Three Keens in Kyrgyzstan – Part II
This is part two in a two-part series. To read the first part, scroll down or click here.
Ala-Archa National Park was just a friendly taxi ride away. “Hey Dennis,” our taxi driver said before every question, “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Can I find you a Kyrgyz wife? Oh, you’ve already got yourself a Kyrgyzka? Good boy!” Dusty villages and cemeteries rolled by, and the mountains we were flirting with just a couple days before from within our urban confines beckoned us onward and upward. Forty five minutes out of town there was a gate and then a road and then a lodge and then a trail. That’s where we said goodbye to the questions and walked ourselves into the mountains and valleys that lay before us like a treasure.
We had to cross a river but found no stepping stones so we threw our shoes across and braved the cold. We ate cheese and sausage on bread from the market, sitting happily on rocks amongst piles of shit. The fog rolled in and swallowed us up, but we had gone as far as we could and seen what we wanted to see so we were happy to just pretend we were swimming through a cloud, and headed back to our taximan. There was a patch of ice unfrightened by spring and we made ourselves to be ice skaters without skates. We saw only two other people, cresting a ridge in the distance, and they disappeared into the fog.
The next day we arrived at the house of my eagle hunter friend, Ruslan. The car ride there was interesting enough, an old lady hounding my dad for not saying hello and then pouring us juice in plastic cups and feeding us scraps of bread. The car was broken but that was nothing new. At Ruslan’s there was no Ruslan to be found, only his dad, Kubat, who welcomed us with hearty handshakes and an invitation for tea. Not much later, Ruslan came home from a soccer match and showed us his eagles with nonchalance. A sheep’s throat was cut in our honor and then the animal was picked apart and boiled. The big chunks of meat went on our plates, and we ate them with our hands as we drank teabowls of broth. The organs were fed to the eagle the next day, after it chased down a foxfur. It was fat and lazy, preparing for a leisurely summer moult, and was happy to get a reward. It seemed to swallow the lungs whole.
We went to Sary’s village and the village had migrated: it was some kind of day of remembrance, and the whole town had gone for a picnic at the cemetery. We found them and sat on the ground eating fried bread and drinking thick, fermented wheaty sludge. Men with long white beards and cokebottle glasses were compiling a list of soldiers who had died during the Great Patriotic War. You could see their minds spinning as they closed their eyes and tried to remember. They were going back in time.
Sary took us to the shore of the lake and we sat on the red sand and talked about it. “This sand is healthy” he told us. “You should come here and bury yourself in it. Up to your necks. It would be good for you.” He ran it through his hand like a sieve. The sand fell to the ground and then he picked up some more, and watched it over and over again in meditation. He was trying to show Palmer something but he didn’t understand. There was something about this sand that he wanted us to know.
The place was quiet except for the small waves licking the shore and we all layed down and closed our eyes and enjoyed the serenity. “This is a special place,”Sary told us. We all nodded and agreed.
Suleiman Mountain was special too. The day after we were in Issyk Kul we drove all the way across the country, over even more mountains and valleys, just to see this beautiful rock. It watched over the southern city of Osh like a mother and the people adored it just so. We crawled with them all over its face, caressing it in spots where it had been polished smooth with love, finding small caves and sitting in them singing it songs. My dad had hurt his shoulder in a dune buggy in Mexico and the nerves running down his arm were reminding him constantly, so we asked the mountain for help. An old man sat giving prayer and we asked him for help too. With our hands bent into the shapes of bowls, we listened to him chant and then washed our faces with what we hoped was good luck. It only helped for so long. As the sun got lower, we went to a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy and bought prescription meds without a prescription. Well they say the mountain only works if you believe…
Aziz was a believer, and he sung out “Allah Akbar”s from inside his tent as we drank vodka by the fire. We were on a trek in the Alay mountains, and had brough extra firewater for our guide, but it seemed that we had been assigned one of those few Kyrgyz men who take the Quranic word for what it’s worth. When I asked Aziz if he’d like a shot, he didn’t say ‘I don’t drink.’ He said ‘I read namaz.’ He wasn’t kidding. After dark had fallen he took his shoes off and rinsed his feet in ritual ablution, and then retreated into his tarpaulin mosque to read and sing the Quran. I’ve always like the sound, even if I don’t partake. I watched the stars and listened to his song. We watched satellites trace the sky.
In the morning, we walked around the jailoo where we had ended up, after hours of hauling our stuff up hillsides in sacks. The Kyrgyz jailoo is what we might call a summer pasture, a patch of green pastorale in the wake of mountains, freed up by the melting snow. Spring had hit hard here and the birds were catching up after a season’s worth of muted chirping. I saw one little sparrow hop from branch to branch with fuzz in its mouth for a nest, chirping all the while. I saw a big rabbit bounding into a hole. I saw a marmot, but it was so orange I thought it must be a fox. It would have to be one fat, funny-looking fox. I learned that Kyrgyz marmots bear a striking resemblance to Garfield. They’d be eminently pettable if they weren’t so quick on their feet.
I saw the mountains, and the rivers, and eagles and old men, but I showed them, too, to the Keens at my side. A place is transformed when its yours to display and not just to live in. You feel some kind of ownership. This wasn’t my country, but it felt like home, and there’s nobody better to share your home with then your family.