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The International Writers Magazine: Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan

The Shortest Distance
• Jans Schaper
By the time I get to Kyrgyzstan I have been hitchhiking for several months. Though I've never been the type of person to over-prepare my travels, by now I barely think ahead and just let stuff happen.

That's how one morning I find myself staring at the start of a road somewhere in the Kyrgyz mountains. The road doesn't exist in my travel guide, which only shows a large loop made by the main road to the north, but Google Maps shows a shorter yellow line on my phone screen — good enough. Following this yellow line will transport me east from the Toktugal Reservoir in the west towards the town of Chaek. I look ahead at the road a four yard wide dirt track. It doesn't look like very busy track it is. It's a very pleasant July day. I have two liters of water and two packets of  crackers. I am prepared for anything.

A half hour  later I am squeezed into an old Kamaz truck. It's hard to determine its age; it could be Soviet but it may be just a few years old. Like many Soviet-era designs, Kamaz trucks posses a paradoxical quality: while on the one hand they appear one hastily taken speed bump away from total disintegration, they are also completely indestructible. We are transporting a horse to town about 20 kilometers away. I wonder if it should be the other way around — the animal looks in better shape than the vehicle.

After another short ride I'm walking up a mountain. There is very little traffic, but I look over my shoulder to see three cars approaching. The people in the second one let me ride along. We stop at a scenic point where I can make myself useful as photographer for the group of about twenty people. I learn that they are all relatives, but can't figure out the reason for them all being on the road together. Though my Russian has gotten a lot better these last few months my vocabulary is more or less limited to the topics people quiz strangers on: family, work, housing etc. This leaves plenty of room for misunderstandings. Eventually we ride and park among a few cars and horses — we've arrived at some kind of gathering.

Swets for Funeral

One member of the family tells me that I can probably join them for lunch, but that she has to check with the host first. She also tells me what the gathering for, but she uses a Russian word I'm unfamiliar with. 'What is that?' I ask. 'When a person dies...' she replies, hesitantly. 'Oh,' I say. She tells me to wait in the car while she looks for the host. My immediate thought is that I should leave — there are surely few things more inappropriate than gatecrashing a stranger's funeral. But on the other hand when will I have another chance to be part of something like this — a traditional Kyrgyz funeral, and isn't it equally rude to sneak away? So I sit tight.

As I wait for the woman to come back I frantically leaf through my pocket dictionary to see if it lists how to express condolences. It doesn't. I am way out of my depth. As the brother of the deceased welcomes me, he explains that his younger sister has died of cancer. I try to express my sympathy. For once the fact that I have the opposite of a poker face helps me out. He figures out what I'm getting at, thanks me and leads me into a room full of women sitting around a big table filled with fried dough and sweets, the first of many meals in the next few hours.

My tourist Geiger Counter is soon going full tilt — I desperately want to figure out what everything means. Why do the men seem to be crying more than the women? What was going on when we were in the yurt and all the women were draping shawls over the shoulders of what I assumed to be the dead woman's mother? But I realize that acting like an overenthousiastic anthropology student would make me an asshole, so I don't ask questions. I feel awkward and guilty enough just being here.

Outside a few people gather. Soon I get invited to spent the night too. 'There are wolves in the mountains,' one person comments. Not looking forward to the possibility of burying another 30-something woman, the group asks if I have anything to protect myself with. They laugh off my pepper spray. 'That will only make them sneeze,' one guy remarks disdainfully. I'm also told that there is little traffic between our location and Chaek, and that the only people going there are the Chinese  working on infrastructure projects in the mountains —  'maybe 'll give me a ride' my hosts suggest. An elderly man helpfully draws his eyes into slits to illustrate what I should be looking out for.

Early the next morning I receive two bags. One is filled with Central Asia's favorite dish, Plov a mixture or rice, vegetables and sheep meat. The other bag is filled with fried dough and sweets. An hour or so later I'm driving to the top of the next mountain with a Chinese man, in a Chinese truck. The driver works for a Chinese company. We talk about Dutch tulips and Angela Merkel's chancellorship, he seems remarkably well informed for someone making three hundred dollars a month driving back and forth through a small stretch of Kyrgyz mountains. He too warns me about wolves. Once again I dig out my pepper spray. We stop at a camping site for the Chinese workers. He asks around but nobody is going to Chaek. So I get out and start walking. A little while later I realize I've left my spray in the truck. I consider going back. But I figure that the likelihood that the guy has already left is greater than the chance of  being attacked by wolves.

After a while I run into two goat herders by the side of the road. They give me some tea as we start up some small talk, but I decline the chance to go over to their yurt and try out some fermented horse milk. It's only morning and I don't want to get trapped by somebody's hospitality quite yet.

It takes a while for the next ride to materialize. And when somebody finally stops, he doesn't understand Russian. Not a word. He understands my intentions though. As I get in, the smell of Chinese food hits me I am able to say 'thank you' using one of the only two words of Mandarin that I know. We drive from one small construction site to another, at each of which Chinese workers are putting up a transmission tower. At every stop the driver takes out a tub from the car — we are bringing the workers their lunch. By early afternoon everybody is fed, and we part ways.

Traffic is thinning — and there wasn't much to begin with. Yesterday I was still in an area with permanent habitation and a small trickle of cars, but my ride this morning took me over a mountain pass that appears to have cut me off from civilization. When a truck finally stops and offers me a ride, I take it even though it's just for a few kilometers. I climb in the back and take a few pictures of my fellow passengers. But after I take a tumble, I decide that the back of a Kamaz truck on a bumpy road is not the best location for a photoshoot. As I climb out the driver asks for money. Since he offered me the ride and I was just glad to see any kind of car at all, I forgot to ask if the ride was free. He wants the equivalent of five Dollars, which — considering the short distance and abysmal comfort level — is a sum that would make even the most shameless Kyrgyz taxi driver blush. Still, I am in the wrong for not sorting this out before getting in the car, so I give him the equivalent of fifty cents and walk off.

It is hard to imagine given the isolation of the location, but I next come to a fork in the road. Google Maps is not detailed enough to tell me where to go and I end up picking the wrong route, something which I only figure out after a good hour's walk. I take a shortcut back to the right road, which is when I run into a nomad on horseback. At least, I assume he was a nomad — I haven't seen a house since before crossing the pass that morning.

Road When I get back to the road I'm supposed to be on I see why I chose the wrong one. Tall grass grows  in the middle of this road — it looks as if it's hardly used at all. A family riding a single horse overtakes me. Father in the middle, son in the front and wife, holding a small bird sitting at the back. The man asks if I need help, but I tell him no, and we part ways.

After another few minutes a jeep approaches. It's the lunch delivery guy from earlier; I guess he must be out delivering dinner. He at least manages to deliver mine — when I was with him earlier the bags of food the family at the funeral had given me must have fallen out of my backpack.

He can only take me a few kilometers, but if I hadn't taken a wrong turning earlier, I wouldn't have bumped into him at the end of the trip, crackers and offers of fermented horse milk notwithstanding. I follow the hairpin curves up another mountain for a while, but it's getting dark so I roll out my sleeping bag in the hope that the wolves will stay away.

For most of the following day I only encounter two cars — both are headed the wrong way. One guy stops to invite me into his yurt for some fermented horse milk, but I decline. And though I regret it now, I do the same the several other times when I'm invited into people's yurts. Maybe if the proposal was made closer to dinner time I wouldn't have been able to resist but for some reason I end up walking in the most depopulated areas when night is approaching, and when the offers are made I still want to believe that I can get back to a place with a phone signal that same day - I want to avoid delays.

But I also turn down the invitations because I figure there wouldn't be much to talk about. The people at the funeral were mostly from cities, and as exotic as Bishkek may seem it still has traffic jams, apartment buildings and organized sports clubs. I don't particularly care about these subjects but they provide something to fall back on when conversation dries up. But even if my and my host's Russian were good enough for an in-depth discussion on the life cycles of goats I doubt I could sustain the conversation long enough to finish a bowl of fermented horse milk.

By the evening I run into some Chinese trucks and assume I have got through the most isolated stretch of the road. Figuring I don't want to arrive at my destination at night, I sleep outdoors one more night. I wake up having once again not been eaten by wolves before hitching two consecutive rides with Chinese-company jeeps to my destination. It has taken me three days to get from Toktugul to Chaek, a distance of just 120 kilometers as the crow flies. The shortest distance between two points is not always the most efficient way to travel, but sometimes it can be the most interesting way. And I didn't event have to break into my crackers.

© Jans Schaper February 2015
follow Jans's Journey here
schaperjans at

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