“I’m getting married!”
“Wow!! where’s the wedding going to be?”
“Lina wants to get married at home, so Kyrgyzstan.”
Reeling, I try to muster something appropriate.
“Was hell booked?”
OK, think I might have missed on that one.
“Where is Kyrgyzstan? What is Kyrgyzstan?”
“It’s central Asia. Until the 90’s it was Russia, and it’s where Lina is from. Do you think you and Sherrie can make the wedding?”
“Let me check tickets and such. Send dates when you have them.”
With our conversation concluded, I began digging up everything I can find on this area.
After 30 minutes on the al-gore’s intertubes, I’ve found just about everything on the country. It borders China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan….OK we’re full-up with stans.
I can only find a pittance of trip reports on the area, and I’m picturing guys with turbans riding horses dragging goat carcasses into circles…while celebrating by shooting each other with AK’s at the hang-the-white-guy after-party.
I manage to get Tim on the phone a few weeks later after checking ticket prices and tell him Sherrie and I are in for the trip, but I have some questions.
“uhhhh…..do the have electricity? Do ATM machines work? Do they take credit cards?”
Tim seems exasperated.
“Yes, it’s a modern city…well modern for central Asia”
“I read the country is about 80% muslim, do we need to get Sherrie a beekeeper suite?”
“No, Bishkek isn’t that muslim.”
Super. I’m thinking Sherrie’s ultra blond hair isn’t exactly going to blend in a place which is a stones-throw from Mongolia, and I’d prefer to not have stones thrown at her by the locals.
It takes a couple days of trying and a few hours on-line with Orbitz to secure tickets. The flights would show up, but somehow the ‘OK buy it’ button wasn’t working.
A sweet southern Orbitz travel assistant and 2 hours later…Voila! Tickets to central Asia. At $1700 a piece, this isn’t going to be cheap. To be fair, we’re heading 13 time zones away from Denver, and it’s literally half way around the world.
As a note, Bishkek is slightly ahead of us…being as it’s tomorrow there now. The flights to Bishkek takes 2 calendar days as we booked it, and right at 30 hours as the clock ticks.
I secure some Ambien from my doctor. I will have to sleep on the flights to avoid sleep-deprived-homicidal-joe arriving in Asia.
I’m not typically a happy traveler, and I have a feeling this trip will be a good test of patience….Mine and Sherrie having to put up with me.
The weeks fly by, and as it turns out, I’m going to be the best man in the wedding. Sherrie is going to be the wedding photographer.
I’m somewhat hesitant to put $10,000 worth of camera gear in a backpack and head to a place where the 2005 GDP was $2,000 USD. It’s Tim, so we buy insurance on the gear and hope for the best.
The flight plan:
Denver -> Frankfurt -> Moscow -> Bishkek
Tim has booked us a hotel and a driver. He and Lina will meet us in the airport.
OK, we’ve got tickets, a vague plan with no backup, and hey, we get to go through the Moscow airport…what’s not to like?
Game Day….Game On!
As we load our bags into Travis’s truck-a-saurus and start down 470 to the airport, I can’t help but wonder, how do you prepare for 24+ hours on an airplane?
I’ve got earplugs and Ambien, so I think I have a good start, but wow, this is going to be a lot of sitting.
We get to Denver International Airport with only mildly soaked bags from the shower we drove through on the way. We have our bags extra-duty wrapped in plastic for security….with the post 911 thing going on, I didn’t know they still let you do that. But hey, those bags have a looong way to go, so why not?
The flight to Frankfurt Germany was good and efficient. Contrasting heavily with domestic flights, there was always someone with food or drink coming down the isles, and a decent selection of movies.
A meal, 2 earplugs and an Ambien later, I sack out.
We get to the drab gray airport which is Frankfurt, and enjoy more of what Tim has dubbed:
‘Almost German efficiency’
This is the phenomenon where 95% of something is very-well-thought out, but there’s a 5% glitch. This glitch makes the system suck just as much as something with no thought put into it.
The airport has a look of corrugated tin and old steel. We follow a flock of people and navigate to our to-Moscow terminal. As we start to head to our bus everyone starts shoving to the front. We’re not in a hurry, so we hang back a bit. We hand the ticket taker our tickets and get:
‘Please stand aside.’
‘We need to verify you can get a visa to Moscow && Kyrgyzstan’
‘We don’t need a visa for Moscow, as we’re just passing through the airport. We can get our Kyrgyzstan visa in Bishkek.’
‘Yes, we just need to confirm you can.’
Great. Our bus is outside and idling full of passengers to our flight. We watch Heinrich-the-concerned try to walk a new airline attendant through the navigation of the various computer screens with the grace and speed of a retarded eggplant.
Grrrr….We can’t miss our flights….or rather we really don’t want to. There’s only 1 flight a day from Moscow to Bishkek and we have no way of getting a hold of Tim or Lina if we’re delayed.
We finally get the green-light and get on the bus to our plane….ahhhhh…
We board the plane and get to our seat. There is an older, well dressed, grumpy turnip in our seat.
“Hi, you’re in our seat.”
The turnip looks at us and starts miming something, but isn’t moving in a manner consistent with getting the hell out of our seat. I’m still trying to be nice, but after the heart jump start a few minutes ago, I’m OK with lifting her into the isle, lock stock and frumpy barrel.
“Hey that’s super. You’re in our seat.”
?? OK, let’s go diplomatic. I grab a russo-germanic stewardess:
“Get her out of our seat.”
“She needs to be there.”
“No, she needs to get out of our seat. Why does she ‘need to be there’?”
“She has a broken foot.”
“Does that seat fix her foot?”
“uhhh..please, let her sit there.”
Great, yet again, I’m stuck on an international flight with some older hag who bumps me every 30 seconds. I swear, on my flight to Italy last year, I would have paid big bucks to upgrade the twitchy fat mid west cow next to me to a colicky two year old. This lady apparently had to touch or bump or brush me every minute, regardless of what she was otherwise doing.
Is this my karmic punishment? As I get older, do older overweight women become the replacement for the previously ever present shrieking kid near me on flights? I ponder this as I mull the conversation I had with a British pilot a few weeks ago:
“Aeroflot….I’d never fly Aeroflot….better hope your engines have oil in them.”
We get to Moscow, and I’m looking forward to our Aeroflot flight to Bishkek. The moment our wheels touch the tarmac, people dive into the baggage bins and start yanking their bags down. As the plane stops, there is an immediate pressing crush of humanity, frantically shoving and elbowing to get to the front of the plane. The cockpit door isn’t open yet. I look outside, and it appears we’re all going to offload onto a large bus to get to the terminal. It doesn’t seem to matter when you get off the plane, but everyone is damn sure trying as hard as they can.
We enter the Moscow terminal from our concourse and step out of traffic to try to get our bearings. There is a smattering of English signage around, but the signs aren’t making a great deal of sense. The vast majority of people are forming a mosh pit in front of 4 ticket-booth style counters. Two of the booths are marked ‘internal transfer’ and two are marked ‘international’
The mosh-pit seems to be almost completely headed to ‘international’
Are we internal, or international? this is an interesting question.
Until 1991, Kyrgyzstan was part of Russia, but now is separated. Did the airport get the memo?
We’ve got four and a half hours to wait, so we join the back of the shifting crowd and wait. with the time we have, we can afford to be wrong a few times and not miss our flight.
As we stand there, We assess the crowd. Directly in front of us is a guy straight from a Russian mob movie. A small poorly shaven rat-faced man with heavy stubble, complete with a sport jacket, Adidas warm up pants and Adidas sneakers. Next to him is his portly wife. A woman of equal height and girth with a face for kickboxing.
As we’re looking around, the rat-faced stereotype moves to his left about 3 feet, kicking his bag sideways. His wife shuffles left as well. What happens next is hilarious. The rat-faced guy kicks his bag forward a few feet, then right again…directly in front of a broad shouldered man in his early fifties. Rat-man and leather-face have just unsubtly stepped in front of the guy directly in front of them.
I’m amused. We have that time. I take stock of the broad-shouldered guy. I’m impressed with the coarseness and volume of hair growing out of his ears.
The broad shouldered guys lights up the area with thunderous Russian accented English:
“What the fuck are you doing? You did this same shit shoving to the front in the last airport!”
Rat man and Leather Face are trying to pretend they don’t know they just shoved in front of the guy directly in front of them.
I’m thinking we’ve been in Moscow for 5 minutes and we’re about to see a fight…cool.
As we watch the screaming match unfold, one of the two ‘internal transfer’ counters is completely empty. The line situation is getting a bit more important, as we watch several planes offloading, and the airline workers are moving with the deftness and skill commonly reserved at home for the DMV.
Sherrie does a quick watch-the-stuff, and I hang back near the quarreling folk as she asks the ‘internal transfer’ woman what line we should be in. I look to see Sherrie waving me up to the empty counter.
The otherwise unoccupied counter worker answered the difference question for us:
“It doesn’t matter, all lines are all the same”
So despite the signs, above the counters, every line works the same way….but of course.
The woman checks our passports and gives us our boarding passes for our flight from Moscow to Bishkek. We walk past a security scanner and enter the terminal proper to assess the airport.
The first things we notice is there is no where to sit. People are smoking on the steps to the upstairs, and we decide to take a lap to see the rest of the airport.
Like Kansas city airport, the layout is a ‘c’ or semi-circle. In Moscow, there is an upper smaller c which overlooks the lower floor. Duty-free has taken over every square foot, including potential lounge area. Security is clustered into an every four gate affair.
Moscow airport has strange copper tubes across the ceiling. Each tube is burnished copper red, about 8 inches across and about 6 inches long. they completely cover the ceiling. we walk in search of which gate our flight has through the smoky airport, aflood with plasma screens declaring ‘Duty free!!!’
Plasma must be big, as at every security station the gate assignments are up on large plasma’s. We make a loop, and can’t find our gate yet as it’s not posted.
Well 3 hours left, no worries there.
We finally find the main flight and gate schedule board. It’s top center, but it’s old school style flipping numbers on a bland brown backdrop is easy to miss in the high color and flashing lights of everything else.
As we walk around, we soak in the ambiance of the airport and people. Faces are taciturn, noticeably absent in anything approaching southern hospitality. Everyone appears grumpy and suspicious.
On the upper deck we see brits with beer, fish n chips and decide this might not be a bad way to pass an hour. We sit in the larger of the two large rooms serviced by this restaurant. There are a total of 2 girls working the entire floor at a medium-slow pace. Complicating our service is a walk up coffee bar, which the girls give pre-emptive precedence. In computer geek speak, we’re getting starved for cycles.
We decide if they can’t get us a menu in 18 minutes, we have little hope of getting food anytime today. We decide to head to ‘the other’ restaurant in Moscow, the Maharaj restaurant.
How bad is your service when people leave when they have no where to go?
The Maharaj turns out to be not much better. That said, it’s much smaller and easier to corner the snarling chubby servers. I order chicken Kiev, it is Russia after all. The food is awful. No really, it’s bad. It’s making our airline food appear to be a delicacy.
A Marie Calendars frozen tv dinner kicks the crap out of what they are serving. After choking down a few bits of really really bad food and waiting about 30 minutes, I end up chasing a server into the kitchen so we can pay the check and get out.
The people in the restaurant give a good cross section of the people, and apparently America doesn’t have a total lock on fat. Many of the Russians could use to spend some quality time on a treadmill. I’m not sure if this has to do with wealthy Russians being fatter than average. By and large, the travelers on this day were obviously wealthy, and none too slim.
Capitalism is alive and in your Duty-Free!-face in the Moscow airport. Everywhere has blazing ‘Duty Free!’ and thin chain smoking dour faced young women manning the shops.
It’s close enough to boarding time. We find our gate and go through security without incident.
Both Sherrie and I have that weird timeless floating feeling which comes from being so far out of your native time zone. What time is it? midnight? noon? time to sleep, eat, run? Everything floats by in a semi-detached foggy miasma.
Sherrie and I were assigned separate seats on our flight from Moscow to Bishkek. I have a window with a thin attractive Asian woman next to me who is apparently from America as well. Sherrie got the short straw. She is bricked in by an older fat Russian couple. The older guy keeps trying to talk to her in Russian.
I grab a pillow, put in my earplugs and nod off.
I wake as the plane settles into an easy touchdown at ~4:30am Bishkek time. There is the same moronic crush forward again…to wait on the bus…again. This is idiotic.
Get to medium sized generic travertine floored, one size fits every airport room with flickering cheap fluorescent lights.
There is an empty booth labeled ‘Consular Affairs’ in the corner rimmed in by glass.
We get to the end of the line where everyone else is stacking up to be processed by a line of tired customs agents.
We get to front of our line, but the agent is having none of it. He vaguely waves toward the empty room and mumbles ‘over there’
We join my nice Asian woman from the flight and a Brit who are all doing a close-to-China fire drill around the room trying to figure out what/where/how.
Sherrie finds the forms to fill out to apply for a Visa. We all fill them out and stand back in line. As the Brit, Sherrie and I wait to talk to the customs guy, The Asian woman grabs a guard and fervent gesturing ensues.
The guard can’t speak English, and she can’t speak Russian, but he REALLY wants to help her out.
It’s got to be rough being a nice looking woman.
The guard finally nods his understanding and heads to the empty glass room and violently pounds on the glass while shouting. About 30 seconds later, a bleary eyed guy stumbles out and hand writes the four of us our Visas….all for the low low sum of $35 USD….cash only. Cash only? USD? Wtf?
Now with freshly minted Visas inside, we head back to now-empty customs line and get our passports processed.
We’re the last people in the area all share a common sentiment:
‘Hope our luggage is still there.’
The Brit is in town for mining expedition. We exchange laughs as we leave the room heading toward luggage.
THANK GOD!!! We pass the exit, still crowded with people, and see Tim and Lina. We wave to them then hook left to our baggage.
As we arrive to find our plastic clad luggage on the carousel, we are greeted by an Asian man.
‘poskos? Come with me!’
We grab our bags and head past security and baggage scanning toward the press of remaining people outside the airport arriving area. Uhhh, this guy must be cool or something, we just bypassed a few steps. No time for that, WE FOUND THEM!!!
I crush Tim to me as Lina and Sherrie greet. I’m meeting Lina for the first time. I decide to be reserved.
I pick her up squeeze her and spin in a few circles while yelling at the top of my lungs.
She gasps for breath and guides us away from the arriving terminal toward a car.
“Did you have any problems getting your visa and such?”
“No, just took a while to get the guy woken up.”
“Oh, ok. The guy who found you near baggage and walked you out is a fixer. We thought they might be giving you a hard time so we sent him to go get you.”
“Welcome to Asia.”
Nice to know a cool $50 can get you past process and security. Warm fuzzies about airline travel are abounding.
As we walk out, straight to business, Lina’s not messing around.
“I don’t like our driver.”
Tim and Lina had hired a driver for us, but apparently the deal was going south. The driving brothers had rubbed everyone the wrong way, even early in the proceedings.
We haul our bags the short distance to the aging Mercedes taxi outside the airport. Piling our bags in we decide breakfast, coffee or whatever, it’s all good. We’re so jet-lagged, we are ready for anything, up to and including a complete blackout.
Extra grumpy driver + old Mercedes == whew!! We drive from Manas ‘fru’ airport. The ride into town is beautiful at sunrise. A low mist hangs over the green fields. The early morning light shines a pale yellow illuminating the beautiful Himalayan mountains which tower over the city of Bishkek.
Back to the drive, Lina warns us about the ‘sudden swerving’. Apparently the cab drivers have a mental map of the potholes which infect the cities, and are quite prepared to swerve violently to avoid them.
We can’t check in to our hotel until at about 10am. It’s 6am now. We drive through everything from a gutter slum to well appointed areas, usually in about 2 block intervals. We’re heading through the light early morning traffic at the speed of a meth-head going down MLK blvd on payday. At about 7am we arrive at the Asia Mountains hotel. This is a nice property, complete with a yurt outside. A yurt is the traditional kyrgish residence whist herding animals around the mountains. Picture a round fabric tent. In Kazakhstan they are called ‘gerts’
We’re too early to check into our rooms, so we decide to drop off our bags in Tim and Lina’s room and head to breakfast. I have not ‘used the restroom’ for about 10 countries, so avail myself of Tim’s bathroom….segue to Seinfeld.
I flush, and almost 30% of the toilet waste goes down the drain…..uhhhh…huh? OK, i’ll wait for the tank to refill. OK, there’s not water….not for the sink, not for the toilet…not for the tub…nada…if this was a Ben stiller movie, I’d try to fix this or ignore it…but hey I’ve seen enough cheap comedy cinema to fall into this trap…
I offer sheepishly…
“I killed your bathroom and there’s no water, if this was a Ben stiller skit, I’d have a makeshift plunger and a badly soaked striped shirt by now”
“oh, no water?
“Nada…and let me just say I apologize for what I did to the bathroom….”
“Yeah that happened yesterday”
“They said something about this being the 3rd floor, but don’t worry, you’re on the 2ND floor”
“Great, but I still killed your bathroom, and Sherrie and I could use to clean up a bit before we head out……”
“Try the downstairs bathroom….it’s near the pool out back….they haven’t filled the pool yet…another week or two”
We head out back past the empty pool to the changing room which consists of a small, fungus smelling area with a toilet which is only edemic to Europe and Asia. picture a hole in the ground with a place to plant both feet so you can squat over it.
We shave and clean up quickly in the manner you’d find common to most north America bus stations and head back up to visit Tim and Lina in their room.
“Let’s get breakfast, it’s great to see you!!!”
He has no idea. We didn’t have a phone number, can’t read the signs and have no plan b for finding the two of them….yeah, this no-water-killed-the-bathroom is at most a minuscule setback in the big picture…
Breakfast at the hotel is not yet ready, but we find a nice appointment of tea and nescafe waiting for us. Apparently in some weird west/east translation, nescafe is the best of what western culture has to offer in terms of coffee. Yes, freeze dried crap is what we’ve proudly exported….go figure…no wonder a good portion of the world wants us to fall on our collective faces… Poo poo Starbucks all you want, their coffee doesn’t suck.
nescafe == America coffee
“yup, everything you get over here is instant coffee…and they are quite proud of it….”
I’m still punchy and make a joke about:
“just a pinch between your cheek and gum gets you going”
Spooning shot after shot into the small cup. My energy levels have just crashed, and something has to beat this fatigue….
We decide to head into the city to pay for the hotel, but the place isn’t open yet….go figure… we decide to walk around Bishkek a bit, then pay for the hotel when the office opens.
I don’t like having to carry the cash for our hotel on us. It feels like we’re going Tijuana with all the money in the world…..this place is unreal. Weird-great to weird-awful in meter increments…one property is a great place to lounge, while the people in the next hovel are striving to put food on the rotting table.
As we head out, we notice there are noticeably no rules to the converging honking mess of the city. Left lane, right lane, my lane your lane green, red …whatever.
Since it’s morning, we beg off another cab and head out on foot.
Strange looks follow us on every block. The small brown Mongolian people appear content to stare, point and shout in our direction.
We pass the time and Tim fills us in on recent Bishkek events. There was an insurrection at the capital last Thursday. Over 1,000 people charged the capital to oust the current kyrgst president. The military was called in to put down the protest and the person processing Tim and Lina’s marriage paperwork gets fired as a result of last week’s uprising. They are back to square 1.
As we head the 10 or so blocks from our hotel to the city, we keep a sharp eye for careening drivers, potholes and mantraps in the form of 15 foot deep holes in the sidewalk. It’s easy to see what’s paying for what, as old beauty meshes with rot-rot-rotten and building renewal on a house by house basis.
A bit of somewhat recent history on Kyrgyzstan, as related to us by Lina.
After the soviets abandoned the city, a Russian guy was elected president. By most accounts, he was a good guy, but he was Russian. After years of oppression, the kyrgs didn’t much like the Russians. The kyrgs ousted the president, and elected a local kyrgyst boy. Turns out the krygst boy was as corrupt as your average Miami politician. He hired his family and friends to run everything, and so as you look around the city, you can get a good feel for which of his relatives were competent and which were also-rans.
The city has been in a multi-year slide from competence to …well what they’ve got now.
As we walk out of our digs, we don’t get many pics…..the area around the nice compound where we’re staying is….a bit rough.
Sherrie’s carrying a Canon EOD 5D which represents several years salary to most of the people of Kyrgyzstan. Pulling out the camera doesn’t seem like the best idea.
The walking tour of Bishkek is a combo of bold political and historical icons seemingly everywhere with overgrowth and rot around them.
Bishkek could do with some lawn work and road repair like no ones business.
Tim points out in several of the statues, the Soviet policy of ‘cult of personality’. According to Tim, when the Soviets would take over a place, they would put up statues honoring local heros and such, but would morph in Soviet icons to create subtly hybrid visions. Local hero…Soviet style.
Check out the Mongolian face, and trappings of Russian military uniform.
Throwbacks to old days are seen everywhere and not just in the statues. A small asian looking woman is sweeping a section of the sidewalk, with a straw broom….literally. The broom was a swath of yard long straw with a string around it, tied to a handle.
After walking, we stop by the travel office and pay for our hotel…in cash of course. Nothing so far takes credit cards…even our hotel. Luckily Tim has warned us of this in advance.
I’m going Tijuana-style with my money. I’ve got ~$600 USD on me, and in a country where the annual GDP is about $2000, this might represent a tempting target. Forget the money belt, I’ve got the bulk of my money in my shoes, with about $50 in the left pocket and a bit in the right as well. Figure if we get robbed at AK point, we can always give them a pockets worth of $$$ and not be out too much.
We keep our passports with us at all times, as the police can demand to see them at any time.
We head to a restaurant Lina has chosen for lunch. Traditional Krygyish food. We can’t read the menu, so Lina orders enough food to kill us all, in a sampler-makes-better approach.
Kyrgish food seems to be dumpling and noodle heavy, and the lunch is awesome.
Lunch is served on the kyrgyish all-in-wonder furniture. Picture a fouton on steroids. You sit on it, it changes into a couch, table and just about everything in between.
Service is dour as a potentially nice looking older Asian woman and Lina bark at each other in Russian.
The check comes, and I offer to split it with Tim. Tim is having none of it, but I manage to see the total….it’s about $10 USD for the feast we just consumed……wow.
The local drink is fermented mare’s milk, and it’s offered on many of the street corners of Bishkek. Having read about this interesting beverage before coming, I made it a point to tell Tim “we’ve got to try it”
We get 3 cups of the fine stuff for Tim, Lina and I. Sherrie waves off.
I take a sip….and try to maintain a straight face….
“how is it?”
“you should try some”
I’m trying not to puke as I give the cup to her to take a sip. Tim has tried some and is all but falling over….
Lina looks at us with an incredulous look.
“This is good!”
Sherrie’s face puckers like a catchers mitt and we all give our nastiness in a cup to Lina to finish.
Holyfuckingshitbatman! That should not be in a humans mouth!!!
Mucus thick with an oily olive-esk garlicky after taste.
The only things I could think of are:
Swamp Donkey + Linda Lovelace + Olive oil == fermented mares milk.
This taste will not go away, Altoids be damned.
We run a few more errands via cab. Cabs are a flat ~70-80 som anywhere in the city…about $2.25. we pick up Lina’s dress and drop it off at our hotel. We then drop Lina off to get her manicure and pedicure for tomorrow’s wedding and continue walking around Bishkek.
Sherrie and I both are a bit out of it. Bishkek is 13 time zones off from Denver and 3pm local time is about 2am back home. having spent 30 hours in planes and airports, we couldn’t tell whether it was time to sleep, eat, run or whatever….so walking around Bishkek it is.
The streets have quite a bit of traffic on them, and everywhere we go people are using their horns to negotiate the traffic. Tim, Sherrie and I ignore a constant beep-beep-beep while we’re on the sidewalk and almost pay the price. Street cleaning machines consist of a tanker truck blasting high-pressure water across the road. Traffic and pedistrians beware.
We narrowly avoid getting soaked as we side step at just the right moment.
We stop for more nescafe and it’s close to time to get Lina. Sherrie and I are darn near asleep on our sore feet. we’ve been walking for about 7 hours at this point.
We turn down the street to Lina’s manicurist and are greeting with a few hundred military spread out at about 4′ intervals down several blocks. ….uhhhh wtf?
Turns out the president of Kazakhstan is coming tomorrow, and the government wants to avoid any demonstrations. Everyone in Bishkek is referring to the Kazakhstan president as “borat”….OK that’s funny.
We get Lina and decide to get some food. We’re headed to somewhere Tim and Lina are referring to as the sports-complex.
“It’s just up a few blocks”
25 minutes later, Sherrie and I query about the actual distance to the restaurant….at $2.25 for a cab it’s seeming like a steal to get off our feet.
“Just another block or so..”
8 minutes of brisk walking and about 1/2 mile later, I call a halt to our excursion. Tim and Lina are having a debate about where the restaurant is. Tim says just south, Lina says just east, I say cab!….
“I’ll pony up for a cab…..get in now!”
Turns out, the restaurant was only about 3 blocks further, but the $2.25 was about the best money I’ve spent in some time.
We head out to a nice gazebo covered area in back, and service is prompt.
We go nuts on the food ordering a variety of shashlik. Shashlik is basically a meat kabob without any veggies. Great drinks pave the way for great food. the service is friendly and prompt, and the live entertainment is actually nice. A talented singer and a good band and we’re in business.
A 3 hour dinner with appetizers and 8 or so rounds of drinks for 4 people worked out to be about $70….i could get fat here and still have the money for liposuction.
We pile into a cab, and a short ride later, we’re back at our hotel.
We pass out as Lina heads to her mothers house.
6am and Sherrie and I have stayed in bed as long as we can. Nescafe downstairs and a nice continental breakfast.
Tim’s a bit nervous as he can’t seem to get a hold of Lina.
The paperwork is still up in the air, but they decide to have the ceremony, paperwork or not, then sort out the bureaucrats as they can.
Tim and I get dressed, and Sherrie snaps pictures of us suiting up. we then proceed outside, for some fun-pics in the yurt.
Tim’s long time West Palm Beach friend and fellow army guy Danny arrives. We pack a nervous Sherrie into the car which had just delivered Danny.
Sherrie is understandably on edge as we put her, and about $10,000 worth of camera gear into a non-English speaking taxi who is supposed to take her to Lina’s house. Given she has no way of contacting Tim/Lina or anyone else, can’t read the signs, doesn’t know the city, this is a bit nerve wracking.
Off they go, and Danny, Tim and I hang out at the hotel. Tim is jittery and offers:
We head into the hotel, and try to convey to the cook in the kitchen that a bartender is in order. The bar is on the side of the kitchen and we manage to get drinks in short order.
The video camera chase car arrives, and as per tradition, Tim, Danny and I decorate the truck.
Our limo arrives and we assess it and the driver. the limo is an old-school Lincoln type, with a short, non English speaking, gold toothed Mongolian driver.
We’re off, and even in the 11am not-so-hot heat, the limo is hot. We crank the AC and only get blasted with engine warmed hot air. We settle for rolling down the 2 working windows and focusing on what’s next.
I’m the money holder for the day. As we were getting dressed, Tim handed me a thick envelope and said.
“That’s about $5,000. Hold it for me. I’m going to need you to change some of this into som before we get to Lina’s mom’s house”
We steer the limo through Bishkek toward a known straight money changer. Pulling over in traffic and in the middle of a gawking crowd, Danny and I pile out of the limo all business and radiating menace. Apparently two guys of our size in black suites == Russian mafia. The crowd cuts a wide isle for us to move through.
We get to the money exchange place, and I’m swapping out about a years local income from USD -> som. The money exchange guy looks Russian, which is to say dour. He refuses any of the bills have marks on them. Even a pen-point of ink on a bill gets it sent back our way, and god forbid someone might have stamped it at some point in it’s life.
“Duvai!!!” Danny yells at the guy when he hands back the 7th or so rejected bill. I think it translates to “enough!” or “whatthefuck!”
It’s nice to see things work both ways, and much of the som we get back looks like it’s been through a food processor.
Danny and I head out of the mall, and spot the limo parked on the opposite corner. Tim is glowering outside. Apparently our friendly Mongolian driver didn’t like the heat either, and had locked Tim in the limo with the windows up and turned off the Limo.
“I was close to kicking out a window”
The inside of the limo has to be pushing 95 degrees now.
We get in, roll down the windows and go to “buy the bride”
As the limo springs graunch their way down a used-to-be-paved dirt/chunk street, we see the building in question.
The bridal party is waiting for us at the door. They look great, and I’m quickly introduced to the maid of honor, Lina’s brassy sister and Danny’s wife Alla. Next to Alla is Lina’s other sister the minx-grinned, smirking Mila.
Alla defiantly holds forth an apple with about 30 toothpicks in it and challenges:
“Find the short one. For each toothpick you select which is long, you must say something nice about the groom”
I grin and pull the first toothpick.
“Tim is loved by children and small animals”
I pull the 2nd long toothpick.
“He is the fastest white man I knew in college” …
At the 17th toothpick or so, Alla looses her patience and starts ripping out 10 or so spluttering.
“Yes, Yes Yes..He’s good looking, good in bed….yes yes we get it”
I’m down to my last 3 or so, and it takes until the 29th toothpick to get the short one and graduate to the next round. I think Alla might pop at this point.
We now all start up the blue concrete staircase, but get stopped by the next game.
“We’re going to ask you some questions about the bride, for everyone you get wrong, you must pay”
The questions fly in this central Asian version of the newlywed game.
Alla is stern, and reprimanding us when we get wrong answers. wrong answers are costing us about 100-300 som each ($3-$9) for about a 1/2 flight of stairs progression.
We enjoy 5 flights of fun, with questions or tasks on about every 1/2 flight of stairs.
Alla is acting on behalf of the bride, I’m acting on behalf of the groom. I’m admittedly working at a severe disadvantage when standing up for Tim, as I don’t know the customs, and am not sure of the exact intent of the games.
But first, a requisite monkey face from Tim to avoid having to pay!
We get to flight 5, and we’re there. We enter the small but well kept soviet constructed apartment. We’re guided to the living room. I first have to spell out Lina’s name in money on the couch. Again, I’m at a disadvantage. should I go super cheap to save the groom money, go big to impress?….it’s Tim’s money and I have no idea where this is going or what a ‘good deal’ for all involved might be.
In retrospect, I think the money is a tradition to help the bridesmaids defray the cost of a wedding, but then again, no one is throwing cue cards at me.
I think I ended up spelling out Lina for about $100 USD, which is waaaayyy cheaper than if I had spelled out her full name which rivals most Hawaiian road names with the sheer number of syllables.
Alla then guides us to the last challenge. there are 3 colored ribbons hanging down from the top of the door, and Lina is hanging on to one of them. Tim must pick which ribbon Lina has or:
“You must pay!”
First pick is money, though I think Tim talking to Lina’s daughter loudly outside helped his odds quite a bit.
Lina comes out, and looks absolutely beautiful.
Everyone gathers back in the living room for hors d’oeuvres, champagne and general pleasantries.
Alla grabs me conspiratorially with the handful of cash she collected from the bride naming adventure and pulls me to the side.
“How much should I keep….30%?”
Again, not knowing what a fair deal is, I consent and the mirth is shining brightly from Alla’s eyes….OK, guess I’m a sucker. I put the rest back into Tim’s still-thick cash envelope and we lift a glass of champagne for a toast.
The wedding party then packs into the limo-toaster and we head out in Bishkek.
As per tradition, we are supposed to visit several monuments throughout the city. This plan is cut short as the president of Kazakhstan is visiting tomorrow, and many of the monuments and government buildings are closed off.
“Borat is hosing us”
Pretty funny that 1/2 way around the world, people have seen Borat, and it’s now become the seemingly universal name for the president of Kazakhstan.
We head to a city park near the edge of town and take wedding pictures. I chug a bit of local energy drink as the time change is working it’s wonder on me. Sherrie snaps away and the rest of the wedding party enjoys drinks and champagne.
We get into the limo and head to the eternal flame monument in the heart of the city. The drive is slow in the mid-day traffic. The sunshine and bodies in the limo have pushed the mercury north of 95. Sherrie and I are in the ‘front’ part of the passenger compartment, which is very far away from the 2 windows in the back. I’m consciously having to calm myself down, as my first instinct is to rip off my clothes and dive out. I figure a blithering sweaty naked guy isn’t going to help….at least so early in the proceedings.
We get to the eternal flame and it’s beautiful. The sunshine is fantastic and the light breeze through the 80 degree air is much better than the limo.
Back to the moving sauna, and we’re heading to the reception and ceremony while the wedding video-truck orbits our party.
We get to the restaurant which backs up to a city park, and the gazebo is about 1/3 ours. the ceremony is short, with much of it being in Russian.
I handle the rings and life is good. After some hors d’oeuvres, we head outside to take pictures in the park.
There is sunlight filling through the trees and with the late-afternoon light it’s combining to be a great setting for the formal pictures.
Pictures complete, we head back in as the food has arrived.
The chant swells and the glasses lift….over and over again.
Tim isn’t sure if there was going to be a band at the reception. Turns out there was a live band, and they are quite talented.
During the course of the meal, I have about 5 double shots of espresso, or the local equivalent….I don’t think it was nescafe, but I’m so tired I don’t know if I’d know the difference.
“goyka! goyka!” and now I’m doing a shot of vodka out of Lina’s shoe on Tim’s behalf. Tim and shots don’t go well together, and as his best-man, I can take one for the team.
Everyone seems to be having a great time. Dancing and drinks abound and the night winds down to the quiet flashes of Sherrie’s camera as she captures the moment.
As the bag-man, I pull out the envelope and pay the 24,000 som (~$625 USD) for the entire night. this included the meal, cake and band….wow.
Our night concludes at the restaurant. We gather our things and head to the limo.
The final approach to our hotel is down an ally off the corner of a nightclub. Five or so ner-do-wells are blocking the path of the limo, and don’t seem to be inclined to let us pass. great, we’re going to get into a ruckus 75 yards from the hotel.
Tim and I are winding up towards trouble when the gold toothed driver manages to talk them grudgingly out of the way.
As we start down the dark ally, at least 2 of the guys start walking after the limo.
“Let’s get them into the hotel”
Not sure who said it, but Tim and I are both thinking it. Thankfully the grounds of the hotel are well lit and the would-be-thugs don’t seem to want to go into the light. Tim has a brief conversation with the limo driver who’s actively hitting him up for more money. I’d have been much more sympathetic to his cause if the limo had air conditioning and he had any personality which could have been described as ‘not-bad’. Not sure how that ended, but I think Tim was as underwhelmed with the driver as I was.
We get into the hotel quickly, bustling with bags and such, and have a quiet drink. There is a single American working on his laptop in the dining area. At Lina’s request, he downloads and plays Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing” from the movie Armageddon, which is their song. Tim and Lina dance as Sherrie and I retire upstairs and are asleep inside about 5 minutes.
We wake at 6am with the plan of heading with Tim and Lina to sign their official documents. After some more nescafe! and a good continental breakfast, we grab a cab and head through the city. As we travel about, it hits me the Russians in Bishkek remind me of Bostonians in the states. Dour, grumpy, suspicious…but the locals here have a less ridiculous accent.
I could use to go the gym. It seems like we’ve eaten a lot, walked some, but haven’t gotten any real exercise….note to self, pack a jump-rope on my next long trip.
We stop in a tourist office and book a trip to the mountains for tomorrow. As we are in the tourist office, Tim and Lina tell us they are leaving Sunday morning. This is significant. We expected Tim and Lina to be here until next Thursday, so we’re now in the position of not having anyone local who can speak the language, or read the signs.
Sherrie and I decide to book a second day trip to the mountains, as at least with that, we’d get a guide around the city. It’s cash for the trip…of course.
We have lunch at another traditional kyrgst restaurant, and enjoy sitting on the kyrgish all-in-wunder futon/bed/table. The food is great, with Lina ordering for everyone per usual.
Lunch complete, Lina needs a windbreaker jacket for tomorrow’s excursion, so we head to the local mall after I hit an atm machine.
The malls have metal detectors and guards on the doors, but we must look reputable enough, as we just breeze in.
The mall has a store which features mostly North Face gear. Sherrie and I browse as Tim and Lina look in earnest.
I’ve got all the snowboarding gear I need, but eye a soft shell gortex North Face Jacket. Doing a quick conversion of som to USD, my eyes widen.
“Sherrie, do you like any of these?”
“I don’t need one.”
“That wasn’t the question. Which one do you like?”
What would have been a $375-$425 jacket in Denver was about $50.
We take two, and I would have cleaned out the store, but the shop didn’t take credit cards. Turns out there was an atm machine in the mall, but it was rumored to be broken.
Tim had some particular feelings about which atm’s he’d use in Bishkek. Apparently their service fees varied wildly.
Given that the 2 jackets were more than we needed, we considered it a lucky find, even if it did leave us cash-poor in a city which by and large didn’t take credit cards.
As we exit the mall with bags in hand, we hit a street corner which has cabs lined up in all directions. Lina talks to a cab driver in rapid fire Russian. The cabbie, seeing our bags, decides to charge us about 50% more than listed fare. Lina is having none of it, and is snarling in Russian and waving.
I ask what’s going on, and Lina states the jack is on, then goes back to yelling at the guy. I grab Lina and gently guide her 10′ to the next cab, where we get our standard $2.25 flat rate cab.
Hard to press a rip-off deal when there are 100 other cabs to choose from within 50 yards.
Russians, when negotiating with each other, remind me of dogs fence-fighting. They snarl and growl and there is wild gesticulating and horrible sounds coming out. To me, it looks like there’s about to be a fight any second, but this is apparently business-as-usual.
We get dinner at Dokah. The restaurant reminds me of an upscale sports bar-cum wine bar. Much like Gordon biersch except for the frowning servers.
Great food, great shashlick. I’m really enjoying the Siberian crown beer, as it’s the only beer I can remember from a list of beer names in Cyrillic.
The menu’s are translated, but we’re still hitting Lina up for food advice. This turns out to be a ‘good thing’ Sherrie is looking at their pizza, and we recount a story of ‘white ham’ from our honeymoon in nice, France.
In Nice France, Sherrie and I were getting dinner, when I saw a pizza with ‘white ham’ or ‘jambon blanc’. I asked Sherrie wtf is ‘white ham’, and she had no idea. I ordered it. turns out it was a nice pizza, topped with what appeared to be completely uncooked ham put on the pizza after it had been cooked. trichinosis anyone?
We relay this story to Lina as she reads the menu. She stops at one point and laughs looking at two ham pizzas on the menu.
“Yes they have that type of raw ham pizza here, look at number 11 and number 6”
Both 11 and 6 have “xx or yy and ham”, but apparently the RAW part didn’t make the translation for the number 11 pizza.
Did I mention it’s nice to have a local guide?
Great food and more Siberian crown beer and the night is going well.
We crash at 10:00pm, and Tim and Lina head to a club.
Saturday: Hiking trip to issik-ata ‘resort’
Our guide shows up a touch late at 8:30am. he was scheduled for 8:00, but hey, he showed.
We drive the 70km from Bishkek to what used to be a health spa/resort with hot springs and mountains around it. According to Lina, the drive used to take about 45 minutes, but it was at least 1.5 hours, as the pavement went from dirt to broken road and back to dirt.
We had a miscommunication with our guide Samat, as he thought we wanted to spend the day lounging in the spa area, and we thought we were going for a hike into the mountains.
As we pass the misty green herding pastures in the rolling foothills of the mountains, everyone agrees that ~45 degrees and no swim suit equals us hiking rather than lounging.
We are in a medium sized bus, which rocks and heaves ceaselessly as we pound our way over rough pavement up the mountains.
We stop at a decrepit arch with a rusty gate. a group of buildings beyond in various states of repair lay beyond. It must be 40-45 degrees with the sun varying from bright to cloud covered in 5 minute intervals.
Samat explains the health benefits of the area, as we look about at the cracked concrete and buildings falling into themselves. Rust appears to be the number one coating, with rot being a close second.
Tim looks about as we agree this place must have been spectacular back in the day. Tim quips grimly:
“It’s like the brain trust of the country deserted”
Hard to disagree.
Samat wants to show us the healing pool before we begin our hike, just to show us the potential of the spa-area.
One problem: No one seems to know where it is. There are a variety of people littering the rolling hills between the buildings in the area. Samat talks to some locals, and gets a vector. We start walking a few hundred yards through the hills via cow paths.
The people littering the hills come alive, as my wife-turned-asian-freak-show walks with us. Apparently blond hair isn’t common, and shouting and pointing aren’t considered rude.
I’m considering removing a limb from a guy who stands up, runs at Sherrie, stopping 5 feet from her and begins shouting at the top of his lungs and pointing.
Sherrie has a sense of humor, and Lina barks a Russian ‘just fuck off’ which seems to, if not completely deter, give pause to the onlookers.
We’re descending toward an Olympic sized pool locked behind a rusty gate.
Samat and Lina negotiate with the guy in charge to take a look at the pool/healing waters. He unlocks the fencing around the pool deck area, and we are grudgingly allowed in. Surprise sets in as we realize the Olympic pool is empty, with the painted blue bottom being a ruse.
The 70 or so people in the area are packed into a small wading pool at the far end of the empty pool. Most of the women are doing that bathing in full dress islamic thing, thus helping to prove, repression works for everything.
Yeah, if we didn’t want to hit the pool before, sliding between 70 people packed like sardines didn’t require much discussion. Hiking it is.
We run the Sherrie-blond gauntlet as we head out of the former resort area up into the hills.
We stop to check out the golden Buddha. It was written about in Marco Polo’s travels. The city of Bishkek is on the great silk road.
Tim and I wedge through the worlds smallest cattle gate, and we begin up a path toward the mist.
We pass a fully functional yurt, portable housing for the cattle and goat tenders in the area.
We’re going from warm to cold and back again as the sun comes out, ducks back and the wind goes from gusty to quiet in 10 minute intervals.
We head up to a waterfall about a hour away. The waterfall is tucked up in the mist and the visuals as we climb are pretty good.
Getting down from the waterfall, Samat announces it’s lunch time.
Samat breaks out a HUGE bag-o-food, complete with a smoked chicken, fish-with-head and the awesome local bread.
We pig out and enjoy the solitude.
We head the 3-4 miles back down the trail, and I’m not enjoying my slippery worn-out basketball shoes. We descend into the resort-area, and find our bus. As we approach the bus, an old Mongolian looking guy gets up and heads over to intercept us. I figured this would be another episode of blond-wunder-theater.
This guy has other ideas.
He squares up to me in the classic non-American euro-close-talker way, and starts rattling on.
Lina laughs briefly, the starts barking Russian at the guy. OK, I’m interested.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, that guy is an asshole”
We continue to a tea house in the center of the once-spa area. we get 2 pots of tea and it’s about $1.25.
We leave the tea house and take in the sites as we head back to our van, noting the good build contruction and general security of the area.
As we approach the van, the same old guy comes back to intercept us…again.
Undeterred by Lina’s rapid fire Russian and my amused expression, the old guy continues on a tangent, poking his finger into my chest and continues to talk.
Poking me might just void this old guys warranty.
“Uhhhh…what the fuck?”
Samat is waving at the guy and shooing him away.
“he….uhhhh….want’s to take you home.”
“huh? what the fuck?”
“he says he’s old, but not that old, and you’re big and strong, so you should come spend the night with him”
I’m amused, but am still riding the fence on headbutting this guy into the local emergency yurt.
“Hey that’s funny, you might want to tell him to beat it”
I look over, and for a brief second think Sherrie might just drop this old guy where he stands to prevent me from doing….well what I was considering doing. How are jails in Asia?
I decide laughing it off is the best way to go.
We head back to the truck and enjoy the sights as we take a bumpy, leisurely ride back to Bishkek.
The beautiful rolling green hills give way to small farms and groups of houses.
The villagers share the shouting and pointing-is-no-problem as Sherrie continues to be a hit as we drive slowly through the small villages.
Sherrie is gamely trying to snap a few pics as we head through towns, but the pitching of the bus makes this a losing prospect.
We again see the variety of graveyards adorning the tops of hills. Nice to know bigotry and secular clanism is still alive and well. Graveyards were either clearly muslim or christian, as I’m sure the dead care.
One thing notably absent from the area is big trees. Scrub brush is as big as anything gets. We pass a full barn with an open door. Tim grins and asks us.
“You know what that barn is filled with?”
Sherrie and I shrug.
“Cowflops. They cook with them.”
Note to self, pass on the rural Bishkek barbecue.
Again it’s notable that the ‘driving rules’ are a fluid concept.
As we head into the outskirts of Bishkek, we’re on a 3 lane road with all lanes lines painted the same color. At times, the middle and left lanes have oncoming traffic…At other times we are 3 abreast heading into the city with the left lane car ducking back to the right to avoid oncoming traffic.
Despite the seeming absence of rules, we see no crashes. Plenty of honking to be sure, and an occasional tire squeal, but far less accidents than Denver on any weekday which ends in ‘y’.
Back at the hotel, Sherrie and I disembark and Tim and Lina head to pick up Denise, Lina’s daughter.
We shower and regroup with Tim, Lina and Denise, and head to a traditional Russian restaurant. The food is good, and apparently Russian food is heavy into rabbit. Service was good, and as we are leaving the restaurant, we hook up with Danny, Alla, and Milla. Kyrgyzstan must not have open container laws, as they pile out of a cab with champagne and vokda bottles in hand.
We all head back to the hotel and have a few drinks with the gang. It’s late, and we bid a most-fond farewell to Tim, Lina and Denise. They are flying out at 0-dark-thirty in the am.
We pass out to prepare for our next-day hike, again guided by Samat.
We wake and it’s NESCAFE!!!!!! to get going. I’m chewing it by the spoonful to get the caffeine buzz going. Both Sherrie and I are sore from the previous days hike and adventure.
Before we leave, we book dinner at our hotel. We let the nice girl at the front desk know we wanted to eat at the hotel that night, and she hands us a menu.
“Uhhh…what time is dinner served?”
“What time would you like to eat?”
“Pick what you want, and it will be ready at 7:00”
We select our dinner, a somewhat different thing to do at 8:30am. Apparently the hotel cook shops, then makes whatever the guests want. Nice.
Samat arrives with a driver and we head out through the bright sunshine to the outskirts of Bishkek in a fairly new Toyota Camry. Our destination is the Ala-Archa park. It would be the local equivalent of the Rocky Mountain National Park in the Denver, and it’s impressive. The snow-capped Himalayan mountains climb high out the blue sky at the park’s entrance.
We pay our fee and drive several miles over deteriorating roads to a trail head with what looks to be a small hotel at the bottom.
Our driver stays with the car and Samat, Sherrie and I begin our trek up the steep single track. As I look at others hiking up with full mountaineering gear, I again lament the condition of my slick basketball shoes.
We hike UP for about an hour under bright sunshine before stopping at a giant boulder which has been split in half.
Samat explains that at some point great energy split the rock and we should probably be able to feel this energy here. What we can feel is a COLD breeze beating back the warming sunshine. The wind is coming down off the glaciers, which is making temperature regulation quite difficult. When it’s sunny and we’re hiking it’s hot as blazes, but if the sky clouds up for a minute or we get a sustained gust, we start to get cold. The ambient temperature is in the high 70’s, with the wind somewhere in the 40’s.
We run into a very nice Polish couple who are planning on hiking up to the glacier and spending the night. We mention we’re doing an out-and-back, and they laugh, then invite us to share their tent.
“More fun and you keep warmer”
Since we have to catch a flight at 0-dark thirty, we thank them, but wave off.
Sherrie is a human goose pimple when we stop, and Samat pulls out homemade sangria to keep her warm. It may work, but given the height at which we’re hiking, I’m not sure a buzz is the best idea.
We continue up for another 2 hours on single track, only broken by a 300 yard wide scree field of loose rock and the chatter of Samat and I as we pass the time with good conversation. We hit a valley we look back. The trail is a long thin winding strip of dirt curving around the mountains far behind us.
We stop for lunch, and again, Samat has brought enough food for a week.
We pig out and Samat is urging us to eat more.
We run into some actual eco-tourists, who believe it or not, pick up some garbage left around on their way back down. Quite a bit of a difference from the US Sierra club members who drive Suburbans by themselves to eco-salvation meetings…. or say Al Gore with a $30,000 electric bill for his house as he pines away for the spotted whatever.
In other surprises, we run into a family from Montana while we eat. The son is in law school, and teaching in Bishkek, and the father and mother are here to visit.
Talk about a long way to come. The people are nice, but the son is twitchy in that ‘wouldn’t pass out at a party with him in the room’ kind of lawyer-esk sheen. The mother was a tottering idiot, with dad being the only potential hold-out for sanity in the group.
The clock is advancing and Sherrie and I are anxious to continue. The hour break does nothing to revive me. I think I would have been better continuing on, as my legs are tightening. Sherrie and I continue ahead of Samat, as he’s a bit tired from guiding this week, and we are ready to get moving.
About 30 minutes later, we’ve ascended a thin ridgeback to a waterfall area and snap some pictures. It’s quite a bit colder as we’re somewhere around 13,000 feet elevation. We look back and down to see Samat, and head to intercept him. Samat now has his 2nd wind, and is urging us higher toward the glacier. Mind you, no one who’s ahead of us is planning on coming back today….
Sherrie is ready to turn back and says so. I’m curious to head up just a few hundred more yards to crest the next rise, as it looks to offer a great view of the massive glacier overhead. Sherrie says ‘it’s up to you, but I think we should head back’
I give her the yeah, we’re tired, but if we DON’T go, we’ll regret it.
She defers in that ‘you’re going to regret this’ way, as we take a shortcut and climb over a fairly treacherous rock field.
A fall here would be ….bad.
Samat decides to take a parallel route to ours and we head up to the crest…only to find it’s a false crest. The mountain continues up farther. We continue for about another 15 minutes as I’m now slipping uphill on the loose dirt and steep terrain.
Sherrie halts the madness.
“That’s it, we need to head back”
We start down and note the the 4pm sinking sun is not terribly far away from the tops of the towering mountains.
On the steeps I’m slipping and sliding down. Two dedicated mountaineers loaded for bear wait out our descent past them, undoubtedly waiting for me to slip to my doom. I speak no Russian, but I’m wondering who lost their bet over me wiping out completely by the time I descend past them.
Samat again offers a different path back, but at the pitifully slow pace I’m keeping, we stick with the known quantity. I’d pay through the nose for a decent pair of hiking shoes right now. Sherrie’s heel is torn up from the days hiking, but her traction is leagues better than mine.
We hit flatter ground and I break into a good jog. Samat and Sherrie are far faster than I am in the steep sections, so I’m trying to make up time. I’m at a fast lope with the camel back and cameras bouncing around behind me.
I get some good distance from Samat, with Sherrie right behind me.
It’s about 6pm as we tackle the last loose dirt section before getting back to the car. I have to sprint a narrow downhill path and not blow a corner overlooking a hundred foot drop. It was too steep to walk down with slick shoes, and I REALLY wanted to make the right turn.
By the time we get to the parking lot, I’ve fallen at least a dozen times, hit a picker bush…twice…. and my knees have filed for divorce.
OK, this was a bit more than the brochure would have led us to believe we were getting into.
Sherrie had noted our driver had a quizzical look when Samat told him where we were heading for the day. Apparently the driver had reasoned given our shorts and sneakers, we were perhaps a bit under prepared for the technical climb.
We make it to the car 15 minutes before the sun goes down. Good call on the turn back Sherrie.
We are dirty beyond dirty and have to hustle back to the hotel to get our 7:00 dinner. On our way back, the driver and Samat talk quietly in Russian.
“Do you have a ride to the airport tomorrow?”
We did, having booked one at the hotel, but I’m liking our clean-cut driver who’s already showed up 2 days in a row.
We agree on $20 to the airport at 4:00am.
Samat is a bit disappointed we can’t go out on the town with him, and I’m curious to see his side of Bishkek….that said, we still have to pack, and we need to be up at 3:00am for the 30 hour trip back.
We manage a quick shower to get rid of the grime, and arrive in the dining room of the hotel at 7:02pm.
Our salads are waiting for us on the table when we get there.
Dinner is great, and we pass out chewing Advil. I can’t sleep as I fear missing the plane home.
We head downstairs and the ungodly hour of 3:45am and the hotel staff is bleary, but amazingly pleasant. They are up to see us, and another group of travelers off. At 3:58am our driver showed. I like this guy.
He whisks us to the airport and we arrive at 4:20am. I’m feeling good about making our 6:45am flight despite not being able to read any of the signs. A local tries to help us with our bags and to guide us through the airport, but he doesn’t speak English, and if I could understand his Russian, we wouldn’t need him.
I pay him $1 to go away and he vaguely steers us to a doorway with people piling in.
It’s security theater and public works all over again. We show our tickets and passports to two different guys before we have our bags scanned. Sherrie takes the camera bag through the luggage scanner, and the security guy manning the scanner tells me to wait a second.
I’m standing next to the scanner with my bags on the belt when a fat women in a bad moo-moo dragging a fat kid piles into me. All elbows and shoving, the woman shoves my bag back a foot, and throws a cooking pot on the belt screaming “BUSINESS!!!!BUSINESS!!!” and sprints through the metal detector, fat kid still in tow. She snatches her pot off the conveyor and darts to the right….perhaps a bit too quickly. The pot empties it’s contents all over the floor of the security area, and 6 airport employees look on with detached dismay. None move to clean it up.
I head through the scanner and avoid the goulash pile on the floor.
We then go to another security line. They ask us if we have nuclear bombs, we say no. Next counter, where we’re excited to learn they can only put 3 luggage transfer tags on a bag. We’ll have to get our bags in Dulles and have them re-checked to Denver. Super. We go from there to yet another line where they check our visas and stamp our passports.
We’re in the waiting area, and I decide to buy some vodka at duty free. I choose a couple of bottles with Cyrillic writing on them.
Our flight is at 6:45am, but they start boarding at 6:00am. Again, we have the Russian mosh-pit shoving to the front.
Sherrie and I calmly wait in the back, and we decide we’re OK with physically removing anyone or anything in our seats. We’re getting on this flight if we have to boot the pilot and fly the plane ourselves. Enough of this 3rd world Micky Mouse bullshit. Suck your nescafe, hand over the Starbucks, and they next person who shoves in front of me is going to get choked the fuck out.
We go wheels up. As the plane lifts skyward, I glance at my watch, 6:28am. Nice. Note to self, don’t be late for an outgoing flight from Bishkek.
One of the only nice things about planes in Europe and Asia is travelers don’t try to carry on 9 pieces of luggage, and we have no problems putting our stuff in the overhead bins.
Moscow airport, the 2nd time
OK, we’ve got this dump wired. We wait in our mosh pit to get to the ticket counter. We get to the counter and hand the grumpy turnip behind it our tickets.
She glances at them, looks over our shoulders and yells.
Our flight is to Frankfurt. We look at this lady and utter.
“We are going to Frankfurt.”
Another 5’x5′ badly dressed beach ball tries to push past me to get to the counter. I forearm shiver in the shoulder, sending her about 2′ to her right and glower at her as she stumbles and backs up.
“We’re next, and we’re going to Frankfurt.”
The airport worker/turnip looks at us dismissively and grunts.
“You must wait. Stand aside.”
I raise my eyebrows and Sherrie roots in place and goes rapid fire.
“Why, what are we waiting for? We’re going to Frankfurt, you’re calling for Frankfurt, what’s the problem?”
“You’re flying Lufthansa.”
“We only do Aeroflot tickets here, we have to call the Lufthansa worker to come and process your flights. I’ve called them and they should be here in a couple of minutes. Please stand aside.”
I briefly fear Sherrie is going to punch this lady.
“Give us back our tickets and passports”
We get our paper back and stand aside. Apparently in Russia, workers are not accustomed to anyone asking ‘why’ on anything.
After about 5 minutes, a nicely dressed middle aged women comes out and checks our tickets.
“You must come to the central transit office 2 hours before your flight”
Signage is not a Russian strong point, and this doesn’t sound good.
“Huh….where is that?”
“It’s in the center of the airport”
“No, it’s in the center of the airport”
Sherrie and I are not looking hopeful.
“Come with me, I’ll show you”
We breeze past the baggage scanners and head to the middle of the airport. There is a small sign for the central office, but our Lufthansa rep waves us past that to a largely unmarked, unremarkable door 50 feet past the central office.
“Come back here 2 hours before your flight”
“We just go in?”
“Yes, and I’ll get you taken care of”
OK, at least we have a plan.
We go to the other restaurant upstairs and get the worlds shittiest hamburger for the cool price of about $16. At least at Disney when you’re getting screwed, you’re food is good. This was a weird combination of overcooked, and seasoned with weird oil. It was like chewing an oily yet dry brick with a weird aftertaste.
At least they had espresso, and we enjoyed the first non-nescafe in days.
2 hours till our flight, we nervously get to the unmarked door. Our nice Lufthansa lady is there. She takes our passports and tickets and walks out.
We have a seat on the office sofa and wait.
“You realize she took everything we had in terms of id and such”
“calm blue ocean, calm blue ocean.”
About 30 minutes later, our nice lady returns and low-and-behold.
“I saw your bags were checked to Dulles, I’ve had them re-tagged and they are checked through to Denver”
Wow, talk about getting a gold star.
We thank her profusely and wander around duty-free stores to pass the time.
I’m still far from liking anyone, and grumpy as all get-out.
As we approach our security terminal a large herd of older Italian cows is milling toward the scanner.
One of them coughs bloody flem into a tissue, and throws it on the ground to her right. There was a trash can directly on her left.
I hate people.
We get on the plane, and I sleep on the flight.
We again enjoy ‘almost German efficiency’ in Frankfurt.
We disembark and head through intra-flight security. The Germans in concourse C seemed to think it would be a super idea to put the baggage scanner and security checkpoint 8 feet from the top of an escalator, with no additional holding area.
We get our recently purchased duty-free vodka confiscated as it apparently wasn’t in a properly sealed bag. We point out the idiocy of the moment, and that both bottles are still sealed, but the Germans are well…German.
Lighter in vodka, I try to change Som to USD at a money exchange a few feet after the security checkpoint. The guy looks at the Krygst Som like it was from another planet and shakes his head.
I’m tired and might be hallucinating, but I think I can actually see steam coming from Sherrie’s ears over the now missing vodka.
Looking around the terminal, I note the gray on gray with exposed piping and metal is a nice statement that the architect had no design talent whatsoever.
As we’re standing there, a Captain Kangaroo looking airport worker is stopping people with a:
“United 954? You must stand here.”
We get roped into a 15×15 area, and they use retractable webbing to hold everyone, literally in a circle.
“You must wait here.”
Again, Sherrie is not impressed.
The bemused German.
“You must wait here.”
“What the hell are we waiting for?”
“The plane is not ready”
“We’re standing in a hallway, what’s the difference?”
“You must wait here”
“We’re in Germany, isn’t this supposed to be railroad cars and not ropes?”
Captain Kangaroo turns around and begins talking with 6 or so other airport workers, none of them doing anything.
Again, images of the DMV back home come to mind.
I notice one of the women Captain Kangaroo is talking to has shoulders wider than mine, and must be 6’2″ before the heels. This worker turns and I realize.
“That’s a man baby!”
And a really-really ugly one at that.
I guess they’ve come a long way since WWII.
After 20 minutes or so, they let us out of the holding area, and we’re free to enjoy the expansive gray concrete halls which looked like they were last painted in the 50’s.
Our terminal with it’s staging area is 30 yards away, but they aren’t letting people in yet.
We wander about 100 yards more to avoid the people and get a soda at a small stand.
Our asses are further chapped by a duty-free store selling vodka on the way…but not the Russian vodka we just had yanked. Another obvious observation about security theater confiscating liquids in general.
If it is sooooo dangerous, why is it thrown in a trashcan in the middle of an airport with people swarming around?
Security theater is wearing thin. They aren’t protecting jack or shit, and it’s just wasting my time and money.
Looking at the exposed pipe the only thing I can think is: A drab Geiger painting fucked a toilet and had a really big boring kid.
This place sucks.
They call flight 954 and the mosh pit forms, but even from 100 yards away, we can see they aren’t letting anyone near the plane yet. I guess they just like crowds.
30 minutes later, people start going into the staging area, and Sherrie and I wait another 15 for the crowd to thin.
Our flight has been delayed from 4:15 until 5:00pm. Bonus.
We finally board and lift off without fanfare.
We get to Dulles and clear customs without incident. Sherrie tends the bags as I gladly pay $9 for two coffees at Starbucks. The signs are in English, and the airport workers are at least faking civility.
Another uneventful flight to Denver and we’re home. Traveling to Asia was interesting and I enjoyed it, but I had to resist kissing the ground when I see our bags coming around the carousel in Denver.
We throw our bags into Travis’s truckasarus and head down the highway, mostly alone at 1 am.
Damn I love this country.