China and the Stans

You thought I was dead, didn't you?

You thought I had perished.

Well you thought wrong. Sure, in the past month and a half I've been on the verge of perishing several times-- but actually perishing would have been mad lame.

I returned from Central Asia over two weeks ago, but since the second half of August is an intense training camp for a tutoring company, during which former and newly-acquired students must all be matched up with former and newly-recruited tutors-- trust me, it's a hideous few weeks-- my story-telling session has had to wait. Now, finally, we can all gather round and venture into the remote, ancient world of Central Asia. Or more accurately, the sitcom that is Tim alone and under-prepared in Central Asia.

Before we start, I'll try to answer the most common question I've been asked after telling someone that I voluntarily went to Central Asia by myself for three weeks: "Why?"

For me, there are four big things traveling can potentially offer:

1) Fun/pleasure
2) Cultural/historical fascination
3) Adventure
4) A chance to just "shake things up," to break out of normal life for a period of time

This trip offered relatively little of the first item, at least in the classical sense. It was uncomfortable, it was difficult, it was hot, it was a logistical nightmare, it was frightening at times, it tasted bad, it smelled bad, and here and there, it hurt. This was in no way a "vacation." And that's where all the "Why?"s come from.

But here's the thing-- this trip
blew away the other three items.

A year and a half ago, I posted an entry about my trip to Vietnam. Vietnam was a ridiculously good time—it nailed the first item on the head. And to an extent, Vietnam offered 2, 3, and 4 as well, but for those three items, Central Asia was on a totally different level.

And that's why I did it. So when you're reading this and wondering what would compel someone to take this trip (and I wondered the same thing a multiple times myself during the trip), remember items 2-4.

So let's get going.

A couple maps to check out. The first one highlights the region of the world we're dealing with (mainly the upper left quarter of the circle), and the lower one shows the region in more detail. Looking at the lower one, the cities I'll be mentioning are Urumqi and Kashi (the only two labeled cities in China), Almaty (Southeast Kazakhstan), Tashkent and Samarkand (Northeast and middle of Uzbekistan, respectively), and Bishkek, Kara-Kol, Naryn, and big Lake Issyk-Kul, all in North or East Kyrgyzstan.

Most of you have never heard of any of those cities. I hadn't either (which is, of course, part of what made me so curious).

So, let's back up a month, to Saturday, July 21, when I left LA on a late night 1:40am flight to Beijing (where I would have a three-hour layover and continue west).

The flight was 12 hours, and the time difference is -9 hours (+ 1 day), so I got to Beijing in the wee hours of Monday morning. Sunday, 7/22, was the day that wasn't.

China is disorienting enough as it is, and when you add in the long flight and huge time difference, it left me wandering around aimlessly in the airport. There were ads for the '08 Olympics
everywhere. And I saw 20 flight attendants standing in a rigid 4 x 5 rectangle doing some kind of drill. China's weird.

Once 6am hit, shops and restaurants opened up, so I decided to kill time by grabbing some food. I went to a food court and got breakfast-- which consisted of dumplings, spicy soup, and fried rice. As much as I feel like I'm on a different planet when I'm in China (I was there one other time, 5 years ago), and have a hard time thinking of a culture I understand
less—the food, I get. Americans would never serve soup and dumplings in the morning. And that's a shame.

From breakfast, I wandered into my plane, which would take me 5 hours further West, to the remote Xinjiang Province of far Western China (that's
way the hell West. Or East...when I was buying a plan ticket, some options flew East through London and some flew West through Beijing-- the distance is about equal). Completely unknown territory.

* * *
[Note: I have no idea why the font turns yucky here. I tried to fix it. I couldn't.]

I arrived in the city of Urumqi, which is mad hard to pronounce. I picked up that you say it like this: OO-NOO-MOO-TSEE (the tone of the four syllables going high, high-low-high, high-low, low-high respectively)—luckily for you, I almost immediately gave up trying to learn how to correctly pronounce Chinese words, so you won't have to deal with further transliterations.

I had read a little about Western China. The people weren't ethnically Chinese—they were "Uygur," which is closer in ethnicity to the 'Stans than the far East. The don't speak Mandarin Chinese either, and they're almost all Muslim. Much like the situation in Tibet, Beijing is a big dick to the Uygurs, and even though Xinjiang shouldn't even really be a part of China in the first place, the government in Beijing exerts a ton of control and influence over the West, and keeps sending Han Chinese to live there to dilute the Uygur population. They're such dicks that everyone in Xinjiang is forced to run on Beijing time. That would be like California being forced to run on East Coast time-- work would start at 11am and it would get dark at 11pm. Kind of idiotic. Needless to say, Uygurs
hate China and don't identify with it in any way.

So anyway, it took about thirty seconds for me to realize what a foreign place I was in. I had always said that Beijing was the most culturally foreign place I had been. Beijing is basically New Jersey compared to Xinjiang Province. If 10% of people in Beijing speak English, .1% speak English in Xinjiang. And you'll see Western brands like McDonalds all over Beijing. Not the case in the West. In fact,
I didn't see one McDonalds (or Starbucks, or any recognizable chain) during the entire 3-week trip.

The severe language barrier was a big part of my life. Not only does no one speak English, but I couldn't even learn or pronounce words easily, since the Uygur language is so alien to me. And the culture is so different that body language like nodding, pointing, and signifying "money" by rubbing your fingers together don't really fly over there. So communication of any kind, including trying to get information about anything, is suddenly a complete puzzle. When I wanted to ask a question or get something across to someone, it was either hand motions, or drawing pictures. One funny thing that kept happening everywhere I went was that people would continue to talk to me in their language despite the clear fact that I did not understand what they were saying. I'd shake my head and say "No, no, only English" and they'd seem to get it. Then, they'd turn to me, and ask a question in their language. This would often go on for awhile.

(While we're here, the idea of writing and reading in characters and not an alphabet
baffles me. If I want to start a restaurant and call it Chulala, or name my daughter LaKasha, or make up any new word of any kind—no problem. I'll just create the word in my head and spell it out, and anyone can read it and know how to say it without my help. How do you do this in Chinese? How do you create a character for a new word, and how do other people look at that new character and know how to pronounce it? If you're reading a book in Chinese and you come across a word you don't know, how do you look it up? How do you find a single character in a dictionary? How the hell do they type 8 million different characters on an 80-key computer keyboard? I'm sure there are answers to all these questions, but I am unaware of them.)

Anyway, the most crucial words to learn in any new environment are "thank you," "hello," and "where," and I got those three down ("Thank you" in all parts of China is "syeh-syeh" which, despite learning the exact pronunciation, I cannot say without feeling like a douchebag).

One especially awkward translation is their word for "um": "Niggah." I eventually got used to this, but it was awfully jarring for awhile. Especially when it would be proceeded by the common word "ma"—so I'd hear, "Iyah tsung sieui anai, ma niggah diapung" and it would completely startle me.

So, back to the story-- I arrive in Urumqi, and the only concrete plan I had was to fly back to LA from Urumqi in 21 days. I had a vague itinerary in mind, and step one was to head west into Kazakhstan. So I get my big red backpack from baggage claim and step outside. 63,000 people are everywhere yelling things and I find myself in a taxi on the way to the train station (after drawing a picture of a train in my little notebook for the driver).

We get to the station, and as I'm heading in, I notice a ton of people sitting around outside, some sleeping, some playing little games with dice, some bargaining with each other for things. There are chickens all over the place, and a couple goats. I head into the building and look up at the big board, lit up with the train schedule. The good news is that the city names were posted in two languages. The bad news was that the languages were Chinese and Arabic. If it were in a language with English letters I could probably have sounded some of the names out-- not with these two. I got in line and at the window, asked about trains to Kazakhstan. The woman shook her head and started speaking to me in Chinese. This wasn't working.

So I look around me. 487 people-- no foreigners to be seen. So, standing there, I start calling out, "English? English? English?" Nothing. I kept going. Ten minutes. Nothing. The only thing I accomplished was that instead of 70% of the people in the station staring at me (the only white person around, and carrying a huge red thing on my back), 100% of people were now staring at me. Even the chickens were staring.

So I head outside the station. "English? English??" Nothing.

Finally, I gave up. I took out my notebook, drew a sweet picture of a little bus, and hopped in a cab to the bus station.

I got there and walked inside. Same deal with the schedule board. Same deal at the window.


A man looked over at me. "I help you?"


So I said I wanted to go to Kazakhstan, to Almaty. He knew Kazakhstan, but not Almaty (the city where I was hoping to go). After a few tries, it clicked. "Ah! Alamata," he said. So it's pronounced "Alamata" here. Good to know. I explain that I want to go to Yining, a Chinese city close to the Kazakh border. "Yining" also takes awhile to get across to him, due to my undoubtedly subpar pronunciation. But he gets it. I think.

The man takes my notebook and pen and writes about 10 Chinese characters, hands the notebook to me, and points to the window. I thank him and wait in line and at the front, I hand the woman the notebook. She reads what he wrote, nods with understanding, and hands me a ticket. It said "19:00" on the ticket. 7pm. Two hours from now. Perfect.

So I walk around for awhile. I'm pretty fascinated by everything.
Western China. What a random, insane place to be. And as fascinated as I am by everyone and everything I see, most people I see are staring right back. At the alien walking by.

I stopped in a little noodle shop on the side of the street, and sat down. On the table was a big metal kettle and an ash tray. The guy working there came over to my table and poured tea from the metal kettle into the ash tray. Ahhh. A shallow, handle-less tea cup. I love tea, so this was pleasant. Then he pointed to the pile of noodles on the sizzler. I gave him the thumbs up. Delightful.

After a bit, I headed to catch my bus. I showed my ticket to someone in the station, and they pointed me toward a bus. As I was getting on, it crossed my mind that between the potential that the translator man had misunderstood where I wanted to go, to the woman not understanding what the man was writing, to the person who saw my ticket not pointing me to the right bus, there was a reasonable chance I was going somewhere I didn't want to go (no one checked my ticket on the bus). There was a solid chance I'd wake up the next day in Pakistan. But it was the best I could do.

Upon entering the bus, everyone gasped and the driver motioned frantically for me to step off.
Oh god, what? What did I do wrong? He motioned to my feet. Ah yes, the whole feet/shoes/Muslim country thing. Indeed, the bus floor was carpeted and everyone had their shoes in a plastic bag. So I walked in once more.

Seats? None. Four-foot beds? 42. Two aisles, three rows of seven beds, two bunks. I hopped into one. There were blankets and pillows. Not bad at all. And as we started our journey, snuggled up there in my little space, staring out the window, mesmerized by the sights of the far West of China-- I was content.

* * *

I was awoken a few hours later, in the middle of the night, as the whole bus was apparently getting out to eat at a handful of tables on the side of the road. I sat down at a table with three guys. They spoke to me and I tried to motion that I didn't speak the language, but as they conversed, they continued their attempts to bring me into the conversation. I also noticed something else-- they all sat with their shirts pulled up to their chest. So I did too. The four of us hung out there, at 3am, in the Xingjiang Province of China, with our torsos exposed, and spoke Uygur Chinese. I was not in LA anymore.

After a bit, we got back on the bus and continued on our way. After sleeping some more, I woke up in the early morning and the bus was stopped and the engine was off. Everyone was sleeping, including the bus driver. I got up and walked to the front of the bus and stepped outside. We were on the highway and in front of the bus and behind it, for as long as the eye could see, were hundreds of cars and trucks lined up, all stopped, all turned off. I stared, completely dumbfounded, and after a few minutes, I got back on the bus. We didn't move for over 2 hours, and finally the driving started again. I didn't know why we were stopped then, and I don't know why now. That's the thing about Western China-- it's not easy to get answers.

Anyway, after a 15 hour total ride, we arrived in what I hoped was Yining, China. While still at the bus station, I tried to figure out how and when I'd be able to continue my voyage to Kazakhstan.

I went to the ticket window. Same problem.

I turned toward the bustle. "English? English?" Same problem.

Back to the ticket window. I pulled out my map and pointed to Kazakhstan and then pointed at myself and then said, "Kazakhstan." And...a look of recognition!

The ticket woman started saying a lot of business in Chinese, and I motioned that I didn't understand. I just kept saying "Kazakhstan" and she kept saying Chinese things. She seemed concerned, as if there was something important she was trying to tell me. She took out some paper and wrote a string of Chinese characters on it and handed it to me started talking to the guy behind me in line. Apparently my time was finished. Unfortunately, I hadn't learned much.

So I walked outside and showed someone the paper. He read it and suddenly nodded in understanding and motioned for me to follow him. The guy brought me to a taxi driver and showed him the paper. He nodded. I got in the cab and he started driving.

Were we going to Kazakhstan? Were we going to the train station? Were we going to Mongolia? Were we going to the desert so he could rob me?

And what did the paper say? Did the woman who wrote it even understand what I wanted to do?

This was my life.

So I shrugged, and left my fate in the hands of 11 Chinese characters on a piece of paper.

After a bit, we arrived at a hotel. The driver seemed done with me, so I got out and went into the hotel. I handed the girl there the magical piece of paper. She nodded in recognition, and called another girl over, who also read the paper, and then also nodded in recognition. Then they talked and argued for a minute, and finally, seeming to agree, they brought me back outside the hotel, put me in another taxi, and showed the taxi driver the note. Who nodded in recognition. And we drove off.

If the first driver seemed to understand the paper, why did he drive me to a hotel that wasn't my final destination? What the hell was going on?

We arrived at another hotel. I showed them the note. They explained the situation to me. In Chinese. I motioned that I didn't understand, and they continued in Chinese. What ensued was a full hour of me playing a combination of Pictionary and Charades with the main woman there, ending with me gathering that a bus departed from this hotel the next morning at 8am for Kazakhstan. Or maybe it departed from the bus station at 8am. Or maybe it was 8pm. I wasn't sure. The worst part was that the woman kept saying "Uh uh" when she meant "yes." She should have been saying "Uh huh," which means "yes," but instead she would say "uh uh." Which means "no." It's hard to explain why this was so infuriating. But try going a whole conversation saying "uh uh" when you mean yes, and watch how angry the other person gets.

So I figured that I'd resume this ridiculous quest for Kazakhstan tomorrow, and I'd spend the day checking out Yining, China, the city I thought there was a decent chance I was in.

Yining was pleasant. Some highlights:

--Early in the day, people seemed to be shocked by my shorts. I looked around, and no one was in shorts. Some people were in these silly long shorts, and it was too hot for pants, so I purchased a pair of long shorts, which I wore for the rest of the trip.

--For lunch, I went into a restaurant, and the menu was only in Chinese. I pointed to two things, shrugged, and hoped for the best. It turned out to be a plate of noodles and a bowl of soup. There were tiny little creatures with eyes floating around in the soup. They looked at me, I looked at them, and I stuck with the noodles.

--I ventured to the banks of the Ili River. There were some people gathered there playing a game. I got closer and saw that it was one of those ring toss games, where you toss big rings at toys and stuffed animals, and if you get the ring around a stuffed animal you win the prize. I got even closer and saw that that the prizes were not stuffed animals.
They were real animals. Rabbits, birds, kittens, and chipmunks in tiny cages. Get the ring around the cage, win the animal. Central Asia.

--Toward the end of the day, I took a cab back to my weird hotel. During our drive, the cab driver looked at me and said, "America?" I nodded. This seemed to excited him, and he said a lot of stuff in Chinese. I motioned that I didn't understand the language and he continued in Chinese. We began with the Pictionary/Charades thing, and after awhile, I gathered that he wanted me to talk to his children, who were learning English. He wanted my hotel room number and wanted to send his kids to my room to talk with me. As ill-advised as it may have been, I gave him the room number. He drew a clock and pointed to the 11.

A bit after 11pm that night, there was a knock on my door. I looked through the keyhole. I saw a little girl-- maybe I wouldn't be robbed after all. I opened the door: the driver, his wife, and two young girls. They all came in and we sat on the beds and I started speaking to the girls. They were 12 and 17 and both spoke a tiny bit of English. Over the past 72 hours I had built up a ton of questions about
everything, so I tried to learn some stuff from the girls. I didn't learn much because they spoke almost no English, but got the following: their family is Muslim, the older girl is training to be a nurse, they have never heard of George Bush or Michael Jordan, they have heard of Yao Ming, and they hate Beijing and Eastern China. We taught each other how to count to ten in our respective languages, and I taught them all how to give a high five. Good times.

Then they insisted I come with them outside. We all hopped in Dad's cab and went to get ice cream. Yay! We all ate our ice cream happily, and then Mom pulled some big objects wrapped in foil out of her bag and handed one to me and one to Dad. I opened the foil. It was a corn on the cob. Mad random. Dad was scarfing it down, and they motioned for me to do the same. I couldn't have been less hungry, but I smiled started forcing down big bites. There we were, one big happy Uygur family, at midnight, eating corn on the cob.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early and headed downstairs at 7:45am with all my bags on to catch my alleged 8am bus. I walked out in front of the hotel, and there was a bus! I walked over and asked the driver, "Kazakhstan?" He disagreed. He motioned with his hands in a way that either meant, "It already left" or "It doesn't leave from here."


I was gonna spend another day in effing 
Yining because the effing "uh uh" lady led me astray.

I thought about this, and decided "screw it" and got in a nearby cab and said "Kazakhstan?" He nodded. I got in the cab and off we went.

Sitting there, I was pretty sure this wasn't one of my better ideas. But I really didn't want to wait 24 more hours, especially since I would probably have the same problem the next day. So we drove, and drove, and drove, for three and a half hours, finally getting to a big open area with a bunch of trucks. The driver stopped, and motioned for me to get out. I tried to ask him where we were, but to no avail. Uh, okay. So I paid him and got out, and he drove away.

I started wandering around aimlessly, looking for Kazakhstan. You know, the usual.

This went on for awhile, and finally I began to hear a commotion in the distance. I followed my ears toward the noise. What I eventually found was about 300 people, hundreds of bags, chickens all over the place, a lot of yelling and bartering, some goats, and a
hell of an odor. This seemed right.

They were all waiting at this gate, so I decided to hang out and wait with them. For what, I wasn't sure.

After some time, the guard opened the gate and everyone started shuffling through and into a big building. I joined them, and went in. Complete chaos inside.

The good news was that this appeared to be the border, because there were guards and people had their passports out. Even better news was that 90% of the passports were Kazakh passports (the others were Chinese)-- I was at the right border! The bad news was that the scene was completely chaotic. No lines. No official stations. Just yelling and chickens.

I got really lucky. A wonderful Kazakh family saw me standing there, utterly dumbfounded, and motioned for me to come over them. They then adopted me as a 4th sibling, and brought me with them through every step of the hideous three-hour ordeal (which would have been about eight hours on my own). At one point, the guard saw my American passport and started squabbling with my new mother about something and they both kept pointing at me and yelling things. I was sitting there, staring like an idiot, hoping I didn't get shot. The guard kept pointing to another area, where I was apparently supposed to go. But my little Kazakh mother won the battle, and he relented and allowed me to go through with them. I love her.

At one point I got separated from my family in all the chaos, and I didn't find them for another 30 minutes, at which time I basically ran over and hugged them like a five-year-old who loses his parents at the theme park. Finally, we crossed the border, and they all got on their bus. I waved goodbye and started thinking about how the hell I was gonna get to Almaty, but they motioned for me to get on the bus. Thrilled, I got on, and another battle ensued, this one between the mother and the bus driver. Everyone was yelling and pointing at me, and I couldn't understand a damn thing that was happening. Eventually, the good guys prevailed yet again, and they pointed me to the back of the bus, where there was a big open "bed area," kind of like a king size bed in the back of the bus (this bus was all beds as well). I thanked them profusely in Russian ("Spasiba!") and went back to my bed.

There was one other passenger on the bed area with me. An obese Kazakh man with his shirt unbuttoned and his shiny, sweaty belly glowing in the sunlight. Not ideal. Exhausted, I fell asleep right away.

When I woke up, there was another person on the bed with us-- an obese Kazakh woman. I was in the middle. I went back to sleep.

I woke up again, this time because the two of them, apparently married, were screaming back and forth to each other. Mad awkward.

I lay there for awhile while they yelled, and at one point, the woman reached over me and hit the man a bunch of times and pulled his shirt over his big shiny belly and he screamed back.

It's times like these that I have no choice but to acknowledge that I had made a series of decisions, stemming months back, and the culmination of all of those decisions had led me to this situation at this point in time. Indeed, I was lying in bed with an old, obese, fighting Kazakh couple. And I was in the middle.

Finally, I gathered the courage to get up and go to the other side of the woman so I didn't have to be in the middle anymore. They continued their brawl, without missing a beat, with no acknowledgment of my presence. Eventually, I fell back asleep.

I awoke yet again. This time, my two friends were both sleeping and the woman was lying down on top of my backpack. I looked over at the unfortunate sight of her sweaty back pinning down my precious bag. I pulled out my journal, but the ride was too bumpy to write legibly. The only sentence from this experience reads, "I'm on a bumpy Kazakh road in a bumpy Kazakh bus next to a bumpy Kazakh woman."

finally-- we arrived in Almaty. I had left Yining 14 hours earlier.

[Some of the videos take a little while to start. Be patient and they'll all start. Incidentally, I'm not tech savvy and I'm ridiculously proud of the fact that I have videos on here]

The First Two Days (Western China):

The Cab Driver's Family:

The China-Kazakhstan Border:

Upon arrival, I sat in a little cafe, and when the waitress came over I pointed to the soup the man was eating at the table next to mine. She brought it. I ate it. A few hours later, it would give me diarrhea.

After I finished, I was reading through the guidebook about Almaty. The chapter offered such gems as, "Almaty can be a dangerous place for foreigners, especially Americans," and "People walking around with big bags are immediate targets," and "Even more disturbing, some travelers have reported that taxi drivers have driven them out into the desert and threatened to strand them without a large sum of money." Lovely.

Then the waitress came over, and with her hands, suggested that I was done eating and had overstayed my welcome. She basically shooed me up from the table. This was not France.

So I picked up my big bag, and walked to get a taxi. Not great times. I was completely exhausted from the day and from jet lag (it was a 12-hour time difference, the largest possible), it was getting dark, and now the guidebook had freaked me out. I wanted to get to a hotel and go to sleep. I walked and looked for a taxi. Nothing. I kept looking. Nothing. I was carrying my bag. I was kind of freaked out. This was not fun. I finally gave up and started trying to hail down a normal car. I finally did, and went to the hotel. The driver told me the "price." He ripped me off. I knew he had ripped me off. I didn't care.

I got inside and got a room and walked toward the elevator, and the guy at the desk ran toward me and brought me aside. He pointed at me, and then made a sex motion with his arms. As tempted as I was to spend a romantic evening with a Kazakh whore, I had to decline.

I got to my room. This long, ridiculous day was over. I thought to myself, the next day would be better.

Well the next day wasn't better. In fact, the next two days weren't better. They were worse. Much worse. I'll spare you the 8,000 word rant I could easily write about my next two days, and sum it up as quickly as possible:

The next two days were completely dominated by two nightmare quests-- 1) to get a new camera battery charger since mine was in Yining like an idiot, and 2) to get a visa for Uzbekistan.

If you're in a place like Central Asia, and you don't need to get anything or be anywhere, life is good. It's when you need something and you're stressed out about something that you realize what a logistical
nightmare this part of the world is for an English speaker, and it suddenly becomes a miserable place to be. And my whole time in Almaty, I really needed two things.

I figured the camera charger would be a breeze. Almaty has a lot of Soviet remnants, and there are stands all over the place with every electronic gadget you can imagine. Well I figured wrong. I pulled out the battery and gave the "charger" hand motion to about 25 different people throughout the two days, and each person pointed me to another place on my map, and no one had the charger. Eventually I ended up in a big camera warehouse, where I waited for six hours until finally, as if by the hand of God, the guy there found a used charger for me. I'll leave it at that, but this was an
epic struggle.

The visa story is so miserable and treacherous that I have a hard time talking about it. It involved me being bounced from one travel agency to another, about 12 total, and eventually ending up at the Uzbek Embassy. Of course, no one anywhere spoke English, and by the time I got to the Embassy, it was closed for the day. Luckily, it was Thursday, and I could come back Friday and get it then. Unless of course, you're in Kazakhstan where
Friday isn't a working day. Faced with the thought of waiting four days until Monday rolled around, I spent a large part of Friday standing outside the embassy, begging the guard to let me talk to one of the consulate workers. After hours of this, I caught a worker on her way in, and pleaded with her to help. She reluctantly agreed, and let me in.

She explained, in broken English, that she could give me a three-day transit visa now, but that a 30-day tourist visa would take 10-14 business days, and that I'd need a "Letter of Invitation." I'm sorry, but that's ridiculous. For chrissake, it's
Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan insisting on a Letter of Invitation can only be compared to the following scenario: It's Valentine's Day in a 4th grade classroom. Everyone is giving each other Valentines, except there's one weird, yucky girl in the corner of the room with no Valentines and everyone is ignoring her. So a guy looks over and feels bad and walks to her and hands her a Valentine. Except instead of being grateful and gladly accepting it, she gets uppity and suggests that he should have waited until she called him over, and that he has some nerve for coming over to her uninvited. That's what this is like.

Anyway, this whole transit/tourist visa thing sucked a lot. I wanted to spend at least a week in Uzbekistan, but there was no way in hell I was spending 10 days in stupid Almaty waiting for a tourist visa. I explained this quandary to the embassy woman, and she gave me the following advice: get a plane ticket, fly to Tashkent (the Uzbek capital), and they'd give me a tourist visa there. Good. Fine. Fantastic. I zipped to a travel agency, bought a ticket (which took two difficult hours), and headed to the airport.

Great, right? WRONG.

The airline wouldn't allow me to fly to Tashkent without a visa.

After two days of trying to get a visa, then being told by the Embassy that I could simply fly to Uzbekistan, getting a plane ticket, and going to the airport, I was told I had to go back to Almaty, wait until Monday, and then get the same transit visa I could have gotten a few hours earlier.

You've gotta be
 kidding me.

I explained, with hand motions, that the
embassy had instructed me to fly without a visa. No dice.

While I was storming around cursing, somewhere in the back of my head, I appreciated the humor. From their point of view, I was some weird foreigner making a scene and screaming in some weird language. That's funny. If I saw that in LAX it would make me happy. Unfortunately,
being the irate foreign weirdo is less funny.

Defeated, I collapsed in a chair and was very seriously contemplating buying a ticket to Spain and saying screw the whole thing, when the airline guy let me know that he had the embassy on the phone. I spoke with the woman, who told me that she left a note with the guards and that I would be allowed in tomorrow morning and I could get a transit visa then.

Okay, this was not a good situation, but that made it
much better.

So I bit the bullet, went back to the city, and stayed the night.

As I was lying in bed, I heard the worst sound you can possibly hear when you're lying in bed: a mosquito buzzing in your ear. He's basically saying, "That's right, asshole, go to sleep. Yeah, that's it-- close those eyes. I am going to go to
town on you tonight." Of course there was a mosquito buzzing in my ear. It was that kind of day.

Even worse, I endured hours of nightmares that night, about trying to get a visa. And the worst part is that they weren't even really nightmares. They were these long, slow, mundane dreams filled with bureaucratic difficulties and logistical frustrations. If I'm gonna have a nightmare, I'd like it to at least be a good scary one.

Anyway, the next morning, I went to the embassy, got my visa, and flew to Uzbekistan.

* * *

Since Kazakhstan was such a miserable time, I didn't get to start soaking in the Stans until I hit Uzbekistan. So this seems like an appropriate time to break from the story and go through some general notes about Central Asia and the Stans.

--For centuries, natives of this part of the world were nomads, herding sheep and cows, living on the vast grassy steppes in little sheepskin homes called "yurts." Islam infiltrated the area shortly after the time of Muhammed, and as the centuries progressed, Central Asia became the center of the Silk Road, the famous caravan trading route connecting East Asia with the Middle East. Then, more recently, the Soviets moved in, and only finally moved out in 1991.

The result is that Soviet culture hangs over everything. Everyone speaks Russian. At first glance, Almaty seems like it could be a Russian city (in general, Kazakhstan embraced the Soviet Union more than the other Stans, and as a result the Soviet influence runs deeper there). But underneath the surface, and especially outside the cities, it still feels like the 1100's. There are still a lot of yurts and nomads (interestingly enough, a lot of the former nomads have converted to Central Asia's modern-day long-distance truckers, which seems to be a natural profession for them). Islam is everywhere and is the only religion in sight (though decades of Soviet influence has kept the area from becoming militant, hardcore, scary Islamic). And the Silk Road trading cities are still very much intact, and feel like they belong in another millennium.

The people are poor, and the governments are a mess (Uzbekistan is ruled by a full-fledged mean despot guy). After the Soviets pulled out, the governments, police, health care services, etc. all collapsed. The average salary in Kyrgyzstan is $55/month in the capital, less than $20/month outside of it.

As for the ethnicity of the populations, it's confusing. The three dominating ethnicities are Arab/Middle Eastern-looking, blond/Russian-looking, and Chinese-looking. People are either one of these three, or a combination of two or even all three of them. Bizarre.

Other things:

--After everyone and their mother, and their mother's mother, told me to be careful about mentioning Borat because it would make the Kazakh's angry--
no one had heard of Borat. Not one Kazakh knows what the hell Borat is.

--Unibrows are considered attractive. So much so that guys and girls not fortunate enough to have a natural one will actually draw one in.

--The food is not good. You're never sure what animal you're eating, or what part of it. A bite of meat often includes a bite of bone, and anything might make you sick. Like in any Third World country, raw fruits and vegetables are risky, and I learned that they mix sheep's-tail fat in when they make their bread, which was kind of upsetting. Let's just say I didn't gain any weight on this trip.

--There are no iPods anywhere, but I did see some cell phones.

--Like in East Asia, I am baffled by the phenomenon of a mass-produced, made-for-tourism sign or piece of merchandise with misspellings and grammatical errors everywhere. This doesn't bother me as much as it baffles me. If I were setting up a travel service for Turkish people, I would check the spelling and grammar of the Turkish words on my huge sign with a native speaker before sending it out and paying $2,000 for it to be produced in florescent lights. But they don't. At all. Check out pictures below for examples.

--Something else that baffles me-- they don't use napkins. You'll sit down at a restaurant and there won't be a napkin in sight. How does that work? I couldn't figure it out.

--Another restaurant note: one night I was at a restaurant and a guy walks in carrying a huge horn and blows on it at full, ear-piercing volume, and then walks out. No one notices, or even turns to look. I jumped about six feet in the air. I don't get this culture.

--I'd often find-- and this is a first-- that tourism is so rare in some of these parts, that I wouldn't be hounded at bus and train stations and in markets, and generally viewed as a money tree, as tourists generally are when they're in poor countries. Often, Central Asians wouldn't have enough experience with tourism to realize the profit potential. This was very pleasant.

--On the other hand, in most of the cities, they had figured it out. Someone told me that there are three types of people in the Stans, and three accompanying prices: locals, first-class tourists (people from other former Soviet countries, like Armenia or Georgia or another Stan), and second-class tourists (Americans, Europeans, Aussies, etc.). Locals pay local price, first-class tourists are usually charged double, and second-class tourists pay ten times the local price, maybe five times with bargaining.

--It was insane going through one of their airports. The security consisted of throwing your bag through a two-second scanner as you walk into the airport. And that's it. I can't tell if it's ridiculous how lax their airport security is, or ridiculous how strict ours is. But one of them is ridiculous.

--On the topic of airports, Uzbekistan Air, an airline I flew on twice, has such a bad track record that their planes are no longer allowed to fly into European airports. Yay Central Asia!

--When I was in the travel agency for two hours trying to get a ticket to Tashkent, I killed time by staring at the big world map on the wall, which was in Russian. After two hours, I had learned the entire Russian alphabet, and could read Russian for the rest of the trip, a skill which actually proved extremely useful (in reading street signs, for example).

--There is a weird thing going on with seatbelts. The first five times I got in a car, I reached for the seatbelt, and every time the driver reached over and stopped me from putting it on. Finally I stopped trying. This confused me dearly. Later in the trip, I asked a fellow traveler what the deal was with the seatbelts, and she told me that apparently if you wear a seatbelt in Central Asia, police will mistake you for a rebel from Turkmenistan.

So there's the explanation. Apparently-- somehow-- wearing a seatbelt makes you look like a Turkmen rebel. Central Asia is a weird, weird place.

--While we're on the topic of driving, Central Asian drivers are the worst drivers I've ever seen. Ever. I'll sum it up like this: if an Uzbek driver was driving down a small, residential street with kids playing in it, they'd do so by driving at a constant 40mph with their hand on the horn the entire way, while the kids sprinted off the road to barely dodge the car. Being a passenger in a car in the Stans is a
terrifying experience.

--Interestingly and randomly enough, apples originated in the Stans. What an oddly normal thing to emerge from the Stans.

--On a less normal note-- a common way to court your wife in Kyrgyzstan?
Kidnapping. I'm not joking.

--And I can top that. Sports-- Soccer? No. Basketball? Never heard of it. The national sport in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan? Buzkashi. The word "Buzkashi" means, literally, "grabbing the dead goat." I'll let the book I read about the region sum it up:
"The day before kickoff the goat carcass has its head, lower legs and entrails removed and is soaked in cold water for 24 hours to toughen it up. The game begins with the carcass in the center of a circle at one end of the field; at the other end is a bunch of wild, adrenaline-crazed horsemen. At a signal it's every man for himself as they charge for the carcass. The aim is to gain possession of the carcass and carry it up the field and around a post, with the winning rider being the one who finally drops the carcass back in the circle. All the while there's a frenzied horsebacked tug-of-war going on as each competitor tries to gain possession; smashed noses, wrenched shoulders, and shattered thigh bones are all part of the fun."

If anyone knows of any Fantasy Buzkashi leagues, let me know. It goes on:
"Another popular sport, Kyz-Kumay (literally "kiss-the-girl") involves a man who furiously chases a woman on horseback in an attempt to kiss her. The woman gets the faster horse and a head start and if she wins gets to chase and whip her shamed suitor. This began as a formalized alternative to abduction, the traditional nomadic way to take a bride."

* * *

So I landed safely in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (which should not be taken for granted when flying on world-class Uzbekistan Air). A couple things about Uzbekistan:

--It is one of two double-landlocked countries in the world (the other being Liechtenstein). That means that not only does it not have any coastline, but that no country it borders has any coastline either. So from Uzbekistan, you have to cross
two borders to hit the ocean.

--This one's ridiculous: the largest denomination of Uzbek currency is equivalent to a $1 bill.
And, almost nowhere accepts credit cards. Think about that for a second. If you want to buy a $200 carpet, you need to hand 200 bills to the lady. The result is that sometimes a large purchase will take a half hour because of all the money counting (even with counting machines). Sure, everything is much cheaper there than it is here, but you still have to carry a wad of cash at all times.

Anyway, despite it's lack of ocean access and absurd monetary system, I liked Uzbekistan immediately upon arrival. I was on a three-day transit visa and had no intention of being deported for violating my restrictions, so I wasted no time in heading out of Tashkent to the mythical Silk Road city of Samarkand. At the bus station (I got there with ease-- I was getting better at this), I noticed a much friendlier vibe than I had experienced in Kazakhstan. Yet Uzbekistan is a far poorer country. Funny how that happens.

I had learned how to say, "What's your name?" and "My name is Tim" and "Hello" in Russian, and I had a grand old time with the fellows selling goods outside the bus station. At one point a guy who I was "talking" to handed me a glass of lemonade from his stand, and motioned that it would be a gift, on him. Touched, I found myself in a pickle. The natives have developed immunities against the bacteria found in their tap water, but foreigners are told to avoid drinking non-bottled water at all costs. Of course, the good old language barrier prevented me from explaining that, so I had to use all of my wits to figure out a way out of this. I thanked him with a smile, and then stood there and drank fake sips, and every time he looked away I'd pour some out quickly. This went on for awhile.

The bus finally departed. I paid $3 for my ticket. For a five-hour ride. And that was the adjusted, "second-class tourist" price. Not an expensive country.

The bus was predictably hideous. Hot, smelly, and
packed (including the aisles). It was hard to sleep. As the bus stopped here and there, some people would get out and it cleared out a bit, and I eventually fell asleep.

I woke up a couple hours later and I was one of four people on the bus. Uh oh.

I bolted up, and walked up the aisle to one of the guys, and pointed forward and said, "Samarkand???" and then I pointed behind the bus and said, "Or Samarkand?" The guy laughed and pointed behind the bus. Then he pointed in the direction the bus was headed and said, "Iran."

Bad times.

So I ran up to the driver and motioned for him to stop. He stopped at the next village and I got out, and found myself standing in a random village in the middle of Uzbekistan at 11pm. Good work, Tim.

I asked around-- "Samarkand???" People pointed down the road. I was lucky enough to find a taxi, which took me about 20 minutes back and dropped me in Samarkand.

I made it to a hostel and walked in. The guy there had a free bed, and immediately sat me down in the common area and brought me a cup of hot tea. This was beautiful. Then, a blond guy walked in the room.

"How's it going?"


This was the most bizarre, wonderful-sounding thing I had ever heard. This was my seventh day traveling, and it was the first English I had heard. I questioned whether I wanted to move in with him, settle down, raise a family, and grow old together.

The fact is, traveling alone is an intense experience in any situation, but in such a remote place, with
no one to talk to, it really puts you in a different state. You spend a lot of time with your mind. It's like Castaway. So it was incredible to suddenly be communicating with someone.

One side note-- there are a lot of valuable, amazing things about traveling alone (this is my third such trip), but there's one
huge negative: the music that finds its way into your head. I didn't bring an iPod (which I felt would take me out of the experience), and when it's just you and your mind, songs get in your head, and they stick. Imagine being in a room with a horrible jukebox, that plays these random, often-shitty songs, and it plays each one 400 times in a row before changing. And it changes when it wants to, and to what it wants to. Even the smallest reminder can trigger the jukebox to play a song. Among the songs this wretched jukebox played on this trip:

-Circle of Life, from the Lion King (because I saw a sunrise one morning and that phenomenal, movie-opening chant came into my head-- it left 3 days later)
-the witch's song from Into the Woods, with all those vegetables (because I would walk through markets with eight million kinds of vegetables
-the Shakira Shakira Hips song. Death.
-that wretched "Itchy Gitchy Ya Ya" Christina Aguilera song. Because I was on a street called "Ichy Ichy" St.
-that song "Everybody Needs Some Money Sometimes" because I walked past a Western Union
-Back in the USSR, for obvious reasons
-that song "Beat It. Just beat it." Such a bad song.
-the song from Mulan "You'll Bring Honor to Us All"-- because I was walking through China. This song is harder than any other to get out of your head. It's like the Michael Jordan of wretched jukebox songs.
-Shiny Happy People. If you run into Michael Stipe, punch him in the face for me.

So anyway, I talked to the Austrian guy, and was thrilled to find out that I had not forgotten the language. He had been traveling for a year and a half, driving a car with his dog, and had just come from a month in Afghanistan. Until that moment, I had felt like a hardcore traveler.

Then, a girl walked in. "Hey, what's your name?"

WOW. This was like some wild dream. The fact is, Samarkand is the first pleasant tourist place I had hit, and this was the first hostel I had stayed in. The lack of those two things had meant no contact with foreigners of any kind. Now, here they were.

So this girl-- a French girl named Judith-- sat down and we talked for a couple hours. I had so many built up thoughts and questions, so it was great to talk. She was with a friend, Yannis, and I ended up spending the whole next day with them.

We met the next morning and sight-saw all day. Samarkand's a cool place. It's the home of half a dozen gargantuan mosques with 100-foot doors and these beautiful azure-turquoise domes.

At one point we found ourselves in a sacred mausoleum of a relative of Muhammed. There were about 15 people in the room, and we were the only three non-Muslims. It was silent, but suddenly, one of the guys started a Muslim chant. He did this for a couple minutes, and in the middle, another one of the guys' cellphone rang. After the chant ended, the chanter turned to the cellphone guy and
screamed at him. I sat there, ass cheeks constricted. It was frightening.

At another point we made it to a cemetery. This was a big culture shock moment, because they engrave the faces of the deceased directly on the gravestone, and the faces are very large and visible. This kind of creeped me out.

At the end of the day, after I had parted ways with my two beloved French friends, I came across a little opening on the back side of one of Samarkand's many huge minarets (towers next to a mosque). I climbed inside, and, using my camera to light the way, climbed up rubble and broken steps using my hands the whole time, until I emerged through a little hole in the ceiling. Suddenly, I could see the whole city. This was one of the coolest travel experiences I've had.

Anyway, since I had to be out of Uzbekistan the next day or risk deportation back to my homeland of Kazakhstan, I had to leave Samarkand that night.

I got on a bus headed for Tashkent, and noticed that it was mostly empty. Which was awesome. Until it drove ten minutes to a busy marketplace, where 68 people, with their turbans, and their chickens, and their music, got on until the bus was completely packed. Seeing this coming, I quickly looked at the driver, pointed at the seat next to me, and doubled my payment to him. He got it-- I was buying both seats, to maintain my space. 18 seconds after I paid him, a big man plopped down in my second seat. And of course, I had no way to explain the situation to him. I thought for a second, and then resigned, defeated, and squished over to my side.

I hugged my bag throughout the ride (which went from midnight to 5am), and tried to sleep, but there was an additional problem: there was blaring music on the bus. Some unknown ethnic music. In the middle of the night. And everyone was okay with this. This was a big "I'm not in America" moment-- imagine blaring music on an American bus. (Of course, the stupid music was in my head for 15 hours the next day.)

At 5am, I got out in Tashkent, and, exhausted, sat down on the ground outside the bus station and slept, clutching my bags in my arms. What a vacation!

A few hours later, I headed to the Kyrgyz embassy, and after yet another hideous ordeal which involved me sprinting to a hotel to get American dollars and sprinting back before the embassy closed, I got my visa and headed to the airport (I had to fly because it was the only way I could get out of the country in time). As one last kick in the balls, the guy ahead of me at the ticket counter took 45 minutes to count all of his
one dollar bill equivalents before buying a ticket with about four stacks of bills. So I just barely got my ticket and made it on the flight.

I would have been relieved to have made it, except it was literally 135 degrees on the flight. Everyone was fanning themselves, and all the kids were crying. And we sat in the runway for an hour. Uzbekistan Air. Not luxurious.

On the other hand, I had gotten my last visa, and my last plane ticket. Maybe the logistics nightmares were over.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan:

You haven't heard of Kyrgyzstan. To be honest, I'm not sure I've heard of Kyrgyzstan, and I just spent nine days there. It is possibly the most random country in the world.

But there I was.

I hopped in a cab to Bishkek, the capital city. I wasn't expecting much, but Bishkek was a reasonably nice city. Big, wide streets and a central square. I wrote in the journal that the square was "like a less interesting Tiananmen Square, or a less charming European Plaza." Still, I was in Central Asia and I wasn't complaining.

Kyrgyzstan has larger denomination bills than Uzbekistan. Their thing? No banks. Outside of the capital city, there is basically nowhere to withdraw or deposit money. I talked to a traveler who had to sell his shoes for cash in a remote part of the country. And credit/debit cards are accepted
nowhere. So I withdrew as much cash as I could, and that was it until I left the country.

Anyway, I had a hostel/guesthouse place in mind, and had the cab drop me off on the corner nearby. I walked in and the guy who owns the place told me it was full. Darnit. But here's the thing about Kyrgyzstan-- the people are ridiculously hospitable.

A nearby Kyrgyz guy heard the interaction and invited me (through the hostel guy acting as translator) to stay at his home. This seemed legit, and I gladly accepted.

So I walked with the guy and we took the bus to his house. We couldn't talk to each other. Luckily, when we got there, he had a daughter who spoke a bit of English. Through her, I got to know a bit about the parents and about Kyrgyzstan.

We had dinner-- they eat sitting on the floor, on a carpet. I had read that you're not supposed to point the soles of your feet at other people, so I endured the wretched Indian Style, which is basically torture. I sucked it up for awhile, but eventually had to relent and sat in that slanty position with your feet facing backwards.

Dinner consisted of a noodle and meat dish, which was less scary than it was in the Kyrgyz restaurants. I found that the best food by far in this country was home-cooked. There was also a thick, sour yogurt, watermelon, and tea. There was something else, too.

A bowl of whitish/yellowish liquid with some small chunks in it. Frightening. I later learned about this-- it's called "Kymys" and is the national drink in Kyrgyzstan. Kymys is fermented mare's milk.

For those of you watching it home, here's how you make kymys:

1) Milk a horse
2) Don't pasteurize it
3) Leave it out in the sun for a month

And voila.

Really? Really, Kyrgyzstan? That's your national drink?

But as the saying goes, "When in Rome, try the fermented mare's milk."

So I took a sip. Hideous.

I smiled, and said "Rakhmat!" (thank you) and left it at that.

The rest of the night was fun, and eventually, they showed me my bedroom, and I went to sleep. The next morning, at a closer glance, I realized that the apartment only had one bedroom-- I asked the daughter, who told me that the parents had slept on the floor of the living room. And that seemed to be the norm when inviting a guest in. That's awfully hospitable.

The next day I went to a camera shop to back up my photos, and the family who owned the shop invited me to their house. And why the hell not.

This one was a big family. Four kids, two parents, and about a dozen animals (a highlight was the three-year-old terrorizing the kitten. It's pretty funny that little pets definitely have nightmares about toddlers). They were so hospitable with the pre-dinner snacks, that by the time dinner came out, I was stuffed and had to force more food on myself, so as not to insult them.

We talked for awhile (the oldest daughter was the translator). At one point the topic of religion came up. They were, of course, Muslim. The asked me if I was Christian. I explained that I was Jewish. They didn't get it. I tried for awhile and finally the daughter's eyes opened wide. She got it. She explained to the family. They were
shocked. Not in an angry, hostile, "Tim wishes he were somewhere else" way. They had just clearly never met a Jew before, and were most likely surprised at my lack of horns. The next few minutes were a bit awkward, but they handled things gracefully enough, and we were able to move on. L'Chaim!

They offered to put me up, but I had already booked a bed at a hostel. So they drove me to my hostel, and I said goodbye. Lovely people.

At the hostel, I went into my room in the pitch black, felt around for the bed, and got in. A minute later, I heard a little squeak, probably coming from the room next door. Another minute later, I rolled over, and felt something furry
move in the bed with me. I jumped up and ran to the lightswitch, stubbing my toe in the process. I turned the light on--

A cat and two tiny kittens.

I don't give a shit how cute they were (and they were).
There were animals in my bed. I shooed them out, and, completely on edge now, got back into bed. At least I'm not allergic to cats. Oh, wait, I'm ridiculously allergic to cats.

Over the next three days, I moved East across Kyrgyzstan, and did two phenomenal hikes along the way. On the first one I came across a group of about 40 Koreans, who adopted me as a pseudo-Korean for the day. I didn't fit in.

It was during the second one (outside beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul) that I met the only American I'd come across in my three weeks outside of America. Clinton. Clinton was on a three-week leave from his station in Afghanistan, and had spent most of the last year in Baghdad. He was a "government consultant" and was in the process of working on his seventh language. I must say, this led me to some assumptions about his career.

He was a fascinating character, and we passed a night drinking Russian beers in a little stone hut up in the mountains somewhere. I heard some ridiculous stories, including one in which he saw a live Buzkashi match in Northeast Pakistan. Apparently President Musharraf showed up in his helicopter prior to the match, took the microphone, and spoke to the audience for an
hour before allowing the match to start. The audience kept yelling out "Long live Musharraf! Long live Pakistan!" and at one point, people would stand up one by one, and address Musharraf, asking for help. He would heroically say things like, "Good man, your debt is forgiven!" and the crowd would roar. You know, just like in America.

After the second hike, I headed south. I wanted to see in person the nomad life that apparently still existed in this country. I had learned of a lake that was supposedly the home of nomadic shepherds. So I took a taxi as far as I could go towards the lake, and then hiked in, over a mountain pass.

And I found myself on a jailoo. A jailoo is a huge, flat plain of grass, where shepherds live, in their sheepskin "yurts." I came across a yurt, and walked over. The way they stared, I might as well have been E.T. The father was in the yurt boiling some sheep parts, the mother and grandmother were cleaning a sheep skin, the son had a sheep's head on a stick and was charring it over the fire, and the little kids played. You know, just like in America.

They were, of course, incredibly welcoming. They sat me down on a little stool, and served me watermelon. Not bad. Then the mother poured me a cup of the dreaded Kymys. Last time I had just taken a small sip. "Screw it." I gulped it down. Why not.
I'm in Kyrgyzstan, I can do what I want.

My body was like, "Oh no you di'in't!" and for the next two hours, I felt intensely nauseous, my throat felt irrevocably coated with hideousness, my sinuses stuffed up, and I started itching everywhere.
Bad. Times.

At least there were a lot of hospitals in the vicinity.

Luckily, it passed, although the mere sight of the vile liquid made me sick for the rest of the trip.

Anyway, I ventured further into the jailoo. There were a bunch of yurts near the water, and about a dozen men were gathered on horses nearby. Apparently there was to be a horse race. I had made it just in time. They all raced around for awhile, and I had no idea what was going on, but my mind was preoccupied anyway by the fact that I was slowly dying from the Kymys.

After the race, I walked toward the collection of yurts. And yet again, I was invited to stay.

And so I stayed there, on the jailoo, for two days. During this time, I helped them around the yurt, and it was pretty interesting to watch the men at work. They'd wake up early in the morning, head up to the mountains on a horse, find their herd of sheep up there, and herd them around all day. Then they'd come back at night for dinner.

Life on the jailoo is incredibly simple. Though I was only there for two days, I already found myself
thinking less. There's not really a future on the jailoo-- only the present. In some ways it's a beautiful existence. In the longterm, it wouldn't work for me-- but there's something amazing about it.

The really fascinating thing is that almost nothing about this life was different in the 1100's. There's no electricity, very few tools that weren't around 1000 years ago, and almost no contact with the outside world. Needless to say, my digital camera was quite the show piece. An automatic laugh was when you took a picture of someone and then showed them the picture. They could not get enough of this. And I thought about what it would be like if you brought these people to New York-- I honestly think they'd die on the spot. Pretty wild.

One funny thing is that with so many animals around (sheep, goats, cows, donkeys, horses, chickens, dogs, etc.), there is a chorus of weird animal sounds throughout the night, as various animals have nightmares. The humor here outweighed the fact that they were keeping me up. Same goes for the effing rooster going off eight times at the crack of dawn. And really, what did I have to do the next day?

I also ventured outside the yurt in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and was blown away by the stars. There's no light anyway for a hundred miles in any direction. The best stars I had ever seen were outside of Steamboat, Colorado. These were better. Incidentally, they have the big dipper too.

Anyway, I took off and headed further south, back toward China. I stayed in a little, sketchy town called Naryn for the night, shacking up with some random French professor I had shared a cab with. Two bad things happened here:

1) I ate a meal that would destroy my next 24 hours
2) A local kept loudly knocking on the rickety old door of our shitty flat, and scared the bejesus out of us. We jammed a chair into the doorknob, and I went to bed fully assuming that we'd be broken in on in the middle of the night. Every time I heard a noise, I'd wake up and be like, "Alright, here we go. Let's just get it over with." It never happened.

Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek, homestays, and hiking):

The Jailoo:

The next morning I shared a car with three Swiss guys (who I ended up spending much of the next five days with) and embarked on a quest to cross the Torugart Pass. You're supposed to fly from Kyrgyzstan to China. Tourists aren't supposed to go by land, and few do. But I had heard from other travelers that this was a sublime, completely unique experience, so I decided to try it.

The pass is 13,000 feet up in the mountains (double the height of Mount Washington). We had a driver to take us there, and more importantly, we had a prearranged driver to come to the border from the Chinese side and take us down (it's impossible without this).

So we drove for about six hours, up, up, and up. It was about two hours into this that the meal from last night (at some gross cafe in Naryn) began to hit me. Not good timing for his. By the time we hit the top, I was ready to call it a day and just end it all. I was
sick. Terrible nausea, and a high fever that left me shivering violently inside the car.

This got worse and worse, and about two hours into our three hour wait, I got out of the car, hobbled over to the side of the road, threw up violently, diarrheaed violently, threw up more, and then looked up to see two Chinese guards there staring at me.

"Hey," I said. And I gave them the thumbs up sign. They were not amused.


From here on, the sickness decreased, thank
god, and about an hour later, our driver arrived to take us on the six hour drive to Kashgar, China.

* * *

The first night here was rough. I had a fever, and had one of those endless, half-asleep nights where you're deliriously dreaming the whole time. For this night, I was in Genghis Khan's army and we were being invaded (I was reading a book about Genghis Khan at the time). Laugh as you might, this was not funny at the time. We were in very real danger. Bad times.

Anyway, I spent the next five days in Kashgar ("Kashi" on the map). Kashgar is a relic of the Silk Road-- a really cool, completely authentic crossroads of Central Asia.

I rented a bike most days, which was a great way to see the city (other than when it broke down on me about ten miles from town and I spent 45 minutes on the side of the road fixing it). I was invited into another home here, and I bought a lot of things in the Old Town (which feels like you time-traveled 400 years back). One day I sat and watched a locksmith guy for an hour while he sat Indian Style and hammered a piece of scrap metal into a key for a lock. It was cool-- I bought the lock from him, and after he finished, I took my camera out to take a picture of him. Another guy saw this and ran over and got in the picture. But I only wanted a picture of the locksmith, so I moved the camera over a bit and cropped the other guy out of the picture. Then the guy I cut out motioned that he wanted to see the picture. Awkward.

Anyway, since we're going on 200,000 words here, I'll only tell you about the main Kashgar highlight-- the Sunday animal market.

I had heard about this from other travelers, and it was not overrated. Every Sunday in the summer, shepherds from all over come to Kashgar with their grass-fattened sheep, and put them on display for farmers to buy. It is a
ridiculous scene.

There are men pulling stubborn cows out of trucks, rounding up sheep by pulling their back legs and then tying dozens of them up in a row by their necks, donkeys roaming around unaccompanied, people slaughtering sheep on the side and selling the meat at stands-- it may have been my most blatant "I'm not in America anymore" moment (other than my yurt stay).

Of course, the animal cruelty is through the roof. PETA would shit a brick if they saw this scene. Sheep getting punched in the face by their owners, having their heads forced through small holes, and fearful cows getting pushed out of the trucks by multiple men and wiping out on the ground (this last one is secretly funny).

The sheep would be lined up with their asses showing. This is the key-- these are all "fatty tail sheep" and the tail fat is very valuable. The fatter the ass, the more expensive the sheep. The highlight for me was making friends with a lone sheep in a truck (see video below).

So that was a climactic last day, and that night I embarked on the 36-hour journey home.

Kashgar, China:

The Sunday Animal Market:

Arriving at LAX was surreal. I was picked up by my old buddies Eve and Andrew, who looked like aliens, and we went to a restaurant. Among the dozens of factors that fed into the severe culture shock I experienced upon my return, three stood out:

1) The
incredible ease with which we can all communicate. After 21 days living with a communication barrier, during which every ounce of communication is a struggle, the complete effortlessness with which we can get ideas back and forth is truly remarkable.

2) FOOD. I sat down in this restaurant with them and ordered chicken penne with pesto. A) the chicken is definitely just chicken, and just the meat-- no intestines or bones; B) it tasted really
good; and C) I was confident that it would not make me sick. None of those things should be taken for granted. Of course, it also cost about $200 in comparison to what I had become used to spending, but I was okay with that.

3) The sheer excess with which we all live. It doesn't matter what economic bracket you're in, we all live with excess. I got back to my apartment building, and there was a guy pruning the bush outside the building. The street was lined with palm
trees, the road perfectly paved, and the street lights all working. I went into my apartment and sat on my couch. I don't think I saw a couch once on the trip. A couch is by nature excessive. The ground works fine for sitting, or if you're really fancy, a little stool. A couch is a big, intensely comfortable, luxury item. An item we all own. Basically, if you brought anyone from Kyrgyzstan-- or any Third World country-- to your average American suburb, they'd feel like they were within the walls of a palace. Only in a kingdom, they'd imagine, would the streets be lined with trees, the bushes be pruned, and the people sitting on huge, soft couches.
Of course, the culture shock has now worn off, and I'm taking everything for granted again. But I'd like to think that somewhere deep down, this trip has given me an improved perspective on my life here and the world. I guess that's a fifth item that traveling can offer, along with fun, fascination, adventure, and variety-- perspective.
So that's gonna do it. Pictures--

There are 6,749,305,577 of these logos in Beijing at the moment.

Western China

There are helpful signs like this everywhere!

The rolled-up shirt is in.

Hundreds of cars inexplicably stopped and turned off

The cab driver's family. The daughters were learning English. This was at midnight. Corn was involved.

The kids in the Kazakh family who adopted me at the border

My Kazakh sister

I saw this scribbled on a wall. Apparently that's what a Kazakh penis looks like.

Who else, but Mikey and Mimi

And don't forget Jim and Mina

Uzbekistan Air crashes a lot. So much so that they're not allowed to fly over Europe. Cheers to Central Asia!



I asked this woman if she'd take a picture of us, and instead she took a picture of herself by accident. And no one can ever take this away from me.

My French buddies

On top of the broken down minaret


Because the highest denomination is equal to $1 in Uzbekistan, this is how you buy a plane ticket


The father and daughter of the family I stayed with my first night in Kyrgyzstan

I didn't mesh with the crowd

I'm obsessed with this man

I didn't mesh with the crowd part 2-- me with a wild pack of Koreans

The King of Kyrgyzstan

They specialize in "goods" in Central Asian markets

The dinner table at the second home I was invited into. Not bad. But notice the Kymys in the lower right.

My Kyrgyz family #2

This is what I saw after I leaped out of bed and turned on the light when I felt something furry in the bed with me. Cute my ass.

A poor marketing decision

Nomads I came across hiking in the middle of nowhere. None of them had the iPhone yet

A fine piece of self-photography

This baby stared at me like this for an hour straight. No exaggeration. It later appeared in nightmares.

The kids of the third family I stayed with in Kyrgyzstan. That girl was the cutest human being in the world.

The Jailoo

This was the actual cup of Kymys that I gulped down, which left me hideously nauseous, stuffed up, and itching everywhere. Bad times.

A charred sheep's head on a stick. You know, the usual.

A horse race on the jailoo

A lone shepherd on the jailoo

Kymys being left out in the sun to ferment. They were worried it wasn't gross enough yet.

A yurt

More yurts

A lot of open space on the jailoo. You can see a couple yurts down below. The yurt I stayed in is way in the distance, on the shoreline.

I followed a shepherd up into the mountain. He's on the left.

My top-notch security concoction. There was a guy outside knocking at the time.

Driving up to 13,000ft to go over the Torugart Pass

Up at the top. I was intensely ill when taking this picture.

Back to Western China

My three Swiss friends


The silversmith. I watched him make this key for an hour.


I bought a chisel. Real men own chisels.

This amused me. Apparently this ice cream place's mascot is an obese, sparkly woman.

This man invited me in for lunch. His wife had her face completely covered and was not allowed to sit with us.

Ten miles out of Kashgar, the gear on my bike came loose and the chain got wedged in between the gears. It took me a long time to fix this. I'm still pretty upset about it.

The Sunday Animal Market

The cows are ripe

A before and after shot

Sheep on display

The shepherd was mad proud to showcase his sheep's fat asses

It's not that fun to be an animal at the Sunday animal market

Spelling in China

This will always baffle me. Imagine putting an order in for this huge billboard geared toward English-speakers and not asking an English-speaker to check the spelling first.

We could have even checked it over gogether

Over a couple of ice gold drinks

This was a pamphlet in a hotel

Animals Make Me Laugh


Anonymous said...

I love the baby staring at you!
Glad to have you back safe and sound.

Anonymous said...

Wow Tim. Sounds like you did have fun. Lots of spelling errors, you're right. Anyways, interesting videos, and I'm glad you're back and safe!

Anonymous said...

Okay, those videos were the funniest things I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

O.K. baby buddha gave me nightmares. Lovely.

flycat said...

wow, what an interesting trip. I am currently having a similar (but not as crazy experience) in India. Thanks for making me smile.

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness! Tim, you've got to have your own travel show on the Discovery channel. It was informative and funny. You'll be a producer some day.

Anonymous said...

that is what i was thinking, you could definetely have a travel show. you should go to Egypt next, there is alot of cool stuff to see, and the south is very differnt from the north, there are some beautiful beaches also.

Angela said...

what a trip! thanks for sharing with those of us who will never be able to experience it personally. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm sitting here trying to get up the nerve to go to Europe alone, and here you are traveling throughout the Stans by yourself!

Great post - enjoyed it very much.

Anonymous said...

Check back here and what do I find?

Fantastic ,your adventure and your
suffering brings me much pleasure.

Still, you're fired again, the only
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And now I don't have to do it.

frmr jhi ...

Don Shetterly - Relaxing Piano Music said...

Sounds like a great time and not a baaadddd time! LOL! But hey I thought you got lost somewhere. You know the thing I noticed besides the guts you had to do this was that all those "foreign people" that our society and government says we should "hate, opps not trust", they aren't anything like that from your account. Thanks for sharing all of this. You should write a book!

Anonymous said...

oh no! now i got the travel bug again...thanks for the equal parts inspirational and hillarious post. :)
p.s. oh you need this tshirt. as do i.

K said...

Well, now THAT was a trip. I am glad you survived. I can't imagine doing that all by myself! Balls of steel, man.

I'll be asking you for Vietnam tips when we go to get our baby.

Mary said...

awesome. what an amazing trip. also - glad you were able to experience the Big House in Ann Arbor. usually a happier experience for us fans

Nightwing said...

Good to see u back. It must have been an adventure of a life time. Was it only 3 weeks? Seems like a long time.

Cheers man...

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about your trip! What an adventure, and how brave of you to go somewhere "untypical". Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

What was the bathing situation like during your three weeks?

Tim said...

It was not favorable.

Anonymous said...

the kashgar boys were adorable. =)
very interesting post, glad you wrote it.

LaBlogga said...

thanks for the write-up and videos and pictures. what a great experience, especially the nomadic life and the yurts!

Anonymous said...

Great trip story, Tim! I lived in western china for a while and took some pretty random trips to remote areas too... nothing in the world like it!

I do find it funny though, that this is where you intend to retreat if my brother wins American Idol! Def. no worries about Google searches and recognition of either one of you out there...

Chris said...

Hi, I'm travelling to Central Asia myself this fall - though I'm only going to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, is crossed off the list due to the recent events.
I'm really impressed with your style of travel, seems like you don't plan at all ahead. I could never do that, going unprepared, but it does seem to have its advantages not knowing what to expect.
Cheers and thanks for the laughs. =)

Anonymous said...

Hello Tim! I'm a loyal WBW reader here.

I'm Chinese and I laughed at your OO-NOO-MOO-TSEE translation thing... At first I read what you wrote, and the low-high-low thingies, and I was like, "What's Tim talking about? What Chinese words are OO-NOO-MOO-TSEE?" Then I googled Urumqi and read its Chinese name and HAHA, the actual pronunciation sounds nothing like the pronunciation you described.

Just being mean >:)

anyway, It's been 8 years since you posted this, so you may have already figured out all the confusion and questions and bafflement you had about the Chinese language. But anyway still, I'm going to provide some answers to your questions...

Q1: If I want to name my daughter LaKasha, or make up any new word of any kind, no problem. How do you do this in Chinese? How do you create a character for a new word, and how do other people look at that new character and know how to pronounce it?

A1: Uh, to my knowledge, people don't really create new Chinese words. For names, parents name their kids using two existing Chinese words in the dictionary. (the 2 words usually have some special meaning for a kid's name... ) Although I once knew a friend whose name didnt exist in the dictionary. Her parents made it up. But what they did was take an existing Chinese word, and combine it with the word "female" (女) to create a new word. People would usually pronounce her name as the part of it that's in the dictionary. And if they couldn't figure out, they could always ask her.

Q2: If you come across a word you don't know, how do you look it up? How do you find a single character in a dictionary?

A2: There's a special system. Every Chinese character has a "bian"(边), which literally means "side". For example, the words 信 and 仁 have the same bian. (See the thing on the left side of the characters?) So you identify the bian of the unknown word, and also count the number of strokes on the remaining part of the word. There's a special section at the front of the Chinese Dictionary, with each bian having some space. Since you've identified the "bian" and number of strokes of your unknown word, you look at that bian's page in the special section, and then you scan through the list of words that has the same bian and the same number of strokes. This would only be a short list, so you would quickly see your unknown word in there. There would be a page number next to it directing you to its page in the Dictionary, so you can go look it up and see how it's pronounced.
Confusing? :)

Q3: How the hell do they type 8 million different characters on an 80-key computer keyboard?

A3: Use han yu pin yin, which is like the romanisation of the Chinese language. Type the han yu pin yin of the word, and then a box will appear, showing a list of all the words that have that same han yu pin yin. You choose the word that you want, then you move on.

Anonymous said...

I'm same anon as the previous one... when i first read your "niggah" thing, which you say is the chinese word for "um", I was baffled as to what you were talking about. But when I reread this a few minutes ago, I suddenly understand!

I think the "niggah" you are referring to, is 那个. It's actually pronounced as "nah guh", but if you say it fast and with and accent, i guess it /can/ sound like "niggah".

那个 literally means "that is". And somehow, I'm not too sure why, it's a filler word.

Look at this conversation between two chinese people..

Person A: what is your favourite food?
Person B: my favourite food is... that is (那个)... pork noodles.

Does it sort of make sense now, as to why "那个" is the Chinese version of "um"?

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Anonymous said...

If you are going to say a Uyghur family doesn't like Beijing and Eastern China, it's really best not to take a picture of them or put any other identifying information.

Noumenon said...

Give a little credit to the Kyrgyzstanis -- you don't just leave kymys out in the sun, you have to use a liquid starter culture.

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