The Stans Part II
It's day 9 of Stan Trek and we're almost through the deserts. The Karakum and the Kyzylkum - the black and red deserts - are dangerous places: scrub covered dunes, few oases, temperatures peaking at one hundred and thirty-five in the summertime, little or no life.
But it wasn't always like this: Legend says that before the Mongols swept across Asia in the early 1200s, what's desert now was lush - these places sustained empires: the Parthians and Seljuq Turks.
Then, Jengiz Kahn came, and destroyed everything - cities, universities, millions and millions dead. It took hundreds of years, but, there are cities again, roads and governments - society recovered. The environment, however, has not. See, when you move that many men - that many men on horseback - through an area, they deplete its resources. Jengiz Kahn's horses ate all the grass, all the shrubs. They created the deserts. Today, eighty percent of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is nothing but sand.
But Central Asia is unexpected - and, after hundreds of miles of dunes and sun and heat, suddenly, there are mountains. And where there are mountains, there is water. And water means life.
We're now on the way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan - and the temperatures are becoming bearable. Tashkent is Central Asia's virtual capital with two and a half million people and, on the road in, military checkpoints are common. Our tour bus is stopped, easily a dozen times. The soldiers come on board, look at our passports, and then, unimpressed, wave us through.
It's getting to be a bit too routine, frankly. See, half the lure of this trip was the danger. It was supposed to be the Wild West, you know, Wyatt Earp pulling us over and trying to shake us down. We'd show everyone how smart we are by flashing some Marlboros, some American whiskey and smart-mouthing our way through.
But so far, that danger hasn't materialized. And people are getting upset. As we ride into Tashkent, we start creating drama. We start turning on ourselves.
Tracy: "I understand you don't want to, but you got to wear it."
This is Tracy, she's number two in charge on our tour bus and she's acting on orders from Ted, our group's leader. She's telling Glen to put his shirt back on. See, when we each became part of this group, we agreed to codes of conduct. The Stans are Muslim countries, so, we thought a dress code appropriate: you know, modesty? What we're discovering, though, is that Central Asia is Muslim like the U.S. is Christian. There are a few hardcore fundamentalists, but girls wear tanktops, boys wear shorts. It's 130 degrees in Uzbekistan.
Tracy: "So you're going to comply?"
This sounds silly - arguing over a t-shirt. But when you're looking for trouble, when you're looking for anything, really, sometimes, you'll do what you can to find it. Sometimes, you'll do anything, just to find what you're looking for.
Tashkent, Uzbekistan is an ugly, blistering hot city. We're staying at the Sheraton, that's easily Central Asia's best hotel - imported fruit, brass handles on the toilets, piano in the lobby, and the worst exchange rates you'll find anywhere. Upon arrival, we bribe the hotel manager for a better room rate - everything is negotiable in Central Asia. As a bonus, he gives us our first dose of bad news.
First some background: that stuff about the Wild West? Absolutely true - and people are disappointed we're getting off so easy. But still, everyone knows that even if Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the next three Stans, are safe and good, in Afghanistan, it's really going to hit the fan. One guy in our group fantasizes out loud, that with just an Afghan visa stamp in passport, he'll finally win the respect of his son and be able to score with women in bars.
Which is why, standing in the lobby of the Hotel Sheraton, in Tashkent, the manager's words both frighten and excite. Things in Afghanistan aren't looking good for tourists. The Taleban, the leaders of the strictest Islamic regime in the world are really, really pissed off.
Right after we left for the Stans, the United Nations passed sanctions against the Taleban. And, when word reached Kabul, all hell broke loose. Militiamen ambushed a UN truck outside Mazar-I-Shariff - burning 16 bodies. Customs officers attacked 22 unarmed aid workers leaving the country in Termez, hacked to death with Machetes. Termez and Mazar-I-Shariff are our first two stops in Afghanistan...
On the bus to dinner that night, Ted grabs the microphone. Ted's the leader of our group. The guy who, in frustration, assumed dictatorial powers on the bus, just a few days ago. Ted tells us how it's gonna be.
Ted: "Right now, we're still going to get the visas, I think that's a good idea, but things are looking very bad. I'll be taking a poll, can I have a show of hands? Okay. Final decision will still be me and Tracy, this is a dictatorship. We'll make the call, but public opinion matters."
What's amazing is that people still want to go. I want to go. A few abstain from the vote, but not one hand is raised in opposition.
So the next morning we go to the Afghan embassy to collect our visas. When we get there, we learn some truths. The ambassador tells us that no, in fact, people were not killed at the border. Just a rumor. But yes, there has been a lot of fighting, and the rebels in the north have made serious advances. That UN truck was attacked, but, WE WILL BE SAFE. The ambassador himself guarantees it.
People buy this.
I question Ted.
Ben: "Was all that stuff about the UN massacre true?"
The plan has shifted. We'll continue on, pretty much like we planned, but five days from now, we'll fly into Afghanistan to avoid the fighting. Then, we'll grab a bus and zip down to Kabul, take in a few public executions - Fridays at three in the former soccer stadium - and then fly out to Moscow. Easy, right?
Ben: "What about you, are you frightened?"
So, it's settled.
It's going to be tough. We're going to spend a lot of time on this bus over the next week, and the timing is crucial. We have to make certain key destinations or the whole itinerary will be shot to hell. Still, we all agree it's worth it. We're looking for danger, remember? Afghanistan is important. The next day we're back on the road.
Stan three: Kazakhstan.
This is my Kazakhstan.
Back in Tashkent, the sickness started. First my roommate Paul, then Frank, Karl, Geri. Karl has it so bad, he's going to fly home in just a few hours. The sickness overwhelms. The group's collective libido, which had been irrepressible just one day ago, is completely decimated.
I'm no exception.
Ben: "This is day, I don't know, 11? Of Stan Trek? I'm sick as a dog I woke up at 3 in the morning, sick, sick, sick. Throwing up all over the place and not doing well. I feel like the it's a good transition, the easy first half is over, moving on to the more difficult second half of trip. No better way to usher that in than complete gastro-intestinal meltdown."
At one point I'm so thirsty I guzzle a bottle of orange Fanta, knowing I'll throw it up in a matter of just minutes. As I crouch over the toilet I think, "It still tastes good a second time."
I curl up in a ball. I pass out, lying naked on the bathroom floor. The constant drone of the BBC and MTV-Asia keep me from going completely out of my skull.
Then, the next day, I wake up - and praise Allah or whatever gods can see me here, I feel okay. I can eat. I can drink. I make it down to the bus just in time for a brutal, non-stop 12 hours up and over the Tien Shan mountains. To Kyrgyzstan.
And it is here, in the mountains, where things fall apart.
Stan Four: Kyrgyzstan
Ted: "Alice, would you like to make the announcement? Because you know more than I do."
I don't really know why things happened the way they did. It may have been the food. It may have been the sickness. Maybe, after days of diarrhea, people get tired of taking orders. Then, it might have been all the time we were spending on the bus, the 12 hours to get us here, to Karakol, Kyrgyzstan were brutal - but in the grand scheme of things, they were nothing remarkable. We'd been logging days of bus rides at a time - things in Central Asia are far from each other and transportation's your biggest challenge.
Gerilyn: "What happens the next day?"
Before Karakol, the façade of a happy tour group tripping through Central Asia had a few cracks. Here in the mountains, those cracks become fissures. Logistics and human frailty contributed - but the reason we fell apart is a little more fundamental.
At dinner that night, Glen advocates stopping while we're ahead. The argument goes like this: We've blown our timing already. We're not going to Afghanistan. The distance is too great. Why not hang out here in the mountains for a few days? Why not take it easy and go to festivals and watch the Kazakh nomads who hunt with golden eagles, for chrissake. Let's relax. This is a vacation.
After an hour of this "discussion," it's decided: we will all continue for one more day. Then, we'll split up. Eight will stay in the mountains. The rest of us will drive forward: two days to Tajikistan, then, hopefully, a day in Afghanistan. The timing is crucial. The next morning, we leave and head south. To the tourist yurt.
The "traditional yurt visit," is a Special Tourist Treat. A guide in Karakol arranges it. He swears this is not for just any group of 24 from America.
We hike two miles through mountain fields to meet a family of hardened Kyrgyz wearing Mickey Mouse sweatpants and Hugo Boss hats. Their yurt, this round, tent-like thing made from wood and animal hides, it stands on this cliff over looking this roaring river. The nomads slit the throat and then skin the sheep we've brought for them. Then, they toss the whole thing in a pot. We drink vodka as the sun goes down.
I ask Glen if he's found what he's looking for.
Glen: "I think it's pristine. Gorgeous. So peaceful."
The next morning, 16 of us are up before the sun. We board the bus. We start driving. We're still looking - for - something.
We drive the entire next day. We track our progress on old Soviet maps. Slowly, we realize the others were right: the distance is too great. The time too short. We won't make Afghanistan. Our timetable, our itinerary - the only thing cementing us together - is beginning to disintegrate.
Ted: "If we get there at 9 am tomorrow, we'll still make Dushanbe, but only if we drive overnight one night and sleep on the bus. Do you think people can take it, not two nights in a row, but tonight on the bus, tomorrow in a yurt, after that on a bus, night after that fly to Moscow."
We desperately clutch at straws. We hatch plots involving chartered planes and military transports. The bus keeps driving -
We go all night. The drivers, the bad-ass Kazakhs who aren't scared of anything, they think we're crazy to navigate these mountain roads in the dark. In the morning we wake up, still driving. We reach our goal, a town called Osh, at half past eleven. We're too late.
We never made it out of Osh, in Kyrgyzstan. We were stranded there. Two days later, Kyrgyz Airways delivered us to Bishkek, the capital, where we found those we left in Karakol - who, actually, had a great time in the mountains. They saw a temple dedicated and the golden eagle hunters. They were interviewed on Kyrgyz television.
Ted was true to his words. He didn't help them through customs, or into Moscow. But - they walked right through. When we got to Moscow, one of our group was immediately deported. Her visa wasn't in order.
There's hubris in travel, I think. I mean, the very idea that you can go wherever you want and get inside a place. Whether it's driving to Afghanistan, or searching for an "authentic cultural experience" at the tourist yurt - it takes a certain mentality to think that you can go half way around the world and get what you want, that you can expect what's going to happen.
It reminds me of something Ted's wife Judy told me back at the border to Uzbekistan. She's always been amazed by Americans, especially white-Americans. She said we take up so much space. - the way we walk on the ground like we own it. She said, Americans are fortunate and it's sad that we take this for granted. Everywhere we go, we have the same attitude.
I say "we" here, because, I'm just as bad. I didn't have particular things I wanted to happen - I mean, sure I wanted to see Afghanistan; who do you know who's been there? But, I was depressed for about a month after I got back. I picked fights with friends, I broke up with a really nice woman for - no reason really.
Then, slowly, I figured it out - and I was as arrogant as everybody else'See, I wanted to change my life. I wanted to have this great experience that would affect me for years to come. What travel's supposed to do.
Don't get me wrong, I don't want to sound like I'm blaming anyone - especially not Ted, because I had a lot of fun with him. I'm glad I went. It's just, I was looking for something too. I got back and thought the whole thing a waste.
I really want there to be a moral to this story. I want to toss some glib phrase and throw it all into perspective. But I can't. Instead, I'm going to end here with another conversation Judy and I had, close to the end. It's as much of a conclusion as I can come up with.
Judy: "Traveling is a narcotic. An Escape. It's like going to the movies, only more intense. And all sense. It's distraction. You don't think about work, paying rent. Traveling is, no one knows what day it is, what time it is. We have a goal, it's immediate. Whereas living life, you live. It's not focused. Everything is unattainable."
Well, this trip is done. And I'm done too. This is Ben Adair, for the Savvy Traveler.
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