Leaving Bishkek

Note: This is a true story, happening to me at the moment. I know that the last few posts here have been non-fiction, slightly out of place on what is ostensibly a fiction blog. We’ll just chalk it up to truth being stranger than fiction and leave it at that.

“Bishkek”

I am currently on a Pegasus Airlines flight from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, Turkey. I got out of Kyrgyzstan at last, although it was a complicated few days and is a great microcosm of the difficulties of traveling in the time of COVID-19. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kyrgyzstan, but I probably shouldn’t stay there forever.

To be fair, the problem wasn’t necessarily leaving Bishkek. The problem was more getting to somewhere else, but they are two sides of the same 5-som coin and I could not leave until I had somewhere to go.

Looking south to Bishkek City Hall and the mountains beyond

It started when I went to the airport two days ago, bound for Almaty, Kazakhstan. After the 40-hour trip to get to Kyrgyzstan, the flight to Almaty was almost an afterthought, only about an hour long and in the same time zone. I was running a bit late, but nothing too serious, as long as everything went well.

“Do you have a visa for Kazakhstan?” the man at the check-in counter asked.

“Americans don’t need a visa for Kazakhstan,” I said.

“Yes, they do.” He finally pulled up the airline website where it said that Kazakhstan had suspended visa-free travel for a list of countries, including the US, until the end of the year as a way to cut down on COVID transmission. I was thinking maybe it was an e-visa I could get quickly, just like I had gotten an e-visa in the Baku airport in about an hour one time. But not only did I need a visa, but also another authorization to travel there as well. In short: I wasn’t going to Kazakhstan that day.

I had known that Kazakhstan sometimes changed their regulations quickly, so I had only planned on two days there. However, I had looked specifically for these types of restrictions for all the countries I was going to visit and had not seen any hint of them. No one I had talked to in Kazakhstan knew anything about this either.

The main problem now was that my flight to Mongolia (through Korea) was leaving from Almaty in two days. It was an Asiana flight and since Asiana didn’t fly to Bishkek, I would have to check out in Almaty and check back in, something I couldn’t do without a visa.

So, the challenge became to find a way to Korea in the next few days. I had to get there before the morning of October 29 since there were only about 1 flight a week to Mongolia. If I missed that flight, I wouldn’t be going there this trip.

I went to a coffee shop in the airport and got a coffee and a pack of cookies. It was the evening, but I didn’t want to go back to the city before I knew when and where I could go. My first problem was getting to Korea. I found a route that would take me there on the 27th but it went from Bishkek to Turkey to Qatar and then to Korea. Not ideal, but possible. The main problem was that Korea required a quarantine period to enter the country and since I would be changing airlines, I would have to check out and check in again. So, I wasn’t sure how they would handle that: if I could just stay in the airport or if they would require me to quarantine. None of the explanations on the Korean travel website handled my situation.

I also found out that Korea now requires an electronic authorization form to enter the country. It wasn’t something I would have needed if I just had a layover there, but something I might need since I was changing airlines on different tickets. I did the online application and had to book a hotel in Korea to provide an address there where I’d be staying. The application fee was nine dollars, but definitely worth it if it was necessary.

At that point, I decided to go back and get a hotel for the night in Bishkek since it was clear I wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. I booked a room in the Grand Hotel in the northwest part of the city, as close to the airport as possible.

The Grand Hotel was not particularly grand. It was rated as a 4-star hotel, which was overly generous, but it was also $55/night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It had a Korean-love-hotel vibe to it (and not the nice ones) and although I had booked it for two nights, I soon decided only to stay one night (especially after I found that the small shampoo/shower gel bottles in the bathroom were not only old and refilled but also slightly dirty.)

Maxim Gorky Park, central Bishkek

The next day, the first thing I did was go to the closest Aqua Lab to get a new COVID test. It was October 26 and the one I had gotten to go to Kazakhstan was expiring that morning. In the time of COVID, a lot depends on getting a COVID test 72 hours before you will arrive at your new destination. This requires some delicate scheduling, as well as a very fast lab, especially when it’s a long trip.

Unfortunately, I realized as I was going there that I would be leaving the next morning. If it was not possible to get same-day results, I wouldn’t be able to fly, meaning I couldn’t get to Korea in time and couldn’t get to Mongolia. The rest of my trip would have to be cancelled for the sake of a few hours.

But thank God for Aqua Labs. The tests were only about $20 and they could do it the same day. In fact, it was ready about 6 hours later. After I got that done, I took a taxi down to the Korean embassy. I wanted to make sure that there wouldn’t be any problems having to quarantine in Korea and I wanted to talk to a person who might know something. After ringing the bell and getting a guard that didn’t really speak English or Korean, I was brought in to talk to a staff member. I was prepared to explain the situation in Korean but the woman there spoke some English. She said it would probably be fine as long as I stayed at the airport and explained that to the people there.

I went back and checked out of the Grand Hotel (only paying for one night, luckily) and immediately went over to the Ramada, where I’d booked a room for the night. It was still cheap by American standards but much nicer and had a desk in the room where I could work. I booked the ticket for the next day and worked on emails for the rest of the day, stopping to walk over to get my COVID test results.

This morning I woke up at 4am and went to the airport. I was the first one in line when they started checking people in for Istanbul, which was probably good. The first question the man asked was, “Where is your Korean visa?”

“I don’t need a Korean visa,” I said, seeing flashbacks to two days before, “but I have this.” I pulled up the electronic authorization on my phone, which had been approved 12 hours after I had submitted it. He took a picture of it and also my ticket to Mongolia and texted it all to the headquarters in Istanbul. And then I waited there at the counter for half an hour. Finally, they said all was well and finally, I was able to leave Bishkek.

Leaving Bishkek’s Manas Airport early in the morning

Right now, I’m on a plane to Istanbul. I’ll have a 7-hour layover there, then flying on Qatar Airways to Doha, Qatar for a 4-hour layover. Then I’ll head back east to Korea, where I’ll have about a 15-hour layover in the airport. And then, with luck, I will fly to Mongolia. Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia are only one country apart ,but the trip between them will last somewhere over 50 hours.

And that is the reality of traveling during COVID: long layovers, reduced flights and shifting government regulations. But it’s been very productive so far, so I think it will all be worth it in the end.


She Persisted

Last weekend, I volunteered at Gannon’s graduation ceremonies. It was good to meet other people on campus, not to mention experience the excitement in the air of hundreds of grads finishing one adventure and starting a new one. It was a bit odd with all the COVID restrictions, but it was a win that we could do it at all, and it went off smoothly.

During the third ceremony, I was in the back and saw a girl four rows up struggling with her hood. At Gannon, all the grad, including the undergraduates have hoods that go down their backs. There is a hook in the front and another one in the back to keep the two sides together. It was one thing we were doing all day: arranging hoods and doing up the little hooks.

This girl was trying to straighten out her own by twisting her hand behind her back. She kept at it to the point I felt bad. I would have gone up to help her but I didn’t know if she’d want a strange guy to suddenly come up behind her. I thought of asking one of the female volunteers nearby to help her but they were all engaged.

After a few minutes she got it all straightened out and even managed to hook the two pieces together, sight unseen. Then I noticed how she had decorated the top of her mortarboard: Nevertheless, She Persisted.

Yep, she’ll do okay, I thought. She’s not one to give up.

Actual hat not shown
Unrelated to the main story, but cute

The New House

Copyright Dale Rogerson

The New House

It was a sunny day when the dam was finished. We stood vigil as the water rose over the house down below.

“I’m sorry, Dad. We fought so hard, too.”

I hugged her. “It’ll stay preserved down there, six generations of memories, just under the surface.”

My voice quavered, and she buried her head in my old shoulder and cried.

You have a new house. On a lake. You lucky old fart.

I breathed—the mellow scent of lilacs mixing with the loud aroma of fresh paint—and let the bitterness go, to dance with the sparkles on the water.


The Day of the Peep

Thanks to Rochelle for choosing my picture this week. I look forward to reading everyone else’s stories as well.

copyright David Stewart

The Day of the Peep

They are a cruel bunch, these humans, who eat our soft bodies for their pleasure. When the snow melts and the trees bud, then you will know that the season of our slaughter has again begun.

But that is not the worst. There is a machine of torture they possess: a very-small wave, where they confine us and explode our bodies, just to watch our torment.

So rise up, you pastel mallows of the marsh! Smother the oppressors with your gooey bodies. Mayhap we will discover a very-small wave of our own and then, the peep shall inherit the earth.

I’m not sure how universal Peeps are, but you can read more here.

To learn more about the diabolical very-small wave.


Oran Man Ida

PHOTO PROMPT © Brenda Cox

Oran Man Ida

Five years since I’ve had the best food in the world.

The restaurant looks the same: the same line of 50 people waiting to get in. I get in line, the smells bringing me back: appetite and nostalgia winding a tight braid inside me.

“The special, please,” I say as a waitress comes up the line, taking advance orders. No time for looking at a menu.

I wonder how many have eaten here in the last five years. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

I spot the owner as I reach the door. She looks up. “Where have you been?”

This is actually a true story. When we were in Korea, we lived in the city of Jeonju. In the old market, there is a restaurant called Nammun Pisundae (남문피순대). It is famous all over Korea and has been in business for decades. There is seriously a line outside of at least 50-100 people at every single meal time and it is always busy. They really only serve one thing: a spicy soup of blood sausage and pig organs. You might not think that sounds great but that’s because you haven’t tried it. It is seriously my favorite food in the world, specifically from that restaurant.

전주맛집 조점례 남문 피순대 (피순대국밥) - 저렴한 맛집 - 맛따라 길따라

I got a chance to go back to Korea in 2019 and made a point to go to Jeonju to see old friends and to eat at this restaurant. Even after all that time, the owner recognized me right away and asked where I’d been. I explained I’d moved to the US 5 years before. To be fair, there probably aren’t many non-Koreans who were regulars there.

(You might wonder about the title: what an Oran Man is or who Ida is. This is a transliteration of the Korean expression meaning “long time, no see”).

The line outside the restaurant (on the left)

Bus Joy

This piece is unusual for this blog because it’s true. These days I’ve been taking the bus to and from work. It’s not a bad commute, usually only about 15 minutes and the buses are never crowded. If you have to take public transportation, take it where it’s not that popular, as opposed to Korea where I once counted about 90 people on my bus and only then because I was taller than most of them.

The best part of taking the bus (besides sitting and listening to audiobooks) is watching the other people. Most people tend to blend together, just masked figures that get on quietly and sit engrossed in their phones but sometimes someone will stand out.

One is a little girl that has started getting on with her mother a few stops after me. She’s probably about three with a mass of curly hair and every time she gets on the bus, it’s like watching a little Indiana Jones about to embark on a new adventure. She is so excited to be on the bus and looking around with barely contained energy and excitement. Her mother picked her up last time to keep her from charging ahead on her own and the little explorer yelled “Yaaaay!” all the way back to their seats.

On the way home that same day, the bus stopped for an old man with a bald head and a thick white beard that stuck out from his chin like a pharaoh’s beard. He seemed to be homeless and the first thing he did when the doors opened was throw a bundle of blankets and clothes into the bus before going back to get his backpack and other things. Everyone waited while he climbed on, then scooped up all his possessions and pushed them into an empty seat, smiling and saying thank you the whole time. He seemed to be wearing about four shirts of various styles.

Two very different people from different stages of life but both very happy just to be riding the bus.


Theater in the Snow

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Theater in the Snow

Anything could be cured with theater, Alice believed. In her first week as activity director for Nome, Alaska, she organized a Theater in the Park program to get people out of their houses and cure seasonal depression. She even flew in actors from down south. Their first production was the musical South Pacific to make everyone feel warm inside.

The performance got mixed reviews. On one hand, three of the actors froze to death mid-song and the rest got hypothermia. But the audience was fine and many commented it was the most interesting thing to happen in Nome in years.


Aftermath Math

Big things are happening in the land of green walls! For all my Friday Fictioneers friends out there and anyone else who might not know, I have started a website for children’s stories called the Green-Walled Treehouse. As part of it, I have a place for kids 0-18 to submit story ideas and I will write a story for them based on it. If you know anyone interested, have them email me at greenwalledtreehouse@gmail.com.

I also just published a children’s book about my travels last year in Southeast Asia. It’s called Stanley and Amber in Southeast Asia (it started out as a Flat Stanley project for my niece). You can read more about it here, as well as download a free copy.

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Aftermath Math

I stumble up the stairs, joy and horror warring in my mind. I spot the stroller box, and a burst of manic laughter escapes me. If only we’d known.

One ultrasound would have shown us what was growing inside Danielle, but with losing my insurance and COVID . . . As long as everyone was healthy, we said.

How naïve.

I reach the nursery. My mind flips to calculator, but the numbers aren’t adding up.

I collapse into the rocking chair while the word that now will forever define my life careens around my mind.

Septuplets.

We’re going to need a bigger crib.


Frozen Beauty

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Frozen Beauty

Ultimately, physical perfection was just genetics. Perfection became standard, beauty turned banal.

* * *

The club was a horror show: missing teeth, scars, ruined eyes. I was displaying a port-wine birthmark, created over two hours.

“Jess! Check this out!” It was Kaylee, her arm around a one-legged girl. “Her name’s Hazel.”

“That’s amazing!” I examined the stump. “Great work! But how?”

Hazel hesitated. “Car accident, actually.”

“Wait, it’s real?” Kaylee took her arm away.

“At least I fit in here, right?” Hazel laughed nervously.

Kaylee and I remained frozen, the illusion shattered. Finally, sensing this, Hazel adjusted her crutch and hobbled away.


Bye Bye Birdie

copyright Ted Strutz

Bye Bye Birdie

Me and the fellers are unwinding when one of them new auto-harvesters drives by. The ones that took our jobs and left us homeless by the highway.

“Ay, ya arshdriver!” Kenny shouts, flipping the double bird as it roars by. I flip it off too just as a piece sticking out chops off my right middle digit, clean as a butcher. It goes flying into the fire where Robbie’s cooking roadkill.

It’s nothing but ash now. Bad enough the bastards take my job, but now I can’t even flip the double bird in protest? It’s enough to make you misty-eyed.


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