Thursday, November 28, 2013

The state of my things

Last time I made an equipement check, I was about to enter Turkmenistan. Everything was still quite new compared to now. Now, I am in China, about to enter the Qinghai province and things are very different.

I confirm that this tent is a good choice. It's holding up very well. No holes, like new. The bag of the tent is starting to rip a little but it doesn't matter really, that's just aesthetics.

Inflatable mattress:
Still not a bad choice because if I had a normal mattress it would probably be destroyed right now and I wouldn't fit in the bag. But now the mattress deflates slowly, I don't know why but it does. I couldn't find any hole. It's definitly worth keeping even though I have to blow in it two times a night if I don't want to feel cold.

Sleeping bag:
It's written confort to -10 but -10 is actually a very scary temperature. I have to wear all my clothes, sleep on an improvised mattress under my inflatable mattress not to feel too cold. I think that sleeping bag lost a lot of it's isolation power when it was too often packed because of people's overwhelming hospitality in previous countries.

My wardrobe has changed a lot. I still have my original pants, they are quite good. They are repaired on multiple places by multiple people, including me. They have lost a bit of their original color but they're still good pants, I am glad to keep them.
I have bought another pair of pants in Bishkek that look better but are of a much worse quality. They already had a big hole in them which was repaired by a good Kyrgyz lady from a mountain village on the way out of Kazarman.
I also bought a red and black sweater, it's very usedful, it keeps me warm in combination with all the other clothes.
I have a green t-shirt, gift from armenia (it also lost some color) and another blue sweater also from Armenia.
I have a blue t-shirt too small for me, gift from Janela but it has long sleeves. It's my only t-shirt with long sleeves but since it's too small, it's kind of middle sleeves.
I still have all of my socks (4 pairs in total). I have forgotten my Kalpak at Janela's parents.
Instead, I have a very good and warm cap, gift from Igor from Bishkek. Bless him, he's a drunk but without his cap I would be in deep shit. I still have Nata's cap that she knitted for me. I don't use it much, it's more of a souvenir.
I have Adlet's warm stockings, thanks for them, they really keep warm and they are dully needed. I have warm pants from the last Kazakh family that I stayed with. I use them also very often, everytime I sleep in a tent. I have three layers, Adlet's gamashe, Kazakh pants and my original pants.
I have a jacket. It's orange, it's ugly but I was lucky enough to get it. It is from Igor. Also, I really don't know what I could have done without this jacket.
I have a scarf, a real scarf, I never put it off. It's from the last Kazakh family also. It protects my neck, prevents me from losing all the heat trough it.
I have a table cloth from Nesluu from Kadzhi-say. It's very beautiful, I sometimes use it as a spare blanket but I'm not sure it makes a lot of difference. Before I had a real scarf, it served as a scarf. I also use it as a towel.
I lost my swimming suit but who would need that?

I have all of my electronic equipement. My GPS beacon seems to be working but a scary red light shines from it more and more often. I have no idea what it means, I just hope it's low battery.
My secundary GPS beacon seems to be working allright.
My camera is still working, I am still learning how to use it, discovering new features every now and then. It's really resistant and there is absolutly no problem with it.
My solar charger still works but it's almost useless. I plug my phone to it from time to time.

My tablet is so amazing that it's starting to have sentimental value. I try to treat is better. It has already been used and overused during six months, I write my blog on it, I look on the map using it's GPS chip, I use the translation program. I don't know how much more it can take but it has to hold on. It just has to, it's of life importance to me. It still doesn't have a scratch on his touch screen. It is pretty dirty now but I think that if I ever clean it, it would look like new.
The charger however is in bad shape. It still works but not on all plugs and I have to orientate the plug and then pray until the power catches. My SD-card reader stopped working for a while but now it works again. Maybe it was the cold.

My phone is great, I love it, I use it all the time though not as much as my tablet. The altimeter is very useful and the flashlight too. The screen has a few scratches on it but nothing of note.

I used a bandage as a towel to clean a small wound. I gave some aspirin to Igor. And I noticed that I lack desinfection, that's stupid.

Many changes here. My bag got torn on multiple places in the Kyrgyz mountains. It got repaired first by Asyl in Saruu and then by Janela in Tegizchil. Janela's repairs are holding for now and I hope they will hold forever because in these harsh conditions I don't have time to repair my bag and nobody in this country will help me.
Next thing about the bag, the metal skeleton has somewhat deformed and sometimes I feel it on my back and it hurts. Luckily, I often wear countless layers of warm clothes so I don't feel anything through them.

My Salomon trekking shoes got completly destroyed, I threw them out. Only item I actually destroyed beyond repair and had to throw out. Shame on them, stupid brand. I bought new shoes for about 30 euros, cheap chinese stuff and they are holding like a charm. And yes I went to the mountains for them. Note to self, buy chinese crap instead of Salomon, it'll serve you better.
Sylvie's shoe implants are holding up fine, still. Unbelievable.
I also got a new pair of shoes from Igor. They are nice shoes, city shoes. Completly useless from a practical perspective but I can put them on from time to time.

I sharpened my knife in Naryn, it's sharp again.

I still have my twoo sunglasses and my spare normal glasses.
Money wise, still under 2 euros a day.

And that's all for now, I think there might only be one last checkup of equipment before the end of the trip!

Gansu, still desert

Today, I got one ride. A joyful guy, some businessman appearently who is rich and in a hurry. He drives fast, 170 km/h to 200 km/h, this is possible on the excellent chinese roads, he buys me lunch and some variant of chinese tea with milk. He eats fast, leaves half of the food. We ride all the way from Hami to Jiayugan, more than 500 kilometers. My hopes rise when we leave Xinjiang. The inscriptions on the road, instead of being in arabic, are written in bad english and it will soon be the end of the desert.
And my wishes come true. Ho and behold, Taklamakan desert is finished and hello Gobi desert, even more dry and desolate than it's Uygur brother. Is it also colder? I hope I won't have to find out.
I think I can bear temperatures down to -15 in my tent, under that it would start to be borderline dangerous, I don't really want to put it to the test.
Gansu is more modern than Xinjiang and Xinjiang is already more modern than everything I have seen for months. So everything is pretty modern.
We arrive in Jiayugan at 5:30 in the evening (Beijing time but Gansu respects Beijing time without ambiguities I think), it's still light for a while. It isa nice city with big buildings but not opressive as in Urumqi or worse, Hong Kong. The architecture is wisely designed to have a good time and sight troughout the city. The guy leaves me in a park with good luck wishes.
Today, I don't want to sleep in a park. I will try to find another solution. I am not desperate for a solution anymore, I am more confident that I am going to find one. China has become slightly less scary.
I open the door of the most luxurious hotel in the city.
"ying yu?(英语)", english? My plan requires that not only me but also my fellow co-speaker know a language reasonably well to communicate in a more complicated manner.
It takes a while to find an english speaking person but it's the most luxurious hotel in town, designed mostly for rich foreigners, they manage it eventually.
"Hello. I am not looking for a room. I am a traveller from czech republic. My challenge is to travel for a dollar per day. I am writing a book about it. Do you have a place in there where I could stay for free?"
It takes the guy a while to come accross the one dollar per day, his average customer spends at least a hundered times that amount. But it doesn't work.
"Sorry sir, we can't help you"
"Absolutly no problem thank you."
"Where are you going to stay?"
"A tent"
"It's december sir, do you know it gets really cold?"
"Hence my question"
"Sorry, we cannot help you."

Big fancy hotel in Jiayguan center
I continue my way to the residence zone of the city, maybe I will have better luck with the locals. On my way, I come accross a hospital. There are a few doors open, I go for the emergencies. In europe, emergencies are the busiest unit, people are lining up, everything is full. In here, there is nobody.
And there is also no reception, instead, there is a police station. Of course. I will avoid to ask the police for help, I try the nurse office.
"ying yu? English?"
Nobody speaks english in there but they point me to a man next door: "he speaks english"
Turns out he doesn't really speak english but he has a tablet, not unlike mine with a translating program. I try my luck with that. I tell him about the same thing that to the hotel receptionist, just adding that I arrived by hitchhiking from Czech Republic.
"So can I stay somewhere in your hospital for one night"
"Ok. No problem.," says the guy. Just like this. No need for a tent today. That was easy!
Turns out the guy is taking a risk. He hasn't notified "the authority" because we all know what "the authority" would say in this country. He has found me a room with four beds.
"Lock yourself in there and switch the lights off," he tells me. In the evening, there is a high concentration of police in the hospital, god knows why. I go out to the city, get some internet, recharge my tablet, write my blog and get back when the police goes away. I switch the lights off, put all my devices to charge and go to sleep.
The next day, I am on the road again. I didn't have dinner except the milk with tea which I got from the last guy. But I get a small breakfest with my first ride.
My second ride is to Zhangye, where I will try to deviate south to Qinhaihu lake in the Qinghai province. I hope it'll be warmer and also the guy who rode me to Juayguan told me it's a nice place.

Hitchhiking is more difficult here but hey, a bus just stopped. I am slowly riding somewhere in the right direction. Two buses and three cars later it's getting late. There are mountains in front of me, I really don't want to get there. I've seen the rough cold down there once, I don't want to feel it again with 1000 more meters of altitude. That's the altitude that I guess for the mountains separating Gansu and Qinqua provinces.
Woman riding on the back of the tricycle
Nobody is stopping anymore, it is time to camp. But the temperature is lower than it should be and there is way more snow than there should be. The desert is finishing, I cheked the satellite imagery, it should be warmer but it isn't. Why is that? I check the altitude, I did it very often in Kyrgyzstan and while crossing the mountains in Xinjiang but here there was no need. Just endless desert.
My altimeter is ruthless: 2270 meters above sea level. Fuck. I am in the mountains. I am in the mountains and I didn't even notice it. I must have been rising slowly, very slowly, meter by meter until I ended up here.
There situation is clear, I can't put up a tent. I have to be hosted. I have two choices. Either ask someone in the village nearby to invite me in. Or hitchhike further and further until someone invites me home. It would never have happenend in Xinjiang but maybe Gansu is different. And for heaven's sake, who would leave a human being in the mountains in winter with just a tent, that's insane even for the chinese.
It is not. Car by car, kilometer by kilometer, they bring me higher and leave me at intersections, all continuing home to their villages. The last guy leaves me in the middle of nowhere about 2700 meters high and drives off. These people have no understanding for the consequences of their actions. You may also argue that I am stupid and you would have a point.
It is freezing and there isn't anything out of which I could make a mattress. I have to go back. I hitchhike a car downhill.
"Where are you going?"
"I try to find a place to build a tent, anywhere better than here"
"Get in"
They let me in front of a hostel, I don't even argue that it's no use, they would just leave me in the middle of nowhere again. I try my luck in the hostel and yay, I can stay there for free. There are some random guys sleeping in the same room, one of them being drunk but I have saved my ass from the mountain cold. Note to self; always, always check the altitude, you might be high and not even know it and I guess that's true for drugs as well.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Three harsh nights in a tent

I thought, maybe just a little bit and for a little while, that this cop is going to host me. We are driving to Tulufan with a police officer who lets me off in a park. However, he has chosen a really nice park for me. The ground is covered with a huge layer of tree leaves, perfect for isolation. First time in China, I am going to set up a tent in the middle of a city. I wonder how will that work out... Will someone discover me and will it be the police-hotel routine again? Or will they not care according to their chinese principle not to mind other people's business. For once, I would welcome it.
I go to visit the city for a while, before going to sleep. I need to find some internet because my phone doesn't work anymore. My phone balance is finished and I can't recharge it because of... I have no idea why but it takes a lot of chinese gibberish to explain.

Tulufan is the first nice city I visit. Urumqi was also allright but that's the capital, different sizes. Tulufan is the first chinese city which is not an accumulation of flashy sinograms and mess. It has style and there is a huge pedestrian street.

Woman with child, Tulufan

For some time now, everynight, I take my sleeping bag out and let it dry and breathe. I have to take care of my sleeping bag otherwise it won't take care of me. It's with a better sleeping bag and all of my clothes on that I will fight this cold night. And it is cold but it's better than the horrible night at Khorgos border. Still, I shiver during the two coldest hours.
But nobody bothers me. People have barely had a curious look when they've seen me building that tent in plain sight in that park. Not their business, they're on their way.

My tent in the park, Tulufan

In the morning, I have a nasty surprise: my tablet battery has run dry. 0%, nothing, my life saver is dead. This is bad, very bad. I don't even know where I am on a map and you can forget about paper maps of Tulufan, they don't exist.
When I get up, it's also very cold. My hands freeze in seconds everytime I try to pack and I don't have gloves so packing takes forever. Outside, some guy is doing tai-chi.

Man doing taichi

I go to the first inhabited place I find and it's the park's security office or something like that. There is a woman there who plugs my computer in. It takes forever for my tablet to catch the power. I still haven't replaced my faulty charger and my charger kind of charges whenever it wants. I need to put my tablet in a certain position for the charger to charge and if I move it one milimeter there is no power anymore. Sometimes I have to orientate the plug in these weird chinese electric plugs so it starts chargin. And when the battery is completly discharged it is way more difficult to make the charger charge than if it's almost full.

The lady gives me some food; grapes, mandarines, apples and bread. I ask her if I can spend another night in her park because after all, the night wasn't so hard and Tulufan is a nice city. She goes to ask "the leadership" and of course he says no.
"You should go to a hotel," he tells me, convinced to teach me something I don't know.
"Is it free?"
No he's surprised. Stupid advice leads to stupid questions, smartass.
My tablet is recharged to about 22% of the primary battery. Enough for emergency use.
I leave Tulufan pretty late, it takes me forever to reach the main road.

Residential area in Tulufan

That day, I only make it to Shanshan, not even a hundered kilometers from Tulufan. The guy who drives me there keeps telling how brave I am, how great is my trip and how much he admires everything I do but he doesn't think about taking me home. Another night in a tent then. I could try to ask someone for shelter but I am kind of tired of having hope and trying so hard to be hosted each night. I better learn how to survive in the cold on my own, that skill will be far more useful. Last night's leaves weren't enough for isolation, today I am going to put all odds in my favour. I will really try my best. In the evening, everything always looks great, the cold isn't that scary and it gets more scary during the night.
But I really need to recharge my tablet now. The battery has fallen down to about 30% because of my daily use. I seek an electric plug at a gas station. The guys are really friendly, we try several plugs before one of them works.
They invite me to eat lunch and are fascinated by the foreign money I have with me. Taijikistan isn't exotic enough, it still is China's neighbour but they want Iranian currency. Appearently it is illegal to own foreign money in China, or at least here in Xinjiang.
The guys tell me that they will prepare a place for me to sleep. I didn't count on that and I still don't but if they do that's really nice. However, I've learned not to interpret things my way until I am absolutly sure that is the case. So I am still prepared to sleep outside.
After half an hour of talking and eating, the guys tell me that they've talked to "the authority" and they don't agree to let me stay because it's against regulation, the usual stuff. However, "the authority" wants to buy from me my exotic Iranian money. That's also against regulations but I guess some regulations are meant to be broken. In China as in Orwell's "Animal farm", all animals are equal but some of them more than others. I am not the least surprised, I say thank you to the guys for the effort and I fall back to my initial plan.

I find an abandonned house, some kind of dusty ruin not far from the highway. It is situated behind a wall and partially underground. The protection from the wind is complete and I expect some thermal isolation because it is underground. There are some old dusty clothes hanging around in different rooms. I gather them all to make a mattress in the smallest room of the ruin. It looks dirty and depressing, even the drunkest and dirtiest homeless guy in my home town wouldn't sleep on that. And I must say, I don't really don't have the stomach to lay into that rubbish either, I feel like sleeping in a garbage can. But when I build my tent over my improvised mattress, it looks just like anywhere else. The floor is warm and soft. There is even a time, in the beginning of the night when I am a bit too warm. I feel like I have found a reciepe for survival in china.
So far my only both warm and self-made place to sleep in China

The next day I get to Hami. The way goes through the desert. There is nothing there, I must look hard to percieve the smallest patch of dried grass. Sand and gravels. Dried out hills sometimes. Scary.
Dried desertic hills on the road to Hami, Xinjiang

My driver stops in a restaurant of some sort where he delivers various products and I get free lunch. A blind women who works there is very kind to me and while there is little room for communication, her kindness ups my morals for a while.
Chnese woman eating

I also recharge my tablet to a reasonable level, about 60% of the primary battery, 0% of the secondary one still. The next ride is a truck. He is going all the way to Yantai, precisely the place where I am going to hitch a boat to Korea. I don't know if they would take me there but that's too early anyway. I am only going with them to Hami (Kumul is the new name I think).
I didn't think the landscape could get even more desertic but somehow, it does. Hami is a city in the middle of the desert, I guess it will be awfully cold. I hope my previously learned skills will keep me comfortable.
The night falls pretty quickly and I am in the middle of the desert, there is nothing there. However I find a pile of clothes and blankets laying near the street, enough to make a big soft mattress, way better than the first one. However, I have no walls to protect me like yesterday.
The night is very cold but my improvised shelter works somehow. I am not cold but my feet are numb and just won't unfreeze. Damn. And of course, I have the internet. I can chat with my mother and my fairy from the inside of my tent. We are having and argument actually and I consider that a luxury given the conditions I am in.
Me, on the internet in the cold of my tent

The morning is cold and I don't wish for another night like this. I guess I can surivive but it's fucking hard. I remember a text message from Theo: east is warmer. The best solution for me is to get out of that desert as fast as possible, go somewhere where there is normal nature and warmth. And that is Ningxia Hui region according to Theo.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Urumqi will be too risky to go to, I should go directly to Tulufan, skip the capital city. I'll end up in there in a snowy mess, it'll just be full of scary chinese sinograms and I'll feel completly lost. I'll probably put my tent somewhere on the cold hard floor between two skyscrapers and freeze during the night. And Tulufan is supposed to be the warm exception in this cold desert.

I get a few rides to only nearby villages before I get a ride to Urumqi. But since I don't know enough chinese to ask and understand how far these people are going, I made a habit of just accepting all rides.
On the road I hear more and more words supporting yesterday's assertion: the government is bullying the Uygur people.
"People say in Xinjiang are terrorists but the chinese goverment itself are the terrorist"
"The Han chinese don't care about our [Uygur] culture, they care about our oil fields" So there is oil in Xinjiang.
"The government is corrupt"
"People from north Xinjiang don't even have the right to have a passport unless they are really rich"
And so on.
Assertions about injustice are endless and moving. The police has been very nice to me but is it also nice to it's own people? To the Uygur inhabitants of Xinjiang? Doesn't seem that way.
A., my driver, was a chinese teacher at the university. He didn't like that job because he felt like destroying part of the Uygur culture by converting everyone to the mandarin language.
I can understand his worries. I have met turkic people (people of Turkish origin) in many different countries now and everytime, their culture was distorted by some other, bigger power.
In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan the language is polluted by russian words, people don't bother to remember the original words anymore or invent new ones to designate modern things, they just use the russian word instead. To say tent for example, they will not say tchadr, which is correct and of turkish origin, they will just say the russian paladka.
The language is written in the cyrillic alphabet which is completly unfit for the task. Letters like YA or YU, so common in russian are rare in Kazakh or Kyrgyz and other letters, very common don't exist, they are added to the alphabet.
In turkmenistan, the alphabet is latin, that's a little better but I feel the optimal alphabet for the language is arabic. Anyway, Turkmenistan is a dictatorship and that's very bad for any culture.
Turkey is now becoming a modern powerful country and maybe the only hope to preserve it's culture. However I feel that the turkish culture is already quite far from the turkic cultures so even if it is preserved, the turkic states will still lose their heritage.
What about the Uygur region? They have the arabic alphabet, that's a big win but they are so much circled and possibly opressed by powerful china which is culturally even further from them than russia. So pretty much everyone is screwed but each in a different way.
Aside of all these cultural thoughts, A. has an incredible talent: he speaks english!
Real english. He has vocabulary, he can form sentences, I am in a dream! I decide to continue to Urumqi, partly because I need to rest my mind with an english-speaking person.
The father is a maths teacher
After abandonning his job as a teacher, A. decided to go into the jade business.
"Chinese people like Jade and Uygur people like money," he said. So everybody wins. Xinjiang has the best jade in all of China so he buys it from the farmers and then sells it on the other side, in Shanghai.
Today however, he's not here for business, he is accompaning his father to the hospital. Something is wrong with his eye. His father is a retired mathematics teacher. He doesn't speak english but he makes me develop (a+b) to the power of five. Damn these math memories are far but yeah, I can develop this using Pascal's triangle. Who would have thought that I would be solving mathematics in the middle of the chinese desert.
We are passing through dunes and small mountains. Tulufan is now behind us, I am definitly going to Urumqi. It shouldn't be so cold according to A.'s latest information so maybe I won't freeze to death.
Entrance of Urumqi

When we arrive, a surprise awaits. Mist, snow, wind, cold. Oh my god, that was a mistake.
"Father is worried, " A. says, "So I will pay for a small room for you. The temperature is -6 already and it's not even night yet."
We stop in front of a skyscraper which looks really fancy. He said hotel ok, but this? This is what I would pay for my honeymoon night with my girlfriend! The reception is all huge and golden, there are parking spaces for hotel guests and on the way to my room I meet some kind of businessman from pakistan, the one who you see in movies, who is super rich and has a harem.
"Are you here for business?" he asks me.
"Not really." If only he knew I was almost putting a tent next to that hotel and now I'm his neighbour.
My room is luxury. There are two beds, a table, a bathroom with hot water and wifi. The power is controlled by my magnetic key. I insert it in a space by the door and everything lights up. All the lights are digitally controlled by a box between the beds which also serves as an alarm clock. And I have a beautiful view of Urumqi from my window.
Urumqi, view from my room
"In half an hour we're going to the restaurant," says A.
We don't go to any restaurant. We go to the biggest and fanciest Uygur restaurant in the world. It is situated in Urumqi in a giant and classy building. Inside, everything is decorated with taste and we are sitted at a table where they start bringing the dishes. It's not that expensive but still over my budget. A. pays for everything. He insists that I chose my dish although I don't know anything about Uygur cuisine and don't have a clue about what the sinograms next to the dishes mean. But A., living in an region opressed by the chinese loves democracy even more because he doesn't have it at home so I must choose by myself.
I eat in the biggest Uygur restaurant in the world

Everybody eats very fast. I am a very fast eater myself and I always try to slow down in order to not make the others feel unconfortable. Here in China however, they all eat so fast that I can go to my normal speed and it still won't be enough. I'm getting better with the chopstics but it's still slowing me down a bit.

I get a samsa for tomorrow morning, breakfast. After writing my blog, I still have time to visit the city. I go to the grand bazaar which is not that big and to some park where a lot of people do their morning exercises in public. They exercise, dance, sing, do tai-chi. Most of them are pretty bad at it but it doesn't matter and no one is ashamed. It's not a bad practice. At noon Urumqi time (2 PM beijing time) I am on my way east again, on my way to Tulufan.
I see rich parts of Urumqi and poor parts also. I see an abandonned attraction park, nobody wants to play in winter. I meet some car mechanics, some of them speak english, they give me bread. And a few hours later, I stop a car to Tulufan.
Snowy Urumqi

The car repairmen

Panorama of the attraction park

Some flowers

Some cars work, some do not

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Accross the mountains

Nalachi city is kind of already in the mountains but not quite enough. The road accross the mountains goes over 3000 meters and it is winter already. It will be extremly cold and I just cannot afford to sleep somewhere in between. I must go hitchhike up and down in one day.
I am realizing one scary truth. I have two things here that keep me alive: my magic letter and my tablet. If I lose my magic letter, I can't hitchhike and I freeze. If I lose or break my tablet, I lose my ability to communicate in chinese, nobody helps me, I can't orientate and I freeze.
It's that simple. Magic letter and tablet, two things keeping me alive. Two things that I use almost every minute of the day.
It's my tablet which got me hotels, lunches, sim card and pretty much all the help I had.
It's not more than 200 kilometers alltogether but the road is snowy and not many cars go there. Actually, out ouf Nalachi, there is just one truck. I am lucky enough to hitch it and we ride further and further accross the mountains. Then the road is closed, the police has put some barricade over it but somehow they let our truck pass anyway. With each village we pass, I hope it is not the final destination of my driver. On the road, I see only trucks and also one bus with tourists. I am really lucky I got this lift.
The truck stops eventually. On a remote village on a mountain top, 3000 meters high. High mountains in the taklamakan desert, I can't sleep there, this would just be the end. In any case, as in every chinese village with population over a hundered there is a police station with policemen that might be willing to pay for a hotel. That would be the third in a row and these guys have computers and internet; they'll figure out eventually that I am surfing on police kindness.
So I hitchhike everything I can. Trucks, cars and the tourist bus that has finally made it to the top. It stops not because of me but because tourists need to have lunch. So they pay me lunch, it's very good. They always eat some beef and vegetables with a whole lot of noodles and I just love those noodles. Chinese cuisine has been my favourite for a long time anyway.
When lunch is finished they invite me to the bus. At some point a guy goes on to collect money and I just discard him with my magic letter. I feel like I have got a magic wand. I can't thank that police officer enough.

At some random point of the road, the bus stops and lets me out. I am out of the mountain death zone probably but still at about 1700 meters so the night wouldn't be very comfortable.
I manage to hitchhike a minibus who takes me for free after I show my magic letter. I really can hitchhike anything here. Paid, unpaid transportation, it doesn't matter, I have a free pass on everything.
The bus leaves me in Hejing Xian, I thought that was a village and it has skyscrapers. There is fog, it is cold, god it's even snowing a bit. What the hell will I do?
I don't have time to get out, It'll be dark and even if I get out, where will I go. I made a decision today: I want to leave Xinjiang as soon as possible.
"Can I put a tent in your garden?" I ask a guy living in a small house, just under the skyscraper. Yeah I know, hotel, police, police pays for hotel again but it's better than to freeze.
"Don't be stupid, it's cold out there, come and sleep home!"
"What?" I am not sure to understand correctly but I take tea with them.
The guy is 26, like me and he is very curious. My tablet takes turns from his hand to mine, we are having a complicated discussion about politics in Xinjiang in Chinese, and all thanks to google translate.
"The chinese government is bullying the Uygur people", says the guy.

The family eats only bread for dinner. They put the piece of bread into tea and then eat it. The guy has to go to work. He is interesting anc curious, his stories about the opression of Uygur people are really moving. However I am relieved to stop communicating again because talking through the tablet is quite tiring. I have to switch between english and chinese keyboard all the time and then try to decode the very approximative translation. And since english and chinese mandarin are very different languages, decoding it takes quite a lot of brain power. But how would it be without google translate? I am realizing that now more than during my work, my computer is of critical importance. When someone will later ask me what is the most important thing to take for improvised budget travelling, I will reply without hesitation: a tablet and a useful set of programs.

As soon as the guy leaves, his sister takes over. She is a 15 year old smart teenager completly fascinated by my trip and my life as a european so the tablet keeps changing hands again.

I manage to get to sleep at 10 beijing time which is 8 PM Urumqi time. Urumqi time is not an official time zone, but it is a time zone Uygur people use between themselves without being officially recognized by China.

I sleep so well and so happily. They leave me in a room heated like a sauna. There is a kettle of tea on the fire if I want some at night, a big bowl of bread should I ever get hungry and the mother brings me a bowl of some sweet and very tasty youghourt. When at home, in civilisation, I worry about what will happen next week, next month even. Today I don't worry about anything even though I have no idea where I will so much as sleep next night. I just enjoy my warm bed.

In the morning I have breakfest. Bread soaked in some weird white wheat mud. It's not tasty but it's a good breakfast. And then, desperation comes again, stronger than ever. The woman makes the sign for money. I thought they were helping me! I thought I was a guest! I thought it was from the heart! But I don't have the strength to fight anymore, I will give them money and then never try to get invited anywhere ever again. Evil people, evil china!

"Money for what?," I ask, just to confirm

"Tea, bread,..."

Yeah yeah, I get it. "How much do you want"

The mother starts waving hands energically.

"No! We don't want your money! We want to give you money!"

I refuse many times but in the end they force me 50 yuan and a piece of bread. That's money I can put on my phone or if conditions are too extreme, for a hotel room. It still counts if it's not my money. I am going to Urumqi tomorrow and where will I sleep there? Actually, I haven't spent more than 10 yuan since I am in china. I just bought some sweets one morning and that's it. The rest of it have been gifts. Life is not so bad.

Encounters with police

With my magic letter in hand I stick my thumb out for new adventures. And it is really a magic letter for no one else has ever asked me for money since. The first car stops, I show the letter, he tells me to get in and we go. It's not more than 30 kilometers but he doesn't ask me for money and that was my goal of the day. One ride, two rides, three, all short but successful. I think I will manage to hitchhike in China. The landscape alternates between only road and urban areas like the one the first hitch led me to. They are filthy places full of shops with big red sinograms and usually a police station.
It's getting more and more dark and I am just hitching ride after ride, wondering who is going to take me home.
The last family seems to go in that direction, the father goes on about sleeping, he asks me a question which I don't understand but what else can it be besides "do you want to come to our home?"
I answer a definite "shi", yes and the guy drives me right in front of a hotel. I tell him that I don't have money for hotels so... think my good samaritan, think, what only other solution can you find. The guy drives me 50 meters from the hotel and lets me out. Fail.
Next ride is some other guy who takes my letter, reads it but I'm not sure he understands it. Maybe he doesn't read chinese. Maybe he only reads Uygur written in arabic alphabet.
He stops at some market where he asks me to give him the letter, he shows it to some weirdly looking guys and gives it back to me. The weirdly looking guys then come to me with a threatening look on their faces. They say something in chinese that sounds like "do you have a problem with us?"
They are too big, too many and too threatening so I just walk away. I walk about 200 meters when the guy with the car honks at me again, he's alone in his car, he wants to take me in and we continue our way. I have no idea what that about. My hopes of being invited home start to shiver but have not dissapeared yet and when the guy starts about cold and hotels, I tell him that I have no money for that.
So the only solution which remains is... he drives me to the police station. Come on, how many things can a chinese person imagine before he invites someone home?!
He tells something to the police, probably explains my situation, what else, and then rides away. The police take my passport, ask me questions, I tell them my story and they start looking for an interpreter. They get one on the phone and we can start to communicate. They say that it's against the law to sleep in a tent, same story as in Ili city. I ask if I can sleep at the police station.
They say that they'll ask but they don't feel confortable with that.
"How did you come here?"
"With the two people that left me here."
"Why did you choose this police station, why not a police station in Ili city?"
"I didn't choose this police station, these two people dropped me there, I have no idea what I am doing here"
"So you insist in sleeping at this police station?"
Apparently, the guy didn't tell them anything. He just dropped me here and the police and said nothing. The police actually thinks that I came to them of my own free will with the first and foremost intention of sleeping at the police station.
"Do I insist... I never wanted to sleep at this police station."
"So why did you come here?"
"Why did I come... these guys left me here."
"Why didn't you sleep at these guys place?"
"Obviously they didn't want to, that's why they left me at the police station."
Everyone tries to make some sense of the situation.
"You cannot stay in this place, tourist can only go to cities, not to urban areas or villages." I think I get why North Korea is China's ally now.
"It's too late to hitchhike now"
The phones goes back and forth from me to the translator.
"The police suggests that they pay for a bus to take you to Ili city where you can sleep."
"I'll try to put a tent there, like I would in here. And then I will hitchhike towards Urumqi and end up in here, probably at the same exact police station"
"The police suggest they pay for a bus to take you to the nearest hotel in the direction of Urumqi. Then police will pay for the bus and for the hotel."
I am surprised. I used to expect miracles from people and was dissapointed each time but I never even tried to expect anything from the police, I always considered them my enemy.
"Do these terms seem agreeable to you?"
I am on the dream end of a negotiation. "Yes I agree!" Who wouldn't.
"The police sends you its sincere apologies for the trouble caused."
You know, seriously, I think I forgive them. And they give me apples.
That night I sleep in a hotel and I have rarely seen such a fine hotel. It's golden luxury everywhere, I have my own bathroom with toilet and shower. Ok, no warm water but who cares, I will not freeze tonight.
I will not freeze tonight
The next day I leave the hotel in the direction of Nalachi. At noon, I manage to create a sim card. It's not an easy process, I deeply regret to not have paid for the first one. Appearently, sim card require a chinese identity cardcal so you have to be a chinese citizen for that.
"Does that mean that foreigners are not allowed to have a chinese sim card?"
The lady just does a gesture that means "I don't know" or "This situation is too complicated for me, go away."
I manage to make a sim card because a nice girl who even speaks some english accepts to create one on her name and give it to me. At a second "china mobile" office I manage to figure out how to call to russia but only after explaining to the lady where is russia because she didn't know. Come on lady, Russia is not only the neighbour of your country but also of your region, where did you go to school?
me and one of the many china mobile employees
I met I also get free lunch, a happily looking guy invites me to sit and eat noodes at his restaurant. There is a lot to eat, it's a kind of soup with very slimy noodles and I eat it with chopsticks. He gives me a funny white bread which I like very much and I have one more for the road.
On the road to Nalati
In the evening I arrive to Nalachi. The city is above 1500 meters of altitude, the wind blows like crazy, it is freezing really bad, this is not a good place to put up a tent. I try my luck with the good citizens of that city.
"May I put up a tent in your garden?"
"We have no space at home"
I said garden, at least to be safe from the wind but never mind.
I try next door and the guy invites me in. He seems to say: "why sleep in the garden, better sleep inside" and I could not agree more. I tell him my story insisting that I travel for a dollar per day so he doesn't bring me to a hotel. Then he starts saying something like he knows about a place, a friend of his perhaps, where I could take a shower and whatnot, and we should go there. Why not, I am curious. We take all my stuff and go accross the city. I start being a little worried. At last we stop. There is a reception. We are at a hotel.
The hotel lady is nice at first, she is happy to have a client, you see on her face she is smelling money. But lady you're mistaken, that's not money, that must be my socks and believe me, they are not worth much.
They are both very surprised when I tell them very clearly "wo mei you qian", I have no money. But use your logic people, why would I try to put a tent in your garden if spending money was an option for me? And why would I have a tent in the first place?
The lady tells me that staying in a tent is against regulations. Appearently, in Xinjiang, not only the police but also people are enforcing the law. For the first time a thought has crossed my mind: china just might be a dictatorship, just as the european media say. They might have been wrong about Iran, they are not wrong all the time.
"Do you agree with me calling the police?" Appearently, customers opinion is important.
"No, why would you do that?"
She calls the police anyway.
She says something like. "Hello there is a guy who went to my hotel, he wants a room and he says he has no money, what should I do?" Again, as if I chose to be here.
She probably wants the police to force me to pay for the room but I am going to fight that.
The police takes me to the station, they process me through different levels of authority and one of the policemen is so fascinated by my story that he takes photos of my photos with his iphone while I display them on my tablet. I kindly explain to him that he can download the originals on my website which makes him very happy.
Many of the policemen tell me that they think that what I do is great and that they are going to pay for my hotel tonight. That was easy. They ask if I have enough to eat and I say yes. I still have the bread from lunch and anyway, I am not hungry because I ate a bunch of noodles. I also don't want to bother the police more than necessary.
They take me back to the hotel where the surprised lady is told to prepare me a room for free. She is surprised and annoyed but she will not disobey a policeman's command. So she sets up a room for me, a small one at the last floor. I am allowed to take a big thermos of warm water for tea and... there is internet!
my second room has internet
I can talk with Janela all night long now from the safety and warmth of my bed and everything is okay.
If I think about it, me and china have reached a good mutual agreement. The chinese want to have full knowledge and control over the comings and goings of foreigners and I am travelling for one dollar per day. If China wants me to stay in hotels, they will pay for my hotels. It is good for me, it is good for them and at the end of the day, everybody is happy.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

This country is crazy!

I am in China and this is fucking weird. Why? Why did I leave Kazakhstan where people speak a slavic language somewhat close to my own? Why did I leave a country to which culture I have gotten used to. Kyrgyz culture, Kazakh culture, they are different but still very similar compared to what is awaiting me. I am a computer engeneer, a guy who studied well at school, who can get a job and leave a calm life. A guy who one day, decided to play a game. And I have been playing this game for a while. I have been playing my game and the reality of people's lives was my realm. Knowing this is a game has put me at a big advantage against many people and situations I have encountered. It has helped me keeping a sane mind, not panicking even when the bus driver in Turkmenistan threatened to call the police, even when the chiftain of police in Kyrgyzstan tried to extort money from me.
I have been playing this game so long that I didn't notice when it started to become a reality. I have a Kyrgyz girlfriend now and she is no game anymore. She is part of my reality. Another part of my reality is the freezing cold.

The other side of the border looks like something that I have never seen in a long time. Last time in Turkey, perhaps. Civilisation is everywhere. Perfect roads. Shops. Lights. Shiny billboards. Everything is clean and working, I miss the human touch. I have been used to seing struggle and imperfection in the passed countries. Here struggle is hidden.
The other side of the border
I think I am having a cultural shock.
First thing I need is a sim card. It's not as easy as it was before. In kyrgyzstan I just went to a shop, asked for a sim, put money on it and there I go. Here, I have to go to a special shop named China Mobile. Fortunately, they are everywhere. The guy doesn't speak english, I get that, I am tolerant person but 2 kilometers from the Kazakh border he doesn't even speak russian! Come on!
I am saved by a chinese student who speaks perfect english and explains everything. First, I have to get a chinese number. I can choose between a lot of numbers which are all very long and look the same to me. Then, I need to buy a sim card. It's 50 yuan for the number and 50 for the sim card. The guy forgets that I have to pay because of the language chaos so I get my sim card for free. I can hear Janela's voice after about two days of silence, that's a relief. Especially in my situation. I go to the main road, it's dark already. It's getting colder and colder.
I try to hitchhike but nobody stops except a car with two young and confused guys who tell me something very fast in mandarin before driving away. It's depressing. The cold is a a blow to my morale. Maybe hitchhiking doesn't work in China. I am 2 kilometers from the border, not an ideal place to camp but what choice do I have?
The truth is, I don't really think I am going to camp. Someone will invite me in. In these conditions, in this cold, it is a sure thing. Someone just has to see me. The problem is, nobody's out there and I can't blame them.
Meanwhile the guy from the telephone company realized he just gave me a free sim card. That doesn't compute in his chinese business mind. He calls me and tells me a bunch of fast chinese gibberish. I don't understand a thing and he is really annoyed. After a while he switches to Uygur which I don't understand either. Learn some international language you asshole!
He disables my sim card anyway and I can't call Janela anymore. Damn, I really thought he was too lazy to go through this timely process of disabeling the card. I should have had paid.

I can't put my hands out of my pockets anymore for more than ten seconds. I still don't have gloves, I should have bought some. I decide to resort to a desperate move: I knock on the door of a nearby house. A frightened lady opens the door. I really hope she speaks russian.
"Parusky paniemayete (do you understand russian?)"
"Go away, go away!," she seems to say in chinese. I don't even try english. I get out my tablet, set up google translate.
"May I build a tent in your garden?"

I have no idea how the automatic translation sounds but I hope she understands. And no I can't. She shows me a place, just outside her garden, where I can build my tent and now please leave me alone. A terrifying thought crosses my mind: I am in europe. This is a civilised country, people are afraid of each other and not hospitable either. They would let me freeze to death as long as I leave them alone mind their own business.
It's not that much of a problem, I have a tent and a sleeping bag, maybe I will feel cold for two hours during the end of the night and everything will be fine. Wrong. It's 7PM (actually it's 9PM Beijing time but I still haven't adjusted my clocks) and I am already feeling the same cold I felt in Kyrgyzstan at 5 in the morning. I have all of my clothes on. Three layers of pants (I have recieved some pants from the guy in Kazakhstan), my tshirt, two sweaters and my jacket. I even cover my sleeping bag with the table cloth I got from the lady in Kadzhi-Say which now serves as a blanket.
From midnight, I feel really cold, I have to shiver to keep warm. At 5 AM, the cold reaches its peak, my feet are becomming a bit numb because of the cold. I am surprised by such violant temperatures. How cold is it? Is it -10°C? -15°C? -20°C. Maybe it is -20°C. I have to get myself a thermometer.
And you know what? There is wifi in there. I may freeze to death in that tent but I will have the connection to tweet about it. Thqt is if I get passed the internet censorship.
I check the altitude. 607 meters. Not very high but I'm in the desert, it gets cold.
My frozen tent in the morning

In the morning, I still can't unfreeze my feet so I'll go, I have nothing better to do anyway. A man says hello as I get out of my tent. He invites me home to eat breakfest. The lady from yesterday is there, she's not as scared as yesterday and brings me breakfest and chopsticks. The family is quite poor but they have electricity and even a computer somewhere in the corner. It's china, other criteria apply maybe.
For the first time on my long hitchhiking trip, I am using chopsticks. We are eating some kind of white bread which tastes pretty different from what I am used to. They put some really spicy peppers on the bread with the chopsticks and then they eat it. My mouth burns but I haven't eaten since yesterday morning so I am really happy.
"Mei guo bu hao," says the guy. I am proud to understand: "United States not good." I am hearing that from armenia and east.
He gives me a bag of apples for the road. "Take it for the davay", he says because he thinks davay means road in russian.
I gladly take the bag of apples. Meanwhile, my feet have unfrozen.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

From Bishkek to the Chinese border

I caught cold in this last car. My throat hurts, I need time to rest at Nurbolot's place. Luckily, his place is a safe haven for me for as long as I need and he has the internet. I say hello to some of my friends in Bishkek, mostly Gulmira and Aiperi. I learn that Aiperi, the successful business-shark who has four jobs, is single and created a whole language center at Prospekt Mira from nothing is actually from a village in the Naryn region. If she returns there, they will probably kidnap her and kill her forever.
I leave on tuesday morning through the Dordoy bazar to Korday (in Kazakhstan), border city north of Bishkek. The border control is quick and painless and I get this annoying Kazakh registration form. This time, I'll try to stay in the country for less than five days.
I get a ride from Korday straight to the border of Almaty. It's a taxi but he takes me for free. Almaty is huge so I need another ride to get me through the city. I have forgotten the ways of the Kazakh, while neighbours with the Kyrgyz, they are way different. More distant, more cynic, more globally minded. And way richer. Now that I've lived in Kyrgyzstan for nearly three months, I can see the difference clearly. While in Kirghizia people live in mud houses without running water even in the capital, here it is less common and there is tap water even is some small cities.

As opposed to Bishkek, Almaty has some kind of architecture. Some parts of it are even beautiful and there are skyscrapers there. The bus costs more, the phone costs more and everything is more expensive of course. Kazakhstan is the model of success in the region if you don't count Turkmenistan of course but Turkmenistan is a fucking dictatorship. Kazakhstan also in a way, they have a president elected for life but nobody complains. Because democraties are a horrifying example in the region. The only actual democracy is Kyrgyzstan and it had two presidents who took most of the country's money, shot people and ran away. So when a president is good enough to actually run the country, people are happy to keep him in power for as long as possible. Because every new president is a new risk at chaos.
Almaty is not ugly at all
My cold is getting worse. And I am alone. I am trying not to take any chances so I have negociated some couchsurfing inside the city. I am counting 2 days gor the mongolian visa. Couchsurfing never works for me but this time, I've written to almost the whole site. I really need the place, I need some confort to get better and some rest before China which will be a great unknown. Miracle of miracles two people said yes to me. I will go to Uki Uki, a girl around my age living not far from the mongolian embassy. It takes me a while to get used to Almaty's transport system. First off, there are busses and not Marshutkas as in the rest of the country. Then, instead of paying to the driver there is a guy collecting money pretty much like beggars in Paris metro. Except you are actually expected to give money to this guy.
It takes me two hours to get to the rendez-vous place with Uki but she is very late so I still have time to look for the mongolian embassy. It's 4.30PM, of course it will be closed but at least I'll be able to get the opening hours on the door and apply for the visa the following morning. Afterwards, I'll only have to wait one day because the mongolian embassy has a reputation of delivering visas fast.
I can't believe my eyes: the consulate is actually open, not only is it open in the afternoon but the consul happens to speak english. Before, that is what I would expect of any embassy but now this is nothing short of a miracle. It gets better. I fill out my form, give 58 dollars to the guy and he prints me the visa in a matter of minutes. I love Mongolia, best embassy ever.

I meet Uki at some kind of big shopping center. I am tired and sick but we talk, she has lots to tell, she's a bit rainbow although she doesn't know rainbow festivals exist and half of the couchsurfers in Almaty appaearently come to her. She used to be a web programmer but threw everything away and became a yoga teacher. She gets good money out out it appearently and her appartment is european styled, it is designed with tast and it has internet. There is nothing to eat and I haven't eaten since morning but I have a place to sleep and that is everything I hoped for.
I don't have a lot of money. Just about 400 tenge from the 1000 that I got by exchanging my ramaining Kyrgyz money. I've already bought a sim card with it and enough credit to sent sms to Russia to Janela. So I really can't prolong my stay.
Me and Uki

The next morning I leave at 8 from Uki's appartment. It takes me two hours to get to the other side of Almaty in a snowstorm. It's cold, I am sick and snow is falling like crazy. But I am thinking that this kind of day is going to repeat over and over so it's a good time to get used to it. I start hithhiking towards the border. There are esentially 4 cities on the way: Issyk, Chilik, Chungze and Zharkent. After Zharkent it is really the border.
The police sees me and they say they'll stop a car for me. They start waiving their sticks and scaring the shit out of everyone just to get me a lift.
Policement hitchhiking for me
They get me a car to Issyk, a guy who is driving pharmacy products there. He is very nice, he doesn't hate me because the police forced him to take me as a passenger and he invites me home.
I hesitate a bit, I want to be at the Chinese border as soon as I can. But I am feeling very bad, cold, tired and I also hungry. I feel it would be stupid to refuse. My host goes to the market to buy some food, just for the occasion. He is very nice to me, has two children and a lot to eat. He has running  warm water in his house which reminds me that Kazakhstan is really much more rich than Kyrgyzstan.
My host's grandchildren
He cooks plov, a little different than the Kyrgyz version but still very tasty. I sleep great and feel a little better. It is still snowing but just a little bit. But I better hurry, I don't intend to register in Kazakhstan so I need to stay less than five days unless I want to negociate with the border officers again. And I don't expect short processing from the chinese side either so unless I want to spend the night at the border, I better get myself there early and legally.
I hitch several cars before I get to Chilik. Then, a bus takes me for free to the last intersection before China. I am now more east than ever before by hitchhiking. My last record was Janela's house in Tegizchil. But now I have passed it by a few kilometers.
The road is white with snow and white mountains around it. But soon the landscape and weather changes. There is a microclimate around Zharkent, the weather is warmer and no snow. And I am only 40 kilometers from the border, khorgos. I am really going to China! The first new country that I will visit without Ilona. My first boat hitchhike is approaching. In some time, I will be looking for boats from China to Korea.

Two more rides before the chinese border and then I see the first barricade. Some Kazakh army chieftain tells me I cannot go on foot. I am not surprised. I have read Remi's blog, the french guy I met in mountains around Karakol along with Clark and Miri and he writes how they had to pay expensive taxis through the border at Iktersham (Kyrgyz/China) and there just wasn't any other way.
No way I am paying for taxis. But the chinese are worse byrocrats than Kyrgyz and Kazkah so I am not so sure I will manage to have my way.
The chiftain tells me that I have to take a bus. I ask him if the bus is free, he tells me no. I tell him that I am going to camp in front of his border control cabin until he finds a free solution for me. A bus comes and he puts me on it among the passengers.
The bus doesn't have seats, it only has a lot of beds. People are randomly sitting on the beds and it is really unconfortable. But I feel like being in this bus is the safest choice because I look like an ordinary tourist and everybody likes ordinary tourists.

It takes forever to reach the Kazakh border. The road is full of giant buildings and fences with Kazakh emblems. Kazakhstan is really making a fuss about that border. They are building some kind of center for international cooperation and they are making sure tourists see it before they arrive to China. If this is the Kazakh side, I can't even imagine the chinese. Maybe I should have gone through Iktersham, Kyrgyzstan and tried my luck with the taxis.
At last, Kazakh control post. They ask me questions about where I was, where I will go and they process me. I want to go to the Chinese control but again, I must take the bus, say the Kazakh lady.
"Is the bus free?"
"I think it's 500 tenge (about 4 dollars)"
"And if I go on foot?"
"Then the chinese will shoot."
"Do they have good aim?"
"Surely better than ours."
Turns out the bus is the same one as the one who brought me to the Kazakh border post. I get in again and this time, it's the chinese border control with cameras everywhere and everything electronic. I have to fill out an immigration form which I hand to the border guard together with my passport. He just writes something in it with his pen, puts on a stamp and lets me go. He actually doesn't even need my visa, he just needs to take a photo with his camera, I am already in his database and everything is computerized anyway. He knows everything about my visa, about me, and probably can read my thoughts.
I exit the border post prepared to face buses and taxis and burocracy. But nothing. I am in china. I have done it without breaking any of my rules. The road is open.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

In the middle of nowhere

If you follow the main road from Naryn in the west direction,you'll arrive to Osh eventually. But before you arrive to Osh, you pass a high and snowy mountain range. At the end of this mountain range is the city of Kazarman. It is completly surrounded by mountains and inacessible unless you're ready to give it a whole lot of effort. West of Kazarman there is an even bigger mountain range and the road going from it is the most surprising, beautiful but also the most dangerous road in Kyrgyzstan. It goes way over 3000 meters and people die on it every winter.

Theo and John went through this way by bicycle and told me wonders. And I am going there now. The first ride I get is to Baetov, a city at the beginning of the first mountain range. Two young guys with sheep in the truck take me there. They buy me some dinner including a bug chunk of cold fat sheep meat. This is still the Naryn province. However I am not hosted anywhere so I sleep in a tent again. I am only 1500 meter high, so it doesn't get that cold at night.
I am just woke up at midnight by a guy who discovered my tent not far from his house and wants to host me but I'm too lazy to move my tent.

In the morning it starts snowing. I manage to pack my tent before the snow gets too intense. I want to continue west, direction of Osh but I get an unfortunate information; the road is closed by snow, nobody will go there. I don't mind but the problem with hitchhiking is that you have to be at least two to be stupid: the hitchhiker and the driver.
There is another road that goes to Osh, also through Kazarman, I have to get back a few kilometers and take it. People say it is open. It's a dirt road with absolutly nobody on it. I start walking on it. One car goes there, one car stops. It is a big truck transporting provisions to the city. The conversation repeats itself.
"Where are you going?"
"How much will you give?"
"I'm the only car on the road, you'll freeze and wolves will eat you"
"If such is my fate"
"Get in you idiot!"

So I get a ride all 70 kilometers to Kazarman. The mountain path is high and impressive, there is nobody going our way. It starts snowing again, the road is white, the sky also, the mountains too. We see cars going the opposite way.
"They are taxis going to Bishkek," says our driver. There is no bus going from Kazarman to the capital, the road is too hard. The only way to get there is by special taxi. By special taxi I don't mean a special car but a special driver suicidal enough to try this road in a normal car. In europe, they would probably use a helicopter. Some of these special taxis break down on the road.
We are pretty safe in our powerful truck. A car is waiting in the snow, a family comes out, they are signaling us to stop. The parents give us their three freezing daughters to take care of and we continue our way.
It takes us 5 hours to get to Kazarman.

"The road" to Osh is closed, the people say. The driver's son calls his friend, he can host me. His friend's name is Adlet and he gives me the impression of a very kind and incredibly naive person. He is 21 and I 26 so calls me "uncle Filip" and he adresses me with respect. When I tell him to drop the act, he tells me that he can't, respecting the elder is so deep in his education that not doing it makes him really uncomfortable.
He helps me with everything, he even zips up my jacket which is kind of weird.
They make a lot of manti; my last days in Kyrgyzstan are marked by my favourite dish.
Adlet gives me some "gamashe", a pair of pants to put under my pants not to be cold. It's a prescious gift.
The whole evening he and his family are trying to convince me not to take the road to Osh.
"Don't go there uncle Filip, please. You will die. If wolves don't eat you, you will freeze to death"
I tell them that I want to see, at least, if somebody is going there. Maybe I'll get a super-styled jeep like to Son-kol.

Adlet and his family let me go with worried looks at their faces. I leave for Aral, the only village west of Kazarman and the last bit of civilisation before the Osh region.
I get to the village with two guys who don't understand how I can get anywhere without money.
"The road is closed. You'll die there.," they say instead of goodbye.

I can't make a hunderer meters without meeting worried looks and people telling me that I am going to die. I start seeing a pattern there and I am thinking about actually not going to Osh. I want to try to have a relationship with Janela my fairy before I do something stupid.
But I want to try to find my jeep. I make the last kilometers of my way with a guy on a horse who is fascinated with my story and tells me that I am going to die but that he doesn't think that I am so stupid anymore.

I get a lift to the last intersectio but then my car is goint left to a nearby village and I just wait. The road is empty and quiet. There isn't much snow on it anyway but the snowy part is supposed to be 17 kilometers away and that's probably a point of no return.
Slowly I pack my things with the intention of getting back to Bishkek, there were enough adventures for today and I have to get my chinese visa.

The problem is Kazarman is a little bit like Son-Kol. It is difficult to get in and it is difficut to get out. All cars are leaving before 11AM to make it through the mountain pass and all these cars are taxis so they are no use anyway. A taxi from Kazarman to Bishkek costs 1200 som ($24), way over my budget which is zero.
It is already 12AM and I am returning to the village. A lot of people want to say hello to me because not many tourists come in the winter. I go pass them as fast as I can, no time to lose until I hear english. By english I mean real english, not the "hello me name Adlet what is your job?" type of english.
Her name is Gulzar and she is the vice-director of a school. She's 29 and is also an english teacher. Her english is about the level of a french high school student but it is outstanding for Kyrgyzstan. She wants to invite me home and I'm curious so I go. She lives there with her sister, her husband died two years ago and her sister's husband is god know where.
She likes me a bit too much actually. She takes me to school and tells her collegues that I am her boyfriend she met through the internet. I represent a kind of prize for her, she wants to show off with me. I think it is funny at first but then it makes me feel a bit unconfortable.
I tell her that I did volunteer work in Karakol and Bishkek and she wants me to teach her classes. I get grade 5 and 6, english class.
The children are very polite, they stand when I ask them a question and they don't make a noise. They really deploy a lot of effort into replying to my questions.
I ask them stuff like "what is your name?", "how many brothers and sisters do you have?", "how old are you?" and that's about it but it's a very good start.
Gulzar is very happy and takes a lot of pictures of the event. She then invites me to a show of disabled people. There are a lot of them because there is a mine in Kazarman with a lot of uranium everywhere, the place is probably worse off than japanese Fukushima except nobody bothers with the radiation readings.

Gulzar has to go somewhere, she leaves me the house for a few hours, I can eat whatever I want and she has a lot of honey and ayran, the kyrgyz yoghurt.
I also go to sleep at a reasonable time because there are only women in the house and they don't drink vodka.
I leave the village with Gulzar telling me "Don't forget me." Weird feeling.
I get a ride with to Kazarman with some people who forget that I am not paying them anything but I don't pay anything anyway. It is already 1:30 PM and there isn't a single car on the road east of Kazarman. Everything has already left in the morning. I manage to stop an old car, jigul lada transporting gasoline. It is driven by two happy guys who had a little too much to drink.
There is no space so I have to sit on the front seat, next to one of the guys.

"Don't be afraid," says the driver, "we are a bit drunk but we are not dangerous"
I tell them that I am not afraid, I am happy to get a lift.
They offer me a bottle of disgusting bozo which contains more of their saliva than the actual drink. They also have some bread, I take that.
After a while we make a stop for vodka.
They drink half a bottle in two people, I don't drink.
"Do you know why we drink," asks my seat mate, his name is Anameldin.
"No, tell me"
"It's because of the radiation... you know! There is radiation in the city, we drink vodka to help to live with the radiatioooon. And the roads... the bad roads... it shakes the car, it's difficult to drive. Vodka also helps, the car feels stable."
It really takes a lot of vodka to feel stable with this soviet-era car on a mountain road but then again, they drink a lot.
The car breaks down and it will keep breaking down every 5 kilometers. So between vodka stops we also have car repair stops. Car repairs consist of pouring water randomly over the overheated engine and then pushing the car backwards.
"Are you sure you will be able to drive after finishing that bottle?" I ask the driver.
"Don't worry man! I have an alcohol tolerence built over a whole lifetime."
He seems to know what he is doing, he is a rare good kind of drunk. He is constantly apoligising about his drinking behaviour and respecting the fact that I don't drink. He is worrying that I would be afraid because they are drunks but I don't see why. I have seen dangerous drunks, I feel completly safe with these two.
They are going a total of 40 kilometers to Dodomul, the first eastern village. We arrive in the late afternoon to the house of Anameldin's parents. It has only one heated room with a floor made of wood instead of mud and and only heated room also. It has no running water, no surprise there (even homes in the city don't have it) and it also doesn't have electricity. It is just a heated cabin.
They have a lot of milk products and they drink Ayran instead of tea, it's super tasty. Only unfortunate thing, they don't let me put jam inside my Ayran.
The men all drink vodka except me and they are starting to have a serious concentration in their blood. Especially Alameldin who now has trouble standing up.
"We cannot leave you here says the driver," it will be dark soon and it's too dangerous. "I will find you a place to stay in a family."
He invites me to a family to which he sells gas to. Kazarman is already a very remote city and this village is remote even by Kazarman's standarts. They don't have buses connecting them to civilisation, they don't have gas except what these two drunks bring them every week. They live on a high plateau in the mountains in very harsh conditions.
But I am pretty confortable there. The men speak russian and the women only Kyrgyz. When I put my tablet out to show them some pictures, nobody even looks at them. Their eyes are captivated by the strange device that I have just opened. They have never seen anything like this before. Phones are common,  smartphones are not rare either and if you search long enough you can find someone with a laptop computer but a tablet with a removable keyboard... never. I feel like an alien descended from the skies. One of the men takes my tablet and starts browsing through all my pictures. He doesn't really care about my trip.
"Devushky goluiy?" (Naked girls?), he asks with a retarded look at his face. He doesn't even speak russian properly. He looks like a little chieftain of a local group of assholes. He wants to browse through some pictures of Janela, I really feel bad about that, like he is stepping into my intimate zone. I take the computer from him. He has a retarded and surprised look on his face, he laughs stupidly.
"Have a little respect, she's my girlfriend!"
"She russian?"
"No Kyrgyz. Don't you see the slanty eyes, does she look russian to you?"
"She your translator"
"My girlfriend. Kyrgyz from Karakol. We are marrying next year." The latter is not true but this guy gets on my nerves.
"Hey everyone! This foreigner is going to marry a russian girl!" He yells in Kyrgyz and drinks a bottle of vodka for the occasion.
After a while my drivers also join us. They are seriously drunk now. My driver is happy and Anameldin just fall in front of the table into a pile of bread and Jam.
"Dooont driiink vooodka Filip it is baaad for you," says Anameldin.
"Calm down Anam," says the driver. And they drink and drink even more. They start singing songs in a very loud voice.
"I am still taking the car down to Kazarman," says my driver with a sure voice, "it has never betrayed me."
Anameldin is now sleeping on the couch, he is feeling sick.
"Mooooother, mooother!," he screams.
"Come on Anam, try to sleep!" says the driver.
They take the road after fifteen more minutes, completly drunk and in the dark of the night. I stay to sleep at their friends house in Dodomul.
The next day I start hitching at 9 in the morning. No car on the road. Only a guy who wants to take me for an insane amount of money and a huge truck that is being loaded. I run to the truck.
"Where are you going?"
"How much will you give"
"You'll die there, wolves will eat you, we're the only car on the road"
"If such is my fate..."
"Get in you idiot!"
And that is how I get a lift from the middle of nowhere to my friend's Nurbolot appartment in Bishkek. But not after being invited to a giant breakfest, to a restaurant and being given huge amounts of borzok

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Traditions of Naryn

I thought Kyrgyzstan is as exotic as it can get but there is still a strong connection to Russia in the Chuy and even the Issyk-Keul region. People speak russian, they are a bit civilized even though they sometimes live in houses made of mud. If you push it far enough, you might even see some european influance in the mix.
Naryn is different. I often see people speaking obly Kyrgyz. The woman's position is well defined, she often wears the Kyrgyz traditional scarf when she is married, her social status is clearly below the man and it is not rare that she has been stolen according to the tradition.
Traditions are strong and very much alive here in Naryn. Every breath you take is guided by a tradition.
People eat meat in Naryn. Fat sheep meat, all the time. They eat so much meat that they think that you die if you stop eating meat. Vegetarians in Naryn probably eat chicken. Narynians are very proud to eat meat. They are serving it as often as they can, in as big quantities as they can in a completly random preparation. Actually there is no preparation. They often serve you a giant bowl of cold sheep meat with a lot of fat and they wait to see your admiration because of the quantity.
Sometimes, instead of tea, they drink bouillon of meat, a soup they make by boiling fat and bones.
"We can eat 5 sheep in a day," says one guy I meet proudly, "we invite guests, and it's 5 sheep minimum. Mi-ni-mum."
After five seconds of living there, I get it, these people are proud of their meat. Naryn is also very cheap. A samsa is 10 soms here while it can be 30 soms in Bishkek. There is only one road in Naryn, it is about 10 kilometers long and the city is organised around it. Not more than 500 meters to each side, then the high mountains stop every attempt at civilisation.
Naryn is the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan but it has every aspect of a mountain village. Besides a few official institutions because it is a regional center, it is just an accumulation of farms and cows are running throught the streets. The whole thing is 2000 meters high, so it is pretty cold.
There is a river flowing through the city

I don't really want to put up a tent but so far it seems that I have no choice. The guys that brought me to Naryn left without inviting me anywhere, it is already 5PM and how the hell am I going to find a place to stay. I am not going to a hotel that's fore sure. My electronics are all runing low on battery. My camera is on half of it's backup battery, my phone is almost depleted and my computer is on about 20% of it's primary battery, the backup one being depleted.
Walking randomly on the street doesn't solve anything, I was kind of half-hoping somebody would invite me in out of curiosity. But it's too cold and Narynians are eating their sheep inside.
I look for a place to put up my tent. It is easy to get out of civilisation, even from the center, I just have to walk a few hundered meters to the mountains nearby. My phone battery dies while I am calling Janela. Me and her, we talk everyday. I think we are seriously in love. Who would have thought. I put my tent just outside the garden of a house. A lady comes out, I ask to recharge my phone and I get dinner.
She only speaks Kyrgyz, I don't understand a thing and after giving me loads of food she throws me out to the cold of the night. I put up my tent, I can't believe that I'm sleeping outside again after such a long time of being hosted. When I put all my clothes on, I can manage to keep a normal temperature  from 9PM to 5AM. Then, the cold wakes me up no matter what and I stay awake until 7AM when the sun goes up, warms the air a little bit and I can sleep again. So all things considered, the wheather is still kind enough to let me sleep in a tent.
However I am not staying in a place where fate is not kind with me so I buy a bunch of sweets, start eating them and prepare to leave towards Osh.
"Don't eat on the street, come to my shop!," says a happy hyperactive guy in an orange coat. I follow him, curious about what he wants. His name is Urlan, he was a soldier during the war with Uzbekistan. After having seen atrocities I couldn't even see in a movie, he quit the army after 4 years and started working in a shop in Naryn. The local mafia tried to shake him down once or twice but he and his good friend beat them up so now business is going well.
Urlan, my host during my time in Naryn
He serves me coffee, biscuits and I eat some fruits from his shop. He even lets me sell stuff because he thinks it is funny. Some customers are confused.
Me selling bread
When I tell him my story and that I came down from Son-Kul on foot, he invites me to his home and even pays fora Banya. Urlan is one of the most energic people I've seen in a while. He keeps running around, doing things, talking, he is always smiling and he eats a lot of meat. His wife is pretty as a picture and they have two small children.
The only bad new is, I cannot recharge my tablet. It just doesn't work. I think my charger is broken. The next day I look in all Naryn to find a replacement but nobody has seen such a charger before. Actually, they have never seen a device such as my tablet, I have the impression to be an alien here who arrived in a flying saucer with superiour technology.
Urlan says his relatives are going to celebrate the Kal'em, a ceremony where the newlywed husband gives horses, sheep or money to the bride's parents. The amount of money depends on the person wealth but ususally it is around $2000 which is quite high considering what people make. It is not unusual that people take credit to pay Kal'em. Actually, Urlan says, people take credit for almost anything.
"It's how we live, we can't help it. It's stupid, it ruins lives but we take credit"
Kyrgyz people take credit to celebrate a wedding, to buy a car, a TV, to celebrate a birthday and pretty much any celebration and then they spend their lives paying the credit back. Everyone knows credit means doom but they do it anyway the same way a smoker smokes pack after pack.
I don't know what Urlan said to the people but at this Kal'em ceremony I am invited to be the official photographer. I am running around with my small compact camera, constantly taking pictures of everything. People are gathering into groups, taking pose and asking to take a picture of them. Some of them are treating me as an object; just striking a pose in an uninteresting place with some uninteresting people and wanting me to take a thousand picture of that. I'm realizing that being a professional photographer requires a bit of self control.
Wife's family with eldest in the center

We are invited to the small table which is full of any kind of food that you can imagine in Kyrgyzstan (which is not actually not that much in diversity but a lot in quantity). There is borzok, thir oily bread, salads and a lot of different sweets. Everything is super-tasty so I eat all the time and a lot. I'm definitly not dying of hunger now but I have mongolia to get through so let me enjoy myself now.
Women are cooking like crazy in the kitchen. I realize that the kitchen is just some wooden cabin with a fire in the corner but they are making wondersthere. They brought two enormous containers full of sheep meat ready to be cooked.

Urlan says that organizing this ceremony usually costs more than the money the husband pays. So in the end, in spite of the husband and his ralatives gathering all the money they can get and taking credit, the bride's family doesn't make a single cent (or som to be exact) and also takes credit. Everyone lives happily in debt for the rest of their lives.

We are waiting endlessly for the husband to come. There are several times when we are called outside (it is getting cold) because he would be here any minute but then everybody waits, nothing happens and we go inside again.
"Make room for the photographer!" Urlan yells everytime. I try to get the best angles for pictures but it's not easy in all this chaos, people are running in front of  my lens all the time.

At least the husband comes. According to the tradition, they take away the rope in front of him and let his car freely pass.
It is a young guy with his best Kalpak on. He goes to greet the Khazai, the master of the wife's house, the girl's father probably. Everything is very ceremoial. I wouldn't say prepared or formal because these are Narynian peasants, you can't even think about formal when it comes to them. However, to my taste, everything lacks genuine feeling and is, as everybody repeats me, "a tradition".

Urlan explains to me a very peculiar tradition of stealing knife. You cannot give a knife as a gift, it means that you wish death on that person. You also can't buy a knife because people don't sell them. So your only alternative is to steal a knife. If you are a guest somewhere, it is commonly accepted to steal a knife for example when a person is killing a sheep and leaves his knife out of sight.
It is polite to leave a symbolic amount of money when you steal a knife but never the price of the knife. And nobody will think badly about a person who stole a knife. However, stealing other things is very tactless and they will probably beat you. But I didn't steal a knife.

People are starting to drink vodka and behaving like animals, I seek a calm place to text Janela, I am not really in the mood of discussing stupid stuff with drunks.
"In here we have this tradiiiition...," tells me a small ugly drunk for the thousandth time. He is always coming to me, hugging me with his breath stinking with vodka and saying: "In here we have this traditioooon..."

I have the impression that this party is more about losers getting drunk than about the newlyweds. If I ever get married, I will bring only close relatives who will have some understanding of the moment. No need for show-offs. Janela is on the same page with me on this.
"I'd rather eat half a sandwich with a person I love than to have a diamond." she always says.

I try to talk less to the drunks and eat more mati and random stuff instead. Not far from me sits the elder. He is about eighty years old but looks about eight hundered. He looks that he is about to die any minute now and everybody treats him with respect.

The guests from the husband's side go dine at the big table. I thought the little table was luxurious, the big table is even more. There are giant amounts of food and everybody is eating with the elder grandfather in the center.
Urlan serves vodka after a while but doesn't drink himself. His brother is an alcoholic and he doesn't need to mess up his head with this shit. On the whole, Urlan has his ideas straight, he knows what he wants and what he doesn't and he takes no bullshit from anyone.

In the end of the evening I get into an argument with Urlan's grandfather over dating a Kyrgyz girl.
"I'll tell you something, we don't need any french here. Kyrgyz girls are happy with our own guys."
"Obviously your guys, with all the vodka they are drinking, have forgotten to please one of their own."

The grandfather doesn't appreciate my replu but appreciates my character.
"You communicate a lot with your eyes," he says to me, "you are not afraid."
Urlan takes me apart, he tells me I should be wary of grandfather.
"Grandfather is a bad person. From any point of view. He was in jail for fifteen years. In Kyrgyzstan, when you go to jail, you are a bad person."

Urlan said that Grandfather likes me but that I should avoid any possible conflict by replying strictly yes or no to his questions.
There are interludes where we dance but it is frustrating how nobody has a clue of how to do it. I would not ask for salsa but any alternative to the stupid club-style dancing. Appearantly, people here don't even suspect couple dances exist.
The drunk guy who always hugs me comes dance with me and repeats:
"In here we have this tradition..."

The decision is taken that a sheep should be killed for the sake of the ceremony. They bring the poor animal, all people make an omen, it creates a weird atmosphere. The animal seems to be stressed out, perhaps it senses something. Four men take it and put it on the ground. It tries to get away but finally gives up. One of the guys pulls out a knife. Just an ordinary knife, nothing special. He has a wild look on his face, I think he likes killing this sheep a little bit too much. He has this wild look at his face. I wouldn't be surprised if he could kill a man and I wouldn't be surprised if half of the people present here kidnapped their wives.
However Urlan says the guy is a good guy, he is his friend and the ability to kill humans doesn't make him a bad person anyway.
He cuts the sheep's throat with an assured gesture. The sheep dies very fast and blood starts accumulating in the recipient they stuck under it. There was a moment I felt a little uneasy but just a moment.
I text Janela "they killed a sheep it's horrible". Janela is the most sensible person in the world, the kind of person who will reassure you if your throat hurts because you got a cold but now he just replied "come on don't be a pussy, it's their habit!" This kind of sheep killing seems to be as normal as breathing air.
"If you think this is bad, how would you feel if you seen a person's throat being cut?"
"Anyone would feel bad seeing that"
Urlan has an amused look.
"We've cut throats of the Uzbeks during the war with Uzbekistan not long ago. You get used to it. I can show you on video."
However the battery of his phone was dead and the video was on it so I didn't see people being cut alive. But I guess you can get used to anything.

I start to get tired and overeaten, I go find a place to sleep. Soon there is some girl sleeping next to me and I have to give her space because people are accumulating like sardines. There actually isn't enough space for all the people to sleep in the house. Urlan sleeps outside, in the freezing cold, I have no idea how he does it.
The next day we have breakfest: meat with fat with meat with a boal of oily bouillon to drink. Actually all the meat was good, I don't complain.

I am leaving Naryn for Osh now. Urlan's wife gives me a bottle of jam and a ton of borzok and also cookies.