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september 20, 2003 -> Kyrgyz Blues

We had to walk the quarter-mile of no-man's-land between the Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan border posts; behind us, an enterprising man dragged a trolley with our souvenir-stuffed baggage. One of the Uzbek border guards had told me that I looked like a young Lenin. When I stood and raised my arm in the classic pose that once graced squares across Asia and Eastern Europe they both burst out laughing. The Kyrgyz border guards, on the other hand, were humorless and petulant; we had interrupted their mid-day snooze.

Nori and I were both getting tired. After five months of travel, and more than a month in Central Asia, it was a struggle to get excited about Kyrgyzstan. Osh - Kyrgyzstan's second-largest city - might as well have been in Uzbekistan. Same heat, same dust, same people, same food. In fact, most of the people were Uzbek, another casualty of Central Asia's bizarre borders. We walked through the bazaar and saw the same things for sale, ate the same plov for lunch and the same shashlyk for dinner, and returned to our hostel and cleaned the same black grime from our ears. Only a few old men wearing the traditional high-peaked, white felt hats of the Kyrgyz; and the porno magazines on sale at roadside kiosks (forbidden in Uzbekistan) told us we were in another country.

Two days later, we caught a flight to Bishkek. Not far from Osh, the arid plateau rose into bare, knuckling ridges and deep valleys. It was wild, beautiful country, without roads, unpeopled. More than 90% of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, making it a dream for hikers and a nightmare for farmers. We both wanted to do a 3-4 day hike in the mountains, to breathe fresh mountain air again. But diarrhea got us both, so we were forced to spend most of our two weeks in the capital city of Biskhek, devouring Immodium and Ciprofloxacin.

At least Bishkek was pleasant; in many ways a mirror image of Almaty, which was just on the other side of the mountains. We stayed in a $3-a-night youth hostel, where we spent many hours gabbing with garrulous travelers, one of whom we had met in Mongolia! We enjoyed many lazy days wandering the wide, tree-lined streets, eating at al fresco cafes and planning our wedding at a 24-hour Internet center were. Though chided by our fellow backpackers, we also sneaked off several times to the swish Bishkek Hyatt, where we sipped cappuccinos and planned the next few weeks in India.

After decades atop his perch in the main square, Lenin had been brought down just a few days before we arrived. In most cities of Central Asia, the Lenin statues had been toppled many years ago; the stubborn Bishkek Lenin had become something of a tourist draw as a result. An expatriate told us that Lenin had not gone easily, embarrassing the VIPs who had gathered to watch the crane yank him down. After a struggle, he was finally replaced by an angelic figure holding aloft the Kyrgyz national symbol - the intersecting roof supports of a ger. The local Communist party - amazingly, still a powerful force in much of Central Asia - had protested Lenin's removal, saying the statue was an inviolable part of Kyrgyzstan's cultural heritage.

No doubt timed to coincide with Lenin's disappearance, Kyrgyzstan was celebrating the 1000-year anniversary of its epic "Manas" - a sort of Central Asian "Iliad," albeit more than twenty times longer. A gilt statue of Manas on horseback galloped high above another square, and his image adorned all the tourist kitsch. Inexplicably, colorful pennants bearing Manas' image flapped from streetlights and declared "Kyrgyzstan 2200 Years." I never quite understood the connection between Manas and 2200 years. Whatever the reason, this was pretty aggressive propaganda for a country barely a decade old. I had thought Mongolia and Uzbekistan's attempts to craft their national identities around centuries-dead tyrants (Genghis Khan and Tamerlane) misguided, but here was the Kyrgyz government celebrating a fictional character created more than a millenia ago.

Kyrgyzstan's President, Askar Akaev, had incredibly bushy eyebrows that gave a comic aspect to the roundness of his Chinese-looking face. He was a pretentious, self-important man who enjoyed publishing books with titles such as "Kyrgyzstan: A Decade of Reforms Through the Eyes of a Physicist." Reading excerpts from his books - which were published on the Kyrgyz Embassy website - one would think Kyrgyzstan the exemplar of former communist countries transitioning to a market economy, and not, as was the case, a heavily indebted, natural resource poor, ethnically divided nation. I couldn't be sure if Akaev was mad or simply deluded; one local described him as a puppet. "He is not in charge. He is always drunk."

After a week in Bishkek, we finally summoned up the courage to leave the capital. We had booked a few nights in a new beach resort on Lake Issyk-Kul. The drive from Bishkek to the western edge of the lake takes approximately 3 hours, and conveys the terrified mini-bus passenger through a winding mountain pass above a roaring gorge. Lake Issyk-Kul is the largest alpine lake in the world - its surface a mile high, 110 miles long, and forty miles wide - and is one of the world's deepest at over 2,300 feet.

The views across the lake are stunning. On our first day, I was somewhat disappointed to see that clouds had obscured the mountains beyond the southern shore. Then I realized that some of the clouds weren't moving and were in fact snowpack on the mountaintops. On the second day, the clouds cleared and a wall of mountains, their deep folds flattened to two dimensions by distance, appeared like a colossal backdrop. I had to laugh as I sat on a beach chair beneath a thatched palapa, digging my feet into the sand, and looking across the enormous lake. Beach Life Kyrgyzstan - as incongruous as that sounds - was pretty good.

Unfortunately, Nori hardly saw the beach. I was feeling better, but she had become much worse. I suspected food poisoning. Though the resort's restaurant was very clean, the servers had a habit of setting out all appetizers at the same time - regardless of when the guests actually came to eat. And most of the appetizers were salads slathered in mayonnaise. After three days of sleepless nights, groaning bellies and projectile vomiting, we gave up and returned to Bishkek.

I had been dreading the flight to India on Kyrgyz Airways. But I was truly terrified when we boarded the ancient-looking plane and heard the pilot announce that we were flying in a Tupolev. In many parts of Asia, Russian-built planes still make up the most part of domestic fleets. We had flown in Russian planes in Laos, Myanmar and Uzbekistan. But I had never flown in a Tupolev, infamous for their habit of not taking off. My terror heightened as the pilot continued with his announcement: "Today we'll be flying over Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and northern India on our way to Delhi." Even if we took off, we could still get shot down! I sympathized with the three Russian women in front of us, who were already swilling duty-free schnapps.

Of course we made it; the flight was actually quite smooth, and the views of the knotted mountain ranges below us spectacular. We touched down in Delhi in the late evening, and were blasted by heat and humidity as we deplaned.