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solotravel

It was my 10th experience in a yurt during my time in Central Asia when I checked into my last one (thus far) while up by Song-kul, on my last day of exploring the Kyrgyzstan countryside. Walking through the front door of a yurt, there’s always that element of curiosity-how big is it? Will it be cozy, cold? Where’s the tea? When the thick cloth blankets are pulled off the roof in the morning and you catch your first ray of sunshine.

I wasn’t sure if Kyrgyzstan was West or East. It seemed like a mix of both. Folk traditions of the Kyrg people are being embraced and reintegrated into society. New temples are being built. Some of the face of Russian Imperialism remains, just like the quality of the air. I actually read an article that said “…effects of global warming still aren’t apparent in Kyrgyzstan….”

Even though the grasslands and the wide-open spaces and national parks seemed North American, while the headdresses wore by women, the hospitality of the people, and some of the industrial towns were reminiscent of the spirit I grew to know and love about Asia. And typical of a country on the giant continent of Asia, things are open for development. Economic and investment opportunities are on the rise, and new ideas are being put in place. The people want to know more. But I could get sour cream with my dumplings, and dill sprinkled on my soup. If you spend any time in eastern Asia, or you live there, you know these delights are difficult to come by.

A Place in Transition

And all the while, things are changing in that country. Just like so many other places in this world. The capital is modernizing but the pace still slow. Mosques are under construction along the highway but statues of Lenin in the parks of Bishkek stand tall. Up by lake Song-kul, the second largest lake in the country, life is much more organic and I forgot which way was north. 

When all of the guests (for that day) sat down around the table we were served freshly whipped butter and strawberry jam in sparkly, what looked like imperialist-era glassware in a yurt in the middle of Kyrgyzstan by a beautiful Kyrg family. Guests included myself, Jean, our new friend Nadja from Germany, a retired German couple, two newlyweds from Bishkek, and our driver of course. We booked a tour in Kochkor the day before with a local travel agency. When traveling in Kyrgyzstan, this are all things I recommend doing once you get there. 

Rows of yurts are set up by the marine blue lake Song-kul. The hardcore adventurists (badass German mountain bikers) make the trek up to the 3,000 metre elevation from the town of Kochkor to Song-kul, where yurts are put up for the summer and locals farm and get back to nature, away from the more industrial cities. The rest are lots of Community Based Tourism camps where the lucky travellers who make it to Kyrgyzstan get to stay. The wander to and from the city to the mountain, I got to see some of the most breathtaking, peaceful scenery I’ve ever seen in this entire world.

Go Local

It’s worth it to go somewhere that you may think is the middle of nowhere. The rewards are there. It’s always the most life changing. Place with the lifestyle centuries old, the religion new, the food just cooked fresh for purchase. So many different levels of culture shock, and new things to learn about in so little time.

We spent just one night up by the lake, before taking the scenic 3-hour ride down to Kochkor before getting the bus back to Bishkek, with a stop at the Burana Tower along the way. We rode a donkey (somewhat unsuccessfully), rode a horse (definitely unsuccessfully), watched the family milk their cows after dinner, chatted with the other guests over dinner and tea inside the yurt when it got too windy outside. It was the middle of July and it got to a few degrees above freezing at night. The lake is uninhabitable most months of the year.

When You Just Never Know

One of my favourite travel moments from Kyrgyzstan was on the bus ride back to Bishkek. After Song-kul and lunch in Kochkor, Jean and I stopped at the well-known Burana Tower and then found a ride back to the capital city, on what was probably our 8th or 9th marshuka ride that week. I knew Bishkek had two bus stations, and that our hostel was next to one of them. I figured they were both a little far away from each other. Unfortunately I had just spent my last 5 som using the toilet at the bus station near the Tower. The bus needed to get us as close to our booked hostel in Bishkek as possible. I tried asking him which station we were going to, but I couldn’t.

Language Barriers

They speak a lot of Russian in the capital city of Bishkek. A few “hellos” and “thank yous” in Russian was all I could muster. A “One” and a “Two”. And a “Da” thrown in for good measure. So a few hundred kilometres later, as we rolled into Bishkek, the bus eventually stopped at the other station and let everyone off.

“Last stop. This last stop.” The bus man said.

“Um…west bus station?” I tried to pronounce the name of the street where we were staying of Jibek Jolu. I tried my pathetic lost soul face along with it. Nothing.

“No. No. Last stop.” He said again. He pointed outside at the afternoon traffic of the city. 

So I just pointed to the paper where I wrote down the street name and the west bus station written in Kyrg. Then I just looked at him and said, “please?”

He turned around, shrugged his shoulders, and took off again, with only Jean and I in the car. We drove a few kilometres until we eventually reached recognizable territory and I could see the west bus station approaching. I knew how to maneuver through the touts and marshukas and make our way around the corner to Apple Hostel. The bus driver nodded, smiled and let us off the bus without charging us any extra som. He even watched us for a few moments making sure we were safe in the crowds of Bishkek.

Sometimes, all you have to do is ask.

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Take me home, country roads, take me home.

 

I met a friendly University student named Dawn when I was in China in 2009. Well, Dawn was her English name. She was one of my first Chinese friends outside of my co-workers. She studied at Donghai University and I met her and her BFF Monica at my German friend Harry’s apartment one Friday night. She was the most outspoken young Chinese person I’ve ever met. She was full of questions about Canada, she taught herself English despite her parents protests, and she criticized almost everything about the Chinese system. Just talking to her about politics made me nervous that I’d get deported.

When Dawn told me her favourite English songs were John Denver’s, I was impressed. From what I’d learnt from my first month in China was that for the average citizen their knowledge of non-Chinese music didn’t go any farther back than Celine Dion. Actually, Michael Jackson. But then at the end of the year I went to Beijing and discovered that John Denver is adored. I heard him in bathrooms, shopping malls, bathrooms in shopping malls…places like that. John Denver and China are synonymous for me now. When I hear “Take me Home, Country Roads” (which is usually when I’m in China, but not always), instead of cringing I am uplifted. Similar to when I eat greasy food, wait an hour in the rain for a bus, or perhaps see some poop on the street, I think of China and I’m happy again. I don’t know if that means the Mainland is my home, but it’s certainly something to question. Isn’t home a feeling you get when everything around you is a disaster but you still don’t get depressed? When everything looks terrible but you can’t keep your eyes off it? That’s kind of like love. I don’t know. I’ll have to pray to John Denver.

In March of 2012 I returned to China. I had been on the road for just over a week and I was staying in a great hostel in Nanjing when I heard a piano bar rendition of “Take me Home, Country Roads”. I sitting in the back of the hostel bar and it was part of their “Jazz Fridays”. If you aren’t a fan of that song to start with, then you must go to Nanjing to hear her version because you will most certainly…hang yourself. But the city boasts a great museum, and some juicy dumplings, so the trip won’t be a total loss.

I smiled the whole time while listening to that song. I knew I’d come back to a special place. It was the first time I’d heard a John Denver song since coming back to China, and being there over a week without that song made me sad. “Where were you John Denver! I’ve missed you!” It was pouring rain outside. I was stuck in a hostel with a great bar and beautiful terrace, but I was the sole patron. It was March and the backpackers hadn’t arrived yet. And Nanjing wasn’t exactly the most travelled place. I was totally alone, my bank account was already dwindling and I had no job prospects and no inspiration to write. But I couldn’t have been happier.

Take me home, country roads, take me home.

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It’s not because I had nothing going on at home that I packed everything away, and brought with me only the essentials (good raincoat, wool socks, Qtips) to the other end of the world. It’s BECAUSE I wanted to pack everything away and bring only the essentials to the other end of the world that nothing was happening for me at home. No one divorced me (however my crushes did ignore me) and no one fired me (that’s because I was working at a job that I had during my college years, and was fairly enthusiastic and skilled for all of it’s minimum wage benefits). I just wanted to go. SO I DID.

And I’m doing it alone. I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a little girl, and my mom would take me to the school she worked at when I had a Ped Day (holiday, President’s Day, whatever country you’re in it’s a day where you don’t have school but your teachers do!). We’d drive out of the suburbs and into the city and I was always giddy for my day of endless wandering and random discoveries. When she’d have to run off to a board meeting, I would walk around the deserted hallways of her school. It was an elementary school  which was adjacent to a high school. It was an old, four storey Montreal building. I loved it. I’d explore around the basement of the elementary school first. Most of the classrooms on that floor had been abandoned because of the school’s shrinking population. I’d play teacher with my imaginary students and write on all the blackboards (remember chalk??? And blackboards?!?!) I’d browse through the abandoned second library and catch up on Nancy Drew’s latest discoveries.

Then, I’d go to the high school. They had the biggest library I’d ever seen in my whole 7 years of existence. It had high ceilings with 5 year old origami projects hanging from them. The tables where a beautiful, sleek oak wood and the SMELL IN THERE WAS THE GREATEST! After a while I would brave through the rest of the abandoned basement. I loved peeping into every room, seeing what else I could find. Yeah, no one was around. And it was a little drab, dark and scary. But any chance I got I would just…wander. Mainland China is my mother’s school’s scary basement. It smells different, it’s walled with concrete, it’s old and somewhat untouched. But nothing makes me happier than being able to open every pocket, and finding something new.

 

Happy travels, me.Image

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