Friday, August 27, 2010

Kyrgyzstan Can't

It would have cost me $160 to get a Kyrgyz visa in the States. And I would have had to wait for three weeks. If I was lucky. But flying in on a $70 ticket I could get a $70 visa at the airport. Okay, $100 for two entries. And I had to wait in line behind a bunch of Korean businessmen.

But after that the rest of immigration was a snap. And my driver was actually there. We drove in on a deserted road for about 30 km.

The inskirts of the city looked pretty desultory in the late night. He pulled into the guesthouse carport and showed me to my room. There was a creepy little bed and a light that didn't work. The communal toilet had no seat and no toilet paper. It was just before 4 am and little Mikey had had a long day. I fell asleep.

I awoke at around 11:30. Bishkek was supposed to have the same climate as Almaty, but outside it was grey, cold, and rainy. I went back to bed.

By 12:30 I realized that I had to get up and see what I had gotten myself into. I had been communicating with Gulnara, who had seemed friendly enough. A Kyrgyz relative said that Gulnara was in Japan. No one else in the family spoke any English.

Well, I guessed I had to walk into town. Which was several miles away. Through the rain. I put on a shirt and a jacket I had brought along for the high Pamir, and started out.

The main road I walked along was just as dreary as the weather. When I got to a major intersection I sat down on a step outside the rain. A chirpy female German backpacker came by and cheerily told me about the nice coffee shops, etc., that I would find on the main drag. That sounded good, because besides being cold and wet I was hungry.

Walking towards the center I passed more Soviet parks and monuments, but they were all woebegone and ragged. It looked like twenty years ago Bishkek and Almaty were roughly the same, but they had been going in opposite directions ever since.

When I got to Chuy, the main street, things didn't improve. Nor was there anything approaching a nice coffee shop. I walked past the monument to independence, the presidential palace, etc., etc. There weren't even that many other people walking by. It was that poor.

I found an Italian restaurant, but it was empty, creepy, and overpriced. I walked into a place that advertised cheese samosa/pierogies. 'Vegetarian' is the same word in Russian, so it was easy for the girl there to tell me that she didn't have anything I could eat. The cold rain had devolved into a cold drizzle. I walked back into it.

Finally I found 'Fat Boys', the supposedly expats' favorite. I ordered some soup, some spaghetti, and some roast potatoes. It was high priced, barely edible, and very greasy. I finished it and started my long walk back to the guesthouse.

The guesthouse had advertised that they had internet. Of course they had lied. And John's internet had been off and on for three days. Mostly off. So far I had had better luck in West Africa.

My leg muscles were holding up pretty well so far. But the joints connecting them weren't. Right now where my thigh bones were connected to my hip bones it was feeling pretty brutal after eight miles of pounding the pavement. It was 7 pm, I was freezing, and I went to sleep.

And didn't wake up until 7 am. In the morning the weather had turned to partly cloudy. I had penciled in a couple of days to take a little trip into the mountains, but if it was this bad at 2,000 feet I could only imagine what it was like at 10,000 feet. Cold and muddy and no infrastructure. And the Kyrgyz people weren't seeming all that warm and friendly either. I knew that times were super tough, but sometimes times get tough because the people are jerks.

I didn't want to make snap judgments about the Kyrgyz. On the other hand, I didn't want to hang around and find out. Moreover, another German backpacker I met at 'breakfast' regaled me with his miserable tale of trying to get out of the mountains yesterday. What was I to do? Walk around Bishkek some more? It seemed crazy that I would go to this effort to get to Kyrgyzstan and then stay only 24 hours, but I didn't see any point in staying. If I was going to be doing nothing I'd rather be doing it somewhere exotic like Samarkand.

The border with Uzbekistan was closed, seeing as how about a month ago the Kyrgyz in Osh had just massacred 1000 Uzbeks. The guesthouse driver guy taxied me to the West bus station, and I found an oversized marshutra (Russian for 'minibus') that was heading for Taraz in Kazakhstan. I grabbed a quite comfortable seat and waited around for an hour or so while he rounded up more passengers.

Whilst sitting I could ponder the absurdity of the West's portrayal of Central Asia being run by brutal dictatorships, except for the bright shining beacon of Kyrgyzstan's democracy. At least as compared to Kazakhstan, what insane twaddle. Any Kyrgyz would give anything to be living in Almaty.

Generalizing: To the extent that anyone in countries such as this care at all about Free And Fair Elections, it's down around #47 on the list. And the few intellectuals who do care have this sweet, idealized vision of democracy that has absolutely nothing to do with the degraded mess that we have sunk to. Consider: Putin has approval ratings of 80%. So do the Chinese leaders. Virtually no Western leader is above 30. Talk about the Emperor's New Clothes! Because we're still strutting around tut-tutting about how obviously superior OUR 'democracy' is.

Well, enough fulminating. Because the marshutra was filled up. And we were headed down the nondescript agricultural road due west towards Kazakhstan.