An interlude in Karakol
The hike to the waterfall in Arselanbob had really exposed the cracks in my health; weeks of stomach troubles, struggles with the fundamental shift in my diet, rapid changes of climate and countless nights of poor sleep had all caught up with me. I would not be joining the boys on their next big hike near Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, deciding instead to drop them at their designated starting point in the Karakol valley and pick them up three days later in Ak Suu. I would, instead, spend some time in solo travel mode. After all, there’s a lot of fun to be had that way.
I would wave the boys off with all their gear and notes of their plan while some friendly local guys watched on, chiming in at one point with the now familiar “acuda?” (where are you from?). It has never once gotten tiring to see the thumbs up, smiles and enthusiastic “kangaroo!” once my answer has been heard.
One of the guys spoke surprisingly good English, and I found myself chatting to him for some time. His name was Sergey, a Karakol valley local, 28 years old and working in his family trade of semi-nomadic agriculture. As it was the ending of Ramadan, he promptly invited me inside his family home for tea and food with his family members and local children from their neighbourhood. It’s a shame that in the west it seems we’ve long ago left behind the days of such outward gestures of hospitality and generosity to perfect strangers. The tea was lovely and aromatic and, although conscious of eating more than my fill, I enjoyed the various noodles, salads, vegetables and bread as an early lunch. The whole time we were dining and conversing, more than a dozen local children came in and out at Sergey’s sister’s invitation. I got the sense that I was spending time with a fundamentally important family. After our food, Sergey would be kind enough to show me pictures of where the boys were hiking to on his laptop; I could immediately tell they were in for a challenge. I would also learn of the struggling homestay Sergey’s family were trying to set-up around the crippling government regulations, finishing with a tentative arrangement to have me stay in two nights’ time and the exchanging of email addresses in order to confirm.
I headed back into Karakol in our still-damaged car, energised and excited about having some time to do my own thing, and with two missions: get the car’s bash plate repaired and get our laundry done.
Earlier that day we’d met the slightly peculiar Michel, an opinionated and colourful ex-pat Belgian now spending the majority of his time around Karakol conducting bird and wildlife tours. Michel had in-turn introduced us to his friend, Vadim, a quiet and shy man from Kyrgyzstan who could potentially help repair our car. We’d hesitantly made plans to try and get the car to Vadim once I’d dropped the boys off on their trek, but we were suspicious of the flighty Michel and had agreed amongst ourselves to try and find another option.
Arriving back at the hostel, I would soon be bundled-up by the chiding Michel, telling me that Vadim had been waiting and that he was upset with our lateness. Knowing that Ramadan would likely mean most other options were closed, and keen to keep the peace, I followed Michel in our car to Vadim’s humble workshop in the northeast part of town. I would sit there for two and a half hours, watching Vadim at work under our car whilst his four year old played with toy cars nearby, all the while worrying about our end bill that had been impossible to negotiate through the obvious language barrier. All that Vadim would say was “no problem”. At 5pm, with me late for a Skype date with my girlfriend, Vadim appeared from under the car with an “ok”. He’d done a brilliant job, reinforcing the parts of the bash plate that had failed and reattaching it expertly to the car. I nervously gestured the international “how much?” gesture of the thumb rubbed over the fingertips and waited. Refreshingly, this man seemed to not be out to take advantage of tourists, suggesting a very reasonable price for the stellar work he’d accomplished. As I was about to leave, Vadim insisted I come to dinner that night and I hastily agreed without too much thought so as to not extend my tardiness for my Skype session. Vadim suggested he would pick me up from the hostel at nine.
As nine came and went, I settled into the idea that perhaps there was no dinner after all, almost relieved that I would not need to throw myself into a completely unfamiliar and somewhat risky situation with someone I’d only just met. Part of me was also disappointed though, I’d be missing a potentially rich cultural experience and was starving from my day of having no access to funds due to the whole town being closed. I needn’t have worried, Vadim would appear at ten, simply saying “ready?” and before I knew it I was in his 4WD and winding through the pitch-black streets of this ex-Soviet outpost with a stranger making multiple phone calls in Russian and with no idea of where I was going or what I was heading towards. At one point I even became panicked, realising that I’d potentially put myself in a lot of danger and coming very close to mustering-up the courage to ask to be taken back to my hostel. I never got to the point of acting on these fears, and soon we would arrive at the base of some old Soviet apartment buildings. I was led up the completely dark stairwell by Vadim, holding a torchlight behind me. I remember thinking that I’d seen violent movies begin this way, and I felt my heartbeat begin thumping out of my chest. We stopped on the fourth floor outside a door, and I nervously bent down to begin removing my shoes. Vadim began penny the door and I looked up to see the bright, warm apartment filled with women and children and smiling faces. It would seem the ghosts of our Afghan border scare would be taking a while to leave me yet.
I was treated to Vadim’s wife’s lovely home made borsch, accompanied by breads, fruits and sweets. And of course, tea. Michel even arrived to feast with us. My fears and suspicions of these men had been unfounded, and I breathed out with a great sigh of relief. We laughed over my obscure English usage, Australian references and talked four-wheel driving, Kyrgyzstan and wildlife before it was time for Vadim to take me back to the hostel. Whilst bidding me good night, he invited me to join him and two of his friends the next day for a complimentary four-wheel drive trek up to the local hot springs. I eagerly accepted.
Waking early to tick the box on retrieving our much-needed clean clothes from probably the only functioning laundry within 100 miles, I was excited for the day ahead. On form, Vadim arrived in his immense Nissan Patrol an hour after our allotted meeting time, with the simple greeting of “ok?”. I would also meet Ravid and Kula, a couple from Kyrgyzstan and Russia respectfully, friends of Vadim’s who would be joining us on the excursion. I soon learnt that involved conversation would probably not feature too heavily in the day due to my complete lack of Kyrgyz or Russian comprehension. This was going to be an interesting day.
The drive to Altyn Arashan certainly wasn’t an easy, quick blast uphill. The road would reveal all of Vadim’s driving skills and the capabilities of his well-kitted Patrol. As we clambered over rocks, I peered out the window at the awe-inspiring scenery; a free-flowing river cutting a swathe through a valley of grassy, pine-covered slopes with soaring white peaks emerging in the background. We stopped halfway to pick-up some Russian hitch-hikers struggling with the ascent. This small gesture gave me a heart-warming insight into my new friend Vadim, who simply said, “Today, my car, they walk.Tomorrow, maybe their car, me walk. Is mountain tradition.”
We soon arrived at our first hot-spring, a hidden local pool built into a cliffside overhanging the river. We sat in the warm water watching the freezing river speed past. Vadim again had the right words, “I live today; maybe hot springs, maybe billiards, maybe shashlik. Tomorrow? I might be dead.” We embraced Vadim’s sense of carpe diem for the rest of the day, jumping between the steaming springs and the freezing river and feasting on the complimentary borsch served-up by Vadim’s friends in the river-side restaurant. On the way back down, we picked-up a Finnish/German couple who perhaps had the most incredibly interesting professions of any couple I’ve met; she is a cognitive neuro-scientist and he works as an artificial intelligence specialist. Clever kids.
Following my somewhat bittersweet goodbye with Vadim, I joined my new brain scientist friends for some traditional Russian fare and beers. While their company was grand, sadly, the state of all three of our stomachs didn’t allow us much of a long night. I retreated to my hostel through the dark streets of Karakol with an overbearing feeling of satisfaction for my Karakol interlude.
In the morning, our team again reunited and I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the misfortunes of the hapless Mark, Dyl and Jazza whilst they were away trekking. That day’s drive was full of stories adventure and misadventure and a full share of laughs.
And that’s how it should always be.