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Published: September 11th 2010
"Stop, get down!" shouted one of the group of kids who were leading me through the village of Sary Moghul. I did as told and suddenly we were all kneeling in the dirt next to a small stream that flowed down the street between the mud houses. A second later I realised what was happening: next to the low, whitewashed mosque twenty paces to our left a man in Islamic dress began to belt out the call to prayer. It was not the first time I had heard it in Kyrgyzstan but it was the first time I had seen anyone react to it in this way. While the call continued the children reamined on their knees, heads bowed. As soon as it had finished they were back on the feet and bouncing down the street beside me, practicing their already extensive knowledge of filthy Russian swear words.
The next morning, while I was walking out of town towards the gargantuan walls of snow and rock to the South of the village, I passed a little stone-walled allotment in which a young man was sitting on the grass next to an older couple, presumably his parents. The young one waved
me over, stood up and approached the allotment's wall.
"Where are you going?" he asked in English.
"To the mountains," I replied.
"And where are you from?"
"Where will you sleep in mountains? You have tent?"
"No, I'm just going to try to find someone to stay with, maybe in a yurt. How come you know English so well?"
"I'm an English teacher. I was; I stopped and now I work with my family."
"Because English teacher is too cheap. What are you doing in Kyrgyzstan?"
"Just traveling. I've been staying with people in jailoos in the North and Centre, now I want to see what life is like in the South." I had switched into Russian.
"Well if you want, I'd like to invite you to come to my farmstead. It's not quite in the mountains - it's about fifteen kilometres from here - but we're going there in about an hour and you're welcome to come and stay with us. We're going to be gathering hay from the fields so if you want you can help us with that too."
great," I replied, "thank you very much."
The next two hours were spent trying to get the monster of a truck that Nirtenbek's family owned to start. First he would be in it, then on it, then under it fiddling with something, then behind it, then in front, jamming a metre-long metal pole into a hole in the vehicle's front and twisting it with all his might. I sat around restlessly, uselessly, unhelpfully and sweatily in the baking sun until eventually one of these wrenches got the beast's engine spluttering into life. We were all urgently ordered to jump in the back before the vehicle set off, trundling down the stone-littered dirt track towards the edge of town. It was delightful, finally we were on our way to the countryside, my restlessness and sweatiness gone to the wind that blew in my hair and face. It lasted for all of ten seconds before the engine failed.
In a flash Nirtenbek was out of the driver's seat and lying on the ground under the truck's belly, fiddling away. After half an hour he was back out, grabbing the metal wrench, slamming it into the hole in the front of
the vehicle and twisting it maniacally. After ten or so attempts life gurgled back into the ancient engine, Nirtenbek practically flew into the driver's seat and again we were off on our journey, heading God only knew where but definitely somewhere exciting in the foothills of those snow-capped giants that loomed on the horizon. This time it lasted only five seconds.
Similar routines repeated themselves again and again. I lost count of how many times Nirtenbek had to play amateur mechanic somewhere after the eleventh. Eventually, however, someone did something right and the truck got out of the village sometime in mid-afternoon and began crawling towards the mountains. For twenty minutes we drove uphill across a flat, stony plane, being thrown around to the extent that I developed several large bruises. Then we came to some undulating, grassy hills and stopped at a field where the hay had been cut and raked into piles. Nirtenbek, his father, another young man and I all jumped out. I took a swig from my water bottle and offered it to the others.
"No thanks," Nirtenbek refused, "it's Ramaddan. We can eat and drink only once a day, in the evening after
"Wow," I replied, "even when you're working all day in this heat?"
"Yes," he answered, "we can fill our mouths with water and wash it around but we have to spit it out. We're not allowed to swallow."
Nirtenbek's father lay down in a hay pile and went to sleep while I and the other two each grabbed a pitch fork and began tossing hay into the back of the truck. The routine, which involved repeatedly stabbing the piles then flipping the fork vertically upright and carrying the hay above our heads to the vehicle, quickly proved to be very tiring. After five minutes the back of the truck was looking pretty overloaded so Nirtenbek clambered up on top and spent the rest of the day relaxedly compacting the hay while his helper and I toiled and sweated, gathering it and tossing it on top of the increasingly tall pile.
"So are you married, Ed?" Nirtenbek asked me as I tossed a forkful of hay, mercifully giving me the opportunity to stop working, lean on my fork and answer his question.
"And how old are you?"
"But maybe you
have a girlfriend?" he asked, grinning slyly. I would normally not have talked about girlfriends or relationships outside of marriage when dealing with a strict Muslim purely to avoid embarrassment or cultural misunderstandings. But this was an educated man, an English teacher, and he himself had posed the question so was obviously well aware of how things worked in the West.
"Well, yes actually I do, in Moscow."
"When are you going to marry her?" asked Nirtenbek's father, who had woken up at that very moment and somehow overheard.
"Uh..." I stammered. "We're not sure yet, we haven't thought about it."
They both stared at me. Damn it, I had given pretty much the worst answer possible. If I had just thought for a second longer I would have realised it would have been better just to tell an outright lie and say "next month" or something. Either way, the damage was done. The interesting fact that a couple could be together without specific plans for marriage elicited a serious of pervy questions about mine and my girlfriend's personal lives every time I brought a new forkload of hay back to the truck; my repeated answers
that these questions were too personal to answer would not discourage the fascinated Nirtenbek.
"It's ok, don't be shy," he told me. "When I was at university I wasn't such a strict Muslim. I used to drink beer and vodka and I could have sex four or five times a day. And I've studied your culture, I know how you do things in the West."
I wondered who these women could be that he had had relations with at university. In my public taxi from Bishkek to the South, an unmarried, educated, English-speaking man had told me of the strict tradition that if a woman did not bleed on her wedding night then the husband had the right to annul the wedding and discard his bride, thus disgracing her publicly. This same man had then taken home one of the two prostitutes who had been riding as passengers in the taxi.
"Maybe you could find me a beautiful girl if I come to Moscow?" was one of his last comments before the day was out.
It was getting dark by the time we had cleared the field of hay so we set off home. We drove
through the hills for fifteen minutes, Nirtenbek and his father in the front while the helper and I clung to the top of the hay pile in the back. After heading downhill for ten seconds on such a steep slope I thought the truck might actually end up standing on its windscreen when we hit the level ground, we arrived at Nirtenbek's farmstead. They led me into one of the several long, low, mud buildings and introduced me to his wife and brother, both of whom greeted me with huge, beaming, genuine smiles. Nirtenbek's brother and helper went outside and spent thirty minutes forking the hay from the truck into a mud-walled enclosure while I was allowed to relax and drink tea inside. After Nirtenbek's father had spent several minutes prostrating himself in the traditional manner of Muslim prayer we all sat down to dinner, after which we moved to the room next door and went to sleep on thin mattresses on the floor.
The next day was spent driving back and forth from various fields, forking hay onto the truck then off again back at the farmstead, all the time dodging Nirtenbek's creepy questions. Always it was the
helper and I who forked the most: Nirtenbek stood in the back of the truck, compacting the hay pile, his brother used a horse-drawn rake to collect the cut hay into piles, his father was off herding sheep and his wife was at home milking the yaks and cooking. While I, as the guest, was allowed some slack while forking hay, if the other helper stopped for even a second (and sometimes when he did not) Nirtenbek and his brother would shout his name, followed by some mocking comment.
"So how did you come here?" Nirtenbek's father asked me during one of the brief periods when we were all back at the farmstead together. "Did you go via Osh?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Weren't you scared? Isn't there war there any more?"
"No, everything's fine there now," I answered.
"We won't go to that place, fuck," he said, shaking his head.
"I was in Osh during the troubles, I was studying there," Nirtenbek's brother told me half an hour later when we were back in the fields. "You know, we didn't need to spend any money at all at that time, we just lived for
free. Whenever we wanted something to eat we'd just break into a shop and grab something, it was great."
The day after was the day I had to leave if I wanted to get to the Tajik border before my Kyrgyz visa ran out. I told the family I would work with them during the morning then walk back to Sary Moghul in the afternoon.
The truck picked that day not to start at all, despite all Nirtenbek's best efforts. Instead, we had to attach a kind of wheeled, wooden platform that was capable of carrying about a fiftieth of the amount the truck could to the back of a donkey. During one of our many journeys to and from a field near the farmstead, Nirtenbek's father rode over the crest of a hill and accosted me. He was wearing black trousers, shoes cut from the bottoms of wellington boots, a kind of grey suit jacket, a felt hat over a foot tall and a weird kind of stocking over his head that covered his entire face with just a couple of holes cut for his eyes. It reminded me of the Scream films.
"Do you want
to wash?" he asked me. "My herd is by a small lake over there."
I followed him, tempted by the idea of cleanliness after several days without washing.
"Where's a good place to go in?" I asked him when we arrived at the lake shore.
"Over there," he said pointing to the part of the lake opposite the large flat rock on which he had lain down, resting on his elbow, one leg flat on the rock and the other bent at the knee and arched up above it.
He was staring at me and, as I tested the water at the lake's edge, began assaulting me with a barrage of questions just as perverse as Nirtenbek's had been but phrased in far more profane Russian, his voice drifting eerily across the water's surface to me and echoing slightly on the surrounding hills.
"Look, I really don't want to answer these questions and I think I'm going to save my swim until later too," I said, getting up and walking away.
"Wait, I'll come with you," he said, getting up from his rock and walking around the edge of the lake to join me.
"Listen, if my son comes to Mocow will you introduce him to a British girl?"
"Yes of course," I said, really caring about nothing else now other than getting away.
That afternoon Nirtenbek's younger brother, who along with Nirtenbek's wife had been the most friendly, normal and genuine of the family, took me across a wide, raging river on his horse and set me on my way back to Sary Moghul. I walked for two hours at which point two small children with a horse-drawn plough offered me a ride back to the village. As the fragile plough clunked and bounced over the rough ground, throwing me about and seemingly threatening to collapse, I blamed myself for all the weirdnes of the last few days. The moral of the story was that I should have exercised more caution and more cultural sensitivity. In my next destination, Afghanistan, it would either be a straight "yes, I'm married", or "no, I'm not."
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Kyrgyzstan
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