The road to Toktogul begins hot and flat out of Chui, and then suddenly you begin to climb. First through the green and purple folds of mountains around the silverwhite seam of the Kara-Balta river. The edges of the mountains are rough-hemmed by the closeness of the clouds that begin to collect in droplets on the windows.
As you weave back and forth between the mountains and clouds, you reach an apex and begin a steep and curvy descent. And suddenly, the sun breaks on the west side of the mountains, and you can see the brilliance of Kyrgyzstan for miles and miles.
Our driver, Talai-Baike, would click his lighter and fill the car with the crisp, sharp smell of freshly-lit tobacco, holding cigarettes between the gap of his teeth and sparkling gold molars, letting the smoke be pulled from through the open window, blooming indistinguishable from the clouds crowning the mountains.
Occasionally, he would call back in Kyrgyz, asking questions and telling jokes to Max, our only Kyrgyz-speaking travel companion. Would we stop for kymyz, the traditional fermented mare’s milk that was served in yurts lining the road? Where did we work? Why had we come to Kyrgyzstan? Would Max play a song on the mandolin that bounced around on top of the luggage in the back?
Our car became a moving concert, songs spilled out in English, Russian, Kyrgyz. Talai-Baike insisted on stopping for kymyz, bartering Max’s singing for free bowls of the sour, slightly carbonated, slightly alcoholic drink.
The insides of yurts are all primary colors, dark and full of the smell of Kyrgyz mountains. Everything is slowed down inside of them, as if they prescribed to Kundera’s idea of slowness and memory. Max tuned his mandolin, Sara and I sipped kymyz, and Talai-Baike convinced our host that simple songs could pay for our drinks and our time in her yurt. And then, the music.
As we climbed back into the car from the roadside yurt, among laughter and astonishment that yes, this is what our lives look like when we are surrounded by the mountains of this country, Max said, “This is the best taxi.”
Talai-Baike answered, “No,” thoughtfully shaking his head. “It’s the people in the car.”
After following the fork south, you see Toktogul breaking on through the hills, all cornfields and mountains and clouds. The deep blue of the lake, hiding Old Toktogul in its depths, amplifies the mountains that surround the city, isolating itself from both the hot south of Jalal-Abad and the desolate north of Talas.
Even through car window’s and the steep, poorly-paved curves, you can tell that Toktogul is beholden to this magical sort of light that filters through the birches lining Lenin Street or casts the surface of the lake in sparkling, blue gemstones.
It’s the crashing of a million moments and colors together, and it hits you on the road to Toktogul.