Nestled against the westernmost reaches of Issyk Kul’s crisp glacial waters and menacingly cradled by the sharp Ala-too mountain ranges to its north and south, the town of Balykchy finds itself at the locus of nature’s most dramatic cycles. Besides geology, the inhabitants of Balykchy too have been witness to dramatic cycles, such as the political and economic ones that vigorously dragged their hometown from its origins as a humble, desolate fishing village into a bustling Soviet industrial powerhouse, then let it careen into its present rusted, dank shithole state.
But that’s just our own take on Balykchy. To describe the town in actual, unabashed professional travel guidebook terms: “there is no good reason to stop in this town.”
Such a curt refutation of Balykchy’s charms could only serve to intrigue. After we found ourselves exiled from our guesthouse in Kochkor by the sudden arrival of a French family with far more money than us, we looked long and hard at our map, and reasoned that since we had to travel through there anyway, we should make a night of it and explore the nothingness promised to us by Lonely Planet’s cowardly writers. Especially if it had the kind of scenery displayed in this fantastically grim photo album (and accompanying blog entry that makes ours look as crappy and sterile as, well, Balykchy itself).
It wasn’t the first time we’d charged into a situation with little-to-any forethought (for example, going to India in the middle of the summer), or even the last time. But it was one of the more stupid times. Unceremoniously dumped from our shared taxi in the middle of a broad, ramshackle boulevard besides a few gutted factories covered in fading Soviet murals, we were immediately swarmed by drivers sensibly assuming we would be heading into another town, then soon after given quizzical and exasperated looks for walking with undeserved confidence into the mass of residential streets before us.
A few blocks in we realized that perhaps having no idea where to sleep might not work in our favor on this day. Sure enough, the unnervingly and forcefully relaxed slivers of our brains responded with, “Well, Balykchy must surely have an internet cafe. Just continue walking in this general direction until one appears, then search for accommodation.” To add weight to this unsupported reverie, we asked several passers-by, “Excuse me, where is internet?” only to have our directional assumptions confirmed. All was going well.
Until it stopped going well, at which point we had walked three miles into the lower intestine of a limitless grid of cruel concrete houses with neither evidence of commerce nor communication with the outside world, and were starting to vocally nip at each other. From across the street sauntered a Slavic teenager with short unkempt blonde hair, a sneer between his cheeks and a BMX bike between his other cheeks, his tank top revealing a wiry frame that had grown purely from defiance of a lifetime of parental abuse and coerced amateur boxing. We asked him, “Internet?” and pointed down the road. He scoffed and shook his head, disdainfully lighting a cigarette. We tried a more simple approach, “where is internet in Balykchy?” “There is no internet here.” Shit. So either the ladies before had lied to us or simply placated us, or he was a big smelly fibber. It was probably him, we figured. Zealously and with boundless energy he attacked our final shreds of patience, shouting Russian at us irregardless of how much we told him, “We don’t understand you.”
Looking back, it’s reasonable to assume that we were the first tourists he’d ever seen. Curiously-dressed witnesses to alien realities, conduits to knowledge strange and beyond perception. So it’s highly regrettable that his induction to the global traveling community involved two scraggly men with large backpacks shouting at him, aggressively and homoerotically dancing, then miming the act of pulling his manhood out of his trousers to an absurd, unhealthy length and chopping it in half.
While our new acquaintance rode off hurling obscenities our way, we spotted a bank and waddled in seeking refuge from the heat, and hopefully an English speaker. Of course nobody inside acknowledged us in any language, but as we were about to leave a small, shy, young and comely Kyrgyz woman in cut off jeans and – ironically given the culture – a wife beater, approached and promised in shaky English that she would help us find a hotel once she’d completed her transaction; in fact, she would take us to one. The relative scarcity of such generosity from Kyrgyz strangers until this point provoked our strongest suspicions. Through some very abstract and pathetic logic, we decided that since she was going to eventually screw us over we should make the most of this interaction, and leered at her butt while she spoke with the teller.
As soon as we stepped outside, we must have set some kind of record, by gulping the biggest, most fearful gulps since the invention of the throat. Outside the gate of the bank stood our Russian lad and three of his cauliflower-eared compatriots, bare arms quivering with bloodlust, unanimously confident that soon they would be elbows deep in our frothing innards. But by this lady’s side we were able to walk peacefully past our young assassins, pretending not to see them standing there, all of five feet away. She introduced herself as Zhanna, hailed a taxi, and refusing to let us pay, spirited us several blocks south to a sprawling, decayed hotel-shaped box that looked as if it were built entirely out of dust. Goddamnit, she was in cahoots with the owner, wasn’t she…
After prolonged three-way negotiating, it was settled that we would have to cough up $40 each for the night there – five times what we’d paid in Bishkek, a city that unlike Balykchy wasn’t blacklisted by both travel experts and the Kyrgyz national economy. And since our previous ex-Soviet hotel experience involved drunken men storming into our room waving dead fish in our faces, no running water, and having to watch Spiderman 2, we weren’t interested. But mostly because of the cost. Sensing our insufferable stinginess, Zhanna suddenly offered to let us sleep at her house. We immediately pictured our flayed torsos being gnashed by buzzards atop an altar to Kyrgyz folk hero Manas, or Lenin, or both, as our skulls were refurbished as ashtrays for local preschoolers. But we threw the dice, rolled an eight, didn’t know what that meant, and went along with her anyway.
Upon entering the front gate, this is what greeted us. So we dropped our guards a few smidges. Killers don’t have kitties, right? The highly organized back yard also featured a vegetable patch, three little kids running around, a pen full of geese, and a handful of sheep next to a relatively spotless outhouse. We learned a bit about her as she set up a makeshift internet connection, allowing us to let friends and family know we were still alive until this Kyrgyz family presumably cooked us up. She was studying English in Bishkek, after being knocked up by some cool, unsupportive local dude at 19, and was now at home for the summer with her mom and son, a six year old who expressed his admiration of Steve through punching. We hoped the violence towards us would remain light-hearted, and did our best not to resemble a suave local dude in any way, lest we arouse any repressed homicidal urges. Believe it or not, we were pretty adept at this.
She led us to Balykchy’s last, at-some-point-touristy beach, which was so exclusive in being free of rusted scrap metal and broken glass (not cigarette butts though, those were still plentiful) that you had to pay $2 to set foot on it. There was a bar next door, of course, as well as a few sunken ships and the remnants of a cement factory, where Zhanna’s dad had worked until his death back in the 90’s. Perhaps this is where our corpses were to be deposited and nipped at by stray dogs? Alas no, Zhanna was still being exceptionally nice.
We walked through crumpled, overgrown promenades that once hosted Soviet travelers and countless shashlyk stands, then took a taxi (again, on Zhanna’s dime/som) to the “statue” district where we beheld a monument to Kyrgyz soldiers (a tank on a pedestal), a 19th century Russian explorer of the Tien Shan mountains, and an immense field, spotted with petrifying trees and carpeted by vodka bottle shards – no doubt our final resting place. Again, no murdering or assaults took place, because from there it was past the town’s side-street market composed of buckets of nectarines and an unexpectedly thriving but very-expectedly creepy Honey Depot.
And then we balked at purchasing some sun-dried street fish to have as an afternoon snack. Which is a good thing because Steve was rapidly growing violently ill, and the un-poisoned dinner Zhanna made for us was fucking huge. Chicken soup (no wussy Campbell’s bullshit either – this was drumsticks sitting in broth), watermelon, cake, and strong local beer she’d bought especially for us. It was around this time that we decided that Zhanna was probably the nicest person we’d ever, and would ever meet. Well, shit.
It was Ramadan, which meant only non-believers could eat at reasonable hours. So being able to gorge ourselves while Zhanna yawned, stirred pots, and waited for 8pm, combined with her telling us about her favorite types of alcohol, got us wondering about Islam in Central Asia. Mostly how it didn’t really look like Islam at all – at least, the forms we’d seen in Kashmir and vicariously through Steve’s cousin Aatish’s book, Stranger To History. Although the region had produced prolific Islamic philosophizing in the middle ages, after centuries of societal fragmentation, then 70 years of Soviet repression, the religion was now a Doctor Moreau-esque amalgam of rationalism, animism, and cherry-picked holy verses. This could best be demonstrated by Zhanna’s bewilderment when we told her, after learning she was heading to India the next month to see the Red Mosque, that she’d have to wear long sleeves and pants before entering. “But why can I not wear my shorts and tank top? It will be hot!” We would have told her to consult her Koran, but since nobody in Kyrgyzstan can read one, we just shrugged and kept eating.
Midway through dinner, Steve’s bowels made their presence and fury known once again, bringing with them their good friend Mr. Heif Eever, a symptom of Dutch descent who quickly dragged Steve from the party (well, Devon drinking a lot of beer and talking to Zhanna), and deposited him into a bed stolen from Zhanna’s son, then filled his overheated brain with lucid nightmares all the live-long night. He dealt with ghosts, angry animals, disappointed parents, and at one point, he thought he heard Devon making out with Zhanna.
While this couldn’t have been further from the truth, the truth was still pretty weird. Because Zhanna had engaged Devon in a long talk about love, and what love is, and how you know you’re in love, and what it’s like to have your heart broken. He essentially became a receptacle for her Baby Daddy problems. Adding to the discomfort was Zhanna’s attractiveness, because attractive women don’t talk to us (Margie the popular and pretty exception), let alone talk to us about love, so all kinds of signals were being imagined and misinterpreted.
At any rate, Steve made it through the night, and while Zhanna didn’t elope with Devon, she did help us get the hell out of Balykchy the next morning (at the locals’ discounted rate, no less). As we settled into our overloaded minibus we went through our karmic tally from the previous night. On Zhanna’s part, in only 17 hours she had: saved us from brutal violence, shown us some superb industrial decay, fattened us up, and evicted her son from his bedroom on our behalf. Our own table stood at: we bought her a cake – a cake she of course wasn’t allowed to eat, and even tried to give back to us since we were guests.
So in conclusion, au contraire, professional guidebook writers. There is a reason to go to Balykchy. Its name is Zhanna, and it’s a babe.