August 14: Kyrgyz Fergana Valley, Kyrgyzstan
7:08 Helen and Duncan want to be on the road bright and early today. We will only travel about 40 km as the crow flies, but that’s about 350 km by Kyrgyzstan highway, bi-way, backroad, cowpath, and worse. We should be in the very conservative Muslim community of Arslanbob by mid-afternoon. At some point along the way we will have to stop and change into long pants and shirts with sleeves.
7:58 I notice that a traffic cop has just pointed his fluorescent orange baton at us but Duncan is under the impression that the cop is just directing traffic so he doesn’t stop. Elmira speaks up and we eventually come to a stop about 1km down the road. I’m sure Duncan wouldn’t attempt to back up on the shoulder in the western world but around here it seems perfectly normal.
8:03 Duncan walks another 100m back to where the cop is now leaning on the door of his car.
8:09 Duncan is back on the truck and we’re pulling away. Our local guide explains that speeders have three options: Pay a nominal fine on the spot using a credit card and have the fine reported to your insurance and go on your record; argue your case at a government office and perhaps pay a bit less; or pay cash at the roadside and drive away in minutes. You might pay a bit more but nobody will know the difference. Cop’s kids eat too, you know.
8:57 We encounter our first tunnel in Kyrgyzstan. It’s about 500 meters long. This ain’t China!
10:15 We come across a western-style gas station and convenience store selling cold drinks, chips, chocolate bars, and assorted hot beverages from a Kuerig-like machine. I down two Americanos in 10 minutes. There’s a large heated display case housing about 10 things that look like cheese in phyllo pastry. I order two for the road but am told they’re past their ‘best before’ date and cannot be sold. I ask to use the bathroom and am told that it’s closed for maintenance. Both answers are almost certainly blatant lies. The staff just don’t want to share their nice, clean bathroom and they probably want to have the pastries for lunch.
11:00 We drive through several thriving towns on market day. Cars are parked every which way on both sides of the road and many people are selling things from the trunks of their cars. You’ve come to the right place if you’re in the market for fresh milk (in Coke bottles), freshly slaughtered beef, goat and mutton, t-shirts, pirated DVDs, pipes and hoses, underwear, locks, car batteries, goat stomachs, sheep livers, paint, corrugated steel roofing, Adidas, a carburator for a Lada, sheepskins with feet and ears attached, etc. We don’t stop at any of these towns but people always check out the big orange truck and are very quick to smile and wave.
11:20 We’ve been travelling through smaller and smaller towns for a few hours now and we’re definitely seeing more Ladas than Toyotas. The larger centres are actually quite modern but in rural Kyrgyzstan things look much like they did in the Soviet era.
13:09 We’re finally in the town of Arslanbob. Our homestay hosts meet us at the truck but unfortunately most of the men of the town are at Friday prayers so we wait for an hour in 40C sun until a few guys show up to drive us to our respective houses in all parts of the town.
14:10 Rodney, James, Stefan, Tanja and myself will stay with a retired gentleman named Ishmael. He taught English and German in the same school for 40 years before retiring last year. He also speaks Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian and Farsi. Ishmael says there are three schools in the town of 14,000 with 800, 1300, and 1600 students. There are plenty of kids now but he’s worried that the population will soon decline as most of the young men are now leaving for work in Russia. There’s “good money” in Siberia but it’s cold and dangerous work. Within the last year three local boys have died in the Russian oil refineries, mines and factories.
15:40 The local economy will be in rough shape this winter as the crop of walnuts is very poor. There was too much snow in March when the trees should have been forming nuts but instead they went back into hibernation and the crop will suffer. Arslanbob is one of the world’s largest producers of walnuts. We took an old Jeep (actually a Russian vehicle) for a tour of the nearby walnut forest. It’s big. Our driver claims there are 60,000 hectares of walnut trees surrounding this town alone.
17:00 We get into a traffic jam on the way back to the house. It’s one of the most memorable traffic jams I’ve ever encountered. If only the scenery was like this on the Gardiner and 401. (video pending)