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I don’t remember his name. Let’s just call him „Mister Five Thousand Benefits”. He joined us at the beach in Tong and, while sharing a watermelon with us, was trying to convert us to Islam.
I cycled to Tong by myself. Pashmina, with her knee hurting, could barely get her leg over the bike frame and decided to hitch a ride. So there I was, all alone, inhaling stinky vapors of Kyrgyz gasoline, passed by overloaded Ladas, old Mercedes and Toyotas imported from Japan, with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Every now and then there was a car with an open bonnet standing on the roadside and a whole committee was standing around and wondering what could go wrong and how to fix it.
The road was flat in a while, then a climb started. The day was hot, so I got quite sweaty, even though the climb was rather mild. On the way down there were signs informing about 12 % gradient, they were clearly false though. I saw plenty of them on the roads in the whole country. Maybe they just didn’t have any others, they just made them all with 12 %, because measuring the gradient was expensive. Only once, or maybe twice I saw one with 5 %. All in all, what difference does it make, 5 or 12. A hill is a hill, whatever.
The last stretch before Tong was a cyclist’s dream: smooth tarmac, going down. Kyrgyz „sea” was shining on the horizon and in the air, I could feel something reminiscent of vacation on the coast. Only seagulls were missing. There were eagles floating around the road instead.
I was riding on little, muddy streets with a bunch of potholes and eventually arrived at the address Pashmina sent me a few hours ago. I entered through a large, light blue gate into the yard, where the drying laundry was fluttering. A young woman in a colorful scarf on her head greeted me and lead me up the creaky wooden stairs. I threw my stuff on the bed and went to shower. The water was dripping quite sluggishly, but I managed to wash away dust and sweat and freshen a bit. A babushka, probably mother of the owner, with a big notebook with yellowed pages came to the room. I paid her for my stay, which she noted in her notebook, drawing each letter carefully and thanked me, showing her gold teeth in a smile. I went down and asked the owner about the way to the shop and the beach where I was supposed to meet Pashmina.
– Roza will show you the way.
Her 12 years old daughter came flopping on the concrete with her flip flops. She took her bike and with a cheeky smile said: – Let’s go!
She looked smart and feisty, was quite talkative as well. The store was only about 200 meters away, but on the way there she managed to tell me a lot about herself: that she likes reading and going to the beach and asked me where I came from and if it was tough to cycle.
In the freezer, I found a huge chocolate cone. I should probably eat some real food first, but the cone looked really tempting.
– Do you like ice cream? – I asked Roza.
Her big brown eyes glowed. We left the store, each with a huge cone in her hand and lazily headed towards the beach.
It was quite crowded, most of the people seemed to be locals. There were yurts where you could buy watermelons, samsas, shashliks, beer and drinks. Kids with baskets full of snacks were walking between sunbathers – great offer for those who find it difficult to lift their butt and walk 30 meters to the yurts. I bought a greasy samsa with potatoes, to eat after the bath. It was nice to take a dip in the warm water, feel the waves massaging strained muscles and finally lie in the sun, hoping that it will even out the cycling tan at least a bit.
– Watermelon? – a guy from the blanket a few meters away took a place next to us, introduced us to his companions, asked us the standard questions (where are you from? how long are you staying? how do you like Kyrgyzstan?) and started an auto presentation, taking a break every few minutes to offer us another piece of watermelon.
He worked in some big Japanese cosmetics company in Bishkek, hence his perfect English. While he was talking about himself and answering our questions about Kyrgyzstan, he pulled a twig from his bag and started to bite it.
– It’s Miswak, a Muslim toothbrush – he explained before we even asked. – Good for your teeth, good for digestion and plenty of other things. The scientists have found proof that using Miswak has five thousand health benefits. You need to buy it too, you can get it in the shops next to the mosque. And by the way, what do you guys believe in? Because, you know, Islam is really great. It’s proven by scientists that praying five times a day has five thousand health benefits.
His incredibly factual arguments, even supported by the strong argument of delicious watermelon, were not really convincing for us, but we nodded politely. What’s the point of destroying a nice Sunday rest by a religious debate? Eventually, Mister Five Thousand Benefits and his mates packed their blanket and their baskets with food and drove back to Bishkek, while we went on a walk to Not-Skazka Canyon.
We didn’t have any specific itinerary when we started our journey through Kyrgyzstan. There were a few must-see places though. One of the items on the list was Fairytale Canyon, or Skazka Canyon in Russian. But first, accidentally, we discovered another one. My favorite (however, obviously not infallible) Czech app mapy.cz mislead us by suggesting that the Skazka Canyon was a walking distance from the Tong beach.
Although we figured out that it’s a mistake and the real Skazka-Canyon is 26 km away we went for an evening walk to the place that definitely wasn’t Skazka Canyon. At least we’ll see something else than the stuff from guidebooks, that’s exciting. Not that we were some big explorers. But who never felt the satisfaction and a tiny bit of absolutely idiotic superiority because of not being a „regular” tourist and traveling „off the beaten path” let him first cast a stone.
Actually, it was quite nice to have this whole labyrinth for ourselves. It wasn’t probably World’s most impressive canyon, but the red rocks were shining pretty in the rays of the sunset. Cotton and some thorny bushes were doing surprisingly well in this rather harsh environment. I needed to bend down and almost crawl to avoid the prickly twigs.
We went back to the beach. Sipping the beer we bought in one of the yurts we were watching some kids mooring a boat. The sun was already gone, but it was still hot. I could feel the smell of coming rain in the air. Some Latino hits were coming from a club nearby. It was like a seaside holiday, anywhere else in the world, although we weren’t at the seaside at all. Definitely different than I imagined it to be in Kyrgyzstan.
– Excuse me, can I talk to you guys for a while? – we heard a thin, quiet voice. A girl with beautiful, thick, black braids and a round face was standing next to us. – Because I would like to practice my English and I don’t have many opportunities to do it.
I was really impressed. She was 13 and approached three adult strangers, with no timidity, trying to have a conversation in a foreign language. It reminded me of the time when I, as an insecure 13 years old went alone to visit my German uncle Klaus. I was nervous every time I had to say something, even to people I already knew. Not to even mention strangers. But our new Kyrgyz friend was clearly more self-confident than me at her age. She asked us a bunch of questions and told us about a guesthouse her family just opened – and she was much more laidback than teenage me answering uncle Klaus question Hast du einen Kavalier? and wondering all the time if I’m making some grammatical mistakes or if my accent sounds terrible.
I went to real Skazka Canyon the next day. For one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions in the high season, it was quite empty. I mean, there was quite a crowd of visitors, but they all concentrated on one rock – the one closest to the parking place. One could just get out of the car, take a picture for the gram and drive off, instead of, like me, sweating while exploring the rest of the canyon in almost 40 degrees heat. Obviously, like a complete idiot, I didn’t have any cap or bandana with me and took just one small water bottle. After an hour of walking on this frying pan, I started to feel dizzy. I poured the rest of the water over my head and walking slowly reached my bike left at the entrance. I greedily drank what was left in the other bottle and headed to the grocery store. With two bottles of ice-cold water, a round loaf of bread and a salty chechil I rested in the shadow of the first tree I saw to recover.
The closer to Karakol, the greener it was. The desert landscape was being replaced by some vegetation, at first quite weak and dried, then juicier. Cycling felt hard, even though the route was easy, almost completely flat. Just the tarmac was full of potholes, the cars were polluting the air and the sun was burning. To fight the crisis, I decided to put some music on. While Eddie Vedder was singing about the big hard sun beaten on the big people on the big hard world I saw snow-capped mountains on the horizon. For some strange reason, it moved me a little.
I headed to Tamga. There was an old fighter plane standing next to the road. I would like to seem smart here and write that it was a MiG-21 or other Tu-128, but the truth is I don’t know anything about the planes and in fact, I’m not even sure if that was a fighter or a bomber.
I cycled up the hill and started to look for accommodation. Along the main street, there were some posters hanging on the poles, pictures of some people. Looked like election posters, but kind of like from a different era. The town was quite sleepy. Little white houses with colorful painting around the windows and a wooden, also colorful upper part were standing in the orchards full of sweet apricots and apples.
A thunderstorm started when I was on my way to the groceries. I came back with a jar of expired tomato puree, pasta, grapes, some cookies and a bottle of beer. Shop’s assortment didn’t give me a chance to compose a more nutritious menu for this evening, I didn’t feel like playing master chef anyway. Streams of muddy, brown water washing away the dust from the streets were flowing in a ditch along the way. It was wet and melancholic and somehow strangely familiar. Like a typical Eastern European stick. Almost like home, but five thousand kilometers away.
I eat my simple dinner under a tree in the yard of Guesthouse La Dacha. I picked some fruits from the branches bending under the weight of thousands of apricots and went to enjoy the luxury I hadn’t have in a few weeks: my own room with a big double bed. I tried to relax but I had this disturbing feeling that everything on that trip goes wrong. It was supposed to be wild, outdoorsy, in the mountains, in the tent. Adventurous. Meanwhile, I was sleeping inside again, after cycling only 45 km on a normal, flat road and it felt nothing like the Kyrgyz hardcore I imagined when I was planning that journey last winter. On the other hand: fairytale canyons, lakes big like a sea, azure blue water, red rocks and snow-capped peaks on the horizon – don’t be too picky, miss Chmara. If it isn’t good enough for you, if it’s not adventurous enough, you’re definitely a spoiled kid.
To add some element of adventure the next morning I decided to stay away from the main road for a whole and check out some little roads instead. As a result, my bicycle after two kilometers looked like a little pig, all covered in mud. There were huge puddles, one so deep that I fell into the mud with both feet. Adventurous as hell. Luckily shoes dry fast in 30 degrees and after a few minutes, the only thing left after this whole incident was a thick brown shell on my shoes.
I was looking forward to reaching Karakol finally. I hoped to get my tent fixed in this touristic center of Kyrgyzstan, to go for some decent trek in the mountains and in general to get this whole trip back on the right track. But first I wanted to chill out, using the fact that, according to the weather forecast, it was supposed to rain heavily in the next days.
I should have read before what the guidebooks were saying about Karakol: it’s a city where most of the tourists spend most of their time. If you don’t have too much time, don’t stay too long. Maybe I would be more careful. Ignorance is bliss, they say, so I arrived at Duet hostel and carelessly lied down in the hammock hanging in front of a yurt that was my dorm. I took a deep breath and enjoyed the fact that I don’t have to go anywhere for now. And so the gravity (which is somehow stronger in Karakol, I can swear) hit me. I got stuck.