Monday, July 29, 2013

My First Silent Film: Act III

As you may be aware by now, I recently tried to leave Kazakhstan three times. If you’re not aware of this, then this post will probably be completely out of context for you; I suggest that you start by reading my previous posts, Act I and Act II. This is the final of three acts, which describes the happenings and characters of the third, and final, crossing attempt. I hope by now that you see the potential of this as a silent film, and don’t think that my blog title is ridiculous. If you do, then please keep your thoughts to yourself; no one likes you anyway. Now, if I may, please allow me to introduce: Act III:

Act III: Jason, after failing to exit Kazakhstan his first and second time, makes friends with truck drivers and tries to leave Kazakhstan again.

Cast List (in order of appearance—not inclusive of minor roles):
1) Jason: Slightly rundown, 23-year-old male. He could use a shower.
2) Umid: 23-year-old Uzbek truck driver. He has a wife, a 6-month-old daughter, an exceptionally full unibrow, and a mustache that would put many men to shame. He is interested in American trucking habits and expenses, eager to learn English, somewhat vulgar, and frustratingly curious. He does not drink, though he has other vices—such as sugar consumption.
3) Nastia: Kazakh border guard currently employed in Korgas, on the Kazakh-side of the border with China, who does not want to have intercourse with Jason. She is a heavy text messaging user of emoticons, and appears to have some legitimate authority at the border crossing.
4).Truck Driver 1: Kazakh truck driver. He enjoys drinking and sharing vodka; his preferred brand is called “Heaven.” He is a heavy user of salt, but readily shares his meals with those around him.
5) Roman, the Trucker: Uzbek truck driver, not to be confused with Roman from Act II. He enjoys vodka, salt, and trucking. He knows some Basic English words.
6) Borhan: drives a taxi in Zharkent (from Act II). He really likes watermelon.
7) Kazakh Border Guard 1: Handles drug-sniffing dog. His habits regarding lewd jokes and playing with his partner, Drug-Sniffing Dog, do not change frequently.
8) Drug-Sniffing Dog: Partner of Kazakh Border Guard 1. His interests, much like his partner’s, do not readily change.
9) Timor: Somehow affiliated with a bus that drives between Zharkent and the Chinese-side of the border crossing. He has enough clout to decide who pays and who does not, but his exact role is highly ambiguous. 
10) Yang Lin: Absolutely miserable border agent.
11) Bus Driver: Drives bus (from Act I) between Zharkent and the Chinese-side of the border crossing. He does not change his clothes—ever.

(Early Evening. Inside the Kitchen/Dining Area of the Truck Stop from Act II: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
As Jason is eating his meal, he becomes the topic of conversation for the truck drivers sitting at the other two tables. After explaining that he is American and speaks some Russian, they become especially friendly; it’s obvious that they do not meet many Americans in their line of work. Eventually they finish their meal and leave to complete their trucking duties for the evening, and Jason is left to drink his tea alone.

He texts Nastia to enquires about is a cheap place to stay nearby. From his earlier conversation with the proprietor of the truck stop, Jason is under the impression that the price is 5,000 Tenge a night—$35 USD. Convenience of the location to the Chinese border aside, the price is ridiculous; even at the hostel in Almaty—the cosmopolitan hub of Kazakhstan—Jason had paid far less than half of that per night. However, from her response, Nastia clearly assumes that he is looking for an invitation to stay at her home. She declines, citing the conservative culture of the area, but asks to be told when he arrives at the border crossing the next day. She does not give assistance in providing information about inexpensive lodging in the local area, but says that she hopes to be the one to put a stamp in his passport.

Umid returns, and immediately begins a dialogue about his truck. He drives a Volvo. He is very curious about the cost of cars in America—more specifically, semitrucks. He quickly steers the conversation to the cost of shipping containers in America. When Jason tells him that he doesn’t know the cost of shipping containers in America, Umid repeats the question to make sure that Jason understands. Jason repeats his answer, and tells him that he doesn’t know anything about the prices of shipping containers in America. Umid repeats his question again to make sure that Jason understands. Jason repeats his answer again, and tries to move the conversation in another direction.

Umid is also eager to learn some English words, as he hopes that his 6-month-old daughter will someday be fluent. He and Jason go through an exhaustive list of farm animals, colors, and kitchen utensils, writing their Russian and English equivalents on a piece of paper for Umid to keep. They also count to one hundred, and write most of this down as well. As he leaves to use the restroom, a group of other truckers enter and order a meal.

As Jason drinks his tea alone, once again, Truck Driver 1 calls over to him and asks if he would like a drink. Relishing the opportunity to drink cheap vodka with a group of Kazakh truck drivers, Jason accepts his proposition. An awkward moment of logistics ensues, as there are no additional chairs at Truck Driver 1’s table, but concludes with all four of the truckers picking up their plates and belongings and moving to Jason’s table. The “Heaven” vodka is poured, Truck Driver 1’s favorite, and a bottle of coke is placed on the table. Jason is asked to provide the toast.

As his dinking vocabulary is severely limited, he keeps it simple and toasts to “new friends.” This isn’t good enough though, and Roman, the Trucker, who is sitting next to Jason, provides some support. Everyone at the table drinks.

The next round of shots is immediately poured. Truck Driver 1 provides the toast: to “Americans.” Everyone at the table drinks.

A short break is taken as the rest of the trucker’s food arrives. Truck Driver 1 salts his meal excessively, and provides Jason a fork to eat with. Though he has just eaten, he eats some of the overly-salted meal to be polite. Umid walks into the room and sits down at the table as well.

The next round of shots is poured. Roman, the Trucker provides the toast. Everyone at the table, save Umid, drinks.

The next round of shots is poured. A toast is made. Everyone at the table, save Umid, drinks.

The next round of shots is poured. A toast is made. Everyone at the table, save Umid, drinks.

The next round of shots is poured. The vodka runs dry; the entire bottle has been emptied in less than 20 minutes. Truck Driver 1 suggests that, because he is a guest, Jason make the final toast. Worried that he might provide another unacceptable toast, he asks to provide the final words in English, rather than struggle with something in Russian; this is found to be acceptable by the truckers. As he knows he won’t be understood though, his toast is largely just irrelevant banter with selectively emphasized words. He concludes by raising his glass, pausing momentarily, and saying confidently, “happy ass day.” All of the truckers raise their glasses together and repeat in unison, “happy ass day.”

The conversation continues, but as the vodka has been emptied, the truckers in the room gradually leave one by one. Eventually Jason gets up and goes to bed as well; it’s 11:00 PM, and he has had a long, tiring day of travel and vodka consumption.

(Late Night. Inside the Truck Stop’s Inn: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
Jason enters the room adjacent to the kitchen/dining area, and discovers that the chef’s children are there watching television. Exhausted, but not wanting to be rude, he politely asks them to leave; they respond, make a joke, and laugh at him together. He shoos them out, and they shoo back at him. He asks the smart-alecky children to leave again, and they oblige.

As Jason prepares for bed, the children come in several more times and taunt him. He grows frustrated, and vows to himself that if they come in again, he’ll leave the overpriced hotel and find a room down the road.

There’s a knock at the door.

Jason puts on his shoes.

Umid walks in.

Jason takes off his shoes.

He asks him what he needs, and Umid responds, asking for Jason’s passport. Without questioning why he needs his passport, Jason removes it from his left front pocket and hands it to the Uzbek trucker. Umid takes it, sits down on a bed, and says that he just wants to look at it. It’s 11:30 PM.

Umid proceeds to sound-out all of the words in the passport aloud, page by page. He uses the Cyrillic pronunciation for any letters that are shared in the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. The reading crawls by slowly, and Jason is forced to intervene on several complex words.

He then thumbs through the passport, page by page, and asks Jason about every stamp. There are 42, and many of them—due to dried-out ink pads—are completely illegible. Whenever Jason tells Umid that he doesn’t know where a stamp is from, he repeats the question several times to make sure that Jason understands what he is asking. Jason gives the same answer, several times.

He then looks through the passport, page by page, and asks Jason about every visa. There are seven. Whenever Jason tells him that he doesn’t know what the visa says, because it is in another language, Umid repeats the question several times to make sure that Jason understands what he is asking. Jason gives the same answer, several times.

At 1:00 AM, an hour and a half after he entered the room, Jason asks Umid to leave; he is literally falling asleep. Umid obliges the request, gives back the passport, and leaves. Jason is not disturbed for the rest of the night—either by children or truckers—and he sleeps on the metal-springs-covered-by-a-thin-pad very well.

(Mid-Morning. Inside the Kitchen/Dining Area of the Truck Stop: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
Jason is drinking tea, happy that he didn’t have to spend another night sleeping on a bus. Umid walks into the room, sits down across the table from him, and proudly counts to 100. He also lists off several farm animals, and names the fork and spoon sitting on the table. He has obviously been practicing. Jason is impressed.

He then asks Jason if he had intercourse with the chef—who is roughly 30 and the mother of several smart-alecky children. Jason responds and says that he didn’t. Umid asks him how it was. Jason tells him that he doesn’t know, because it didn’t happen. Umid repeats the question several times to make sure that Jason understands what he is asking. Jason gives the same answer, several times, and changes the topic of the conversation.

Umid pours himself some tea. He then proceeds to pour three large spoonfuls of sugar into it. As the cup is quite small, the sugar—not dissolved—would make up roughly one fifth of the cup’s volume. When he asks, Jason declines Umid’s offer to add sugar to his own cup.

During the course of the conversation and sugar pouring, several birds fly in and out of the room. As another flies in, Jason asks what it is doing. Umid points to the corner of the room, where all of the wiring from the truck stop meets in disarray near the ceiling. The bird’s nest of wiring is, quite literally, a bird’s nest.

(Mid-Morning. Outside the Truck Stop: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
After Jason paid for his meal and lodging—it was actually only 500 Tenge per night, not 5000—Umid decided to see him off. He and Jason walk to the gate of the border where several taxis are waiting. Jason gets into a taxi.

(Mid-Morning. Outside the Second Gate of the Border Crossing: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
The taxi stops, as it is not allowed to go any further; Jason will have to walk the last 500 meters to the Kazakh-side of the border crossing. As he walks, he sees Borhan leaning against his taxi, waiting for patrons, and eating watermelon. He shakes Jason’s hand, and tells him to call him when he needs a ride back to Zharkent; he’s free all day.

(Mid-Morning. Inside the Kazakh-side of the Border Crossing: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
Jason gets in line behind a hoard of Kazakh traders who are also attempting to cross the border to China; he texts Nastia to inform her that he is at the border crossing, and asks which station she is working in. As he waits for a response, Kazakh Border Guard 1 sees Jason, and walks with Drug-Sniffing Dog to greet him. As Drug-Sniffing Dog stares intently at the border guard’s ball-containing satchel, Kazakh Border Guard 1 makes a lewd joke about his coworker; he uses hand gestures to ensure that Jason understands what he is inferring. Jason changes the course of the conversation and shows Kazakh Border Guard 1 that he has successfully obtained the Migration Police stamp necessary to leave Kazakhstan. Kazakh Border Guard 1 wishes him luck, and leaves to resume his ball-throwing work with Drug-Sniffing Dog.

While waiting in the back of the absurdly long line, Jason sees Nastia exit from a side door. She motions for him to come to the door, and then leads him through a hallway to the inbound side of the border crossing. She places him in the front of the line of Kazakh traders, and begins going through his paperwork. She asks how and where he slept, and motions for him to stand more directly in front of the surveillance camera. He smiles at it. She motions for him to sidestep again so that he is actually in front of it. He smiles at it again. She stamps his passport—with legible ink—and tells Jason to call her if he needs help in Kazakhstan again.

Jason has successfully left Kazakhstan. He has not yet entered China.

(Mid-Morning. Outside the Kazakh-side of the Border Crossing: No-Man’s Land)
As Jason is in the awkward no-man’s land between the two countries, he asks a Marshrutka driver for a ride to the Chinese-side of the border crossing, and waits for the van to leave. While waiting. Timor yells out to him, “George!”

Jason, responding to one of the two names—the other being “Joseph”—most often given to him by mistake in Central Asia, is told to get onto the bus adjacent to the Marshrutka. Jason asks the man’s name and how much the fare is, and is told that the ride is free because he is Timor; they’ve obviously met before, but Jason can’t remember the encounter. Assuming that the ride probably isn’t free but that this man probably is Timor, he gets onto the bus and is immediately questioned by a Chinese woman who demands some amount of currency in a language that is not Russian. Jason doesn’t understand, and refers the woman to Timor, who is some kind of bus-god amongst bus-men; his exact job title is unknown. An argument ensues, and the Chinese woman never speaks to Jason again. She does, however, repeatedly bump into his face—as she walks up and down the aisle—with her fanny pack. It appears to be purely spiteful.

(Mid-Morning. Inside the Chinese-side of the Border Crossing: Korgas, China)
Jason receives his stamp to enter China.

He walks briskly through customs, as he has nothing to declare, but is stopped by Yang Lin. The border agent asks his superior if the large bag Jason is carrying needs to be searched. They converse with one another quickly in Chinese, and the superior motions for Jason to enter into the Yang Lin’s bag-searching line. Jason complies, and sets his backpack down on the desk in front of the border agent.

Yang Lin looks unhappy. He starts off by searching the small daypack that Jason is carrying, and goes through it exhaustively: he removes the camera, and searches through the photos; he stares at (reads?) a few recent pages from Jason’s journal; he sifts through a small bag of candy. As the search continues, Yang Lin looks more and more pitiful. By the time he finishes with the daypack and looks at the task ahead of him, his misery is obvious.

Yang Lin puts the daypack aside and pulls over—struggling with the weight—the larger backpack. He starts with the top zipper pocket, and pulls out Jason’s bag of shower toiletries. He stares at the bag momentarily, and—without searching the rest of the pocket, nor even the bag itself—puts the toiletries back and zips the compartment closed. Yang Lin then opens the main compartment of the pack from the top. Knowing that even he hasn’t searched the depths of his backpack in weeks, Jason smiles at the thought of the show the border agent is about to put on.

Yang Lin looks terrified.

He pulls out the topmost item—Jason’s sweatshirt—and reaches in again. He pauses. He removes his hand, empty.

Yang Lin begins slowly poking the outside of the backpack with his finger.

Without opening any other pockets or removing any articles from the bag, he pushes the bag to Jason and tells him to have a nice day. He calls over the next person in line, and Jason—temporarily feeling something like sympathy towards the man—picks it up and leaves him. He exits the building and walks into the crisp, refreshing, smog-filled air of China. He finally made it.

(Mid-Afternoon. Inside the Chinese-side of the Border Crossing’s Bus Terminal: Korgas, China)
While at the Chinese bus terminal, Jason spots Bus Driver—also wearing the same clothes as he was three days—walk into the waiting room to sit down. As Jason greets him, Bus Driver looks confused and asks him why he’s not in Kazakhstan.

End of Act III

Well that’s all, folks. Hope you enjoyed it. Here are the links to Act I and Act II.

Happy trails,

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My First Silent Film: Act II

As I mentioned in my previous post (if you haven’t read it, please see Act I), I recently tried to leave Kazakhstan three times; the process was somewhat of a disaster though, as I did not have the proper paperwork filled out. However, over the course of three days, I interacted with—over and over—many characters in the microcosm around the border crossing. This is the second of three acts, which is how I’ve chosen to break out the happenings of each crossing attempt. Personally, I think it would be an entertaining silent film, which is why I’ve named the blog as such; the majority of the dialogue is actually pantomiming. Please see Act I for my witty reference to Charlie Chaplin. Now, please allow me to introduce: Act II:

Act II: Jason, after failing to exit Kazakhstan, travels from Zharkent, back to Almaty (so that he can register with the Migration Police), and then back to Zharkent. His new goal is to be in Urumqi, China in less than 50 hours total.

Cast List (in order of appearance—not inclusive of minor roles):
1) Jason: Still dashingly handsome, though somewhat exhausted from unsuccessful travel. He is in good spirits though, knowing that had he not gone through this experience now, it could have been worse later on.
2) Roman: Old man who lives nearby Zharkent. He shuffles between storefronts looking for Westerners whom he can assist, whether they are looking for help or not. He speaks no English.
3) Kuralee: The daughter of Roman—lives in Almaty. She is employed as a tourist guide, and supposedly speaks five languages: Kazakh, Russian, German, French, and English. She may or may not also be pushing drugs.
4) Nastia: Kazakh border guard currently employed in Korgas, on the Kazakh-side of the border with China, who does not want to have intercourse with Jason—despite the promptings of her coworker. She is a heavy text messaging user of emoticons.
4) Confused Cab Driver 1: Works as a cab driver picking up patrons outside the Sayran Bus Station in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
5) Angry Migration Police Official: (Sometimes) speaks to travelers who need to register with Kazakhstan’s Migration Police. She speaks very little English, and her smile looks like a slightly concave version of her favorite facial expression, the frown. Her role is somewhat ambiguous, as she does not do paperwork, and directs most conversations to her secretary.
6) Migration Police Secretary: The secretary who sits directly adjacent to Angry Migration Police Official. He speaks English well, and seemingly does most of the work of his superior. His demeanor is pleasant, and he is extremely helpful in filling out the Russian/Kazakh-language paperwork required to register with the Migration Police.
7) Confused Cab Driver 2: Works as a cab driver picking up patrons outside the Zharkent Bus Station in Zharkent, Kazakhstan.
8) Borhan: Drives a taxi in Zharkent. He has two children, a wife, and likes watermelon. He detests moments of silence.

(Late Afternoon, Becoming Nighttime. In and Around the Zharkent Bus Terminal: Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
Jason, upon arriving back in the Zharkent bus terminal after his first failed border crossing attempt, is mobbed by taxi drivers seeking his patronage for a trip back to Almaty. The first price given to him is $100 USD. Upon refusal, the price is immediately cut down to $50 USD. Upon further refusal, the drivers lose interest and Jason enters the ticketing office to buy a bus ticket for the next available bus. As none of the windows are open, he speaks with two individuals—also waiting for a bus—who tell him that there are several buses leaving that evening, but not until 11:30 PM; the windows will open at 8:00 PM—in an hour—to sell tickets.

Out of curiosity, boredom, and thirst, Jason walks to the local store to buy water and verify the bus schedule with the clerk. As he discusses the trouble he had at the border—the clerk speaks English—an old man, Roman, enters, and begins talking to the Clerk in Russian. He begins to motion to Jason to follow him. The clerk explains to Jason that the old man told her that a taxi to Almaty would only be 1500 Tenge ($10 USD). Assuming that the man is a Taxi driver, and that this is probably too good to be true, Jason follows him.

Roman leads Jason most of the way back to the taxi drivers—who are standing together smoking, patiently waiting for patrons to appear—but makes him stand behind a bush so that he is hidden from their sight. Roman motions for him to stay behind the bush until he returns—in reality only partially hidden, because Jason is over six feet tall and carrying a large backpack—while he goes and talks the cab drivers down to the $10 fare he had told the store clerk about. Two cab drivers walk up to the partially-hidden Jason, and begin telling him, again, that the fare back to Almaty is $50 USD—they clearly saw him walk up with Roman and immediately hide behind a bush. The old man reappears shortly thereafter, tells Jason that the trip will cost $50, and leads him into the bus station’s terminal to the—closed—ticketing windows.

Inside the terminal, Jason tries to explain to Roman that the only buses will leave at 11:30 PM, and that the windows will open at 8:00 PM. He hushes Jason, and speaks with the same two individuals that Jason had spoken with only minutes prior. They look confusedly at Jason as they answer his questions, which are clearly the same answers they had given earlier. When he is satisfied, Roman sits on the bench across from the ticketing window, and motions for Jason to sit next to him. He speaks no English, but he asks probing and complex questions in Russian that Jason struggles to answer coherently. After 15 minutes of a continually dying conversation, Roman suggests that they eat at the restaurant in the bus station. Jason agrees.

The two eat while Roman speaks with the other patrons, giving him a blessedly long break from struggling to form answers to the old man’s questions. At the meal’s end, at 8:00 PM, Jason is forced to pay for both of the meals, as Roman is clearly performing some kind of service for the Westerner—thereby making him responsible for all of the expenses that are incurred. They walk the 15 meters back to the ticketing window, where Jason tells the agent where he is going, at what time he wants to leave, and gives her the correct amount of payment; he already spoke with the same agent earlier that day when he purchased a bus ticket to the Chinese border (in Act I), and took a bus going on the same route in the opposite direction (from Almaty) that same morning—nothing new.

Roman continues to stay and ask Jason complex and probing questions which he struggles to answer, and tells him no less than six times when the bus will be arriving in Almaty the next morning—5:00 AM. It suddenly occurs to him that his daughter—Kuralee—lives in Almaty, and could pick up Jason from the bus terminal at 5:00 AM. Roman explains that his daughter speaks 5 languages, and is a tourist guide. He asks for Jason’s phone, on which he calls his daughter. Four minutes of casual conversation ensue before any mention of an “American” or “Almaty” is made. He then hands the phone to Jason for him to speak, though he has not given Jason any indication of what he is supposed to talk about. Kuralee‘s only response to his questions is “hello”, repeated several times. Jason hands the phone back to the old man, where the casual conversation continues until once again, the phone is handed back to Jason. Her only response is “hello.” This process repeats several times until Jason’s phone runs out of credit.

After Jason buys another $5 USD worth of credit at the nearby market, he returns to the old man. Excitedly, referring to his daughter Kuralee, Roman tells Jason something that contains a word sounding suspiciously like a transliteration of the English word, “narcotics.” When Jason tells him that he doesn’t understand, Roman repeats the word, and flicks his neck. Once again, Jason does not understand, so Roman repeats the word and motion several times over. Though unsure due to the language barrier, Jason is under the impression that the old man’s daughter is some kind of drug-pushing tourist guide, who doesn’t actually speak English. His urge to call her at 5:00 AM starts to diminish.

The next 2 and a half hours pass painfully slow for Jason.

At 11:00 PM, Roman notions for Jason to get up, and board one of the four Almaty-bound buses that have arrived at the bus terminal. Jason gets on, and Roman asks for 700 Tenge ($4.50 USD) for his cab fare home. As the service that he has preformed clearly warrants such payment, Jason obliges, and tries his best to fall asleep in his seat.

(Late Night. Aboard an Almaty-Bound Bus: Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
A woman shakes Jason, and motions for him to get up. He is not only in the woman’s seat, but also on the wrong bus. Jason gets off the bus, asks the driver where the correct one is, and boards that bus instead. Roman is no longer present.

(Early Morning. Aboard the Correct Almaty-Bound Bus: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Jason is shaken awake; the bus has arrived in Almaty. He takes out his phone and quickly debates whether or not he should call the drug-pushing, non-English speaking daughter of Roman. He does anyway, wondering if it is against his better judgment. 

Kuralee answers the 5:00 AM phone call. As Jason explains—in English—who he is and why he is calling, she responds by saying “hello” several times, and hangs up. He does not call her back.

(Early Morning. Café Outside of Sayran Bus Station: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
As Jason is drinking tea outside the bus station, he receives a text message from Nastia asking how he slept, whether he is in Almaty, and if he is coming back to the border crossing that same day; her excessive usage of emoticons is astounding. Though he responds in a timely manner, he receives no response.

(Early Morning. A City Bus Stop Outside of Sayran Bus Station: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Jason takes out 18,000 Tenge from an ATM in preparation for the fine he will have to pay at the Migration Police office. As he is waiting for the local bus, Confused Cab Driver 1 approaches and asks why he isn’t in China. This is a cab driver that Jason had briefly conversed with the previous morning, who obviously remembers him. Jason has no such memory, but asks him which the correct bus to the Migration Police office is. Confused Cab Driver 1 suggests that he take a taxi—specifically, his.

(Mid-Morning. Migration Police Station: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Without knowing who the person he needs to speak to is, Jason approaches the only window that does not have a line in front of it. Angry Migration Police Official is waiting for him, frowning. As he explains why he is there and gives her his passport and the partially-unstamped piece of paper that is preventing him from leaving the country, she hands the stack to the secretary—without speaking—sitting directly to her left. Jason sidesteps to his right, and begins speaking with the secretary after Migration Police Secretary opens his window. Migration Police Secretary explains that it will take 15 minutes to process the paperwork.

Jason patiently waits nearby for 15 minutes, fingering the 18,000 Tenge he is about to pay.

After the required 15 minutes have passed, Jason approaches the window of Migration Police Secretary—he is slightly terrified of Angry Migration Police Official—and waits for another 15 minutes until he is acknowledged. Digging through the nearby stack of passports, Migration Police Secretary hands Jason the stack of paperwork belonging to him. Jason waits nervously for the fine to be handed to him. Migration Police Secretary looks up from his paperwork at Jason for a moment, and looks back down without speaking; he is obviously working on another traveler’s passport. Jason makes a mad dash for the door, passport and fully-stamped slip of paper in hand.

(Late Afternoon. Around the Zharkent Bus Terminal: Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
After 6 hours of travel via Marshrutka, Jason reaches the Zharkent bus terminal for the third time. On his way to buy provisions at the local store, he runs into Confused Cab Driver 2. This is another cab driver that Jason spoke with the previous day. He asks Jason why he isn’t in China.

(Late Afternoon. Aboard a Taxi: Between Zharkent and Korgas, Kazakhstan)
As no buses were running at the time of his arrival to Zharkent, Jason procured a taxi with Borhan, a local cab driver. Though he speaks very little English, he happily banters in Russian and prevents the cab from ever falling into silence. After he and Jason pass several watermelon stands, he asks if there are watermelons in America. Because Jason does not recognize the Russian word for watermelon, Borhan describes them as large, green apples that are red inside. Jason tells him that they have many watermelons in America—both big and small.

At 6:15 PM, as they arrive via taxi to the first gate at the border crossing, Borhan tells Jason that the border closed at 6:00 PM. Though they had picked up and dropped off two other passengers on the way to the crossing, Borhan had made no mention of the border’s schedule until now, nor had he seemed to be in any particular rush. Thus, though he had traveled all day in an attempt to do so, Jason failed in his second attempt to leave Kazakhstan. He asks Borhan to drop him off at a truck stop nearby so that he can buy a meal.

(Early Evening. Inside the Truck Stop: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
At the truck stop, the chef shows Jason to their inn—the room adjacent to the kitchen/dining area—and prepares his meal. When it’s ready, he sits down to goulash, bread, and tea, and accepts the fact that he’ll have to make for the border the next morning. At least he’s closer than he was in Almaty.

End of Act II

Hope you enjoyed Act II. Don’t fret, I won’t pull a Game-of-Thrones and make you wait until next season for the exciting conclusion—just until I have internet again. I’ll be sure to add a link here to Act III for convenience once it is posted. Here is the link to Act III

Happy trails,

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My First Silent Film: Act I

I recently tried to leave Kazakhstan three times; in the process, over the course of three days, my life became intertwined with a number of people in the microcosm surrounding the border crossing. I’ve broken the events into three acts, each containing the happenings surrounding each crossing attempt. Since the majority of the dialogue contained in this script is actually pantomiming, I think it could make for a great silent film. Though I’m having some difficulty, I’m trying to get in touch with Charlie Chaplin for the lead role; I’m also seeking a musical score, so if anyone can play the tack piano, please let me know as soon as possible. Now, if I may (which I may, because I‘m the one writing this), please allow me to introduce: Act I:

Act I: Jason travels from Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Korgas, Kazakhstan, in an attempt to cross the land border into China. His original goal is to reach Urumqi, China, in less than 25 hours.

Cast List (in order of appearance—not inclusive of minor roles):
1) Jason: Dashingly handsome 23-year-old. He recently graduated from college in Boston, and is traveling in Europe and Asia in an attempt to fend off entering the “real world” for as long as possible. He struggles to speak Russian, but also enjoys struggling in many other endeavors as well.
2) 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male: Traveling to Urumqi, China, with four members of his family. He likes to speak with strangers in order to improve his broken English, and someday hopes to be a mechanical engineer; currently he is satisfied with playing video games and talking to people he has never met before. He often shares his candy.
3) Kazakh Family: Consist of mother, father, older son (see 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male), younger son, and daughter. They speak no English (except for the older son), but share candy and excessively salty, dried, fermented milk balls with strangers.
4) Bus Driver: Drives bus between Zharkent, Kazakhstan and the Chinese-side of the border crossing.
5) Nastia: Kazakh border guard currently employed in Korgas, on the Kazakh-side of the border with China. She is ethnically Russian (or possibly Ukrainian or German, but definitely not a descendant of Genghis Khan), blonde, attractive, and laughs at strangers experiencing hardship. She speaks English well, but has difficulty understanding why others are frustrated.
6) Kazakh Border Guard 1: Handles drug-sniffing dog. He is ethnically Kazakh, speaks broken English, and enjoys making his coworkers uncomfortable by making lewd jokes about them having intercourse with Americans.
7) Drug-Sniffing Dog: Partner of Kazakh Border Guard 1. He is some kind of German Shepard mix, and likes chasing balls and playing with strangers. He appears to be neither bark, nor bite, nor particularly interested in drugs—or anything except playing with the ball in Kazakh Border Guard 1’s satchel.
8) Kazakh Border Guard 2: Employed at the Kazakh border. He is also ethnically Kazakh, but understands neither humor, nor English. He is helpful in the fact that he knows how to lead Americans out of the Kazakh border station in the most quick and efficient manner possible.
9) Older Russian Woman: Travels between China and Kazakhstan with excessive amounts of delicious bread. She speaks no English, but is friendly and likes to share her bread with other Marshrutka passengers.

(Near-Darkness: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Jason wakes up at 5:15 AM in a state of confusion. He’s not sure where he is, per usual, but rolls over to turn off the alarm that is coming from his phone. He falls back asleep until the alarm goes off a second time. This time he gets up, remembers that he is in a hostel in Kazakhstan, and dresses quickly. Eating some four-day-old bread, he puts on his shoes, backpack, and leaves the hostel.

(Early Morning. A Street Outside the Hostel: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Jason waits on the street until a man in an unmarked car pulls over, unsolicited. They determine a price in Russian, and Jason gets into the car.

(Early Morning. Sayran Bus Station: Almaty, Kazakhstan)
Jason exits the unmarked car, and walks toward the terminal. He ignores the slew of Kazakh Marshrutka drivers who have rushed around him and are repeatedly shouting the names of various Central Asian cities at him. Inside the terminal, he speaks with a ticketing agent and finds out that the only bus to Urumqi, China (which leaves at 7:00 AM) has already sold out. The agent reminds him that there is a bus the next morning as well, for 8,900 Tenge. However, because Jason has brains as well as brawn, he determines that there is a city (Zharkent) nearby the Chinese border crossing to where he can take a bus as well; from there he can cross the actual border in a second bus, and then take a third bus for the remainder of the trip to Urumqi. Realizing that the total cost will be about half that of the direct bus, Jason happily pays the nice ticketing lady for the first leg of the trip.

(Late Morning. Aboard the Zharkent-Bound Bus: Between Almaty and Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
Jason snacks on dried fruit, and reads from a book. As the bus races towards Zharkent, swerving between innumerable potholes and carefully avoiding roadside livestock, 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male (sitting next to Jason) asks him if he speaks English. Because he does speak English—fluently, in fact—he responds and tells 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male that he speaks English. They begin a conversation, and Jason quickly learns that he and his family are traveling to Urumqi and are carrying vast stores of delicious candy. Concluding that they would make good travel companions, he suggests that they travel together. 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male cheerfully agrees to the proposal. Kazakh Family seems largely indifferent.

(Mid-Afternoon. Zharkent Bus Terminal: Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
Jason and Kazakh Family (including 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male) buy bus tickets from the terminal’s ticketing window, and board the second bus. This new bus will take them to the Kazakh-side of the border crossing with China, and through the no-man’s land to the Chinese-side of the border crossing. Bus Driver is present.

(Late Afternoon. Kazakh-side of the border crossing with China: Korgas, Kazakhstan)
Kazakh Family (including 15-Year-Old Kazakh Male) exit the bus with Jason. They run through the unmarked hallways of the building because—unknown to Jason—the border crossing is about to close at 6:00 PM. At passport control, he separates from Kazakh Family and opts for a shorter line than they are in. At the passport control station’s window, he smiles and gives his passport to the pretty border guard, Nastia. She smiles back, laughs after a moment, and tells him that he “must go back.” After a moment of fruitless explanation, she asks him to step aside so that other travelers can pass through her passport control station. Jason enters the first of the five stages of grief: denial.

After she has finished with the other persons in line, Nastia asks Jason to sit down on the bench outside her station. She explains that because he never registered with the Migration Police, he cannot leave the country; while never explained to him until now, the stamped slip of paper that was given to him at the border crossing into Kazakhstan was to notify him that he needed to get another stamp in order to get out of Kazakhstan. The fine print on the back of the slip, which Jason never read because he has neither brains nor brawn, clearly explains that the Migration Police must be notified of a traveler’s presence within five days of entry into the country. Nastia, still laughing intermittently at the situation Jason has gotten himself into, explains that the closest Migration Police station is in Almaty, Kazakhstan where he has just come from—six hours away by bus.

As Jason continues through the five stages of grief (anger, bargaining and depression), Kazakh Border Guard 1 and Drug-Sniffing Dog break from their nearby ball-throwing activities and take an interest in the seemingly humorous situation unfolding before them. Nastia recaps the situation, and they laugh too. Although Drug-Sniffing Dog does not seem to understand the predicament, and simply appreciates the ear-scratching and attention that he is now receiving from Jason. As Nastia reiterates to Jason that he must go back to Almaty and find somewhere to stay the night—so that in the morning he can go to the Migration Police, pay a 18,000 Tenge ($120 USD) fine for staying longer than five days without registering, and get his slip of paper stamped—Kazakh Border Guard 1 interjects and suggests that Jason simply spend the night at Nastia’s home, rather than going back to Almaty in one day. After using lewd hand notions to further clarify the meaning of his statement, he makes Jason stand, spin around twice (so as to properly market the goods he is trying to hawk), and attempts to sell the notion of intercourse to his now horrified coworker. Laughing, he then asks Jason whether or not he is married, and after hearing a response to his liking—that Jason is not married—again explains the merit of his suggestion. As Nastia refuses again to have intercourse with the traveler who has just failed to exit Kazakhstan (for the first time), Kazakh Border Guard 1 coerces her to exchange phone numbers with Jason. As she complies, Bus Driver enters, demanding to know why the situation is taking so long. When he is explained the situation, he shrugs indifferently and exits.

Kazakh Border Guard 2 enters, notions that Jason must leave, and takes him gruffly by the arm to lead him out of the border station. Upon exit, Jason finds a Marshrutka, enquires about a ride back to Zharkent, and boards.

(Late Afternoon. Aboard the Zharkent-bound Marshrutka: Between Korgas and Zharkent, Kazakhstan)
Older Russian Woman, who is traveling between China and Kazakhstan with excessive amounts of delicious bread, opens her satchel and pulls out a stack of bread. She offers a slab to Jason—who has not eaten for several hours—which he gratefully accepts. It is delicious. Jason enters the final stage of grief: acceptance.

End of Act I

And that’s it for now. After Act II is posted, I’ll add a link for convenience here. The link to Act II.

Happy trails,

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Astana or Bust

I apologize in advance if this post gets a little too graphic. I try to keep most of my blog postings as family-friendly as possible in hopes that someday Disney will make a movie about my life; we all know that the folks there would never publish anything inappropriate, such as a discretely-hidden penis on the original cover of The Little Mermaid. Anyway, put the kids to bed, pour yourself a bottle of wine, and read on.

I used to wonder why I put myself through hell to save a few dollars. Then it occurred to me: past-Jason is an asshole, and future-Jason is a pushover (or “little bitch”, for lack of a better term), who always puts up with his behavior. You may have even hear me say on occasion, after doing something particularly (fill in the blank), “we’re just going to let future-Jason deal with the consequences of this one…” In summary, since this probably doesn’t make sense to anyone but me: I have a tendency to make decisions without considering what I’ll be putting my future-self through.

Right. So that aside aside—I love saying that—I decided that it would be a good idea to take a bus from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Astana, Kazakhstan. Since very few of you know where both of these places are, here is an easy map: easy map. And since some (hopefully fewer) of you don’t know where Kazakhstan is either, here is another easy map: easy map 2.0. Now, let’s not worry about why I’m in Kazakhstan in the first place, and focus on the distance between these two cities: about 600 miles as the crow flies. This equates to a 13 to 22 hour train ride (depending on which train you take), an 18 hour bus ride, or a healthy 85 hour jog. I opted for the middle option for expense reasons, and bought the bus ticket sitting next to the pretty Russian girl. Here is my log—mostly written as it was happening as a means to pass to the time. The side notes are my posthumous additions.

Bus Log: Star Date 2:01 PM – Supposedly the departure time. Sitting on the bus, sweating, and wondering what I’m about to put myself through.

2:05 PM – Kicked out of my seat. Apparently they are assigned, and not first-come, first-served. If I had a nickel for every time that this has happened to me, I’d be rich—though only by Kyrgyzstan standards because nickels aren’t really worth anything anywhere else I’ve been.

2:20 PM – An overweight Kazakh man climbs aboard, the bus starts, and we leave the station.

2:30 PM – By now everyone has given up trying to adjust their overhead AC vent to “open”, and accepted that there will be no air conditioning—or airflow, minus the driver’s window—for the rest of this 18 hour trip. It’s 34 degrees (Celsius) outside.

2:35 PM – The overweight Kazakh man starts heckling the driver in Russian. Everyone is laughing, but I have no idea what the joke is. It feels like middle school all over again—still not part of the “in-crowd”.

2:37 PM – The driver pulls over, and opens the two emergency exits in the ceiling—propping each of them open with an empty water bottle because they don’t stay ajar otherwise. The heckling continues, but the driver doesn’t seem to care anymore and doesn’t stop again.

2:55 PM – The smooth road surrounding Almaty has given way to 2 lanes of potholes, broken glass, blown-out tires, and little else. I guess this is the steppe.

3:00 PM – Time for a snack. Dried apples (please check out my previous post if you’re curious about how much I love dried fruit).

3:05 PM – Finish off my snack with a tomato, cucumber, and a bit of formerly-carbonated water.

As a side note, the water “with gas” here stops having “gas” once you open the bottle about 3 times. Knowing this, I’ve stopped trying to figure out how to tell if the bottled water I buy—tap water usually isn’t potable—is carbonated or not.

3:15 PM – Just a steppe in the right direction…

3:35 PM – Not feeling so good. The road is pretty hellish, but I’m not sure what the issue is since I rarely get motion sickness. Mild heatstroke? I did walk around for 2 hours in the sun carrying my 22 kg souvenir-and-snack-laden pack looking for the bus station without any water… Then again, I don’t feel cold, and I don’t know any of the other symptoms. Something I ate? No way—I love dried apples, and they love me; they’d never try to hurt me.

4:00 PM – Okay, reading isn’t helping the motion sickness. Time to close my eyes, relax, and listen to the lyrical mastery of “Trouble”, by T. Swift, that’s playing from someone’s phone.

As another side note, this has been a reoccurring situation on almost every bus, Marshrutka, or shared taxi I’ve taken since entering the former USSR: when there is no radio playing, someone takes it upon themselves to act as DJ via their cellular device—subjecting the rest of the passengers to their musical whims. As someone who is not carrying an iPod, headphones, or any source of electronic entertainment though, I haven’t been bothered by this; it’s a neat insight into the local music scene, and every fifth song is in English anyway.

4:15 PM – We stop—thank god; my stomach can’t handle much more of this road. I get out to pee and buy some 7-Up in hopes that it will settle things down.

4:30 PM – The driver is blaring his horn and driving away slowly as people scramble to board the moving bus.

4:35 PM – Apple-flavored burps are starting. Also: the 7-Up-lookalike I bought is lemon-lime-flavored tea. It’s not even carbonated. Damn.

4:40 PM – The end is near. I accidentally tear a hole in a plastic bag as I rush to remove the precious contents—cucumbers—from inside it.

4:41 PM – Vom. And again. And then again. In the actual act, I manage to avoid coating myself and those around me. However, the plastic bag is leaking (via the hastily-tied repair) all over my tank top, shorts, and backpack. I put the vom bag inside another plastic bag, and the flow is stopped. I estimate that I’m holding a 3” x 3” x 2.5” bag of vomit in my hands. The pretty Russian girl next to me looks more unimpressed than disgusted; apparently 23 cubic inches of vom is not good enough for her. In Soviet Russia, bag vomits you.

4:45 PM – The urge to vom has subsided completely. I tie off both bags and place the vomception (a vom bag within a vom bag) gingerly on my lap. The balancing act to ensure that it doesn’t tip over begins; we probably have another 3 hours of driving before we stop again and I can throw out the bag. Awesome.

5:00 PM – Begin passing time by counting camels. Start singing “Harvest” (shout out to Neil Young circa 1972) to myself, as it’s been stuck in my head for two weeks now. The bus’s cell phone DJ hasn’t resumed their duties since the last stop.

5:20 PM – Start singing “What Would You Do” (shout out to City High circa 2001) to myself. Conclude that if my son were at home, cryin’ all alone on the bedroom floor because he was hungry, I probably wouldn’t sleep with a man for a little bit of money. Sorry City High, I’d find an alternative solution.

5:35 PM – Steppe update: still looks the same.

6:00 PM – Finish off the lemon-lime-flavored tea. Despite my initial reaction, I want more.

6:15 PM – Contemplate the business feasibility of introducing the Marshrutka to America. I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been done already—it’s such a perfect concept—but overall can’t come to a conclusion on how the public would react.

6:40 PM – Bus pulls over. I throw out vomception and look for a sink to wash my tank top and backpack in. There’s no running water. I consider throwing away the tank, but on the other hand, I’ve already lost one friend to the dangers of travel this trip and can’t afford to lose another. The tank top stays. Also, I don’t have access to the rest of my clothes since they’re locked in the storage area beneath the bus; being shirtless for the next 14 hours isn’t appealing to me, even though I'd have the company of two other similarly-dressed passengers.

6:50 PM – Fail in my attempts to say “I want to buy ice cream from the refrigerator behind your counter” in Russian, and settle for buying water and eating the melted snickers bar I’ve been carrying in my backpack for 5 days. I can’t figure out if the “Property of Milwaukee College” shirt the clerk is wearing is legit or not. Based on the number and variety of English-language shirts I’ve seen being worn lately, and her proficiency in English, I guess that it probably isn’t. Since I don’t feel up to the challenge of asking her if she goes to school in Milwaukee though, it remains a mystery. I’ll probably die never knowing.

7:00 PM – The driver climbs aboard carrying a beer, honks the horn, and we hit the road again. People are scrambling aboard a moving bus.

7:01 PM – More steppe.

7:15 PM – Notice the pretty Russian girl next to me is drinking something called “Dizzy Cocktail.” I consider the notion of icing Teddy (John “Teddy” Cordes) via the Kazakh postal system. I start working through a quick cost-benefit analysis.

8:00 PM – Calculate—based on my height and the curvature of the earth—that there is nothing within a 4 mile radius of me; rounding Pi to 3.1, there is nothing within the 49.6 square miles around the bus except camels, cows, truck drivers, and broken beer bottles.

8:15 PM – The pretty Russian girl next to me gets a phone call. Something is happening at 11 PM tonight. Based on her first impression of me though, I probably won’t get an invitation. 

9:00 PM – Sunset. I speculate that I’ll regret wearing only a tank top and shorts on this trip. Damn you past-Jason!

9:30 PM – Start to wonder if/when the bus driver will sleep on this trip. I’m exhausted (vomiting really takes it out of you) and I’m just a passenger—with 11 hours left to drive. Also: we just passed two gas stations that were across the street from one another; one said that it was 25 degrees, the other said it was 26 degrees. I don’t know who to trust.

11:00 PM – It’s still dark outside.

11:15 PM – We stop. I get off to buy some water, but the pretty Russian girl gets her luggage and leaves the bus for good. I hope Balkhash is worth giving up your seat next to the—dashingly handsome—guy who reeks of apples and hasn’t washed his clothes since (The) Ukraine.

11:25 PM – I board the bus again, but there’s an old man in my seat. I try to explain that he’s in my spot, but he gets angry and refuses to move. He’s pretty mean, but I find consolation knowing that he’s sitting in relatively fresh apple-vomit. I sit where the Russian girl was.

12:00 AM – Some coffee right now sure would put a spring in my steppe

2:20 AM – I wake up in a mysterious new truck stop. It’s cold outside, but the bus is cozy; someone removed the water bottles from the emergency exits. #tanktopsuccess

2:40 AM – The seat-stealing old man gets back on the bus and takes his (my) spot. He reeks of cigarettes. Gross. Then again, I’m no bottle of Pine Sol myself… Maybe we should be friends.

7:30 AM – Too tired to be witty—haven’t slept. I would do awful things for a toothbrush and some legroom.

8:25 AM – We pass the city limit sign to Astana. Time to steppe on it, driver.

8:27 AM – The overweight Kazakh man gets up and puts on his jacket, and I notice for the first time that he is wearing a full, bright blue, Kazakhstan track suit. The sun simultaneously breaks through the clouds. Today will be a good day.

8:50 AM – Arrive in the Astana bus terminal. Time to get weird…And change my clothes.

And thus marks the end of my bus log. I ended up only spending about 9 hours in Astana before deciding to leave it and go—via a 3 hour Marshrutka ride—to a nature park in the north. Was it all worth it? I’m not sure. All I know is that past-Jason is a jerk, and that he’ll manage to find more ways to screw future-Jason. Stay tuned.

Happy trails,


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Kyrgyzstan in a Word(s)

My experiences in Kyrgyzstan have been a bit too eclectic to put into a single post and maintain any semblance of flow. As I’m too lazy and/or time-pressed to write more than one post, I’m resorting to the list format once again. Please enjoy.

1) The vowel usage
This is more of a love-hate thing for me, actually. I love that they—both the country and the Kyrgyz people themselves—have chosen to use a letter that is only sometimes a vowel not once, but twice in their name; that’s a gutsy move, and I have a lot of respect for them since they didn’t cop out and use a more orthodox letter, such as “E”. However, as someone who couldn’t read until the third grade spelling has never been my forte, and despite being in the country, I’m relying on Word’s spellchecker even as I type this. While I could write an entire post about words that I find difficult to spell (“maintenance”, for example), I’ll save you from such ramblings for now.

2) Dried fruit mix
I love dried fruit—love dried fruit. Some of my earliest memories are of eating apples straight from the homemade fruit drier Momma Wolf used when I was a kid. To this day, even the faintest aroma of drying apples gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, and sends me back to a time when I used to open the dishwasher and use the door as a stool in order to reach the kitchen counter. Ah, memories… That tangent aside, the point is that I really like dried fruit, and eat excessive amounts of it when I have access to it. I’m not particularly sure why, but this country’s bazaars (and they’re just that, bazaar) is some kind of dried fruit haven. They have every fruit you could imagine—presuming said fruit is conducive to growing in the Central Asian climate—dried, in towering heaps, and labeled and priced in Russian. And if you’re like me and have trouble choosing just one type of fruit to buy a kilo of, there are sacks of premixed fruit available. That said, the quality isn’t quite up to par with Momma Wolf’s dried apples, or even soulless, corporate dried fruit—such as Craisins—for that matter. Somehow I don’t think that any amount of love or quality control went into the drying process here; I recently found a clump of feathers in my apple/apricot/small indistinguishable black fruit/raisin mix. I’m not really sure how that came to fruition (I suddenly wish I knew the etymology of that word), but I can only assume that the rest of the bird is somewhere in that sack in Bishkek. I don’t envy the poor soul who gets that fistful of mix.

3) Watermelon.
Now I realize that I just ranted for almost 300 words about dried fruit, but I also love non-dried variations as well—in particular, watermelon. There are literally heaps of melons lying on the street here—cheap, delicious, enormous, and unexploded. I wish that they were a little smaller, since I’m only one man, but that hasn’t stopped me yet; public bathrooms are cheap and relatively commonplace, but there don’t seem to be any real social qualms about peeing in bushes either. Things could be worse?

4) Leaded gas
I realize that this isn’t just a Kyrgyz thing, and that it has serious environmental impacts, effects brain development, etc., but where would all the old Ladas be without leaded gas? Which conveniently brings me to my next point…

5) The Lada
“Oh give me a home, where the Ladas still roam, and the beer and sheepandgoats play”
I think I could make a song about this—maybe later. To those of you who never experienced the joys of a Soviet lifestyle, the Lada is the workingman’s car. Small, majestic, prone to breaking down, and cheap, the Lada still has a stranglehold on the Kyrgyz car market. I’ve given this some thought though, and based on how I’ve seen them used, I’ve decided that the Lada isn’t so bad; it’s everything that you could want in a car.
Need to tow your cattle into town?  The Lada comes with an aftermarket trailer hitch.
Want to make some money as a taxi and pick up that stranger on the highway who is in-between Marshrutkas? The Lada seats the whole family, and then some—no seatbelts necessary.
Bought too many sheep at the bazaar? Throw ‘em in the trunk—it’s huge, and easily washed via hose.
Lumber on your roof rack weighing you down? Good thing you don’t have to worry about those heavy, Western airbags when calculating the load on your suspension.

6) Bananas are worth their weight in gold
And everything else is unfathomably cheap. I recently bought two bananas; for the price of five, I could have gotten a 6 hour, 300 km Marshrutka ride. After how poorly I spent my money in Greece, I had started to have concerns that my money supply would run out before the end of this trip. However, everything is so cheap here that just paying with a 1000 Som note (~20 USD) results in looks of horror—people don’t have large enough bills on them to make change. Then again, while I love it now, there’s going to be a period of serious culture shock when I get back to the US—even the FungWah (RIP) seems pricey to me now

7) People assume I’m Russian
At least until I speak. Then—the logic on this one still eludes me—they assume I’m Czech. I’m clearly Caucasian, but because I don’t speak Russian worth a damn, I must be from the Czech Republic? I’ve gotten this several times, but (1) it’s just nice to not be asked if I’m Australian, and (2) I love being greeted in Russian. And while the conversations usually require me saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” several times, there are still those—few and far in-between—occasions when I hold my own and answer questions to the satisfaction of the other person. Shout out to you, Katya Burvikova (my Russian teacher who will probably never read this because she doesn’t know this blog exists).

8) Teacup stray dogs
I have no problem with small dogs, I think they’re cute. That said, I also don’t think they’re particularly functional. And in a land where functionality is held in an especially high regard (please see point number 5), it seems strange to me that their stray dogs—whose ancestors were, at some point, not stray—would be noticeably smaller than those of other countries where I’ve traveled. This could plausibly only mean one thing: at some point in the Kyrgyz history books, someone released herds of very small dogs into the countryside. When I picture that, the imagery that comes to mind is fantastic. Please pause for a moment and see what your imagination wagon can come up with. Also: spay or neuter your pets.

9) Driver’s side inconsistency
Kyrgyzstan—like any sane country—drives on the right side of the road. Their steering wheels, however, commonly come in either the left- or right-hand side variety. I’m not sure why all these right-hand side driving cars are here—I assume there is some rational business reason behind it—but it has made my experience as a passenger thrilling. You see, boys and girls, most roads here are roughly 2.5 lanes wide, which makes passing slow-moving trucks and Ladas relatively easy. However, even when drivers can see the oncoming traffic they’re moving into, they tend to pass with complete disregard, relying on their horn rather than waiting until passing is safe. When drivers are on the right-hand side though, they cannot see oncoming traffic until they are literally in the lane of said oncoming traffic; the passenger’s vantage point, however, gives them a complete view of the large trucks that are about to crush them. Don’t worry though; the good news is that if I’m writing this, it means I’m still alive.

10) Oh right—it’s actually a beautiful and relatively safe country
I’m sure this one will trip most people up. Even in Athens, which is not that far away as the crow flies, I had to have an excruciating conversation with a pharmacist who was trying to convince me not to come here; while I convulsed in coughing fits (I was just there to buy cough syrup) he explained to me—in exhaustive detail—why I would never come out of Central Asia alive. Firstly, I’m still alive, and secondly—after a bit of broken Russian—the people here have been nothing but friendly and welcoming. Moreover, the scenery is fantastic, and if I had a tent, sleeping bag, warm clothing, and actual shoes, I could spend the next 3 weeks hiking around Lake Issyk-Kol (read: where I am at this exact moment) and still want more. It’s the second largest alpine lake in the world, but you get my point. My other point is that Clarks are not designed for usage outside of cities—they use the term “boot” loosely—and my feet hurt.

Happy trails,