Day 7. No exit in sight. Word on the web was that our passports had arrived in LA, would get to the Chinese embassy that day. It would be a while before they actually put a sticker in it and FedEx brought the docs back to Bishkek. In the meantime, stuck.
Stuck. That was the first thing I thought about when I crawled out my tent and looked at the silent tent city in the backyard around me. This was home, the Nomad’s Home. It was a private residence behind Bishkek’s bus station, owned by an entrepreneurial family who sheltered the masses of cycle tourists, mountain climbers, and trekkers who passed through the city after their adventures through Central Asia. Five dollars a night to sleep in your tent. Since the Chinese had stopped issuing visas, the place had become a refugee camp of stranded dirt bags.
I was the first of them out of the sack. No one else obeyed the roosters from the house next door, and no one else got to take a hot shower. The water heater was the kind a student puts in their Manhattan pad, but there was one shower for twenty people.
I had Nomad’s home to myself in the morning, and it made it my favorite part of the day. I’d go for a short walk on the streets of Bishkek to buy fresh nan bread from the clay ovens, the traffic starting to rumble but still with some semblance of order. I’d fill the electric kettle from the pipe sticking out of the ground in the middle of the garden, and when Chris got up we’d make strong Nescafe and survey the tent city and have massive breakfasts of bread and cheese. Then we’d plan the day, discuss progress on the story we were working on and assign research tasks.
Day 7. It could have been day 6, or day 5, or day 15. The days blended together, 7 contained the same routine as the rest. It was the same routine as the other hostels we’d stayed in too. Dushanbe, Khorog, Osh—all the cities were along the bike tourist’s path, what we privately called the dirtbag trail. They were the caravanserais of the modern silk road. All had tent towns in yards, and the same lazy feel only unemployed travelers could exude.
We were almost done planning when the tents started stirring. Our Isreali friend, Nathan, sat next to us at the row of picnic tables.
“You going to eat the rest of that bread and cheese?”
“We were probably going to save it.”
“I’ll buy it off you.”
“50 Som,” I said, and pocketed the dollar worth of Kyrgyz money.
As he ate, the rest of the hostel filled in around us on the benches. Pretty much nobody had changed since they day before. I’m sure we all stank, but nobody could smell it anymore. Thano, an American we’d befriended, and an English couple riding tandem across Asia looked seriously hungover. Everyone looked dirty. The electric kettle started working overtime as the crowd despaired for coffee and the wifi slowed to a standstill as Facebook loaded on 11 devices simultaneously.
The only exceptions to the dirtbaggery were the Australians Cat and Alex. They emerged from their immaculate tent as if they were hiding the fountain of youth in there, or an American Apparel photo shoot. Cat came out already wired off life, cracking jokes about vaginas. There wasn’t a wrinkle or stain on her clothing. Then the pair busted out Lavazza—Lavazza!—and made coffee using an airspresso machine, a little white contraption that forced the water through the coffee grounds with a bicycle pump.
The hostel always paused for a second when Cat got up. She seemed like she got airdropped from downtown Melbourne every morning. She was hot. After a month in the mountains, none of the guys could suppress a look. But it disappeared as fast as it came. There weren’t any single girls as Nomad’s home, and even if there were, the backyard was not an inviting venue for shenanigans.
Chris and I were different than the rest, too, though not in the cleanliness category. People just referred to us as “the reporters.” We were the youngest, and had been gone for the longest, though Cat and Alex gave us a run for the money in those categories. We were the only ones who worked. It set us apart from the rest of the travelers, and made the slow pace of Nomad’s Home a little jarring. We’d promised each other this would be the last such venue we stayed in. When we left in the morning to do interviews or research, the crowd was halfway through their coffee. When we came back that evening, around 7, nobody had moved. The crowd had just started on the beer.
The community of Nomad’s Home was gripped in boredom. Stuck. Stuck in their tents in that yard, stuck in that city that couldn’t dazzle a cockroach, stuck in the numb routine of the hostel. The wonders of the orient—fantastic adventures with food and culture and the teeming Han masses, vistas of rice paddies, the promise of movement across that enigmatic quilt of cultures—China!—was two days travel away. We tried not to think about that. So the place was infected with low-grade alcoholism, the vinyl table cloths sticky with beer. It was a well-tested method for passing empty hours and lubricating friendship.
Chris and I abstained that night, recovering from a bout of heavy drinking with a source the night before. Instead we made pasta, simmering homemade sauce with a kilo of tomatoes and green peppers and salty cheese. Thano and Nathan sat down with us. Thano had had a hellish day at the Russian embassy. They’d asked him for everything from a birth certificate to a HIV test.
He sat there with a long face and a liter and a half of Khivoe in front of him. Khivoe was the official beer of the hostel because it cost less than a dollar a liter and came with some free corn nuts. Behind us, the Aussies were drinking it too, lambasting some kangaroo politician who thought global warming was a farce.
We ate to the clinking of forks for a while, though I was trying to come up with a novel topic of conversation. It was always like that at Nomad’s home. Things would start a little slow. Then you’d reach an inflection point—somebody would say something interesting, and there would be energy for intellect, or not, and then you’d talk about visas, weather and food. Those talks were worse than dead silence. The emptying of our plates was such a junction.
Thano saved the day.
“So we get a call, right now, from a guy in a lab in Downtown Bishkek. There’s been an outbreak, and the Zombie Invasion is starting. We’ve probably only got a half hour before it gets to us. What do we do?”
Chris, Nathan, and I sat straight up at the question. We thought hard- the question was hard. Ringed by 15,000 foot mountains and close to the furthest point in the world from any ocean, Bishkek is not where you’d want to get stuck in that situation.
We delivered our suggested strategies. We talked about fuel needs, how long we could survive in the mountains with basic supplies, how long cash would retain value in a world apocalypse (about 48 hours). We talked weapons of choice, whether it would be safe to raid an armory, the proper way to strip a policeman of his weapon and ammo. It was a fantastic fantasy.
The Englishmen joined us later in the conversation, and pointed out that not even the nomads can stay in the mountains long during the winter. A break was taken so more beer could be procured. But after about an hour we had our strategy down (go to the American Air Base and beg to be shipped out), and the conversation winded down with it.
Then somebody asked a question about visas. Damn, I thought. And we were having so much fun. Stuck. The thought washed over me again—stuck. It pierced the numbness and made me long for China. It made me want to ask for a glass of beer. I slipped quietly away into my bag instead, ready for another day of waiting. There would be 16 more.