Saturday, October 30, 2010

Almaty to Khorgos to Zharkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to Tel Aviv, Israel


In Almaty, a package of books from home theoretically was waiting for me at the Hyatt Regency Hotel downtown. I had half a mind to hop directly on a bus to Urumqi, China, and avoid spending a single night in Almaty, which I had heard was overpriced and not too interesting, but I wanted to see about picking up this package. I figured that I could stay in Almaty for the day, pick up the package, then take a night bus. Upon arriving at the Hyatt in my torn pants, loaded up with bags and reeking of overnight bus, I learned that the package had never arrived. Assuming that the concierge just wanted to get rid of me, I persisted and asked them to check the lost and found, the mail room, and asked to speak to the manager. I called American Express, who was supposed to set up the mail drop, and found that they had never followed through (we had never followed through with them, either, so it was not really their fault). I then tried tracking the package online through my cellphone. It was taking so long that I took advantage of being in a nice hotel and washed up in their disabled restroom (which is big enough for me to unpack my backpack in—I do this in McDonald’s as well) and stole their free lobby wi-fi, even skyping a friend. Eventually I worked with a very kind young woman at the concierge desk, who had recently backpacked through China, who helped me track the package to the main mail sorting center of Kazakhstan, which was conveniently located in Almaty. After a long taxi ride with a driver who claimed to know exactly where we were going and then got lost several times (of course), I eventually found myself at the security gate of a massive mail complex. After handing over my passport information and package tracking number and explaining my request, I was led into the complex, down a cavernous, columned outdoor walkway and through an unmarked door, which opened into a mail sorting center. Oversized packages from Bahrain, Dubai, Russia and Canada waited to be sorted behind the desk I sat at as multiple people (none of whom spoke English) tried to find my package. Eventually they did, and I walked back to the taxi feeling very successful.
I checked into a hotel that had been recommended by a few people back in Samarkand (I never heard of a real hostel in Kazakhstan—which is, by the way, the 9th largest country in the world), and remembered to ask for the dorm, which is less than a quarter of the price of a single room and is actually just a double room that I shared with a woman from Astana who was in Almaty on business. The first person who really spoke English, I was at first happy to meet her, but she ended up keeping me up rather late asking me questions and looking through my new books. I went out to get my first meal of the day then, overpriced half-heated spaghetti and French fries, then walked around a bit, eventually going back to the bus station to buy a ticket to Urumqi for the next morning. The only way to get to Urumqi (unless you wait until Saturday or Monday for the trains) is on buses that leave at 7am, and I had been told it was safer to buy the ticket in advance. Getting to the bus station in rush hour traffic was not so fun, and communicating what I wanted to the ticket lady was not very fun either, so that by the time I got back to the area of town that my hotel was in, I was ready for dinner. I had heard of a vegetarian Indian food place, and I went there thinking I might get something other than carbs, but unfortunately what I got was very very sick. Here’s how it went down:

Several days earlier I had felt extremely nauseous one evening but avoided throwing up by drinking some coke and taking some awesome German medicine called Vomex. I had a low fever the next night, but took some awesome German/Thai medicine and that went away too. Since the first night I was nauseous I had always felt kind of weird after eating, but nothing too serious. After having the Indian food I felt nauseous but thought nothing of it, because it had become kind of normal over the past few days. I felt even more nauseous in the morning when I woke up at 5:30 to catch my bus, and at the first stop the bus made I hightailed it to the hole-in-the-floor toilet and threw up… and at the next one… and the next one. I had one of the worst tickets on the bus, in the back on what is essentially a king-size bunk bed, which I shared with three Kazakh guys. I slept between bus stops to avoid having to feel my own nausea, but after eight hours or so of vomiting and drinking very little (and keeping none of it down), at the border with China, I started feeling lightheaded. I leaned against a wall at passport control because I couldn’t really stand up, and then everything started going blurry and I stopped hearing anybody and realized I was probably blacking out. Somehow I ended up sitting in a chair with a guy slapping water on my face, an old lady trying to feed me milky coffee, which made my stomach turn, and a “doctor” taking my blood pressure. I was shuttled to a room at the border, and then into a van to what was supposed to be a clinic, but ended up just being a first aid room where a woman—who ended up being one of the nurses—was lying on a wooden bed with an IV dripping blood down her arm. I was in touch with my parents, who were, among other things, trying to get somebody who spoke Russian on the phone so that I could actually communicate to the nurses. They tried to give me an IV, and I refused—no way was I letting these people stick a needle in my arm. They did not have clean water for me to drink. Eventually I was put in a taxi, which took me to an ambulance from Soviet times (a gutted army-green van with a seat, not a bed, in the back), which took me to a real clinic in Zharkent, the nearest big town. Here they ran a lot of non-conclusive tests, taking a lot of blood and feeding me a lot of liquids as well. A woman was there to translate, and right before she left I learned that she did not work for the hospital, but had been called in from her job as a schoolteacher to translate for me. After she left they had a patient who spoke English come in a few times to translate. I remember being so tired I literally could not stay awake while on the phone with people. To all the people who were on the phone with me, with clinics, with doctors and with ambulances that night/day: A MASSIVE THANK YOU. Though I’m 100% sure I would have been fine and ended up in a hospital regardless of all the phone calls, I am so grateful for the help you all gave me. Eventually I got in an ambulance- a real one- around 3 in the morning, and slept the whole way back to Almaty, occasionally hearing Kazakh pop songs through the barrier with the front of the car and the rather loud conversations of the EMTs. But nothing could stop me from sleeping. At the very, very nice hospital in Kazakhstan (and I would know, having then visited 4 or 5 Central Asian facilities) I was escorted from test to test- ultrasounds, x-rays, blood tests, urine samples, more ultrasounds, more blood tests. I talked briefly with a doctor but most of my communication was with a wonderful nurse who spoke some English named Natasha. Unfortunately Natasha only worked certain hours/days, so sometimes I was left with nobody in the hospital with whom I could actually communicate. I spent four nights there, two of them without real internet (when you have nothing to do and can’t really move, this is a big problem), so I was really happy for the books my parents had shipped me! I read my friend Lizy Murray’s Breaking Night- if you can, READ THIS BOOK, Liz is awesome and her story is incredible. I was on a mission to finish it while at the hospital because it was hardcover and it really sucks carrying hardcover books around with you when you’re traveling, but after a while I was just addicted to it. I was only fed liquid foods- soupy oatmeal (sometimes salty- SO GROSS) and vegetable broth, mainly. I had my own room with a TV that played what I’m sure were very interesting and exciting programs- in Russian- and a balcony and the nicest shower I have seen since I left Massachusetts. Unfortunately for the first few days I could not shower because they left the IV in my hand all the time. My veins are very small so they could only put the IV in my right hand, which made it impossible to write- for everybody that received a very poorly typed email during that time, I apologize, blame it on my genes.

Nobody could really tell me what was wrong with me- at various points different nurses and doctors explained it as food poisoning, elevation sickness, traveler’s sickness, an inflamed gallbladder, an irritated pancreas, and pancreatitis. This was after I assured them it was not appendicitis or pregnancy. They prescribed a bunch of “pancreas vitamins” for me. I was supposed to take ten pills a day when I left there, but I faxed the Russian tests home to my parents after I got back and they had a doctor friend translate them (thank you!) and apparently they were the wrong pills, so I stopped taking them. After days and days without solid food I was extremely weak and literally could not lift my backpack, so when I eventually left the hospital I checked into an Almaty hotel and chilled out for several more nights, eating soup, bread, and eggs to regain my strength and walking up to two blocks away every day. I have now watched every episode of season 1 Glee probably four or five times each.

Though it probably should have been the hospitals, ambulances and sickness that got me to decide this, it was the realization that I could not lift my backpack anymore that forced me to re-evaluate my trip. If I couldn’t go through the day to day motions of traveling, there was no way I could weather the 24-hour bus rides necessary to travel in China. So after some brainstorming and flight-searching on kayak and skyscanner, I decided to go to Israel. I was planning on going in the spring, but it’s nice weather now, and there is a lot of vegetarian food, you can drink the water, doctors speak English, and there are no 24-hour bus rides. And then… the night before I flew out, I get an email… with my mother’s flight confirmation. Guess who’s arriving in Tel Aviv ten minutes before me? More on that in the next post…


Monday, October 18, 2010

Samarqand to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Shymkent to Almaty, Kazakhstan

Hello from room 345 at the Private Clinic in Almaty, Kazakhstan,

As I recently posted on facebook, my new goal for this year is to avoid further hospitalization, at all costs. Since I left home on August 31, 2010, I have been seriously ill two times, treated at four different clinics, spent hours inside multiple ambulances, had about a dozen liters of fluids pumped into me, and taken more types of medication than I can remember. Here’s the story of the past week or so, and the conclusion I have come to about what I’m doing here/now. If anything blood-and-guts related makes you queasy, don’t read this.

A few days before I finally left Samarqand for good, I felt nauseous on and off, and had a fever for an afternoon/evening. After taking some of my friend’s medicine, resting, laying off complicated food and resting a lot for a couple of days, I felt significantly improved, and woke up the morning of the 10th to head to Kazakhstan. It was a running joke with my friends from the hostel that I would never actually make it to Kazakhstan, so rather than take a slow route and stop for a night in Tashkent, I decided to make the multi-part trip in one day. The transportation looked like this: walk to bus stop, bus to bus terminal, walk to shared taxi stand, shared taxi to other shared taxi, walk across the border with Kazakhstan, shared taxi, walk, shared taxi. Eleven hours of hot buses, cramped taxis, a deficit of English-speaking drivers, confusing customs policies and very little vegetarian food, and I was in Shymkent. But where to sleep?

When we were within the city limits, I turned around to the other passengers in the shared taxi, a few of whom were Uzbek-speakers, and asked in my limited Uzbek about a place to stay. They told me to ask the taxi driver, and he would help. After we had dropped off all the other passengers, the taxi driver turned to me and began trying to communicate. A note to Central Asia travelers: Lonely Planet’s Russian language section of the Central Asia guidebook is pathetic. The accommodations section for Shymkent lists the cheapest place to stay as about $25 US. If you rely on it, this is what happens…

After leaving the community I had found back in Samarqand, I had let my guard down and neglected to make the safest possible choices, which is usually my policy when it comes to things like arriving late at night. I remember back in June, I got into Montenegro at sunset with no guidebook and no idea where to stay, so I stayed at a “cheap hotel” which was actually outside of my budget, knowing I would not have to walk around the town at night. I tend not to regret travel-related decisions, but I really wish I had made some different ones that day/night going to Kazakhstan.

At first it seemed like the driver wanted me to sleep in the back of the taxi. Not happening. At this point I was feeling a little sick, definitely exhausted, and it was dark out. I wrongly believed I was safer inside the taxi than out on the street. I found the Russian word for hotel, gas-tee-nee-tsa, and kept repeating it. He kept telling me they were very expensive, and then repeating another word which was not in my book. It seemed to be some sort of guesthouse or cheap hotel. He pointed to himself, put his hand on my shoulder, and made the universal gesture for sleeping, two hands under the tilted head. He drew in my journal stick figures for a man and a woman parallel in a square that looked like a bed. I drew a line through the bed, pointed at myself and made the sleeping gesture, and pushed away the air in front of him and made a sleeping gesture, pointing at him. He frowned and made sad eyes, as if saying “why won’t you share a bed with me?” Writing this now I realize I should have expected what happened over the next hour or so, and I don’t really know why I didn’t do anything to prevent it.

Not able to communicate what I wanted, I got a little frustrated, and I think he could tell, because he got a little frustrated and began raising his voice. I sort of gave up on communicating at that point, figuring that once we got to this guesthouse place I could point to what I wanted. I have a good sense of direction during the day, but at night I have no sun as a point of reference, and not knowing where we were headed made me nervous. I wished I had negotiated all of this when the other passengers were in the car. I wished I had gotten out and asked for a cheap place to stay in a restaurant or an expensive hotel or a convenience store, or anywhere other than to the angry old guy in the driver’s seat. What I wish now is that I had realized I could still get out of the taxi and do any of those things- ask for directions, find a new taxi, whatever.

We got to a guesthouse, directed by a woman we picked up on the side of the road, and I got out with the driver even though he gestured for me to stay in the car. I tried to ask the woman at the desk for two rooms, but she didn’t understand me and listened to the driver, the guy who spoke her language. A lot of keys were exchanged, so I was hopeful. We got back in the car and drove around the corner, parking in a dark lot between two apartment buildings. I brought my handbags with me when we entered the building. We walked into a semi-furnished, fairly run-down, poorly-lit apartment on the ground floor, with a bathroom, a living room, and a bedroom with one double bed. I tried to ask where the other room was. There didn’t seem to be one. I was angry. The driver sat down on the couch and gestured for me to sit down next to him, patting the seat cushion. No. Not happening. I started walking toward the door. The driver got up and tried blocking the door, pulling at my arms and trying to take my handbags from me to bring me back into the room. I got out the door and walked back to the car. I need my bag, and I needed to get out of there. I tried opening the trunk, but it was locked. I tried opening the back seat, but it was locked. The driver came out with the woman renting the room. I was calm.

Open the trunk, I want my bag.
Come back inside.
I want my bag.
No, no, no. Leave your bag in the car, come back inside.

I realized this wasn’t working. To all the people that laughed at me for taking a self defense class before I left—wow, am I glad I did not listen to you. All of the de-escalation skills, the awareness/assessment skills, the instinctive knowledge of what to do next, came back without my needing to even think about it.

Make them believe they’re going to get what they want.

I nodded. Okay, I just need something from my bag, then I’ll come back inside with you. I positioned myself so that he would not be able to grab my backpack before I did when the trunk opened. A bag that normally takes both hands and a knee up to get onto my back found its way with a single hand and a lot of adrenaline. A friend I met in Samarqand once commented that with her backpack on, she felt much safer. Backpack on, I put my hands up—we call these stop sign hands. My voice got louder- not yelling, because that’s antagonistic and not what we’re going for, but bigger, more powerful. I was at least two arm spans away. I pulled out the $5 the ride was supposed to cost and held it out to him, saying “I just want to get by, can you move please?” and gesturing for him to step aside and take the money. He took the money but wouldn’t budge. I backed away, saying “okay, then I’ll walk around.” He met me on the other side of the car, but I could tell something was changing. The girl who he thought he could take advantage of was gone; he was dealing with somebody else. But he was a Central Asian taxi driver, and the woman from the guesthouse was observing us, and he was not letting me walk away.

What do you want?
Ten fingers went up.

I took the $5 from him and pulled out a $10 bill. Stop sign hands, take steps back. “It’s okay?” I was tearing up and he was starting to laugh, making some comment to the guesthouse woman. I assessed the situation: the tension was gone, the confrontation would be finished if I left, but now I was afraid. I walked away very quickly, out into the main road, across the street, and back to an intersection I had seen from the taxi. You’re supposed to tell somebody about a confrontation, but nobody in this place spoke English and I was primarily focused on getting to a safe place. After walking a few blocks I found a restaurant, but it looked more like a strip club than I was comfortable with, so I sat on a stone wall outside and opened my guidebook. Later that night I would realize I had cut my leg sitting down, but again, the adrenaline was pretty powerful at that point and I didn’t notice anything at the time. I found the cheapest hotel, and walked over to a crowd of taxi drivers. I didn’t smile, just asked how much it would cost to go to the hotel. They laughed and asked where I was from. After my last taxi driver, I was not in the mood. They charged me $3 for a two minute ride (if I had known how close I was I might have walked there), and the whole time I was nervous they would be like the first taxi driver.

By some miracle, the woman at the front desk spoke some English, and through her I got a room, found dinner (I quickly learned that my Russian food vocabulary “no meat,” was not sufficient to obtain anything other than French fries), a bottle of water, and went to sleep.

Originally I had planned on staying in Shymkent a few nights to fully recover from my sickness of the past few days, or maybe transfer to Turkistan, a small, slightly more interesting place a few hours away, to rest there, but after the previous night’s “adventure” I had no remaining interest in Kazakhstan. Buses to Almaty left around 6pm, and after checking out of my room I spent the remainder of the day finding food and catching up on emails. Tourism of the backpacker variety is not widespread in Kazakhstan, and I stuck out everywhere I went, but never more than on the public buses. Luckily, instead of getting annoyed at me for taking up multiple seats with my big backpack on, people would help me push my way out of the bus and find which stop I needed to get off at.

Kazakhstan is not a cheap country to travel in. Food is 3x the price it was in Uzbekistan, and long-haul bus trips are absurdly expensive when compared to any other non-Western place. This bus was fairly nice, with seats that reclined practically into beds and a decent amount of leg room. Central Asian bus drivers don’t understand the concept of turning off the music videos that are playing at the front of the bus, so sleeping was challenging. My seatmate, a young Kazakh man, had excessively long limbs which always ended up on my side of the armrest, and after the previous night’s experiences and earlier experiences with Central Asian guys who don’t know how to keep their hands to themselves (every male in this region needs to go back to kindergarten), I was not particularly thrilled about sleeping next to him, so I waited until he fell asleep and then closed my own eyes.

At bus stations in Central Asia, bathrooms can be anything from squat toilet stalls in fairly clean, tiled rooms with sinks, soap, and unlimited (though very rough and scratchy) toilet paper, to rows of holes in a grimy dirt/concrete floor with side dividers and no front doors, leaving you open to the rest of the bathroom’s occupants. Heading for the back of the room might afford you more privacy, but the trade-off is a serious lack of ventilation and a lot of questionable liquid on the floor. Needless to say, this species of bathroom is not overflowing with toilet paper, soap, or usually even a sink. I have Purell with me, but these bathrooms make me wonder how I’ve gotten away with being hospitalized only twice.

More later- probably tomorrow.
Love (finally out of the hospital!!!)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Samarqand to Bukhara to Samarqand, Uzbekistan

Hello from Samarqand (again!)

I just can't seem to stay away from this place. It has a kind of gravity/magnetism/instinctive pull on me. Somewhere between the delicious honey and the cool people staying at the hostel, I find myself saying I'll head to Kazakhstan "maybe tomorrow" pretty much every day. As you can see from the title of this post I did actually intend to leave a little over a week ago, heading to Bukhara for a couple of nights, but I gave up on Khiva and Karakalpakstan and headed back to Samarqand.

In Bukhara I stayed at the same hostel as several people from Bahodir B&B, where I am still staying, in Samarqand, and we explored the city together a lot. It was quite hot and there were rather a lot of mosquitos, but unlike Samarqand many of the monuments, mosques, medressahs and old buildings are in their somewhat original state, so it was cool to see a bit of kind of unedited Uzbekistan. I subsisted nearly entirely off of potatos and bread there, though, sampling Uzbek samsa, a similar food to Indian samosas, among other things. We picked up an English traveler and lugged him back with us to Samarqand, where he properly embraced the culture of doing very little except sit on the platform seats, drink a lot of tea and eat a lot of watermelon, and occasionally sneak into Timur monuments through the back entrance.

Among other things, since I got back to Samarqand I have befriended Uzbek ladies from the Ferghana Valley on a park bench and learned a bit of Uzbek from them, learned how to say some fairly creative and bar-fight appropriate things in German from the Germans staying here to learn Uzbek, realized that the vegetable vendors in the market know my name from my frequent patronage of their stalls, followed a late night groom's party, complete with burning heart-shaped torch, down an alleyway, NOT gotten sick, which seems to be a common theme here, stretched the limits of my vegetarianism as nearly everything, including vegetable soups and rice dishes, is cooked in lard or meat broth, learned how to play backgammon, visited a weekend market where people kept giving me things instead of bargaining with me for them, read parts of four books (The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Wild Things by Dave Eggers, The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke), and been declared the mascot of Bahodir's. I plan on going to Kazakhstan sometime in the next few days, then passing through fairly quickly (stopping only in Shymkent, Turkistan, Almaty, and maybe a couple of other places) to China. I also managed to get a decent haircut here. I went with two Germans, and despite the fact that between us we spoke about six languages, we realized that the haircutters were Korean-Uzbek and spoke Tajik, so communication was challenging.

It has been cool "studying" the types of people that pass through here. There are mainly French, German, and Japanese travelers, although there are significant numbers of Chinese, Korean, Russian, English, Canadian, and other European travelers as well. Still no Americans to speak of. Many people are coming overland, usually from Europe through to China or Southeast Asia. Several clusters of bikers have passed through, including a French/English/Canadian couple with a three year old daughter who is super cute. And then there are the Germans learning Uzbek who have been here longer than me. It's always a little confusing when I explain that I'm going as far as China and then heading to West Africa, but usually people think it's cool after they get over the unusualness of it. I tend to leave off the bit about the middle east after that... I think that one region before (Eastern Europe), one present region (Central Asia), and one region after (West Africa), is plenty by way of explanation.

Going to take a walk now. Samarqand is very much a desert city, and there are rarely more than a couple of clouds in the sky, but today it actually rained! Sometimes I run through the sprinklers in the park to cool off. It's a great temperature right now, so I'm going to take advantage of it.

Much love from Uzbekistan,