Before embarking on this journey we knew that the hospitality will be receiving will be overwhelmingly more than what we offer back home. Since living in Invercargill, south of New Zealand, we have opened the "floor" to many travellers.
CouchSurfing & WarmShowers
The concept of these two communities are quite simple:
- Open your home to travellers
- Offer your time, food, or anything you're willing to give
- Expect nothing in return other than feedback on your online profile
At times we had so many travellers staying at once that our flatmates started to feel crowded. Eventually we had to cut down and host only tour cyclists. We tried our best providing our guests a good time in the shaken city of Christchurch, giving them a personal tour of the inner city, taking them to the farmers market or even baking a cake (…we probably wanted to eat a cake anyway).
Of course we didn't expect anything from our guests, however we might occassionally receive a small gift of some unwanted belongings such as a small trowel. The feedback we received was always appreciated and we always enjoyed reading it.
Come Stay at My Place
In Bishkek we met a lady who was curious about our travel, so we showed her our route and photos. Afterwards she learned that we'll pass a village called Kazarman - where she happens to run a guesthouse with her daughter. She said to us that when we get there, there is space for us to pitch our tent in the backyard. That'll be great we thought.
Now as most of you will be thinking - this is an invitation by an acquaintance to come stay at their place, right?
Arriving into Kazarman after the sunset
After two weeks of cycling we arrived at her guesthouse in the dark, tired and "scruffy looking" (her words!). To our surprise she reserved a room for us in the guesthouse and unfortunately our Italian friend had to sleep outside in the rectangular gazebo thing. It was a very nice place, we were very happy when she showed us around, thinking we were lucky to get such a nice place to rest. She said that night she was travelling to a nearby city so if we needed anything we could ask her daughter. We arranged tomorrow's breakfast, got ourselves cleaned, then hit the haystack.
Pheng woke up at 1am to go on his phone because it's been 10 days without decent internet and the phone plan has unlimited data use between 1-7am. While downloading several series from Netflix, Pheng received a message through WhatsApp from the mother at 2am.
Before you leave today please give my daughter 650 soms per person.
It was a weird situation to be in. We honestly thought she was letting us stay for free. Now we were trapped in this awkward situation. The money was one thing but the way she asked us to pay was very odd.
This is equivalent to $15 in New Zealand and is considered cheap for a night at a hostel in New Zealand. With that amount in Kyrgyzstan however, you can walk out of the market with 3 bags full of groceries and supplies to last you a week's travel (for the both of us). We always think of money in terms of "days of food" now.
Three bags¹ full of fruit and veges!
Carefully wording our response, we said:
Our travel is long and we did not expect to pay this much. Can you consider a discount for us? Had we'd known about you charging us we would've camped out of town.
Her response was quite hilarious:
Sorry I don't understand, also I am very busy. How much do you want to pay?
After further chit chats, we agreed on paying 500 som each, and our Italian friend paid 400 som for the breakfast and shower.
Breakfast was two fried eggs, fresh tomato and cucumber slices, bread, tea and jam
One afternoon we arrived in a small village Qalot (Tajikistan) and stopped outside a restaurant to buy some bread for dinner. Many people came to talk to us and after getting our bread, a man we've been talking to invited us to camp beside his house. We couldn't understand fully what he said, but the gestures suggested "come with me, sleep at my house". We hesitantly agree, unsure if it's a kind gesture or potentially another Kazarman incident.
Making our way across the street, his house was a normal looking Tajik house with tin roof and dirt packed walls – no signage of a guesthouse or anything. We parked our bikes against the wall facing away from the street and started pitching the tent.
Soon after he offered us to sleep inside, if we wanted to. Uncertain where this'll lead to, we asked if we needed to pay. He said not much, only 100 somoni. For us that was too much so we asked about tenting outside if that cost, and he said 50 somoni!
This is equivalent to $8 NZ and in Tajikistan, that can get us a bag of vegetables and bread to last us 3 days. Immediately we told him "sorry, we'll go to somewhere else to camp". Straightaway he shook his head and said we don't have to pay and can stay.
Food in Tajikistan has been comparative more expensive²
After that, we felt extremely awkward being in their backyard. It was like we're wanted here but only for the money and our company was not what they cared for. We tried to make tea and offer it to him and his brother but they refused saying they'll have it later. Usually here you accept tea right away, not refuse or delay someone offering tea — it'll get cold!
The brother was baking bread at the back of the house and we were really interested. It's the same kiln we first saw in China where the bread sticks to the inner wall to cook. He told us the breads sell for 5 somoni. They sell to the nearby restaurant or small shops in the village. Seeing as we were being offered lots of things from them (to buy obviously), bread was something we could always do with. We bought two.
Let's just go
The next morning, without having breakfast, we just packed and left. The guy did see us packing and helped us take the rubbish we were carrying. We were glad to get away.
These two experiences are fairly uncommon and we're more careful with invitations now. For a rough estimation, about 90% of the time we're invited in for tea, it is from genuine locals looking to get to know a traveller. Those times are often very special to us so an entire blog is written about that (see Let's go see the Petroglyphs, Hospitality Declined). For the other 10% they deserve a mention here as a warning so our readers can be wiser when they come visit Central Asia!
¹ "Rakmat" means thank you.
² The high altitude terrain in Tajikistan makes it hard to grow food so it is understandable food is more expensive than in Kyrgyzstan
This blog is a report from our personal blog