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Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

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July 27, 2011

Trying to catch up...

In just about 12 hours we'll pick up Kevin and Susanna from Manas airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and head south to Osh.  Right now, they're waiting in Moscow for their connecting flight.  Ryan and I have been hanging out in Bishkek for the past four days.  There is nothing to do here, except sleep, eat, catch up on blog posts, apply for Kazakh visas, and walk around enjoying the beautiful weather (sunny but not too hot or humid).  I like the absence of tourist attractions; it was usually a pain anyway to decide whether or not we should go to them, and then if you don't (we usually didn't) you feel a bit guilty for going all the way to Xi'an and not seeing the terra cotta warriors, or spending 5 days in Beijing without visiting the Forbidden City or the Great Wall.  In Istanbul our host Jim (who's getting married this weekend, by the way, we wish him and his wife all the best) gave Ryan and Mette a hard time for leaving Istanbul without ever having been to the Aya Sofya, or the Blue Mosque...in the end though everyone experiences a place in their own personal way, and the things that I remember most are not the tourist sites but the wonderful people we met, the food, music, nature, cities...  Just to walk out on the street in Beijing was enough of an experience for me that I didn't feel the desire to pay 40 yuan each to see all the temples (we did go to one, the Lama Temple, interesting and beautiful but I didn't enjoy it as much as the subway ride we took during rush hour to get there, packed body to body and sometimes we didn't even get into the train because there were too many people and we had to wait for the next one, and when we transferred it took almost an hour because we had to walk through tunnels and wait in lines and go up and down stairs).  I liked the big, crazy cities, Beijing more than Shanghai, because it felt a bit grittier, more down to earth perhaps, a cultural and political center rather than an economic and commercial one.  We stayed with Antonio, an Italian living in China for 3 years now, he spoke Chinese well, and he lived on the 11th floor of the 9th apartment building in a complex with innumerable high rises that looked the same as all the other compounds where millions of Beijing's residents live.  An American guy we met at a couchsurfing meeting said he took an adventure one day, and rode the subway as far south as possible just to see what it would look like down there, and he got out and it looked just the same...apartment complexes...he said he had expected the city to taper out a little bit out there, at the end of the line, but not in China.  The construction workers flock to the city from the provinces, work 24 hours a day building new subway lines (in Xi'an the first line will open at the end of the year, and in Shenzhen the line we took to get from the airport to meet Yaoyue at the bus station was just finished June 15), and then move on to the next project because there is always more building to be done.  There are so many people in China, it is impossible to book a seat on a train a day or two in advance, so we ended up standing for 26 hours from Guangzhou to Xi'an, because we couldn't buy tickets in Zhongshan, the smaller city south of Guangzhou where my friend Yaoyue from my old piano studio at MSU lives, and where we stayed for 4 days, eating, drinking tea, watching Chinese dramas, showering 3 times a day because it was so humid...

When we returned to Central Asia from China, we had acquired a familiarity with certain things, such as getting ripped off by taxi drivers even when you know the fair price and bargain hard for it (the marshrutka from Manas airport into Bishkek cost us 100 som per person, not the usual 30 som; the driver's excuse was that we paid extra for our bags, which he stuffed roughly behind the backseat, slamming the door shut before they fell out).  It didn't frustrate me as much as it used to, though now I'm preparing myself to bargain for the taxi ride to Osh tomorrow, hoping we can get a driver to pick up Kevin and Susanna at the airport without freaking out about benzin, yelling and gesturing wildly...

I haven't updated the blog since Khiva, Uzbekistan, where I was suffering in the heat and anticipating the excitement and novelty of arriving in China, a place I'd never planned to go and hadn't spent almost a year researching.  So from Khiva we worked our way back to Tashkent, where our flight left from.  First was a 8 or so hour ride through the desert to Bukhara, in a black car, with a taxi driver who liked to listen to very bad music, very loud.  He was the wild type, who when we make a pit stop for food wants you to eat this pastry instead of that ice cream, and then shepherds you back to the car yelling "hey, hey!"...he guessed that the temperature reached 50 degrees celsius in the desert that day.  When we arrived in Bukhara he demanded an extra 5000 som from us because we wanted to go to the train station to buy our tickets for onward travel; then, he refused to take us to the train station, insisting that we were better off going the next day, but sure enough when we tried to get tickets the next day all the trains were sold out, and they don't sell standing room tickets like in China, and there were no buses, so we took yet another shared taxi that sped through the night at 160 km per hour to reach Tashkent in just 7 hours (we left at 5:30pm and arrived just after midnight, and we had expected it to be an overnight ride...).  But our friend Khoorshid offered us the floor at his place, and we hung out the next day and met our couchsurfing friend Nuriya once more, and they took us to the airport and saw us off as the next phase in our journey began, unplanned and determined only weeks before, when we were sitting in Khorog Central Park and talking about how much we missed playing our instruments, and the thought that no more shows lay ahead of us for more than a month...  But China temporarily took my mind off that, exposing me to an entirely new set of experiences that were not coupled with or colored by expectations or anticipations of Central Asia that had been growing for over a year.  And I think Ryan and I both agree that we made a good decision that day in the park in Khorog.