I arrived in the early hours of the morning in Taraz. I was sad to leave the warm cosy train. It was alarmingly dark and cold outside and I finally caught a ride to the dreary Taraz bus station. I tried to tell the driver where to go, but it was futile and ended in a screaming match. Eventually he took whatever money he could get from me and some more and left me on the side of the road. Pure paranoia ensued. The bus station is not a pretty or inviting place during the day, in darkness it’s nothing short of frightening. Most men stumbling around were drunk and there were a few scuffles that broke out. I sat on a bench at the side of the road, waiting for godot. It was mind numbingly cold, I sat frigid and too scared to move from my spot or draw further attention to myself. It’s a good thing I come from South Africa, living in such a violent and crime infested society really prepares one…
I was feeling cold and bloody miserable, until I met who can only be described as the “kindest man in the world”. Words fail me when I am fortunate enough to experience such acts of kindness from complete strangers (SANS ulterior motives).
“Kindest man in the world” looked scared for me! We tried to converse but with so little Russian I struggled to converse. I managed to tell him I was going to Bishkek, and waiting for the marshrutka. He said it’d only leave later and why on earth was I here alone? The hotel he pointed to seemed like a remnant from a horror movie and there was no way I was setting foot in that. He waited with me, shivering in his cotton shirt after giving me his jacket to warm me up. As dawn broke he took me to a cafe that was just about to start serving chai and bought me soup, bread and chai for breakfast. He showed me pictures of his family and children on his old Nokia and I tried to make out what he was telling me about them. I tried to tell him about my family in AAAAfrika and we revelled in the comforts of talking about home. He then took me to the mangy bus station where we waited for the marshrutkas to arrive. They eventually did, there was a lady yelling “BISHKEK” as she tried to fill up the taxi. In central asia whether it be a long distance marsh or shared taxi, you wait and wait until it fills up (to the brim). My friend paid for my ticket and made sure a babushka on the marsh would look after me. He instructed the driver to make sure I arrived in Bishkek in one piece and to watch out for me. Drivers in this part of the world are an aggressive bunch at the best of times, forever pressured for time and stressed out. When they see a tourista more often than not they’ll try their luck with overcharging. So when buying a ticket, do so with the help of an honest looking local. This driver was a rough and tumble fellow but “kindest man in the world” insisted I shake hands with the driver and that we made peace at the beginning.
My heart lurched as we finally rolled out of the bus station and “kindest man in the world” waved profusely to me from the bus stand as we set off. It’s really heart warming knowing how kind people can be, that’s the magic of travel. You’re forced to look for the best in people to help you on your journey.
The road to Bishkek was long but scenic with the beautiful snow capped Kyrgyz Altai Range keeping you company. The border crossing at Chaldybar was interesting. Being the solo backpacker I stuck out pretty much straight away. I was prepared for the onslaught of questions and comments from the officials. The Kazakh officials looked horrified at why I’d want to set foot in Kyrgyzstan and emphasized that my Kazakh visa was a single entry…”so no come back!” There wasn’t much of a customs control at Chaldybar but the queue was long and I got held up while my fellow passengers all went through. The officials were delighted and fondled my passport and visa with amusement. They’d never seen a South African passport and everyone was called out of office to see it. It was being passed along from official to official accompanied with smiles and astonishment, hell it was held like a piece of gold. At one stage I thought I’d never get it back when they disappeared with it. There was one official who was able to muster up some English and asked questions out of intrigue, he was in awe of my solo travels and my passport. I don’t mind amusing officials if it makes things easier, I had to remind him to stamp my entry and asked him to check the date, which had to be altered! Finally the taxi driver came and yelled at me to get back in the marsh. I didn’t even have enough time to change my tenge to som 😦
Well, “back in the third” world was my first impressions of Kyrgyzstan. It was a large enough contrast from oil rich flashy Kazakhstan, with potholes and donkey carts littering the road. We bustled into Bishkek in the late afternoon. I always get traveller’s anxiety when I arrive in a new city, where the hell does one get off? So I usually wait for the last stop, which is usually at a bazaar. The driver was keen to get rid of me and offered little assistance on helping me get my bearings. Backpacks on and ready to find a hostel I set off …I had a quick chai and dinner at a sweet little corner cafe run by a gorgeous family. I finally found Bishkek guesthouse, which was to become my crazy home for the next week. I met a lovely Polish couple who took me through the streets of Bishkek, bought me bottles of vodka and rum and we sat drinking vodka and fermented milk on the pavement! Aleksandra decided to buy us strawberries and we headed out of town and climbed a hill to get a view of the stunning mountains surrounding Bishkek. What a rad evening!