Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A day traveling

Armed with our forward visas, Tim and I were ready to leave Bishkek, and headed for the bus stand to catch a shared taxi to Jalala Bot. We have moved up in the world since India's buses! A shared taxi is a comfortable, inexpensive way to travel. They charge per passenger, and leave when full. After picking up a lady with her two kids, one boy and one girl, we started off. The boy is riding in the hatch back.

Within a half hour of starting out, the taxi driver asked us "Americanski", followed with a shouted "Boosh, Boosh". This was starting to sound familiar! Then using very simple language we could understand "nyet, hrusho! nyet hrusho." Not OK, not OK! He softens his opinion of our current president with laughter. We are laughing to, and agree with him. Soon the whole car is filled with the chorus "nyet hrusho, nyet hrusho." The driver says "Iraq" and then his hands are off the wheel as he is driving down the road. He is shooting off an imaginary machine gun, to the right, the left, the right. This is familiar, too. The sounds he is making are not quite as accurate as the machine gun fire that the nomads son made in the yurt back up in Jetty Oguz valley.

The drive to Jalala Bot is about 4 hours, and goes over a 3500 meter mountain pass. The pass is covered with ice and snow. No one has chains and as we climb we see trucks stuck on the road, tires spinning on the ice. Drivers are shoveling dirt from the ditches to try to get going again. Next we start passing cars that are stuck. Thirty or forty of them. It seems we are the only ones still moving, dodging around all the obstacles in the road. If we have to stop, we are finished! A sand truck goes by. Not a sand truck mechanically spitting out sand like we have in the US, but a truck full of sand and men, tossing it out with shovels as fast as they can.

We reach the tunnel at the pass and the driver is proud of his car, laughing and patting his dashboard and making spinning motions with his hands as he points back to the other cars. "machinya hrusho" I say. Car good. Tim is afraid that we will be jinxed because of our laughter at the other cars. We come out of the tunnel to more steep grades and ice. For once, we are driving slow. Everyone is nervous. We pass three cars that have been in minor accidents on the way down. Later we will pass a horrible wreck, with a truck on its side burning so hot we can feel the heat as we drive past. There were no medical vehicles, so we think the driver probably made it out of the vehicle before it burst into flames. Finally we are down from the pass and normal driving practices resume. In Kyrgyzstan, people prefer to drive on the opposite side of the road at high speeds. We pass several completely wrecked cars displayed on concrete posts. These displays are throughout the country, Kyrgyzstan's most visible efforts at combating drunk and/or wreckless driving.

Later we stop for lunch. Tim stays outside eating leftovers while I go in with the taxi driver and the family. "Borscht?" I ask the waitress, who brought no menu. She is wearing a headscarf and a long, red, crushed velvet robe. "Nyet. Palgmi" She answers. "Lagman?" I ask hopefully (its a dumb question. I know all she has is palgmi). "nyet, nyet. Palgmi." She is irritated now. Everyone in the restaurant is eating the same greasy dumplings filled with mystery meat. The boy has been riding in the back of the hatchback tells me it is goat meat. Well, he does not actually tell me; he puts his hands to his head like horns and makes goat like sounds.

After the meal, which was as bad as I thought, we started off again. We slow down every once in a while for the herds of animals going past. Sheep, goats, cows, and big, beautiful horses. The taxi driver is teaching me all the names in Russian. He is being incredibly funny about it, shouting and pointing and laughing. When a dog runs out in front of the car he points and shakes his fist and screams "Sabuca." I can't stop laughing. Tim is in the backseat, oblivious, listening to Mandarin Chinese. We can hear him every so often say something like "ne how."

Scenery races by. Mountains, grassy expanses, a large lake. Villages, yurts, railway cars converted into homes. Men in tall white and black Kirghiz hats. Women in bright colors with handkerchiefs tied around their heads. Children in black and white school uniforms. Finally we reach Jalala Bot and it is time to find a new home for the night.

When traveling, it is the small experiences that happen every day that I love. Occasionally you will have an experience, such as seeing a wedding in Zanskar, that opens up a huge window into the culture. But usually, the day is filled with tiny things-small kindnesses, things that make you laugh, and experiences that open up just a tiny peep hole into a culture and lifestyle different from your own, and show you a bit of how your own culture looks through the eyes of others.

Some scenery along the way

The burning truck

Our taxi driver

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