Overland to Shymkent, Kazakhstan

The only thing one hears when slowly surfacing from the underground depths of the Olmazor metro station – the last station on the red, Chilanzar line – is the sound of hard footsteps on the stone walkway, horns honking from the street above, and men shouting.

Samarkand! Samarkand!” they yell, doing that which perhaps they know best.

Navoi! Navoi!” they scream, extending the latter syllable to a long ‘E’ sound. It’s a little disorientating upon first sight – who are all these men and why are they shouting so much? But they are just doing their job, or rather, that which they believe their job to be.
Samarkand, brat?” I’m asked repeatedly as I make my way across the deserted street.
Nyet, spasiba,” I reply, looking rather sullen as it’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning. Touch me and we will have a problem, the inner, personal-space-conscious American in me thinks to myself irritably. One can feel the eyes of others growing in number upon one’s person, bodies drifting slowly toward the approaching traveler; nothing to do but forge ahead and choose to either respond to the touts or to ignore them completely.
The bus station, or avtovoksali, is a desolate place, huge in its grandeur but empty and barren in its contents. More hard footsteps, seldom in their number, echo off the stone floor, rising up to the high ceiling and back down again, creating a kind of aural accompaniment to the vastly grey visual spectacle. It feels like a mix between a prison and an abandoned, cancerous library, decaying before society itself. Little sky-blue plastic seats sit alone in the enormous room, offering temporary rest to travelers who are only going to soon sit again. Outside the sky brightens and the mob of white cars begin to fill the wide Tashkent streets, just like yesterday and the day before that. I wait on the stone steps leading up to the station entrance.
“Sir, you are passenger?” a sweater’d man in camo pants asks kindly, smoking a cigarette.
“Yes sir,” I reply.
“Please,” he says, gesturing for me to board the large white Silk Road Bus, as its exterior is labelled. I had him my ticket and in return he hands me an ungrammatical migration card for the Republic of Kazakhstan. “Foreigners who broke the period of staying in the Republic of Kazakhstan incur for administrative responsibility,” it read. The sole passenger on the completely empty bus, the sweater’d man decides – in a well-intended attempt to be hospitable – that it’s a good idea to play some bad English music. I sit and warm my cold ears with the palms of my hands and look out the window and think that this is just about right. The bus left the station and I was the only passenger on board. Much like the empty bus station we had left behind, the seats around me were also empty. I thought about waste of space, watched the crowds outside the passing bazars grow in number and listened to music to drown out music as we slowly exited the millings-about of early morning Tashkent. David Bazan’s “People” from his Strange Negotiations album (2011) came on quietly at first, then the chorus burst to life, surprising me, bringing a rock-and-roll morning smile to my tired face. “But now you’re selfish and mean, your eyes glued to a screen and what titillates you is depraved and obscene; and I know that it’s dangerous to judge. But man you gotta find the truth and when you find that truth don’t budge until the truth you found begins to change, and it does, I know. I know. When you love the truth enough you start to tell it all the time – when it gets you into trouble you discover you don’t mind, ‘cause if good is finally gonna trump then man you gotta take stock and you gotta take your lumps or else they trickle down into someone else’s cup below, you know. I wanna know who are these people.” I listened to it on repeat all the way to the end of the country.

At the border, naturally, I was told to disembark and was escorted to a drab building where my bags were put into a scanner. I was then encouraged by the bus driver to skip to the head of the immigration line, much to the disagreement of the patient others who were standing in a clumped, clustered line. I’d be pissed, too, if some foreigner suddenly decided to skip the line, but such was the reality I found myself in. Uzbek authorities flipped through my passport with furrowed brows, trying to make sense of either its contents, me, or both. I was led outside back to the bus where a woman was having her dog search the bus. The dog didn’t seem interested; it kept running out of the bus to go roll in the grass.
“Hello,” she said as her dog sniffed around.
“Hello ma’am,” I said.
“You’re from?” she asked in the common, central Asian fill-in-the-blank style.
“America,” I said.
“Oh America. Very nice country,”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re going Kazakhstan?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“How many days?”
“Four ma’am.” I had already got my exit stamp, so I wondered why this woman was grilling me. Maybe she just wanted to make conversation. The dog ran off again toward the grass and began to roll around in it carelessly.
“Crazy dog,” she said. I laughed and so did she.
The bus drove a few meters ahead to the next checkpoint on the Kazakh side. I disembarked again and again handed my passport over to another uniformed man in a box. The page flipping began anew.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“John,” I said as a reaction more than anything else. Nailed it. Another guard approached and wanted to make conversation, so the official one ceased.
“You go Kazakhstan?” he asked.
“Yes sir.”
“You diplom?” he asked, meaning diplomat, I guessed, pointing at me.
“No sir. Teacher.”
“Ah teacher,” he approved. My passport was handed back to me and I went into another building. The place was empty and quiet with large posters in Russian on the walls.
“Meester John,” a smiling, quick-footed man said as he approached rapidly. He spoke in the tone of a used car salesman about to make a sale; “please,” he gestured, still smiling, escorting me to a long wooden table where I was to empty my bags. I began taking my clothes out of my backpack, scattering them all over the table as if it were my bedroom.
“Clothes?” he asked.
“Yes sir.”
“OK, OK,” he said and told me to pack up. That was fast. I was led outside to the final passport-page-flipping station. A man in a blue, furry pill-box hat took my passport and the page-flipping began once more.
“John Seempson,” he pronounced aloud slowly as he looked up at me. He looked back down at my passport and said something under his breath in Uzbek to the bus driver standing next to him. My gaze shifted around.
“He say me he like your name,” the driver told me. “He say he like zis Seempson TV show.”
“Thank you,” I said stupidly, as if I had anything to do with it. The page flipping continued, as did the slow pronunciation of all the country names listed in my passport – “Eendia, Bee-et-naam, Lah-ohs.” I waited.
“Vot zees?” he asked, now seeming irked, his brows slightly furrowing into perplexion. I looked at where he had stopped his page-flipping – a blank page. There was nothing there. Why was he pointing to a blank page? Was this a joke?

“Benjameen Frahn-kleen?” he asked with a rising tone. I exhaled.
“George Washington,” I corrected him, blinking. He had stopped on a blank passport page with Mount Rushmore on it and had perhaps wanted to test his American history knowledge. I relaxed. He tilted the passport slightly along with his noggin to get a better look at it. I watched him then decided to say something.
“This Abraham Lincoln,” I pointed out, trying to encourage him.
“Aabra-kham Leen-cohn,” he repeated, pleased, not looking up. His hyper-ventilating German Shepard security dog was running infinite circles around our little lesson, drooling all the while, leaving little drops of thick dog-saliva on the pavement.
“Thomas Jefferson,” I pointed, now trying to bore him and get on with my journey. He slowly, almost sentimentality, ran a calloused finger over Tommy’s face etched in mountain stone. The wet-tongued dog barked at nothing. The guard looked up then looked back at my passport. He looked at me then back at the passport again. He seemed to stare at it for a minute, as if he wanted to continue on with our brief history lesson. I wondered how many Americans crossed this checkpoint each year.
“OK,” he said, folding the passport shut as he handed it back to me, looking away. I got back on the bus and we drove to Kazakhstan where the roads were smoother. The driver and his assistant chatted together sporadically in Uzbek as the seemingly ordered and smooth roads stretched out before us. It was quiet.
I flipped through my freshly-stamped passport to see the new stamps. I found myself looking at the blank pages, too. Some of them are quite picturesque, depicting natural scenes of the Pacific Northwest with bears, mountains and salmon, Hawaii with swaying palm trees around Diamond Head Beach Park, Texas. Others like Mount Rushmore and the cracked Liberty Bell were also detailed – eye-catching, almost – especially given the glimpses I had seen of drab-looking Kazak passports, though theirs had a bright turquoise-blue cover. I wondered: maybe these border patrol officers were just looking at the pictures in my passport and not the stamps at all. Maybe they were simply interested to see some official images of America; they wanted to take their time flipping through this little blue picture book.
We arrived to Shymkent more quickly than I had anticipated. The rolling hills outside the city were a nice welcome to a new place. At the bus station, as I was getting a return ticket back to Tashkent a few days later, I was trying to communicate to the ticket agent behind the counter that I wanted to return on Friday. I was not being very successful as the ticket agent was growing rather irritated with my lack of Russian communication skills. I certainly couldn’t blame her. A woman leaning casually on the counter nearby who had been witnessing our interaction spoke up and helped me out. She was also getting information for a ticket to Tashkent in a few days’ time.

“Thanks for your help,” I said.

“No problem,” she said. I was hungry and alone in a new city so I asked her if she had had lunch already.
“Not yet,” she said, “you?” Off we went walking down the streets of Shymkent in search of caloric sustenance.

Akmaral had been an English teacher for a year and had recently left her job to pursue a dream of cycling across Kazakhstan. She cycled for four months before she ran into health problems that sadly cut her trip short. Staying with a friend, she had been in Shymkent for about a month, so she knew the city a little bit. She had recently been working as a translator for a large oil company in West Kazakhstan; she showed me pictures of the region and it looked stunning. The pay at the oil company was better, she said, and she didn’t have to deal with unmotivated and needy students. Translating allowed her to be more mobile and spend more time on her bike, which is exactly what she wanted to do. She said Kazakhstan was great for cycling because much of it was so flat. Over soft, savory pancakes, pink steamy borsh and shitty instant coffee, we shared couch-surfing stories together while it began to drizzle outside. After lunch, at the ridiculous Chuck Norris Bar, we watched awful Chuck Norris movies back-to-back while we dubbed improvised dialogue to their predictable scenes, drinking pint after pint of bubbly Kazakh beer over smoked cheese strips.
In the morning, snow was gently falling on the puddle-dotted streets while jacketed pedestrians briskly shuffled their way down the cracked sidewalks. On the wall, in the large red-chair-filled conference hall of the South Kazakhstan State Pedagogical Institute, read a bold, gold-plated inscription for all to be seated under: “Feeling of patriotism is of top importance.” – N. A. Nazarbayev. I wondered: was it the feeling of patriotism that was of importance or the actual patriotism itself? Could one feel patriotic without actually being patriotic? Whatever the answer, the feeling was of top importance, according to Kazakhstan’s one and only president since their independence in 1991.
Thursday morning brought lightly dusted snowy streets and blue skies. It had snowed overnight and the snow had stuck, leaving a slight trace of whiteness on the ground, the sun now reflecting off it from above. In the afternoon, I met T, a twenty-nine-year-old Hungarian traveler, freelance English teacher and aspiring motivational speaker whose dream was to see all the countries of the world by the time he reached the age of thirty-five. I forgot to ask him how many he had left to go. He said he was very interested in conversations around controversial social issues in Kazakhstan, trying to get his students to discuss them and not have a sweep-it-under-the-rug attitude.

“I’m preaching about the low-budget traveling,” he told me over coffee at the posh-looking Traveler’s Coffee in the center. “My goal is to become a motivational speaker and encourage people to travel. To be honest, I’ve been starving to have a normal conversation where I don’t need to worry about my English.” T had a bachelor’s degree, but no IELTS certification. One thing I liked about him was that he kept using the word “heaps” to mean “a lot of”, which I’d never heard before. When we discussed tourism in Kyrgyzstan, for example, he said, “oh yeah, heaps of travelers go there for tourism, heaps.” I found it both hysterical and strangely endearing at the same time. He told me a bit about his experience in Shyment since arriving in November last year.

“People here ask me all the time if I can teach IELTS. I don’t even have IELTS certification! But they think that just because I’m a foreigner from Europe who speaks decent English I can teach IELTS.” I was curious about what he did in Shymkent.

“So you teach privately?”

“I’m like a freelancer. I go to language centers and say, ‘Hey I’m a foreigner. Do you have groups?’ It works well,” he said. I nodded, stirring my Americano.

“So you freelance at these language centers?” I asked.

“Yeah exactly. I do my own stuff. I have my own Facebook and Instagram page. Most of the clients are English teachers trying to improve their English.”

“So you do online stuff too?”

“I want to shift it to online – I just started now. I have the first client from Moscow – they are Kazak. Here in Kazakhstan, online teaching is not popular, not at all. I don’t know why. They believe in personal contact – probably because of this bureaucracy, you know, you always have to shake hands.” I asked him how he hoped to continue his online teaching in the future and how that would help him to continue traveling.

“Once I’m able to shift $100 or $150 per week online, I’m going to stop everything and just travel twenty-four/seven because that will enable me – because I’ll just need mobile internet – and that’s sorted. Of course, I need to spend some time to figure how to manage all that stuff, but that’s the ultimate, so I can devote all three hundred sixty-five days to traveling. Right now, it’s six months’ work, six months traveling in my life – I have no reason to complain at all. Online would be the future, the next step.” A part of me was envious of T. Here was a guy who had decided to dedicate his entire life to travel. He wanted to visit every country in the world – quite a goal – but he was entirely serious about it. I admired his dedication to something I was also passionate about. He seemed to view money as just paper that allowed him to keep traveling. He commented on challenges in Kazakhstan as a place for someone like himself to conduct business.

“I was thinking of running my own business, something like that, so after a while just take off and hire someone, but there is no person I can trust here. This is not a place where you can leave your business. If you want to take Kazakh nationality, you have to drop your nationality. You cannot buy a house as a foreigner, unless you have a residence permit and stuff like that. It’s insane how much they try to concentrate the money.” I told him that I was interested in learning more about Almaty as I’d be visiting next month. He mentioned the differences between Almaty and Shymkent in the English teaching markets for foreign teachers. “Almaty, the market is already filled,” he said. “Here,” he said, pausing to look around, shaking his head, “there is no market.”

That afternoon, as I thought about my conversation with T, I had lunch at a restaurant that, in its efforts to seem posh and hip, tastelessly blasted crummy instrumental music that belonged more appropriately in The Legend of Zelda than in a restaurant. The lone trumpeter outside on muddy Ilyaev Street – sweetly serenading shoppers with a beautiful cover of Sinatra’s “My Way” – did a better job of filling space with meaningful music. He stood in the mud, his boots caked on the bottom; a rusty trumpet case lay discarded beside him, resting against the trunk of a snow-filled tree. Downward-looking, sidewalk-staring walkers shuffled by quickly without perhaps even considering the immense beauty that was being projected into their city streets. Were they not grateful? Did they not like the music? I didn’t see anyone give the man any Kazak Tinge.

In the evening, I met Aidana – a PR executive for a bank in Almaty. She was in town on a business trip, she said, and she was interested in gender differences and disparities in Kazakhstan. She told me about the double standards of personal relationships in Kazakhstan over pizza.

“In Kazakhstan, men are alpha. The girl’s first aim is to birth children – I can’t understand. In Kazak families, men have more opportunities than women. Girls should be quiet and humble; their first aim is to have a good marriage with a rich guy, and if you can’t marry until thirty, they say that you are old. But men can marry any age, anytime; and some guys who are in religion, they can have two wives, but they can have if only they have money.” She seemed to have some criticism of relationship norms in Kazakhstan.

“But our women in Kazakhstan are very progressive, because we have the demographic situation where the number of men is lower than women; most of our women can work, have a job and do something. They can get educated. I think we are not so traditional like Uzbeks and Tajiks. We are not so much in religion, something like this.” We discussed politics for a bit and I asked her about her president.

“We wait. It’s very sad to say, but really, he’s so old. He don’t want to give someone a chance. Always – how to say? – he close his government ministers in – how to say? – I can’t remember, my English so bad.” She seemed to suddenly forget what she was talking about, or she chose not to finish her sentence. I tried to help her finish her thought, but she didn’t seem to want to. Was she nervous about being overheard? At the time, I didn’t think so, as there was no one nearby to hear her, but she stopped in such a way that it made me wonder.  Finally, she said, “In Kazakhstan, if you have powerful parents, you can do anything that you want.” Then she said something that made me pause; “but I think people anywhere is people. They similar.”
In the morning, seated in a park near the bus station, I heard, from a nearby mosque, the call to prayer come alive over the city, blanketing it in sound. Later, I witnessed a group of Kazakhs break into song and dance in the middle of the park. It was a frigid sunny Friday afternoon and the sounds of what sounded like an accordion wafted peacefully over the park, accompanied by clapping and jolly male voices singing together in unison. A giant blue flag of Kazakhstan received a gust of wind, almost as if coming suddenly from their collected breaths, waving frantically and triumphantly over the Shymkent cityscape in the distance. The park seemed empty, but perhaps that’s only because it was so big. It would have been difficult to make it look or seem full, but the merry musicians did a good job of filling the park with life, stomping and shouting “opa!” occasionally to cajole the music along spiritedly. At the bus station, I had a piroshky and a cup of tea in a cold, bright concrete room with plastic furniture. A group of chatty Kazak girls dressed in dark colors sat at a nearby table; they held their teacups with two hands as they sipped their beverage quietly. I read my book in the sunlight and thought about people in some of the places I had seen that may, perhaps, never change.
“The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove.” – Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (2015), page 385
Leaving Shymkent on the bus, I thought about the people I had met: Akmaral and the randomness of our meeting; T and his tattooed traveler spirit, inspiring in me a greater desire to travel more spontaneously and fearlessly; and Aidana – her willingness to discuss Kazakhstan. I began listening to David Bazan’s “People” again, the second half of the second verse getting stuck in my head: “Who are these people? If I’m honest with myself at all, these are my people. Man, what else can I say? You are my people. And we’re the same in so many ways.” Outside Shymkent, on the way home, I realized how I had spent much of my time on the way here writing. It helped pass the time and was less mind-numbing than listening to music – more engaging, thought-provoking and reflective. I switched seats from the aisle to the window, letting the bright sun hit my tired body. I tipped my cap back ever so slightly and let the sun hit my face as I looked out the window, watching the birds soar smoothly above the rolling green southern Kazak hills.

Murakami by Bus: Bangkok to Hanoi

“I’ve had that kind of experience myself: I’m looking at a map and I see someplace that makes me think, ‘I absolutely have to go to this place, no matter what.’ And most of the time, for some reason, the place is far away and hard to get to. I feel this overwhelming desire to know what kind of scenery this place has, or what people are doing there. It’s like measles – you can’t show other people exactly where the passion comes from. It’s curiosity in the purest sense. An inexplicable inspiration.” – Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (2011), p. 370

IMG_3826Cities, I’ve found, often look different from above than when immersed in them, walking their streets, at eye level. At night, from above, cities glow in a way that ground-walking men and women cannot understand – an image that is postponed to us until we are airborne. I looked down upon Tashkent in the evening and saw the various colored lights, wondering which ones had shone upon me previously. For some reason, I rarely remember leaving Seattle from the air, but I always remember arriving – the act of arrival. I remember the mountains and the city I know better than any other, tracing roads I’ve traveled countless times, recalling memories. Calcutta, I remember leaving – the Hooghly River winding through the city, the Victoria Memorial like a post-colonial stamp upon the city’s British-heavy history. Thinking of these past departures, I knew I would remember leaving Tashkent for the first time by air. I tried to find familiar roads and monuments but was unsuccessful in the stretching darkness. I didn’t know the city well enough yet, but I knew that I would feel as though I did upon arrival again in two-week’s time, if only to give myself a brief sense of pleasure. An old colleague of mine in Bangladesh once told me that a city never really feels like home until you return to it from somewhere else. While I have left Tashkent several times, I have not left Uzbekistan for the last three months. Perhaps it will feel more like home when I get back in two weeks. Perhaps not.

For some reason the airplane erupted in thunderous applause when we touched down in Bangkok. Were people not expecting to land? I’d never been on a flight that began clapping upon landing without a previous fear of some storm, turbulence or other airborne threat. In line to go through immigration, I opened Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84. “If you really want to know what’s happening here and now, you’ve got to use your own eyes and your own judgement.” (p. 8) I looked up in line and saw vacationers in shorts, sandals and tank tops, ready for their beach getaways. A young girl in line next to me saw the size of the Murakami book and asked me what I was reading, an occurrence that was to happen several times throughout my trip. I told her what little information I knew of the author and book, trying to humor her and give us both a break from the mind-numbing tediousness of the forwardly-inching immigration line.

“Don’t you like English literature?” she asked, defending her state education.

“Sure,” I said, “but this author is really interesting.” She held the big book I handed her and almost dropped it, catching the attention of her mother standing next to her. “Do you like to read?”

“Oh yes,” she said, smiling. She pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “I love English literature.”

“Very good,” I said. “What are you reading now?”

Hard Times,” she said. “Dickens.” I thought about the title.

“Do you enjoy it?”

“Not really,” she confessed. We both smiled. The immigration officer called me forward.

“Nice chatting with you,” I said. “Enjoy Dickens.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said respectfully. I stepped forward and waited while Thai immigration looked me over. “I move, therefore I am.” (p. 41)

I was heading north, but first I needed to sleep for a little bit. I found some padded benches in the basement of the airport and crashed for a few hours, only to wake up and read a sign in red above me that read “Please no lying down on the benches.” I took the metro to the Mo Chit neighborhood where I caught a public bus to the bustling Mo Chit bus station. The stub the bus attendant gave me was smaller than a postage stamp and twice as thin. I wandered around the humming bus station for some time as I searched for the ticket office for Nong Khai. I was glad to be out of the international airport and far away from the tourist ghettos. The bus station was near howling with people coming and going, some sitting and chit-chatting, snacking on unfamiliar Thai foods wrapped in plastics. As I bought one of the last tickets for Nong Khai, the saleswoman told me that the bust might up to four hours late. That seemed really late, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t meeting anyone; I had no plans – I didn’t even have a hotel reservation.

“No problem,” I told her. “Things would simply take their course.” (p. 56)

I had four hours to kill so I sat down on what I found was the only available two square feet of free floor space in the station, nudged between a bag of trash and a concrete wall. I opened my book once more. “These people are your nameless friends for just a little while.” (p. 115) A boy sat down near me; his black duffle bag read: “Every day is Friday.” Today was, indeed, Friday. Aboard the bus, waiting to leave the station, a boy boarded and began handing out snacks on behalf of the bus company. Little stick-like crackers were trapped inside a tiny plastic sauce container, all sealed with an orange stripe that read “for you”. Fifty minutes late, the bus went backward before it went forward. While the bus plunged its way along the high overpasses of Bangkok, I looked out over the cityscape and again thought about cities at night and how things are less visible. It’s not that one can’t see a city at night – one just sees a different side or part of it. I thought about my last trip to Southeast Asia with my old roommate in Bangladesh and how we took night busses across Myanmar to save on accommodation costs, leaving us feeling restless and miserable in the surprisingly cold mornings. Given the ambiguity of our arrival time, who knew when we’d arrive to Nong Khai. In the middle of the night I woke to find a giant Buddha statue across the highway from a steamy refinery, puffing away, heaving heavy breath after heavy breath of smoke into the air. Buddha sat still.

The first glimpse of morning was a pink and orange horizon over a green canopy of trees and grass. It seemed bright compared to the dark night we had just driven through, but in reality, it was feint. Thirteen hours into the journey we passed a sign for Nong Khai, Thailand: 87 kilometers. After Udon Thani there was a red, octagonal stop sign on the road; written in Thai, it looked as though it read RUN backwards. Arriving into Nong Khai, I was bombarded by touts with “Hello Sir! Where you go? You go Lao? You Lao visa?” I ignored them and their offers for what may or may not have been a legitimate Lao visa. I jumped into yet another bus over the friendly-named Friendship Bridge and let the uniformed border guards put the visa in its place. In Vientiane, Laos, I met John, a 68-year-old western Australian who told me that his take on Seattle was that it was a city of high aspirations but low effectivity or efficiency. He said he thought the same principle applied to its people, so we chatted for a while. He’d spent seven years in India, ten in China and some time in Afghanistan, all years ago, so he had some stories. He had several empty tall bottles of Beerlao in front of him and a far-off look in his alcohol-infected eyes. “There were people in the world who wanted someone to talk to – about anything, no matter what.” (p. 217) It was nice to chat with John, even if just for a little bit, especially after I’d been, more or less, publicly silent for the last couple of days, aside from asking how to get from one place to another or where the toilet was. I was also glad to know that I would sleep in a bed that night and not a chair.

IMG_3847I liked Vientiane immediately. It was quiet, sleepy, interesting, warm, and just busy enough to keep a lone traveler occupied but not annoyed or overwhelmed. Paint scribblings on the wall of my room read: “Dream until your dream come true.” I looked at my outdated map of Laos and thought about dreams, then went for a walk along the boulevard adjacent to the calmly flowing Mekong River. Preparations were in place for the evening’s New Year’s celebrations, complete with waist-high explosives that would later propel applause-rendering firecrackers high into the night sky. No one was manning the control booth to which the explosives were connected. Couples and families were out, observing the pre-festivities, strolling with the setting sun. A lonely woman sat on the ground weaving together colorful string puppets and smiling little creatures that were no larger than a few inches long. I walked past booth after booth offering fresh fish, seafood and vegetables. The food looked inviting.

Sabaidee,” a soft voice said to me. I turned to find a smiling young girl in a black shirt that read Sorry, I’m gay.
Sabaidee,” I replied. She smiled. Both of our hands were pressed together lightly in respectful greeting.
“Please, weo-come,” she welcomed.
Khop-jai,” I said, thanking her, but I had no plans of stopping.
“Bee-ah Lao,” she tried at last, advertising the nation’s lousy lager. I smiled and reflexively put my right hand over my heart, forgetting that I was no longer in Tashkent. Nearby, I found a working couple shin-deep in muddy water, plastic bags in hand, scanning the shallow Mekong waters for little fish. I passed by a temple with orange-clad young monks scattered about, sweeping, cleaning and doing various household chores. I felt out of place, almost intrusive, but then I realized that I was neither the first or last white guy to wander into a Buddhist Temple in Vientiane. I looked up and noticed the blue sky. “The air was startlingly fresh, and a stillness filled the surrounding space. It was a stillness so profound one had to adjust one’s hearing to it. The perfectly clear sky seemed to soar upward, and the warmth of the sunlight gently touched any skin directly exposed to it.” (p. 164)

“Excuse me,” one of the hairless monks said, “you English?”
Namaste,” I said, gluing my palms together for a few seconds, “yes English,” I said, hoping for further conversation. It didn’t happen. Instead he simply showed me his Apple iPhone open to a Google Translate page. I looked at it. “We all find peace in the world,” it read; “some find it sooner than others.”
“Correct?” he asked.
“Sounds good to me,” I said. He smiled a shaved-headed smile, bringing out the brightness of his orange robe. “Photo?” I asked, touching my camera. He blushed then quickly stood to pose with two of his fellow monks.

IMG_3803New year’s was a loud affair with firecrackers blowing up in the streets, setting off car alarms with people dancing in circles like worshippers around nighttime bonfires. Santa-hatted Vietnamese girls bopped in the streets to poppy electronic dance music, their ball-ended, red and white Santa hats bobbing to the beats. I wandered around Vientiane the following day, not looking for anything in particular. I came upon one of many temples that scatter the small and walkable city. Its gates were open so I stepped inside. No attendants or dogs greeted me so I helped myself to walk around and enjoy its calm environment, stepping on large brown crunchy leaves that had fallen but had not yet been swept away. The bright colors of the temple walls, sides and railings contrasted sharply with the natural tones of the earth, the old trees sheltering statues of various Buddhas, some clothed in orange fabrics circling their waists. A school stood next door and I could hear the chatter of rambunctious children shouting and hollering in the nearby playground. Some were still in classes, though they seemed to be doing little. One boy was near the window and saw me approach. He ran over and said hello, waving a little hand. I said the same. He put up his hands in a respectful namaste, his arms and elbows resting on the window sill. His eyes peered out on either side of his clasped hands, giving the middle of his face a line that was soon torn apart when he ran back to class.

IMG_3865In Vientiane, I met Nuy, a friendly woman who had been working for the government’s Ministry of Science and Technology for ten years. She showed me around the city, pointing out some of Vientiane’s landmarks and places of interest, one of which had a sign on its green lawn: “no passing a grass”. We had coffee at a café near the city’s main boulevard, parallel to the Mekong River.

“Do you travelling to Laos?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a nice place.”

“Ah, good you like.” We sipped our Lao coffees and discussed Luang Prabang, the old Lao capital. “Luang Prabang is nice. I like there and visited many times,” she said.

“Really?”

“Yes. You will like it. Small city. Peaceful and beautiful. People is friendly.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“Did you book the accommodation? Any things I can help please tell me.”

“Oh thank you,” I said, “very kind of you.” I told her that I would probably just find something when I got there.

“Yes you can. Hope you have a good time and enjoy Luang Prabang.” If Laos had a friendly meter it would be off the charts.

IMG_3834My friend Dan described Vientiane as “a great place to lay low for a few days.” Lay low I did, reading, strolling, visiting temples and eating more than my fair share of delicious street food. But leaving Vientiane was bittersweet, too, though I was excited to continue north, my final destination still undecided. I boarded a sleeper bus to Luang Prabang with a sign that read “please don’t steal the blankets”. This was the first bus I’d boarded where everyone was required to remove their footwear before boarding. Little plastic bags were supplied upon entering so that passengers could carry their shoes and sandals on board, keeping the red padded floor clean and presentable. The sleeper bus seats reclined a near-180 degrees (165, I guessed), so they were significantly more comfortable than the chairs I rode in on. But ever since arriving in Laos I had been put in a rather euphoric state of mind. I would consider my situation and then this huge grin would immediately appear on my face. Sometimes I just couldn’t help it. It continued throughout my time in Luang Prabang, despite its being overrun by tourists. “She brought a positive attitude to just about any situation once she had made up her mind to do so.” (p. 409)

At 1am, the bus stopped at a roadside shack where passengers disembarked and fed on snacks, sodas and other empty calories. Dazed, I disembarked and stumbled toward the dwelling to see what was for sale.
“Sandwich?” I asked the apron’d salesman.
“No sandwich,” he said, “ice.” Did I hear that right? I furrowed my brow.
“Ice?” I asked, confused.
“Ice ice,” he repeated stubbornly, removing the grey metal lid from a steaming pot of rice. “Ice and soup,” he concluded.
“Oh, no soup,” I foolishly said as though I were the one selling it. I imagined the rest of the conversation in my head as I made my purchase: I’ll just eat a can of Pringles, instead. Thanks. There was water on the bus windows in the morning as we entered Luang Prabang, evidence that it had rained during the night. It was colder and cloudier, too – weather I hadn’t packed for. I met Paul, a lean German university student studying philosophy and economics who was on his way north to China. “It’s such an interesting country,” Paul told me, “and it’s so you-gh,” mispronouncing ‘huge’. We shared a tuk-tuk to town, followed by bah minh sandwiches and Lao coffee by the brown, slowly flowing Mekong River. The sun hadn’t risen and there was a kind of grey morning mist in the still air.

IMG_3899“Boat trip? One our-ah, two our-ah,” riverside touts touted one-hour and two-hour boat trips as we sipped our early morning coffees. It was 7am and the town was surprisingly awake. Paul and I shared simple pleasantries that travelers often share together, then we parted ways and I walked around town for a bit in an un-showered state, searching for accommodations. Physically, I’d call Luang Prabang a nice place, but I’d never come back during peak tourist season. Like locusts, tourists, such as myself, seemed to come in and consume everything in their path: coffee, noodles, space, time, cheap goods from China, etc. Aware of my participation in this consumption, I thought of the orange-robed monks who would walk the streets in the morning, collecting alms, carrying on the heritage and 700-year-long tradition that propelled the UN to knight this a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Did such labeling only further propel the tsunami of seasonal tourism? I wondered. I’ve heard that it’s the people that make up a place, not the place itself.

IMG_3941Florence was from Florence. An Italian woman of Nigerian descent, she lived in Paris and had been traveling the world for roughly nine months. We shared drinks at a café and asked each other questions about places of the world we had either visited, lived, or had hoped to. She told me about the northern town of Phongsali and the villagers she had met there – elaborately dressed Hmong with no shoes and nothing but dirt paths to traverse for their commutes. She introduced me to Colin #1 and Colin #2, two expats who worked at an organization called Big Brother Mouse, a strangely named organization that attempts to promote literacy and healthy reading habits among the local Lao population. I visited their center and got to speak with some young Lao students who held an impressive command of English, given the amount of time they told me they had been studying. I was inspired by Big Brother Mouse, as their mission seemed genuine and their approach intentional. Apparently former President Clinton had recognized the organization years earlier at the Clinton Global Initiative in Asia as a major change-maker in literacy promotion in Laos. I told a friend how impressed I was from just one visit to the center.
“So you’ll be moving to Laos?” she asked sarcastically.
“I don’t think so,” I chuckled. “Laos is great, but I couldn’t handle so many tourists all the time.” I was excited for Xam Neua as I hadn’t met anyone who’d been there before. Colin #2 said that he had always wanted to go.

Little wooden benches lined the platform of the Luang Prabang bus station. They were smooth from years of asses caressing their tops, polishing them in a way that only asses over time can. There were no buses in sight, so at first I thought I was in the wrong place.
“You be here three o’clock,” the bus station attendant told me, “then bus come I tell you, okay?”

“Okay,” I agreed with a nod.

Bad Top 40 music blared from across the street. Dogs with their noses to the ground pranced around the dirt looking for trash and other things to eat. One had a roll of duct tape in his mouth, but the top of the roll obstructed his vision, causing him to swivel his head constantly and crash into things. As had been my experience most of this trip, most of the people waiting in one place for more than five minutes were staring down at their phones, necks and backs hunched over like modern, 21st century human gargoyles. I was glad to escape the cultural clutches of the tourist-heavy presence in Luang Prabang. I’m sure it’s a nice quite place every other time of the year. A young backpacked kid next to me had on a stylish looking jacket that read, between the shoulder blades, “Even the devil, once and Angel”. I asked myself what it could mean. “These days, not understanding anything had more or less become the normal state of affairs for him. This was not a new discovery.” (p. 441)

IMG_3939I grabbed some grilled fish and rice before the bus journey. The fish sat open-mouthed, almost drooling into the hot smoking charcoal below, roasting away. I got up to pay for the meal and continue waiting in the open-air terminal.
“Ten thousand,” the sandal’d woman said. I began flipping through flimsy Lao Kip notes, numbered in their thousands, not so differently than Uzbek Som – roughly eight thousand to the dollar. The woman went to the back of the little shack and made some noise with pots and pans. She returned to take the money I was handing her.
“Fifteen thousand,” she said. I gave her my best flat-face and looked at her kid lying on a tattered lounge chair nearby, playing on a cracked phone in an Angry Birds t-shirt. He looked up and smiled a dentist-needed smile, soon laughing away. “The more I think about it, the less I seem to understand, like my brain is a tub of tofu past its expiration date.” (p. 1,006) Only northeastern Laos was in front of me.

IMG_3934The bus wasn’t a bus at all, but a minivan. I boarded after removing my shoes, putting them into a clear little plastic bag, and was immediately asked by the elderly woman sitting next to me, without words, to remove the plastic wrapping from the top of her water bottle. Her hands and fingers were so knobby from what looked like advanced arthritis that she couldn’t open it herself. I satisfied her request and tried to not pay attention to the crying baby on the lap of the young mother in front of me. The van wobbled back and forth as it exited the station and I thought about the white emergency vomit bag I swiped from Uzbekistan Airlines last week, knowing that the only words I would speak for the next fifteen hours would be “Xam Neua?” and “toilet?” “Not speaking for a long time makes the muscles around the mouth grow slack.” (p. 956)

I leaned my head back on the headrest and tried to enjoy the surprisingly moderately-volume’d (for now) traditional Lao music coming from over the van stereo system. At night, the only light visible was the passing street lights; otherwise, car headlights flashed and the dim glow of people’s faces, like moons, glimmered as they stared into the images reflecting off their lifeline-like phones. “All that was there was a feeling of being in motion…It didn’t matter when or where this was. All that mattered was this movement. Everything was fluid, and a specific meaning was born of that fluidity.” (p. 960) After having been banged around the back of a van for 4.5 hours, we pulled over for a break at 2am. Maybe the driver was tired of singing to himself to keep himself awake. Clouds were intertwined with the dark hills in the distance, creating the rather ominous landscape through which we had passed. Standing around the van, killing time, a woman said “tree more hours” to no one specifically. I hummed a reply. “Maybe four,” she added. At that point, it didn’t matter. It was the middle of the night and we were travelling the windy hills of northeastern Laos. All I could do was continue waiting, thrashing around the back of the van with every turn. “The flow of time wasn’t uniform anymore, the sense of distance uncertain.” (p. 1,067)

Fourteen hours after leaving Luang Prabang, we reached the very pleasant town of Xam Neua. “He wished he could just go to bed and be fast asleep. He could continue this process in the morning. No amount of additional thinking would bring him any clarity now.” (p. 798) It was dark and cold and I didn’t have any idea as to what the layout of the town was like, but I was glad to be there. While I didn’t like it immediately, I did like it in the morning after some rest and a shower. No one in my guesthouse spoke English; they didn’t have a map, and I had no idea where I was in relation to the rest of the city. It was great. “It is the place where he is meant to be lost.” (p. 574) I wondered out in the direction I was told the city was in and grabbed some soup. This was a much smaller town; I walked by the market and saw a sign that read “say yes to life and family and say no to drugs.” There wasn’t much going on in Xam Neua.

In the market, lots of little rubber banded plastic bags were lining the counters, all filled with the same contents: special spicy sauce only found in Xam Neua, I was told. I walked along the river and got more looks from locals than I had previously. No “taxi?” No “tuk-tuk?” No “boat?” Just screaming hellos from waving children from across the streets, some of them clutching their mothers on the backs of mopeds as they leaned into turns. The hills surrounding the town were draped in green, as if someone huge had laid down a thick green forestry carpet, covering the area. I walked back to the bus station on top of a hill to get a ticket to Hanoi for the following morning. Walking back, I was asked for money directly for the first time in Laos. A young guy came running after me down the hill in sandals shouting “ey!” I turned to see what was up. He started making all sorts of gestures, rubbing his belly, making it pretty clear what he wanted. I gave him a bill but he seemed to want more. I walked away and he didn’t follow. I passed a karaoke shack on a hillside where a screeching voice extended outside, echoing through the hills nearby. I looked inside and saw Laotians crouched on yellow crates of discarded Beer Lao bottles. The music was deafening. I stopped off for a Beer Lao at a roadside shack near the bus station. Watching the woman tending the shack, cooking chicken skewers over a charcoal flame, I realized that I’d be leaving Laos tomorrow. I sudden wave of nostalgia and sentiment swept over me. It had only been about a week, but it had passed quickly and I felt as though there was still much of this country unexplored.

IMG_3836I realized, remembering my bus trips in Himachal Pradesh and Assam, India, that I generally prefer traveling to rural areas. Rural life, often, is more interesting, in that it often gives better glimpses into what a country is like day-to-day, how much of the population lives – plus it’s often prettier from a scenic standpoint. While there was nothing to do in Xam Neua, I also appreciated it tranquility. In the evening, as the sun slowly set over the hills outside town, three little children hopped over a concrete barrier opposite the strangely named Many Cafe. One of the monstrous munchkins held a small fake plastic AK-47. They ran across the street towards me, checking for cars, and entered the café. Was this a fake holdup? They purchased some pastries and left. I sipped my coffee when Nuy messaged me from Vientiane.

“Good evening, John. How is there?”

“Hi Nuy, yes it’s beautiful here. How are you?”

“I’m doing well. Xam Neua must be beautiful and cold. I have never been there.”

“Yes it’s beautiful and rather cold in the evenings.”

“But better you have jacket. Take care and enjoy travelling there.”

“Thank you, Nuy. Nice to hear from you.”

That evening I had dinner at a place with a red napkin dispenser on the table that read “everything goes well.” “In the present situation, you don’t want to move from where you are now.” (p. 1,108) In the morning, I left my guesthouse without saying goodbye to the staff. “Goodbye,” she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived there.” (p. 532) I just put the key in a small wicker basket and walked up the hill to the bus station. Xam Neua was the first place I’d been where the bus station offered the best view in town. After the sun rose, I boarded the bus to Hanoi. I was the only passenger for some reason; the driver didn’t even shut the door as we left the station. We left Xam Neua. And I didn’t see any white people. “But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically.” (p. 1,138)

IMG_3976We swerved through little village after little village with colorful laundry hanging out to dry in the damp, humid air. The scenery of northeastern Laos is really beautiful: hilly, green, not populated. On the bus, I thought about the relationship I often have with bus drivers as the only foreigner on board. They will remember me, but we won’t say anything to each other, really, except the name of our destination, followed by a question mark. If I had to give a moniker to the drivers on this trip they would be the following: “Short Tie”, “The Quiet One”, “The Singer”, and this one would quite simply be “Honky”. We reached the border about three hours after leaving Xam Neua. I handed my passport over to the woman manning the checkpoint, dressed in a green uniform, adorned with red pins.
“Hello,” she said without emotion.
“Hello,” I replied. She flipped through the pages of my passport with quick-moving, nimble, experienced fingers. I walked some fifty meters to the Vietnam entrance building down a kind of driveway.
“Hello,” another green uniformed man said.
“Hello,” I said. I handed over my passport again. This time they had computers. After some key-punching, the man seated behind the large wooden desk called out my name, even though I was the only one in the room.
“John Philip,” he said, computer-like. I stood up and received my passport. Leaving that office, another uniform asked to see my passport. I handed it over. He flipped through it, checking the stamp that was placed mere seconds ago.
“Okay,” he said.
“Toilet?” I asked. He pointed around the corner. Above two doorways were written WC Nam and WC Wu. There were no pictures.  I walked into the one marked Nam, saw a urinal, and deduced that Nam was Man backwards. Outside, I got some food on a metal tray: tofu with something inside and white rice. After lunch I saw my bus mates smoking something out of a wooden bong-looking instrument. Naturally, I walked over. I thrust out my chin as to ask “what’s that?” No sooner had one bald man loaded a bowl and handed it to me, lighting it swiftly. I hit it. I assumed the brown bag of contents on the table was merely tobacco, it being at an international border checkpoint and all. It went straight to my head. I sat down, had some tea and waited for the bus while my bus mates listened to Lao news on their phones. It was hot. I watched a four-legged dog hobble around on three legs while other dogs fought in the rough gravel. The men sipped their tea and smoked cheap cigarettes. I flipped through my passport and found the Lao visa with a new stamp on it: USED. The roads on the other side of the border were immediately better: paved, smooth and much more functional. Honky took full advantage of the opportunity, flying around blind curves with a hand on the horn all the while. I decided to give the bus attendant a moniker too: Tonky. Honky & Tonky worked together as a team, addressing situations as they came up, like when the door would randomly open on its own during transport. Honky would shout to Tonky, who was often asleep or dozing off, then Tonky would jump up and shut the door with his bare feet, soon settling back to rest.

Coming down from the northwestern Vietnamese highlands, I looked across the bus aisle to see my bus mates staring out the window. We were all looking at the same scenery, the same beauty with a kind of mesmerized expression in our gaze. Even though we didn’t speak the same language and probably had very little in common in terms of our lifestyles, we all looked upon the majestic hills with similar awe, staring, as it were, into the simple beauty of nature. “I’m sure I’ll be able to understand the meaning and purpose of this incident sometime in the future, Tengo thought. What I have to do now, in order to make that happen, is to record this moment in my mind as clearly and accurately as possible.” (p. 683) “Don’t Fear” by Maps came on through my headphones as we passed the ill-named café “Cooffee New Star”. Hours later, we stopped at a small town where I was quickly whisked off the bus and directed to board another one. I was immediately confused. Was this bus not going to Hanoi as I’d been told? Honky and Tonky aggressively gestured for me to get on this new bus asap, so I did. It all happened so fast and unexpectedly that upon boarding the new bus I collapsed in exhaustion. We stopped hours later for a break where it was significantly colder. I ordered some food and foolishly sat down in a small puddle of red sauce waiting for me on a metal stool. I rolled into Hanoi with a big red stain on my ass, thirteen hours after leaving Xam Neua.

IMG_4104Hanoi was freezing – colder than any weather conditions I was expecting or prepared for. I exited the bus station to a windy night, soon to find a friendly guy in glasses smoking a cigarette at the city bus ticket counter. I held an address on a piece of paper in my hand and he looked at it. He repeated the street name to himself several times, as if recalling a distant memory. He walked over to the nearest bus that was parked nearby, rapped on the door and shouted the address at the shoe-less driver with his bare feet resting comfortably on the dash. They exchanged some words in Vietnamese and I soon boarded the dark bus and listened to the two men while they chatted. “So he always kept his mouth shut. He kept his ears open and listened closely to whatever anyone else had to say, aiming to learn something from everything he heard. This habit eventually became a useful tool.” (p. 990) The bus dropped me off less than two kilometers to my accommodations. The bus fare was six thousand Vietnamese Dong – less than a quarter.
The following day, I met Dung at Xofa Cafe. She was the owner and she said they had been operating for two years, 24 hours a day. She had a beautiful cafe and I told her as much. She blushed and said thank you, hoping that I would enjoy my stay. I commented on all the books she had on her shelves around the café and she told me to help myself. She said that she couldn’t meet with me right away as she had a work-related meeting. I told her that was fine as I had my book.
“Oh what are you reading?” she asked – one of my favorite questions. I pulled out the Murakami from my bag and gave it to her. “Oh Murakami!” she exclaimed, “I love him.”
“Me too,” I said. She had to go, but I enjoyed my coffee outside, despite the cold, where there was a feint whiff of marijuana nearby. I liked Hanoi for its craziness, but I also missed the peacefulness of Xam Neua.

I didn’t see as much of Hanoi as perhaps I should have; however, I seldom feel the need to see a place any more or less than any other person. I walked the streets, sipped the coffee, ate the food, saw the people, heard their words, dodged the mopeds and breathed the air. While I didn’t check off all the main tourist attractions on some make-believe checklist, I did enjoy my time. I enjoyed the tiny plastic street stools that looked like they were made for elementary school children. They reminded me of small, low hanging urinals in elementary schools that grown men have to awkwardly squat or bend down to use. Upon first glance, these stools would be assumed to be for children, yet adults sat in them day after day. The city reminded me of other big, dense cities: Calcutta, though the traffic was not of rickshaws and old yellow cabs but of masked moped riders, circling around each other ad nauseam. Mexico City for its density, the sensation that the city went on forever, though I knew this to not be true.

IMG_4093I wandered around the city for several days, eating its food, smelling its smells, hearing its sounds. But on my last night I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was the knowledge that my trip would soon come to an abrupt end. Perhaps it was because I’d wandered into a strange bar full of white people singing along to Toto’s 1982 hit “Africa”. Whatever it was, my journey was coming to a close. Hanoi is an amazing city. Traveling here from Bangkok overland by bus was well worth the journey.

On the Air Asia flight from Hanoi back to Bangkok, I looked around the cabin, noticing the clever slogans developed by someone clever, glorifying capitalism, consumerism and consumption. “Shopping is cheaper than therapy”, “Travel is the healthiest addiction” and “In shopping we trust”. I wanted to vomit. I finished the Murakami’s book just where I had started it two weeks earlier – Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. It wasn’t the ending I was expecting, but then again, neither was that of my trip. Perhaps that was the beauty of it – you had to get to the end of it to see what it was like, what was there. Flying back into Tashkent that evening, I was reminded of the beginning of my journey just a mere two weeks ago. From above, Tashkent looked the same. Its lights still shone, its layout hadn’t changed, and the Uzbeks on the flight around me all sounded as they did fourteen days ago. What had changed? Perhaps I had. With 1,700 kilometers, 1,300 pages, four buses, three countries, two weeks and one hell of a trip, I was finished.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 7.17.14 PM“He knew, too, that it would take time for him to acclimate himself to this new world that had come upon him. His entire way of thinking, his way of seeing things, the way he breathed, the way he moved his body – he would need to adjust and rethink every element of life. And to do that, he needed to gather together all the time that existed in this world.” (p. 1,278)

After I got back to Tashkent I was asked, “So what would you have done differently?”

“Nothing,” I answered immediately.

“Really?” she asked surprised.

“Really.”

 

The Overnight to Urgench

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here…and here. These are the nerve-ends of the world… A hundred reasons clamor for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart. You go to encounter the protean shapes of faith. You go because you are still young and crave excitement, the crunch of your boots in the dust; you go because you are old and need to understand something before it’s too late. You go to see what will happen.”

  • Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), page 2

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The old Uzbek man sat idly as I entered the cramped train compartment. His little white beard contrasted sharply with his black jacket and the dim, dank surroundings of the train innards that smelled continuously of burnt metal.

Assalaam walaikum,” he offered.

Salaam walaikum,” I repeated in the common Uzbek way, not switching the greeting. He began spewing out a machine-gun fire arsenal of incompressible Khorezm-dialect Uzbek that I’d never heard before, ending with “hm?” as if to ask what I thought of his brief oratory. I smiled awkwardly and showed him the bags of food I had brought aboard with me. Thanks to the astronomical kindness showered upon me by one very kind student who met me at the station, I had some home-cooked food for the journey.

Harasho,” the old man said and contently folded his wrinkled hands together over the jacket covering his belly. He removed the winter cap wrapping his bald head and rubbed it gently, his dry hands almost scratching against his scalp. He ran his hands down his face onto his beard and muttered a solitary “Allah” to himself. Younger people I assumed to be his relatives came in to check on him, exchanging quick greetings and questions, asking him if he wanted any tea. He said no and soon the train began moving west toward the tiny western region of Khorezm, our eventual destination near the Turkmen border. He lifted his hands up into prayer and mumbled a short but what seemed to be heartfelt prayer, perhaps asking God for a safe journey across the country, slowly washing his face with his hands afterwards. He turned toward me and chuckled, followed by a gurgled “yaxshi,” then we were on our own in near silence, heading toward a land I had never seen. Our silence became constant as we sat and breathed, letting nothing more than time fill our brief existence together. Something I’d always appreciated about old people is that they know how to sit still and be quiet. This man was clearly well-versed in the elderly art of being elderly; he let out an emphatic sigh and I looked out the window as the fading city lights of Tashkent got further and further away.

* * *

This was the first Asian train I’d been on where tea was not served to you. Instead, there was a communal hot-water basin at the end of the car, one heated by orange-ember coals where passengers would take their own mugs, fill them with steaming hot water and return to their cabins with a soon-to-be refreshingly warm beverage. I noted to bring my own mug on my next overnight journey. I returned to our cabin with a hot cup of water only to have the old man’s hand thrust inelegantly into my crotch. He was reaching across the aisle for his bedding and didn’t see me enter the cabin. It was then that I finally realized that he was blind; his long white walking stick, now visible, stood lonely in the corner. He muttered an innocent “opa!” and humbly took the bedding and blanket which I happily handed him. Another thing I like about old people is that they go to bed early. The cackling laughter emitting from a louder, more boisterous cabin down the hall echoed through the train as my comrade lay his head down to rest. The bright hall light shone through a crack in the door but it didn’t bother him in the slightest. I sipped my tea and he slowly snored restfully. A little boy no more than four years old played with an empty Pepsi bottle in the hall, banging and shouting his way to adulthood.

I looked outside into the black night around us only to find a stream of orange glowing sparks flying high above the train top, disappearing into the thin air that was immediately behind us. Like a prickly waterfall that wouldn’t stop, the sparks kept flitting and fluttering about, almost dancing in the cold night air that was choking the train with low desert temperatures. I switched off the dim cabin light, laid back on my upper bunk and listened to the boisterous tittering of Uzbeks caught in emotional conversation, laughing and shouting as the slow-moving train rocked its way, back and forth, further westward.

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I woke at 2am to find a new cabin mate in our now very hot and musty room. I went to use the toilet and found the train stopped at Navoi. For some reason the toilets were locked, so I asked some shirtless men playing cards in the nearest cabin what the deal was with the toilets.

Ruski?” one asked me.

Nyet,” I replied sleepy-eyed, “ingliski.

Ah,” he said, as if it helped. He thought about how to reply, his friends drunkenly watching him with half-lidded, bloodshot eyes. Their cabin stunk of vodka and looked like a four-bunked bar, sunflower seeds littering the dirty floor below their socked feet. He finally decided on making what I assumed to be the sound of the train continuing: “taka-tak, taka-tak,” then, he gestured, the toilets would open.

Besh minute?” I asked.

Aha!” they all agreed in a drunken, chorus-like unison and laughed. “Rahmat,” I said and returned to wait by the smelly toilets. Then, like out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, two waddling, blanketed women approached and asked if the toilets were occupied.

Yok, but…” I started, fumbling with languages, making the Asian X with my forearms to indicate that something (the toilet) was closed. The women looked at each other in surprise then one tried to open the door. Sure enough, it opened right up, leaving me in the hall flat-faced and flabbergasted, needing to urinate even more.

It wasn’t until ten minutes before our surprisingly early arrival that one of our cabin-mates decided to share the fact with me that he spoke English. The usual questions ensued: where are you from? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you like Uzbekistan? What do you think about our mentality? The friendly man, however, would not allow me to get my own taxi upon arrival into Urgench. He insisted that I join him, along with his jolly colleagues – Uzbeks covered in dark, furry winter clothing, puffy with padding – on a tour bus that was headed for a local hotel. They told me they wouldn’t mind dropping me off at the Merkez Bazaar where I was to meet my friend Peter that afternoon. I was reminded of what hospitality on a nearly incomprehensible level feels like. On their tour bus, I sat in the back and didn’t try to blend in. Someone began calling roll, flipping through a clipboard of papers, checking off names as they were called. At the end, someone yelled out, “and meester John!” The old ladies in the front caused a slight commotion as they all turned around, craning their scarfed necks a discomforting 180 degrees. “Assalaamwalaikum,” I said and put my right hand over my heart. The bus erupted with laughter at the displaced foreigner. They dropped me off as they said they would, setting me off on my way.

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That evening, Peter and I went to a local watering hole to enjoy 30-cent draft beers, salty carp and a bad Turkish soap opera, all in the fading heat of a struggling electric space heater. Peter told me of his amazing trip around the United States in a van years ago. He mentioned cities, towns and national parks that I had never even heard of. He spoke of the rich experience he had, meeting Americans who were just scraping by, struggling to make ends meet, yet being supportive and friendly to a traveler who was simply interested in seeing his country. Through his tale, Peter inspired in me a long-since considered desire to travel and see my own country. Having spent time abroad the last several years, I wonder about the prospect of seeing North America as an adult. His story reminded me of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, only without the dog. As the evening came to a close, a large gentleman with a baby face approached our table and sat down to join us.

Uterin, uterin,” I said, gesturing for him to sit down. Sat down he did. His large frame took up most of the bench and dwarfed my own six-foot one.

Salaamwalaikum,” he boomed. We returned the greeting and I ordered him a beer. We exchanged series of greetings, gestures and slaps on the back, leading to only more of the same, all drowned in the piss-colored beverage that we poured down our throats over and over again. At one point, the goliath pulled out a ball-point pen and wrote a number on the palm of his hand, showing it to us. Peter and I looked at each other in confusion and then looked back at the man. He quickly flashed two raised eyebrows and a full-house of gold teeth, flat and small. His little hat, seemingly small, sat lopsided atop his thick, neck-less head. His beady eyes skirted the room, suggesting something somehow sinister, then he blinked. He paused. He was a pimp and he wanted dollars. The number on his hand was five.

The following day Peter and I went to Khiva, the historically walled city that is always last on the trifecta of the great Uzbek tourist cities: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. The taxi driver that dropped us off didn’t have a pen handy, so he wrote his phone number in the dust on the trunk of his car so that we could call him later. Khiva was stunning.

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The train back to Tashkent was a little more noise-filled. There were no blind old men in the cabin this trip. Indeed, my cabin-mates were three track-suited, gold-toothed, sunflower-seed-spitting Uzbek gentlemen who were under the impression that if they yelled their questions in Uzbek at me louder and louder then I might begin to understand them, maybe even answer them. Needless to say, it was a contrast to the trip out to Urgench. At some point, I pulled out my headphones and put on Holocene by Bon Iver, a song that I had not listened to in some time, but one, like many songs, helped pass the time. I had a lot of it: 18 hours. I listened to the music and wrote in my notebook and watched the muted gestures of the gentlemen take their shapes as I lay on my bunk, content, lost in a sea of sound that they could not, for the time being, penetrate. The night outside could not have been blacker. Later, free of headphones, they asked about my impressions of Uzbekistan, America and its current “leader”.

“Uzbekistan, kak?” one shouted. How’s Uzbekistan?

“Very good,” I said, giving a thumbs-up.

“America, kak?” I stuck with my original answer, hoping for diplomacy. “Very good,” I repeated, thumb still raised.

“Uzbekistan very good. America very good. Kak?” he asked, perplexed. To be fair, this was a well-rooted question: how can both of these nations, as you say, stranger, be “very good”? I would have been happy to engage in such a conversation, but given the language barrier, I found myself lacking patience.

As if on cue, a gentleman came by the cabin with a blue plastic basket of alcohol: beer, vodka and another bottle of something I couldn’t identify. “Piva? Wodka?” he asked no one in particular. I got a beer and my cabin mates a bottle of vodka, the first of several. If I couldn’t engage in political conversation, then I would certainly do my part in collective drinking, hoping the questions would wane. Little glass cups provided by the railway service appeared and shots of vodka were poured after shots of vodka were poured. As a toast, I said something in English they didn’t understand and convinced them that it was something substantial, meaningful and worthy of a toast simply by looking them in the eye and raising my glass slightly along with my eyebrows. We tried to open the cabin window but it wouldn’t budge. It got hot. I was reminded of my time in Georgia, looking happy while men debated who-knows-what in a seemingly impenetrable language. Smiling, nodding and pretending that you knew what you were talking about when toasting were necessary in keeping up the pleasant-and-agreeable-foreigner persona. Cheap cups clanked, vodka disappeared and I soon stopped caring about things I had cared about upon boarding the train hours previously. The night faded into what could have been a desert mirage – blurry, disorienting and befuddling – descending into a state which I did not understand. But my friends wanted to talk.

“Trump, kak?” one asked.

“Trump ploha!” I shouted with a big thumbs-down, inspired by the vodka that had been emptied into my innards. I barked off a colorful variety of various vocabulary words that they never understood, stringing together a set of stinging explicatives. They seemed to have caught on to the disgust in my eyes, the anger in my stare, the disappointment in my face, the embarrassment in my heart. While they were witness to the vocal American, I was also, at the same time, witness to something much simpler: a train ride. The way the elderly man rubbed his fingers together in conversation, the way he hummed repeatedly throughout with his comrade to communicate understanding or sympathy, and the way the wife-beater’d gentleman next to me poured shot after shot of increasingly repulsive vodka all reminded me, quite simply, that I was here, on a train. One comrade, the most boisterous originally, had fallen. Sleep had found him more quickly than the rest of us, and I envied him. Another bottle of vodka arrived. The cabin attendant concealed it in his pants pocket, covered by his white waiter-like apron. He placed it upon our little cabin table and it was soon opened. It was then that I knew that I was in for a long night. Perhaps that’s what I wanted. But the trip would be long with or without vodka. After all, eighteen hours is eighteen hours. I crunched on sunflower seeds, as they did, perhaps to see how they tasted, perhaps just to try and fit in.

The vodka disappeared at last, and I inserted the remaining headphone into a naked ear, slipping into a kind of drunken musical haze that would see me home. The music enveloped my senses, drowning out the Uzbek conversation around me, almost muting it. I laid down to sleep. I half opened one eye to blurrily see the Uzbek men still chatting away. I wondered how long they would do so, but I realized that it didn’t matter. I thought about how I would never be them and they would never be me. I let the drum-heavy music infiltrate my ears.

Eventually my cabin-mates were asleep. Surprisingly, I had kept up with their drinking habits, perhaps granting me the long-awaited reward of sleep. But with the unfamiliar silence I didn’t know what to witness, what to observe. The calm was an unfamiliar guest, entering and occupying the space like a ghost. In the middle of the night I woke to more blackout, my head pounding. I went to the corridor to get some fresh air, cupping my hands against the frozen window to see the wind-swept desert, lightly dusted with snow under a half-crescent moon, silent in its vastness. I wondered if there were other foreigners on the train. I held my open palms up to the frozen window and let the layer of ice on the window melt, leaking water on my hands which I rubbed soothingly against my hot, throbbing forehead and neck. It felt good. I returned to my cabin to snores and open-mouthed yawns as I settled back to rest.

In the morning, light streamed through the window curtains, slowly destroying the night it had previously ignored. I clumsily disembarked after shaking hands with my cabin-mates, gentlemen I was sure never to see again. Their hungover grins told me that they enjoyed our ride together, as I had. It was a sunny day in Tashkent and the platform was bustling with tired, wobbling people carrying bags of all sorts, heading to their next destination. I slowly walked the gauntlet of hissing taxi drivers, preying on passengers, repeating their vocation like broken records. I exited the station, put on my sunglasses and walked home with my jacket slung loosely over my shoulder.

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“Sometimes you feel yourself weightless, thinned. You draw back the curtains (if there are any) on a rectangle of wasteland at dawn, and realize that you are cast adrift from everything that gave you identity. Thousands of miles from anyone who knows you, you have the illusion that your past is lighter, scarcely yours at all. Even your ties of love have been attenuated. Dangerously, you may come to feel invulnerable. Your fear only your failure to understand or to reach where you are going. Sometimes you are moved by a kind of heartless curiosity, which shames you only on your return home. At other times you are touched, even torn: but you move on.”

  • Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road (2007), page 114

Three days in the mountains: Sun, Blizzard, Sun

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I woke agitated on Saturday. I think I was just nervous. I didn’t know my hiking companions well, and it turned out that it would get the better of me later in the trip. We met at the Maxim Gorky metro station in Tashkent at 8am where we boarded a shared van with our huge backpacking bags, placing them on our laps all the way to Gazalkent. I tried to make conversation with one of my companions, another American, but the pink-hatted Uzbek woman between us made sure to express her disinterest in our conversation by plugging her ears and clicking her tongue. We didn’t talk long. In Gazalkent, we met Mahkmut, our driver who would drive us up the windy roads toward Chimgan. We rode the two-person chairlift higher up Mt. Kumbel where we were given sweeping views of the valley below and the mountains on the other side, the natural border with Kazakhstan.

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With the sun on our faces, we hiked up to the top of Mt. Kumbel where there is an old weather station, one that looks like a giant Soviet golf ball atop a mountain, ready to be teed off. There were a few men manning the station and they agreed to let us stay for the night, letting us help ourselves to their kitchen, TV, tiny sauna and extra warm single beds. We cooked soups, broke bread, shared greetings, sang songs and woke to complete white out in the morning. The inner-kid in me imagined that school would be cancelled, that it would be a day of snowballs fights and snow angels. Clouds had rolled in and there was probably a foot of fresh, feather-light snow on the ground. We had a hearty breakfast and headed down the mountain, seeing two-fifths of our party on their way. Then Viola, Andrey and I continued on our way through what would be the worst hiking conditions I’ve ever been in. It snowed all day; it was foggy, and we got lost several times, which made me rather nervous. There was no trail to follow as it was covered in thick snow and Andrey obviously didn’t know where he was going, which didn’t set my mind at ease.

Sometimes the greatest challenges, when hiking, I’ve found, are mental. They are within one’s self, all in the mind. While there was much to “worry” about, I told myself, I also understand that “worry” serves no utility. It’s theoretically useless. It doesn’t “do” anything but put one in a bad mood and make one irritable. Try as I might to overcome these mental challenges that hiking often offers, I don’t always succeed. It was cold, we couldn’t see anything, and we obviously had no idea where we were going. But Andrey had been in these mountains before, so I just had to trust him. I didn’t feel like I’d known my companions long enough to put in them the level of trust that was necessary for me to overcome the mental battles that I was waging within my head, but I also didn’t have much of a choice. Perhaps this was the conundrum that I was most frustrated with: I had no choice but to trust my way-finders in conditions that I was not comfortable with. It’s not like I could just turn around and go home.

We reached what Viola called “an apple garden,” our home for the evening. It was a windswept plain that had a few frozen trees in it. We found a lone tree and began to try building a fire with wet wood in windy, snowy conditions. We had trouble getting the fire lit, to say the least. The wood was frozen and the wind kept blowing out the matches that Andrey would light with this shaking hands. The panic in me made me want to run screaming down the mountain. After some teamwork using our bodies as windscreens, we got the fire lit after several candles and a technique that I had not seen before. Andrey would light the candle then shake the hot wax all over the fire bed, creating a kind of pit in which the fire could grow. The heat coming from the red flames felt life-saving. I pitched my tent after clearing a patch in the snow. I removed my wet clothes only to let them freeze overnight. I got in my sleeping bag at 5:30pm and didn’t get out until 7:30am the following morning.

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I woke to rustling and grunt-like speech from my groupmates. “John, there is a beautiful sunrise,” Viola said. She wasn’t kidding. The sun was touching the pink tops of the mountains on the other side of the valley. They sky was blue and there wasn’t a cloud in sight. I felt like we’d won the weather lottery. I grabbed my frozen camera, turned it on and was surprised when it actually worked in such cold conditions. My fingers felt frozen buy I kept clicking away, glad to see the blue skies above us. We made another fire and dried out our stiff, frozen clothes. We made hot coffee and a hearty stew, both of which helped make me feel like a human being again. I dusted the snow off my tent and packed it up. We headed down the mountain in shin-deep snow, making fresh tracks, ducking under snow-covered trees that would rain down snow upon us when we ruffled their branches. Later, we came across a stable and apple orchard where there was a guard on duty. Dogs barked and howled as we approached, alerting the cheerful attendant of our presence. There were about ten different little puppies there, all of which were pretty damn cute. The guard welcomed us and introduced us to all of the little dogs running around shivering. One didn’t have a name yet, so Andrey quickly suggested one: “John! Zis one name John!” And so it came to be.

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The guard explained to us how to get down the mountain, following the tracks that he had only recently made himself. We bade him farewell and followed his advice. It was a mental massage to be on some sort of trail, knowing that someone had been this way recently. We eventually found a road and called Mahkmut. He picked us up in his clunky Lada and drove us back to Gazalkent along the snow-strewn mountain roads. His car stalled several times, delaying our trip just a bit more, but I really didn’t mind. I was just glad I didn’t have to sleep in a frozen tent again. We got a shared van back to Tashkent where I had a therapeutic hot shower, one I had dreamed of only hours previously. I unpacked my wet bag, let the smell of campfire fill my apartment and wondered when the next hike would be.

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Cock-fighting in Yangiobad

“That’s a big cock,” Seth said.

“Sure is,” I replied.

“Have you ever seen one so big?”

I thought for a moment. “Nope.”

“How do you think it got so big?” he asked.

“No idea,” I said flatly, staring. Men were milling about, stroking their cocks. “Where are we?” I thought.

“Did you know they are distant descendants of velociraptors?” Seth asked.

“Really? I didn’t know that.” I blinked twice.

Men were crowded into a thick circle behind the Yangiobad Bazaar on the eastern outskirts of dust-blown Tashkent. Some had prize-fighting cocks in their arms, like beaked babies, and stroked them slowly.

“You ever seen a cock-fight?” I asked Seth.

“Nope. You?”

“Nope.”

The Yangiobad Bazaar, located past low-laying buildings, can be found past tree-lined traditional Uzbek neighborhoods known as mahallas. I told an Uzbek friend of mine where Seth and I were going.

“Why you want to go there?” she asked. “Who adviced you?” Another friend told us to watch our wallets. Wandering through the seemingly-endless supply of stuff, junk and (arguably) rubbish, we passed stalls selling old Soviet war medals, worn vacuum cleaner parts, rabbits, clothing of all sorts, and even a half-size violoncello that needed some serious repairs. We drifted through congested lanes clogged with merchants, buyers and stocky men pulling heavy carts as they yelled for people to get out of their way. It was the closest I’d felt to India since being in Uzbekistan.

We approached the encircled men around the ready-to-fight roosters, trying not to act too conspicuous, not knowing whether or not anyone would care if we were there. I folded up the collar of my jacket; Seth turned his maroon Gophers cap around. The cock-fighting pit was below a concrete slab, behind a row of darkly dressed and downward gazing men. Others stood in the sawdust-covered pit, creating a ring with their bodies in which the cocks being stroked would fight. It was easy to pick out the two men whose roosters would fight as their eyes shifted about uneasily. One man breathed in and out big breaths of anxiety as he stroked his shifty-eyed cock, clenching and releasing his jaw-muscles in the process. A little boy who couldn’t have been more than eight years old wandered among the crowd and gathered filthy bills of Uzbek so’m from standing onlookers.

I held up my camera up over the heads of the crowd, hoping that I wouldn’t get yelled at. No one paid any attention. The cocks were released and began pecking at one another, wrapping their long necks around each other, occasionally fluttering up into the air to try and claw each other with their feet. The feathers on their necks would ruffle as they stood off in the middle of the arena, encouraged by smoking men. They stood erectly as they danced around, occasionally stabbing the other with their sharp beaks, drawing blood. A woman passed the outskirts of the crowd selling fried food. The place stunk of urine and sweat and fine sawdust clouds floated up into the sun-streaked air as men swatted them away. I looked about the scene and asked myself if this was a place that I’d ever like to return to.

Was the fight entertaining? No, but I’m not someone who enjoys watching fights for pleasure. It just never appealed to me. But some of these men were in it to win it; clearly they had money involved as the place became tense soon after the fight began. A grungy referee of sorts regulated the match, making sure the cocks obeyed all the cock-fighting rules, whatever those are. Seth and I left after about ten minutes, at which point we’d decided that we’d seen enough. We left, passing tied up cocks with their heads wrapped in rags.

Morning plov

I was picked up at 6:15am by a lonely car idling on the side of road, waiting for me to enter. “Good morning, John,” my comrades said to me as I sat down, “are you ready for plov?” I didn’t really know how to reply as I hadn’t experienced plov yet, but I kept optimistic with a “yes.” I was, in fact, in the car, a sign that I was ready for what was then the unknown. We drove through the empty streets of Tashkent while Sting remixes serenaded us from the speakers behind my head. I kept looking from side to side as to try and keep track of our location, but the exercise was useless; in a few blocks I was lost – a not-uncommon experience in Tashkent.

“This area is like the Washington DC of Tashkent. We have many of our government buildings here,” my colleague shared. Indeed, immaculate looking buildings towered over the spotless streets upon which we traveled. Few pedestrians were out which made the buildings seems even larger and dominating than they already were. Green-clad policemen in stiff-brimmed hats patrolled abandoned streets, keeping an eye out for anything out of place. I kept the window up. We passed the Chorsu bazaar with its blue majestic dome penetrating the slowly brightening sky. We passed other plov ceremonies with smartly-dressed Uzbek men lined up outside restaurants waiting to enter. Clearly, we were not the only ones engaging in some plov this morning.

We reached our destination and joined the crowd of men gathered outside the restaurant entrance. Some were shaking hands, touching heads – corner-of-forehead to corner-of-forehead, twice – much like I’d witnessed in West Africa. Others were smoking and simply doing nothing at all. We entered and were ushered to a table in the back. The room was huge – like a ballroom – with a giant chandelier hanging from the ceiling in the center of the room. Soon it was full of men and men only. There must have been two hundred men in this place. It felt like a locker room but looked like a five-star restaurant. The tables were covered in all sorts of food imaginable: grapes, nuts, cut vegetables, tea, sweets, bread, apples, pickles. Around the tables were men seated, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Musicians in matching blue suits played traditional Uzbek music on ancient instruments while more men entered. The men on the bride’s side of the hall were already seated as we – on the groom’s side, apparently – entered.

I was told that the father of the bride arranges for the plov ceremony to occur, inviting guests from both sides of the upcoming wedding party. When the musicians stopped playing, the groom appeared alongside an imam of sorts; they sat in high-backed chairs in the center of the ceremony for all to view. The groom commenced with a speech in Uzbek, followed by a prayer by his companion. During the speech, my eyes drifted, as they often do, to higher sights. I saw three boys playing on a balcony above, fiddling with the railings and observing impatiently the male ceremony below them. Their little shoes intertwined with the metal bars at their feet while they wiggled and wrestled with one another. I thought about my own childhood and what ceremonies or celebrations I had observed as a child. Had I witnessed anything similar? I thought about how one day those kids may have a plov ceremony of their own, one perhaps not too dissimilar to this very one. Would it be very different? As far as I knew, I was the only foreigner in the room.

Then out came the plov. “Traditionally, youngsters serve plov and not waiters,” I was told. Kids began shuffling around the hall, distributing mounds of plov on white plates to soon be shared between two people. A plate was dropped between my colleague and I. “John, this is plov,” he said. “Please,” gesturing with his hand for me to dive in. I grabbed one of the two large spoons that had been delivered with the dish and began mimicking my colleague as to how he ate. After each bite, a bit of the dish was pushed inward with the back of the spoon to maintain the mound shape while oil drifted out to the rim of the plate. I could feel my lips getting greasier and greasier – a kind of cardiac chap-stick. To my right was a cup of hot tea with a hard sugar popsicle, of sorts, stuck into it. There is a certain kind of sugar here that is made into lollipop form, but it’s very jagged, like rock-candy, so it’s dissolved into tea rather than licked straight. I drank the sweet drink to wash down the heavy, oily, horse-meat-topped dish. It was a lot at 7am. “Don’t stop John,” my colleague told me. I didn’t.

I noticed that plates around me were beginning to empty, so I kept up the shoveling into my mouth and the pushing toward the center of the plate. As soon as my colleague and I finished, the plate was whisked away and our hands were raised in prayer to finish the meal. Cupped in front of our chests and below our faces, palms up, we gestured as to wash our faces after the meal. All the men at the table stood up together and began to walk out. On the way out I stopped to take a picture of the musicians who had again begun playing music. I raised my camera along with my eyebrows as to try and ask, non-verbally, if I could snap a photo. One musician nodded his head in approval. Following the photo, I raised my right hand over my heart as to thank them for their services. The musician nodded his head again and smiled. We walked outside where the sun was up and men were again standing around. I was in a bit of a daze from all the food, and I thought about different traditions and their ambiguity.

“That’s it,” my colleague said. “So what do you think?”

“Nice,” I said.

“How did you like plov?”

“Delicious.”

Big Snow Mountain & Gold Lake: Alpine Lakes Wilderness

“Cause if you want to step outside this body and this world,

You’re gonna have to go through a different kind of door,
And this train only runs in summertime”

– Jason Webley, Train Tracks, from the 2002 album Counterpoint

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Coming down from Big Snow Mountain Summit

We got a very late start on Friday evening as we set off down the old, blocked service road that would lead us to the feint trail markings up to Hardscrabble Lake – our destination for the evening. As fall is approaching, the sun is setting sooner, so during daylight hours we usually have to find a reasonable campsite before darkness dwindles down as we get closer to winter. Thus, we ended up climbing over a boulder field on the edge of Hardscrabble Lake around 9pm as we wandered in via the lights of our headlamps and the reflective moon above to what would be our campsite for the night: a sandy plot at the north end of Hardscrabble Lake, among some freshwater streams carrying crystal clear mountain water.

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Gold Lake

We woke in the morning to the sun shining brightly on Big Snow Mountain towering above us. We made our way toward the climb that would lead us up to a rocky gap that would be the dividing line between our two campsites. On the other side of the gap we would find huge slabs of open rock, ready for our wandering. Gold Lake was below us, also looking inviting. We dried out our tents from the condensation that had accumulated overnight, then we dropped our stuff and made our way to the top of Big Snow Mountain (6,680 feet/2,036 meters). It stood dominating over our previous campsite, and the lakes and peaks below.

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Approaching Gold Lake

We didn’t stay at the top for long. We made our way down and stopped at a very inviting-looking little lake that was absolutely frigid. We stripped down and jumped in and tried to dry and warm ourselves on the rocks, but the wind was a little too strong, so we put on shoes and headed back to where we’d left our tents to dry. After packing up, we headed down a streamy, meadowy type area down to what would be our campsite for the evening, right on the banks of Gold Lake. It was a fantastic campsite – perhaps one of the best I’ve ever been to.

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Gold Lake

We pitched our tents, Alex went swimming again, I put the beers in the lake to cool, and we watched the evening begin to pass us by. We’d heard reports of possible rain, so we commented to each other as we watched what were darker and darker clouds begin to slowly roll our way as the sun descended. It didn’t rain until after we had gotten into our tents, but that wasn’t long; Alex was in bed by 7:30pm and I by 8. We’d had a long day and had hiked a lot. In the morning I woke up early to a completely fogged-out Gold Lake. I couldn’t see the tops of the peaks in the foggy morning like I could last night in the clear evening. I grew discouraged as I went back to bed for another hour. The sky had cleared up a little bit later, but not completely. We cooked breakfast from our tents, packed up, then headed out.

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More Gold Lake

Sunday was much rougher going than Saturday. First of all, the weather was not as in our favor as it had been, though it still wasn’t bad. Plus we were now off-trail, careening down a pretty steep slope alongside a river which was cascading nearby. We only got cliffed-out a time or two, and each time wasn’t too bad. We made our way down the slopes by often belaying ourselves with tree branches as the terrain was so steep. In the valley below us we saw the remnants of an airplane crash. I had never seen such a sight before, and neither had Alex. Who knew how long that crushed plane had been there?

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We continued on, following the river for a while. And then it began to rain, but only a little bit. We dove off into the bushes and slopes to our left to cut off a little time. Like Alex said, “bushwhacking is bushwhacking”. He was right. We bushwhacked up wet, steep slopes to get us over to Little Myrtle lake, which is where we had lunch. After lunch we had to climb one more gnarly peak, one which involved some careful footing and some attention paying. Afterwards, we found the trail and walked it back to the car. It was an amazing adventure – one of the greatest I’ve had since last year up to Box Mountain Lakes. Dare I say, I’m looking forward to more off-trail fun. And we didn’t see a soul.

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Little Myrtle Lake