Monday, October 9

Beta Prayer 42

Jyrghal's wife at their wedding in 2017
From here forward Nurkyz will wear the joluk that covers her hair and live with her in-laws' family, replacing Jyghal (the oldest brother) and his wife, who will move out of the family apartment. Nurkyz will rise every day at 5am to put on her joluk and prepare the house, wake the family, and stay at home to do chores and prepare food (Jyghal concedes, "it is too hard. It is for the first time with us, she does not know the family and does not know our traditions. It is a different house"). Eventually Nurkyz will return to her job at Optima Bank, while continuing her home life, until she has a child then any external work stops.

Kairet and Nurkyz will remain with Kairet's family until the youngest son is married then they are free to leave as the new family bridge and groom move in.

The late-evening's final toast/prayer "Beta" is made by the eldest father (82) : "Wishing you make a happy and easy life, we hope you give us children." As he speaks, our palms are open before us, then over the face, brushing downward with our eyes looking up.

Jyrghal family member

Sex And A Dowery 41

Kairet and Nurkyz
Kairet and Nurkyz, the groom and bride, look decidedly uncomfortable both during the dinners (separated) and dancing - where they stand awkwardly, she holding his arm and looking downward (for respect to men, which she will do for the next several weeks) and he is stiff as a board.

Jyghal explains, there is no sex before marriage - "it is impossible" (and called "harem") which would be the most "horrible thing" in Sunni Islam - he snickers it is OK for Shia though.

This will presumably be the couple's first time with the naked opposite sex nor have they been allowed pictures of "bikini women" or sex education, at least formally or in the family. I can see why they may be petrified.

The bride and groom have know each other four years and it is Kairet's decision of marriage. Once agreed, he makes the argument to his family presenting Nurkyz's friends, reputation and family history.

Before the wedding there is a 'Nika' where the imam of their mosque prays for the couple, enabling them to become husband and wife. Then it - sex - is 'Halal', clean, and OK.

In Sunni Islam, before the ceremony, the bride is checked by two or three people to confirm she is a virgin, which is reported to the husband's mother (I do not ask who does the checking as I sense it crosses a line). If it checks out, a dowery to the bride's family is discussed and called "Kalan," Jyghal says, "we will pay for her, it is like this is Islam." How much? 250,000 somone and six sheep ($3,500+$500 for each sheep). It is a negotiated sum that started at 400,000 somone and ten sheep. 

Party? Dates are set within a month. The bride's family hosts. There is a culling of numbers ("it is very big money, we must cut everyone"). Despite the enormous family burden, we are included with a moment's hesitation ("Rirsk" means "God to bring all together with us, special guests and generous always").

Groom's evening

Wedding 40

On our first day in Kyrgyzstan, Jyghal reports that his brother - the middle of three - is to be married the next day - do we wish to join? As the oldest son, Jyghal is responsible for the wedding negotiations including the party (first of many) and a very special occasion for the two families to meet for the first time. We accept with enthusiasm and drive the seven hours to Osh on the wedding day.

The Islamic wedding is a remarkable and joyous event on the outskirts of Osh with many courses of local food including four slaughtered lamb of which the fourth goes home with the guests in large plastic carrying bags (Nb one lamb can feed 12 people). For the dinner, one lamb is smoked all day and three are boiled and everything - everything - is eaten or taken home. For me, the food is the most extravagant part of the affair costing equal to several months of a doctor's-equivalent wages.

Eitan and I have two meals with the 23 family elders and one meal, in a separate room, with the groom and his c 15 male friends. Bare in mind no English, no alcohol. It is a real affair and we feel accepted as privileged guests. A toast - in broken English - is made on our behalf which I reciprocate.

We dance and the elder women are the most uninhibited of the party ensuring that we are participating. Eitan charms their socks off.

I sit next to the "Godfather" (via Google translation, may be wrong) who is decidedly not the "best man" though he is the married-couple's age.  What does he do ? Ensures the bride and groom remain happy - I interpret it like an inner-circle friend and therapist for the groom. "It is a very big problem for me," and we share the joke.

A joyous evening

On Drugs 39

Roadside lunch
Jyghal states there are no drugs in Kyrgyzstan - "impossible," he says. Firstly being caught with hard drugs is 20-25 years in prison (one can only imagine). Another reason, though, are the natural borders - nearby Afghanistan is the opium source for Central Asia with its poppy fields yet to get to Kyrgyzstan a seller must pass through China and Tajikistan, with their closed borders, and across rivers or over mountains, making transport difficult to, indeed, impossible. Islam also forbids all non-medical drugs including alcohol with severe retribution.

Jyghal says that poppies are very hard to grow yet thrive in Afghanistan's rocky, dry climate and high altitudes. Farmers can make more money selling poppies than herding livestock and it is unclear if the Afghani government actively supports the crop and may purchase the poppies. Any case, there is a large and needy market in Russia and Europe while next-door China is hugely severe on drug users, so less attractive. The Taliban, for its part, is alined with the West as it is trying to suppress the poppies to control addiction by its people, a real problem for them.

On alcohol, I have noticed beer has dried up since the border though it can be purchased, along with spirits, in the city. Nb Shia practice allows alcohol and, in Khorog (a Shia town we crossed in Tajikistan), "everyone is smoking and drinking everything" Jyghal informs enthusiastically.

Jyghal and Eitan

Horse Milk 38

To Osh, by gosh
We cover about 235km yesterday to Osh - a long day for sure but the early autumnal weather offers a respite at 25C degrees. It is peak-season for fruit and vegetables and the markets we pass are loaded with bright red peppers, watermelons, apples and plums. Despite this abundance, our diet has been mainly meat at least twice a day.

In  Osh, a payment to our touring agency is required - this one, $1,500. As anticipated we go to the bank for a withdrawal (Mastercard only, no Amex) to find our cards are rejected for dollars - same at the bank with a private banker. The cash is needed to pay for our lodgings, crossings etc so it is not simply solved by a wire transfer from Coutts, which takes five days. The solution found extracting somone currency, which works, only we need c 135,000 of them. The ATM allows a 15,000 somone withdrawal and I already see a day driving to 15 stops. Fortunately, at Eitan's suggestion, I try the same money teller again and a further 15k OK. And another and another and another.

At the wedding we try horse milk (before I know) which is circulated in 2L plastic Coke bottles and received with gusto by the table. It is a thick white colour sprinkled with black dots that look like dirt. The taste is a harsh and sour - I cannot help but think of urine - but what is fantastical is the seasoning which is like drinking smoke. Eitan and I finish half our bowls under pressure to finish it all.

Mandatory in the morning

A Brief Note On Education And Salary 37

Education is a central focus of the Kyrgyz family, starting at kindergarten then through the grades and, for some few, university. Villages share their resources when there are not enough numbers to support a classroom. The government is investing heavily in new school buildings and paying teachers more, as it is easy for teachers to go to Moscow and make much more ("easy") money.

Universtiy costs $2,500/ year (only US dollars respected) and Kyrgyzstan has the best universities in Central Asia, Jyghal informs, located in Osh and Bishkek. It attracts students from Pakistan and India mainly interested in medicine and the cheaper cost. Non Kyrgyz students may pay a premium up to $3,000 year. The only equivalent family expenditure is a wedding and the bride's dowery. Jyghal is blown away to learn a US private school is at least 50 grand year - an unimaginable amount of money.

Medicine in Kyrgyzstan has become very popular as a doctor's salary is c $1,500 month, only matched by military service at $800-$1,500. Teachers, pre-covid, earned $150 month but, since they were leaving the profession, or relocating to Russia, they can now earn $1,000 month, the third highest earning profession in the country.

For interest, one sheep ncosts $150 to $1,000. A cow is $1,000 to $3,000 A small horse, $1,500, and racing horse up to a million

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Sunday, October 8

Bushkashi 36

Kyrgistan's history is nomadic, and the horse is very important in the culture. Young men want them like an American 16 year-old wants a driver's license.

Bushkashi is the national game here - "very dangers", Jyghal says. The rules: Two teams of five horse-riders each side line up on opposite edges of a circle (maybe 300m in diameter). A smaller circle is in the middle and holds the prize: a sheep or calf, throat slit, feet cut off. The objective: snatch the body and bring it back to your side. At first, one horse each side, races to the middle to snatch the objective - once in hand, all horses race in to support, or stop, the running back. 

The sport is filled with ritual and celebration. At the national matches many thousands will watch. Manas Neazaov is the best, and most famous, player of the sport.

Taldyk pass 35

Taldyk Pass
"Hard pass" - at 3,500m, Taldyk pass is one of the highest passes here. It is a windy, twisty and steep road and, happily, well paved.

I ask Jyghal how he gets his information ? "From Russia. Not much going on with the local news. Russia-Ukraine." Jyghal informs that Russian news can be trusted; he is less convinced by the BBC : "It is only America."

Meanwhile, back at home, Sonnet and Stephanie drive Madeleine to Manchester for her last year of university.

Meat is being served

Saturday, October 7

Osh City 34

 Luxory at its finest
Osh - back to civilisation (outside our hotel, assured the best in the city; we are happy to enjoy a "modern" break). 

Kyrgyzstan faired relatively well, of Central Asia's 15 countries, following the Soviet collapse - there was no civil war, for instance (Jryghal informs that the Mujahideen maintained control of Tajik districts until 2005 despite the elections). 

From 1991, factories and trade stopped ("like Afghanistan when the Americans left, 24 hours only") and there was virtually no economy. What did people do? "Drinking, sleeping and fucking" for two years. Fair enough. The first election in Kyrgyzstan was in 1992 bringing stability by 1995.

Kyrgyzstan survived this period due to its abundance of water - more than any other Central Asian country - and gold, which it has in abundance. Its commercial borders remained open and its ties to Russia strong - the US made some efforts in Central Asia post the Soviet collapse, including sponsoring Kyrgyzstan's acceptance into the WTO (1999) but following 9/11 the Americans took a greater interest in the region, and opened the (military) Transit Center at Manis (Kyrgyzstan) in December 2001, to Russia and China's horror. Under pressure, Kyrgyzstan closed the base in 2006.

The US relations have been difficult here at best, Russia is the center of gravity, yet there is an American embassy in Bishkeck. To me, it seems China is the real worry. Next door, China has lent Tajikistan tons of development money, including to pave the Pamir Highway, and eventually it will absorb the mineral-laden territory in return. Indeed it is happening already as 60% of mined gold in the Fan mountains going to China.

Genghis Kahn 33

Genghis Kahn

From Eitan's journal:

"800 years ago, this was Genghis Kahn territory. In 1218 a governor in Otrar (now Kazakhstan) received a Mongolian delegation to initiate trade relations. Already aware of the menacing threat that was sweeping the continent, the Otrarian governor had the lead delegate assassinated. Kahn had been plotting to expand his empire up until this point, and this was all he needed to launch a full scale attack. In 1219, Kahn readied an army of 200,000 men to ride west from his stronghold in Altay. In the space of one year, Kahn had sacked Kojan and Otrar (Kahn watching as the Otrarian governor had molten silver pour in his eyes as revenge).

Mongolian tribes continued to sweep across Central Asia and destroy its major cities. The siege continued until Kahn's death in 1227 and, eventually, the Mongolian empire would go on to become the biggest continuous land empire in human history. Settled civilisation in Central Asia only began to recover 600 years later following Russian expansion in the 19th century."

Soviet Comms 32

Soviet technology
We cross the Ali Valley pinned by Lenin Peak (7,135m) and the Pamirs. The Soviets had a military base here and the metal balloons were used for communications.

The valley btw is about 2,000m above sea level which means we are looking at mountains that peak three miles above us.

Jyrgal speaks many languages including his native Kyrgyi, english, farsi, Russian, Tajiki and Pariri. He spent six months in the UK on a seasonal visa working at a factory, allowing him to visit London, Canterbury and Scotland including Glasgow and Edinburgh (Eitan compares notes).

Really, though Jyrghal is pro-Russian whom, he informs, still controls the region and enjoys frictionless trade in goods, services and people. He has been to Moscow ("crazy, crazy place, too. many people") and studied at a Russian school in Osh where there are many; Russian is the second language here. NB Kyrgyzstan is 4,500km from Russia, traversing enormous Kazakhstan.

The original Soviet-built Pamir highway was from Osh to Khorog or 800km (of the 1,800 total distance) which we travel now. 

Do people climb these mountains? Yes, many die each year (on Lenin peak).

Kyrgyzstan 31

We arrive at the border and after passport control we see our connection - a similar black Toyota Land Cruiser - to my relieve (NB apparently the Land Cruiser is the only 4WE to be trusted given the availability of inexpensive parts).

The border guard informs that Americans cross the border the most followed by the French and the Italians. Tajiks or Kyrgs ? Not allowed either direction. It costs 500 somones bribe (about 15 dollars) to enter Kyrgyzstan.

Passing the guard, we enter a neutral territory between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan for 35km accompanied by a military soldier to ensure our security. The border opened only four weeks ago to tourism otherwise the free flow of people is blocked. Before Covid, "many people died" because of fighting over territory until the Kyrgyzstan government shut the line. NB there are three crossings between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and one crossing with China.

Our new guide, Jyrghal, informs that Tajikistan has been hurt more than the Kyrgyzstan during the the border shut-down given the country is poorer, has less trading access to Russia and Central Asia (natural commerce partners Afghanistan and China are difficult) and is run by President Rahmon, a dictator ("one-thousand percent").

We are still on the Pamir hw (M41) which ends in Osh yet the geography immediately changes and here we are on a dirt road again, in the neutral territory, down and down in a red valley.

We drop off our protector, have our bags thoroughly searched for Afghani drugs, meet a motorcyclist stranded for one week since now papers, then exit - Jyrghal: "now I can welcome you to Kyrgyzstan."

Lone Cyclist 30

We stop to make sure the fellow is OK and has water. 
Easier - by far - to raise a billion Euros.

Tajikistan Soon Gone 29

We soon say goodbye to Macfhadir and Aziz, entering Kyrgyzstan. Before the border-crossing we drive alongside the Chinese border and, for the first time, there is an interminable rusting metal fence put up by the Chinese in the 1960s, separating Tajikistan and China. A Chinese visa is now complicated needing more than some money and a passport stamp eg a formal invitation required for entrance.
Guest house in Morgab

Roof Of The World 28

Rock for my desk
Aqbaital pass at 4,655m (15,362 feet) is the second highest pass in the world, below only the Kunjarab pass on the Karakoram Highway at c 5,200m that connects Pakistan to China. Eitan finds a suitable rock for my office.

We descend to the Karakul lake (4,300m), the highest in Central Asia, where Eitan and I both swim (bracing and clean). It is salt water and nothing lives here, unlike the pike found in the Yashikul late and Bulunkul lake which we passed earlier (note: 'kul' means lake). The small nearby village of 200 population where we have tea survives on tourists attracted to the beauty of this location.

As with all places we have travelled so far there are electrical sockets (European prong) to charge our iPhones and power the lights; sometimes a television or computer screen is in the guest or dining room but I do not imagine they work. Wifi another matter - mainly touch-and-go.

We blast Steely Dan's "Reeling In The Years" across the expansiveness and everything is right. 

Karakul lake

Beautiful detail

Friday, October 6

Kashgar 1997 27

A lonely unpaved road cuts from the Pamir hw to China across a bleak valley and into the Tian Shans - the border control yet miles away. Eventually, after crossing the Karakoram mountains, the turn-off will arrive in Kashgar, the ancient oasis market located on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, which means "those who go in do not come out", and once a key stop on the Silk Route.

Sonnet, Katie and I visited Kashgar in 1997, before the Chinese systematic genocide of the Uyghur  Muslims via re-education camps and torture from 2014.  Kashgar, along with its thousands of years history, was once a place where one could barter for a camel, Kalashnikov, or opium (knowing the door markings). I recall 5-gallon drums of fresh chicken guts (very clean) used for cooking, or the row of men being shaved by the barber for prayer - long blade, of course. Always carpets to be haggled over  chi in the privacy of the trader's home. Such friendly people.

China's brutality makes no sense - the Uyghurs are no threat to China or its great cities, located thousands of miles East and, anyway, China's western border is protected by the impassable Hindu Kush, Tian Shans and Karakoram ranges. It is strictly an assimilation of a peaceful Muslim people because Beijing can do so, overlooked or unseen outside a few small protests from us, the West.

Craftsman, Kashgar, 1997

Defender 26

I meet this friendly couple who have been on the road since June heading from a village in Switzerland to Nepal. They have their sleeping quarters on top of the Defender and a couple of deck chairs to watch the sunset. We don't really get into it but they are in the right place for sure.

Morgab 25

Evening school run
Morgab is the largest district in the Pamirs, nestled to one side of a wide barren valley. The altitude starts from c 3,000m. Here it is Sunni, identified easily by the mosque next to our hostel and the 5X call to prayer.

There is a market - Sundays are busiest - and we examine local items and Western scrapings - Coke and Fanta (of course), Colgate toothpaste, dish washing liquid .. bottled water for travellers is a must and clean water is an urgency (in 2002 President Ramon initiated the global Year of Clean Water, adopted by the UN).

Wherever we pass on the highway we see children dressed in clean pressed school clothes, the boys with knotted ties and the girls with tight hair braids - sometimes they are walking many kilometres from the next village, often very young eg under ten years. I am informed that the norm is for local schooling until Year 4 then to a larger town/ relatives to Year 11. Some will then go to Dushambe for university. Unsurprisingly the more school, the less likely to return home. By uni most are interested in some travel, like Macfhadir, and Moscow is a big draw.

Busy days

Alichor Village 24

Footie at sunset
The M41, leaving and reconnecting with the Pamir hw at Chorug and Kona Kurgon, cuts through Alichor village whose populations of 1,200 people is mostly invisible to us as we arrive in the hot afternoon. The trim houses are made of brick and mud, often painted an agreeable pastel colour. Many of them are in a state of incompletion or abandonment. A single telephone wire strung on sturdy wood poles traverses the town. There is not a tree nor bush to be seen, only dirt and the brown mountains that surround us in a hazy distance. No Internet.

Eitan makes a few fast friends in a scratch game of football. Shouts of Messi! and Ronaldo! can be heard by the ten or so boys as they shoot on goal and trash-talk each other.

We stay at a guesthouse run by the family matriarch Rahima, the former (stern) local english teacher for ages 4-11 (her English to be desired). Rahima's grandchildren run about spreading joy. They are dirty and loved. 

Rahima before her house.

Aziz 23

Aziz at work
Aziz drives hard, he's got a job to do, aware how far he can push the Land Cruiser to the road's edge when passing a truck or vehicle. There are times I cannot look.

He knows many drivers along the way, honking or waving or stopping to chat about conditions ahead or whatever. At night he reconnects with his friends and they lie on their bed mats and pass the night away talking and drinking chi.

Poppy, Zong village