Saturday, 26 March 2011

Kyrgyzstan and their taxis

I crossed yet another land border from Andijon, Uzbekistan, into Osh. I was glad to have a bit of time to explore the country after hurtling through eastern Uzbekistan to avoid overstaying my visa. But my initial experience was not a pleasurable one.

I was rather anxious about entering this city – the UK government advises against all travel to this region due to the violence last year. When Stalin drew the borders of the ‘stans, he left sizeable minorities around border areas and in enclaves. Here, there are many ethnic Uzbeks; what happens when a population suffers from poverty, lack of resources, unemployment and rising food prices? They look to blame someone. Clashes were stoked by (some say) the government and its opposition, but what remains clear is that after a few days of violence, over 200 people lay dead in the streets. But I didn’t want to miss the Fergana valley – the traditional overland route towards China.

As a foreigner I knew I wouldn’t be a target, but the tension was palpable (though this may have been concocted by my worried mind). I walked through the bazaar, once an important stop on the Silk Road. It was in a noticeably different position to where I had expected; where it should have been were rows of burnt out shells, left behind from the riots in June. No-one welcomed me or smiled at me like they had in Uzbekistan and further west, instead peering at me with suspicion, possible assuming I was another NGO or UN worker. Only when I pulled my camera out to take pictures of sheep heads (why do they sell these?) did people begin to laugh. At night, I wandered around trying to find a restaurant or café that might serve me, but none were open. The streets were dark, the people inside their homes.

Sheep heads in the bazaar in Osh.
I made my way towards Bishkek along the border with Uzbekistan. The best way to travel (relatively) is by share taxi. These are taxis shared by 3-4 passengers; they leave when full. Let me tell you a bit about share taxis. Firstly, you have to find the right one. This is initially quite difficult because taxis for different areas hang out in completely different parts of the town you’re in. Once you get the right area, finding the taxi to the town you want is easy because a hundred men will surround you shouting names of towns at you. Just listen for the one you need, glance at him and follow him as he snatches your bag and puts it in his boot. Now you must negotiate the price, which will always start at some ludicrously high figure of $100 or thereabouts. Forget trying to ask what the other passengers have paid – the driver will stand in your way or tell them something in the local language to the effect of, “Don’t tell him anything.” When you’re both happy, sit in the car and wait for the other seats to fill up. And don’t even think about trying to sit in the front – it always seems to be reserved for some or other friend of the driver.

After an hour or so the driver will return and ask you if you want to pay for the remaining non-existent passengers. He won’t ask the others, just you, assuming that you’re an absurdly rich tourist. Hold fast: the car WILL fill up. Finally you’re off, but you’ll stop twice in the first ten minutes to fill up, talk to friends, hand over mysterious bits of paper. But then you’ll be moving – really moving, at a dangerous pace. Maybe you should put your seat belt on? Well, that would just be offensive to his expert driving skill, despite the shells of crashed cars littering the bottom of the cliff you’re whizzing along. Your driver will now attempt to have a conversation with you in his local language. You can assume he’s asking you where you’re from, why you’re on your own, whether you’re married and how much you earn, but after that is anyone’s guess. Your lack of understanding won’t deter him and he will merely shout louder at you as if your brain might revert to some primal language. Eventually he’ll give up and turn up the terrible local boy-band music.

Icy taxi ride from Osh to Kara-Köl.
On this occasion, reaching the town of Kara-Köl, my experience was particularly bad. The driver drove past a hotel, pointing it out to me, then dropped the other passengers off in the centre of the town. He then drove me back to the hotel. Upon getting out of the car he said I should pay him another 100 Som, to which I replied “Nyet”. This happens a lot, but normally a laugh and a firm no does the trick. However, this time he prevented me from opening the boot to get my bag out. He pushed me and I pushed him back and before I knew it we were embroiled in a wrestling match in the middle of the hotel car park. Hotel workers came out, split us up and asked him what was happening: he snarled that he had driven me from the normal drop off point and was therefore entitled to more money. I disagreed. He threatened to call the police and I called his bluff. Fortunately they never arrived and he was eventually persuaded to leave by the hotel workers.

Feeling that I’d caused (or rather, been the recipient of) enough trouble already, I made my excuses to leave. One of the men who had been instrumental in the non-fatal conclusion of the episode begged me not to go and insisted that I stay at his house. I can’t explain how overwhelmed I was: this man, who didn’t know the first thing about me, desperately wanting to show me that there at least some people in his country who are nice. He took me to his family home in the hills, sat me down with his wife and father, made me a lavish dinner of dumplings and delicious soup, and gave me a warm room to sleep in. The next day he took me to the taxi stand and negotiated a good price for me to Bishkek.

I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery as we drove the icy roads over high passes and through long tunnels, finally arriving in Bishkek, the capital. I stayed one night in a guesthouse owned by the son of the guy who wrote the words to the Kyrgyz national anthem, and then a week with a guy working for a micro-credit organization. He opened me to a world of NGO workers, all trying to help out in the mess of ethnic conflict and economic suffering.

I went skiing with a Russian family, or rather, I thought I was going skiing. It turned out they wanted to picnic at the world’s tiniest resort, with a rental shop and lift owned and run by a man who clearly hadn’t been following the updates in the skiing world for the last 20 years. The skis were from the soviet-era, long and thin. The lift comprised a frayed metal cable running close to the ground; I was issued with a bit of wood tied to a rope and had to hook myself on to the oily cable. I eventually got fed up and went to investigate the laughs and shouts coming from the family a few hundred yards away. Here a similar lift was in action, but this time people were being dragged up in rubber rings, then flinging themselves headlong down the mountain, shrieking with pain as they bounced over the bumps. It was jolly good fun, even if it’s probably not covered by my travel insurance.

The ski lift, near Bishkek.
Bishkek itself is a rather strange place. It still feels very Soviet (indeed, I spent a week there trying to negotiate the bureaucratic visa nightmare at the Kazakh embassy), and the streets are still all referred to by their Russian names rather than the new ones. And because everyone goes by the old names, they won’t change the signs because then no-one will be able to find their way around. So nothing changes. The state history museum is more or less a shrine to Lenin, but the weirdest example is that of Mahatma Gandhi street, which was renamed from Molodoi Gvardii, a soviet name commonly referred to as M.G. Street. At one end stands a huge sculpture depicting soldiers standing over a slogan: “We will fight for communism.”

State History Museum, Bishkek

I went east for a couple of days to visit Lake Issy-Kol, and suddenly the temperature was warm and spring was in the air. Mountains tower on both the north and south sides of this magnificent, deep blue lake, with deserted, golden beaches lining its shores. As I passed back through Bishkek en route to Kazakhstan, however, snow had fallen heavily overnight and the icy chill was a warning that I hadn’t yet seen the last of winter.

Lake Issy-Kol

1 comment:

  1. That is quite an adventure indeed.