits for the last five years. We are hearing always the same songs but are both happy for the familiar european tunes.
Igor himself is from european descent, his grandfather was greek but he's happy to be Kyrgyz. At least as happy as someone like Igor could get.
After lunch, Igor repairs his fridge. Not too much, just a little, about half an hour. He gets bored and tired of it very quickly. Then he goes to sleep or watch TV. He is a big fan of conspiracy theories. He believes the theory that Aliens have helped in the construction of pyramids, that 9/11 was an orchestrated by america and that Israel is the mastermind behind pretty much all the evil in the world.
He also doesn't like Uzbekistan and the Chinese but let's be honest, who does?

Igor and Ilona at lunch
In the afternoon, me and Ilona go to the city to take care of administrative stuff. Basically, I need a visa to China but the adminitrative road is full of troubles. When we come back, dinner is waiting for us already and Igor tries to get us drunk with his home-made wine.
"Come on, this is not alcohol, this is compot!", he keeps repeating
The days keep ligning up as we get deeper and deeper into the administrative spiral.

This is a stressful situation in a general sense but it is even more stressful when the place you stay at has a ticking clock. And when you hitchhike and live at people's places who host you from their own good will, every place has a ticking clock. Fortunately, Igor is happily host us for one week.
"This is not europe," he says, "stay for as long as you like and stop thinking about it."
He always discards our questions if we don't bother him by staying that long by a bored hand gesture saying: "this is not worth talking about".
The Chinese embassy in Bishkek tells us to go back on thrusday. They don't even speak english, they just speak Chinese and russian. The Kazakh embassy tells me I have to go to a bank to make a money transfer to them. I make the money transfer, I ask for my visa the next day. On thursday the chinese say that it is possible to apply for a visa while being a foreigner. Ilona's reason why she had to go just vanished. However when I ask to apply for the chinese visa they actually find out that I need a six month visa in Kyrgyzstan and therefore a working permit. These chinese embassy workers, they are the worst. They don't even know they own visa rules for their own country. I learned by experience that with only a few exceptons consulate workers were incompetent assholes but the chinese set the record pretty high.
They send me to Miss Liu, the local agent who handles tourists who go to china without having an explicit invitation (ie almost all of them). I get to meet her in Bishkek and she says to me the same thing she told me over the phone when I called her from Ananyevo. Except I got to see her in person.
She was really kind and smiled when I told her "rensi ni hen gaoxing", I'm glad to meet you in my horrible chinese accent.
So I went to the office for visa extentions in Bishkek. I kind of got used to handling the administrative business in russian and I take some pride in that. The first office told me they didn't do visa extentions for six months unless I had aw working  permit and that I should complain to the ministry of foreign affairs of Kyrgyzstan because the chinéese really oversteped this time. I went to the ministery of foreign affairrs with the firm thought of asking Kyrgtzstan to start a war on China, I'll even give them all my money to wage it; at least if there is a war, borders are & vague concept.

The ministry of foreign affairs turned to be another office for visa prolongation. There were so many people that I never got the chance to be laug hed at when I ask for my six months proolongation.
So I went to the embassy of Kazakhstan and asked for anther Kazakh visa, this time for flexible dates if I decided to prolong my Kyrgyz visa in the end.
They told me to come back in 5 days which I did and they still didn't have it but at least the guy apoligized.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Red beach

At last we move a little! With my bag repaired and my shoes still in an awful condition we hitchhike a series of cars towards Khadzi-Say, a town south of Isyk-Keul lake. The south side is way wilder than the north. And very quickly, everything becomes red. Red hilles, red beaches. Our plan is to stop at Khadzhi-Say to find some internet and continue further.

Landscape near Kadzhi-Say

"Come to our place, we have cheap rooms," says a guy on his bike. He can be fifty or sixty and no thank you, we don't need a hotel right now, just wifi.
"No matter, I know that you'll end up at our place," he says and rides away.

We find one wifi signal which leads us a a home with a garden full of flowers. The same guy opens the door: "I told you you would come home"

He and his wife welcome us home and give us the wifi password. We can stay here for free. They give us a room, they don't have customers anyway so why not help.

We visit the neighbouring hills. It's beautiful but a little sad because Ilona is leaving in less than a week. We learn how to climb on the red hills made of sandy rocks. You cannot hold to them with hands, you have to slide on them with your shoes while holding your balance.

The lake is contrasting with the red rocks. Never seen anything like that. Ilona finds a human hip bone.

Ilona finds a human hip bone

We go and visit the Skazka kanyon, one of the most beautiful places in the region, says our host. And it really is beautiful. Lots of rocks to climb on, interesting shapes everywhere. It must be one of the most romantic places under the stars.

Skazka kanyon

She makes our stay as confortable as possible. We have our own room with internet in our room. We are free do do what we want, the couple gives us the greatest of privacies. Whenever we come back, we have food on the table. We try to help them a little to collect pears and apples. Not that they would ask for it, just to give a little something back.

We stay for two days including a stormy night that would not have been confortable in our tent.

We leave Khadzi-Say with a bag of cooked potatoes and and a ton of fruits for the road. Today we really want to get to Bishkek.

But we don't. We are invited to another group of people, a lot of them working in the same company for tourist guides. They guide them to the mountains, to the places we went alone. They have gathered all today and we are all celebrating with a huge dinner. I eat so much bishfarmak that it kicks my organism out of control for the next week... again.

Dinner with tourist guides

We stay there for the night. Another storm. The next day, finally, we should make it to Bishkek. Janelle should be there too and Asyl.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mountains, horses and nomads

We are both emotionaly shaken after the episode with Janela. I might be a bit more shaken by Janela's story than Ilona and Ilona's a bit more shaken alltogether because she doesn't have a plan how to continue. She's not continuing to China and what will she do? Go back to Armenia and live on rainbow gatherings or likely events? Probably. But until she is sure, the stress accumulates. You can feel it, even I do. She is spending as much time as possible alone, lost in her thoughts. It has started on our way back from Ala-keul lake.
"I can't stand it anymore, one more week of this mindfuck and I just might shoot myself"
So she books a flight ticket. She is flying to Istanbul on September, 22nd. That's it. Ilona is leaving. She can't take it anymore. She cannot take it anymore because we are depressed under the pressure of the visa hell and for the first time, we do not have the strength to support one another. Our unbreakable brotherly duo, one that resisted against all odds, against physical, psychological, sexual harrassment; against mountains and deserts, against authoritary regimes and regions of anarchy; against sickness and wild animals; our unbreakable duo has just been broken by China. That says a lot about the country's political hospitality.
The thing with Ilona, when she doesn't have a plan is she quickly gets moody. It's her character, she has to have a purpose. Kamchatka was her purpose and now she has none. She just waits for her flight. So we decide to return to Bishkek, do my administrative stuff and then she flies. It's a little depressing hitchhiking. We are going back to Bishkek. It's evening again and our driver invites us home to Saruu.
Saruu is a village not too far from Karakol on the east side of the lake. There are very nice mountains nearby, we would be stupid not to visit them, says the guy. So we abandon our plans to get to Bishkek today and we stay.
Azamat, that's the guy's name lives in a big house with a huge garden. There is pretty much everything in that garden, including, of course, huge plants of Marihuana.

[Me and ilona and weed]

He lives there with some kids, one of them is his daugter, Marika and the other one is related somehow. Moreover, there is his cousin, Asyl. She is 19, has an Ukrainian mother so she looks european but is Kyrgyz in every other way.
I don't know where is Azamat's wife but he and Asyl have a wonderful democratical task separation in the family house. They both cook together and for the first time, we can help even though we are hosts. Me and Azamat go find some potatoes and Ilona and Asyl peel them.

[asyl and little marika]

Azamat is the silent type and he doesn't seem to be a macho as most men here are. However his kind and welcoming attitude changed radically when he thought I was looking at his cousin. Actually, I was not, the girl is nineteen! Such an overprotective attitude surprised me but I later learned that Kyrgyz guys, besides being protective don't let their girls close to guys from other regions and any shared activity between a foreigner and a Kyrgyz girl is taboo.

Besides that incident we had a wonderful evening. Azamat showed me his garden where a gigantic marihuana plant was growing, at least to three meters. He was going to cut it down because it's a weed and he doesn't like smoking anyway. Asyl took us to the fields to take out the cow who was feeding on the countless marihuana plants. The landscape was stunning with the sun setting over the mountains. Asyl is an interesting girl. While she is humbly accepting the reality of a life in a Kyrgyz village, she aspires to other things. She doesn't fall out of line in Saruu but she is leading another life in Bishkek, out of control from her conservative families. This is the way girls live here.

[Asyl milking a cow]

We sleep at their homes tonight. Azamat says we can stay longer, easily two or three more days. The father also comes. He is the silent type too, even more than Azamat. He asks me to help with his computer; luckily, it's easy to fix. He's looking for how much does a mtz-82 tractor cost in Czech Republic. If you know this, mail me. I get about a million questions about how much do cars cost in europe every day.

We leave to the mountains with a good supply of apples, pears and sunflower seeds, Asyl makes sure of that.

We hitchhike to a patch of the red mountains. They are really red and orange, contrasting with the blue sky. At last we arrive to a place where almost no cars can go. Few minutes of walking on foot and we meet a new crisis with Ilona. Her mood has fallen down into an abyss and she doesn't want to do anything. Actually, she doesn't know what she wants. I follow the advice she has given me countless counts: "Sometimes, women will feel better when you ignore their feelings, they'll figure it out eventually." Altough the advice was strongly directed at Nata it comes handy here.

Asyl takes us to the road

After a while she has an idea: we will build that base that we talked about. We will build that base that was supposed to wait for Theo even though he won't come. Unfortunately, Theo's road has deviated through Dubai because he heard about the visa hell that was waiting for him in Kyrgyzstan. He is to take the classical road through India towards China, the road everyone wants you to take when you are a tourist.
This one one more blow for Ilona and one more reason to turn her wings back to Turkey.

But now, no matter, we are going to build that base. We first find a place in the mountains. This is not easy, there is no flat space whatsoever. I notice that my shoes are in a pitiful shape. When I look at them I have the impression that they won't last one more day. We abandon the idea and we decide to go back.

On our way we meet a group of people on horses going down. They are transporting tons of mushrooms which, they say, are going to sell for a lot of money to germany. One of the women, rough product of a rough culture tells me in a straightforward voice that next year she is going to give her daughter in marriage to me. I bet that her daughter will turn sixteen next year or something like that.
"She doesn't know me, what if she doesn't like me?"
"If there is money, she will like you." says the mother sharply and the discussion closes.
Might be archaic but at least everything is clear from the beginning for both parties of the couple.

"Are you going back? Come with us to upper camp!"
Why not, after all, we were bored and waiting for something to happen. Turns out only two people from the group are going up. One tall and the other one smaller. The big one rides a proud beautiful horse, you can almost feel the power of the beast just by looking at it. The tiny one is sitting on a very uncooperative donkey.

Big man and little man, our help to the top

"Come on boy," he tries to reason with him, "we can help each other, just show some good will"

And "Fuck you," says the donkey.
"He's sly as a fox," says the donkey's owner.
"yeah, like an Uzbek". My jokes about Uzbeks which I know nothing about are very popular starting in Kazakhstan. It's very easy because everyone in the region hates Uzbekistan. This time is no exception.
"OOOhh exactly! He's Uzbek," the donkey's owner bursts into laughter, "Come one Uzbek, just a few kilometers to go"
They put our bags on the horse which rides with grace through the difficult mountain paths. The tiny guy drags Uzbek the donkey who refuses to take a single step alone even more categorically since he has been labeled after the despised nation.

"Come on boy, I know we can help each other, just show some good will"

The path took a harder turn and my shoes, attached to my bag got stuck into a tree. The horse however, had so much power that the shoe got torn out and the bag too. I had a huge hole on the side of my bag and another one in my shoe. The outer layer of my mountain shoe got completly destroyed. There still is the inner layer remaining but those shoes are going to go towards the garbage soon enough

After drinking some vodka with some locals we met on the way we made it to upper camp, 2500m. There, two families were living in yurts over the summer, pretty much like the Yezidi people in Armenia. Of course the camp was a lot smaller and the altitude was lower but the feeling was there.
They had a ton of horses, cows and sheep feeding themselves aroud the yourts and they filled their time cooking for men riding in the mountains. They had made about everything you can create from milk: butter, ayran (a modified version of yoghourt very popular in the region), kumus and countless other things that probably don't exist in our lands, all prepared inside small bowls around the table.

Yurt in the mountains

Monday, September 9, 2013

Janela's tragedy

The story I'm about to tell is one I could almost sell to Disney. It has every feature, the princess, the hardworking father, the evildoers, the suffering mother. The only feature it misses is the happy ending.
The princess might not be what you expect. Not rich, not of noble descent, she's a girl from a Kyrgyz village. She's dressed in white with a little pink. She wears a smile with a little stress. She moves nervously; like sparks in a campfire.
We are sitting in front of the tourist information, trying to figure out how to use the internet. Nothing works.

"I so love tourists!," she says, "I so respect you, can I take a picture of you?"
I was wearing a Kalpak, traditional Kyrgyz hat, I think it might have appealed to her.
Her voice shakes a little, overcome with emotions, like a groupie in a concert, like a naive little girl. Her voice is high-pitched and her hands tremble a bit when she holds her camera. We're Filip and Ilona, not Elvis effing Presley!
However, there is something mysterious about her. Something I cannot describe. I cannot shake down the feeling that there is more to this person than it appears.
"I don't understand what you see in her," says Ilona, "you just like her because she's Asian."
I don't have anything to say to that. Maybe I do like her because she's Asian.
She's also looking to find some internet. She guides us to an internet café. We almost never pay for the internet but I am curious about that girl and a few soms (local money) for the internet won't kill us. Anyway, I need a normal computer because I've messed up my email account and cannot repair it from my tablet.
Her name is Janela and she lives not far from Karakol. She's just come back from Russia; she went there for work, as many Kyrgyz do. And as many Kyrgyz, she is not well recieved.
Now she's back in Karakol and she has some free time. She wants to meet us again. We are planning to go to the mountains.
"I'd love to go with you!", she says.
Ilona thinks she's just saying that, she doesn't strike us as the mountain type. But she has both triggered our curiosity and we both want to meet her. To do whatever. She is local, she'll figure out something.
But we cancel the meeting, we decide to go to Ala-Keul lake with a Polish couple. Ironically, we also fail to meet with the Polish couple. The trip to the lake is amazing.
I text Janela on our way back. Her mother is at the hospital in Aksuu. Damn, we were there yesterday, we shouldn't have returned to Karakol. There is a path towards the hot springs of Ardashan from Aksuu. It's the same direction as the lake. I think she probably lives in Aksuu so I set a meeting there and depart from there next morning. We all meet at 5PM. Turns out Janela doesn't live in Aksuu at all. She lives in a village on the other side of Karakol. She just came all the way because she wanted to meet us. And we have also come all the way because we wanted to see her. Ilona got her curiosity back. It's hard for her these days, she doesn't know how to handle her not continuing our initial plan to China. She'll go to Armenia alone, that's a big unknown.

We hitchhike all three together, to her village. It's so cool she accepts to hitchhike with us. Many locals wouldn't. Accepting a ride without paying makes them lose face. She is interesting and open and Ilona quickly changes her initial opinion of her. The first two rides, we negociate in my bad russian. The third one she takes over. I don't feel threatened as I felt with Nata. It's a sweet takover in the Kyrgyz language.
That's when I realize that beside her naive and shy side, that girl is able to make decisions, to act, she knows how to get her way.
Don't underestimate the Kyrgyz, we should remember that.

We are invited into her family. We eat and the food is even more incredible than usually. We meet with the father, he's a funny guy who looks younger than I expected. He likes to joke a lot and we connect quite easily with only minimal translation from his daughter. He doesn't talk bullshit, he's kind and honest. The mother is in a very bad shape. Her kidneys, liver, heart and pretty much all organs are failing. It's started with stress, we hear. Yet she makes tea, cooks and prepares the best raspberry jam I've ever tasted.
We eat like wolves, they barely touch the food.

Happy face Janela: "do you want some juice?"

Everyone is smiling and doing his best to make us feel at home. And it works. In this family, I have absolutly no stress. I like being here. I feel safe.
I'm getting to know Janela more and more and everything I see amazes me. She's really smart, she is skilled in languages, she can cook and appearently, she can sing.
The family is taking care of three more children. They're children from Djopan, Janela's sister. She's married but can't take care of them right now. It is a big happy house.

Father and family in flowers: a disney scene?

Or is is it really?

Janela cannot go with us to the hot springs. She must stay at home and take car of her mother. Her father is busy with a lot of work. He is selling fruits and vegetables from the garden. That's really not nice of them to spoil such a nice trip! I wish it were so simple. Janela doesn't go into details before I ask her. Her family has financial problems, that's all. But after a while, when I push her a little, she tells me the whole story.

In 1997, Janela and her family lived a fairly happy life. Her parents were farmers as they are now, with a garden, horses, cows and sheep. Father even had a car. Thanks to his car, Father could sell fruits and vegetables a little further, he could even sell them to Kazakhstan!
Since he has a car, why not share it with the neighbours? That's how Father ended up driving his truck all the way to Kazakhstan with a friend of his. Inside the truck, all the fruits and vegetables from his friends and neighbours, about ten people in total.
Business was a success; they were returning from Astana (capital of Kazakhstan) with about 5000 U.S. dollars in cash.

On the way back, they were stopped and assaulted by thieves. In the steppes of Kazakhstan, organised crime is common; we heard about it first hand when we were there. They beat up Father's friend and took Father to the forest. They took all his money and were about to gun him down.
Janela remembers what he then told his kidnappers:
"I know you can kill me; but if you do; the youngest of my five children will never remember me."
They let him live, maybe because, as we learned in Kazakhstan, even bandits live by a certain code.
When Father returned to his village without the money, he lost all respect from his friends and even from his family.
"Here, if you have nothing, you are not a person.", Janela explains. His own brother abandonned him.

As weird as it may seem to most of my readers, few people from the village cared about his story and they all wanted their money back. And Father kept his promise, he gave back every penny. But at his own expense: he borrowed the sum from a bank. In a country like Kyrgyzstan, $5000 is more than a four year salary. The bank accepted to do him credit but only at the dangerously high percentage of about 13%.
It became soon obvious that the poor fruit and vegetable family business won't be enough to cover the debts. And believe me, banks in Kyrgyzstan have a lot in common with sharks. You don't want to be in their debt. That is why Father had to borrow money from another bank, to give the money back to the first bank.
After a while, he had to borrow from a private person for as high as 50%. Nowadays, the family is nowhere near paying back even the interests, let alone the initial sum. As a result, the debt has soared up to 15,000 dollars which is a sum they just cannot afford.

Father has faced the catastrophe bravely but always honestly. He has sold his sheep, his cows, his car and his horses. He has sold all 4 hectars of his land. His house serves as a guarantee for the bank and therefore it may be siezed.

His children have grown up, two of them have married. They have their own families to care about. Two of them work in russia, desperately trying to pay back the family debt. Janela is one of them. She sells fruits in Russia with an asshole boss who wants to sleep with her. In europe this would be called sexual harassment, nothing less.
Her brother works at a construction site and I am not even starting about the security conditions of such jobs in this region.
This is not enough and they all know it. They are strong people so they keep working and keep hope. But sometimes it is too much. Mother couldn't take the stress anymore, she became very sick and suffered two heart attacks. Everyone is very worried even though they try to hide it. Sometimes it's too much for Janela too. She didn't notice me when I woke up in the morning. I saw her silently praying in her room. I am not one too receptive to emotions but I could feel the desperation in the act.

The story I just told could be a disney story but without a disney ending. And it fucking sucks. I dance with Janela before we leave. She's dressed in pink with a little white. She dances on rock music for the first time. She isn't nervous anymore; she moves like the wind. She likes to dance and she knows how to sing. She is 24, wears a smile with just a little stress. A smile because she has hope, stress because she is losing it. Her voice shakes a little, like a groupie at a concert, like a naive little girl. Her hands tremble a bit when she holds her camera for our goodbye picture. And suddenly I see that behind that camera is one of the bravest people I know.
I also know that she needs help, that her hope is a leaking bottle, that she won't hold forever. I don't want her to destroy herself like her mother did. And there are just 15,000 dollars, stupid pieces of paper that separate her from a happy life. So if you can help, please do, it's not everyday you can actually buy a happy ending!

Father, Janela, me and 3 Djopan's children ages 3,5 and 6

Friday, September 6, 2013

The most beautiful place in the world

We have made a plan with the Polish couple yesterday. We are going together to the mountain lake. We've met them just in front of the tourist information office in Karakol. They also want to go to the mountains. It's a 3 day journey to Ala-keul lake but they want to hurry, they hope to make it in two days. Ilona thinks it's a good idea, the Polish appeal to her and she also is a hurrying person when it comes to trekking the mountains. We have a meeting with Janela, a Kyrgyz girl we also met in front of the tourist office tomorrow. We'll have to cancel.
The Polish are staying in the Karakol Yurt camp in center Karakol and are waking up at 6 to catch up with us. We are going by foot tonight, to the direction of Karakol valley where we will put our tent. We will wake up at 7:30 which is about the time they will make it to our camp.
But it all happened completly differently. We were walking in the night in the direction of the last bus station where our friends from Poland would join us. We didn't see anything anyway so maybe we passed that station allready, who knows. Our plan is to get a little further if possible, to cross into the national park at night. The entrance into the park is paid and it's about 250 soms per person. That's a few days of food. A car stopped. It's going ten kilometers. Because it's night he's going to invite us to his home of course and by chance he's living in a small village inside the national park.
He passes the paid entrance with us and they don't stop us because the guards know the car. It reminds me crossing into Nagorno-Karabakh without passport but with the vice-prime minister of defence of Armenia.

His home is even further our way which buys us a huge amount of time. The guy is cool. His face is rough but shaped by laughter as Ilona says. He lives there with his wife and two daughters. They have a cow, horses, pretty much everything and they are so hopitalable! We eat a wonderful dinner and god knows we need it. Eating before an ascention is crucial for me, I remember how it was important during my ascention to Aragats.
He takes us up the hill from where we can see the whole village. It's beatiful. His dog accompanies us. It's a big dog who still acts as a puppy.
We also drink some vodka. The guy hates to drink too but what can you do, it's tradition. As Kyrgyz usually do, they invite us in and give us a lot of space. We have our own room to sleep in.
Breakfast with the family before ascention
In the morning we wake up at 6. The children go to school. They must walk a lot of time before taking a bus across all Karakol. We eat a giant breakfast. And I am glad for it. Actually, we don't have enough provisions. We have enough for two days, maybe a day and a half. We have bread and Zgushenka, a russian version of the concentrated sweet milk. A whole kilogram of it. It isn't real food but it's enough to give us quick sugar that we need during an ascention.
So yeah, we need that breakfast and I was secretly counting on it.
We thought we will just wait for the Polish longer and text them where we are. The problem is, we realize we don't have any signal. Our best option is to go higher into the mountains, there might be a telephone signal in one of the peaks. There is no going back unless we want to answer questions why we are here without tickets.
We follow a large path slowly climbing into the mountains. A grudzavik stops and takes us another ten kilometers. It's one of the most shaky ride of my life. We ride through rocks, rivers, trees everything. This vehicle is a war tank. Only soviet machines can withstand such terrain.
On the way we pick up two locals. They are going to Ala-Keul lake to take some pictures and measurments, to see if they could turn it into a business. Kyrgyzstan has an enourmous business potential and Kairad isn't the only one who things about it.
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We tell them about our way to Kyrgyzstan through 13 countries. The guys seem impressed.
"Why didn't you go through Uzbekistan? ," asks Jamshy
"Because it's a fucking dictatorship!"
"My friends is Uzbek," says Tinch after a while. But they take it with humour. Everybody hates Uzbekistan in the region but it's a neighbouring country, you will meet an Uzbek eventually.
Climbing the first few meters is easy
We climb towards Ala-Kul lake together. I am glad because I wanted to go to the mountains with the locals. At first, the way is easy, we talk and laugh, we have lunch together at the shelter in about 2800 meters. We have some water, the guys drink Kumus instead. They share their lunch with us so we save some of our food. The last 700 meters are less fun. We start feeling the altitude and the bags feel heavier. The path gets worse. And to complete the coctail, clouds gather in the sky. We are caught in a storm.
We make it to the saddle in a snowstorm. It's freezing. I find the two Kyrgyz guys hidden and frozen behind a big stone.
"We're frozen and tired! We are turning back!"
I'd rather advise them to camp. I go into the valley to build our tent. When I'm back, they are gone. Ilona has made it to the top, meanwhile. The sight is fucking beautiful, in spite of the storm. The enormous lake of azuere crystal clear water appears in front of us. It is unreal, it is unreal. You haven't seen beauty before you have seen Kyrgyzstan.
But it's cold and it's getting colder. The wind is harsh on the top but we can stand it in the valley. It's not even 3 PM and it already feels like night. We build the tent and jump into it. And sleep. The weather gets better around 6 PM. The lake is beautiful and huge. And what is unreal, we have the whole lake for ourselves. There is no one there. It's not the easiest thing to get to here and many people must have abandonned the ascention because of the storm. But since we don't have weather forecast we didn't know about it. This is huge.
Waking up at Ala-Keul lake
Next morning I wake up at six. I want to climb this 4000m next to the lake. There are two high mountains just glued to the lake. One of them is 4026m and the other one 4271. I choose the first one because it seems higher. There is no obvious way up from the lake side and it's a very long way to the other side and god knows how it looks like there. My ascention is harder and a bit more dangerous than aragats. My shoes are starting to decompose, the repairs I made in Iran were gone before I got to 3000. These shoes are a dissapointment, and I thought Salomon was such a good brand!
Therefore, I climb on rocks instead of taking classic paths which are often full of small stones which tear shoes.
I have more confidence in climbing which makes my ascention faster but I have to keep in mind that I am often only one mistake away of hurting myself. So I am still very careful but I think, for someone like me, it's good to climb with someone to regulate the danger. Someone like Nata. Ilona can't do that very well because she is the lonely type, she doesn't want to climb mountains in groups. It's been enough she has gone with us until the lake. She prefers to stay inside the tent. I feel confident because she is pretty close, I think she would hear me if something goes wrong. It's around 7, the sun goes up while I climb.
The sun goes up when I climb
Looking up at the lake in the morning

Little do I know Ilona isn't wathing that closely. Her main concern now is that she wants to pee. Very worried about her privacy, she wonders where to hide when I have a full view of the landscape from 4000 meters of altitude. So she climbs, maybe she'll get higher. She reaches the top of the first mountain which hides another. And another. And another. That is how Ilona reached 4271 meters because she wanted to pee. She's not an alpinist, she's not reckless, she's just a normal person who climbed a mountain. It reminds me of my friends in France who organised a trip to climb a 4000 in Marocco with a budget of 600 euros per person, donkeys to curry luggage and a guide. It was an easy climb and it makes me sad how far we can get from reality. Of course it is good to be careful but you should still keep at least one foot on the ground.
At the top, there is a guitar. The view from there is the one you can buy at the postcard in the tourist office.
Ilona's Everest

On the small paper, a small commercial for our website
I reach the top, 4026. So I climbed the smaller mountain. Damn. But it doesn't matter. I can see Karakol from one side, the lake from the other. I actually have the same sight expected of mount Damavand in Iran. I don't regret not climbing it now.
At the top! 4026!
I cannot go down, at least not if I want to keep my shoes. I must continue on the mountain range around the lake. It's about five kilometers crossing mountain tops at hights arount 3800. From every step I take I see the lake. It is amazing. I can't stop taking pictures. Some say you spoil the moment, the view, by taking too many pictures. You postpone it for later. But this is so beautiful that you just can't spoil anything. Forget any other touristic place, go to Kyrgyzstan, go to Ala-keul lake if you want to see something cool.
The place gets more beautiful by the meter

Lake and mountains
I cross slowly, I get tired. I have to climb all the time, it's not easy and I have to be careful about my every move. Ilona probably can't see me anymore so more reason not to be dumb. I don't know if I wish to share the feeling with someone, maybe.

I end up crossing to the other side of the lake. The sight gets even more beautiful. I can go down at last. But I can't go back, there is no path, cliffs end up in the lake. I am really tired now but I have no choice I have to return through the other side, the terrain looks nicer.
I cross a river of frozen water. It's water from a glacier and it feels like anaesthesia. There is a small path going through the other side. Sometimes it stops, sometimes it appears again, sometimes I have to climb. I walk like a grandpa but I still climb decently when needed. So many beautiful places, it's a shape I am hurrying, each place should serve as a camp for at least one day. But it's already 3PM and Ilona must be worrying. Actually, she is still at the top, just started going down but how would I know that?
Other side of the lake
I meet some french. They have come here with top gear and a guide. Why am I not surprised? I look funny compared to them, in my torn pants, shirt and Nata's hat which is too small for me. I make it to base camp at about 5PM. Ilona's sleeping in the tent. We exchange stories. I am glad she didn't get bored to death but I find it kind of stupid that we have climbed two different high mountains, each of us alone but starting from the same base camp."I can't stand the thought of slowing someone down," she says, "I can only climb alone, there is no other way"
I also learn that she did the ascention without eating for the whole day and without drin king too. I had the last bits of our georgian honey and our bread and was quite glad to eat it from time to time. But the pope has declared one day of fast because of some stuff happening in Syria and Ilona has decided to follow it. Shame she had to climb a high mountain today. But she did and safely came back, that's all that matters.
That night, she gets sick. She has given out too much of effort without propper training beforehand.
I try to make tea but it's hard in these conditions. There is no wood except my walking stick which doesn't burn because the temperature is getting very low. We've isolated the ground of our tent with a survival blanket and are using Theo's sleeping bag as a spare blanket. The wood doesn't burn. Actually, the only thing that burns is my mosquito spray. I try to light the fire buy spraying the burning grass with mosquito spray. Some wood burns but everything quickly dies. We go to sleep without tea.
Two locals pitch our tent next to ours. They're very happy because we speak russian. They don't have a gas burner though.
We go to sleep. I sleep well, Ilona doesn't. She is sick because of the effort, she has fever. Some Polish guys are camping on the other side of the lake. We're not alone anymore. I ask them to make tea, they help me and give me some electrolytes for Ilona. We don't have any bread. We don't have any food except for the Zgushenka sweet milk which might be good for some quick sugar but is pretty much useless to calm hunger. Fortunately, next to our tent, there is a frozen potato, a carrot and an onion. We eat half of that stuff for breakfast. The frozen potato is disgusting. It's raw and old. I can't believe we are so stupid not to have taken provisions. Now we have to eat that shit!
We still have enough decency not to beg for food but it has crossed my mind. It's our third day now. Ilona isn't feeling well because of too much effort but we must go if we don't want to starve to death. We have to get to a ridge about 3900 meters high and it is the easiest way. My shoes are in a poor state and they will only get worse because of the terrain. And since we've started late, at about 10 AM, we'll spend another hungry night in the mountains with our concentrated milk.
As we go down we see some russians on horses going up. They are members of the national swimming team. The government has given them a trip to Kyrgyzstan all expenses paid because they will get a good condition by getting acclimatization from high mountains. They soon turn back, they can't make it on horses. Ilona says they really can't ride that well. They give us bread and we tell them our story. One of them wants a with us. At that moment, I don't appreciate the irony of the situation. These are stars who we see on TV, they might make it to the Olympic games; people ask for their autographs and whatnot and they want a photo with me. I don't even ask a photo with them. I just eat bread happilly while they take a picture with pieces of bread between my teeth. Tasty!
People from the russian swimming team on horses
We meet two Czech people on the way. They're also going up. They tell us we can make it to the hot springs of Arashan. There are people there and food also. They give us a chocolate bought in czech republic and "venecky", typical czech candy. A taste of home, so far away!
We descend to Arashan with the swimming team who abandonned their ascend. They keep losing and finding again members of their expedition. In Arashan we meet the germans. They are Clark and Miriam and they are smiley as sunshine. Miri even has the hair to complete the picture.
They've pitched their tent there and are travelling with two french accross Kyrgyzstan. I like them a lot. They are fun, easy to talk to. I'm a little surprosed when Clark turns out to be 20 and Miri is 19!
They are full of energy and beautiful spirit. The type of people you feel confortable with at the first glance, the type you don't need to censor yourself. Clark is living in Berlin, he's studying because it's an OK way to spent time and he obviously like to wander in unlikely places like Kyrgyz.
They are spontaneous. Both of them but Miri especially. I should have written her quotes, she's like a book of naive sentences full of wonder.
Something like: "Look at them horses, they are so maaaagic!". Imagine the number of horses in Kyrgyzstan.
Don't get me wrong, she's smart; they both are. They have an amazing chermistry, a situating pretty much reminding the one of me and Ilona. They are not a couple yet travelling together and have a great communication or so Clark says.
Clark and Miri
The tent next to us belongs to locals. Some Kyrgyz from Bishkek. They don't speak english for the most part but one of them, a girl comes to us. We talk about travelling, people, Kyrgyzstan, bridenapping. It's a subject on which opinions diverge a lot. According to some,it doesn't exist, to others it's a common practice."Out of my 12 friends, 10 of them were kidnapped by their current husbands"
She's 26, not married which is very uncommon for Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand, unmarried women have very interesting stories to tell. She comes from an even more unusual family with separated parents. She has lots of things to hide. When we share scary stories arount the fire, each of us tells one except her. But I bet if we heard hers we couldn't compete.
The fire doesn't warm too much the cold night. We go to sleep.
In the morning, the french bring breakfest.

"French people again. Annoying rich self-centered idiots," we thought with Ilona. Unfortunately until today, the part of the french population that we met on the way fell a lot into that category. But these two were allright. A couple, travelling together towards China. I liked them too.
We go to the hot springs, the local girl shows us the way. This is beautiful. A tank of warm water is suspended over a mountain river in the middle of cliffs. I thought I saw the most romantic place on the planet several times; well, this one sets the new record. Best to be tasted under the stars.
Last time I went to the hot springs (not counting Kairad and guys from ananyevo because that was a resort) it was with Nata in georgia. I was going for my swimming suit this time because this isn't rainbow anymore. Wrong. Clark and Miri are as rainbow as it can get so we jump naked into the cold river and then climb into the hot spring. We repeat the process several times.
Miri in the hot springs
We spend there an eternity, I even have time to shave with Nata's shampoo she forgot in my bag. Then, we have to go. I join Ilona at our camp, we say hello to the germans and we continue towards Ak-Suu, a village near Karakol where we'll hitchhike towards Karakol.
All in hot springs
We convince the Kyrgyz girl to hitchhike with us if her bus doesn't come before we catch a car. Unfortunately, it comes as soon as we reach the bus station. Shame but then again, our schedule is filled with other interesting futures. We are meeting Janelle tomorrow.
Tonight we just go eat something in a fast food restaurant where we meet some guys who first want to kidnap Ilona but then pay for our tea and fries, give me a watch; a policemen wants to find me some marihuana to smoke and hosts us in his garden full of super tasty pears, apples and apricots. That's it.
This is how we went to the mountains in Kyrgyzstan.