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Published: August 13th 2010
The public minivan exploded with excited questions in broken Russian when they realised there was a foreigner onboard. "What's it like in England?" "How is life in England?" "Can people live normally there?" "Can you actually live there?" "Here you just can't live, there just isn't enough money..."
"Is that vodka?" asked the man next to me, pointing at my water bottle.
"Just water," I replied.
"What's that in your bottle, vodka, eh?" he asked me again a bit later.
"Yes, actually it is," I said jokingly. His glazed over, seemingly unseeing eyes came to somewhere approaching life and his involuntary jaw movements increased in frequency.
"Give me some then!" he said in a cracked, wheazy voice.
"No, sorry, I was only joking," I apologised.
"Come on, seriously, is it vodka or not?" he asked me.
* * *
In the village of Doskulu I asked Stalbek, a history teacher, whether life was really, as many people in Kyrgyzstan say, better during the USSR:
"Say, for example, now I have thirty sheep and five cows. For example. Back then this wasn't allowed. You could have a maximum of ten sheep
and one cow, no matter how much or how little you worked. Any more and the government would take them away. Now, however, if you work hard like me then you can live normally. I have no free time - I'm a teacher, I work with tourists and in the school holidays I work with animals - but as you can see I have a nice home and family. If, however, you drink and sleep all day then of course it's hard to get enough money to live."
* * *
In the morning Stalbeck drove me 5km down an almost non-existent grass track in his Lada to the village of Kyzart and pointed me in the direction of the horse trail that led up and over the 3500m Uzbek Pass to the alpine lake Song Kul. From here the towering, rippling, green mountains where the pass was located looked like an insurmountable, near-vertical barrier, but mountains always appear that way from a distance.
I walked in between the concrete and mud-brick houses and crossed two rivers on suspension bridges made of hodge podges of mud, hay and the odd rusted, contorted sheet of metal covering
several criss-crossed tree branches. Soon I had left the village and was walking through fields tilled by horse-drawn ploughs and receiving the occasional wave from villagers cutting grass with scythes.
The trail began winding slowly upwards. It would have been a fairly easy walk without my 15kg back pack but as it was I was forced to stop for a rest after an hour. I started off again, refreshed, but soon the trail stopped winding at all and led uphill in a straight line, making for much harder walking. I stopped after thirty minutes this time and had a lunch of nuts, raisins and sweets.
The mountain slope became so steep that the trail was forced to start zig-zagging again and I made my way uphill in thirty-minute bursts of ridiculously slow plodding. The last hour was particularly slow and agonsing: often I would emerge onto a ridge to be treated with a magnificent view of the valley I had come from 1.5km below, sure that I had finally reached the top, only to find that there was yet another ridge to ascend to just out of view from the previous one. When I finally did stagger over
the Uzbek Pass, my breath coming with some difficulty at this altitude, I laughed out loud with relief when Song Kul jumped into view.
The blue, sprawling mass of water looked almost as if it could be situated in the crater of a gargantuan volcano: situated at 3013m it was completely ringed by mountain peaks, although the descent from them to the lake was far shorter than to the villages I had come from, 500m compared to 1500m. I made my way down until after an hour or so I arrived at an area on the lake shore where eight yurts stood scattered a few hundred metres one from the other.
"I'm sorry, there's no room here, there are too many of us," they told me at the first yurt I asked at for a place to sleep. "Ask at the other yurts."
Their Russian not being the best, and mine neither, there was a little confusion when I asked at a nearby tent. After a couple of seconds I was about to repeat my request when a drunken slur came from under the table: "Mozhno, mozhno." You can, you can. I gratefully took off my backpack
and entered. As I did so the speaker, an enormously overweight man in his mid-thirties with a shaven head, propped himself up on one elbow so that his head was slightly raised above the low table around which his family were sitting.
"Sit down, sit down," he drawled, indicating a place opposite him at the table. "So how much are you going to pay?"
I was shocked: this was the first time anyone in Kyrgyzstan, other than shops, transport, guest houses, etc, had actually asked me for money for anything, be it food, shelter, accommodation, a ride in a car. Considering this and the state of the man, I suspected I had made a bad choice of place to ask at but I was exhausted and it was almost dark.
"Is 300 OK?" I asked.
"Give me 500 and you can have everything you want," he told me. I was too tired to argue.
They gave me a bowl of soup and some bread then asked me to take their photos. The man, Mars, put his arm around his wife who embarrassedly tried to shy away at first but then smiled broadly for the photo.
It was nice to see some husband-wife affection, even if only drunken.
"You'll send me these photos if I give you my address, won't you?" he slurred.
"You'll teach my children for free if they come to Moscow, won't you?" he managed in between belches.
"My wife's beautiful, isn't she?" he gurgled in Russian that was becoming less and less intelligible.
"I like her. She's only given me two children though and she can't have any more. She must be ill," he said, holding a cigarette in a hand that was resting on a humungous beer belly that spilled out in all directions and only just allowed him to fit between the tent wall and the table.
"We keep trying though," he continued. I was having to concentrate very hard by now to make out what he was saying. "We'll try again tonight. I want at least five or six children. Ten or fifteen, that would be just amazing. She's beautiful though, I love her so much. I won't give her away to anyone."
"You know, two's already good," I said. "In England people normally only have two kids."
"Why? Can't the women
there have any more after that?"
"No, no, it's just the way people like it."
"Strange. What about you, do you have children?"
"How old are you? Are you married?"
"26, and no."
"Why not? What are you waiting for?"
"It's not that I'm waiting, it's just that where I'm from you can marry whenever you want, 20, 30, 40, it doesn't matter."
"And do you have the tradition where if your wife doesn't bleed on your wedding night you can just get rid of her?"
The rest of the conversation, before he passed out, went back and forth between the two questions, why I was not married and why people in England only had two children, the answers to which simply would not filter into his brain. When not asking me these questions he would be telling me that he liked his wife even though she could not give him children.
* * *
"Good morning!" I chirped at Mars when he finally awoke the next day. He raised his eyebrows slightly and grunted uninterestedly at me.
"It's tasty," I
said, commenting on the breakfast of Song Kul fish, freshly-baked bread and a side dish of tomatoes and onions in fresh cream. We were eating it while tea brewed in a kettle on a furnace whose fire was fuelled by sheep dung and which gave off a surprisingly pleasant and homely smell.
"My wife makes everything tasty," he said. She laughed. "And she's tasty." She did not laugh.
Mars lay back down again in the yurt after breakfast, only to be tormented by a gang of his nieces who teased, slapped and jumped on him until he was forced back up again. He then asked me to take another photo of him with his arm round his wife. Again, she tried to shrug him off at first but quickly stopped and gave a big, genuine smile for the camera.
It looked like it was about to rain so I decided to wait for an hour or so in the hope that it would pass. Shortly after breakfast a group of people roughly my age came to visit from another yurt.
"I saw you arrive yesterday but I didn't have time to say hello," one young man
said. "I hear you're paying 500?
"Yes, that's what they asked for," I replied to make it clear I was not stupid and knew it was too much.
"And that's for how many days?" He asked something along these lines but I did not quite catch it becase he trailed off as Mars suddenly appeared at the tent's entrance. He shut up and would not repeat to me what he had said. They all drank a bowl of kymys then moved on.
Another group arrived a bit later on horseback and they also stayed for a bowl of kymys. I remained outside the tent, chatting to the youngest.
"How much are you paying?" he asked me.
"They asked for 500," I said.
"Does that include meals? And what other services? Laundry? Massage?" he joked.
"Hey! Hey! Mars yelled from within the tent and said something in Kyrgyz, clearly telling the boy to shut up.
Mars and his wife completely ignored me and I left after lunch despite the bleak skies and ongoing prospect of rain. I walked for just over an hour on a road that wound up and down over several
bluffs and promentories jutting out into the lake whose previously blue waters had been turned grey by the bleak sky on this overcast day, the mountains on its other shore now invisible.
Eventually I crested a hill to see six yurts spread out below me. I descended and as I was walking past a huddle of three of the traditional dwellings, these ones larger than usual and made of a synthetic white material rather than the ordinary sheepskin, two children appeared, riding towards me on horseback.
"Do you want lunch, do you want lunch?" they shouted out. I took them up on the offer and followed them back to the three modern yurts.
"Hello," I said to their mother when she came out of a yurt on our arrival. She did not smile or say anything back but waved me into another yurt. Inside was very spacious and every inch of wall and floor was covered in bright, colourful rugs and hangings. Drapes hung from the ceiling but other than these and the other decorations the only item of furniture was a small rectangular table at the back that rose about six inches off the floor. It
was about as unlike a real yurt as it was possible to get.
"Sit down," said the mother, pointing to the table. "So you want lunch, right?"
"Actually I've just eaten. Maybe just a cup of tea, if that's ok with you?"
"Oh," she said, scowling. "What about dinner and breakfast?
"Actually I still have further to walk today," I replied, I was beginning to realise that this was no normal yurt but almost certainly one of the tourist ones that catered to people on guided tours. I had known there were some at Song Kul, being one of Kyrgyzstan's main tourist attractions, but had plotted their locations on my map of the area so that I could avoid them. No one had told me about this one though.
"Do you want to hire a horse then?" she asked.
"No, I like walking," I replied. She said nothing else and left.
Two minutes later a young girl came in and poured me a cup of tea. She sat opposite me at the table, refilling my cup in silence when I finished it, not answering any of my questions and presumably unable to speak
Russian. I left uncomfortably after my third cup.
Two drunk men appeared from one of the other yurts as I exited mine. "That'll be 50 soms for the tea," one of them said. I paid up, thanked them and made to leave.
"There's nowhere to stay after this until Ak Tala and that's like 100km from here," one of them said to me.
"I thought there were lots of yurts at Song Kul?" I asked, surprised.
"No, only this one,"
"I've already seen some others though and people in Doskulu told me there were plenty all the way around the lake."
"Oh, there are shepherds' yurts," he conceded, "but no CBT ones like this." CBT is a tour company that claims to give lots of money back to locals by setting tourists up with guides, horses and places to stay in the countryside.
"Ok, well I'll find somewhere. Goodbye," I said, walking off.
"Why are you walking? Don't you want to hire a horse?" one called out after me as I left. Perhaps the presence of tourist yurts at Song Kul explained the cash-savviness of the other inhabitants such as Mars.
I walked on across a flat, slightly marshy grassland that extended several kilometres inland from this part of the lake and about 10km around its shore. After forty minutes or so two more children rode up to me on a horse.
"Drink kymys, drink kymys!" the elder, perhaps ten years old, chirped. I was, however, getting a bit wary by now of people at Song Kul so I thanked them but said I was heading to Ak Tala and asked if I was going the right way. They nodded but looked unsure, as if they did not know enough Russian to grasp what I had said. I kept on walking.
"Drink kymys, drink kymys!" he piped up again after a minute, waving his hand to the right to indicate we should go that way. I gave in and followed them for ten minutes until a large, rusted metal cabin came into view, identical to the one I had stayed in for a week in the Suusamyr Basin. There the area around it had been spotless, without a single scrap of paper of empty bottle littering the ground, and the same could have been said for Mars' yurt. Here,
however, eminating out from the cabin to a radius of around twenty metres, the ground was covered with rubbish and dung from cows, horses, sheep and goats.
"Hello!" I said to an short, skinny, grey-bearded man who was sitting outside the cabin.
"Hello!" he said back, happily shaking my hand. "Come in, come in!"
We went inside and sat down around one of the tiny, six-inch high tables that everyone in Kyrgyzstan seemed to have in their home. His oldest daughter, a young woman in her thirties, put bread, honey, cream and butter on the table and served us tea. After the usual series of where are you from, what do you do, how do you know Russian, family, age and married questions the man, whose name was Tinchtekbek, offered me to stay the night in his cabin. I had planned to walk further that day but he seemed like such a genuinely friendly and kind person that, after my previous two encounters at Song Kul, I decided to take him up on his offer.
After we had had several cups of tea he asked me for permission to go out and help his other daughter,
the fifth of ten children, to milk the horses. "They need to be done five or six times a day," he told me. "Cows are easier, we just do them morning and evening."
When he had finished he came back in and asked me where I had come from. I told him Kyzart.
"Today?" he asked.
"No," I replied, "yesterday. I stayed with someone called Mars."
"Ah yes, Mars, the really really healthy guy, yeah?"
"No, you must be thinking of a different one, this Mars wasn't healthy at all."
"Yes he is, there's only one person called Mars at Song Kul and he's the healthiest guy here!"
"It can't be, this guy is an alcoholic, a chainsmoker and the fattest person I've seen since arriving in Kyrgyzstan!"
"Yeah, that's him! I used to be really healthy too," he claimed excitedly, indicating with his hands that he too also used to be fat. "Not quite as healthy as him, of course but I did use to be bigger. I had three car crashes though; I used to be a taxi driver until my dad got too old to work with the animals.
Anyway, the first crash cracked my head open, the next destroyed the muscles in my upper right arm and the last drove a metal pole through my right knee."
We walked outside and he climbed slowly up a wooden ladder to put a bag of kurut on the roof of the cabin to dry.
"I've been to Germany, you know," he told me as he climbed back down. "I did my military service there in the East during the Soviet Union. They were sending me to Afghanistan at first but when I got to Bishkek they realised I was my parents' only son so they allowed me not to go."
"You were lucky, I guess," I commented.
"Yes, most people either never came back or came back crazy, depressed or alcoholics. East Germany wasn't great either though, the Germans hated all the Soviet soldiers so much. They used to try and drop big rocks on us from buildings sometimes. Some of them were OK though. One time I had to carry a message alone through a forest for 20km to a military garrison. I was terrified because there was a German village on the
way. Anyway, when I passed the village there were a group of Germans sitting around in a field drinking vodka and they told me to join them. I was so terrified I didn't know what to do. I kept drinking every shot they gave me until there was no more left. They went home and we said goodbye. I arrived at the garrison completely drunk and got seven days' in jail!"
We both laughed.
"Vodka's good, isn't it," he said cheerfully. "Let's have some. Come on inside." We went in and he pulled out a two-litre plastic bottle about one sixth full of a clear liquid.
"It's surgical spirits mixed with water," he explained. "If you mix the two together, it makes... vodka!"
We did our shots, said our toasts and finished what was left in the bottle fairly quickly. Almost as soon as we had, the rattle of an engine announced the arrival of some ancient Soviet car. We went outside to see four men clambering out of it. Tinchtekbek approached them, shook their hands then introduced me.
"They're here to go fishing on the lake," he told me. "Don't tell anyone though. If
the militsia find out they'll be straight to jail."
"Ah, poachers," I said.
"No, no, not poachers," said one of the men to the accompaniment of lots of head-shaking and serious faces from the others, "we just don't have licenses to fish."
"Poachers," Tinchtekbek confirmed after they had left and shared a bottle of vodka with us. "There are loads of fish in the lake, although most of the big ones have disappeared. He was my schoolmate, the fat one, and he always gives me twenty or thirty fish when he comes back from the lake. It's funny how schoolyard relationships continue into adulthood: I used to beat him and get him to do things for me and although I'm ashamed of that now I can still tell him what to do even though he's way bigger than me!"
Tinchtekbek brought out another bottle. "Don't mention the poachers to anybody, seriously, the police around here are really bad," he said while opening it.
"In what way?" I asked.
"Look at this," he said, wobbling one of his front teeth sickeningly back and forth. "They did it last year. An idiot in Kyzart told them
I had stolen his horse, so they tied me up, put me on the ground and beat me in the face with their elbows. Then they made me bend over and beat me on the base of my spine with their truncheons. Of course I couldn't tell them anything so eventually they just hit me in the head with a rifle butt and knocked me out."
The rest of the night was spent over a meal of fried rice and horse meat, answering his many queries about the rest of the world, it's geography, politics and history. He knew very little, other than a few names and events, but this was already vastly more than most rural Kyrgyz I had so far encountered and I got the impression that he had made a real effort to absorb whatever information about the world he could get his hands on.
After eating, as is done without exception after every meal in Kyrgyzstan, we all held out our hands palms-up as if receiving communion then brought them up so that both palms were facing inwards towards the face and moved them slowly down to chest level. Before going to bed we
drank tea, he and I sitting at one end of the cabin and the children and grandchildren at the other, the strangely pleasant smell of burning sheep dung quickly filling the small space. To my embarrassment, on seeing that my cup was empty, Tinchtekbek grabbed the younger of the two daughters as she was walking past and told her to serve me.
Despite my protests they insisted I sleep on the one bed and they (Tinchtekbek, two of his daughters, one son and four grandchildren) on the floor. We went outside while the women made the beds.
"I always used to smoke before going to bed," he told me, "but now I can't because I have problems with my lungs and liver. Cigarettes are really bad for your lungs and liver."
"Actually vodka, and especially that stuff you drink, is the worst thing ever for your liver. It's really harmful," I said.
"Oh no!" he cried, seeming genuinely surprised, "I usually drink two or three bottles a day!"
"You really shouldn't," I said.
"OK, tomorrow I won't, I'll just have two hundred grams for breakfast and that's it. It's Ramaddan soon, I should be
giving up anyway."
"Do many people observe Ramaddan here?" I asked.
"Very few," he said. "You're supposed to eat and drink nothing during the day. At night you can drink vodka and eat as much as you want though."
"Do you observe it?"
"No, I don't. It's not good for me not to eat, because of my liver problem. Also, as you know I like to drink vodka. Most people here do, even though it's forbidden by Islam. It's because Islam was suppressed during the USSR, so most people have forgotten about it. Life was easier back then but we had much less freedoms. Lots of things, like Islam, were banned."
* * *
"How's your head?" he asked me in the morning.
"Not great but not bad," I replied. "I feel more tired than anything else."
"My head feels like it's going to explode," he said. "Let's finish the rest of that last bottle." And so we did, and within an hour of waking up he had already surpassed his two hundred gram limit.
"Those people over there," he said after breakfast, pointing in the direction of the tourist
yurts I had passed on my way here, "They make about 100,000 soms , while I make about 20,000."
"What, every year, or what?"
"Every season. We're all only here from May to October, the rest of the year is too cold so we work with the animals down near Kyzart. It's not right charging people money though; someone should tell tourists to come and stay with me, I'd never ask them for anything."
The rest of the day we spent riding around from yurt to yurt, having every aspect of herding life explained to me, meeting various different groups of Tinchtekbek's friends and drinking more of his filthy "vodka". It ran out some time around mid-afternoon so we made our way back to his cabin for a nap. On the way his son rode his horse up to its neck through the lake. "He's disobedient, that one, but a dip in the cold lake will sort that out," Tinchtekbek explained.
On waking up I heard Tinchtekbek shouting at his grandchildren outside. I had to wonder what effect his alcoholism had had on his family. Certainly their clothes were dirtier and their faces more downcast than
the children of other families I had stayed with, including Mars. It was hard to tell though because none of them spoke any Russian and, like everywhere I had been so far in Kyrgyzstan, the women were very reserved in front of an unknown man, rarely even replying when I said "hello," "how are you?" or "thank you."
"My wife was supposed to arrive this evening and bring vodka and food," Tinchtekbek told me after nightfall. When we spoke his voice was gentler than when he talked to his family and he always smiled or laughed.
"You know we had that great meal last night?" he asked. "I wanted to make you a different meal tonight, but because of her we can't. When she arrives I'll punish her."
"Please don't punish her," I said, hoping that he just was embarrassed that his wife had not done what she was supposed to, or ashamed that he had no food to give me. Perhaps he had no real intention of 'punishing' her and was just trying to save face.
"Maybe she just has extra work to do, or couldn't find a horse to come here on," I added.
He just shook his head.
The counting of sheep and milking of animals got finished well after dark. Late at night we ate bread for the third meal that day and I went to bed starving. Tomorrow morning would definitely be time to leave.
* * *
"How do you feel?" I asked Tinchtekbek in the morning after a fairly sleepless night.
"Terrible, there's no vodka so I'm in a bad mood," he told me in a matter-of-fact voice.
We ate bread for breakfast, after which I dozed off for a while. I woke up again determined to leave though and packed my bag.
"Take this," I said, offering 500 soms to Tinchtekbek. "It's to say thank you for everything you've done for me."
"What are you talking about?" he replied. "You don't need to do that, put it away."
"No really, please, take it," I answered.
"But I've done nothing to deserve it!" he said in an exasperated voice.
"You've done a lot," I said, pushing the note towards him.
"But I've got nothing to give you!" he wailed.
"You've already given me so much,"
"Please, take my sweater!" he suddenly shouted, moving towards the cabin.
"Please, I don't want it, my bag's too heavy anyway, thank you though. Just take the money."
"Are you sure you won't be offended if I do?" he asked.
"No, please, I want you to have it," I insisted.
"But it's too much!"
"Well, it's not right, but thank you," he mumbled, taking the note. "At least take my sweater and have lunch with us before you leave."
I agreed to have lunch and privately determined not to spend the night anywhere until I had thought up some less embarrassing way of repaying hosts for their kindness.
We ate some more bread for lunch.
"My son can escort you and carry your bag on his horse for about one hour," Tinchtekbek told me as we ate. "He can't take you any further though because after that the people in yurts are from another village and they might beat him."
"It's OK," I said, "he doesn't have to come. I can carry my own bag easily."
After lunch we shook hands. "You really shouldn't have
given me the money," Tinchtekbek told me. I told him not to worry, said goodbye and left.
"We'll meet again one day," he called after me, "when I have enough money to come to Moscow!"
Two minutes later I heard a horse approaching behind me as I walked. I turned to see Solto, Tinchtekbek's ten-year old son, riding towards me.
"Bag," he said in Russian, pointing to his horse.
"It's OK, I can carry the bag, really," I said. He did not understand and kept riding next to me and repeating his offer. In the end I smiled broadly, said thank you in Kyrgyz and indicated with my hand that he should ride back home. He got the message, grinned back, said goobye and left.
* * *
I walked for two hours until I came to the next yurts. A madly barking dog kept me well away from the first one but I passed quite close by the second. Outside it four men were sitting on the grass in a circle, presumably drinking vodka. I kept going, not planning to stop this early, but suddenly I heard a shrill whistle from the
direction of the yurt. I turned my head to see one of the four men waving me over.
"Sit down, sit down," he said when I arrived at their circle. "Will you have a bowl of kymys?"
"Yes, thank you," I said, sitting down and noticing that there was a bottle of vodka and four shot glasses in the centre of their circle.
"What about some vodka too?" he asked as he poured me a bowl of the fermented horse milk. He was tall and fairly well-built with no extra fat on him, his face hardened by a lifetime spent outside.
"That'd be nice, thank you," I replied.
He began filling the four shot glasses. As he did so, the man sitting next to me, who had deeply weathered and alcohol-reddened features, began shouting in Kyrgyz right into my face. I just smiled at him, nodded as if I understood and shook his hand when he offered it. He smiled back at me briefly and genuinely, then began yelling in drunken Kyrgyz again.
"I'm sorry," replied the man who had invited me over, "please don't be offended. He's just had too much to drink. My name is Adil, and you?"
"Edward," I replied.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"England, but I live in Moscow."
"Ah, so that's how you know Russian! Anyway, let's drink. To our meeting!" We all knocked back our shots.
"So what do you think of Kyrgyzstan?" he asked me.
"It's great: beautiful, interesting and very hospitable people." Everyone nodded appreciatively.
"I see you really speak good Russian and can understand everything we say," Adil said.
"I can speak and understand everything but my accent's terrible," I replied.
"Not at all, not at all, plenty of people here speak much worse Russian than you, or simply don't know it at all."
The guy next to me began shouting Kyrgyz in my face again.
"I'm sorry, I really am," Adil told me. "Please don't be offended. Edward, I would like to invite you to spend the night here if you want to. There's plenty of room, it'll only be my wife, my son and I. These three clowns are leaving in a minute. And if you don't want to stay, please feel free to relax here for as long as you want before you move on."
The guy next to me, who had been slurring in what might as well have been gobbldygook at me and tapping my shoulder to try and get my attention while Adil had been speaking, suddenly shut up when Adil said that the three of them were leaving soon.
"Thank you very much," I said and thought about it for a few seconds. I had not planned to stop this early. Adil saw that I was thinking it over and reiterated his statement that I should not feel that I had to stay if I needed to press on.
"Yes," I decided, "it would be very nice to stay with you. Thank you."
"Great," he exclaimed, smiling to expose numerous gold teeth. He then said something to the others in Kyrgyz and refilled our shot glasses.
"Are these guys your relatives?" I asked Adil, pointing to the other three.
"This guy here is my brother," he said, pointing to one of the still fairly sobre men next to him.
"What, a birth brother?" I asked, using the Russian adjective that distinguishes a real brother from a cousin or an extremely close friend.
"Almost," Adil replied, "almost that close. It's just that he's from a different village than me, but we still respect each other greatly, so he's like a brother to me."
We did our shots, finishing off the bottle; afterwards the three guests got up and left.
"I'm sorry about that man," Adil apologised after they had left. "I'm embarrassed that you found me in such company. He arrived here sobre, and he left in that state. That means that he can't drink, that he shouldn't drink."
"Please don't be offended," he repeated, leading me into his yurt. "Do here exactly as you would at home. Make yourself comfortable. I know our yurt is small, but still. If there's anything you want, just ask."
We sat down, his seven-year old son joined us and within a few minutes his wife, a large, kindly-faced woman, had produced an enormous plate of manty, deliciously greasy meat-filled dumplings.
"Let's try to eat them all," he said. "If you don't eat them while they're hot the grease congeals and they're not tasty."
Having eaten only bread for the previous five meals, I could have kissed him for saying that. It was effectively giving me license to eat as much as I possibly could, even though the quantity of manty was so enormous that it would have been impossible to finish them all.
After the meal, to many a burp from all who had been involved in it, I lay back against some cushions, thoroughly satisfied.
"Right, I've got to go out for an hour or so," Adil said almost straight away. "Edward, if you need anything at all, just call me or my wife."
I lay in the tent for a minute before I realised, on turning to my right, that Adil's son was sitting across the yurt and staring at me, almost the entire bottom half of his face taken up by an enormous grin that suggesed pure, unabashed happiness. I stuck my thumb up at him and he burst into laughter, repeating the gesture back at me.
Over the rest of the evening Adil would come to the yurt and spend as much time with me as possible before heading back out to milk the cows, round up the horses or count the sheep. He seemed like a strong, kind, intelligent man and was the first person I had met at Song Kul who spoke flawless Russian. His son, every time he saw me, would burst into his gigantic grin and stick his thumb up.
* * *
Early the next morning One of Adil's older sons arrived on horseback with a friend from Kyzart. Over breakfast he spoke non-stop with his parents in Kyrgyz. We were drinking tea after the meal when suddenly everyone went silent and the elder son began singing in a deep, nasal voice. This continued for a couple of minutes.
"It's the anniversary of my mother's death," Adil explained after his son had finished.
Everyone became very busy after breakfast so I decided to make my exit.
"I want to make you a present to say thank you for your kindness," I said to Adil, "but I'm afraid I have nothing at all to give. So, if you won't be offended, I'd like to give you a little money."
I held out 300 soms to him.
He looked at it in surprise for a few seconds, apparently considering my words.
"Are you sure you won't be offended?" he asked finally.
"No, of course not, I really want you to have it."
"Ok, thank you," he said. "Give it to my wife. A present would have been better though."
"No, no, you don't need to do that," his wife said as I held out the money to her, apparently not having heard or understood any of our conversation. Adil said something to her in Kyrgyz, presumably explaining what I had said about wanting to give a present. She nodded and accepted the money.
"Let me write you a note," Adil offered, "which you can give to the man in the fifth yurt you'll pass. His name is Mamutbek, a friend of mine. He'll point you in the right direction for Ak Tala, tell you everything you need to know and probably offer you some tea or soething too."
* * *
About an hour and a half later I came to Mamutbek's yurt and gave him the note. He apparently spoke no Russian but he ushered me inside his home anyway. Inside two long tables were laid out with salads, bread, jams and butter, a spread so luxurious that it clearly indicated a special occasion. His wife was sitting in a corner washing all sorts of animal entrails in a huge bucket of water. Mamutbek said something to her in Kyrgyz.
"Would you like kymys?" she asked me. It was the first time I had encountered a woman who spoke better Russian than her husband.
"I'd love some, thank you," I said. "Are you having guests today or something?"
"Yes, our children," she said, "but you're also a guest! So sit down and eat!"
I sat down behind the table and shyly ate a slice of tomato and scrap of bread.
"Don't be shy!" she said, grinning, "eat whatever you want! Here, I'll put the samovar on and make you some tea as well to warm you up. Are you sure you don't want to stay the night here and meet our family?"
I was beginning to realise that if I accepted every offer of hospitality, I would never leave Song Kul. A line had to be drawn. And, quite apart from that, I badly needed a shower and was not amazingly keen to be the random, stinking foreigner at a family gathering.
"Thank you but I really need to head on today," I replied. I left after an hour with a full stomach and batteries totally replenished.
After another hour and a half I came to two more yurts situated on the opposite bank of a stream. Outside them a young guy, probably in his late teens, was standing and watching me. He whistled and waved for me to come over.
"Where do I cross the stream?" I asked, but he seemed not to understand Russian.
I walked along its bank but could find no obvious way across. He had followed me on the opposite bank so I asked again how to cross, miming with my hands. He motioned back that I simply had to walk through the stream so I took off my boots and did as told.
"Come in, come in," he said after I had crossed. Inside the only other person was a young woman with a child.
"Where's everyone else?" I asked, sipping the kymys and chewing the bread that had been placed on the table in front of me.
"For the people from our village it's a festival today," the woman answered. "They're all off playing Ulak."
"Ulak?! Where, far away?" Back in Suusamyr I had seen an Ulak game in which fifty horseback riders had all competed to try and pick up the headless, limbless body of a goat from the ground and carry it away as the victor. I was keen to watch it again.
"Very far," she said, "almost the other side of the lake."
I was disappointed: it was far too late for me to make it there today.
"Are there more yurts before the pass to Ak Tala?" I asked.
"Lots," she replied. "The last one is just before the pass though and after that there are no more for 60km."
"Great. I'm going to move on then, thank you very much for the kymys. Would you mind if I wash quickly in the river before I go?"
"Don't wash in the river, it's cold. We'll boil you some water."
I left stuffed to the brim and marginally cleaner than before. I walked along a dirt track gradually uphill towards the pass for two hours. At first yurts dotted the green fields everywhere on either side of the track but they gradually thinned out until there were none left to be seen. I began to fear that I had walked too far and passed the last one but after fifteen minutes two more lonely yurts came into view. I had no idea if they were the last or not but reasoned that I should keep walking, because if there were no more then the pass would be nearby and from it I could quickly turn back to them. There were still two hours until dark.
The going became much steeper and the visibility drastically reduced, due to what could either have been thick fog or low clouds. After half an hour I reached the pass and realised I would have to walk back. Almost as soon as I had turned around though I heard the sound of a motor. Suddenly the images of a shower, a warm bed and not having to walk in this cold, windy place any more came into my head. I stuck out my thumb and hitched a lift to Ak Tala.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kyrgyzstan
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