Happy Mother's day, and happy birthday to me. As you can see I have already been here more than a week. Besides getting used to being here again, I have been helping my former boss - her name is Zarema. She has lots of computer questions - and helping people to get more out of their computers is something I enjoy. She also has questions about English that will help improve the lessons she teaches at her school.
Now about the bicycle. I stayed home all day Wednesday because my other host, Zarema's sister, Gulbara, promised that Aeroflot was going to bring my bicycle directly to my apartment.
My student came in the morning, but left after half an hour because he had to go to work at his new job. Actually he got re-hired at his old job. He told me that his Embassy job was to be a night watchman at the homes of the Americans who work at the Embassy. Except for the opportunity to apply for "inside" jobs, there does not seem to be much future in being a night watchman, and he didn't get any of the inside jobs he applied for. He was even forbidden from conversing with the American families as a way of keeping his English skills from getting rusty. So he quit.
Finally Gulbara called to tell me that Aeroflot had my bicycle at their office and that she would pick me up at 2:00 to go there and get it. Her husband is an executive for the phone company and she often gets use of a company car. This also includes a driver, which is pretty common in this part of the world. Later, Aeroflot called to tell me about the bicycle too. It turns out that their office is clear across town; but not nearly as far as the 30km to the airport. They hadn't brought it to town sooner because they didn't have a big enough vehicle, they said.
Anyway all is well that ends well. Gulbara came as promised. We went to the office and the bicycle and everything that I packed with it (craisins and Doritos for Zarema and a kit for Gulbara's 10-year-old son, two panniers, tires and sleeping bag) were in perfect condition. In the end Gulbara took the goodies and I rode the bike back to my apartment.
In my mind, this is another example of getting what I needed when I needed it. What I needed was that my bicycle should be left behind in Moscow. If it had been on the plane with me, there I would be at the airport at 3:00am with this box full of bicycle that would not fit in the car that Gulbara came to pick me up in. Having Aeroflot bring it to town later is much better than having to unpack it and ride it to town at that hour of the day - or any other hour.
Monday May 13, 2002
Kyrgyzstan celebrated its version of Memorial Day today. Lots of speeches in Victory Park, a small parade around the monument there, then all the old soldiers gather at long rows of tents that current soldiers spent two days setting up. At those tables they eat cooked barley and bread. I don't know for sure, but maybe it is to remember what they ate during WWII.
Another big celebration happens in August. It is to celebrate Krygyzstan's start as a separate country - separate from the Soviet Union - just a little over ten years ago. However the whole system here is still a legacy of how the Soviets did things. There are more things related to this legacy than I want to try to describe, but one of them hit home today.
Under Communism, the state wants to centralize everything it can. This includes home heating - using central steam plants, and hot water from central heating plants. One day during my time here in 1996/97 I took a ride out to the east side of town to look at the plant that creates all of this comfort for daily living. Huge pipes leave the plant and spread out through this city of early a million people. In the center of the city the pipes are mainly underground, but in outlying areas you can see the pipes running along beside the streets and behind the old Soviet-style apartment blocks.
One consequence of all this is that the state also controls when you will have heat and when you will have hot water. The heat is turned on and off according to the calendar. So if you have an unseasonable cold snap in September, say, you will need to get out your warm clothes because the heat is not scheduled to be on until the middle of October.
Now comes the significance of this day in Bishkek. Hot water doesn't depend on the seasons - it is generally on all year around; except that in order to keep the system functioning properly it is important to do periodic preventive maintenance. That happens in May, and they turn off the hot water for about two weeks in order to do that maintenance.
So, today was a nice sunny day, and I went for a bicycle ride this morning - getting all hot and sweaty, of course. I arrived home thinking I would just have a nice hot shower before lunch, and sure enough, no hot water.
Before I left Saginaw, somebody asked me about bathing while riding a bicycle from place to place every day, and sleeping in a tent at night. I replied that I use a water bottle (one with a drinking spout) and just squeeze it out to get me wet, and then again to rinse off the soap.
The last bit of the bicycle journey - in 1995/96/97 was mostly in hot weather so the water was warm enough just from carrying it around on the bicycle for a while. Here I heat water on the stove and pour it into the water bottle before I start the process. Be thankful for one of the many differences between this system and the one that you are used to.
On the bicycle ride I went to the Long Distance Bus Station, kind of like this part of the World's version of the Greyhound terminal, but much busier. Not so many people have cars, and trains don't go very many places - and are also slow, so there is a lot of travel by bus.
The next thing on the list to move the bicycle adventure forward is to get the bicycle and me to a place just north of Alamty, the former capital, and largest city in Kazakstan, the neighboring country to the north. This is where the road branches off to China. I already rode that part in 1997, so I figure taking a bus is allowed this time. It is about 150 miles to Almaty, and I learned that for about $5 in local currency, I can go with the bicycle in a large minivan. Sounds like a good deal. For $50 I can go in a private car - like a Toyota or something similar. That seems like overkill.
Thursday May 16, 2002.
I keep thinking that I should get ready and get out of here, but I keep finding other things to do. Tomorrow was supposed to be the day, but that would make me feel rushed, so yesterday I decided Saturday, but the weekend is not a good time to travel by bus to Almaty. So now the plan is for Monday. This still gives me almost two weeks to reach China and still be on the schedule that some other plans were predicated on, and two weeks before my Kazak visa expires. Even if I ride directly from Almaty, which looks like the best plan, I think I should be in China by Memorial Day.
Since I first got here, Gulbara and Zarema have been saying that they want to take me to the mountains for a picnic. Bishkek is located right at the very edge of a very high mountain range - peaks over 15,000 feet. You can see huge snow-capped peaks from anywhere in the city. There is snow all through the summer.
When I first arrived here in August of 1996, there was still a month before school started. The university that forgot they had offered me a job knew a good thing (native speaker) when they saw one, so they agreed to hire me. Temporarily, they put me in the apartment that was normally used for their Peace Corps volunteer. He wouldn't need it until school started. Then they left me alone for a month.
I decided before exploring the city, that I would explore some by bicycle outside of town. Mainly I wanted to get closer to the mountains so started riding on one of the streets that went up hill. Eventually that led out of town to a cross road where there was a sign that said something about a park (in Russian), and that it was 25km ahead. Why not, I thought, 25km is all in a day's ride. I had my tent and some food with me so it didn't matter how long I was gone. In fact it took me the rest of that day and part of the next to go those 25km. It was all straight up hill. But it was worth it.
There was a park, with a kind of lodge that might have been fashionable during Soviet times, but would be mostly suitable for 'budget' travelers now. Just a little above the lodge was a picnic area that is surrounded by mountains on three sides, including one of those 15,000-foot peaks. I camped there for two nights, eating the food I brought with me, and eating some that was available at the lodge. A couple of music teachers from Bishkek, one of whom could speak some English, were staying at the lodge. They shared some of their food with me too. I guess it was their way of having an English language conversation. On the third day, I made it back to the city in less than two hours, a total of 40km.
Anyway, that is where we went on the picnic today. There were four of us, Gulbara, Zarema, me, and Sanjar, Gulbara's son. Her 1.5-year-old daughter stayed home with the baby sitter. Gulbara bought food at the open-air market/deli down the street and away we went in the company car. An hour drive each way, a mile walk (uphill) from the parking lot to the picnic area, time to eat, a little hike toward that peak, and then an hour ride back. Altogether about four hours.
On the way home we stopped at a new furniture store. So many new things here. Old ratty stores cleared out and new ones put in. This one was way above normal Kyrgyz standards. We were there so that Gulbara could get Zarema's advice about a new bed that she was buying.
Along with this same thought, on a bicycle ride yesterday I went through a village a ways up the hill. It is being transformed by the presence of mansions - real mansions that that are huge; apparently the new homes of the newly rich businessmen of Bishkek. The same who make it possible for this fancy furniture store to be present. Most of the furniture is made in Turkey. Most people don't think of Turkey as being very upscale, but it is relative to here.
All for this time. Maybe one more of these before I leave, if anything unusual happens between now and then.
I would like to say that I will be reporting regularly on the *real* adventure - the bicycle ride, but after I leave Bishkek I don't have plans to stop any place for very long. I am sure that the main cities in China will have Internet cafes, but when I am traveling by bicycle I like to avoid large cities as much as possible. If I run across one in a small town along my route I will try to type a few lines.
I have a new Chinese friend in Lanzhou, about halfway across the country who may put me up for a couple of days to rest and figure out the best route from there East. Hopefully I will be able to send messages from there.