As I sat in the marshroutka the man behind me grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back. “I speak English!” he moaned. His black hair was unkept and from his wrinkled face came the sweet stench of alcohol.
Later he tapped my shoulder and I saw him cutting an apple with a knife. Having a crazy drunk guy with a knife behind me put that extra bit of tension into what could otherwise have been a boring marshroutka ride to Bokonbayevo, on the south shore of lake Yssyk-Kul.
In Balykchy, the first town on the lake if you come from Bishkek, we drove south. The road was worse than the one leading north towards Cholpon-Ata and the land looked more barren. After an hour we reached the dusty square between an abandoned gas station and an abandoned factory that is the “new bus station” of Bokonbayevo.
The owner of a yurt camp picked us up and drove us to the centre to buy supplies. He said we might find fruits at the bazaar. Two old women sat between potatoes, carrots, some cabbage and onions. I hadn’t been around much in the provinces and it was the first time I really saw the contrast between the bazaars of Bishkek and one showing people don’t have the money for avocadoes and pineapples.
At the yurt camp the owner talked us into taking a ride on his two horses. Mine was young, dark and called “Tuman” – “Fog.” My friend spent her childhood summer on a djailoo so she got the supposedly wilder horse. It had recently won a seven-kilometre race but they never told us its name. As we rode out Sharik, the dog of the camp, and his snow-white friend decided to join us.
It was my first night in a yurt and it was cosy and warm because it had floor heating. God beware a tourist’s butt getting cold experiencing the nomad lifestyle.
Next morning we left for the Fairy Tale Canyon, further down the road towards Karakol. The rock formations there represent protagonists of fairy tales. Or so I supposed because as we started walking, I didn’t recognize any humans or animals or anything else in the rocks, other than one that looked like the genitalia of a man on his back.
The red and yellow formations were bizarre and impressive and I could see why the place was popular. But I thought some kind of moderator was necessary to explain the shapes and to spin stories around them.
We walked for hours, the canyon was larger than I thought. We climbed a hill and looked out over the barren hills, the blue lake in the distance and the sparse forest, far away up in the mountains. The whole place reminded me of a Wadi at the Dead Sea in Israel. Even all the plants had spikes, like real desert plants are supposed to have.
When we had circled back and had almost reached the car again, we came to an area where all vegetation was a strange dark grey colour, like it’d been burnt. We climbed one more little hill. I looked back and then I saw it. Clearly, over there, there was the face of a monster in the rocks. I saw the eyes, the neck, the skull, and the twisted snout, like a boxer dog’s, that seemed to gnarl at something. Then I saw at what, clearly, there was the face of a woman in the rocks, running away from the monster behind her.
I saw more shapes now. Another dark face, staring up into the sky.
And over there on the hill, the face of a big lizard, a dragon, staring at exactly the area that looked so burned.
Or maybe the silence of the place had just gotten to me. Soon after we left and arrived back at Bokonbayevo bus station.
As we stood waiting for the marshroutka to leave another old man started talking to me. The conversation went from what I was doing here, to that he wanted my phone number so he could call his daughter to translate, to Angela Merkel, to my address in Bishkek, to Hitler, to if I really didn’t want to give him my Whatsapp number, to a trainload of Nazi gold hidden in Poland.
When the bus left it turned out I was sitting right behind him, which excited him and didn’t excite me. Luckily, he was as drunk as the guy with the knife and when we arrived back in Bishkek he was peacefully sleeping on the shoulder of his wife.