Like Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader, or Odysseus arriving at Ithaca and having to murder a bunch of people, the Supreme Ordeal of our heroes’ journey through Kyrgyzstan was equally mythical, violent, and full of unsettling psychological undertones. Unlike those scenarios, our journey lacked any kind of arc whatsoever, to the detriment of our brains and your reading experience.
It was just as things couldn’t get any more brain-hemorrhagingly annoying, but through perseverance and our countless other brave qualities we emerged scathed, not much wiser, and with even less understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. All the necessary requirements for a stellar blog post!
It was Saturday, our third day in the midst of the Ms. Liu crisis, and with no way to conduct any Visa-related business, our only goal for the day was to avoid our CouchSurfing hippie host Dima’s unfurnished house of horrors. To the rescue fluttered good ol’ Lonely Planet, recommending a jaunt to the famed Dordoy Bazaar. One of the largest goods markets in all of Asia, it reigns as Bishkek’s center of commerce and serves as a sprawling testament to the beauty of stacking shipping containers on top of each other in one area.
Now, we’d seen the Osh Bazaar in the west of Bishkek, and apart from some decent grilled lamb we hadn’t been overly awed. We were looking for something like the bazaars we’d seen in Budapest, oozing with watches, artwork, Soviet and Nazi memorabilia, wry toothless men haggling ferociously with sweaty, pushy old women, and oodles of hardcore pornography placed alongside stacks of children’s toys. Would Dordoy dazzle us and make us forget our troubles through an abundance of kitsch trinkets?
Absolutely not. Bursting at its rusted seams with tatty Chinese and Turkish goods, Dordoy was like the remnants of a KMart detonating – a haphazard pile of light fixtures, jeans, panties, knock-off misspelled shirts, and pirated DVD’s. A hot dog, a lengthy stroll through the aisles, and a highly uncomfortable experience in one of the Dordoy bathrooms – where the waist-high barriers around the squat toilets were designed specifically for peering at strangers and checking the status of their movements – was all we needed to decide to leave the bazaar once and for all. One lengthy failed brainstorming session later, we found ourselves in the dilapidated city center, napping on the highly public grass of a park dedicated to some poppycock Soviet principle, before the highly disgusted eyes of many a strolling citizen. To be fair, we were simply taking a cue from the guy we’d spotted in Kochkor a few days prior:
Within an hour, an amicable drunk had descended on us and began a dynamic diatribe in broken Russian and slurred Kyrgyz, landing upon a cognate every so often (which we would then confidently repeat to assure him that everything he said was being understood). Throughout the speech he repeatedly flicked his throat, indicating his desire to get sloshed with us, but the gesture soared over our heads and we assumed he had a troublesome trachea. Finally he got around to simply asking us for money, which was our signal to leave.
Without A Trace
Our bodies, minds, and imagination regarding things to do in Bishkek utterly exhausted, we decided to throw in the towel, return to Dima’s apartment complex, and work on this great blog of ours at the subterranean internet cafe nearby. We returned there by bus, and in a last gasp of curiosity took a chance at the fancy nightclub/restaurant peculiarly placed in the center of those eight horrendous grey apartment towers. Our dinner was a plate of four overpriced dumplings ordered under the impression that we were saying, “the soup please.” Mid-munch, Devon’s eyes suddenly widened in horror; neither from the taste nor encountering a piece of metal in the food, but the realization that he no longer possessed his camera’s memory card or the card reader. It had, he reckoned with absolute certainty, fallen out of his pants during our park nap.
The immediate consequences of this were twofold: First, it meant that we had lost any photographic proof of our time in India. Everything we’d experienced in the previous three months – every weird and terrible and glorious sight – now existed only in our minds, with pathetic attempts to capture certain memories found in the form of a few paltry, self-aware bullet points we’d scribbled into our ragged journals. Second, it meant that we had a new adventure laid before us.
Our initial despair and cursing both of Devon’s habitual losing of things from his pockets and the nefarious, transnational Stealy Dan, surely behind this in some form, eventually yielded, as the protein-rich dumplings took effect, to determination, and we set off with great vigor for the city center. First order of business: find an electronics store to buy a new card reader, then throw common sense to the jailoo winds and scour our nap spot, on the hopelessly small chance our stuff hadn’t been nabbed yet.
Lost And Not Found
Unfortunately, in catching a bus with the label “Ala-Too” on its windshield, assuming this meant the central Ala-Too Square, we neglected to consider the possibility that Ala-Too might also refer to a suburb in the extreme west of the city. When our combined sense of direction finally engaged, we were several miles from anything we recognized, astride an eight lane road engorged with speeding diesel cars, tractor-trailers, and decommissioned German civic buses that screeched to sporadic halts on the roadside, heading back into Bishkek. In the chaos and hazy dusk light, we were unable to enjoy the requisite two minutes of Cyrillic Alphabet-interpretation to discern, every time a bus stopped, where it might be headed. With trepidation we dusted off our cobbled-together understanding of basic Russian to ask some nearby loiterers which bus would take us to the city center. Each attempt delivered only perplexed glares, a deluge of fast complex Russian, and/or derisive laughter.
“Please, which bus goes center?” turned into, “Sorry, we don’t speak Russian. We want to go center. What bus number?”, turned into, “We. Go center. Ala-Too Square. What number bus?” which turned into, “Christ, how do you not have the wherewithal or intuition to figure out what the fuck I’m trying to ask you?!?” This was to serve as the general rule for all subsequent discussions with Central Asian locals regarding directions – our favorite being the time in Osh, when asked, “What street is this?” an old man replied, “Yes, this is a street.”
We were to realize later, some four weeks later, in Kazakhstan, that the word we had been using for bus was Matrushka. The actual word for what we wanted was Marshrutka. For clarification, this is what Marshrutkas look like:
With the aid of a serendipitously-materialized 19 year old eager to practice his English, we boarded the vehicle equivalent of a stacking Russian doll and got ourselves to a Beta mall twenty minutes from Ala-Too Square to seek out a card reader. Once there, Fortuna’s foot came down on us once more, with the electronics section of the mall closing moments before our arrival, and remaining closed the entirety of tomorrow. Strike one and two!
A Musical Interlude
Supplementing our dumplings with a wholesome dessert of soda, dry pastries, and a nectarine, we began our trek to the park. Before long, something strange happened: the emotional wall automatically assumed while navigating Bishkek streets past its exotic, stylish populace – built entirely of frustration, contempt, and self-consciousness about our appearances – was obliterated by the explosive power of curiosity, as we heard the familiar, if botched, melody of System of a Down’s “Aerials” wafting across the thoroughfare. Our detective hats instantly donned themselves, and began our investigation.
What we found – without much strenuous searching as it was in the open – was a small stage erected on the side of a large outdoor dining area, bordered by a smattering of food stalls. The heavy smoke of searing shashlyk swirled throughout patches of assembled young professionals, painfully attractive mothers, and a band comprised of four Russian teens and one Asian kid on keyboards (obviously), performing exclusively American Top 40 hits from 2006 for its fans.
With each mid-song break the lead guitarist, painfully constrained by the milquetoast set of Maroon 5 and The Fray, casually displayed his shredding skills by pretending he was retuning his axe. But the crowd, a seemingly volatile mix of Avril Lavigne clones, skinny teen dudes in Slipknot shirts, mohawked couples, a shirtless 23 year old, and some guy pushing 30 who jumped around a lot, did not share his angst – they loved every second of the show. They were American cultural beings gutted of their cultural context – Franken-teens built from the cadavers of Hot Topic and Abercrombie. The gulf between the subcultural styles they appropriated and the music they enjoyed was so profound, they may as well have been wearing dashikis while skanking to German drinking songs. As true music snobs we stood agape for far too long trying to make sense of the scene, then decided our photos were more important than this boring, pointless aside and journeyed onwards.
A Fond Reunion
“No fuckin’ way,” Steve repeated again and again. Or, at least twice, to meet the requirements of the word ‘repeated’. The card reader and its invaluable contents were still in the park. Not one soul, all day, had traversed over that piece of ground, so close to a conjunction of walking paths and benches; our luck was incredible. Never before, or again, would anyone ever be so blessed by the Central Asian taboo of sitting on the earth.
With the card and card reader returned to their rightful pocket, we returned ourselves to Dima’s and fell asleep for the second night on his bare hardwood. We were sternly woken at 2AM on account of locking Dima out of his apartment. Three of his friends joined us, one of them at one point trying to sneak into Devon’s sleeping bag with him. And finally, at sunrise, Steve discovered he’d had a wet dream that he couldn’t remember.