What does it feel like to be floating on the mighty Mississippi with no worries but where to moor for the night? How does it feel to be absolutely unconstrained by timescales, worries or need-to? In a nutshell, what does it feel to be living – just for one day – like Huckleberry Finn, the famous vagabond invented by Mark Twain?
On a luminous day in July, in that corner of Kyrgyzstan that lies tucked between China, the mountainous border with Pakistan and Uzbekistan I had the chance to find out.
I’d arrived from Moscow to a fresh and still-asleep Osh earlier that morning. The sun had barely started rising and I was already pedibus calcantibus, like Guareschi used to say, marching towards town. The air was fresh and the only risk was to watch out for the manholes left open along the way. En route I had the chance to stop by a place that I’d seen on Google maps many times: a graveyard of old Russian transport planes. Their sight gratified my aviation geek soul to no end.
Osh welcomed me back like an old friend. A few things had changed – some more new buildings, some fewer old ones, the sad loss of a couple Soviet mosaics of planes and cosmonauts – but, by far and large, the city that was waking up to another hot day wasn’t that different to the one I saw a few years ago. I sat down and made a cold coffee whilst I waited for a marshrutka to leave for Sary Tash; except that there weren’t any.
Still, though few things work as intended, in Kyrgyzstan, there’s always a way to reach one’s ends (this mantra, as we’ll see, will be a recurring feature but more on that later). In a country where every driver is a potential cabbie it’s easy to find offers. After a while I was able to convince one gentleman, who sat on the bonnet of an old Honda, to be my driver to Sary Tash, 180 km away, for the princely sum of 3000 Kyrgyz som, about 40 USD.
Robert the cabbie – Taxi Driver was available on last night’s in-flight entertainment, so the name came naturally – merely used the Honda as a makeshift chair; his ride was, instead, a Daewoo Matiz that had seen a lot more ditches and poplars than repair shops.
Still, we cruised along fairly happily, windows down and faces in the sun. Osh suburbs ran away pretty quickly amongst some faintly familiar scenes, such as the roundabout with the massive Kyrgyz flag, and soon we were in the hinterland, that band of sparse housing and infrastructure that preceded the real countryside. We picked up a hitch-hiker, delivered some mail and dropped off our guest. It was at that time, roughly 30 km out of town, that my eye fell on Robert’s dashboard. The odometer and rev counter were both missing in action but, rather more worrisome, the fuel gauge was resolutely, desperately stuck on empty. Surely, I thought, the gauge wasn’t working. Who, after all, drives a cab on fumes, especially on a 180km journey?
We rolled back to a nearby petrol station, where I lent him 500 som to fill up. Yet, the car wouldn’t start. We pushed and rolled a bit more, to a ramshackle repair shop where a man in another Matiz helped us jump start our car, using cables that had to be rolled around the terminals. We tried 15 times and when the man with the Matiz gave up in despair we tried another dozen times with an elderly gentleman who had an Opel Kadett that, I was sure, must’ve included Inspector Derrick amongst its previous owners. It was all for nothing; either the alternator was dead, or the battery needed changed. Regardless, it was time for me to bail. I gave Robert a wad of cash, he murmured some excuse and I went back on the street.
Normally, in any other country, this would’ve meant bad news. Stuck on Nowhere Highway, a long way from where I wanted to be, ignorant of the language. But remember what we said before, that few things, in Kyrgyzstan, worked as they should but that everything, eventually, worked out fine? This applied to transport too. Especially to transport.
A number of years ago I read of a Russian slang term to define the habit of hailing for a ride on the side of the road. It read something like “Marking at a passing car” but, alas, I’ve since been unable to find it again; regardless of what it was, hitchhiking is very much a thing in the former Soviet Union and Kyrgyzstan was its true hotspot. Everyone hitchhiked: kids on the way to school, babushkas going or coming from the market, anyone. All you needed to do was an idea of where you wanted to go, an arm to stretch out and a hand to wiggle about as if you were French and wanted to signal that everything was going comme ci comme ça. I slapped on some sunscreen, for it was shaping up to be a scorcher of the kind that stopped trains in England, and joined an elderly lady that was comme ci-comme ça-ing like a pro on the other side of the road. Almost immediately I had my first ride.
The Toyota estate was huge and smelt of meat somosa and air conditioning. The driver was the classic middle-aged heavy hitter in wrap-around shades and Tommy t-shirt. His wife was more classically dressed in a flowery gown and hankie on the head. She was the one tucking in the somosa and offered me a slug of kumis, fermented mare’s milk. They were going to Gulcha, halfway up the road and we cruised in a bliss of cold air and functioning suspensions. Even the other lady that we picked up was impressed.
Gulcha, where I was dropped off, was an old friend. This was the epicentre of all the Basmachi stories that I was told by Kudaibergen; today, however, its warring past felt very remote indeed. It felt like a day to indulge in the warm sun and fresh air, to admire the new statues and the undeniable architectural genius that produced a villa with embedded shipping containers.
The wait, here, was slightly longer than before. Cars were either fully occupied or weren’t going in the right direction. Eventually, then, a massive Kamaz truck came thundering. I comme ci comme-ça’d half-heartedly so you all can imagine my surprise when the thing, in a chorus of brake screeches and other mechanical noises, came to a stop on the gravel of the hard shoulder.
Yes, Murat the trucker was going to Sary Tash and, yes, he was happy to have me onboard. I climbed on the cab of the truck, still painted military green, and we set off.
To say that I wasn’t excited was to tell a blatant lie. The six-year old that barely lied under the surface of my conscience was jumping up and down with the energy of a pre-teen that had way too much ice cream and I had a grin running from ear to ear. From inside the Kamaz was exactly as I thought it’d be: nude steel dashboard and everything had to be punched or hit hard to work. The seats could be used in CIA interrogation rooms to add discomfort to their captives and the few woolly blankets – 20% of whose weight was made of congealed sweat – did very little to soften the broken springs. Bottles of obscure lubricants were fastened in my footwell and one had to fight with a manual handle to crack the window down. It was heaven.
Murat, my newfound friend, spoke even fewer Russian words than I did, so that I couldn’t tell him that I was born in the very town whence his Fila T-shirt originally hailed from. He had clear eyes and lineaments that suggested a multi-cultural heritage, and why not: at the end of the day this was the Ferghana valley, where cultures collapsed into each other in a heap that generated violence but also a lot of mixed marriages. Whatever his background he was 110% trucker, for he drove with one hand on the wheel – which could’ve been used for ships – and one either hanging out of the window, calling his colleague, with whom we were travelling in convoy, or scratching his belly.
We stopped for fuel in Gagarin. The town named after the world’s first astronaut and epitome of Soviet technology featured a makeshift fuel station covered in soot, a few izbas and a couple of cows intent on munching on the grass growing next to the only bus stop. Somehow it felt appropriate.
Soon it was time to tackle Taldok pass. The road rose in a series of switchbacks, a Stelvio in miniature. Around us were small herders’ encampments, the usual affair of metal railcar, yurt and vehicle. Two girls howled in the light when they saw that the truck they were doing the “V” sign at hosted a bearded foreigner. Unfortunately the photo was blurry, but I didn’t have time to commiserate its failure for too long, for Murat had decided to show off.
As the switchbacks approached he fished, seemingly out of nowhere, a Rubik’s cube and began solving it with one hand whilst the other danced between the wheel – held in place with a knee – and the gear stick. Doubtful are you? Well, here is proof.
Taldok opened the way to the enormous glacial plateau where Sary Tash stood in splendid isolation. My first pass there happened in sad, miserably drizzly conditions and I sensed, I knew, that there was much more there. Now I could see in glorious detail what I’d so far missed. It was the best view in the world.
Murat dropped me on the edge of town. I tried to give him 500 som, but he just refused as the couple before did, accepting only 100 for the kumis. I shook hand with him and got off, walking through town towards a homestay where I had some loose arrangements that could pass for a booking. As I did, a quote from Huck Finn came to my mind, a line that – when I read it in the original version – took me about four attempts to understand. The secret, I found out, was to read aloud.
Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.