Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Galloping on the Edge of Paradise

Approaching the 3971 meter pass after lunch, the rain begins. We don full length, four-pound pale green Russian military rain slickers, and tighten the hoods around our faces as our five horses pick their way up the grassy southwest slopes towards Ulan Pass. I wondered why the river was called that- ulan meaning red, in Kyrgyz- when the waters were so blue. But as we rounded the corner, traversing slowly up, I got a glimpse of red sandstone, eroded beneath the green and rock cover. Just as we reached what seemed like the pass, the hail began. This time we were not as lucky as during our backpack trek over the Telety Pass in Karakol, because the ice stone- mundoor in Kyrgyz- were hitting us straight through the openings of our hoods. I agreed with the horses who reeled themselves around to take the sting on the backside. Just then, Albas, our lawyer cum horse-guide, turned and said, “Take care” as he prepared to go over the edge. I moved to the rim myself to see what kind of challenge awaited us this time. But at first I couldn’t determine it. There was no trail over the edge. And the terrain down to the no trail was steep, rocky and slick with rain. I got off the horse to walk.
“We go by the way,” Albas said, and as he pointed, I could see that I would have to stay seated on my red and white steed, for the way, was up the red river. Through it, in it, next to it, over it. Wherever the horses could find footing. I could hear Chris laughing and cheering his horse on as he slid and skidded down a meter-high mud step. Being the cautious person that I am, I quickly determined that I would be walking over that obstacle, and got off on the right side, which was the wrong side, of the horse. It was a tense ten minutes for me as we picked our way upstream, crisscrossing between small boulders and slipping through wet, muddy scree above the not so deep, river. A slot canyon. In cold, wet, slippery conditions, on horseback.

It seems that each time we approach a tricky part, like the soundtrack of a dramatic scene, the weather plays its ominous notes- wind, hail, rain and snow. The trick is to recognize the joke, and enjoy the song. The truth is that Chris and I are competent in the mountains, and travel safely, with our eyes open. Usually.
There was a point, on the second day of this week-long horse trek, when we came out from the shadow of one range into an immense valley, maybe 50 or more kilometers long and about 10 across. Chris had just commented how hard it would be to find your way through there when Albas confessed that he a little bit, didn’t remember the way. We pulled out the map, the three of us, and noted that we hadn’t been following along up til now. Most of the terrain was on another quad, a sheet which we didn’t have. Luckily the sky was clear and there were easily definable features. And then for confirmation, a shepherd appeared in the distance and seconded our route.

It always seems to go that way when traveling: what you need comes when you need it. Like yesterday afternoon. We arrived on day 7, in Naryn City, the capital of Naryn Oblast. Our “taxi”, a scarred, rusted and repainted Russian Lada, drove through the quiet main street while Albas was off looking for a driver to get us the last 60 kilometers from Ak Muz, white ice, the town where we ended our trek. I put my arm out to carstop, and the young driver and his Parkonsonian father gladly invited us to join them for the ride, and some som. Although each seat should cost only 50, we somehow agreed to pay 200 for the two of us, even though we did get another 40 som paying passenger at the edge of town. But neither of us cared to haggle over the extra couple of dollars. It was a pleasant hour’s drive with a pit stop in the mountains at the outskirts of town. You never know where you’ll find a toilet in a more developed area, or how challenging it may be to squat down.
We got dropped off in the center of Naryn, and that’s when it started to become apparent that our overpaying was not without consequence. We got stranded without any som in our pockets. The banks were closed for another hour and a half for lunch. And we couldn’t pay for anything- not internet, not food, not even a phone call. And we were hungry, passing by the food stalls with fresh tomatoes, Ashlan Fu (a cold, spicy noodle concoction), and ice cream, as we decided to walk to the bank to wait for its after lunch opening, toting our packs and extra items and wanting just to rest in the shade. And that’s when I first told Chris that I loved him. For he remembered that in his dirty shorts, that hadn’t even been thought of since the start of the rainy cold horse trip, were hundreds and hundreds of som. More than 30 dollars. We were rich! We headed back to the spicy noodle lady. I was surpised at how good it was. Everyone always says that the best Ashlan Fu comes from Karakol, and here we were, in another Oblast entirely, and this was the best I’d ever tasted. When I told her that, she told me that she was from Karakol, Tyup, in fact, just 30 kilometers away.
“How did you come here?” I wondered “Were you kidnapped?” Yes, she was, she told me, her head dropping just a bit. Bride-kidnapping is an illegal and vile tradition were men and their friends, especially in more rural areas, stalk and capture a woman to join the family as a milk slave and baby-maker. At least that’s how it goes at it’s worst. The girls and woman usually make the adjustment, and admit in many case to learning to love their unchosen husband, and in some cases the practice is just a ritualized conclusion to the prenuptial, consensual dating that has occurred. But usually the woman is snatched away from her personal goals and education aims, and forced into the tradition role of mother, mender, cook and tea-server.
“Sad?” I asked, in my one-word Russian way.
“Of course.” She only goes home once a year, always in summer, as that’s the best time, she explained. I personally like the clear, dry, sunny winter days after each snow fall, but then again, I like to ski.
So, Chris and I were enjoying our lunch, with fresh round bread, almost like a deep dish pizza crust, when I happened to glance up and there was the one Peace Corps volunteer in the area that I knew, and was trying to reach, but couldn’t manage to get through to on the cell phone. Three hours later, our laundry dropped off at the service- next day for 2 bucks, our baggage safely stored at Izzi’s apartment where we could stay for free during our time in Naryn, and her key zipped safely into Chris’ pocket, we found ourselves at a bona fide Fourth of July barbeque eating hot dogs and hamburgers and drinking decaffeinated iced tea with actual ice. We ate watermelon and brownies with decaf coffee and enjoyed the fantastic hospitality of some Christian volunteers who are long-term local residents of Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Nancy has been in country for 12 years, and just so happens to be an alumnae of my alma mater, Gordon College. Small and wonderful world.

So this is a glimpse of our travels. We are now doing the final business. Post some news, pick up the laundry, repack the bikes- and replace my headset bearings. In two hours we need to head to the banya and tomorrow we expect to start a 10-day ride to the city of Osh, where we will have our next dose of civilization. We would both no doubt write lots more, but an unexpected fate has befallen us. We seem to enjoy each other’s company to such a degree that so far we have spent little time reading, writing or in self-contemplation. Worse things could happen.

For the most part, these past three weeks since leaving the US have been the like the flightless soaring on horseback, across the wilderness and pastures of this fantastic, fairy-tale land. Exciting, effortless, gliding into the present. Galloping on the edge of paradise.


Blogger jj said...

Excellent post. Great voice. It sounds like you are having quite a start to your adventures. It's fun to experience them a bit through you.

11:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home