“You have to be open to go with the flow because life is always full of surprises. That's where the genuine rewards are. That's how we have more fulfilling experiences that make us stronger and more knowledgeable."
Derek Earl Baron, then 37, stepped off the marshrutka (a rounded taxicab) onto a desolate dusty road in Tamga - a tiny village situated at the base of Kyrgzstan’s Tian Shan (“Heavenly Mountain”) range. Not a single person was outside and the streets were empty. The two shops beside the intersection appeared closed.
The entire village seemed desolate, almost like a ghost-town, and Derek couldn’t imagine why the local man he encountered in Karakol (a town about 90 kilometers from Tamga) had recommended it.
He began walking down a dirt road, passing only quiet, simple homes. In the distance rose snowy mountain peaks.
“There was no activity whatsoever and it wasn't a very beautiful town,” Derek said. After about 10 minutes, I thought, “Okay, I'm going to just find a ride out of here and go somewhere else. This town doesn't make any sense.”
Left to right: The center of Tamga; Tamga's only restaurant; the hills surrounding Tamga
While walking back to the intersection, a sign with “Beauty Salon” written in both Russian and English caught his eye. On an impulse, he walked into the shop and asked the woman behind the counter if Tamga had a place to stay; to his surprise, she handed him a business card for the “Askar & Tamara Guesthouse.”
“I thought, 'Okay I'll go see this guesthouse,'” Derek said. “It's probably not going to be worth it and then I'll come back and get on the bus and get out of this town. I had it set in my head that this town didn’t have much to offer a traveler.”
He called the number listed on the card and a few minutes later, a 10-year girl arrived on a bicycle. Derek followed her across town to a nondescript two-story house. After waving goodbye to the girl, he entered the building’s tiny shop, which sold a few essentials like soap and snacks.
There, he was greeted by a woman wearing traditional Kyrgyz clothes . With a wide smile on her face, she extended her hand and introduced herself as Tamara.
“I felt all of the worry and frustration of getting off the bus and wondering where on earth I had landed disappear in an instant — all because of one smile from her,” Derek said. “I was already set to leave and then suddenly, I met this woman who was just so bright, friendly and warm.”
Tamara insisted Derek sit down and relax, then poured him some vodka and placed a giant plate of homemade pastries on the table. She began telling him about her guesthouse, her job as the town’s English teacher and a bit about Kyrgyz culture.
Even before seeing the guesthouse’s accommodations, Derek agreed to stay in Tamga for a couple days. He knew he had stumbled upon an opportunity to experience Kyrgyz culture in the most authentic way possible.
left to right: The outside of the Askar & Tamara Guesthouse; The dining room;Derek's guest room
Throughout the next three days, Derek told Tamara stories from his travels and about life in the United States while she taught him about the different regions of Kyrgyzstan, the country’s history, the current political situation, and local customs. She introduced Derek to several of her friends and each night, served homemade traditional Kyrgyz meals featuring bread, meat, rice, vegetables, and kompot (a sweet drink made from stewed fruit) in the guesthouse dining room.
“She didn’t just have a guesthouse to make money; she genuinely wanted to connect,” he said. “The core of her business was to interact and mutually share with people.”
While in Tamga, Derek also hiked to the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake — an alpine lake located at an altitude of 1,600 meters in the Tien Hsan mountain range — and visited the Shazka Canyon. He was struck by the picturesque beauty he encountered at those sites: clear blue water below snow-peaked cascades and auburn rock formations striped by eons of erosion.
left to right: View from the banks of the Issyk-Kul Lake; Hiking in Shazka Canyon
Yet when he looks back on his 2014 trip to Kazakhstan, his mind doesn’t jump to the incredible scenery he saw; instead, he thinks about Tamara and the genuine warmth their connection had.
“It’s pretty easy these days to get caught up in taking Instagram photos, but at the end of the day, the most important memories are going to be moments that you absolutely don't expect,” he said.”There's always more behind that first impression if you're willing to dive a little deeper.”
After Derek published his experience in Tamga on his blog, visits to the Askar & Tamara Guesthouse increased from a handful of visitors per year to a steady stream of travelers every month.
A screenshot from a video that Tamara sent Derek in fall, 2015: https://www.wanderingearl.com/travel-friendships-far-more-powerful-than-we-think/
To this day, Tamara frequently Skypes Derek, even as often as once or twice a month during the high season. Because she's not very skilled with technology, guests staying at the guesthouse help her place the call.
“We have this amazing connection,” Derek said “It's such a warm experience and now we're in touch forever. This story of meeting Tamara and becoming lifelong friends is the epitome of why I continue traveling.”
Derek said that some of life’s most treasured experiences can emerge from the most unexpected circumstances. Rather than strictly planning out his travels, he tries to have a loose agenda that can be tweaked in light of new opportunities.
“You have to be open to go with the flow because life is always full of surprises,” he said. “That's where the genuine rewards are. That's how we have more fulfilling experiences that make us stronger and more knowledgeable.”