This is a post about how the world is never as it seems, about how our travels can so often surprise us, about how we never know what we’ll find or who we’ll meet at any given time. And it is also a post about why that ‘unknown’ is, in my opinion, the best travel companion any of us could ever ask for.
There I stood. On a street. A quiet street. No vehicles, no people, not even any animals wandering around.
It had been almost thirty minutes since the mashrukta, the local style of mini-bus, had dropped me off in the center of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan, a small village located some 1700 meters (5600 feet) above sea level between the towering Tian-Shan Mountain Range and the beautiful alpine lake of Issky-Kul. And I wasn’t making any progress at all in terms of finding accommodation for the night. I had arrived without a plan and had only come to Tamga after meeting a local man in Karakol, a town situated 90 kilometers away, who recommended I pay this village a visit.
And now, here was I, just me and my stuff, looking all around and finding absolutely nothing, for quite some time. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that, “There’s nothing to do in this village. I’m ready to leave and find someplace ‘better’.” So I grabbed my bag and started walking towards the dusty patch of ground near the only intersection in the village, hoping to find some vehicle that would give me a lift out to the main road so that I could catch a bus to a bigger town further along the lake.
As I walked along, however, I soon noticed a tiny concrete building, more like a room, on my left with a sign that read “Beauty Salon” in both Russian and English. And out of nowhere I decided to go inside, ever-so-curious about the local price for a pedicure and for a trim of my afro. Actually, I figured that going inside the beauty salon would be my one last effort to find a place a stay and upon greeting the woman sitting at the table, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, in English, “Guesthouse?”. Expecting her not to understand, quite surprised was I when she immediately walked over to a shelf, grabbed a business card and handed it to me.
It was a business card for the Askar & Tamara Guesthouse right there in Tamga. I called the number on the card, an English-speaking woman answered the phone and before I even had time to realize what was happening, a 10-year old Russian girl on a bicycle was leading me through the village straight to the guesthouse.
We reached the front door and out walked Tamara, the owner, a 60-ish year old Kyrgyz woman with a huge smile on her face. She extended her hand, introduced herself and I kid you not when I say that in an instant, Tamga went from being a town I could definitely live without spending more than five minutes in, to the town that will probably be the highlight of my visit to Kyrgyzstan.
That’s how travel works, and I love it. I love the ups and, yes, I even love the downs. I love the disappointments and the sudden, brilliant surprises that often soon follow. And I love the fascinating people that I meet when I least expect it as well.
A Glimpse Of Tamga, Kyrgyzstan
Let me show you what Tamga looks like.
Perhaps you can understand why, after only thirty minutes in this eerily quiet village, I was ready to leave. I have a feeling that many travelers would gladly give Tamga a miss based upon first impressions. But had I left town so quickly, never would I have discovered what lies behind Tamga’s empty streets, behind its mix of wooden village homes and handful of Communist apartment blocks, behind the few shops, the empty bazaar, the donkeys hiding behind trees and the occasional Kyrgyz man on horseback riding through town. Just like with any city, town or village in the world, behind whatever leads us to form our initial impression of a place, lies the opportunity to have an unforgettable travel experience. And here in Tamga, this village in the middle of nowhere, in a country that is already quite in the middle of nowhere as a whole, an unforgettable travel experience certainly did unfold.
And again, it all began with Tamara and her guesthouse.
Tamara, along with her husband Askar, owns the kind of guesthouse that you don’t ever want to leave. It’s simple, the rooms are basic and comfortable, but the conversations with Tamara that take place all the time is what makes this place so unique. She speaks excellent English, she loves to talk about all aspects of Kyrgyzstan, the world and life in general, she is very outspoken, her laughter and smile are incredibly infectious, she takes extreme pleasure in cooking delicious local dishes for her guests to enjoy and she goes out of her way to ensure that one’s time in Tamga is as rewarding as possible.
I think I spent half of the three days I stayed in Tamga speaking with her, learning about her country, hearing about the trip to America that she went on a couple of years ago after winning a competition, exchanging ideas about politics, religion and travel, and on and on. I spoke more with her than with any other Kyrgyz person on this trip and I could have talked with her for a lot longer if I had the time.
A Beautiful Lake, Colorful Canyon, A Quiet Walk & Some Great Food
On my first day in the village, after expressing an interest in heading down to the shore of the Issyk-Kul Lake, Tamara walked me over to the beginning of a path near her guesthouse and, with that standard smile on her face, began excitedly giving me directions on how to get there. I had to hold in my laughter as her directions kept going and going and going while her genuine love for her village and for the lake became more and more apparent. She was excited for me to see this lake and after hearing how to get there, and remembering almost none of the directions, I was excited as well.
So, off I went, trying to play over in my mind the directions she had given, which went something like this:
“Walk straight down this path between the trees until you pass two new houses, then find two more houses and walk slightly to the right around them before heading straight for some time until you reach the 120 steps. Go down the 120 steps and you will soon enter the large forest. Continue through the forest between the hills and eventually you will find a gate. Enter the gate and turn left, walk down, cross the stream and climb up the steps to the hanging bridge. Walk across the bridge until you reach the main road and turn left again. After walking for some time, you will look for the building with the blue roof, maybe it’s a green roof, and then look for a path that heads to the right. You will come to another gate. Enter that gate, turn left and soon you will reach the entrance to the beach on the right, down some steps.”
Somehow, about forty-five minutes later, I found the beach and the lake, and was able to witness a remarkable scene of clear blue water with the massive snow-covered mountains in the background.
After an evening that involved more conversation with Tamara, some of her homemade pilaf, pickles and compote, I slept well in silent Tamga, waking up the next morning eager to see where the day would lead. And over the course of that following day, I ended up having a local man by the name of Bik take me over to the spectacular Skazka Canyon, located down a dirt road, with not a single other person around for miles. We hiked around for about an hour, soaking up brilliant view after brilliant view.
Upon returning to the village, I went for a long walk through the fields, along the paths and into the tiny villages around Tamga itself, finding plenty of empty space, the kind of surroundings that made clearing my head so very easy, helping me to contemplate everything that I’ve been experiencing and what I can learn from it all.
There was also a fifteen-minute ‘conversation’ with a drunk Kyrgyz man who must have hugged me more times than I’ve been hugged overall in my life. And I then spent considerable time waving and smiling to all of the people I passed, almost always receiving a wave and smile in return, whether from the men on horseback, the women chatting in front of their homes, the elderly man walking down the street with his cane or the children playing around.
Dinner was had at the only restaurant in town, with the two beautifully friendly women staff providing a most ideal meal of chicken soup and salad. And as I ate my meal in that empty, one-room, Soviet-style eatery, slurping up my soup and occasionally talking to the staff in a mix of my horrendous Russian and their limited English, I could not believe how much Tamga had grown on me so quickly. Had I not been pressed for time, I knew that I would have stuck around this village for many, many additional days.
But the next morning, after a leisurely breakfast of fresh mountain eggs, homemade pancakes and some hot tea, the time unfortunately arrived for me to leave. I went to my room, packed my bag, paid my bill, had one last conversation with Tamara, one last conversation so full of stories, of laughter, of insights into the Kyrgyz people and their culture, and then just like that, I said goodbye.
And moments later, there was I, right where the minibus had dropped me off a few days before, right where I had been looking around wondering how on earth I was going to find a way out of this dreadful place and reach somewhere ‘better’. But now I could only smile, feeling as happy as one could possibly be at having not skipped town that day, at having allowed the unknown to take over yet again.
And all I needed for this to happen was to simply remember that we never know what lies around the next corner when we travel, or in this case, we never know where a visit to a tiny concrete beauty salon in a remote mountain town in the middle of nowhere, might lead.
ASKAR & TAMARA GUESTHOUSE (Tamga, Kyrgyzstan)
Address: In Tamga village, directly next to the Bazaar
Email/Phone: [email protected] / +996 394625361
Price: $16 per person (home-cooked meals for around $3-$4)
(Tamara has no idea how the internet works but if you’re in Tamga, be sure to tell her Derek sent you. It will blow her away as she loves how people all over the world can be connected through this internet thing that she doesn’t understand!)
Is Tamga your kind of destination? Have you ever had a similar experience, while traveling or at home, where everything changed for the better in one quick, random moment?