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Published: August 2nd 2010
Imagine fifty horseback riders from the wilds of Kyrgyzstan, drunk on adrenaline and fermented horse milk. Imagine a 500m pitch on a mountain slope strewn with boulders, bushes and ditches. Imagine the carcass of a goat, deprived of its head and limbs, in a circle in the middle of the pitch. Imagine the shout that signals the beginning of the game and the stampede that follows; the yelling, the furious whipping of horses, the thunder of two hundred hooves on the mountanside as everyone gallops towards the carcass. Picture the ensuing chaos, the broken bones, black eyes and fat lips as all fifty fight to get near the goat in a horseback mosh pit, those who succeed swinging down from their saddle in an attempt to pick the dead animal up from the ground. Imagine the desperate tug-of-wars that follow when someone actually manages to get it in their arms, a rider finally breaking free with the carcass, galloping to the other end of the pitch, carrying it around a post then bringing it back to the circle in the centre without being intercepted. The game is called Ulak. Who on earth would play it, you wonder? Read on...
was no transport to Suusamyr from anywhere, the nearest I could get by public minivan being a tiny, dusty, low-rise, concrete town called Kara-Balta just over an hour outside of Bishkek. In the centre, under the shade of an overhanging willow at the side of the pot-holed asphalt road, two or three banged out old Soviet Ladas were waiting to fill up with passengers to take to various destinations. One was for Suusamyr. It took several hours for the required four passengers to be found and crammed into the tiny vehicle but after that we were off and heading south into lush green mountains.
For some time the road managed to keep to a fairly level gradient by winding its way in between the foothills but eventually it was forced to start snaking its way slowly up their sides. The higher we got the more the greenery disappeared until eventually we entered and passed through the clouds, crawling uphill through a land of barren, rocky giants of mountains, their snow-capped peaks not all that far above us even in late July. The sun disappeared along with all its warmth, a cold wind blew through the gaps in the Lada’s
frame and a light rain drizzled down its windows.
We arrived at the entrance to a long, dark, unlit tunnel that led into the mountainside, our driver stopping and getting out to check that everything was ok under the bonnet before we headed in. It took perhaps five minutes before we emerged into a world spectacularly different from that from which we had just come; gone were the wind, the rain and the cold to be replaced instead by a glorious sunshine that illuminated a flat, green valley floor perhaps two kilometres below us that was surrounded by a ring of towering white-tipped peaks - the Suusamyr Basin.
“You see those yurts over there?” the driver said, having descended to the valley floor and got out of the car with me. He was pointing at some white specks far away and slightly up the mountain wall. “They’re good people. I buy kymys from them sometimes. They’ll be happy to have you stay with them.”
I did not ask him what kymys was but thanked him, took my bag and walked off in the direction of the yurts. The Lada trundled on towards Suusamyr village.
me about an hour to get there and in fact shortly before the yurts there was a rusty old metal cabin that had been invisible from the road. Outside it an elderly man was standing by a post to which a pair of horses were tethered.
“Excuse me,” I said, as if stopping someone in the street to ask for directions, reading the lines I had been deliberating over and rehearsing non-stop during my walk, “Rumat told me there were yurts here and that there might be a possibility of staying the night?”
“Okay, why not, come and sit down,” the old man said, pointing to a tiny wooden bench about four inches high that sat outside the cabin. “We’ll drink some tea and some kymys… have you tried kymys before?”
“No, what is it?”
“It’s fermented horse milk. It'll put hairs on your chest, make you strong. When you go home the girls will say you're a new man completely.”
“Sounds great. I’ll have some.”
“Where are you from?” he asked me.
“England,” I replied, “but I live in Moscow.”
“Ah, you live in Moscow? I was there, a long time
The game, involving 50 horse riders charging at and trying to pick up a dead goat, took place almost at nightfall. I hope these blurred pictures can give some idea of the mayhem involved!
ago, during the Soviet Union. I had to do my military service in Uzbekistan then in Leningrad. In between the two we stopped in Moscow for two days.”
“Leningrad’s a beautiful city, I’ve been there too,” I told him.
“Yes, it is,” he mused. “What’s your name?”
“Edward. And you?”
“Pleased to meet you.”
Just then a younger man in his thirties appeared around the side of the cabin and came to shake my hand.
“This is my son, Soltobek,” Orezbek told me.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
Soltobek went inside, presently to re-emerge carrying two large bowls of what looked like ordinary milk. He gave one to both of us and I took my first sip of kymys. The taste was so acid that I had to wonder why anyone had ever started fermenting milk instead of just drinking it in its natural, more palatable form.
“Do you live here permanently?” I asked, trying not to show them my face which was still wincing from the bitter taste.
“No,” Orezbek replied, “in winter we move to Kara-Balta where it’s slightly warmer. We still herd horses though. It's
just that here in Suusamyr it can hit minus forty and the snow can be as high as this cabin!"
We moved inside the cabin and sat in a circle on the floor. Soltobek's wife, Erkegul, placed a huge plate of fried potatoes in the middle and gave us each a spoon which we used to help ourselves. She poured us each a cup of tea and as soon as anyone's was empty would pick it up and refill it, juggling this task with spooning food into the mouth of Soltobek's baby nephew, Seemuk.
"And how long have you lived here?" I asked.
"I worked on a collective farm here during the Soviet Union and afterwards just stayed on," he answered.
"What exactly do you do to make a living?"
"We sell kymys. Sometimes people come here to buy it from us and sometimes we go to sell it in town. Eat, eat, do as you would at home, don't be shy. Where are you going next, anyway?"
“I’m not sure but probably Song Kol, via Kyzyl Oi and Jumgal.”
“That’s a wild, dangerous area. You should go to Issyk Kol. There they
Takoo making kurut, Suusamyr
Kurut are sun-dried balls of incredibly bitter yoghurt
have lots of hotels and foreigners.”
“But I prefer places like this, nature, meeting people like you,” I replied. He smiled, seemingly pleased with my answer.
Over a breakfast of fresh, home-baked bread and tea the next day, Soltobek made me an offer. "I'm going up into the mountains to bring some horses back from the high pastures. Do you want to come?"
We saddled up two horses and left an hour after breakfast. We passed a number of yurts, stopping at one for a bowl of kymys and picking up a third horseback companion.
"Do you have any money on you?" Soltobek asked me as we rode on.
"What for?" I asked.
"Vodka," he replied.
"They sell it here?" I asked, disappointedly. I had had a romantic image of proud, hospitable nomads who had somehow resisted the Soviet pressure on their way of life and emerged unscathed from the USSR.
"Yes, in the next yurt," he told me.
"How much do you need?"
"Fifty soms . I'll pay you back when we get home."
"No, of course not, I'll pay for it."
it and rode uphill through a narrow valley betwen two mountains bedecked with blue, purple, white, yellow and red flowers, stopping and sitting on a large rock after an ascent of several hundred metres. We drank the vodka in five minutes, taking it in turns to do a shot from the same glass and following it with a few crumbs of bread from a tiny hunk we had been given along with the bottle.
"What's it like, working with horses?" I asked as we rode on. "Do you have to work long hours?"
"From morning until evening," he replied.
"What about weekends?"
"We have no weekends. We work every day, if we need to work, and we rest when we need to rest. It's us who decide our timetable. We have no, no..." he searched for the right word.
"Boss?" I suggested.
"Yes, that's right!" he leaped on this like a chamaleon zapping up a fly with its tongue, proud and keen to show off his freedom. "We have no boss! How long will you stay with me, Edward?"
"Well, if you don't mind, do you think I could stay one more night?"
"Mind? On the contrary, I would love it!" he cried, his voice echoing slightly against the narrow valley walls. "One night, one week, one month, as long as you want!"
We moved further up, high into the mountains, even passing a patch of snow. Soltobek suddenly galloped off through a field in which the flowers were almost as thick as the grass to where a herd of around twenty horses stood grazing. Our third, temporary companion trotted off in another direction, leaving me alone and trying to make up the suddenly vast distance between myself and Soltobek.
Soltobek drove his horses higher up the mountain slope while I struggled to keep them in sight, increasingly nervous at the steepening gradient on which we rode. Our other companion had found his horses and was driving them at a gallop across the mountain slope on the other side of the valley from us, the clobber of their hooves audible even from here as the herd flowed gracefully out of sight.
Eventually we emerged on top of a mountain to see the Suusamyr Basin spread out far, far below us, a patchwork quilt of greens, browns and yellows covered
with strange patterns of light and cloud shadow.
"What do you think?" Soltobek yelled from ahead of me.
"It's beautiful!" I shouted back as we trotted along the mountain ridge.
The descent back to the part of the valley where Soltobek and his family lived was terrifying. I never would have known a horse could carry you down such sleep slopes and never would have dared to find out if Soltobek had not spurred my horse on, leaving me to cling on white-knuckled for dear life. We arrived home five hours after setting out.
Over tea, bread and kymys I asked Orezbek a question that had been on my mind. "Was life better during the Soviet Union or is it better now?"
"During the Soviet Union, of course," he replied without hesitation. "Back then everyone had enough to eat. Now you see children walking around the markets desperate for money, saying 'buy this, buy that.' People have to sell kymys by the roadside, like you saw when you came here from Kara-Balta, just to make enough money for bread. No one had to sell stuff before, we all just worked together. Now it's all 'buy,
buy, sell, sell, earn, earn, spend, spend.' Now we've constantly got revolution, war and killings. Weren't you afraid to come to a place like this?"
"No, I knew the problems were just in the south and that in general Kyrgyz people have a reputation for hospitality."
"Of course," Soltobek answered, "that's what we live for - we love hospitality. I'm surprised people in Russia didn't tell you not to come here. They hate us. They call us black arses. But we're just good, honest, ordinary people."
"Don't trust everyone in Kyrgyzstan though. Some people are good but others are bad," Orezbek said, holding up a hand with digits apart. "Five fingers, after all, are not all the same."
Erkegul's days were spent cleaning and cooking. The only private time she and Soltobek seemed to have was during the milking of the horses, a job that was always done by just the two of them. Soltobek would tie the animal's back legs together then bring in a baby horse to lick the udder for a second and get the milk flowing before Erkegul moved in to squeeze the rest out. All the milk was
poured into a huge leather bag in the cabin and people took it in turns during the course of the day to beat it with a long wooden stick.
The men's work was entirely seeing to the horses. In the morning hugs slabs of salt would be brought out and laid on the grass for them to lick. The younger horses often needed some encouragement, occasionally involving a boot to the ribs that would bring them to the ground, to get them started on the salt blocks.
"The youngest are always the most disobedient," said Takoo. He was a sixteen-year old relative of theirs from Kara-Balta who had been asleep when I had first arrived. He had come here to 'relax' but seemed to be working just as much as everyone else. "They often buck when you're riding them too. That's why Orezbek, Soltobek and I all have limps. We fall off horses quite often. The older they get the more obedient they get in general though. Basically you just have to beat them, subdue them and teach them to do what you want."
During the day the various herds of horses would be rotated from one
pasture to another. Sometimes one or more of the men were away for several hours on end; at others all of them would have a few hours off during the day to lounge around.
When a horse was needed for transport or to be killed, as I once witnessed, several people would form a perimetre ring around the animals. Another on horseback would get the herd running while a man with a lasso attached to a tree branch would crouch behind a rock or bush or whatever cover was available and jump out in an attempt to snare the animal he wanted as the herd charged past. Horses would frequently escape, despite the frantic arm-waving and shouting of members of the perimetre ring. In this case the horse rider would gallop off after them, sometimes quite far into the mountains, and drive them back. When the luckless beast was finally caught it clearly knew exactly what was in store for it and made every effort to break free. One man was never enough to stop it - I once saw Takoo try, and get dragged along behind a galloping horse until the rope had burned his hands so much
that he was forced to let go - but two could usually manage it. One time, however, even with four of us putting all our strength and weight against the lassoed horse, it managed to get away.
At dinner on my second day, Orezbek told a story. "When I was a young man there was a Chinese giant who lived in Suusamyr with us. He spoke twelve languages and had the strength of twelve men. He was so peaceful and so cheerful but if anyone caused any trouble he used to grab their tongue and twist it straight out of their mouth. We served together in Leningrad but one day the KGB took him away and we never heard of him again."
The next day was the day that the Ulak match was planned and the family had invited me to stay for another night so that I could watch the game. Several other horsemen arrived from the mountains and we lay on the grass in the scorching sun, waiting. And waiting.
To my surprise, after an hour some sort of ancient, possibly Soviet four wheel drive arrived, clearly on its last legs, and
three militsia men got out. They, along with some of the adults, wandered off further uphill to where the yurts that I had seen during my approach on the first night were situated. I assumed that they were friends or relatives, also here for the Ulak match.
Hours passed as we roasted under the sun. My questions as to what we were waiting for were always avoided. Eventually a twenty-year old called Arnel rode off towards the yurts to return half an hour later with the news that there was some sort of probem.
"I don't know, I don't really understand," he muttered when I questioned him about the problem.
Over several hours of turning slowly salmon-coloured on the grass I managed to glean information from various different people as to the nature of the problem. A few days ago the people in the yurts, who were from Southern Kyrgyzstan, had been drunk and had insulted Soltobek gravely. He in turn had beaten one of them up who had then complained to the militsia in Suusamyr village. It was generally believed that Soltobek would have to give a sheep to the complainant as well as pay a
bribe to the militsia, or 'rubbish' as everyone referred to them as.
"You see!" Orezbek spat. "That's what people from the South are like!"
The conversation, between Takoo, Arnel, myself and two twenty-something brothers, turned to exchanging swear words from our respective languages, provoking much hilarity and uproarious laughter.
"I guess in Moscow there's lots of sex?" one of the brothers asked me suddenly, eyeing me intently. He had been born and lived in the mountains, was very muscular and had wild eyes and tough, weathered skin. His brother, on the other hand, had lived his whole life in Suusamyr town and was soft-faced and pot-bellied.
"Um..." I said.
Arnel then spared me by following up with a comment so obscene that it cannot be printed. In a society where an entire family lives in one room, intimacy must be something longed for, fantasised about and jumped upon the minute the rare occasion arises when a couple are left alone together.
After ten hours of negotiations the 'problem' had been resolved in exactly the way everyone had expected it would be. It was almost nightfall and together we rode off into the mountains to
watch the Ulak.
I had intended the next day to be my last and gave Soltobek about US$20 to say thank you, although he had asked for nothing. He told me not to leave before I had had one last meal with them. However, just before lunch some relatives arrived along with Erkegul's sister, Risgul, and brought half a litre of vodka which they, Orezbek and I drank.
"Why aren't you drinking?" I asked Soltobek.
"I can't, I'm not allowed," he said, embarrassedly avoiding my eyes.
Previously, Orezbek had always asked me to sit on his right when eating or drinking, on the side of the circle furthest from the door. This time the oldest guest sat in Orezbek's usual place and told me to sit on his right. "We're the guests, after all," he told me.
"For three days you're a guest," Orezbek told me, "but on the fourth day you become my son. You should get a Kyrgyz wife and come to live here. I have a spare tent you can set up behind the cabin and live in."
It looked like I was going to take him
up on the offer of being his son at least as the diarrhoea I had had since the previous day's excessive kymys drinking suddenly worsened and I fell into a fever, spending the entire day in bed.
"Get up!" Orezbek shouted, coming into the tent next to the cabin where I was lying on some sheep skins on the floor. "Stand up!"
I feverishly did as told.
"You should have lain down there!" he shouted again, pointing at a small bed which I had neglected to lie on due to the lack of covers. He began picking sheep skins and rugs up off the floor.
"Get lost!" he nearly screamed at me, tugging at the corner of a rug I was standing on. Having picked them all up off the ground he made my bed for me and threw me into it.
I spent the rest of the day dozing. During a brief venture outside the tent I saw Takoo, Erkegul and Risgul kicking a football around and screaming with laughter. It was a startling change from the usually stern Erkegul who often shouted at the baby and yesterday had yelled at Takoo for kicking the ball into the cabin then taken it away from him. Seeing her running around and playing with the two sixteen-year olds I reflected that she might well not be much older than them herself.
I woke up after nightfall to find that Soltobek had disappeared and no one knew where he was. They did not, however, seem to worried. Orezbek and I sat on the tiny bench together outside the front of the cabin for a few minutes before going to bed.
"If you want my advice, as an old man, it's to not take your planned route to Song Kol when you leave. I advise you to go back to Bishkek and from there go on to Issyk Kol, find a hotel and some other foreigners. We're living in a bad time - there are drunks and bandits everywhere. It's not safe for you on your own on the road you plan to travel. Kyzyl Oi, Jumgal, they're full of bad people. Go to Suusamyr village tomorrow, they have a post office there and a telephone. Phone your mum and tell her you're OK. The most important thing is your mum, that she doesn't worry. If she doesn't hear from you she'll worry, then get ill. So call her as soon as possible then go to Issyk Kol via Bishkek."
The next day there was still no sign of Soltobek. I wanted to say goodbye to him but at the same time felt that I had imposed on these kind people too long already to stay around any longer.
"Orezbek, I'm going to leave now," I said after lunch.
"Oh no you're not," he shouted angrily. "No one goes anywhere until Soltobek comes back. You don't leave until you've said goodbye, understand?"
He walked over to his horse, untethered it and rode off into the mountains. His moods seemed to oscillate between advice-giving father figure and furious patriarchal dictator.
Several hours later both he and Arnel arrived at roughly the same time from opposite directions. "Edward," Arnel said, "I'd like to invite you to have dinner and stay with me in my yurt. What do you think?"
"I'd like to but do you think it will offend Orezbek? Maybe you should ask him instead of me?"
Arnel rode over to where Orezbek was sitting outside the wagon and spoke with him in Kyrgyz for a few minutes.
"So, you're going with him?" Orezbek said to me eventually. Thankfully he was grinning.
"If you don't mind," I replied meekly.
"No, go on," he answered.
The two of us rode bareback on one horse to start with but it was so wobbly and I had so many near falls that in the end I had to get down and walk.
After about forty minutes we arrived at an area a short distance up the mountainside with three yurts visible a few hundred metres apart from one another. When we reached his, the furthest of the three, we circled the flock of hundreds of frantically bleating sheep that loitered near it and entered through a small wooden swing door so low that you had to bend almost double to pass through. Inside, the circular wall of the yurt was hung with colourful, patterned rugs up to about a metre in height all the way round, a stark contrast to the drab whites and greys of the exterior. Above the rugs, multiple poles whose crookedness showed that they were in fact just long sticks deprived of bark led inwards and upwards to form the structure's sloping roof. They met in the centre about three metres above the grass floor around the perimetre of a small wooden wheel above which the yurt had no felt covering, allowing fresh air and daylight in. Arnel threw some rugs and sheep skins on the floor and told me to lie down. He then left for a few minutes to reappear carrying a small pouch of goat meat which he he proceeded to fry with potatoes.
"So you're from England, eh?" Arnel asked as he cooked. "Is that a big town?"
"It's not a town, it's a country."
"Ah, ok. So what's life like in America, people live well, I guess?"
"I'm not from America and I've never been there!" I answered. With Orezbek's family it had taken several days of my repeating this line before they had understood that I was not from America.
"England and America are separate countries," I continued.
"And England is in America?"
"No! They're completely different, like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia."
"Mmm," he mused. "What was the word you used for them? Cout...coun...?"
"Countries," I told him.
"So you're country is England, but you live in... in... where do you live, Moscow or Russia?"
"Moscow is in Russia! Russia is the country and Moscow is a city in the country, like Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan." Fortunately the subject was dropped after that.
"I hear you're going on to Kyzyl Oi?" he asked me.
"That's right," I replied.
"Be careful there, it's full of mals."
"What are mals?" I asked.
"Just stupid people who know nothing, don't even speak Russian. Roma, for example is a mal," he said, leaning over and punching his younger brother who had recently joined us.
We sat on the floor, placed the fried meat and potatoes on a small plate in between us and began helping ourselves. The meat was so tough that many pieces could not be chewed at all and I usually had to swallow them whole surreptitiously while trying not to grimace. The bread side dish was almost rock solid.
They were eating slowly, but they had the right to: as hosts they should of course eat less than the guest. This sort of hospitality has always made me feel a little self-conscious though and anyway, I really did not want to eat the leathery meat.
"Eat, eat, don't be shy!" they urged me on. They had practically stopped eating. I knew I somehow had to counter with a move that forced them to eat more while at the same time making it look like I was really enjoying the meal.
"You guys eat too, I feel uncomfortable eating on my own." Nice one. Their spoons began moving back and forth between plate and mouth again.
"It's bad meat, isn't it?" Arnel said sadly after a while. "It was probably an old goat."
Checkmate. I was out of moves. I could not agree. I was forced to disagree and eat everything to prove that I liked it, even after they had stopped.
"The bread's terrible as well," Arnel said. I resignedly ate a piece.
"It's not good when there's no woman," he continued. "My mum's a great cook but she works in a restaurant in Kara-Balta."
"And where's your dad?" I asked.
"He left with Soltobek to go drinking somewhere. Alcoholics." Suddenly I realised that giving US$20 to an adult male had perhaps been a mistake.
"Do they drink a lot?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered.
"Do you drink?"
"But not as much as them?"
"No, I only drink on special occasions." I wondered how often special occasions were. When I had met him two days previously the first thing he had asked me was if I drank vodka.
"I prefer weed," he told me. "I smoked for three months but I've just given up. I've been gambling for three months but have just given that up too. I really like it but I know it's stupid. In the end you always just lose all your money."
"How long have you been living here, in this yurt?" I asked.
"One week. It's my first time here."
"What were you doing before?"
"Just sitting around at home in Kara-Balta. You get paid 2000 soms a month if you work in the towns so it's not even worth it. Kyrgyzstan's a terrible place. I'd rather live anywhere in the world other than here. Everyone's had enough of it, that's why we have a revolution and a war going on."
"Where were you in April when the revolution happened?" I asked.
"I was right there. I went out into the street in Kara-Balta one day and a friend ran up to me and said, 'Come to Bishkek with us, they're storming the White House!' So we went, we took everything, computers, cars, the lot, then we looted some shops too."
I wondered whether the fact that Arnel's three-month smoking and gambling spree coincided with the three months since the revolution was only coincidence. Certainly he did not seem like the sort of person who usually had money to spare on such pastimes.
Poverty and oppression can drive even the best people to desparate acts.
I woke up in the middle of the night to hear hoof beats approaching at a gallop then stopping right outside our yurt.
"Arnel!" a voice roared into the night. "Roma!"
Arnel got up, bleary-eyed and went outside. A hushed conversation continued for half a minute before he came back in and told Roma to go out.
"It's my dad," he told me.
Outside they began hammering a post into the ground to tether a horse to as I drifted back into slumber.
In the morning we walked downhill to the neighbours' yurt for a breakfast of bread, kymys and tea.
"Do you recognise him?" asked Salamat, Arnel's neighbour, pointing at a curled up, sleeping form at the back of the yurt.
"No," I answered, sleepily.
"It's Soltobek?" I asked.
After breakfast we went outside to where hundreds of sheep were kept in a wooden-fenced enclosure. Arnel, Roma and another young man went in and began dragging furiously resisting sheep out by their hind legs and giving them regular punches and kicks to show them who was boss.
"Why are you dragging them out?" I asked.
"We're taking the Kyrgyz sheep out and leaving the Russian ones in," Arnel explained.
When they had finished Arnel started punching and kicking a goat.
"I'm trying to make him scream," he told me.
"No, no," another guy said, "if you want to make him scream you have to squeeze his balls."
Sure enough, his hand darted between the unfortunate animal's back legs to be followed a second later by eerily human, multi-decibel screams of agony.
Eventually Soltobek and Arnel's father woke up, their bloodshot eyes and drawn faces making them shadows of their former selves. Soltobek and I had some soup, said goodbye and left. Everyone had offered to take me up into the mountains to show me spots of great beauty and fantastic views but by now I was keen to move on and wanted to snatch the opportunity while Soltobek was with me.
"You'd better leave tomorrow, not today," Takoo told me when we arrived.
"Why?" I asked.
I went into the cabin to find Orezbek and another man sitting around a bottle of vodka.
"Ah, my son!" Orezbek exploded. "Why are you late?"
"I told you not to be later than 10am! If I see that boy who took you then I'll beat the shit out of him!"
"Ah well, never mind. Get yourself a shot glass."
"Er..." I said as I fumbled around where the crockery was kept.
"Ha! You can't even find anything in your own home!" Orezbek thundered and was about to get up and help me when I came across the stack of shot glasses. I sat down next to him.
"This is Erkegul's father," he introduced me to the other man who seemed very excited and continued to pummel me with a barrage of questions in incoherent Russian.
There was very little left of the vodka and when we had finished it Orezbek sent Takoo off on a horse to buy more. The next bottle took its toll on Erkegul's father who seemed smaller and weaker, both physically and mentally, than Orezbek. He was skinny and short, his face permanently taken up by a hopeless, desparate expression that hinted at a lifetime of poverty. His eyelids drooped further and further with every shot, furrows appeared on his brow and his look became more and more exasperated.
His fat, ten year old son, who had been shamelessly helping himself to spoonful after spoonful of home-made cream ever since I had arrived, buried his head in his father's lap and began wriggling and screaming dementedly.
"This is my son," Erkegul's father slurred at me. "He'll be a good boy one day."
We had more shots. Erkegul's dad started blinking furiously and putting his hand to his head with a pained expression on his face.
"It's his birthday today, so it's necessary to drink!" Orezbek yelled.
"It's necessary to sleep..." came the mumbled reply which Orezbek completely failed to notice, filling up the man's glass nonetheless.
Orezbek continued: "He was born in the year of the rabbit. I, on the other hand am a bull: quiet and gentle, but if you get me angry, I tell you, I'm the sort of person to..." he slammed his right fist into his left palm to illustrate the point.
Erkegul's dad briefly passed out a couple of times then came back to seemingly on slightly better form. The shots and toasts began again. The toasts got longer and longer. Again and again we would raise our glasses and bring them to our lips as it seemed that Orezbek was nearing the end of his speech but at the last minute he would pick up once more. They even started singing to each other with glasses raised in one hand until the last toast went on for about half an hour.
When Erkegul's father and his young son rode off towards Suusamyr village, Orezbek saddled up himself and went off over the hills to drink more with a friend in another yurt. He came back late at night and woke everyone up as he lay down to sleep, shouting drunkenly to himself.
Orezbek had a huge glass of vodka for breakfast. Shortly afterwards a car arrived to buy kymys. I was almost afraid to ask the hungover old man if I could go with the driver to Suusamyr but he saved me by suggesting it himself.
Takoo gave me some parting advice that I knew to be incorrect at every level: "Don't go to the South of Kyrgyzstan, or to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. There's war every day in the South and in Tajikistan. And as for Uzbeks, pederasts, they're the sort of people who wear enormous turbans, have beards a metre long and fight with machine guns."
"Come back any time," Orezbek told me as I climbed into the front seat. "You don't really have to get a Kyrgyz wife. Bring your girlfriend, your parents and your brother, we'll set up a tent for you all behind the cabin."
I thanked them all profusely, shook their hands and made my escape.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kyrgyzstan
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