The travel world is much like any other world – kind of shitty. But it’s a slightly more interesting realm than most, due to the myriad types of globetrotters, their backgrounds and goals as varied as the bizarre styles and pseudo-philosophies they adopt and smells they exude. In India, the binding agent among the expats with whom we mingled was that everyone was to some degree an aimless douchebag (making them as completely dissimilar to us as can be, obviously). After hearing the thousandth lackadaisical iteration of how “amaaaazing” the nearby $14/day Ayurvedic Tibetan sound bowl meditation retreat was, we concluded without hesitation that, somehow, by being cynical and more self-conscious, we were the cream of the traveler crop.
And then we plummeted into Kyrgyzstan, a nation many mutton-filled eons away from being transformed into a candlelit yoga class filled with organic coffee-sipping parachute-panted Israelis. A place where, apart from us, the only travelers around seemed to be fearless, multilingual, voraciously nomadic, elite road warriors who, once they started casually describing their journeys, left us tearing our greasy hair, beating our emaciated breasts, and pooing our oversized pants in shame. We had, in essence, met The Cool Kids, and they were not us. They were actually doing something with their trips, let alone their lives, thereby gaining them a mini-profile on this most prestigious of travel blogs.
Where we met him: Bishkek, Karakol
If you ask Pierre where he sees himself in five years, he won’t even blink: “In Quebec, working for a year, after I’ve hitch-hiked across the entire planet. Duhhhhh.” Because he’s got it all figured out. Now, if you ask him something weird he’s learned along the way, he might blink, but then toss out something like, “The gay men in Istanbul use scented toilet paper… you know?”
Starting in sub-Saharan Africa, he worked his way up to France, through the Balkans, across the Caspian, and into Kyrgyzstan. After leaving us, he’s headed to India, Australia and New Zealand for two years, then South America and up to Canada to work some more (and practice his French). His hitching had brought him into a lot of mundane situations – trying to explain where he was from, and what he was doing, which God he prayed to – but also extremely uncomfortable ones that made for riveting stories, many of them involving prostitutes and drivers assuming that he wanted to share one (or two) with them.
One rather bizarre night in the Balkans was recounted to us: the three guys he was staying with, filled with youthful zest, procured for their party what they – and Pierre, for the entirety of the story and afterwards – referred to as a “beer bitch“, who loudly pleasured all of them in the room adjacent to where Pierre was watching TV. Though she was a young mother and eager to escape her current town, she for some reason accepted beer as a form of payment. Whether out of principle or a lack of beer, Pierre turned down her services.
Pierre’s less misery-laden stories dealt with subjects such as drunken Peace Corps workers in the Sahara, juggling his multiple long-and-short-distance romantic affairs, and how he succeeded in traversing the endless stretches of Kazakh desert for free by utilizing members of the Mongol Rally. He’s set to hit America in 2014, so if you’re in the mood to hear four years’ worth of depressing prostitute stories, be sure to look him up.
Where we met him: Karakol, then again in Bishkek for happy hour salsa and margaritas
Murdoch kind of came out of nowhere (actually, the mountains, to be sure) one day in Karakol as Steve was recovering from a sudden and memorable five-day diarrhea ordeal. He immediately rendered us both gravely ill by recounting how he had effortlessly conquered the route we had dreamed of undertaking before this trip – overland into Asia via Turkey and the Caspian region – but scrapped due to civil wars and what appeared to be ungodly bureaucratic hurdles. Obscenely well traveled (proof) and pleasantly spacey, he was a published travel writer, and under a pseudonym had written a New Zealand not-so-bestseller in which his narrator opined about sexuality and gender theory while plotting how to have sex with that country’s female prime minister. It had been made into a fairly successful play, and apparently the P.M.’s husband thought it was quite funny.
Murdoch had just been to Osh, our next intended stop, and told us how his taxi driver there had gleefully shown him a video he’d received on his cell phone, taken during the riots earlier this year. Grainy and shaky though the footage was, its director expertly depicted several Kyrgyz police and locals shooting an Uzbek to death in the street. “Yeah,” Murdoch calmly mused, “that was strange.”
His… Myspace?: http://www.myspace.com/richardmeros
ROEL AND CELINE, THE BELGIAN COUPLE
Where we met them: Karakol, Kyrgyzstan
Yawn, you might melodramatically gesture, yet another couple of Europeans who were biking across Asia. Well, sure, except in this case, Roel had just broken his leg and now, only a month later, they were about to ride up the 12,300 foot Torugart pass into China. We came upon them as they were camping in the garden of a guesthouse, lamenting the poor state of the only book swap in town, which, considering the general aversion to literature in Central Asia, should have been expected. They quickly let us in on their large breakfast spread, but more importantly, their adventures, such as cycling all across Europe (what is it with these people?), and future plans to cycle the American South. Roel also told us in no uncertain terms that the Peace Corps had been created by spies.
Their photos: www.flickr.com/roelencelineopreis
BALDY AND ‘WHORE MAN’
Where we met them: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
South Guesthouse is a great place to stay in Bishkek, whether it be for eight days, as we did, or for eight months, like the two Japanese men in their late 30’s who stayed there with us, and were still staying there when we returned a month later.
When you talk with Baldy — his words firing out hurriedly, his eyes darting about nervously, his hand unconsciously climbing up his head to conspicuously sit over a dish-sized baldspot — you get the idea that he would rather you didn’t. Which is odd, considering that he speaks eight languages fluently. In Kyrgyzstan to learn Russian more cheaply and authentically than he could back in Tokyo, Baldy authors theses on the Turkic people and languages splayed across the Silk Road latitudes, which, perhaps to ensure absolutely no one will ever read them, he does in Japanese. Over our week together, Baldy ended up coming out of his shell enough to chat and joke with us, share a nightly vodka or five, educate us about the cultures we hadn’t bothered to learn about before immersing ourselves in, apologize profusely about insignificant things and, most importantly, give us our first taste of kymyz, or fermented horse milk. Well, it was awful, and so was this comic book, which was probably his.
And then there was Whore Man. We’d probably call Whore Man something like a “midnight mystery” or a “nocturnal enigma”, if he hadn’t pissed us off so much. At 4 am every night (out of eleven) he’d return to the room, flip the fluorescent lights onto four other sleeping guests, shuffle around and crash into a sleep as deep as his grumbly snores were deafening, and be out cold well through the morning. When we finally speculated aloud about this erratic and annoying sleep schedule, Baldy assured us that Whore Man was simply out late at his favorite saunas, having sex with prostitutes, probably for less than $6 a pop. Hence the simple, slightly disparaging title, “Whore Man.” It’s hard to guess how he’d feel about this, as Whore Man was never really awake enough for us to talk with. However, the one time he was, he gave Devon sound advice on bussing through China’s remote Xinjiang province between bites of watermelon, and told Steve that Brian Wilson was a genius. Still, that’s really not enough to make him not Whore Man.
YOKO AND HER HUBBY
Where we met them: South Guest House, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
At first glance Yoko and Her Hubby, a smiley-faced thirty-something Japanese couple, look like they should be hanging out of a bus somewhere, snapping thousands of photos with an overpriced Nikon DSLR. Fact is, they were. Except that said hypothetical bus is in reality hundreds of the shoddy local kind that slowly bounce along the thousands of kilometers between dirt-track villages dotting the entirety of both Africa and, later on the same trip, South America. Back in Osaka, Yoko taught school and HH sushi chefed, all day every day for five years to save up for their dream trip. They’re reasoning: if you’re going to see some of the world, you might as well see all of it, all in under two years time. In between hearty double-hugs and crescendoing exclamations of “Ahhh? Heeeeey!”, they managed to recount their long route. They had thus far conquered South America, Africa, Western Europe, Southeast Asia and the States; were presently winding through Central Asia on their way to Eastern Europe and later Oceania before finally returning to start life anew back home.
Luckily for us, what they didn’t lack in traveling prowess, they made up for in HH’s beard; it was terrible. Each short, black hair stood erect like one of a thousand monuments to unimpressiveness in its own 4mm radius pedestal of naked flesh. In contrast, we had moustaches. Gorgeous goddamn moustaches. The official call? A draw.
KOREAN SCOOTER LADY
Where we met her: Lake Song Kul
There’s not much to say about this woman, as we barely spoke to her, but here’s what we know:
- When we met her, she was in the middle of Kyrgyzstan, after having driven a 150 CC scooter across the entire span of China on her way to the Atlantic.
- When we met her, she was being held up and shaken in the air by our drunken yurt host Toylon.
Where we met him: Osh
“Yeah, Remy, I don’t know if it’s a French thing, but it seems like all the French people we meet on this trip have turned their traveling into some kind of weird artistic project.”
“Oh? Zees is an odd thing to say.”
“Oh I’m just kidding. But yeah, what are you doing?”
“Traveling around Central Asia wizz an entire photography studio een my backpack, letting children take pictzures of zeyre cities and lives for zees art exhibition zat is coming out next year.”
Remy’s project, to let children in each city he stopped in photograph and develop black and white images that they felt represented their lives in a post-Soviet world, may sound a hell of a lot like ‘Born Into Brothels’, but that’s where the similarity ends, because Remy never saw that one. Fluent in five languages – currently learning a sixth and planning to settle down with a paltry nine or so rattling around in his head, he’s had no trouble finding work or adventure around the globe.
After school he casually trekked through the Amazon and cycled across Europe before easily landing a job with the French embassy in Bishkek. His ‘project’ was being funded by some high-profile but characteristically kind of pointless French state institution, and he was half-heartedly entertaining an offer for an extremely profitable position in the newly reinstated French NATO team. Surely, we convinced ourselves as our egos shriveled under his blinding light of accomplishment, this wunderkind must be like, 29 or something! But alas, he was probably the only person we met on this trip who was younger than us.
But ambition and incredible prospects aside, Remy was more than a bit of a cad. More than a few times, he’d used his academic Russian diction to intimidate Kyrgyz border guards into letting him smuggle cigarettes into France, making a few thousand Euros in profit. Had he not been astounding us the entire night we spent with him, he had planned to take us to a local sauna where we probably could’ve received (or, more likely, awkwardly escaped) the warm, sloppy embrace of Osh’s whore population. Right before we all dozed off, Remy dropped a series of stories on us in which he had come face to face with Black Magic. It was weird.
For example, while hitchhiking in Russia he’d seduced and bedded an attractive young driver who brought him to her house during a rainstorm. Over dinner, the girl’s aunt started chanting and mumbling some unearthly language. Though he wasn’t speaking, Remy felt that he was communicating directly with the woman in his head. Later that night, his new gal pal woke up screaming hysterically and violently flailing about. “Holy crap, what’d you do Remy?” “Well, I slapped her. Right in ze face.” We enjoyed the ending to this story so much that we sadly have forgotten his other encounters with the dark forces of the universe. They might be on his blog, in three different languages.
His blog: http://unmondeen.over-blog.com/
Where we met her: Osh
The Osh Guesthouse provided us with a two-for-one confidence thrashing, with our our evening with Remy immediately followed by a morning with Jude (pronounced ‘Judy’). Yet somehow, the fact that she, at 40, had ditched her home (and husband) in England to go ride a bike around the globe (Europe into Asia, South America in North America), with her only future plans were to be present for the Olympics in London in 2012 , was eclipsed by the fact that she’d had her Hen Night at Devon’s great grandfather’s pub, The Turk’s Head in Exeter. She also used to get drunk there in her university days, as the Head was part of a tradition in which you’d see how many pubs you could drink a pint in, in one night. And this is just speculation, but Jude could probably drink a lot.
Before we met her, she’d been riding, getting by on her Russian, acquiring lots of punctures and mosquito bites, and sleeping in watermelon fields. When we complained about our encounters with goat face, she told us how she’d eaten dog, and more interestingly, giant tarantulas, which tasted “how you’d expect a big spider to taste… I don’t think it was cooked at all”.
Her (really good) blog: http://www.getjealous.com/judezebedee
On a roadside stop on our three hour, Eagles and Boney M-filled drive from Bishkek to Almaty, we watched in horror as a white man sped by us on an equipment-laden touring bike, with the strong winds of the steppe at his back, into the most godforesaken landscape we’d ever seen. “What a nutcase” was our conclusion. Five hours later, he was sitting across from us in Tifin’s kitchen in his riding gear, eager to go buy some wine.
We told him what we were up to, and where we’d been, and then, despite having explained the purpose of his journey up to a million times, including on Georgian radio, he detailed with that rascally upper class Parisian aloofness his reason for being there – to ride his bike from Europe to Asia in order to document the stories of survivors of conflict from Bosnia to Hiroshima for a documentary. Woof. And it turned out he’d, like Murdoch, also meandered without issue through the conflict zones we’d avoided. Goddamnit.
Over the next few days we began to unravel his unstated purpose of traveling, that being sleeping with women other than his girlfriend, smoking spliffs (“spleefs”), and talking about himself. Or at least, filming epic shots of himself riding a bike, to fill in the spaces in his film not taken up by rambling monologues by people with missing limbs, or, as in one gripping scene that he showed us portrayed, a Serbian guy who was telling him to go away.
In Almaty to await the arrival of his producer from France along with two new cameras and film-editing equipment, he had bit of time on his hands, and used a great portion of it to shoot the shit with us. First on his agenda was showing us the footage of a fairly vicious Uzbek street fight he’d witnessed. The contenders comprised: a middle aged woman, a middle aged man, a younger woman who had been driven across town in order to fight this middle aged woman in place of the man, and unfortunately for him but fortunately for the story, Raphael, after he was spotted by the fighters with his video phone. No fans of Tom Bergeron and the AFV scene, they responded to their newfound stardom with a volley of rocks, forcing him to run away, barefoot, to a barber shop, where he got a shave to disguise himself.
One winey night, Raphael prepared us for our foray into East Asia by teaching us Chinese hand counting, and more thoroughly, describing the Alien-like protruding vortex effect of Asian vaginal orgasms – which formed the crux of his lengthy and passionate argument in favor of Devon cheating on Margie in the near future. Other reasons included:
- Sleeping with local women is “the best” way to experience the local culture
- The best way to learn a language is through the “dictionary of the pillow”. We assume this sounds a lot better in French
- Devon will only be young once
- Devon can’t know if Margie’s really special, and if things turn sour he’ll always hate himself and resent her for not seizing the opportunity to land a venereal disease from a Mongolian hooker
- The vortex-vagina factoid came directly from Papa Beaugrand, who’s a radiologist, so this obviously falls under his area of expertise and has to be correct
It should be stated that he did not address Steve, nor Steve’s libido once in this discussion.
But Devon returned the volley just as hard with an equally verbose, unwarranted, and somehow more pointless diatribe on today’s youth and their affinity for easily accessible extreme “shock” pornography (a point that was noticeably unsubstantiated), and more specifically, how Raphael’s future kids – whether he likes it or not – are going to love it. Devon didn’t remember this part of the conversation. Or finishing off the bottle of gin we had given to Tifin as a present earlier that evening.
Where we met him: In a shared taxi from Thai border to Siem Reap, Cambodia
“Blacklist” was a fellow Californian, at least by birth. Beyond that the parallels pretty much disappear. We three (us plus new recruit Mr. Logan McCoy) were on our way to Angkor Wat after a two-week “vacation from traveling” in which our job-having, salary-earning friends showed up and subsidized multi-room luxury suites, beachfront bungalows, meals costing more than a dollar and a massage a piece. Meanwhile, our tall, shaved-headed ridemate — who’d spent the past decade or so earning a masters in Japanese (in Japan), living in Asia, and wandering around the Amazon whacked out on bizarre jungle drugs — had just been denied entry to the Kingdom of Thailand, where he was jailed, deported from and forbidden ever to return to a couple years back.
All we could get out of him was that it was a “long story” and that he still had four grand in a Bangkok bank that he sort of wanted back. For the next month or so that M.O. would take him to as many of the five remaining Thai-Cambodia border crossings as it takes to find an incompetent and/or palm-greasable guard. If no dice, he’d don his shorts and gloves and embark on Plan B: join a border-town Moo-ay Thai boxing troupe, wait for the police to organize a clandestine across-the-border fight night, get sneaked across and then just fucking bail, all the way to the bank. (Not sure we asked him, if he could get himself in, how he planned to get out.)
He spent a good portion of the 4-hour taxi ride juggling between teaching himself to speak and read the impossible gobbledygook that passes for Cambodian and nipping from a bottle of Chinese antler-extract rice-liquor, which cost him five dollars — the exact amount he couldn’t pay when the taxi dropped us off with a tuk-tuk man who carted us over to some guesthouse we didn’t ask to go to. He did say he’d pay us back, just not when. Maybe if he makes it to Bangkok.
Where we met him: In Shanghai as our Couchsurfing host, and then again in Bangkok
Known by both his friends and enemies as, “The Anus” because, well, that’s what his last name means, Matthieu showed us a side of Shanghai that few ever dare to venture into: the well-off white expat side.
A trained pilot and great admirer of the Southern United States (after obtaining his Master’s degree in Georgia, between road trips in a massive Cadillac), Matthieu was at the age of 26 put in sole command of a tire factory in China, and scoring mad babes in the meantime. Noncommittal, ugly deadbeats such as ourselves couldn’t comprehend this absurd example of being commensurately rewarded for one’s hard work, so we looked unto Matthieu as if he were a seven-headed Norse fire deity. To express our deep admiration, we did his dishes a few times. We also inducted him into Team Cat Shirt as the first and only foreign-born, overseas representative.Our first night with Matthieu, we were whisked off to a reggae themed expat bar for their Happy Hour, which truly was as happy as one could possibly imagine, since the beer was free.
After settling down at a table and recognizing how little we fit in with the well-dressed and facial hair-free foreign locals, our moustaches caught in their vast ungainly social net a depressing little Malaysian woman who spent the next hour describing in detail how she didn’t love her fiancé, and incorrectly interpreting our body language (and language language) when we started feeding her elaborate made up stories about ourselves. Ah well, can’t win ’em all.
Not only was Matthieu supportive of our endeavor to taste canine flesh, and willing to take us back on his couches after we missed our train to Kunming, he also served as a catalyst for our attendance at a rather nontraditional display of ping pong talent in a inanely-named bar in Bangkok, where we met him while he was on a business trip. When confronted with the horrifying acrobatic antics of those young ladies, Matthieu could only profoundly sputter out, “I… will never forget zis.” Nor we you, buddy. Nor we you.