Osh, Kyrgyzstan: a post-apocalyptic dump filled with squalid Kruschev-era apartment blocks, febrile, mosquito-ridden air, and regrettable food.
Two great mountain ranges encircle the town. To the north and east the Ferghana Range hovers above the city. From the south the Pamir massif pushes up, shrouding the city in a warm, orange embrace.
I need to leave.
A few days before I’d weathered a mob of people and machines crossing over the border from Uzbekistan. But the Kyrgyz side was sleepy, uneventful—not even a passport check.
Getting out, however, was proving difficult.
One escape is flying an antiquated Soviet-made turbo prop through the mountains, “not over them,” as the airport ticketing agent said. The other requires finding, haggling with and hiring a driver to take you to Bishkek through some of the most rugged, remote and beautiful mountains in the world. Weaving between glacier-filled valleys and sheer alpine cliffs in a white-knuckle inducing Volkswagen Bug with wings wasn’t my idea of fun—besides, I hate flying. So I chose the ground route.
Drivers making the trek over the mountains to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s capitol) congregate in a gravel parking lot full of rusted buses across from the main bazaar. Unable to cajole a single driver into making the trip over the mountains to Bishkek—each request was dismissed with a curt, “No, it’s too far!”—I broke for lunch around noon.
Super sized Bunsen burners topped with pots of bubbling broth and languorous noodles occupied stalls lining the bazaar. Blowing gently on a steaming pile of laghmam—a Central Asian staple of thick noodles in mutton broth—a deep voice boomed behind me.
“Ishmael,” he exclaimed.
Expecting a tout, I turned and found instead a leathery-faced, handsome Uzbek wheezing, “Taxi, Bishkek.” He caught his breath and pointed at the distant spires of the Ferghana Range.
“How much,” I asked? After a cursory bout of haggling we agreed on a price.
I trudged uphill with Ishmael along a narrow, tree-lined dirt lane. Walls surrounded the homes in the Persian fashion, his no different. The gate creaked open. Laboring over a washtub his wife smiled and rushed off towards the kitchen. She beckoned me to follow. Ishmael left in search of more passengers.
An hour later Ishmael returned with three strangers. Fatima was a striking, moon faced Uzbek woman with curious eyes, traveling from Andijan to Saint Petersburg to see her brother; Ilhom, a railway worker—“what railway?” I wondered silently—was returning home from a holiday with his elderly parents; and the Wrestler, a big brute of a man with no neck and fewer words never said what it was he did. His silent, brooding demeanor discouraged me from asking.
We darted through Osh’s crowded and decaying streets and soon pushed into the Ferghana Valley, skirting the mountains always to the East. A beat-up and weary old horse stood lonely by the roadside. Mule drawn carts, heavy with peasants in colorful dresses were followed by big steel milk canisters along the roadsides, targets for bored teens with stones. To the west, behind a smiling young boy dressed in white, grain fields spread out like a blanket of saffron.
After an hour on the road Ishmael parked between a restaurant and a small brook. We sat under an old sycamore tree, filled with Indian Mynas chattering in the branches like bored housewives. Leaves rustled like coffee beans falling into a can. Somewhere a mule brayed a stubborn lament.
I nibbled on my shashlyk—lamb kebab—. Ishmael and Fatima talked about Saint Petersburg and life before the Soviet Union collapsed.
“At least I didn’t have to travel to a foreign country to visit my brother? He wasn’t a foreigner then,” she said.
“But we make our own future now,” Ishmael replied.
“What future,” blurted Ilhom?
The table grew quiet. I sucked the last bit of meat off my kebab and tossed the bones to a skinny cat lurking under the table.
We piled back into the car and drove off. Many of the villages we passed felt abandoned, dusty. Others looked bucolic, Italianesque in the slanting light of late afternoon. Poplars lined flat gravel lanes. Grapevines infiltrated trellis-covered courtyards. ‘New’ mud-brick homes replaced old, crumbling Soviet-era housing.
The road into the mountains crossed a small tributary of the Syr Darya River, the ancient Jaxartes, where several young boys swam naked in the river. Shadows crawled across the valley floor.
The Volga crested a blind hill. Shimmering in the sun below lay Lake Toktu-gol, a large hydroelectric reservoir filling the Naryn River Gorge. It’s cool, marble-green waters powering the turbines that light up the night time Ferghana.
Withering heat blasted through the windows. Ishmael wiped his brow with a handkerchief. Fatima and Ilhom shuffled in their seats while the wrestler snored. I watched the passing panoply from the window.
Sage-colored brush dotted the chili-red soil. Jagged, snowcapped peaks grew on the horizon, indifferent to the whirring of cars on the road below. The few clouds that made it over the wall of mountains disappeared before my eyes.
And then dusk arrived, deep and pink, transforming clouds into mountains and mountains into clouds. Higher and higher into the Tien Shan the old Volga climbed. The silvery surface of Toktu-gol’s water faded into the night as the heat broke.
We stopped at a roadblock: my first passport check, now deep inside Kyrgyzstan. A cherubic young officer with a Mongol face and blue eyes waved us, AK-47 in hand, out of the car into a pitiful shack. Plaster peeled from walls surrounding a desk and stool, a single bulb clung tentatively to the ceiling. A teapot stood in the corner.
“Welcome to Kyrgyzstan,” he smiled, inspecting my passport. “Some tea?” he asked, “We don’t get many Americans here.”
I shot a pleading glance at Ishmael but he shook his head. “We’re in a hurry,” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and walked off.
We plunged into the chill Central Asian night; a full moon glimmered above morphing the blackness into dreamy shadows. The shack receded, until only a pinhead sized point of light remained a thousand feet below in the valley. High above now in the Ala-bel Pass (10,443) a parade of yurts lined the roadside. Lights waved in the keening wind, beacons of conviviality selling kumys—that toxic nomad brew of fermented mare’s milk.
“Kumys,” the Wrestler roared, stabbing a forefinger the size of a Churchill cigar at the window. Electricity surged through the car.
“I want kumys!” he said, his golden teeth reflected in the dim-light.
Ishmael ground the Volga to a halt. The Wrestler leaped out of the car, ambling off towards a yurt like a lame hippo.
I stepped out into the wind. Faint but urgent haggling came from the yurt. Moonshine ricocheted off the mountaintops, a kaleidoscope of black and white dancing nervously across the lunarscape in front of me.
“Halfway,” I whispered and the wind carried the word back from where I came: the rich cities of the Silk Road, Samarkand and Bukhara; the empty Kizil Kum, Baku’s oily Caspian shore; Tbilisi’s schizophrenic architecture; rainy Batumi and bustling Trabzon; Istanbul, the Golden Horn, the last home of the wandering Turks.
And then my thoughts turned Eastward: a night in Naryn, across the Aat Bashy Range, over the Torugart Pass; down into East Turkestan and ye old Kashgar; towards the dunes of Dun-huang and the Jade Gate; Tibet, the Potala; Kathmandu, and India, the Crown Jewel.
Ishmael touched my shoulder. “We must go,” he said in a whisper.
Conquered by the great ships of human commerce, oceans are now but highways for material goods. The skies, once reserved for the imagination, are now full of metal tubes hurled across continents in time for the late night news. Travelers now arrive in hours—at most days—to places that once were remote and unattainable. Once a luxury only the wealthy, or the extremely (fool) hardy engaged in, traveling is now a bourgeois pursuit, commoditized and indistinguishable from tourism. I’m not arrogant enough to presume that what I’ve done is any different from (or better than) those who descend upon enclaves safe from the locals, full of amenities and bereft of any but the most prosaic of challenges—the occasional bout of diarrhea notwithstanding. Far too many real travelers have come before to indulge in that kind of fantasy.
But the underlying virtues of travel—and travel writing—have not changed. Satellites may have mapped the Earth’s undiscovered country but the human heart remains shrouded, its motives unexplained, most especially my own.
Why have I undertaken these journeys?
After fifteen years, thirty-five nations and several hundred thousand miles I’m no closer to an answer than when I began. What I do know, the central truth, as it were, is the troubling knowledge that I find more acceptance and fellowship with foreigners than I do at home surrounded by family and friends. This seems to me the most important question of my own travels.
At a minimum it informs much of why I travel, that I’m more comfortable, fulfilled and content when I am on the road. The peculiar angst I call ‘modernity’ seems not to sting quite so much when I’m moving from one place to another, over a cup of tea with a well-met stranger, stranded in deep reverie or just puzzling over some architectural oddity.
Tellingly, such moments of recognition, connections across a cultural chasm most will never have the opportunity to comprehend, matter more than anything I’ve done at home. Nothing measures up. Perhaps it’s all in the connection with my fellows that I find so addictive. Suddenly I’m no longer alone.
But a profound paradox is at work here. It’s a lonely pursuit, travel.
At moments I’ve met amazing people, like Misha, a small, proud man who drove me through the Zerafshan Valley around Samarkand. A Soviet-trained engineer now relegated to driving a taxi for the occasional tourist, Misha was a warehouse of stories, jokes and anecdotes. He entertained me with humorous antics, charmed me with his wit and his prodigious knowledge of “Glorious Samarkand,” as he called it. Translating for me when my Russian failed, indefatigable in his introductions, proudly showing off his home, his glorious city.
Once in Bombay I witnessed the saddest, most tragic suffering I’d ever seen. A half-mile walkway leads out to a Muslim shrine standing in the Arabian Sea. Waves lap onto a jetty filled with the discarded dregs of humanity; a hopeless boy missing an arm and leg crawls towards me; a covered woman, burns clearly visible on her outstretched hand—begs for a single rupee. Some of them huddle in twos and threes, unable to walk, open sores oozing pus, moaning. A nightmare scene awaiting an Indian Dickens.
At other times I’ve seen works of stupendous beauty, choked up, tearful, spellbound—if only I could hold on to the moment forever, explore just how precious, how close to the heart of mankind this place is. What unifies each scene is the essential loneliness of the experience, be it tragedy or transcendence. Each is transient and none can ever be fully shared with anyone else.
But the rewards, those can never be stolen. Recalled at a moments notice they are a salve, a poultice applied to the cruel banalities of modern life. At times like these I find comfort in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s lament for the traveler: “Is not our first thought to go on the road? The road is our source, our vault of treasures, our wealth. Only on the road does the [traveler] feel like himself, at home.”
Rarified mountain air pours in the windows. The Kumys sedates Ilhom and the Wrestler. I can feel his thunderous snores even now. Fatima sleeps. I doze fitfully.
Late in the night a bump in the road jolts me awake. No longer in the mountains, the Volga speeds down a straight road lined with kiosks selling strange products at an even stranger hour: fireworks, ramen noodles, vodka, cheap Chinese electronis; all proof Central Asia remains a trader’s paradise.
We arrive at my hotel around 2:30 AM.
Fatima gazes at me in a puzzled manner and grabs my arm as I pull my backpack from the trunk.
“Where will you go next?”
I shrug my shoulders and reply, “Why not?”