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On the way to Lake Song-Kul we felt reinvigorated.
We’d won the first round of the Bishkek embassy battles, our trophy a Kazakh visa and, thus, a definitive way out of Kyrgyzstan, and finally headed south to see the country, starting with Naryn. We’d braved five hours on a marshutka with Akon-loving cool dudes repeatedly poking “Steef” to shout in Kyrgyz and show him pictures of guns and Angelina Jolie on their cell phones while “Dik” pretended to sleep. And we’d survived a night in a hotel, half abandoned yet still gawdy with the rotting remains of its long-dead Soviet-era grandeur, and filled with enough vodka-addled, death-gripping, emotionally volatile, scary-language-grumbling, dead fish-waving old Kyrgyz down-and-outs to make watching Spiderman II in Russian on our broken beds seem an appealing evening activity.
Unrankled even to discover Naryn was both hundreds of kilometers beyond where we needed to be, and an absolute shithole, we wrangled the fattest unlicensed cabby available, haggled him down (with our standard method of making stern faces and scrawling prices in the margins of our otherwise useless Instant Russian book), and pressed on to the oft-heralded most beautiful lake in Central Asia.
Two-ish breakneck hours over washed-out rocks and dirt and a scenic pee-break later, we flew over a tall pass and pulled to a dusty halt before the very first yurt the driver spotted. Camping with nomads was our goal — it being the only accommodation there — and our destination had been agreed upon merely with a fingertip and a second-rate free map. However, when a 13-year-old boy trotted up on horseback blasting Lady Gaga through his cell phone, and we realized we couldn’t even see the lake yet, we had a go at squeezing a bit more mileage out of our man.
Not as squishy as we’d hoped, he drove on another minute and dumped us at the next cluster of yurts. Before we could protest, three vodka-vaporous old men had Steve by the shoulders, leading him past horses, mangy dogs and a mildly retarded-looking boy in a Limp Bizkit hoodie towards a circle of several similarly-weathered men seated on the pasture ground, hollering unintelligibly, their arms outstretched as if we were mommy-bird’s wormy stomach contents en route to their gullets, passing a bottle and a bowl of brown meat-like scraps to a large man at the head.
Seconds later, having exchanged neither words nor even gesticulations per our potential lodging, we found ourselves plopped on the ground, shots of warm vodka assailing our dry throats and punctuating the spoonfuls of cold, rubbery chunks with far too many disagreeing textures per square millimeter getting hand-delivered to our mouths.
Before our stomachs had a chance to churn, we were whisked into the nearby M*A*S*H tent with a few of the men, sat before a scattering of fried bread balls and jams, identified as Californians and plunged into a linguistically jolting conversation about the “GOO-ber-nah-tor!” over fresh fermented horse milk. When this topic fizzled, we pulled out the 4×6 photo book made for such occasions; when our new friend flipped to a scintillating shot of Devon’s padrooga, Margie, he barked out a succession of grunts, growls, and guttural gnawing-on-a-bone noises befitting a Looney Tunes animal, making Devon feel maybe a bit more complimented than he should’ve.
A few gestures, a point toward a number left over from some previous negotiation later, a handshake and a hug later, we were officially guests for the night. And we had finally figured out who our host was: the spheical, splotchy-faced man in the camo t-shirt who had come awfully close to kissing us during the initial spoonfeeding session.
Almost giddy, the men left the table and huddled into the corner, hovering furtively over the bucket of assorted goat jawbones and flesh strips we’d winced at on our way in, slicing things, sorting things, sneaking quick glances at us and whispering, presumably in case we should suddenly start understanding Kyrgyz or uncover the delicious plot they were hatching for our dinner. Then they disappeared.
Seizing our alone time, we hiked off to see this beautiful lake. But over an hour later we found ourselves somehow no closer to the shore and also in a bog. So we walked back to the yurt, just in time for dinner.
In retrospect, the meal could’ve been worse. The meat could’ve been even colder; the cuts less choice sections of the goat’s jaws, face, esophagus, intestines, organs or scrotum; the textures more varied; the taste more gag-inducing; the fluids to forcibly wash it down our throats even cheaper vodka and more curdled horse milk.
Likewise, the atmosphere could’ve been more uncomfortable. Our host could’ve had even less control of his motor skills; his hulking wife more furious at him; his little girl closer to the verge of tears, and his offer for us to marry her more sincere; his moist, stubbly cheeks more grating against our faces; his entire family more dumbfounded as to why their guests were such slow (and thirsty) eaters while they waited out of custom, plates empty, for them to finish.
But it wasn’t.
By the time our plates crossed the half-empty mark, our eating pace must have slowed to so excruciating a crawl that the elder son took our plates, and our host sloppily escorted us back to the M*A*S*H tent, pantomimed using a pillow, pointed at the two rows of blankets awaiting us on the ground, shook our hands, closed the flap and ended the night. It was nearly 8:30.
However, what should have, mathematically, been a more than sufficient night’s sleep, wasn’t, thanks to an unfuriatingly stupid and not even cute puppy who kept slipping inside under the canvas, getting trapped, whimpering about his plight, shrieking when you got up, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and tossed him out, getting cold and doing it all over again — all goddamn night long.
That said, what should have, serendipitously, been a blessing in disguise to wake us up and get us outside under a sky that is described as more endless, incredible and full of stars than anything you’ve ever seen before, wasn’t, since there weren’t any.
Eventually, it was time for breakfast. It’d been nearly twelve hours since we’d painstakingly relocated all those gobs of goatface around our bowls in search of the least offensive looking morsels and choked down what little we could stand, and we were hungry. We went in the yurt, sat down on the floor cushions and sipped bowls of horse milk and hot chai, eagaerly waiting for wifey to finish her work over at the poo-fired stove.
And then it came, steam wafting into trails on its way to the table: two big bowls of piping hot broth. And bobbing on the surface, waiting for us, was absolutely everything — every last strip, scrap, chunk and sinew of that ugly, terrible goatface in all its horror and glory — that we hadn’t finished from dinner.
But at least it was hot.
After breakfast we packed our stuff and asked about hiring horses to get to the north shore, where we could stay the night and then hike over some 4,000-meter passes back down to civilization. They told us they had none. And then it started pouring. And pouring. And it wouldn’t let up. So instead we hired our host to drive us back to town.
As we drove off, the weather appeared to be changing, meaning we might be able to hike to the other shore, continue with our plans and have a wonderful trip. But then again, we figured, it might get worse, meaning we might die — or worse, wind up back at our host’s, having to eat goatface again.
Shuddering, we turned our eyes towards the pass. And with thoughts of jawbone as our keel, mutton-scented farts as the wind in our sails, we vowed to sail this ship as far from the wretched world of traditional Kyrgyz cuisine as it could go. And that, since our yurt-stay, has been the only guiding force on this trip.