“Yeah!” they said. “A donkey!” they said. “A donkey can carry 100kg and walk all day!” So they said. Or, this is what they said in my head. In reality, they laughed in my face and cracked funny jokes I couldn’t understand. I reality, in the real reality and not my reality, my months of donkey day-dreaming and scheme-thinking were based on calculations almost exclusively of my own opinions what a donkey ought to be able to do. Not a donkey’s.
And yet I was sure I had found a loophole! I was sure these nomads who had grown up around animals all their lives just didn’t understand the power and promise of a donkey. Why would I even consider – as everyone suggested – buying a horse for a minimum of $1,000 when a donkey could be picked up for an ice-cold $50 bill? Everyone was clearly a fool but me. Me and my Japanese friend Sasaki – that is – a man so humble and kind that I once watched him apologize to and then thank a door because he opened it.
I had lured Sasaki to take a detour from his Spain-to-Japan junk-bike ride with tales and figures of how great our lives would be if we collectively owned a donkey. He was too naive to know that my tales and figures are usually made up. Plus, he was a general easy-lure: on this trip he’d already been sidetracked to solo-climb the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, hike 900 miles of El Camino Del Santiago and scoot down to scale Kilimanjaro real quick, 2 days before suprise-running a marathon. Sasaki sure was a sucker. And a smoker. Which further confirms my suspicions that smoking isn’t really that bad for you. “I rike-a crimb a-mountain,” he says, kind of sheepishly. It’s his catchphrase.
Anyways, my big donkey dreams had nearly been pushed all the way out of the brain-bucket if it weren’t for one drunken night staring at a map and realizing that I could shortcut by hundreds and hundreds of miles if I just slid overland for 100km or so then hopped back on the main road. Suddenly travel-by-donk was back on the table in a big way: suddenly it wasn’t just an idea for experimental adventure but rather a viable – dare I say practical?- means of transit from point A to B!
Unfortunately the map I was looking at wasn’t a topographical map, so I didn’t realize my shortcut was straight over a jagged 15,000 foot mountain. Oops. But by the time the mistake was revealed, Sasaki and I had already learned the word for “donkey” – so there was pretty much no going back at that point. We headed to a small village hosting one of the region’s biggest livestock bazaars. We armed ourselves with cryptically translated notes on a piece of paper: “Donkey necessary!” – “How much water donkey need?” – “How protect donkey from wolf?” – and, addressing my biggest fear – “Donkey run away?”
We spent the day showing our note, pointing at our crude drawings of donkeys with saddles being led by happy people – and I felt distinctly like a little kid with mittens pinned to my jacket. “Donkey donkey!” we said enthusiastically. Or – “Donkey?” questioningly, or “Ah, donkey…” to show we were in deep thought. Laughter and confusion abounded. Pure shenanigans, class ‘B’ or ‘C’. And like all fool-proof plans…. …we ended up with a donkey!
So all we had to do was load her up and hit the open road. First stop Tash Rabat caravanserai, the epic 15th-century fortified Silk Road stopover in the astoundingly isolated Tian Shan range. A place where people having been stopping with their donkeys for a long, long time. And away we go! Okay… okay… things are going…. ooooookaaaaaay…. Donkey is coughing a little, is that normal? ….damn, donkeys are slow…. actually, the only thing we can do to get her to move more than a snail’s pace is bribe her with cookies…. walking, walking, so slowly we are walking… it takes us a couple hours just to get a few last-minute items (more cookies) and make it out of the little town (and it is a small town)… Jesus Christ, Donkey! The suddenly:
“Oh no! Donkey rie down! Donkey rie down! I never berieve, Donkey rie down!” The first time Donkey lied down and looked on death’s door, were were terrified – ripping all the gear off and nearly in tears that we had killed her. When we got over the initial shock, we were mortified by our progress: “Three hours!” became our battle cry- referring to the three hours it took for Donkey to just lay down and play dead. “Three hours!” Actually, this was cutting Donkey a lot of slack – the kind of slack that two guys without a watch might overestimate after creep-crawling along. In reality, it was probably more like two hours. And also in reality, we could literally throw a stone back and hit the town we started in.
That’s where we spent our first night.
We spent the second night still in sight of the village.
By the third night, we turned around.
Were we woefully wrong about what a donkey could do? Did we buy a bunk donk? Was there some other factor at play that we didn’t fully understand? After a few days coaxing Donkey along with cookies, the answer to all of these questions appears to have been: Yes.
We never even made it to Tash Rabat with our bunk donkey, let alone clambering over the huge peak we had set out to conquer.. But it was marginally fun, none-the-less. It was fun to be with an animal in the land of yurts and nomads. The nomads took a shine to us, too, and due to our incredibly slow progress they easily followed us around and would stop by to bring us fresh milk, yogurt and kifur., or just hang out by our campfire laughing at us.
Donkeys. Damn. World’s most depressed creatures. When left to their own devices, they just stand there and look supremely bummed out. I now understand Eeyore. And after one of the nomads let me ride all around on his horse, I now understand why a horse is worth twenty donkeys.
So, on a slightly serious sidenote – one of the issues that thwarted us was an issue which is facing all the nomads in Kyrgyzstan: following the Soviet collapse, the country’s infrastructure quickly deteriorated (i.e. bridges collapsed). Even though the nomads herds also greatly diminished (sheep and cows in Kyrgyzstan HALVED post collapse…), because of the infrastructure problems the shepherds can no longer reach a lot of pasture land. This has resulted in two problems: under-grazing in the inaccessible areas (which is actually a big ecological problem in ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years to have grazers) and over-grazing in the areas that can be reached. So our donkey, like all the other animals we met, was actually starving for lack of grass. We’re told that if we would have come back just a few weeks later, spring would provide bounty. But unfortunately, we picked the very worst time to travel with a grazer: the winter pastures all having been picked clean.