My travel insurance provider said Kyrgyzstan was a "no-fly zone" due to the revolution. Sergey, who'd been organizing my mountain bike ride across the Tian Shan Mountains, looked out his window in Bishkek and declared he couldn't see a revolution. Regardless, media showed it to be gruesome, so nobody from North America would join me. My Kyrgyzstani cycling guide and I had spent the first two days cut off from our support vehicle and supplies by rockslides. We felt lucky to be alive and were now reunited with our driver and translator.
Alexey turned the 4x4 onto a dirt track but Kyrgyz nomads surrounded us, blocking our path. The nomads' Mongol features were all malformed, faces too narrow, impossibly close set eyes; one of them in a crisp white shirt and tweed vest surely had Down syndrome. He shoved his head through Alexey's open window and inspected my petite, blonde bike guide in the passenger seat and then, Cholpon, my pretty, young, Kyrgyz translator in the back beside me. His small eyes finally seized me. These men weren't leering; they were sizing up livestock at a market. I hid my middle-aged breasts behind my knapsack and reached for my camera. If something was going to happen, I wanted to capture it. I was still haunted by the parting words of a magazine editor a few years back who'd threatened me as I left for Easter Island with, "No picture; no story."
"No, don't," Cholpon covered my camera. "Alexey, please put up your window." She transitioned from English to Russian to talk to Alexey and Yena and then back to English. "There's something wrong with these men. They only speak rough Kyrgyz—they have just a rudimentary knowledge of language." Kyrgyzstan had formerly been part of the USSR and most people spoke Russian, but these men didn't, and apparently they barely had a grasp of Kyrgyz.
Alexey revved the engine. Alexey had grown up in Soviet times. His parents were rebels, so, instead of speaking to him in Russian when he was a baby, they only spoke to him in English. Two nights ago, between vodka shots, he'd asked me to imagine his first day at school—a Russian kid from Kyrgyzstan, in the USSR, and English was his first and only language.
The nomads ignored the urging from Alexey's engine.
Cholpon was panicking. "Please, let's get out of here. They're primitive."
This wasn't just primitive. Why would every single one of them have obvious mental and physical afflictions? We were in the middle of nowhere Kyrgyzstan.
"Alexey, we need to go!" Cholpon hissed in my ear.
Two of the men banged the hood. They wanted us to take a tire up the mountain. Alexey indicated that the Toyota was packed with our camping gear and bikes and said "no." He coaxed two deformed heads out of the window with the automatic window button. He nudged forward, pushing them and then gunned it leaving the primitive men and their wheel.
Cholpon babbled about how terrifying they were as we drove through streams and gullies and swamps and headed up the tricky track until we reached a mind-blowing emerald, turquoise, and copper-green lake. Lake Ak-Köl hadn't been on any of my maps, so Alexey marked it for me. The water shimmered like a chameleon as it reflected both the sky and the red, mineral-laden mountains that were dotted with trees. There was a plunder of riches in these hills. As we rounded the lake we came upon a ghost town of matching, dilapidated wooden houses with boarded windows. Alexey made a U-turn, and we headed back a short distance to set up camp on a patch of grass at the water's edge.
As we unloaded the gear, Cholpon seized my hand with an eagle claw grip. She pointed speechless with her other hand. Where had he come from? Marching past, looking dead ahead, in his crisp white shirt and tweed vest was the man with Down syndrome. He hadn't even broken a sweat climbing the mountain on foot as fast as we had done in a 4x4. We all stared. His shirt still looked freshly ironed. Cholpon pleaded with Alexey and Yena that we leave. They told her to stop being silly.
I decided to take photos of the lake and find a bush to pee behind while my guides argued. Alexey and Yena were irritated with Cholpon. They said she was overreacting. Cholpon was assigning supernatural powers to the man with Down syndrome. I didn't like how he'd suddenly appeared. It should have taken him hours. I peed and looked across the lake as the distinct feeling of being watched crept along my arms with a gaggle of goose pimples. Then I heard voices from the far shore. No, maybe closer. There was laughter. I struggled to pull up my pants. I used my camera like binoculars but couldn't see anyone.
I rushed back to camp. Cholpon was crying and chopping up a chicken. Alexey was pumping up his air mattress in the van. Yena was erecting the tents. I poured myself a glass of wine and grabbed my laptop. "Yena, what's up with Cholpon?" I asked.
"Pfft," Yena dismissed. "She thinks she is going to be kidnapped bride, like her sister." I pictured Cholpon being carried away by a village of deformed men.
Cholpon had told me about her sister just minutes after she and Sergey had met me at the airport. Cholpon's sister had attempted suicide to escape the family of nomads who'd kidnapped her. The nomads thankfully had brought her to a hospital which was how she got away. Sergey had seen my concern and assured me I had nothing to worry about because the nomads liked docile women (not me) who could also make kumis, fermented mares' milk, and I couldn't even milk a horse. He was kind not to point out that I was also too old.
Two men approached from the abandoned mining town, which I was suspecting, although boarded up, was far from abandoned. I hadn't seen a sign of a woman. But they had to be here—doing laundry maybe? I wondered if they all shared the same mother and how many generations of incest this was. The men were asking Alexey for cigarettes. I took a photo.
"No!" Yena whispered motioning me to put my camera down. "And hide your laptop." She dropped her jacket on my equipment.
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