Woke up with a baby crying on the airplane, pushed the map button on the little screen. We were flying over the Baltic Sea. Yellow soft blue of sunrise leaked into the airplane through a few open windows. Among sleepers, the father put his baby up on a shoulder, humming. The baby reached. Pushing on the soft plastic light bulb icon, he lit it up. Hours earlier, entering security at JFK, a couple embraced below a sign that read Grab and Go. Preparing to fly through Moscow to Bishkek, I had hoped to spot Edward Snowden.
Spent $15 on a latte at Moscow Sheremetyevo looking out the windows to a scene of trees and fog, flew through Bishkek, and landed in Osh, in southeastern Kyrgyzstan. The moon was full. It was the middle of Ramadan. We drove in between mountains, stopping at a Russian place to eat meat and potatoes on the roadside. Whitney Houston was on the television. When we arrived in the middle of the night, finally, I met up with my cycling comrades at the Sputnick Inn.
Emerging from the people’s Tulip revolution in 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, coming from this southern land of the country, took the presidency of Kyrgyzstan. Five years later, his home – once an outstanding complex of buildings around a pretty garden, with a vast ornamental yurt at the center stood in ruins. Corruption had continued under his reign despite the demands. The Kyrgz national protesters, bent on showing the ethnic Uzbeks in the Fergana valley where the power laid, sacked the compound with a torrential thoroughness. Every building, including the yurt, had been set ablaze.
This valley, primarily made up of ethnic Uzbeks, was divided between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the southwest under Stalin, with his directive to isolate minorities, thus creating tension across borders. We rode out of the city center through the heat of summer munching on the fiery red tomatoes, into the cornfields marked by glorious sunflowers edges through an agricultural landscape ripe with symbols I could not read.
Down the road we hoofed over a pass and came to a monument commemorating the events that transpired in 2010. Over the hill from the monument, we came upon an abandoned apple orchard. There were beds beneath the trees with decomposing mattresses full of rotting apples. The apples on the trees were bright green.
Later that afternoon, while riding along the border dividing the farmland of the valley, one member of my group decided to venture to the checkpoint. A Kyrgyz man walking down the road suddenly became animated, ran after him screaming, “Uzbekistan, no, Uzbekistan!” and then started shooting as though he had a gun on his shoulder. He was laughing so we all laughed.
The roar of the train jolted me awake. We had camped in the farmer’s yard. A man named Marat welcomed us when we showed up – five guys on bikes with tents after sundown the night before. The younger boy giggled, looking at my sleeping comrade, who was sprawled out, drooling on his sleeping bag. His older sister fetched water and brought it back to the house. We didn’t meet a mother there. Marat was carving a melon up for breakfast. We sat down to eat.
We scooped curds and apricot jelly with hard bread and tried to ask Marat about his life. Was he Uzbek or Kyrgyz? Our words weren’t so intelligible as we moved our mouths. The salts of this funky cheese ball chewed on after breakfast were disappearing from my teeth. Spreading scapulae, I took a deep breathe in, pushed the base of my palm bones through the handlebars, and peddled into the mountain tunnel. Darkness and fear of speeding vehicles passed into a sense of coolness, a respite from the sun that intensified since we began our ascent out of the Fergana Valley. Sweat beads on skin soaked in the tunnel’s echoes.
A gush of wind came through the mountain tunnel, drying out my eyes. I remembered the heavy winds blowing through the the open windows of the fire-ravaged downtown loft we had shared. Rattling heat pipes, junkies yelling on the corner, frequent trips to the bodega. She had left. My brother came over and we swung crow bars into the red wall that we built years before, painted the trademark color. The cats disappeared beneath the floorboards.
Lost on the highway in the rain careening through downtown Atlanta. She was screaming, threatening to go to the backseat. She went there, and sobbed. Horrible names. On an eight-lane highway, it was raining like hell.What were we going to do about dinner? The wipers beat against dirty south music blasting. She threatened to jump out of the car. Then we got to the sushi place.
We tried to negotiate over dinner. Make a decision. We had eaten too much. I paid. Still unresolved, we got back in the car. Driving through the rain. It happened again, her in the backseat. She threatened to open the door again. How could I? We pulled over along the highway. She left. I sold the furniture and gave the flat screen away to a family of Bengali cab drivers. I needed to get out, and I needed to know what happened. Back and forth—calls, texts—how we had become tyrants.
Later that night at a loft in Brooklyn, a group of friends proposed a biking trip through Central Asia in the summer. “How did you choose Kyrgyzstan?” I asked. “With a dart on the map,” said my fellow traveler. The next week an email came saying the tickets had been purchased.
So I learned about Kyrgyzstan on the Internet, this mountainous landlocked country at the eastern end of the post-Soviet world. Uniquely among the Stans, former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union—Kyrgyzstan has had two government revolutions since declaring independence in 1991. In 2005 and in 2010, people took to the streets and presidents, seen as dictatorial, nepotistic and corrupt, were ousted. With a heavy U.S. military presence to run the war in Afghanistan, the country was increasingly touted as democratic and safe for travelers. Yet amidst these revolutions, inter-ethnic violence within the country had cost thousands of lives.
Coming out of the tunnel, the blue sky once again lifted my skull. I spotted a hawk amongst red jagged purple mountains. The descent picked up and I was flying down the hill. I looked to my left. I had to stop. I took my camera out to take a picture. A decomposing bridge in the bottom right was curious, and the color of the snaky river. My cycling partners had gone ahead out of sight. I got back on my bike and settled into the rhythm of cycling, breathing.
Then I was propelled through the air. A moment of silence between the crack of the back wheel and the explosion of the tire popping. Thrown. My body took flight behind me. The sound of the helmet smashing into the car windshield hit with the shock and pain through my spine. With the pain of collision, I spun out, a full rotation right, the world was spinning.
END OF PART 1