There are no buses from Osh to Bishkek. The 500 kilometer road traverses the Kygyz Altau and Talas Altau mountain ranges over three high passes, winding its way up and down through just two small towns and a handful of villages. There isn’t enough demand to warrant what would be a hardship bus service. A shared taxi would take 24 hours, I was told, which could mean anything from 14 to 40 hours. Imagining being cramped, my knees pressed against my nose, probably sitting in between two enormous women each with screaming children in their laps, I decided to spend the money and hire an entire taxi. What an enjoyable night’s luxury it would be, bouncing along while sprawled across the back seat asleep while the driver plays my cassettes over and over again, waking up to sunrise over the magnificent mountain scenery. Or so I thought.
The “taxi bazaar” in Osh is a brightly colored sea of vehicles ranging from the decrepit old Ladas to brand new Russian Nivas, and even an old Mercedes Benz. Some drivers stood around chatting with each other, some lay inside their cars fast asleep, but as soon as I arrived and they all sniffed the possibility of ripping off a tourist. In a flash, a crowd of thirty people surrounded me, everybody staring, everybody shouting their prices. One more subdued driver hung around the fringes of the group, occasionally flashing a shy smile splashed with a few golden teeth. Eventually he looked up at me and uttered one magic word: “Ford.”
I always try to negotiate with the less aggressive people, the ones who start closest to what I know to be the normal price, and have kind faces and manners, if it’s possible to tell such a thing. Akram, as he was named, was all three of these things and I immediately felt comfortable with him and had an intuitive sense that he could be trusted. And how could I question an old Ford? Within 15 minutes, we’d arranged for him to pick me up at my hotel first thing in the morning.
Akram showed up at the hotel as promised and as I expected made it clear from the start that his top priority was making me comfortable. He grabbed my backpack from me and carried it out to the car and we were off, after he said a short thanks to God. Is it alright if he smokes, he motioned to me apologetically, a question I was not used to hearing, and I gave my consent. Once underway, his main project was finding the optimal vantage point for us to stop and take pictures of the turquoise lakes surrounded by jagged peaks blanketed in snow. I really liked him.
Akram asked me where I am from, and I told him America. “Which America? England, Germany, France? Which America?”
“Germany,” I replied not wanting to risk any further confusion from an explanation that not every rich western country was called America.
Despite having hardly any language in common, Akram managed to spill out his entire life story within the first 5 hours, in a mixture of English, German, Uzbek and Tajik (which is very similar to Farsi so I can manage some words). He was ethnically a mixture of Tajik and Uzbek and had married a Tajik woman from his village. He has 4 children, the eldest of whom speaks very good english and knows how to use a computer, he told me beaming with pride. They all live in Kyzyl-Kija, a small politically Kyrgyz town near the Uzbek border and an enclave of Tajikstan. His livelihood is his car which he drives back and forth between Osh and Bishkek, breaking it up with occasional trips to Kyzyl-Kija to see his family, and finally spend the night in his own bed instead of his car. The car cost of fortune — he spent $850 on the 1984 German-made Ford last year. Along with the $150 for a driver’s license, he had spent his life’s savings on the possibility of becoming a driver. Akram’s dream is to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, but he has to save the fortune it would cost him. He also hates the police.
The road was horrible. Though at times covered by a recent asphalt, much of the road is a dirt track laced with enormous craters. Akram was constantly swerving the wheel to and fro to minimize the strain on his Ford. But as we climbed the first of the steep passes, avoiding the potholes became increasingly difficult in his struggle to maintain momentum. As we rounded a hairpin turn at top speed, we bounced over an enormous gash in the road which had been obscured by water, and with a loud grating noise the Ford ground to a halt. He shook his head, I shook mine. This was no surprise to me, since everything always breaks down around here and always near the top of a pass. A car was passing every 5 or 10 minutes. There was no reason at all to panic.
Akram rolled up his sleeves and set to work. He removed the right wheel, cleaned it out, and replaced it. We climbed back into the car, said thanks be to God, and tried again, only to roll backwards with the same grating noise. We removed the left wheel, cleaned it out, and replaced it. We climbed back into the car, said thanks be to God, and tried again. Same noise, and we rolled a bit further backwards. This time, we removed both wheels and Akram fiddled with them while he shifted the car in and out of gear and began to look grave. “Gross problem” he said to me, shaking his head pointing at the crank shaft and indicating that it was broken, and that the car wasn’t going to move. Three hours had passed and we now had to try to find a truck to tow it into the next town.
A few Trucks passed and Akram waved them down. The first said, it’s too heavy for it. The second said that it was in too much of a hurry. Akram suspected otherwise and told me “I am Uzbek. Truck Kyrgyz. No friends.” During the hours spent on the side of the road I had read up on our surroundings in the guidebook. “The people around here aren’t very friendly” it warned with remarkable but unfortunate accuracy.
Why don’t we coast back down the pass? Akram had been trying to find a truck to take us up the rest of the pass but it really didn’t seem practical. He took my suggestion. Akram climbed back into the Ford while I pushed from behind giving us enough of a start and I climbed in. We were cruising down the mountain to the next little settlement of yurt tents, where there was a family picnicking and a bizarre looking Soviet spaceship-like truck parked right next to them. He told me to stay back and in the car, or they’d ask over the odds for the 40 kilometer tow. He returned two minutes later and said that they’d tow us in exchange for all the petrol in his tank, which we spent the next 20 minutes siphoning out and into plastic bottles.
It was the middle of the night when we reached the town of Karakol, which we’d past through many hours before. The picnickers would let him leave the car parked in their “driveway” for $0.15 per month and we set it there to rest and I grabbed my backpack and half-eaten package of biscuits. What to do now? Akram said he would go with me to Bishkek, and I immediately protested and said it wasn’t necessary. What I didn’t realize was that without his car now, Akram had nothing, and would have to go to Bishkek to find some kind of job, he had no idea what. “Kyzyl-Kija no work. Osh no work. Bishkek work, Inshallah,” if God wills it. “What will you do?” He shrugged.
“You have friends in Bishkek?” He nodded. “You can sleep with friends?” He nodded. “How much will it cost to have the Ford repaired?” He scribbled $100 to $150 in the gravel. “You will work in Bishkek until you have $150 to have the car repaired?”
“No repair! Eat, eat! 4 muchachos. I work. 4 muchachos eat!” I realized that with the $10 to $20 he makes every couple of days or so he must support a family of five, maybe even more. With his now useless Ford he had been the only source of income for the whole family. I immediately felt horrible at how casual I had been about this whole mess. For me it was hardly an inconvenience. To the contrary, the whole experience was rather interesting and spending the night in Karakol meant seeing all of the magnificent scenery in its splendor during the daylight. But for him this was a major crisis and his family who depended upon him. “Krisis,” he muttered.
We slept for a couple of hours in the picnicking family’s living room floor but I tossed and turned. Akram had rather disconcertingly warned me during a brief moment when no one else was around to keep all of my money well hidden. Now paranoid, I pulled even the straps of my backpack under my pillow so that I would feel it if anyone went rummaging. The alarm on my watch ended this at five o’clock in the morning when we trudged out to the bus station to find a mini-bus.
Twelve hours and three high mountain passes later, we bounced and bumped along into Bishkek stuffed into a Lada with a family of five who had given us a ride for the last stretch. Akram led me down to the street and pointed to the hotel and motioned that he would go to his friends in the other direction. Tomorrow I would start to make arrangements to go trekking in the mountains. Tomorrow he would start trying to find work, and I thought of his family back in Kyzyl-Kija who had no idea what had happened. When would they hear that he was now working in Bishkek? As we said a heartfelt goodbye, I confess to feeling quite ashamed of myself. I was overcome with the sensation that my little joy ride here was making some kind of a mockery of the hardships which are beyond the imagination of most of us at home.