When you travel, you often experience sensations that bombard you constantly when you least expect them. You're then left with instantaneous memories that leave a scar (pretty or ugly) on your mind forever. It could be a simple activity as trying out a new phrase in a language you are learning and having the pleasure of making a connection with someone else, even if small and insignificant. It can also be that wallet that was stolen in a jam-packed minibus or that fermented mare’s milk that you knew would do horrible things to your stomach, yet you drank it anyway to be nice.
For good or bad, I always believe that experiences and the strength of the memory that follows them are what make us who we are. They are the fodder for which we become wiser and continue to build further choices upon. This last week was not meant to be terribly adventurous. I wasn’t hitchhiking on notorious highways nor climbing a volcano. Yet, the spontaneity of inspiration that comes from new experiences, the feelings of positivity that come from landscapes and conversations, and the moments of reflection that emerge from them can leave indelible marks on the mind.
Perhaps it was the emptiness of the Kyrgyz grassy steppes, the wild horses running in the horizon, the dusty sunsets and moonlit nights of a harvest moon. Or maybe it was those awkward smiles and blind efforts at communication with a family of nomads. Whatever it was, experiencing the Kyrgyz steppe over the past couple days has left a fuzzy glow of a feeling inside.
I spent a couple days in a yurt with a family of nomads who were just spending the last of their days this year along the shores of Song-kul, a high altitude lake in the centre of the country. The landscapes of barren hills, grass and lake reminded me of Fantasia…the land of childrens’ dreams from Michael Ende’s ‘The Neverending Story’. A feeling of freedom and being windswept comes to mind. It was hot during the day and quite cold at night. And dry! A cloud even emerged in the sky that resembled Falcor the luck dragon. Crazy!
There were also horses everywhere! More than I have ever seen. Most were together in herds, but a few were solitary. In some areas from a distance, it almost appeared like the African savanna, with the land swaying as the herds of horses moved in one direction or another. I rode one of them horse (tamed of course) for the first time unsupervised in my life. We walked together for a long time, trying to understand each other’s movements and rhythms. We continued climbing into the hills and eventually came galloping down across the lakeside. Initially, being on horseback with a running horse felt a bit like being a pepper shaker being used by a giant; but then as horsey galloped across the endless horizon, it felt like flying and landing and flying and landing…exhilarating, though of course I held on for dear life.
The yurt was made of felt and yak hair and was full of hot pink and orange silk blankets inside and a small coal burning stove of some kind and a couple wooden stools. The top of the yurt was a large circle made of felt with spokes of wood emerging from it like a bicycle wheel. A Swiss girl was living with the family as well. She had been living and travelling with them for a year, had learned their languageand was making a documentary of the life of the nomads on the Central Asian steppe. We spent the evening chatting about world trade, travels, and the comforts and aggrevations of life in Western countries.
The next day I parted ways with the nomad family and headed east to the town of Naryn and stayed in a little guesthouse that was really just a rented one-bedroom studio in a Soviet-style apartment block…complete with peepholes, weird TV antennae, and electrical outlets everywhere! A woman with a giant potbelly entered the room in the morning unannounced, carrying a small cloth purse with her and saying: ‘your breakfast!’ She cracked an egg and made a small omelette on a dish and left. I noticed that everyone in the town had gold teeth. I was told it was a status thing.
That day I headed further east where I came across a mysterious Swastika-shaped forest along a hillside where apparently a German POW from WW2 and was also a forest engineer had been kept. When he escaped, he decided to display his fascist devotion to the ex-third Reich. Oddly enough, the Soviet forest engineers were keen on keeping the symbol there and actually managed to preserve it. Scattered around the barren hills were graveyards with little mausoleums and building facades surrounding the grave. Some of the facades had silver ornaments of crescent moons and stars hanging from the little poles on the top. They looked a bit like ancient mini-cities- with graves dating to the 1800s.
I hiked around a couple of the hills and even got invited to minibus driver’s house, to meet his mother and drink horse milk and eat several loaves of bread and fresh butter (still liquefied!) Using a handful of Russian phrases and words I picked up, we managed to have a very simple conversation.
I headed back to Bishkek in a minivan with an old babushka (Russian grandmother) wearing a plaid skirt, a hankerchief and a lot of jewelry. She was travelling with her daughter. We chatted in rudimentary Russian for couple minutes before we left. During the trip, the babushka offered me some very stale bread which was particularly rough given that my mouth was terribly dry already. She then grabbed my hand and kissed it and smiled at me with her mouth full of gold. She didn’t laugh or even turn to her daughter to exchange a glance. Strange indeed, but it left a smile on my face for the rest of the night.