A day in the life: hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan

     This is kind of how I would have written it in my journal book in the pen-and-paper days before I started a blog:
     Bokonbaevo, KYRGYZSTAN
     Saturday, August 3, 2013
     I’m sitting in my room in the homestay I had the local Community Based Tourism (CBT) office organize for me for 400 som (US$8) with my headphones on, laughing convulsively for the 50th time to the Bill Hader interview on Bill Simmons’ podcast as he does his Lorne Michaels impersonations. The woman of the house doesn’t know I have a computer and is no doubt wondering if some psycho is in her home. She is probably speed dialing now to CBT: “No more Americans!”

Bokonbaevo Kyrgyzstan girl

     A girl working in the family store in Bokonbaevo. I’m a fan of big, round, Kyrgyz faces.

     I’ve had it with marshrutkas, which are old, 18-seat vans that act as public transport all over the country. They’re too small, too slow, stop too often and if I have to stand in one, I must stoop and I can’t see out the window. I’m hitchhiking as much as possible now, especially after today’s events. It’s good to know hitchhiking is a viable option. I like the mobility and options it gives me and it feels like traveling at its best. That doesn’t mean everything was great, but worthwhile.
     “Hitchhiking” can also mean paying for rides, but I don’t mind. About half the time I ride for free, half the time I pay—and I always know which before I get in. I discriminate; I usually put my thumb out only for nicer cars. I figure it’s easier and less risky. There are tons of old BMWs and Mercedes here for some reason. It always cracks me up when a huge Mercedes will stop and the driver will agree to take me, say, 30km, for 25 som, which is 50 US cents. I can’t imagine a Mercedes stopping for me in Germany and the driver saying, “I’ll drive you 30 km if you give me 50 cents.”
     Communication with drivers is tough, but I make do. Speaking a little Kyrgyz jazzes people up, I’ve discovered, but Russian is the lingua franca here and it’s still an official language.
     I started from Karakol and headed west along the less-developed, more dramatic, southern side of Lake Issyk Kul. I quickly got a ride from a guy wearing a Clovis East High School Wrestling t-shirt, which is an hour from where my parents live in California. When we arrived I was going to take a photo of him, but first he tried to get me to pay 250 som ($5) instead of the 25 som we agreed. Jackass. I had a tense couple of moments as I thought he might try to speed off in those two seconds it takes for me to fetch my bag out of the back of his car, which is the hitchhiker’s drama every time.
kyrgyzstan traveling girls

     After a few more rides I was plopped down next to these two girls, a Finn and an Israeli. They were waiting for a marshrutka to Bishkek. I offered to have them hitchhike with me, saying we could go to the apricot festival and then could go tomorrow. The Finn was desperate to go, getting the shakes from not seeing her boyfriend in six months (“Six months plus a day, you can wait!” I said, but she wasn’t having it.) The Israeli girl wavered, but a marshrutka came and off they went. I got a faster ride to Bokonbaevo, so when they arrived I was already at the station waiting for them. That’s a powerful advertisement for hitchhiking. That’s a powerful advertisement for me, too: a confident dude traveling in an unconventional way, knowing about obscure events, having fun. I am irresistible. Wait, let me put in my teeth.

kyrgyz russian driver

     This super-nice Russian guy gave me a ride to the apricot festival.

watermelon beach

     A watermelon cooling in the water on a sweltering day at Ton beach.

     The apricot festival didn’t impress me. It had a great location right on the beach in Ton, near the town of Bokonbaevo, but without any shade in the brutal heat. Plus, foreigners had to pay 500 som ($10) to attend, which is a lot of plov. Locals supposedly pay 200 som, but no one really needed to pay anything as it was open. I walked along the beach a while, got an apricot danish, and left.
     As I was hitchhiking back, a French traveler was dropped off next to me by a truck. He was traveling with a badminton racket strapped to the top of his backpack and three big maps wrapped in a meter-long tube. He had just spent three years in China, he explained, and they wouldn’t let him mail the maps home. They didn’t look to be anything special, but he decided they were worth carrying home on the Silk Road. He had recently come overland from Kashgar, which is my destination. I pumped him for information incessantly while car after car stopped for us, all trying to get us to pay too much to go back to town, which amused him.
kyrgyz french hitchhiking

     This Kyrgyz woman picked up the French guy and me. I was hoping she would open her mouth as she had an amazing display of gold teeth. I had her take the French guy into town while I got out at the bypass because I decided to go 40km west to Tuz Kul, or Salt Lake.

salt lake sign

     The Salt Lake sign. Can you see all the wild lavender or whatever that is? I’m really letting you down by not having a better camera or better photographic skills. It was crazy to hitch another 11km on dirt roads to get to the lake, but it was easy going both ways.

dead salt lake

     I had the Salt Lake all wrong. I had envisioned a small, remote but it was packed with hundreds of people. I thought it would be a Dead Sea-like experience of floating on your back, but the water wasn’t so salty so people weren’t so buoyant. If it were, it would be dangerous to swim on your stomach, isn’t that right? (The Great Traveler here went through the whole trouble of going there and forgot his swimsuit.)

dead salt lake people

     Supposedly the Salt Lake mud has therapeutic properties so it is smeared all over.

kyrgyz hitchhiking family

     Picking up hitchhikers—fun for the whole family!

     Where are all the classic Soviet-era cars? Ladas, yes, but I’ve been disappointed not to see many Moskviches, or my favorite, the Volga, a tank of a sedan. Instead, there are mostly old BMWs and Mercedes, Japanese right-hand-drive cars (how do they get delivered here?), and Kyrgyzstan is paradise for 1990’s German truckspotters.
     Been gone six and a half months. I’m tired.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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A day in the life: hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan — 12 Comments

  1. Another great blog! I’m interested in that area of the world. Sounds like its got a little spice with the sugar though.

  2. I like your style! Kyrgyzzstan is big in car trade. Drivers take a train to Lithuania or Vladivostok where all second-hand cars come together from Europe and Japan respectively, then drive across Russia and Kazakhstan in 1 go – takes them no more than 4 days.

  3. Thanks!
    Driving here from Vladivostok…I can’t even wrap my head around that. Must be amazing. I like to peek at the odometer of some of these cars to see how many km are on them.

  4. I noticed Stephen was featured…even though Central Asia is very big, you’ll soon find out how small it actually is. Very small, especially Bishkek. Anyway, gives you lots of places to hide from all those people you once met but don’t want to see again 🙂

  5. Kento, if you happen through Vladivostok have a look at the bargains to be had on Japanese cars there? Perhaps there’s a harebrained scheme in there somewhere!

    Steven, no lie! I’m amazed how often I spot familiar faces on the streets here. Must not be quite so often in Almaty, though? Maki and I are thinking about coming over next month for the TEDx thing, by the way. Maybe see you around?

  6. The process for getting Japanese cars is very simple: Russian sailors and fishermen go to Japan, buy a used car, use a tax loophole to bring it back, and sell it on the other side. They do that about twice a year, they all do it, and there’s a lot of them.

  7. Yes, but I meant the process of driving a car from Vladivostok to Kyrgyzstan must be an incredible ordeal.
    Also, sometimes Russia changes the rules about what kind of cars you can import, from what I’ve heard.

  8. Love it man, I just stumbled upon your site, but glad to see others still traveling authentically. I have only hitchhiked twice to date, but both have been good experiences. Thanks for sharing, I’ll be following now!

  9. In Isakul Area they tried to rob and kill us for not paying them for a ride!
    We thought hithchiking is free!!

  10. hi i´m from peru ubicated in south america…i like kyrguistan , i feel beauty country with

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