At dusk about 20km outside of Jal-al-abad we’ve stopped on the side of road when a brilliant baby blue Soyuz motorcycle drives past us with a sidecar full of hay. The driver waves to us as he goes by and we jump on our bikes to catch him; there are barely any motorcycles in Kyrgyzstan, let alone ones this cool that run so well. I come up next to him and we motion for him to pull over. He obliges with a smile.
His name is Ibrahim: he’s 26 and lives here in Oktyabrskoe. We ask about the bike and try to explain how impressed we are. For him, the bike is more of what he could get his hands on rather than what he wants; it’s useful, he says, it can carry a lot of things. Conversation doesn’t flow naturally, but his smile is so sincere that we keep talking for a while. He asks us where we’re headed tonight. At this point the sun is low so we answer truthfully: we’re not sure, we’ll probably find a place to stay somewhere around here. Before we can finish trying to explain, he invites us to his home in true Kyrgyz fashion. We double check if that’s ok. “Of course,” he says, “I just have to finish this delivery so my brother will take you there.”
After a month in Central Asia, I’m still continuously taken aback by the hospitality here. It’s almost beyond words. The amount of people that have invited us into their homes within literally minutes of knowing us is astounding. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s obvious we’re travellers, or because there actually is a true faith in other people, but it makes it feel like here we would never be stranded.
Ibrahim’s house is nothing short of gorgeous. Just like many across the arid center of this part of the world, it’s built more like a courtyard complex rather than a house. The two structures –a living are and a kitchen—are filled in by a sitting area, a well, small pen for sheep, a large pen for sheep and cows, a massive stack of hay, and a well-manicured, extremely bountiful garden.
Once inside we meet his family, who subsists mostly off their animals. They’re no longer nomads, but they’re still herders. Every morning before the sun rises Ibrahim’s father takes the cows and goats out to the hills to graze, only returning at sunset. Both of his brothers look close at me when we first meet.
“Where are you from?”
I respond and they ask again, “no, but where are you from, who are your ancestors?”
“Are you sure you’re not Kurdish?” There’s excitement in their eyes.
It turns out that Ibrahim and his family are part of the very small (0.2%) Kurdish population in Kyrgyzstan. And apparently, I look very Kurdish.
I smile as I look back at them and say apologetically that, no, I’m not Kurdish. I watch his brother’s enthusiasm fade. I almost want to say I am just to see him happy again.
Looking over at Ibrahim, I start to realize that our features our strikingly similar. If I didn’t have this beard and was a bit more tan we could definitely be related –not brothers maybe, but passably cousins. The more time we’re here, the more it becomes clear how much of a melting pot central Asia really is.
Ibrahim points to the tapchan under the grapevines, “You will sleep here, ok?” The tapchan is the corner piece of the courtyard and the nucleus of the home. It’s aesthetically perfect, but also practical and multi-purpose: a sitting area, a bed, and a place to eat when a table with no legs is placed on top. The garden surrounding it is full of flowers, some in wooden beds, the other in pots of tires cut open to hold a mixture of greens. The grapes above it hang low. Yes, that is the exact place I want to be, I think to myself. It’s very much ok.
We spend the fading night on the awning. The air the valley is perfect for a summer evening: crisp but not sharp. A slow breeze hangs in the courtyard. Despite having already eaten, Ibrahim’s family fills the table with food: bread, tea, noodles (laghman) and literally the best tomatoes I have ever eaten that are straight from their garden. I try to explain about my own mother’s garden and how my family also grows grapes as we eat through the bounty of the small harvest, but either it just seems extremely ordinary or the message doesn’t go through: Ibrahim just smiles and keeps eating.
As we sit in the garden talking in a patchwork conversation the night is full with visitors. Family and neighbors stop by unannounced and completely natural, coming through the front door, back gate, or even the garden. Each just stopping to say hi in the sleepy village; each of them pausing briefly on the tapchan’s floral mattress, some reclining sideways on one elbow, talking to us like pictures of pharaohs in a night by the Nile. Ibrahim’s brother returns with a friend who speaks good English, a sixteen year-old neighbor who brings us chocolate covered sunflower seeds that his mom got from China. Through him, an older cousin, and two dictionaries, we’re able to fill the whole night with words.
Later that night, a friend with another Soyuz, this one black with the sidecar replaced by a couple boards of wood, comes over to refill his battery with water. Under the porch light we use a wide syringe and a bottle covered in dust to get everything back to the right levels. Ibrahim asks us if we know how to adjust his radiator. After taking a look at it, I’m quickly reminded how lucky we are to be doing this trip on such new bikes. I have no idea how to fix it –not that I’m the greatest mechanic— nor would I even know where to find parts like that, aside from scrounging a Kyrgyz scrapyard.
We head towards bed on the tapchan and find Jie and Ibrahim already tucked under their own blankets. Jie with a mask pulled over his eyes, Ibrahim shirtless and with the comforter under his arms. The hospitality is so intimate it is almost surreal; Ibrahim has not only invited us into his house, but sleeps next to us in the same bed. I may not be Kurdish, but tonight we feel as close as brothers.
I wake up a couple times before dawn to the sound of the animals. First, the rooster crowing well before the sun comes up
(everything childhood cartoons have told you is a lie); later it’s by the drive of the cattle out of the gate. Each time I lay with my eyes closed, listening to a day in the life here go by. When
I finally do open them, the sun has come over the hills and the sky is a white-blue. Looking up into the grapevines, I’m filled with a feeling that I can only describe as disbelief. It’s an
inability to grasp how satisfied I am with this moment in time and place that I only ended up in on happenstance and pure human goodness.
As the greens in the veins of the leaves begin to sharpen and separate away from the sky, we get up, have breakfast, and get back on the road. A moment detached from the rest, yet so defining of our time in Kyrgyzstan.