Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Quest for Civilization

The Quest For Civilization

Now I'm a man of generally simple tastes. Motel 6 is usually just fine by me. I don't need no extravagant restaurants or fancy cars. Bread and peanut butter in my '92 Aerostar will do the trick.

But I'm getting too old to squat. On the nice porcelain ones I can just barely balance. But I can no longer position myself on wooden slats while my feet are trying to dodge the excrement. So it becomes a cycle of immodium before the long journey followed by dulcolax afterwards.

But that was just the first of my many complaints. It was getting colder than I had planned/hoped for. It would be nice to have some heat not generated by my body. It would be nice to have some electricity. Come to think of it, it would be nice to have running water. In fact, it would be nice to be somewhere where everything at least attempted to work.

For after a month in Central Asia, it was no longer cute (if it ever was) that you couldn't ever assume that something was going to be available. Or work properly if it was. Even in Almaty the decay was at best papered over. And most other places they didn't even make that attempt.

So it was time to try and find some sort of civilization.

I knew going into this journey that Murgab to Sary Tash would be the most expensive part of the journey. Vans and SUVs went between Khorog and Murgab, but there was no commerce or traffic between Murgab and Sary Tash, especially inasmuch as Sary Tash was in Kyrgyzstan. And the small amount of European summer adventurers had thinned out by now, so there was little likelihood of me finding people to share expenses with.

This meant that I had to pop for $1 a kilometer for the 235 km trip, since the driver Turok had no chance of getting a return fare. Ouch. Well, at least I would have the rattling old Land Rover to myself.

Except this tall, skinny Ukrainian hitchhiker had shown up the night before. And he had $30 to his name. And around here you were supposed to help people out. Then the driver met a friend who needed to get to the Tajik border. So now there were four of us. Well, at least I still got to call the shots.

Which meant that for the first time on my journey there would be no Russian or Tajik or Uzbek or Turkmen pop music being played. Now I know that you're probably thinking that it would be exotic and interesting to hear the sounds of foreign countries. It definitely is not. I can think of only two times in my life (in Burma and Lesotho) when I ever heard anything that was different and beautiful. The rest of it is ALWAYS idiotic endlessly repeated five note melodies backed by a horrible canned beat. You should thank God that you live in a land where they play Elton John and Air Supply.

Anyway, we started out around 10 for the seven hour journey. The landscape continued to look Western/Mohave/Nevada/high altitude (only, uh, bigger), with some interesting large slabs of rock. For a while we were only a few yards away from the barbed wire of the Chinese border, which made sense considering that the Russians built the Pamir Highway so as to patrol their side.

We climbed higher and higher, once again never needing switchbacks or the like. Near the summit we came upon a French bicycling couple that I had met in Murgab on Tuesday night and who had started from there yesterday. They were pushing their bikes, not just because of uphill slope but also because at 15,000 feet it was kind of hard to breathe. On Tuesday they had said that their goal was to bicycle across India, as suicidal an idea as I have ever heard. Now they reported that I had convinced them not to try it, so I was glad that I had saved another couple of French lives.

The summit was 15,500 feet, definitely a personal best. And I can report to Eric that there wasn't an obvious extra 1000 feet that he could have easily climbed. Even without altitude sickness. But off to the side, mostly covered in clouds, was 23,000 foot high Lenin Peak. And I can attest that, my world weary blasé notwithstanding, it was all pretty neat.

After a couple of semi-warm minutes the wind started to pick up, so back we went into the Land Rover. And down the slope we went. Almost my entire trip except for Bishkek had been bright and sunny, but now as we neared Kyrgyzstan the sky once again became overcast and threatening. The mountains were pretty much the same as before, but without the sheen of sunshine. The next great sight was supposed to be Lake Karakul, a turquoise gem set in an otherworldly setting.

Well, maybe on a sunny day. On a cloudy one it was just a medium sized mountain lake. Turok wanted to stop for lunch, but I had my own bread and cheese, so I had him drop me and Alexei the Ukrainian off at the lakeside while he went to a tiny settlement a half mile away for Tajiki fare. I told him to come back in 15 minutes.

Not smart on my part. For now there was a constant, bitterly cold 30-40 mile an hour wind whipping in from the lake. I hurriedly ate my cheese while being buffeted by the tempest, then I balanced over rocks to the water. Little oil slicks were everywhere. So much for turquoise gems.

By now it had been 15 minutes and even Alexei was a little freaked about the cold, and he was from the Ukraine. I decided to head on over to the settlement. It took about 20 minutes of seemingly wilderness trekking to make it. When we found Turok he was just getting it together to come out for us.

The Tajik border was the next fun part. I've seen a lot of strange borders in my time, but this one just about tops it. Tajikistan, being next to Afghanistan, has one of the worst drug smuggling problems in the world, but the Customs narco control post was just a shack. A guy came out and had Alexei take most of the stuff out of his pack. Then he got cold and tired of it and gave me a free pass.

But the Immigration post was the best. It was literally an old cylindrical tank like an oil truck might carry, with a door cut out of one end and a small window cut into the side. Turok was nice enough to stand there in the wind with our passports waiting for the Immigration guy to take forever just to put the stupid exit stamp in.

Then it was about 30 km of no man's land, still jouncing downwards. And I mean jouncing, being no man's land...neither country upkept it. For almost the first time on my trip some short naturally growing grass now greened the previously empty rock, and that certainly perked things up. All in all one of the prettiest parts of the Pamir Highway.

The Kyrghyz border post was housed in an actual building. A heated building. Again, no problems. Their narco customs squad couldn't have cared less about checking us. Then it was 23 km into Sary Tash, a town of about 100 houses scattered about.

Turok dropped us off at the Aida 'cafe and hotel',actually just another house with a room for backpackers. When Alexei found that it would be $8 for a room, dinner, and breakfast, he decided that he would try to continue on to Osh. Even though it was freezing, night was fast descending, and there was absolutely no traffic. Nor did he ever thank me for his free ride.

Aida turned out to be run by two really friendly Kyrghyz sisters. When they led me around the back to the room I opened the door and... An electric space heater! Glowing merrily away. Also already sitting there, kind of looking like he was in shock, was an Austrian cyclist named Harry. The sister took my order for potatoes and left, and I stood warming myself by the 'fire' and chatting with Harry.

After the requisite small talk, Harry hesitantly let on that today had been the weirdest day of his whole life. Here was his story:

He had camped last night in the cold in no man's land, then had cycled up to the Kyrgyz border post. After being entered, the guy asked him if he'd like a shot of vodka. Harry usually didn't drink on the road, but the guy was persuasive. By the time it was over Harry had ended up sharing lunch and downing a whole bottle of vodka with the immigration guy.

By now totally drunk, he was wobbling on the road into Sary Tash when he was stopped by a guy with a horse and cart. The guy unshackled the saddled horse and begged Harry to get on said horse so that the guy could take a souvenir picture of him. Harry, who had never ridden a horse, obliged, at which point the horse started galloping headlong out of control down the road. With Harry, stone drunk, literally hanging on for dear life. About 4 km along the horse finally slowed, Harry got off, and walked it back to the guy.

Who was still standing there with Harry's bike and all of Harry's money and possessions. Harry later found that the guy had tried to ride the bicycle and had indeed stolen the first thing he found, which was a (useless to him) water filtration bottle. So the question now arose, was the guy a really incompetent thief or just a total nut job? Whatever the case, Harry was pretty lucky to still have his possessions and his body this evening. My moral of the story was, Don't get drunk in strange countries. Harry's was that he had gotten overly naïve having just spent a month in friendly, innocent Tajikistan.

I could sympathize. Maybe it was their lousy weather, maybe it was because they had just killed 1000 Uzbeks for no good reason, but I just didn't trust the Kyrghyz. Or maybe it was because, far more than any other of the Central Asians, they looked so much like the Mongolians. And although most of the Mongolians are really nice, some of them would knife you and leave you to die without even thinking twice.

Once again, not much to do after the food was eaten, so I went to sleep. I was awake at 5:30 the next morning, listening in the dark as a couple of trucks rumbled by. I was eager to get going, but I didn't want to disturb anyone. Anyway, the sisters had said that 7:30 was a great time to start hitching a ride with one of the Chinese trucks going over the Irkeshtam Pass into China. They said that there would be 'no problem'. 'Lots and lots of trucks'.

So when I walked up the 100 m to the little gas station at the Y I wasn't too concerned that the weather had now turned really, really bad. With the basic houses scattered about and the short grass and the wind and the cold grey it reminded me a bit of Labrador. Unlike Labrador, though, none of the few people walking to and fro said 'hi'.

In my mind I had been prepared for the dry, cloudless cold of Murgab. But they only get a few inches of precipitation a year in almost all of Central Asia, and this was still only September, so it had never occurred to me that I might get stuck in something like this. Namely, a constant wet wind, the sky getting more threatening all the time, and a few spare snowflakes drifting down. While I was wearing my thin thermal, a long sleeve tee, a light 'explorer' shirt, and a spring windbreaker.

Oh, and no trucks. None. No traffic whatsoever. Except maybe every ten minutes a local jeep would wander by. After a half hour or so I motioned to the guy at the gas station whether I could wait with him inside. He said no. I stood there in the wind trying to compare this with my other freezing hitchhiking moments. But I was twenty back then and I didn't have to worry about possibly dying from my misadventures. And back then I at least had gloves.

By 8:30 I was pretty damn frigid, and I was weighing my options. Maybe I could go back to the sisters and arrange to hire a jeep. Other than that I was stuck in Sary Tash for the weekend, given that this was Friday and the border was closed on Saturday and Sunday. I gave myself until 9 to stand there before I gave up.

I probably couldn't have made it. Because when the first Chinese truck came by and stopped at 8:35 and I went to get in, I noticed that my toes were completely froze. The driver was a friendly Uigher (pronounced 'weeger'), the Central Asian people who occupy western China, and he immediately refused payment, had his son scurry to the little bed behind the seats, and got me comfortably inside.
Off we went.

The LP had said that the road to the border was in terrible condition. But the Chinese had been here since, and most of it was in mint paved condition. When we got to where the Chinese road crew were efficiently constructing away, it was the first time that I had seen anything that was even remotely together since that Turkish shopping center in Ashgabat.

Then a stretch of rough road where they were starting the construction, then back to pavement. Once again, this wasn't a real 'pass'. The road went up and up in a straight line on a stony plain with mediocre mountains on either side. Then about 20 km before the border it started to go down, now starting to look like we were going through southern Utah. When the truck got to the Kyrgyz border post the driver pulled into a lot filled with other trucks, and I figured out why traffic had been so sparse today. There was no way he was going to be processed before Monday.

I, however, should have an easier time of it. I made my way to Customs and Immigration, where they courteously stamped me out. Then they put me on the next truck through for the 6 km ride to the Chinese side.

Except that after my truck had gone about 2 km he was stopped behind a line of other trucks at a gate. So I got out and lugged my stuff to the head of the line, where I was put on the next truck through. Except that he was stopped a little further by a longer line of trucks waiting to go through the actual border. So I got out and walked up hill to the front of that line.

Through the Chinese gate and a quick look at my documentation. Then they put me on another truck going to their official border post. Which ended up at the end of another long line. I walked past 31 trucks and entered the building.

Everyone was super polite. All in all I was pretty lucky, because they should have been closed for lunch. But they were just finishing up a Spanish tour group, so I was an add on At 11:45 I was officially into China.

Ah, Civilization. Now there would be warm weather and people eagerly swarming around me, offering to change money, take me to Kashgar on a smooth paved road, you name it. After all, the LP had said so. But as I stepped outside all I was met by was a cold, cold drizzle. I walked over to the Spanish tour bus to see if they had a spare seat I could buy. Nope.

What was going on? Or rather, not going on? Even the border people were gone now, finally off to lunch. And the weather was just getting worse. I walked around, trying to find anyone doing anything. A pickup went by. I said 'Kashgar?' to the girls inside, but they drove off. Then they stopped and pointed back to a car parked over there. It was a taxi. I went up and asked.

The regular fare is 60 yuan. The guy wanted 100. But I would be his last passenger, and I just wanted to get out of there, so I agreed. Then one of the other passengers pointed down a row of shuttered shops to one that was open and said, 'money change'. I went over to got some yuan for my dollars.

When I got back to the taxi five minutes later the driver had sold my seat to somebody else. And by now the drizzle was changing to a hard, cold rain. So I stood there for a couple of minutes, knowing that the driver would be conflicted because he'd be making more money from me. Sure, someone else would then have to be standing outside in the rain. But, hey, I was here first.

Just then someone called from another vehicle, asking if I wanted to go to Kashgar. This driver wanted 150, but I bluffed him down to 120, and soon I was squeezed into the back seat of a Grand Tiger pickup, next to a woman and baby and various other packages.

Down the road we went. Yes, it was paved, but it was in pretty bad condition. The area continued to look vaguely southern Utah, though not that I could see anything with the constantly fogged windows. We kept on dropping lower, but the cold rain kept on coming. After about an hour and a half we stopped at a poor roadside Uigher village where the rest of them had noodles and meat. The temperature was starting to rise and the rain was ceasing to fall.

Another half hour or so and we were out of the mountains and in an agricultural area. For the first time on my trip there were clumps of naturally growing trees. Chinese trees, to be sure, which look different from European and North American trees. But trees nonetheless.

The driver had to get off the road to transact a little business in the county seat. As we drove down the fully functioning wide main boulevard, with fully functioning new buildings lining the way, I was almost astonished. Virtually anyone living in Central Asia would do anything to live in a place like this. Socialist town planning like the Soviets could only dream of. What couldn't these Chinese do?

When we were back on the main road, it was clear that they hadn't yet gotten around to fixing up the rest of the county. The Uigher towns were basic, funky and poor. But I did get an ethnic treat, in that the driver needed to drop some things off at his home village, which was almost as quaint as the Pamiri one in the Wakhan. The Uigher house, also, was similar in structure to a Pamiri one. I sat and dipped bread in tea for around 15 minutes and noted the various differences.

About 30 km short of Kashgar the driver 'sold' me to a cab driver, who took me the rest of the way. The last 15 km were on a new limited access freeway, and the markers showed that we were about 1400 km from Urumqi, which is generally regarded as China's far, far west.

I was dropped off at the Chini Bagh hotel complex, long the traveler's favorite. But its cheapest rooms, at 180 yuan ($30), were depressing. And what's worse they had those awful thin mattresses. So I walked over to a nice new looking hotel next door, the Eden, just to see what I could get there. A really friendly Uigher English speaking manager showed me a snazzy room with a giant bed and a fully functioning bathroom for 188 yuan. Plus they would put some more comforters on the mattress to make it more comfortable.

Civilization, I have found you!


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