Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ARSLANBOB


I just returned from a week and half in Arslanbob, a tiny Uzbek village tucked in the world’s largest walnut forest in southwest Kyrgyzstan. The purpose of my trip to Arslanbob come as a guest instructor for a fledgling backcountry ski touring program initiated by Hayat Tarikov, the head of Arslanbob Community Based Tourism (CBT). Community Based Tourism originated out of a women’s cooperative that was started in Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan in 1999 in conjunction with the Swiss Development Company Helvetas. CBT came to Arslanbob in 2001 and Hayat became the head, with 18 homestays in the village and 25 guides working for him. The basis of CBT is to connect tourist with locals to provide services ranging from homestays to horseback riding. Kyrgyzstan has the most expansive networks of this type in Central Asia.

Hayat’s interest in ski touring is dual fold. He is most interested in promoting winter tourism as he would like to see a more steady influx of money through the year. Currently almost all tourists come in the summer. This past year, Hayat said over 1500 tourist came through Arslanbob, but only 36 of them came in winter. Beyond tourism development Hayat is also genuinely interested in teaching locals, especially children to ski. Although I had met Hayat about a month ago in Bishkek I was approaching this experience with a great deal of flexibility. I had planned a little curriculum but I was also keen to observe their current backcountry practices.

I was accompanied to Arslanbob by my friends Ryan Willis and Toby Wheeler with Toby’s family. We took two days to drive there, crossing two 3000+ meter passes en route just before a huge winter storm moved across Kyrgyzstan. We managed to get a little skiing in the Susamyer Valley, but found the 40 cm snowpack to be unconsolidated and baseless. We arrived in Arslanbob late at night after a long second day of driving complete with a flat tire, which was repaired for about $1 in 30 minutes on the Uzbekistan border while we ate shashlyck (kebabs) and drank tea.

Arslanbob is a mostly Uzbek village of about 15,000 people nestled against the 4000m+ Babash-Ata Mountains. Considered quite conservative, there are almost 20 mosques in the village. Hayat arranged for us to stay with one of the his CBT homestays in a very nice house tucked amongst a fruit orchard.

We brought the cold weather with us and it dumped 35 cm of snow in Arslanbob our first day. The previous week had seen a lot of rain and the temperature had stayed above freezing. Hayat gave us a tour of town, his office and all his equipment. He has a few decent pairs of skis with ski touring bindings and skins but mostly a lot of old heavy equipment. Acquiring skis here, especially touring skis is not the easiest undertaking.

Our first tour we skied up into the agricultural fields and walnut forests above town with a group of eight. Lacking any visibility we traversed and skied several mellow slopes. There was a wide range of skills among the guides. Several of the guides have decent skiing and travel techniques but most of the guides are beginning skiers and several days we had first time skiers out with us. What I was most impressed by in Hayat and all of his guides was their enthusiasm! It became apparent that what I had to offer was just providing basic tips for winter travel and encouraging good ski skills. All of the guides speak Uzbek and Russian, but only a few speak English. However, Kyrgyz is similar to Uzbek and my basic Kyrgyz vocabulary was understood and very helpful.

The next day brought beautiful clear skies, which allowed us to venture to Toguz-Bulak Jailoo (Nine-Springs Summer Pasture) in more advanced terrain against the base of Babash-Ata Mountain. Again the group was large, twelve of us, as many of the guides were very eager to join the group. It made for lots of rotation breaking trail through the 40 cm of new snow the rapidly warmed through the day with the intense solar radiation. We spent lots of time talking about little things such as travel etiquette, picking routes and basic avalanche rescue. Picking a lunch spot seemed very important to all the guides, and we ended up shoveling a meter of snow off a huge boulder. In true Uzbek/Kyrgyz style we sat around a center cloth covered with breads, jams, cheeses and tea. In the afternoon I showed some very simple stability tests (jumping on small slopes and digging hand pits). We were able to find some great powder skiing on a mellow north slope which many of the guides were unable to appreciate with 190cm straight skis.

The following day it drizzled and again we only ventured to the walnut forests. Hayat and I shared several long discussions about the changing winters in Arslanbob. Rain is becoming more and more prevalent each year according to Hayat and it was interesting to listen to him and the guides discuss about their childhood winters and current winters.

The next week brought a repetitive weather pattern of rain, snow and sun. We stuck to the walnut forests in the rain and snow working on ski skills and just enjoying being out. A Norwegian skier who had worked as a ski instructor, Kjolton, joined us mid-week. With his help, we set up a ski skills obstacle course one afternoon and spent lots of time talking and working on skiing technique. Every day lunches were elaborate and laughter widespread. The enthusiasm of all the guides was contagious and admirable given their equipment and lack of resources.

Hayat hosted a large dinner party for us one evening, complete with plov and a few too many shots of vodka. I presented him his first avalanche probe and a new hat. As the week wore on it became apparent that many of the guides needed to rest more and take care of blisters and sore feet, so it was good that Friday the holy day arrived. Most guides took the day off to pray and Toby, Ryan, Kjoltan and I returned to the base of Babash-Ata. With a smaller group and good weather we were able to climb and ski Green Hill, a smaller peak that sits just above Arslanbob. Incredible terrain and fantastic skiing! The end of the week brought more rain and Toby and his family departed.

I prepared some material for Hayat to use for reference to continue his education in winter recreation. Topics I covered included basic rules of safe travel, recognizing avalanche danger, basic equipment lists and basic information about avalanches. Kjoltan will hopefully translate the documents into Russian, so that non-English speaking guides can utilize the handbooks as well. Also as a favor to a friend, I aided Hayat is writing up a description of his ski tours for advertisement. From what I observed ski touring in Arslanbob has great potential but any visitor that comes to Arslanbob to ski should be flexible in a multitude of ways. To only come for the snow and the mountains would be a disappointment, but to enjoy the company of the local skiers and the cultural makes for a unique experience. But it seems that rain is not uncommon, punctuality is not emphasized and the ski skills of the guides is still developing.

Ryan and I returned to Bishkek in one long day in a shared taxi. It was hard to leave Arslanbob, as there were many mountains and jailoos I wanted to explore further. I am certain I will return again to teach and enjoy the hilarious company of Hayat and his guides. In the future, I would really like to aid him in getting more ski equipment, especially cross-country ski equipment for kids in Arslanbob.

KARA-KOO



For New Year’s I traveled with my Kyrgyz friend Bakyt and German friend Frieder, to Bakyt’s home village of Kara-Koo, on the south shore of Issy-Kul Lake. Arriving late at night we were warmly welcomed into Bakyt’s family home and fed fresh laghman (noodles, meat and peppers) upon arrival. This time of year all of the livestock are giving birth, so dozens of hour-old nursing lambs and baby cows filled the yard. The first day it took Frieder and I some insistence to convince Bakyt’s parents that we wanted to help with chores but quickly we were put to work. I took on many of the more traditional female chores: milking the cows, helping cook manty and bread and scrubbing the floors. But I also joined Frieder and Bakyt to help with the “male” chores such as herding animals and cutting up compressed animal manure to dry as fire burning material. I finally made it to Lake Issy-Kul, Frieder and I hiked the dozen kilometers down from the village.Incredible clear water! The lake is quite large, over 182 km (113 miles) long. It is the second largest highest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicaca.


Our days settled into a bit of a routine. We would wake before dawn and stoke the fire. As the Bakyt’s mother started boiling water and milking the cows, his father would go and prepare the animals to go to pasture. All the animals from the neighborhood are grouped together to make a herd or flock. Daily sheparding duties are rotated through the owners. After the animals have headed out, morning tea and bread was served before starting daily duties. Women are responsible for all things in the household and men most things outside. Especially in the winter, it seems that women bear the grunt of the work: preparing food, cleaning, getting water and tending to males. Most winter duties revolve around maintaining life, food and shelter. Bakyt’s family is almost entirely self-sufficient with their food besides salt, sugar, rice and flour. Bread is baked every few days in an outside kiln, dairy collected daily, animals are occasionally slaughtered, carrots and onions stored in a root cellar and other fruits and veggies are canned for the winter. In the afternoon, the animals would return from the pasture splitting off from the herds to their respective homes unaided. We would feed they some hay as the winter pasture is insufficient before penning them up for the night. Outside work would continue until it was dark upon which dinner and tea was served. After eating a starch heavy meal, Bakyt’s family would usually would watch an hour or two of television before heading off to bed.


Bakyt had many friends to visit as he does not often make it home. In Kyrgyzstan no one just drops by and says hi. To come into someone’s house involves a lengthy stay often centered around tea and food and is know as “guesting”. Basic rules include never arriving empty handed, always removing your shoes and eating lots to compliment your host.


With Bakyt in Kara-Koo, the pattern of guesting became apparent after a few visits. Upon entering the home and

removing our shoes we were always ushered to the table where heaps of candy, breads, jams, salads, cakes and dried fruits sit. Piles of boorsuk, little fried bits of dough, are heaped around all of the food. From the moment you sit your tea mug and your plate will and should never be empty. The first few guesting experiences I had I

would eat upon arrival until I was full at this point. I quickly learned that this is the wrong approach. Because the initial table spread is usually just the beginning. At least one more course, sometimes three or four main dishes will be served. Soup is followed by plov (rice and meat) and/or besh-barmak (noodles and meat). I never seemed to do a good job pacing myself and always ended up overstuffed. I found the best technique for dealing with the pressure to eat to be leaving some food on my plate as whenever it was empty it was refilled. My “jok, men toidum” (No, I am full) never seemed to be heard. Tea is continued to be served until the guests or the elder initiate the end at which Amin, a Muslim gesture of thanks, is conducted. We were always sent away with a goodie bag filled with candies, fruits, borsok and bread. Being with Bakyt entailed guesting multiple times a day. I have never eaten in the quantity, never felt that kind of pressure to eat and never put on weight so quickly.


New Years Resolution: Try to take things in as slow as I can. Cheers!


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Transportation


Transportation in Kyrgyzstan is an humorous and often length undertaking. Most people do not own cars, so public transportation dominates. Within Bishkek and other larger towns, people make their way around via buses and marshrutkas. Within Bishkek I find marshrutkas to be the quickest form of transport as they pick people up and drop them off anywhere. This is compared with buses that only stop at fixed bus stop locations. The downside of marshrutkas is that routes can be difficult to figure out and people are often stuffed in like sardines. There are moments when I am certain not one more person could possibly fit inside but somehow they do. Often I find myself half hunched over, with my face pressed into some woman’s purse and my ass blocking half of the drivers view as I try to catch a glimpse of where we are.


Outside of the cities, transport is via long-distance marshutkas, shared taxis, buses, hitch-hiking, horses and walking. Although Kyrgyzstan is not a big country, the winding nature of the roads, all of which are in very poor condition, mean that it can take several hours to travel a hundred kilometers. For long distances, I have often opted for shared taxis as they are often the quickest and most comfortable. For many rural areas they are also the only option. Departure depends on the ability to fill the taxi with other passengers, unless you are willing to pay for the whole vehicle. Speed of travel is contingent on many things: weather, road conditions and most importantly the driver. The driver decides where, when and how often to stop. Without a doubt there will be a stop for a meal in roadside cafes. Most of my trips have involved stops for multiple mechanical repairs, visiting families, delivering packages, fixing flat tires and on one occasion stopping to do a couple shots of vodka.

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Driving safety is not highly emphasized. Passing occurs at the driver’s leisure and the passenger’s terror. Curves, oncoming traffic, or the shoulder of the road… no condition seems unsuitable for passing. This driving style coupled with the poor road conditions can make for a quite dangerous combination. I am certain that being in a vehicle is one of the most dangerous things I subject myself to in Kyrgyzstan.