April 13, 2008

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyzstani Two-Step

I didn't make any of the obvious mistakes. A couple little things, yeah. I could have thought things through more. But mostly it came down to circumstances beyond my control.

Of course, you never want to land in an unfamiliar country in the middle of the night. This is doubly true if that country ends in the letters "stan." But planes land when they land, and in Bishkek, they don't seem to land very often.

You're rarely more vulnerable than when you're walking out of the airport. As soon as you're past baggage claim, you are fair game. A tout glommed onto me instantly and followed me around the terminal. This drives me absolutely bonkers.

In Asia, a ferocious disposition will usually spook touts into giving you some distance. In Africa, it has the opposite effect; it indicates that you're close to breaking. In Africa I try to just ignore them. I didn't know which method to use in Kyrgyzstan, so I alternated between barking in the guy's face and pretending he didn't exist. This was probably confusing. Nevertheless, he shadowed me right on up to the ATM machine and watched me withdraw cash.

It didn't matter how many times I told him I wasn't going anywhere with him, so when I got back to where the other touts were waiting, I was anxious to strike a deal with anyone else.

I asked the nearest guy how much into town. "Twenty-five," he said. I said "great."

That was a forgivable mistake.

The exchange rate in Kyrgyzstan is about 36 Som to $1 US. It was 2am and I was using a new currency, so my somnambulant calculation came out to $8. Outside of developed nations, a buck per kilometer is a pretty good rule of thumb, and it looked like just a bit more than 8k's into town, so that amount sounded about right to me. If I'd done my math right, I would've realized that a cab ride costing 25 Som would be about $0.70, which is unlikely.

The first tout followed us out to the car and even attempted to climb into the back with me. The other cab driver shooed him away. It was about this time I noticed a third guy standing around and realized I'd thrown my lot in with a duo; two big young guys. This set off my spider sense a little bit, but not enough to abort. My main concern at that point was shaking off the first guy.

We took off for Bishkek with the two guys in front and me in back. One of them spoke English. He said his name was Eric. We'd driven for 10 minutes down a road with no other cars when Eric said they needed gas and pulled off into a station. He asked for the money up front.

I've had this happen many times. It's annoying, but not uncommon for drivers to pick up fares with an empty tank. Okay, fine. What was that again? 25?

"No, not 25. 125."
"Excuse me?"
"125. That's the price."

I read the look on his face and knew immediately what was going on. But my alarm subsided when I did some more quick math and realized I was all screwed up. 125 Som is actually not even $4.

"Oh. Right. 125 Som. Okay, no problem."
"No. Not Som. Euros."

I hope I'm not losing anyone here. Let's review. The cabbie's extra digit scam was overlapping with my currency confusion and, for a moment, they had almost cancelled each other out. But intentions were clarified and I was suddenly stuck in a car in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with two guys who were demanding $200.

I locked eyes with Eric, very disappointed. "Please don't do this."

They became angry, as did I. The moment froze, and I realized I was still within that brief window at the start of a confrontation where circumstances haven't quite solidified and small advantages can still be gained. Specifically, I was still able to grab my backpack and get the hell out of the car.

There was a shack in the corner of the station with an old couple inside. Another taxi from the airport was also just pulling in. I flagged down the taxi. The driver didn't speak a word of English and neither did his passengers, but my situation was pretty obvious.

I pulled out some cash from my wallet and asked the passengers through gesture what the fair price into town was. They showed me that it was 400 Som, which is $11.

I turned to Eric and told him I'd pay 400 Som and that was it. He countered, not surprisingly, with 125 Euros.

I thought about imposing on the passengers to let me in the cab with them, but even in my dire situation it seemed awfully rude. And more importantly, my big bag was still in the trunk. That was the main bit of leverage they still had.

I made for the trunk as quickly as I could, but they pushed me away from the handle and blocked it. The other taxi drove off, but the owners of the gas station were still watching from inside, so at least there was that.

We started negotiating in earnest. He went down to 3000 Som, $83. He said if I paid him that, they would take me to my hotel. I told him I wasn't getting anywhere near the inside of his car again and offered them 500 Som to drop my bag and take off.

After a tense period, we finally settled on 1000 Som, $28. Standing with about 5 meters between us, I took the cash out of my wallet.

"Take the bag out of the trunk."

They opened the trunk and pulled the bag out.

"Put it on the ground."

They put it on the ground.

"Step back."

They stepped back.

I moved toward the bag and reached out with the 1000 Som. They took the money. I grabbed my bag.

"Now fuck off!"

They fucked off.

I've gotta admit, the bag exchange part was pretty awesome.

And so they were gone, and there I was in a pitch black gas station, exhausted, miles from anywhere.

A door creaked. The old man emerged from the shack. We looked each other over. He pointed to a rust bucket car and then gestured into town. I gave him a pen and some paper and made the sign for money. He wrote down "300."

"300 Som?"
"Yes. Som."
"Okay! Yeah!"

His name was Alexy. He was Russian. He took me into town with only one minor incident; we were flagged off the road by a cop who shook us down for 50 Som. No big deal.

I made it to the hotel mentioned in the book which, praise be to Allah, had an empty room. The adrenaline subsided and I eventually got to sleep.

The next day I realized that amidst the excitement, I'd misplaced my guide book. This unfortunate error severely limited my ability to paint the town red. In some places it's not such a big deal, but when there are no other tourists around and hardly anyone speaks English, having no reference information can really suck.

I had to wander blindly, so to speak.

There's definitely a lingering Soviet vibe to Bishkek. Most everyone seemed to speak Russian, and the trademark austere/bland architecture is omnipresent.

They've even got there obligatory Lenin statue.

I understand the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, beyond the mountains, are much less Russia-infused and Kyrgyz is the more commonly spoken language.

These pictures are mostly pointless, but they give a vague sense of what the city and it's people look like.

Of course, ultimately, it's the same as every place else in a lot of ways.

...but surprisignly sparse and manageable. One nice thing about Central Asia: it's not very crowded. The city has enough people in it to feel like a city, but few enough that there's room to breathe and even a few trees still standing.

Despite the pleasant vibe, I didn't go out a lot. The taxi ordeal left a bad taste and there were clearly some real dangers to be wary of. The police are said to be fairly corrupt and prone to shaking down visitors with the threat of arrest. Also, once it gets dark, the streets thin out quickly and you kinda feel like you should go find someplace to hide.

By the way, you don't ever want your hotel room door to look like this.

On my second-to-last day, the guilt about cowering in my hotel room started to mount. I was lucky enough to run into an English translator named Helen at a corner shop. I told her I wanted to get out to the mountains and she gave me some tips. She even went as far as calling a cab for me the next morning, telling the guy where to go, and negotiating a price.

People are nice.

She sent me off to Ala Archa gorge. I spent the day hiking.

It was nice to see Kyrgyzstanis out picnicking. In particular, there were a lot of teenagers -- which is kinda surprising.

The air was clean and the mountains were swell. I set off to find a good dancing clip.

I spent a good hour trying to cross this stream. I'm not so good with balance and the prospect of leaping across rocks with a laptop and camcorder on my back was nerve-racking. There was also the lesser concern of my own safety -- no other people for miles makes a sprained ankle even less fun.

I finally made it across. Found a nice view of a snow-capped mountain. Danced.

I usually try to find something a bit more unique and remarkable to dance in front of. Not to bash Kyrgyzstan or anything, but...it was the best I could come up with.

A group of teenagers caught me on the way down and found me fascinating.

They spoke a fair amount of English. Lots of questions about America and what the hell I was doing in their country.

I recruited them to dance with me. They didn't really get it until I explained that it was going on YouTube. Then they were pretty excited.

Taxi back to Bishkek. Off to the airport at 1am for the bleary-eyed slog back to Istanbul.

April 10, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey
Two Y's, a K, and a Z

There's a Turkish man behind me who resembles a hairy lump of coal. He's watching videos on his laptop of men with high-caliber machine guns shredding target dummies. He is chuckling with glee about this. He is as happy as a clam.

Why do all the flights around here leave in the middle of the night? 2:15am? What kind of a time is that? Who does that work for? If we were flying across the planet, sure, but I keep getting stuck on these restless little hops.

Got a row to myself in the back of the plane, though. Slept like the dead. I've had good luck with that on this trip.

I've got a 12 hour layover in Istanbul before my flight to Kyrgyzstan. I already got a good clip in Turkey a little over a year ago. It was the first one for this new video, a happy byproduct of a commercial for a Swedish travel agency. In any case, I don't feel obligated to hunt down another one while I'm here. I'm content, instead, to catch up on sleep and email.

Both my arriving and departing flights are on Turkish Airlines, so they were nice enough to offer me a free hotel room during my layover. This gave me joy beyond words, until I was led past the airport hotel, out into a bus with 30 other men.

The bus took us out of the airport, into the city, right past the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Obelisk of Theodosius. I watched the Novotel go by, then the Hotel Ibis, the Holiday Inn, and a dozen other perfectly reasonable options. After a 45 minute ride, we wound up at the All Seasons Hotel.


The All Seasons seems very proud of its four star rating. I am left to wonder: four out of how many?

I did not need to see Turkey again. No offense, Turkey, but I was here in 2006 and again in 2007. I'm full of Turkey.

I am going Kyrgyzstan for a number of silly reasons. One is because I've never gotten an email from there. 25,000 messages and not a single one that I'm aware of from a Kyrgyz. I have a biological defect that draws me to such places.

Of course, I don't get much email from any of the 'stans, so why Kyrgyzstan? Well, there are seven 'stans. Pakistan is high up on my list, but it just never seems like a good time to go.

Afghanistan? While I cultivate the appearance of intrepidity, I do have limits.

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an obvious punch line with some intriguing history to boot. I came close to putting it on the itinerary, but it requires a visa in advance and my short breaks between trips don't allow much time to circulate a passport.

Of the four remaining 'stans, I, like most of the world, am largely indifferent. Kyrgyzstan got a big boost for being the only one that furnishes visas on arrival without prior application. You might call it the friendly 'stan. It also has an enormous Scrabble point value. So Kyrgyzstan it is.

After making this decision, I was disappointed to learn that Turkmenistan has a really nifty place called the Burning Gates. It's basically an active volcanic sink hole that vividly resembles an entry point into hell. Oh, well.

The thought never occurred to me that Kyrgyzstan might be anything like Borat's fictional version of neighboring Kazakhstan. On reading up a bit, I'm stunned by how EXACTLY it sounds like it.

The most popular traditional sport is called kok boru. It involves a bunch of men on horseback hurling a decapitated goat into a circle. You might recall Sylvester Stallone's swift mastery of the Afghani version, buzkashi, in Rambo III.

The traditional way of courting brides, still popular in rural Kyrgyzstan, is through kidnapping. Modern suitors will approach bachelorettes on the street and shove them into waiting cars. The bride's parents are expected to give their blessing if properly consulted...or so I've read.

From the budget accommodation section of Lonely Planet:

Sabyrbek's B&B
Sabyrbek offers beds and meals in his ramshackle house. Everyone shares a single shower. The cat is called Nicole Kidman and the dog bites. Unfortunately Sabyrbek's brothers like a drink -- and they don't do it alone. Look for an unmarked gate opposite the German embassy.