Osh to Bishkek (and a very strange man)

Morning. Early. Threatening clouds. High chance of rain. The perfect time to go sightseeing really.The goal? A hill that rises steeply above the town of Osh. Called Solomon’s Mound. The reason escapes my memory. Don’t ask me to become a tour guide for the place.

On the way down it started to drizzle. The perfect weather for wandering through a Muslim cemetery. I really like them. The graves are wildly idiosyncratic (some low, flat stones, some baby mausolea, some spiky iron fences painted in bright colours), and they often have photos of the deceased in happier times (although they are never smiling), stars and crescents as adornments.

There is a wild charm about this place, overgrown, unexplored, out of mind. But the key attraction, of course, is to use the dates and the photos to imagine dramatic, tragic or mundane lives for the people who spend their time underneath the stones. The mother of three who died in middle age, beaten down by the endless grind of familial responsibilities. The grandfather who served in the Second World War, a sterling pilot and pride of the town. The young boy, barely old enough to spell his own name, who fell tragically a victim to influenza.

But perhaps I am on the only one who enjoys such imaginings.

The drizzle turned to rain while we were in the banya (most ex-Soviet towns have a public bath where one can enjoy unlimited hot water for a limited time for a very limited sum), which made shopping for hats more challenging that it might otherwise have been, and encouraged us to spend rather more time drinking coffee and eating dainty comestibles at the Turkish cafe than we otherwise might have.

In any event, at 2pm we wandered rainily (I like that English is so conducive to making up new words in) to the taxi stand and agreed ourselves a reasonable price on a 12 hour trip to Bishkek (the capital of this nation) in a decent car with a friendly driver.

Very friendly in fact. Because I spoke a little Russian I got to share the jump seat with him and enjoy (endure?) the usual barrage of questions (how old are you, are you married? why not? what do you do? where do you come from? what do you think of Kyrgyzstan?). Turned out our driver was rather more interesting than might have been expected. He used to be a soldier (back in the days when it was compulsory), and had served guarding a nuclear weapons installation in Mongolia (did you know that the Soviets based nuclear weapons there?). Perhaps they did not and he just had a good line in shit talk. But I digress.

After about 20 minutes the driver started to get a little unsettled. There was a noise, he said. A banging when we went over a bump. He said our luggage was too heavy (the car was only rated for 40kgs in the boot. Did we have more? Maybe. I doubt it. But that is beside the point).

A couple of side of the road stops and some driving at very slow speeds later, and eventually I see what he is talking about. The ring that connects the chassis to the suspension on the back left wheel is not tightly connected enough, meaning the car bounces rather alarmingly on bumps (of which there are many).

The upshot is that he will take us to the next town and we will find another car. Or rather he will find one for us. The strange thing is I ask him if this is a new problem, and he says no, he has had it for some time. I wonder if this is what he does – negotiate a price to Bishkek and then drop people off at the next town. Still, what do I care, so long as we get to Bishkek?

So by 3pm (after a stop in Ozgon, a little town that was centre of the Uzbek/Kyrgyz violence some years back, but shows no traces of it to the naked eye) we have a new driver. And a new car. Crappier. But for the same money. And a later arrival. Maybe we will be there by 3am, new driver says.

The road between Osh and Bishkek is dull, then interesting, then amazing, then incredible, and then very dull. Somewhere during interesting we had dinner, and it was starting to get dark just as interesting was coming to an end.

Suspecting the imminent arrival of amazing, we suggested stopping the car at a nearby hotel and restarting at dawn. Advantages included comfortable sleep (the driver was obviously already tired), less danger (unlit, potholed roads with fast oncoming traffic are not ideal), and a better view.

The driver said nothing to this plan (not that that was unusual since he uttered probably 10 unprompted words in the course of the entire journey), but when we stopped he said he would only stay at the hotel if we paid him another 20%. Well, first he said 30%, then he reduced his price.

We demurred. After all, we were going to pay for the accomodation and some supper anyway. And there was no difference to him, particularly once he revealed that he was so tired he was going to have to sleep in the car along the side of the road anyway.

Time went by in fruitless negotiations. Half an hour. An hour. An hour and a half. The people in the hotel were wondering if we were coming. So were we. The driver did not endear himself to us by lying about getting us a discount at the hotel.

But eventually we had tried everything, including offering him 10%, and we could do nothing but get back in the car and expect to head off to Bishkek.

But he would not turn on the engine. Instead he seemed to be suddenly interested in arguments that he was tired, it was very dangerous (and our parents would be sad if we were killed), and he would have to sleep on getting to Bishkek anyway (so he lost no time).

Let’s just recap. We were offering him the fare (already inflated), plus 10%, plus a free night’s accomodation and supper in a hotel in return for which he had to do nothing at all that he had not already agreed to do. But he wanted another 10% on top.

I was not alone in thinking his position somewhat unreasonable, especially since he said he would have to have a sleep on the side of the road anyway.

He would not leave without us either (despite saying he could find higher paying passengers from the town we were in). Most bizarre.

Eventually (after two hours of negotiation and we had called his bluff) he agreed to stay. The humour of the situation was further enhanced by the extra $0.25 we had to pay to store his car at the hotel.

At supper he asked if I was Jewish (implying that I was seriously cheap). In fact he asked me several times, saying even that my hair looked Jewish. He was divorced. My travelling companions, in their infinite interest in other cultures, wanted to find out if divorce was common in Kyrgyzstan. As one of them said, I suspect it is if you are married to such a man. We thought he was Uzbek, which is an insult in itself (no offence to all the nice Uzbeks out there, but you don’t really have a good reputation).

So we don’t get up at 5 in the morning. He is not in a hurry, though he was the night before. At 6:30 we leave. And all the argument was worthwhile; the scenery is amazing.

The strangeness continues. Without explanation the driver stops several times to wash his face. Once he washes the car, apropos of nothing. Is he in a hurry or not?

It becomes clear to me that he is close to falling asleep. The infinite stops are to wash his face to wake himself up. He does not explain. He has the window open blowing in freezing mountain air in order to keep himself awake.

We go past the kids who live at the corner of the road above a valley. I wonder about their life prospects.

I offer to drive. In fact, I would love to drive in Kyrgyzstan (plans are already growing in my mind for a Turkey to Pakistan jaunt). He is not sure. I tell him I have an international licence. He says ‘international eh?’, which is as close to excitement and agreement as this man ever comes. But he will not stop to change seats. When I press the point he refuses and says he is okay, despite clearly not being.

Time goes by. We stop a few more times. Why he is so stubborn and so incredibly non-communicative I can not understand. Why he can not say ‘okay, I am tired, we must stop’, or ‘okay, I am tired, you drive’ is completely beyond me. Why he can not open his mouth to explain what he is thinking, likewise. The reason for which he continues to risk his life and ours escapes me. Fortunately my travelling companions are sleeping like angels in the back seat.

Nevertheless, against all the odds, we eventually arrive in Bishkek, around 22 hours after we left Osh. Alive. And for just 10% more than the agreed price. Does this count as a cultural experience?

Speaking of cultural experiences, the Russian techno-pop everyone plays at full volume in the cafes here has to be heard to be hated. Favourite line from this cafe “I put my train of inner thoughts back on the tracks of life”. Even Stock, Aitken and Waterman had more credibility.