Settling within Kyrgyzstan
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
That night I’d gotten what I came for.
Sitting within the circle of a nomadic sheep-camp, I looked upon the elderly camp matriarch, as she sat in the glow of a yurt-side dung fire.
The eyes of two generations surrounded us, curiously staring at their new strange arrivals. I lifted a spoon and stirred it randomly, poking at a pot filled with a murky gray river water. Near the bottom sat a kilo of lukewarm macaroni.
“Is it boiling yet?” my like-minded co-rider Christoph Fladung asked. “At this rate it should be ready just after we’re all dead,” I responded sarcastically.
One of the matriarch’s daughters, wearing a flowing pink dress, sash and headscarf, noticed the problem and began to move – her Kyrgyz features an electrifying mixture of Asian and Russian descent.
She reached for a nearby pile of cow dung, then grabbed a handful before opening a small iron door near the bottom of the stove. After she’d thrown in a stack of the flat, circular discs, the noodles came to a boil, and within moments, we moved inside a tent. There we stared down an enormous plate of pasta set upon a brightly colored blanket. We took off our shoes and sat down.
Before digging in, the elderly patron of the camp ran his hands over his face, thanking Allah for the meal the two strangers had provided. After a 20-mile climb, Christoph and I tore into the tasteless meal like the livestock that surrounded us. When we were done, the grandmother reached for the handle of a long stick that protruded from a deep container at the foot of her bed. Within it, she sloshed a pungent concoction of fermenting cow milk – a mildly alcoholic swill known as Cumos.
“Dude,” I said solemnly to Christoph, “I am NOT drinking that!” knowing of the micro-organisms the dairy brew was capable of containing.
“Whatever …” he said apathetically before tilting the cup of semi-transparent liquid into his gullet. The grandmother’s eyes alit. “Mmmmmm,” he said, with little conviction. Then grandma turned her eyes toward me. She held out the cup.
“Rahmat, nyet,” (“Thank you, no”) I said in a mixture of Russian and Kyrgyz, before graciously waving it off. When dinner was over, we stepped from the tent, and I was visually overtaken by the reality of my surroundings. I traced my eyes along the hillsides, up the inky-black silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. At their peaks they met an inverted blue basin of stars that sparkled brilliantly within the sky. I tilted my head back and took in the vastness of the milky way.
“How amazing is this?” I queried Christoph, adding, “I think I’ll sleep outside tonight,” I said.
“I have always dreamed of sleeping in a real yurt,” Christoph confided, before saying goodnight, then slipped inside one of the circular felt domes.
After I climbed in my bag and stared out the netting of my simple half-hoop tent, I returned my gaze to the depth of the night sky. As I did, it became apparent that the dreams of these two-wheeled gypsies had somehow been answered. It had all begun in Osh, where we’d rolled across the border through a scattering of sheep, avoiding the maniac cab drivers, and the all-too-common drunk usually blitzed on cheap Russian vodka.
As we made our way beneath a towering statue of Lenin, we continued along the banks of a litter-strewn river, where children splashed within its odorous brown pools. We parked our bikes in a local guesthouse, then walked to a central park.
There, elderly Kyrgyz men in tall white hats gathered to play chess, while 20-somethings courted in outdoor bars sipping beer and large-screen TVs blasted out videos by the latest Russian rap stars.
After four days passed, it was time to move on. On the way out, we came upon a large industrial area that housed a succession of monolithic abandoned buildings – huge ghost-like remnants of the former Soviet Union.
Three days later we pedaled a mountain landscape dotted with herders, horses and yurts. There the asphalt tipped skyward, sending us vertical before it chattered to dust.
We slogged forever-upward through powdery switch-backs, negotiating the ankle-deep dirt, until we reached what we thought was the top of the 11,880-foot Taldyk Pass. With some consternation we looked on as the road dipped again, then climbed another 1,200 feet before it reached the final crest of the double-summit pass.
After an all-too-short descent into the eastern town of Sari-Tash, we made our way to what we were told was the town’s single-most guesthouse. We watched as a woman emptied an over-sized storeroom of gas cans, rubbish, and a 40-pound container of raw meat – before she laid-out our bedding for the night. Shortly after that, our privacy flew out the window – or door to be more exact. It seemed there was no lock, or even door-handle on the door – which meant self-invited members of the community would randomly burst into the room unannounced.
Once there, they would find our more interesting pieces of travel gear and begin fondling. When they became bored, they picked a spot in the room and resumed staring at the strange new foreigners like a pair of new-found zoo animals. This went on late into the night. The next day brought a 50-mile stretch of road that just made you want to cry.
Rough and rocky, it slowly loosened the bolts on my bike rack, before backing all the screws out of my camera lens. Just short of shaking my molars loose, we crested over a ridge, where a pint-sized posse of Kyrgyz herder children bolted toward us through the low-angle light. Like the thousands before them, they hoped merely for a chance to meet us roadside.
When they did, their parents took notice, and waved us over to pitch our tents near their ridge-top yurts. Only this time it was a camp-spot so picturesque, it made the scenery from the film “The Sound Of Music” look like South Central Los Angeles.
After we’d erected our tents, our host showed us to another, where we were encouraged to pull from a steaming-hot platter of freshly-carved sheep’s liver. Upon shoveling a hefty spoonful, I realized that the dish was interspersed with a complement of slippery-fried intestines – all of which took the consistency of a a rubbery-wet garden hose – and slid hesitantly from my palette to my throat.
But after two major passes, and three days eating instant noodles, I began to take a liking to it. Then, just after sunset, I again climbed into my sleeping bag and stared out the netting of my tent. While I did, the miniature members of the camp laughed, giggled and played.
Predictably, a re-occurring worry came to the fore. Anxiety that revolved around my inevitable return home. But there among the children’s laughter, an emotional settling took place, and the worry slipped away. And all at once I could give a poop about what the outcome of my return would be.
Whether it would bring me a life-time soul-mate – or whether my work would bring me riches and fame. Whether I would go down as a great photographer or writer, or make a million dollars thereof.
What I’d really hoped for watching those children that night, was that somehow, somewhere, I had touched one hardened heart – that through my words and stories I’d somehow intercepted one’s hateful views of another. And if so, within a tent in the hills of Kyrgyzstan, my work on this planet had been done.