The simultaneous sensation of relief and guilt whilst you squat over a bucket in an out house with the hum of trucker drivers on one side and your bed for the night on the other tells you are in a bad place.
I’d been battling with a funny tummy for a few days with bloating and lack of appetite plaguing me on the ride from Osh to Irkeshtam. This peaked during our night in our $2 at night accommodation with excruciating bowel pain twisting my body as I tried to determine my best plan of action. The toilet was at the the end of a tough mudder style assault course up on the hillside; so was out of the question. There was the wash pan we were given but shitting on an artefact of kindness from our host was too much. There was the floor outside or maybe just a plastic bag.
After a few hours tossing and turning, sweating out the options I decided just to go for it. On jumping out of our old railway carriage with torch in hand the mud out house of our host greeted me. Instinctively exploring the hut my light shined through the opening; there in the middle of the hut like a saviour from above was a bucket. It seemed to have a halo how bright it appeared. With lightning fast thinking the corner of the hut became my new home and the bucket my new best friend.
Like when you get any new best friend you can have moments of insecurity. With as many rounds as rumble in the jungle the steps to our accommodation became my corner between rounds; my mind started to fill the darkness.
Irkeshtam is a town which feels like it exists by accident: part existing to serve the truckers crossing the border into China and part to house workers of the concrete factory right by the border (presumably as part of China’s ‘belt and buckle initiative’). It is dirty, dusty and temporary in structure. The children and families present provide a permanent feel.
The homes here are old railway carriages on rocks and accomodation options are limited. The named hostel had one cupboard with two bunk beds that when peering through the door looked liked they had the old man’s pants Instagram filter turned on. The other hotel provided horror film vibes with its smashed glass front and enthusiastic children leading me to my demise up a green cast iron staircase.
Fortunately, an entrepreneurial lady saw us and offered us two beds in one of her carriages. The first display was a carriage full of junk hiding two beds. In honour to every home improvement show I could see the gem underneath. I asked how much, she wanted me to go first, “$2 for two”, she accepted immediately. My starting offer was too high.
Now, what would you do for $2? Would you clear out an old carriage full of junk? Fix two beds to ensure they stay up right? Would you make up two beds with fresh linen? Would you provide boiling water? Would you clean the floor with just a cloth on your hands and knees? Would you clean a table that had been outside for too long and carry it up into the bedroom? Would you provide water to wash with? Would you set up an electric cooking stove? This lady did all this and more for us. The time spent seemed at odds with the fee. For perspective we had paid $11 for two beds in a shared room the night before and $2.5 for a 15 minute barber cut. Either she was a keen host or $2 was really a lot more than I thought.
We got chatting to our host in broken English: she was originally from Yugoslavia and moved ten years ago and lived in Osh for awhile. She had kids but they had grown up and lived elsewhere. Her big efforts to provide things for us provided us a sense of comfort that Irkeshtam was lacking.
The circumstances in Irkeshtam (and other parts of Kyrgyzstan) can be signified by the behaviour I saw towards bottled water. When our host saw the bottled water we had purchased she eagerly asked to have some and grabbed one of nearly empty bottles. Our host in Sary Tash did exactly the same. I don’t think I have seen such behaviour for a gulp of ‘fresh’ water. When you normally drink warm dirty water the purified stuff must taste like liquid gold.
To get this water we visited the local newsagents. On entry I felt like I had traveled back through time: Children, younger than 10, greeted us into their shop which was also their home. Their mother, sewing on the floor in the room to the left, let the children begin to serve us. When we asked for 8 waters the child looked overjoyed but her manager(mother) soon stepped in. Now I’ve read about hyperinflation but never seen it in action: with the manager now in control our waters soon became 15% more expensive in a matter of minutes. The extra pennies on the water and the food we bought only meant we used up the last of our Kyrgy dollars.
As the brutal rounds came to an end, my friendship with the bucket was under serious doubt as these thoughts provided a sense of guilt for ruining our host’s potentially valuable bucket. Also, like all bad friends it was full of crap. Disposal was required which only added to my sense of shame as I would be contributing to Irkeshtam’s sorry state. I, again, found myself weighing up my options. With it being a residential area, a kids playground and my host’s backyard I knew I would have to be thorough, but not to thorough just in case there was to be a rematch.
There was a large mound of rubble near by which seemed appropriate. I trotted over with the bucket in hand. On arrival it became apparent the rubble mound was the star attraction for those in the disposal business. I lodged the bucket in and for extra security jammed a large rock on top.
On returning to bed, my stomach felt like Mohammed Ali’s and I dozed till Sunrise. The rising of the sun was not the end of my stomach pain, which continued with me way into China, and our happy host turned up in the morning to see us off. All I was doing was hoping she wouldn’t notice the missing bucket!
To visit a place like this makes you wonder how people end up there, where the children who are growing up there will end up and questioning the situation where all that effort is worth $2. When you see the poor nomads of Kyrgyzstan you can reason the poverty through tradition and culture but when that poverty looks modern it feels uncomfortably man made. Hopefully, the belt and road initiative through Irkeshtam will improve their lot and that lady will soon own some prime retail real estate to sell perfume and chocolates to tourists and truckers, and maybe start charging more than $2.