The old man with the wooden leg grinned across the low table at me, a mouthful of gold teeth gleaming in the candle-light. Raising his shot glass high, he waited for the rest of the table to fall silent, then looked me right in the eye and barked something in Kyrgyz, eliciting growls of assent from the men around me. I didn't recognise the word, but his sentiment was clear enough; it didn't matter how many drunken louts were waiting for me in the cold outside - fanning the flames of their violent anger with more & more alcohol - I wouldn't have to stand against them alone. Looking around the circle, I nodded my sincere thanks - rahmat
in Kyrgyz, right hand over my heart - to each of the four men at the table. Men I'd met only an hour before, but who seemed to be willing to fight beside me if I ended up having to. With a solemnity that bordered on the ridiculous, we clinked glasses, downed a final shot of fiery Russian vodka, and rose together. My heart-rate quickened as we walked to the door of the little mountain cafe, sheepishly self-conscious as we pushed up
sleeves & cracked cold knuckles. I decided then, just before we opened the door - like gunslingers preparing to burst through the saloon doors in a cheesy Western - that this trip had already been way too memorable & strange not to write a blog about. =P
For it's been a little over a year since I last wrote one, a busy & very good year, in which I moved across to Singapore to start a Masters degree (Water Engineering) at the National University of Singapore. Two-thirds of the way through now, I wanted to do something memorable with my last long university holidays - two precious months in which to hunt down adventure, truth & beauty in another corner of this endlessly fascinating & surprising world. And one corner which has always intrigued me is Central Asia, partly because I simply knew so little about it. As a virtual blank on my mental map, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was a place I could actually explore for myself, rather than arriving weighed down with preconceptions, unfair expectations, and a sense of having seen 'something like this' before. Having now spent two weeks in Kyrgyzstan, I can
Statue of Manas, the warrior-hero of the epic of the same name
A cycle of oral legends, the Manas epic is reportedly 20 times longer than the Odyssey, detailing the origins of the Kyrgyz people
definitely confirm that it's like nowhere else I've ever travelled - a wonderfully bizarre country of unexpected contradictions; unbelievably generous hospitality alongside simmering resentment, snow-swept mountain peaks & flower-strewn valleys, Islamic tradition & chronic alcoholism, plenty of colourful characters, and - if your outlook is optimistic enough - the healthy green shoots of independent change emerging from the grey rubble of the post-Soviet collapse & recent revolution. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! Background
Before I write about my own travels here though, it's probably worth providing a very brief background to a country the world knows so little about. Today's Kyrgyz people are probably descended from Siberian tribes who were forced south by increasing Mongol invasions, (particularly those led by a certain Jenghiz Khan in the 13th century). While the Mongols did eventually reach the area now known as Kyrgyzstan, controlling it for a while, they were pushed out by the Chinese, who were in turn replaced by the Russians, (in 1862). Russian settlers began to arrive in great numbers, putting down deep roots - and significantly influencing local culture & language - in what eventually became a full Soviet Socialist Republic (Soviet Kirghizia) in 1936. It's important to note that
Me, Suyun & Azamat at Pristan, on the shore of Lake Issyk-Kol
We had lunch there, then stripped down to our boxers to go for a swim in the freezing water.
current national borders, (and this is true of all of Central Asia), are largely arbitrary Soviet creations. Some suggest that Stalin personally oversaw the drawing up of these borders, ensuring that each country contained significant populations of different ethnicities, so as to prevent the rise of potentially-troublesome nationalism. As I travelled around, people would often ask me where I was from, and then enquire as to what my nationality was - revealing an outlook in which ethnic identity & formal nationality are not necessarily (or even likely to be) synonymous.
As for its more recent history, Kyrgyzstan declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, voting in Askar Akaev, (a prominent physicist), as president. Despite Akaev's liberal reforms, the economy nose-dived and government corruption remained rife, leading to growing civil unrest. Eventually, in the relatively peaceful Tulip Revolution (March 2005), the government was overthrown, and a new one quickly installed. However, from all accounts it seems that many of the same issues - primarily economic hardship & widespread corruption - remain just as much a problem now as then. Despite this, Kyrgyzstan certainly seems to be the most liberal, and accessible, of the Central Asian republics, (I obtained
Joanne & Aida, outside the excellent Faiza Cafe
It must be one of the most popular restaurants in Bishkek
my visa on arrival at the airport, no letter of invitation necessary); presenting the visitor with numerous indications that its future is growing brighter every year. Bishkek
My own Central Asian adventure began with a 15-hour layover in Tashkent airport, where I swapped stories (theirs were much better) with a group of Thai gem-traders who'd been stranded in the transit hall for a full week, (having failed to safely negotiate the minefield that is Central Asian visa application). Thankfully my papers were in order, and I was allowed to board my flight to Bishkek's Manas Airport early the next morning. (Interestingly, Manas doubles as a US Air Force base - our plane taxied in next to a huge KC-135 tanker transporter - with a Russian counterpart just down the road.) It was on this flight that I was lucky enough to meet Joanne, who's been involved with various Kyrgyz NGOs for the past five years - a committed & generous person who really helped me find my feet in Kyrgyzstan. She & her Kyrgyz friend Aida ended up dropping me off at an amazing little guesthouse they knew about, and then returned later to take me to lunch
The garden of the amazing Bishkek guesthouse I stayed at
Unfortunately, it's something of a secret, and I've been asked not to disclose its location. =P
and tell me a little about the country and its traditions.
The strangest of which must surely be the practise of "bride kidnapping". Once the traditional way for young Kyrgyz men to find a bride, it has been illegal since 1991 but is now on the increase again, (cynics point to the rising costs associated with modern weddings). As Aida explained it to me, the young man will literally kidnap the (usually) unsuspecting girl, forcing her into a car and taking her to his house. A raised curtain is hung in one corner of a room, and a chair placed behind it, its legs visible to the rest of the room. The girl is forced behind this curtain and the wait begins... If she sits down, it means that she's accepted the marriage. It takes enormous mental strength to refuse though; girls who emerge from these situations unmarried face condemning public assumptions, (what exactly went on in that room, alone with a man for so long?...), and some find that their families refuse to take them back, out of shame.
A more light-hearted variation on this tradition is the game known as kyz-kumay
("kiss-the-girl"). The woman is given
a faster horse, and a head-start, and then the man takes off after her. If he manages to catch her, he wins a kiss. But if she can elude him for long enough, she's now entitled to chase him around instead, whipping him repeatedly to compound his embarrassment. =P There are a number of other horse-back games, such as kok boru
("grey wolf") - essentially a no-holds-barred brawl over a headless goat carcass - and tiyin enmei
, in which contestants have to pick up coins from the ground as they gallop past. Needless to say, the Kyrgyz are magnificent horsemen.
After lunch, Joanne & Aida walked around the streets with me for a bit, helping me get a feel for the place. A battered, slightly demoralised city, Bishkek felt to me as if it had lain mostly dormant since its Soviet heyday, gradually decaying around the edges as it slept, but was now in the long process of waking up again; a shaggy beast clambering back on to its feet, shaking off the dust with increasing liveliness. We stopped at one of the ubiquitous drink stands that line its cracked & uneven pavements - some of which sell beer
), the ever-present vodka, or fruit juice (sokh
) - to sample some maksym
, (a sour, nourishing drink made from fermented grains). Around us, a busy stream of Bishkekians poured past - mostly Kyrgyz or Russian in ethnicity; heavily made-up women tottering along in high heels, trailing clouds of perfume, young men swaggering by in fake-leather jackets, old Kyrgyz men in faded suits & traditional ak kalpaks
(peaked, white-felt caps), hunched babushkas
sitting on street corners, staring vacantly at the sparse wares spread before them (mostly cigarettes & sweets), sunglassed "biznezmen
" striding along wearing expressions of preoccupied self-worth... A fascinating city to people-watch in.
I only spent one more full day in Bishkek though; seeing the sights (most interesting was probably the openly anti-US murals in the State Historical Museum ), trying to pick up some Kyrgyz & Russian, and tucking into the local cuisine with great relish! In particular, I grew to love shashlyk
(juicy chunks of meat roasted on long skewers and served with vinegar & raw onion), laghman
(thick noodles & meat in a spicy, oily soup), and shorpo
(mutton soup with potatoes & carrots thrown in). I'd been warned that Central Asian
food was very heavy & oily, definitely not one of the region's strengths. While there is some truth to this - greasy white blobs of mutton fat feature slightly more prominently than I'd prefer - it's much, much better than I'd been expecting. If there's a Central Asian restaurant in your city, give it a try! I'd recommend the laghman
& a couple of shashlyk
, washed down with a refreshing bowl of kymys
(fermented mare's milk). =P Which is better than it sounds, I promise. Karakol
Quickly tiring of the city, and itching to get out into the dramatically beautiful countryside for which Kyrgyzstan is famous, I caught a marshrutka
, (minivans with a set route, but not timetable; they leave when they're full), out to the small town of Karakol. Up in the mountainous north-east of the country, on the shore of the huge Lake Issyk-Kol, Karakol's an agreeably laidback town of wide, poplar-lined streets. Wandering around on my first day, I met Suyunduk, (who's asked me to find him a wife from amongst my Australian friends - any takers?), and his friends Sultanbek & Azamat. It's a sad truth that you have to be very careful who you
A statue to 'Erkindik' (freedom) on Bishkek's Ala-Too Square
Erkindik statues have replaced most of the monuments to Lenin in Kyrgyz towns, (although the Lenin statues are generally just moved to a smaller square, rather than disappearing altogether).
trust when you travel, but these guys were awesome - genuine, hospitable & curious - and I spent a fun weekend looking around town with them, swimming in the freezing turquoise waters of Issyk-Kol, and just hanging out in one of the many summer cafes.
It was in one of these cafes that I had one of the strangest experiences of the trip thus far. I'd just met two Australian guys on the street - the first travellers I'd seen in Kyrgyzstan - and had invited them to join me at this cafe for dinner. Dreadlocked, with long beards, they attracted a lot of attention as we passed through the courtyard, where a noisy dinner-party was underway, and into a small private dining-room. We'd been in there for about 20 minutes when the door suddenly burst open, and a dark-haired, middle-aged Kyrgyz woman stepped boldly inside, beaming happily, red-cheeked with vodka. Smiling at each of us in turn, she launched into a long & (apparently) very exciting story - in Russian... After a few minutes, we gave up trying to explain that we didn't understand, and merely nodded, smiled or frowned - whichever seemed appropriate to that part of
the story. When she finished, her smile somehow grew even wider - she was obviously very pleased with how well she'd told her torrid tale - and she complimented us all for being "beautiful", her first English word of the evening. Then she asked if she could kiss me, indicating a peck on the cheek, and looking at me so beseechingly that I smiled & agreed. Before I could even stand from my chair, she was literally on top of me, her open mouth over mine, muscular tongue wriggling energetically between my lips. Not quite what I'd expected... I pulled back in shock, for a moment completely lost for words, and then started stammering away about a girl-friend back in Australia. I kept this up - wide-eyed & pathetically frantic - until she returned reluctantly to her friends, leaving us to stare at each other for a moment, and then burst into laughs of disbelief. =P Jeti-Orguz
After a relaxing weekend in town, I decided to head up into the Tian Shan range, ("Celestial Mountains", in Chinese), on the following Monday morning. I was able to rent a small tent and buy a hiking map from the friendly people
at the CBT office
, (Community-Based Tourism; a fantastic initiative that seems to be represented in most Kyrgyz towns), and then walked to the bazaar to stock up on enough food for three days or so. Thus equipped, I spent most of the rest of the day making my way to one of the many trail-heads south of Karakol, the crumbling Soviet-era sanatorium south of Jeti-Orguz. Apparently it was once quite an illustrious health spa - counting Boris Yeltsin & Yuri Gagarin amongst its former guests - but now it feels more like a run-down mental hospital. One which may have been taken over by the patients themselves... Attendants in dirty white lab-coats wander the faded corridors aimlessly, staring vacantly at the threadbare carpets beneath their feet, or just sit in the entrance hall, gazing into space for hours. I managed to rouse one of them into showing me the 'mineral pool' - a lukewarm tub on the second floor, its water so murky that you couldn't see through its three-foot depth. I felt as if I needed a long shower by the time I got out.
It was that night, in Jeti-Orguz, that I had my little misunderstanding with the
drunken shepherds. After a couple of hours hiking around the area, admiring the red stone formations that simply erupt out of the ground there - bulging out of valleys, jutting over canyons - I headed to one of the cafes for dinner, laghman
on my mind. =) A group of obviously-drunk youths outside whistled to me, trying to wave me over, but I just greeted them politely, mimed eating, and continued inside, hounded by more whistles. To my weary disappointment, one of them soon followed me in & sat beside me, breathing vodka fumes into my face, eyes struggling to focus on me. In response to his slurred questions, I continued to tell him (in Russian) that I didn't understand, and that I didn't speak Russian, with rapidly-deteriorating patience. Finally, the friendly young family who owned the cafe ushered me through to a back room, where a group of older men were having dinner. When I asked to pay for my meal a short time later, the young woman who'd served me took me aside, and indicated that there was now a large group outside, waiting to rough me up once I emerged from the cafe's protection. I tried to
reassure her, assuming it'd just be a few of them, by now too drunk to stand let alone fight. I was sure I could brush past with a few smiles and a confident stride, as is the case with most situations like this. But when she counted off exactly how many there were - twelve - and literally begged to me to stay the night there in the cafe with her family, looking extremely concerned, I realised it wasn't going to be so easy. Thankfully, the group of men behind me had overheard this 'conversation' (mostly miming & shadow-boxing =P) and invited me to join them; it turned out they were staying at the sanatorium too and would be heading back soon.
The hour that followed was an interesting one - walking the fine line between drinking enough to satisfy my new friends (who'd now finished dinner and started on the vodka), whilst ensuring I remained sober enough to fight if I ended up having to. Seeing how little of each other's languages we all spoke, there wasn't much I could contribute; I amused myself instead with counting the number of gold teeth visible, (roughly 25, between the four
of them; fairly standard from what I saw throughout Kyrgyzstan), and joining in for each of the toasts. Strangely, there doesn't seem to be a direct Kyrgyz equivalent for 'cheers'. Instead, each of the men - miners from the nearby Canadian gold mine (which apparently accounts for 18% of the country's GDP!) - would take turns making long-winded toasts, after which we'd all carefully clink glasses, one-to-one in turn, and then drink together. I'm told these toasts can cover just about anything, and become increasingly ridiculous after the fourth or fifth shot. =P Towards the end, they invited me to make a toast. I went on for as long as I possibly could - my companions listening intently & occasionally nodding their heads emphatically (despite not knowing any English at all) - but definitely couldn't quite match their lengthy, impassioned speeches. And then, one final shot and it was time to go!
I had to smile, as we walked to the door, noting how eagerly my companions were anticipating a brawl. A return to their glory days! Even the oldest of them - the one with the wooden leg (a motor-cycle accident when he was 30), who'd shrunk uncertainly
Typical road-house toilets
Strangest is the fact that there are no doors or screens for each toilet; people look in curiously as they walk past. =P
back into his chair most of the evening - was now looking increasingly feisty, swinging his wooden peg along with new vigour, banging it down every step in a strident, repeating challenge. Pushing open the door, with the men jostling impatiently behind me - not wanting to miss anything - I stepped down into the street... Cold, dark, and - completely empty. ... There was a sense of something approaching disappointment - a massive anti-climax - as we stalked along, glaring into the shadows, talking a little louder than we needed to, pausing to challenge every foreign sound with an open invititation... But the street was indeed sound asleep - the shepherds having long since drunk themselves past their rage and into a semblance of peace - and we strolled leisurely home alongside a stream that laughed at the darkness, pausing occasionally to gaze up at the uncaring stars, glittering coldly far above us.
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