June 24, 2013
A few days ago, the boys (Nursultan and his cousin Akhmat) had asked me if I could drive a car and if I could drive a stick shift. They had wanted to know all about what kind of car I drove, and I think they were a little disappointed to learn that I drive a ten year old, two-door Toyota. Yesterday afternoon, as I was planning my final lessons, the boys and Rakhat came into my room.
“So… the boys say that you can drive a car?”
“Yes, of course.”
“And you can drive a stick shift?”
“So…. Could you drive us to Turt Kul this evening? My mother’s having a party for her granddaughter’s first birthday, and Altynbek’s only just now leaving Bishkek. If you can drive us to Turt Kul, he’ll meet us there and drive us back.”
“OK – sure!”
“And you’re sure you can drive a stick shift?”
I love driving. Driving is one of those things that I always miss when I’m living overseas, and that’s not only due to the fact that I’m far less likely to become motion sick as the driver than as the passenger. I really just enjoy driving. And I far prefer driving a stick to an automatic. With a stick you’re far more in tune with your car – and you have much more control over your acceleration. (Believe me, if your car has a wimpy little four-cylinder engine like mine, you need as much control over your acceleration as you can get!)
Anyway, I was very excited about the opportunity to drive – especially since I’ve long wanted the experience of driving in Kyrgyzstan. Of course, I’m not licensed to drive in Kyrgyzstan, and the traffic police here are known for shaking down perfectly legal drivers for as many soms as they can get… Then there’s that interesting off-road detour alongside the road-work on the way out of the valley to the main road. I was looking forward to driving, but I admit that I was a little apprehensive as well.
I had changed out of my lounging-around-the-house t-shirt and shorts and into a nice going-to-a-party blouse and skirt, which of course caused everyone to ask me if I’d be able to drive in a skirt. Seriously. They asked if I should be wearing pants in order to drive. Haha, no I think I’ll be fine. Altynbek’s mother, Nurel, Rakhat and I loaded into the car and set off for Turt Kul.
It went off without a hitch. All that off-road driving I’ve done in the back woods of Georgia (in two-door Toyotas and other vehicles not designed for such things) certainly prepared me for driving the off-the-road stretch in a twenty year old Audi. Along the way we picked up two local hitchhikers, both of whom were hoofing their way to the main road in order to catch a marshrutka to Bishkek. They each did quite a double-take when they got into the car and realized that I was the driver. We also got obvious double-takes from pretty much every car we passed along the way. Obvious foreign chick driving a car full of locals, WTF? Haha.
As we were off-roading our way towards the main road, I had noticed that the gas gauge was really, really low. After we had dropped our hitchhikers off at the bus stop, I mentioned this to Rakhat as I didn’t know if she was aware of how low on fuel we were or not. Apparently she hadn’t been. Knowing that the nearest gas station was in Turt Kul (our destination) we began looking for any private homes or small stores selling бензин (gasoline).
As we drove, Rakhat and Altynbek’s mother peppered me with questions about my driving experience. They seemed quite impressed by the fact that I had been driving a stick shift since the age of 15 and therefore had been driving for 19 years. (Yes, I am that old.)
Eventually, in the second village we came to – as the car was running on fumes – we passed a home with a cardboard sign propped up outside which read ‘БЕНЗИН’ and I pulled over. Rakhat went inside and returned with a boy about 12 years old carrying two 2-liter bottles filled with gasoline and a funnel. Money changed hands, and the gas was funneled into our tank. A couple of locals walked by during this process, noticed me sitting in the driver’s seat, and cracked up like it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Once the four liters were funneled into the tank, we had plenty of gas to make it into Turt Kul without incident.
(Altynbek’s mother was apparently very impressed by my driving skills and history, telling everyone at the party about said skills and the fact that I’d been driving since I was 15. She told this to pretty much everyone as they arrived, to the point that I actually felt kind of embarrassed.)
The party was for the first birthday of Rakhat’s niece. Rakhat’s sister lives in Russia, and her two children live with their grandmother in Turt Kul. The party was held at Rakhat’s mother’s house, the same place where the forty-day memorial service had been held just a few days before. (And much of the food consisted of leftovers from the previous event.) This was a much smaller affair (only close family, close friends, and me) and much livelier – including games for the children and vodka for the adults. (As Altynbek joined us there, I was unable to use the excuse of being the driver in order to abstain.)
As always, we had a table of boorsook, other fried breads, rolls, salads, and candies, followed by beshbarmak and quite a few shots of vodka. After the party was over, we loaded into the car (this time with me as a passenger in the back seat). We swung through a gas station to fill up the tank for real, and then returned to Toguz Bulak.