The Mountain Men Who Don't Exist in Kyrgyzstan — Page 2
By Kirsten Koza



Kyrgyzstan map

The men stumbled back to the village. They looked like they'd been imbibing in something stronger than horse milk. They were met with whoops and war cries.

"Have you ever seen the movie, Deliverance?" I asked my guides. Alexey had a huge stack of DVD's of international films which he watched in the van while Yena and I biked. None of them had seen Deliverance. Dueling banjos dueled in my head. "It's about a camping trip that goes wrong." I chose not to tell Cholpon about the sodomy scene.

We ate, and Cholpon wiped a steady stream of tears from her face and actually drank some of my wine, which she didn't do normally, being Muslim. This rule didn't seem to apply to Kyrgyz men. Many embraced the Russian tradition; if you open the bottle of vodka, you finish the bottle of vodka.

Darkness devoured the landscape. And soon as it did the howls and cries of mounting excitement from the ghost town started to move in the blackness. We heard wolf cries and then lights flickered—lanterns had been lit as if on cue and were bobbing as they were carried from the village in single file along the far shore. Another line of lights snaked towards us. They were going to surround us. Maybe someone would be killed and then I'd have something to write about. Did I just think that?!

A Night Escape

"We're going!" Alexey was pulling tent pegs. I could stop him. Sergey had said my guides were to do whatever I wanted. The villagers were circling. If I gave the order to stay, I'd definitely have something to write about. What would happen? Rape, murder? Cholpon was sobbing. She threw pots in boxes. A sensible wave of terror swept over me. What was I going to do, just stand there and take photos of a massacre on a mountain? Yena and I pulled down a tent.

"Hurry," Alexey panted. "Don't remove the tent poles. Throw it in the van. We'll deal with it later. Don't worry about the garbage!" That wasn't like Alexey. "Fucking leave it for them."

Their screams and lights were all around us. Yena and Alexey jumped into the front and Cholpon and I had to lie on Alexey's air mattress in the back with the chaos of tents and gear. He spun the tires. We frantically locked the doors.

"Don't get stuck, Alexey," Cholpon cried and held my hand. That was my big fear too. We'd made our way through rivers and sucking mud in the daylight. This was treacherous at night. Nobody else knew where we were. We'd changed our route because of the landslides. There wasn't cell service. Cholpon whispered in my ear, "Do you think they'll rape us?" Yeah, I actually figured that might be the best case scenario. It was the murdering that had me even more worried.

I was exhausted the next morning. I sat with my feet in icy rapids. The water here too had a mineral rich hue. I'd hardly slept. Even though Alexey assured us we'd driven far enough from the not-so-abandoned mining town and its horror film of inhabitants, I couldn't stop thinking about how the man with the deformed face could appear from nowhere. Maybe there were shortcuts they knew. Yena handed me a cup of coffee. "Yikes," I looked at the curdled artificial creamer.

Uranium stream

"Yes, I don't know why it do this," she said.

It looked disgusting, but I drank it anyway. I was still perturbed by my dangerous urge of last night. I'd actually fantasized someone dying for writing fodder. Sure, there was a lot of competition out there for an exciting story, and not many of us were unfortunate (or fortunate enough) to have to hack off an arm to survive, or be taken hostage in Afghanistan, but for me to wish for something like that was as gross as the paparazzi who took photos of J.K. Rowling's crotch when she was enjoying a day at the beach. No, maybe not that gross, because I'd never take a photo of a children's author's privates...perhaps John Grisham or Dan Brown in a Speedo—but not to sell.

I went for a second cup of coffee. I sniffed the powdered creamer. Could anything even go wrong with the stuff? I spooned it into the cup of instant coffee. It curdled. I sipped it again. It tasted okay. Perhaps it was the PH of the antifreeze green water. Cholpon had filled our water containers at Ak-Köl.

"Nobody Lives There"

Yena and I had been biking all day along a two-track. We were lost. Somehow we were going to have to find Cholpon and Alexey with no cell service. Just ahead was a Mercedes and several generations of Kyrgyz males packing up their fishing tackle. They agreed to give us a lift. As we took the wheels off our bikes to fit them in the trunk, they wanted to know where I lived in Canada and why I was here during a revolution.

Asking for directions

One of the men was an executive at a Belgian mining company. Yena told him about Ak-Köl. He kept saying, "No." The rest was Russian. I looked at Yena to translate.

"He said nobody lives at Ak-Köl. He said it's closed. The lake is contaminated with uranium."

Visions of my curdled coffee swirled before me. I'd been drinking uranium while imagining taking dirty photos of John Grisham and Dan Brown.

Four years later, Cholpon, Sergey and I are sitting in an exotic, tented restaurant in Bishkek. The white fabric billows in the summer breeze which carries the scent of grilled meat and fresh bread. I'm back. I'm here to photograph Kyrgyz nomadic life—the horse games, eagle hunters, markets, yurts, and food.

Kyrgyz tents

"When I teach tourism classes in the winter, I always tell the story of Ak-Köl." Cholpon hands me a skewer of sheep meat. "Nobody believes me."

"That's weird," I agree, "because when I've told the story, I've had people deny that anyone lives there and even say there is no such lake. Maybe I should return. The lake is killing people. That's got to be why they're all deformed."

"You can't," Sergey says. "It's forbidden. It's closed. Nobody lives there."

I have the distinct feeling that people do still live there. My pulse quickens. They are hiding in the hills, camouflaged like their toxic chameleon of a lake.


Kirsten Koza is an author, humorist, and journalist. She edited the Travelers' Tales anthology Wake Up and Smell the Shit: Hilarious Travel Disasters, Monstrous Toilets and a Demon Dildo, and she is the author of Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR. Always looking for her next adventure, Kirsten has covered topics (for newspapers, magazines and anthologies worldwide) such as tornado chasing, cannibalism, insect eating, mummies, Putin, gluten, and body disposal. See more at www.kirstenkoza.com.

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Related Features:
Both Sides of the Water: Two Faces of Kyrgyzstan's Lake Issyk-Kul by Laurence Mitchell
Dinosaur Tracks in Turkmenistan by John W. Kropf
Kirkegaard in Mongolia by Edward Readicker-Henderson
No Country for Honest Men by Marco Ferrarese


See other Asia travel stories from the archives


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Lost in Moscow: A Brat in the USSR

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