A soft breeze swept across the deserted, semi-paved road, gently tossing some of the dust into the air. Not so far in the distance, a cow could be heard mooing at a local pedestrian while a couple birds chirped to one another. After two years of living in Europe's biggest city, I needed to escape modern civilization for a bit, hence the current setting of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. Surrounded by some of the most incredible nature on planet earth, and nestled among the towering Tian Shan mountains, this city seemed to defy any notion of time and modernity. Buildings, store fronts, cars, and the roads all looked as if it could be some rural setting back in the 1950s (well, except for the occasional cell phone). Normally, at this point, I would be wearing a backpack filled with granola and water bottles full of coffee as I ascended one of the surrounding peaks, but today I had a different plan.
While the mountains were the primary reason for my visit, Karakol had another important draw. It just so happens that the town is located just about 20km (12.5 miles) from Lake Issyk Kol, the second largest alpine lake in the world, with water's so blue you'd think the whole blue man group drown in it. That was my destination today. It was 10:30 in the morning and there I was, standing next to a travel buddy, Gautier, as we held out or thumbs, hoping some friendly driver would stop and take us to our destination. Technically, we could have gone by taxi, but since neither of us looked one bit Kyrgyz, we would likely be overcharged. So, to bypass that whole ordeal, hitching was our decision.
Not yet 30 seconds had passed until the first car stopped. Gautier, not knowing much Russian, stepped aside to let me speak. "Здраствуйте. Иссык Кол? (Hello, are you going to Issyk Kol?) I asked. He shook his head 'no', then drove off. A few more cars passed without stopping, but then a thin, middle aged man pulled over. Again, I asked the same question, but unfortunately we got the same result. He shook his head and drove off.
"Maybe we should go a little further down the road? Closer to the lake," Gautier suggested. I agreed, thinking we might have better luck if we were a bit closer. We turned and started walking, but then, just a minute later, something happened. My ears picked up on the sound of car tires driving over dirt, when suddenly a dark, gray sedan pulled alongside us. In the front seats sat a larger man and a petite woman, both looking to be in their mid 50s.
"Куда" (Where to) asked the woman.
"Иссык Кол" (Issyk Kol)
"Давайте!" (Let's go!)
The guy stepped out and opened the door. Several crates of food lined the back seat, by he quickly moved those aside, giving us a place to sit. In we hopped, thanking them both and saying how grateful we were as we headed off. The woman turned and began to ask us a few questions, first with the basics like who we were, what were we doing in Kyrgyzstan, and how I knew Russian, all the while, the guy pointed out different sites in the town, like the school where their kids used to go and the museum. We, in turn, asked them a few questions, to find out a little about who they were. Everything seemed perfect and the couple seemed as friendly as you could get which lulled me into a complete sense of comfort, thinking absolutely nothing could go wrong.
A few minutes later, we reached a fork in the road, one direction leading to the lake and the other to the town. The man, who had since introduced himself as Tash (I probably spelled that wrong), stopped and pointed, "Вот озеро, туда." (There's the lake.) Woah, that was easy, I thought as I exited the car. First hitchhiking experience in the country and it went better than I possibly could have imagined. Gautier and I thanked them both, then they drove off in the other direction towards the town. "What nice people," he said to me.
We continued down the other road to the lake, surrounded by an unbelievably picturesque landscape. "Wait a second," I said, "Let me take a few pictures of the area." I stopped and reached for my camera, only to find... nothing! I stuck both hands in my pockets and felt a sudden chill run down my spine. Both were as empty as my bank account. I must have left it in the back seat of the car next to the food crates. Where that car was now was completely beyond me. Neither of us knew where they were going, nor did we have any means of contacting them. But was it time to throw my hands up in despair like a hopeless fool? No. This was the most valuable thing I owned. Stubborn and determined, I was ready to scour the town to find it. for And apparently Gautier agreed since before I could say anything, he suggested, "They took that road. Let's go look for them."
We came to the first driveway, but the car parked was not theirs. Nor was their car in the second driveway either. Further and further we went, seeing nothing but empty driveways and roaming cows.
I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach as my hope for finding the camera was disintegrating by the second. The car could be miles away by now, and they might not even see find it for days. Even if they did, how could they possibly know where and how to get it back to me. All these thoughts raced through my head in quick succession. I should be sitting by the shores of the lake now, photographing for the eventual Kyrgyzstan page for this blog, but instead I was dragging a new found friend through this random village in hopeless search for something I absentmindedly left in a stranger's car. I was about to call it quits and tell Gautier we could just head to the lake anyway. I mean... I could just use my phone's camera... (I shuttered inside).
BUT THEN! Just as my optimism was about to drown itself in cheap Canada House whiskey, a gray sedan turned onto the street.
"The car!" shouted Gautier.
I ran forward, hoping what I saw was true. Suddenly, the window rolled down to reveal a familiar face: Tash! (Again, I am probably spelling his name wrong). He leaned out out the window, holding a small black device in his hand. "Oh shit! You forget!" he said, speaking English to us for the very first time. To the window, I ran, about to be reunited with my photos of mountains and goats. We both thanked him, expressing out extreme gratitude, but like a true hero, he brushed it off, saying it was no problem at all.
Now, camera in hand, I was ready to go back to the lake and take some pictures for those of you who are currently reading this story. But Tash, however, had some other plans. Opening his door, he said "Садитесь. Я покажу вам город" (Sit down. I will show you the city). Without second thought, we got in and off he drove.
Being a good host, Tash gave us the grand tour of the town, including showing us the store in which he worked as well as his house. Finally, he took us all the way to the shore of the lake and opened the door to let us out. Again, we thanked him, but right before he left, I told him about this travel blog and mentioned how I wanted to include particularly awesome people. He laughed, then agreed to my suggestion of taking a photo. And with that, loyal readers, I leave you for now: