Since our walking pause was slightly longer-than-expected, we took the opportunity to rest up and slow down.
For the last few weeks we’ve been waiting out weather and getting used a new region, food, languages and norms. We escaped Southeast Asia’s hottest month and its looming monsoon season, got our visas sooner than expected, and have our fingers crossed that some of the snow in Central Asia’s majestic mountains has melted and that the high passes are open.
We’ve fattened ourselves up a bit with bread, pasta, potatoes, milk and mutton, and hope the extra kilos will us protect from the still pretty chilly nights we expect to have in Tajikistan. Today’s high in Langar, where we will pick up our walking trail, was 9 degrees Celsius (48 Fahrenheit), going down to -6 degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit), with moderate or heavy snow in the area with thunder. Let’s hope we don’t have to camp outside in that, and can find either a warmer yurt tent option (the way local nomads have camped for centuries) or a guesthouse serving up warm soup!
Knowing that the next 2.5 months through Cental Asia will test us physically, emotionally and mentally in new ways as we move from high mountains, river valleys to flat desert terrain during spring and summer, we took advantage of our downtime and enjoyed the little amenities that make us feel “normal.”
In between the logistics planning for the next leg, we caught up on our journals (well, Lluís did… I indulged in reading more than writing… I’m reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace set in Burma and India). We snuggled up and watched movies on TV (they were in Russian and we understood nothing, but, still, it was nice and cozy). We bought fruits and vegetables and cooked our own meals on a real stove (How I have missed that!). And, we hung out with other backpackers and some of the many cyclists we are meeting and laughed over beers and langman, the local noodle dish.
We even had a few “luxurious” rooms – luxurious by our pretty low backpacker standards (which include evaluating things like, is the bathroom shared or inside the room and is it clean? And, you don’t see signs of bedbugs or other creepy crawlies, do you?). We basically camped out in the same comfortable place for long stretches and got to unpack our stuff for a few days.
Finding Our Daily Nests
Some of you many be wondering how we pick places to sleep. It’s more luck than a science, but our criteria is pretty basic – cheap and clean. We also, lately, at the request of my dad, added safe to the list. How cheap, clean and safe are moving targets on a fluctuating scale, and the decision usually depends on how tired we are and how many other alternative sleeping options are available nearby.
During the walk, we often have little choice in the matter. When our day ends, our day ends, and we seek out the best place to bunk up or pitch a tent. On the non-walking, down days, we either go to places other backpackers told us about, ask locals to point us in the right direction, pick something out of a guidebook or see what pops up on Google maps or Maps.me search.
Sometimes we walk in circles for hours trying to find something. We did that in Bishkek, where we arrived totally unprepared – no map, no SIM card or mobile internet, no guidebook and no idea how to read the street signs which were written in Cyrllic in both Russian and Kyrgyz, neither of which we know. We didn’t have a lot of time to read up on Bishkek between Burma and Bangkok, so we decided to rely on our years of travel intuition and experience. It usually works better this. We’ll blame two very long travel days and two sleepless nights for our failures to adequately hone into our internal resources.
The van from the airport plopped us on some edge of the city about 7 a.m., and we set off looking for a hostel a cyclist mentioned that has since closed down (something we discovered a few days later). When I was finally able to get a wifi signal at a cafe and snap a photo of an online map and borrow a backpacker’s guidebook and take a photo of that map, we asked locals to show us where we were and which dirction we should go. Some folks pointed us west, others threw their arms eastbound and others made circling movements with their fingers we couldn’t understand.
After several exhausting hours of touring Bishkek with backpacks and going every which way, we stumbled into a fancy hotel we knew we could not afford and would not sleep in, and asked the staff to help us. The very nice guy behind the counter, Mr. Islam, took pity on us. A few phone calls later, we had a studio apartment to crash in for 1,000 som (about$15) a night (the popular hostel down the street from this place cost $15 per person in a 4-bed dorm room). The apartment was about three or four kilometers away from where we we were standing at that moment, and, ironically, not too far from where we started our morning hours earlier and about 10 kilometers ago. Yes, of course, we walked to the finish line. Strength, persistence and resiliency is what we’re built on… Or what we like to think we are building every day.
7 Days turned out to be one of our best rest places yet, and we never would have found it on our own.
Our luck turned better the next week. One of the students working at 7 Days, Kairat, helped us find a place in his home town of Cholpon Ata. It was super clean, the sheets smelled flowery fresh, and it was a 10-minute walk to the breath-taking blue of Issyk Kul lake, one of Kyrgysztan’s gems.
In Osh, we decided to try our hand with couchsurfing, our first attempt. Couchsurfing has been around for a while, but for some reason it we never gave it a go. It’s what the name implies. You basically ask to sleep on someone’s couch for free.
We pinged a few people. No response. Then, we connected with Meerim, a very sweet woman who is starting up her own hostel business. We landed on her couch for one night, and then happily paid her to stay in her dorm room for about a week as we (the two of us and Meerim) scoured the city for drivers going to the Murghab, the town over the border where we are heading next week. Meerim’s deaf and has a young daughter. She told us she is a Couchsurfing host and starting a hostel so she can communicate with different people from different countries. We like the way she moves in the world, and admire the kindness and courage she brings to it.
We are winding down our time in Kyrgyzstan, and are a bit sad we didn’t get to see more of it. Maybe we will return another day and let it weave another picture onto the canvas of our travelers’ hearts.
For the time being, we’re very, very ready to start walking again. We are restless and excited to explore what Mother Nature created in other corners of the world.
Let’s see where our feet lead us next.