A CAR SHUTTLE WITH A DIFFERENCE.
(This was first published as chapter 9 of Dancing with the Bear which was published online by Idaho State University)
We had been ineptly "smuggled" over an indifferent border. I was lying on the floor of a stranger's house, listening to the distant, barking dogs. There was an occasional growl closer and the simultaneous grating of a chain running out. Sleepless, I listened to the sound of the other sleepers in the room, and the strange nocturnal song of this place I couldn't even name. And only then, I realised I was finally there, in Kyrghizstan. After three years of planning and dreaming and disappointment, I was on my way to Samarkand.
True, we had spent a week in Moscow, but Moscow, for all its idiosyncratic beauty was just another large European city, and I had lived in and worked in and visited many large European cities. They have museums and art galleries and beggars and you wander round like a "star dazed tourist". In some ways travelling to Moscow from Australia had felt like going home. But now I was in Kyrghizia, and tomorrow we'd be on the banks of the river we'd dreamed about for so long. Tomorrow I would no longer be a useless piece of luggage to be stamped and sealed and delivered to its destination. Tomorrow I would be an independent paddler, testing twenty years of paddling against the first of two demanding, remote rivers which, as far as we knew, hadn't seen kayaks before.
Too excited, and too confused by the past few hours, I couldn't sleep.
We left the train in Dzhambul. After the steady progress of the last three days the tempo had suddenly picked up. As the train stopped we struggled down the corridor with our bundles, and built a pile on the line beside the train. A smiling bear with lunatic eyes in a red windjacket grabbed my hand and welcomed me. He looked scruffy enough to be one of the two rafters who had flown down with our Kayaks. The train left and a small crowd gathered to watch the fun as we started to move our pile of gear through the station to our waiting transport. For reasons I have never understood we jogged the distance, bent double under Russian rucksacks heavier than we were. A small delivery van was waiting for us, beside a park with a statue of Lenin at its centre. There was some confusion. The Admiral consulted Andrei and Oleg, the two rafters who had met us, about Visas and they disappeared into the station to solve the problem, returning with a sausage.
While we piled our gear into the back Mark walked his boat through the overgrown garden so Trevor could film our arrival. Lenin didn't bat an eyelid, he merely continued to point the way forward.
The Russians disappeared in to the back of the truck and the Foreigners piled into the cab. We had been given strict instructions to pretend to be Estonians if anyone stopped us and asked us who we were. At the time it made little sense. Our clothes and body language betrayed us as foreigners, and we spoke no Russian, so perhaps we were supposed to be a party of deaf and dumb Estonians on holiday from the local asylum.
"We must pull this curtain, he says he only has a license for two passengers in the cab." Despite the flimsy curtain we could still see out of the side window. The driver moved off, down wide roads lined by trees. It could have been anywhere urban, apart from the thin quality of the light, and the presence of a man on a donkey cart loaded with hay, or a family sitting in the curb, around a small fire. The driver swerved to avoid the numerous potholes, waved to everybody he passed, who waved back, and chatted merrily to Chris, who sat at the juncture of the two blinds and therefore peered out straight ahead.
"How old are you?" He asked.
"Which one is your husband?"
"I am not married."
"25 and not married! And you don't wear makeup! Aren't you afraid of not finding a husband? I only have one wife..."
Suddenly Chris withdrew behind the curtain and pulled them tightly closed. By now it was dark. The truck stopped. "Don't speak," she said. "It's a border crossing."
The driver jumped out leaving us to wait in silence, hidden behind a flimsy screen with five sets of feet visible beneath it. For a long time nothing happened and no one spoke. I discovered, much to my surprise, that I wasn't frightened, merely impatient. I wanted something to happen so we could deal with it. The worst part of waiting was our ignorance of the possible consequences of this absurdity.
"Oh no," Said Christianne, "they're coming!" She ducked back behind the blind. The customs officer sauntered over, pulled back the blind, said; "funny looking apples" and went round the back where he discovered a pile of kayaking and rafting equipment and a very scruffy group of Russian rafters. There was some haggling, a fine was paid, (3000 Roubles) and we left Kazakstan. We stopped again at the Kyrghiz border, but this time passed on without incident. We decided it was a game, a strange game, because if they were trying to smuggle us into the country it was a spectacularly inept attempt, and only the most indolent customs official could have failed to spot us. The Russians piled into the front of the cab and we continued along a road that rose into moonlit hills. Illuminated by the moon, a dam, marked by the phosphorescence of the outflow, spilt water in to a dark lake.
The driver and Chris were talking again when a shrill whistle brought us to another halt. This time it was a police roadblock and the driver's papers were confiscated because the Russians were sitting in the cab. They piled out, the driver paid the inevitable on the spot fine, and we edged on into the darkness of streets without street lamps. Picking the Russians up again we continued, down narrow lanes between houses and walls, avoiding the police on the main road. Pulling up outside a house, the Admiral said, "Don't speak", which was a silly thing to say as we had no idea what was happening. As far as we knew we were supposed to be staying in a hotel in Dzhambul, but this wasn't Dzhambul and it certainly wasn't an hotel. With dreams of a hot shower and a bed that didn't move in ruins, we unloaded the bus, gave the driver one of our Australian Geographic stickers and piled into the house.
Our host was a bald headed, muscular man, who would have been ideal for the part of maniac axe murderer in a cheap splatter movie. His outer room, where the Russians began to prepare a meal, had a bare concrete floor and a wall hung with serious cooking and butchering equipment. There were jars of pickles in almost every available space, onions and garlic and bundles of herbs drying in the ceiling and a large wooden table covered with loaves of home made bread.
We moved slowly around the table, while our host and his wife hovered and tried to make us as comfortable as they could. They reminded me of Irish relatives with their concern for the comfort of strangers. Chris was led off to the shower, while the Foreigners were shown to the bedroom our hosts had vacated for the night. We moved around the table, drinking milk, eating fresh bread, and then drinking peppermint tea. The Admiral approached me.
"Liam. We leave tomorrow, four o'clock." He pointed to his watch to make sure I understood.
"Four AM," I repeated.
"Da. Four AM."
I didn't trust his English, so called Chris.
"No," he said. "Not need Chris. We leave four AM."
My major role on Robertson's Canoeing Trips was that of alarm clock, and though I only woke him up at the required time, and pussy footed around so as not to disturb his beauty sleep, I had copped so much friendly abuse from him in the morning that I decided to make sure we were synchronised.
"No," he said, emphatically, "Volodya just told me we're leaving at five. Means we don't have to move until four thirty."
Jackie was disgruntled because the Russians were reluctant to let her carry the big rucksacks. When we had arrived at the station they had told her to stay and keep and eye on them while the men carried the loads. She was characteristically offended. Mark, rolling over on the bed, murmured; "For fifty five dollars a day they should be carrying you, let alone your rucksack," and promptly fell asleep.
At three thirty I gave up trying. I was too excited. Rolling up my sleeping bag as quietly as possible I wrote up the bizarre events of the day before in my note book.
"Liam," growled Robertson, in tones distorted by Morning Peevishness,"we're not leaving till five o'clock."
I snarled back. I didn't care what time we were leaving, I didn't want to waste the morning lying in my bag staring at the ceiling. As Warren Zevon used to sing, you can sleep when you're dead.
It was the closest we came to an argument in six weeks.
After tea and bread we piled into the back of another truck, perched on the top of our boats or cramped into the spaces formed by rucksacks. To a raucous chorus of "We're all going on a summer holiday" we lurched off through the early morning streets and began to climb into hills almost immediately we left the town.
All good river trips begin or end with a dirt road, and as a general rule, the worse the road, the better the trip. We stopped where a barrier blocked the road, and waited for someone to come to lift it. A conversation, another bribe, and we started to jerk and rattle our way over a road that was nebulous at the best of times; it seemed to be the flatter bit of rock between the mountain rising on the left and the river falling on our right. The rock was gray and shattered, and the hillside was strewn with scree. After half an hour of this it became obvious that conversation was impossible and travel sickness a real and embarrassing possibility. We groaned and ground our way up a steep snaking road, past Yurts and the camps of wild looking men who huddled close to bright and inviting fires. There were also memorials to those who hadn't made it and the roadside was littered with bits of rusting machinery that had once been part of vehicles attempting this route. The driver made no concession to the surface or the insane tightness of the bends but screamed along, throwing us around in the back.
We reached the summit of Black Camel pass, at 3,500 metres or 4,000 metres, depending on whether you wanted to believe Sasha or the Admiral, who seemed disposed to argue about it. We got out, pretending to admire the view and take photographs, but in reality to see if any limbs were broken. The morning was climbing the valley behind us to catch up, but it was numbingly cold on the pass. We could look down the valley to see the road, looking exactly like a snake coiling up the mountain side. If this is a cliche, try being original after you've been smashed around in the back of a truck for two hours.
Reluctantly we got back in and began the descent. The driver approached this with the same manic enthusiasm. The road followed a small stream which cut its way between the gray rock, white on the black of water smoothed stones. As it grew I began to eye it longingly. If it would only get just a little bit bigger we could leave this rattling box and paddle to the river.
Unfortunately, although the stream grew to paddleable size it had a disconcerting habit of disappearing under gray snow bridges, which seemed to appear with alarming suddenness. Escape from the truck was out of the question. Sooner or later we had to cross the stream and when we did the bridge was enough to have us all out, cameras ready to record the truck's plunge in to the rushing torrent below. The original bridge, a frail looking construction of logs, had sagged to the point where someone had decided to repair it. This had been achieved by simply building another layer of logs over the first, which continued to sag below the new bridge. The new surface was anything but level, the downstream side of the bridge being noticeably higher than the upstream. Logs dangled off, ready to spear into the stream below. The truck, minus us, edged out on to the uneven surface and stopped. We waited, listening to the tyres whirl, cameras poised, then it inched forward to the other side. As we walked across we discovered the pale logs lying across the width of the bridge were all lose. As we piled back in, another truck approached the bridge. The driver didn't even change down the gears but zoomed over and crashed on down the hill in a cloud of dust.
Our driver was obviously inspired by this because the descent was far more violent than the ascent. Twice I took off from my perch on the boats and hit the ceiling, the second time smashing down into Jackie's back. At first, I thought I'd broken my nose. I looked at the blood. At last, some genuine Expedition Suffering!
There was nothing else to do but fall asleep, so I did.
The upper valley of the Chatkal is lined on one side with impressive snow capped mountains, although the river was invisible as it cut between steep banks. We had been told this part of the river was uninteresting, so we drove on down towards the village of Janke Bazarre, passing a variety of small collections of huts, most of which seemed to have a barrier across the road. Our driver was known to most of these people, and at one he was warmly congratulated by a man, drunk on Kumis, who was standing on the back of a truck. Apparently our driver had a new grandchild. The drunk then fell off his truck and tried to kiss everybody.
Crossing the turquoise waters of the river we headed down towards Janke Bazarre, but seeing a military patrol the driver suddenly hung a fast U turn and headed back up the valley. Recrossing the river he turned off the road and came to a stop at a ford that crossed the Sandalash.
We had arrived.