In the Dark
It was cold when I got out of the minibus. A grey blanket of clouds hung in the sky, drizzling on my skin. In a public bathroom, I put on as many layers as I had, fortifying myself mentally just as much as physically. Armoured, I felt ready to take on the environment, ready to not take a guest house and spend the night in safe comfort, but to head straight to my destination.
I had a name and a map. Yet, it seemed that the people I asked in passing didn’t know the place, pointing in different directions. Taking a minibus out of town, I asked the people inside: a friendly driver, an old babushka, and a stinking drunk—all of whom disagreed on where I needed to go. The drunk was continually pointing at every junction, telling me this was the way. A sense of hopelessness crept up within me. Why did I do this without a phone…
I got out at a more or less random place, guessing that it could somewhat match the point on the map where the road forked. With about an hour of daylight left, I felt a surge of hope when a car stopped, telling me, “Yes! Jyrgalan right here!” Only that we came to a halt much too soon, the driver telling me this was it. Confused, I got out of the car, walking along a forest path for a minute, until I saw the sign: “Welcome to Jyrgalan Health Spa”. I saw a gate coming up, and behind it some buildings. This was not the Jyrgalan I wanted to go to.
But, I figured, the road that goes past it must be the road that leads to the town itself. It should be around an hour’s drive from here, I estimated using the map. The map, having proven to be outdated and unreliable, covered three Central Asian countries. It wasn’t exactly to blame for not showing the exact location of this road.
I waited, anxiously noting the disappearing daylight. It just takes one, I told myself. And indeed, a car came, just not in the right direction. “Is this road going to Jyragaln the town?” I asked in broken Russian, pointing in the direction they came from. The smiley driver nodded, saying “Jyragalan!”, pointing to the spa. “No,” I said, “not this. The town, Jyrgalan.” He furrowed his brows, conferring with his friends in the car: “Jyrgalan jailoo?”
Luckily, I knew what the second word meant: pasture. Happy to finally have gotten my point across, I exclaimed, “Yes!” Not so happily, I received the news that this was not the road to the town in the mountains. According to his pointing, the road I am looking for was somewhere in the direction I had just come from.
I walked out of the forest, back to the main road, where two teenagers picked me up within minutes. They knew where I needed to go. “Aren’t you afraid, travelling alone?” They asked me using Google Translate. “Sometimes I am.” I answered. Tempted by them pointing out hotels where I could sleep tonight, I had to muster some willpower to withstand. But I was relieved to finally be on track.
Getting to the road, I found myself in the company of two other hitchhikers—locals that were trying to get home. They weren’t going to Jyrgalan though, which was the last town at the very end of the road. Eventually, we found a ride, just as a thick, dark blue lay itself on the world, heralding in the night.
We passed village after village in silence, not even a radio playing. First, the man got out. Later, the woman. One village further, the driver turned around, signalling this was it; he wasn’t going any further. I paid a little more than the woman had, getting out and walking along the road, lit by an occasional street light.
A car with two men stopped, taking me further down the road. The men, talking quietly amongst themselves, paid me no mind. The driver stopped at a supermarket, buying buckwheat and cola. I wondered if I should buy something too. When the ride came to an end, he complained for more money.
I was out in the country now, a few glimmering lights in front of me signalling the next village. Village after village after village, that was this road. There were barely any cars anymore. Looking left and right, I checked if there was a place to sleep. I walked off the road, down into the bushes. The grass was long, soaking my shoes. It was cold and humid, my breath forming a misty cloud. I really, really didn’t want to sleep here.
Back on the road, I clung to the only thing that I could do: keep moving. I walked, getting out my head torch, shining it on myself when I heard a car. I couldn’t blame it for passing a stranger at night, out in nowhere. Feeling mounting pressure, I pulled out the joker. I made a wish:
Please, I started. Please help me; come on, closing my eyes. I wish for a family—a nice young family—to take me into their home. Come on, please… with all the fervour I had within me. I opened my eyes and released the wish. Silently, I kept walking in the darkness.
After a few minutes, I heard a car. Turning around, I illuminated myself with the head torch, holding my breath. The car skidded to a stop. Exulted, I ran, the passenger door opening by itself, and I heard, before I could say anything, “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan my friend!”
Taking a seat in the back, I said hello to the driver and his friend, both my age. Euphoric to be in a car, we made small talk, getting the basics across with the driver’s broken English and my broken Russian.
After we dropped off his friend, the driver turned to me: “Bro? You want sleep my doma? I just call wife, ok?” “Ok,” I laughed, slightly stunned when, later, entering the house, I see two young kids on the bed in front of the TV, the table full of homemade food.
I wake up, feeling it right away. The itch, the tension, the heat.
My host, a big, simple guy, is rolling on the floor, his head covered with a blanket to fend off the mosquitoes. I get out of bed, walking through the house, more of an empty construction site than a home. Getting to the bathroom, I remember that there is no mirror, just a long sink with multiple taps, as if we’re in an airport. The water spills on the floor as I wash my hands, since the sink is missing a tube connecting it with the plumbing system. I watch it run across the bare concrete floor, the walls full of mad crayon paintings by the young toddler living here.
I take out my phone and check that way. A few small blisters and red, irritated skin confirm what I already know. A cold sore is coming—in the place it always does. Agitated, I go to get the backpack. It doesn’t surprise me, with the diarrhoea and the walking and all the invitations for tea and food. Still, I don’t look forward to three weeks of carrying it around.
We walk across the desert to check out the pyramid, a guard eventually shooing us away. I am relieved when my host tells me that he has an exam in Cairo, that he needs to leave now. It’s still early in the morning, so I take the official route into the desert to visit the pyramid—the black one, it’s called—before I continue my walk. The great pyramid, the one everybody thinks of when thinking of a pyramid, is still twenty kilometres away.
After sharing breakfast with the guard at the entrance of the pyramid, I walk down the road back into the green strip of life lining the nile. I feel the cold sore again. Then, I try something that I have read about, heard about, in one way or another. I told myself, I won’t get a cold sore. The blister will not come. I have no cold sore.
It feels stupid, but since I have nothing better to do, I keep repeating: I have no cold sore. I have a normal lip. I have no cold sore. I have a normal lip. Continuing my walk, it becomes a mantra. I have a normal lip; I have no cold sore; I have a normal lip; I have no cold sore. After a few minutes, I notice a change. The stupid feeling is gone, replaced by a calmness, an openness. I have a normal lip… I keep going. Until there comes a shift. Until I feel it.
I have a normal lip; I have no cold sore… I get into it even more, a peculiar sensation arising within me. A knowing, beyond logic or reason. A knowing that I have a normal lip, I have no cold sore… Yes! Suddenly, it was real, out of question. I laugh to myself, surprised. Something within me is radiating, calmly and quietly, yet with incredible power. “I have a normal lip, I have no cold sore.” I say out loud, amazed to feel what I was feeling. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was so.
Arriving at a hotel in the evening, I overlook the great pyramids of Giza. The cold sore has stopped dead in its tracks. Instead of growing bigger and bigger for a few days and then taking weeks to recede fully, it goes away completely within a couple of days—something it has never, ever done before.
In the Dark II
I was the only person on the Uzbek side. The sun had set long ago, the soldier at the gate sleepily waving me through. I entered a container building lit by harsh fluorescent lights, emitting a continuous, low whirr. Walking through its sterile corridor, my footsteps were muted by the stained carpeted floor.
The border guard, friendly and efficient, was about to stamp my passport when he paused and, as with second thought, glanced up at me: “You know road is block?”
“The road is blocked?” I echo.
“But I can go?” pointing ahead.
“Ok. I go.”
“Ok,” stamping my passport.
I hadn’t accessed the internet in more than a month, only hearing murmurs about a border skirmish here and there when hitching. Approaching the Tajik side, I wondered what would happen.
I found empty cabins. After waiting for a while, I went back out, shouting at the night: “Hello!” For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the stillness was interrupted by stirring on the far end of the lot. The door of a little booth opened, a tall, lean man in military uniform exited, raising his hand in greeting. I raised my hand in return. He approached me, an embarrassed smile on his face, as if I had walked in at an inappropriate moment.
He stamped my passport quickly, without any questions, without any comments. It was me that asked: “Is the road open?”
“I can’t go to Khujand?”
“Is there… war?”
“Yes.” He stood up, walking me to a big map of the country hanging on the wall.
“Here,” he pointed “problem.”
“But I can cross the border?”
“Cross?” furrowing his brow.
“I can go?” pointing to the door.
“Yes,” he shrugged.
Thus, I entered at country at war.
Coming out of the crossing, a group of men stood around, doing nothing in particular. They were unusually sombre, not pushing taxis or exchanges on me. Business at the crossing didn’t seem to be going well.
They filled me in with various and contradicting information: I can go to Khujand, it will just cost me a 100 Dollar, because there was a chance to get shot. I can’t go to, because the road is closed. I can’t go to now, during the night, but it wouldn’t be problem during the day. I can’t go using the main road, but there were other roads.
Exchanging money, I suddenly felt out of my comfort zone. This country was at war. Should I buy some supplies just to make sure? I sat down on the ground, took out the map, and folded it out in front of me. The taxi drivers formed a half circle around me, silently observing as I studied the roads, purifying some water.
I decided to move. Bidding my spectators farewell, I headed into the border town. After a minute, one of the guys gave me a lift on his scooter. I took the chance: “But it’s not really a full war, more like a conflict, right?” He agreed. Not a full war, just a conflict.
He tried to get me a place to sleep for free in a restaurant, something not unusual in Tajikistan. The owner, a feisty old babushka wouldn’t have any of it, so I continued on foot, straight ahead, feeling good as long as I was moving.
Within minutes, I got picked up by two young guys, who drove me into the main town of the area. In the city, everything seemed normal. No bombs, no soldiers—just some guys out on the streets on a Friday night. A trio accompanied me for some time, a little drunk but gentle enough, confirming that the road was open during the day but not at night.
I continued, high on road. It was addictive to just keep going—walking, hitching, whatever. Soon, I was on the outskirts of the town, bleeding into suburban areas. Old Soviet building blocks, barking dogs, and some agricultural fields.
The street lights stopped, and so did I. Trying to hitch the few cars that were around didn’t work. I didn’t feel comfortable to sleep anywhere here, since there was no real bush. The whole talk about war added to my unease, and so I did the only thing I knew to do: I continued walking.
This time, however, it did not help to soothe my worries. In the dark, I noticed how exhausted I was, how long the day had been. I wanted nothing more than a place to sleep, but there was no spot for my tent—not that I would have gotten much rest anyway, given the situation.
Not knowing what else to do, I wished, hoped, asked: Please, a nice, safe, comfortable place to sleep… Come on…
Turning the next corner, I saw a beacon of light in the darkness: a gas station. Approaching the lonely worker, I felt confident. He’s gonna let me sleep in the office or something… Fumbling with my broken Russian, I got nothing but a stare from the big guy, who turned out to be completely indifferent to my case.
As I was about to walk into the maize field next to me, accepting my fate, a car pulled up at the gas station. A guy close to his 30’s with orange hair and light skin approached me, asking what the matter was. They had seen me trying to hitch before, he explained, pointing to his friend in the car. I told him about my situation, upon which he went back to confer with his friend.
In the next minute, I was on the backseat of their car. We rode through town, laughing about this and that, until we arrived at an apartment block. Going inside, we entered a furnished apartment that the ginger’s father sometimes uses. Since he wasn’t in, I could have it for the night.
The guys told me they’d come and pick me up tomorrow morning, asking me what time I’d be up, telling me to feel at home. This, I did, by taking a shower, having a shave, and enjoying the couch.
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed these mini-stories, some of them taken from the first draft of the book, which is coming along nicely 🙂