Sunday, 31 October 2010

Of Mountain Lavender and The Red Right Hand

And so we pick up the story on a mountainside in the Ala Archa National Park, a surprisingly short journey (maybe 40 mins by car, ishy ish) south of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek.  So here we are, standing in snow and yet sweltering from the pounding Central Asian sun (like the sun everywhere else but with less clouds to get in the way), surrounded by breathtaking, picture-postcard, alpine views and, carrying on the refreshing, mountain breeze, the scent of lavender.   This lavender grows in thick clumps all the way along the three mile waterfall walk we are following, filling the air with rich loveliness.

An idyllic situation you might think, dear reader, one of peace and harmony with nature, the gentle solitude of the mountain trail.  But all is not well: my breathing is laboured, my head clouded and slow.  I can walk only short distances before I have to stop to catch my breath and regroup my meagre physical resources.  The dreaded effects of altitude sickness are clutching at me.  I explain to Max, a laconic Stirlingshire gent, sometime journalist for The Guardian, and London School teacher, that I am confused and bewildered.  I've never suffered from altitude sickness before, and I've reaching far higher altitudes.  He nods wisely and with gentle understanding.  I master myself again and we trek on, chewing the fat about a variety of topics, from building to Central Asian politics to the whys and wherefores of taking sabbatical years.  

Max - in hardy adventurer pose

Me - soldiering on bravely
We paused to eat a spot of lunch and then took a brief siesta.  When I awoke some 20-odd minutes later I found an uncanny thing had happened.  My altitude sickness had gone.  I could walk just fine; I didn't feel light headed or faint; it was miraculous.  I came to a shocking conclusion.  My altitude sickness was not altitude sickness after all.  It was, in fact, just your common or garden stinking hangover brought about by the previous night's drunken debauch, which had ended with one of my co-inebriants (names in this case will be omitted to protect the guilty) throwing up spectacularly in a Michael Jackson theme bar and then taking a taxi back to the London School (which is approximately 300 yards from said bar).
I paused for a moment to ponder the extraodinary human power of self delusion, breathed in a lungful of richly lavender-scented air, and trotted on with a sheepish grin on my face.  Here are some of the beautiful views that my droopy, drink-penitent eyes witnessed on that trek: 

The hotel at the entrance to Ala-Archa National Park;
pleasingly pointy to fit in with the trees around it.
And so, trek over, I returned to the city.  I would like to say chastened and a little wiser for the experience, but there are some lies that are simply too big to tell, and returning from a mountain walk after having had a skinful the night before (for any non-brit readers 'having a skinful' is British slang for 'filling your body with a medically inadvisable quantity of alcohol'), only to immediately begin preparing for another night on the raz, doesn't even begin to fit the concept of 'chastened'.  
Nevertheless, it was Halloween and there was partying to be done, so I cobbled together my costume and headed out.  I decided to go as 'The Man with the Red Right Hand' from the Nick Cave song 'Red Right Hand' (If you haven't heard it, follow this link and prepare to be gothically educated).  The end result of my endeavours looked something like this:

following the theory that the neutral white face mask is infinitely creapier than anything more ornate. 
Other costumes included a red devil in a Manchester United top (clever use of Man U's 'red devils' nickname there), the killer of Michael Jackson (complete with white glove, presumably looted from the still warm corpse of the recently-deceased, popular entertainer) and the personification of the sacred Kyrgyz lake Issyk-kul (question 'What's scary about a lake?' response 'Drowning' inspired).   Here I am with the lake himself

After a quick pre-game (for non-american readers this is a term meaning 'drinks before you go out', probably something to do with American sports) we headed out to the former embassy building; suited, booted and ready to bring the good names of our respected nations into disrepute.

The cream of English, Scottish, US, Italian and Canadian, really! 
Upon arrival, all and sundry were encouraged to drink of the 'screwdriver bong'; here ably demonstrated by respected London School teacher, sultan for the night and unashamed Alabaman party-animal Logan;

and further the cause of international unity through the shared drinking of cheap Russian beer and the unifying art of dancing extravegantly badly to cheesy tunes.

In the early hours of the morning, drink stores depleted and bonds of international friendship and understanding cemented, the revellers wended their way home to sleep off the worst of it, content in the knowledge that the world was a little closer and more contented a place and that they were merrily drunk.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Typical Tourist Bit

So here comes the first 'ooo look at the big public buildings, statuary and general stately gubbins' bit required in any good travelogue/set of holiday snaps/MI5 report.  I went to Bishkek's main sqaure, dragging my vague knowledge of the country with me, took some photos, got looked at funny, and here is what I found.

The Kyrgyz flag, on a big pole, guarded by two guardy chaps with all the standing still and looking official skills required of the role.  The circular shape on the flag is known as a 'tunduk' in Kyrgyz and symbolises life and eternity and jelly beans and frothy coffee (made those last two up actually.  Sorry, got carried away).  The pointy bits around the outside of the circle represent the sun and the crosshatching in the middle is the view looking up out of the centre of a yurt.  All in all, I rather like it

Here is the parliament building, all big and imposing and tediously Soviet.  As you can see from all the banners hung up outside, there is some very active political debate going on at the moment in Kyrgyzstan (for 'active debate' read 'political tension you could cut with a spoon if you didn't have a knife handy').  The banners probably say something like 'give us the government we have freely voted for you corrupt, bribe-taking, fat-cat, politko pig-dogs' but with my Russian reading skills it might actually say '50% off all bedroom tables and cabinets at IKEA for a limited time only'.

Here is a big, floaty, statue person.  She probably represents 'liberty' or 'the triumph of the people' or 'that scene from titanic where he picks her up and it's all romantic'.  Not quite sure which though.

Here is some more triumphalness (or should that be 'triumphancy'?).

And those two are just some pictures of the main square around the parliament building.

So there you go, a bit of genuine touristy things-to-point-at-and-take-photos-of.  End of the first week, off for a potter round a national park tomorrow, Halloween party tomorrow night (they did apple bobbing at the school today, which impressed me muchly) then actually having to do some work on monday.  No doubt you will hear from me on sunday with tales of high-altitude views and costumed debauchary. 

Untill then, До свидания (that's 'goodbye' by the way).

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Of Fried Bear and Poetry

It is easy to drop into certain assumptions.  For example, the idea that living for decades under a crushingly conformist soviet regime may have deadened the imagination.  These assumptions are designed to be quashed and spectacularly rent asunder at the earliest possible convenience. 

And so, I find myself observing a lesson were a Russian lady and a young Kyrgyz boy who appears to be called Swimmingpool describe their plans for a 17th century Russian style restaurant, to include a roaring hearth, a central bear-skin rug feature and a grand piano, serving a range of dishes including fried bear and salad and featuring only piano music and visiting poets for entertainment.
This does not tally well with the stifled imaginations theory.   Thank god it’s one of those times when your half-formed, idiot prejudices being confounded proves a great pleasure.   The fact that fried bear was being pronounced like ‘fried beer’ only added to the enjoyment. 

This was followed by my introduction to Kyrgyz cuisine, which is decidedly hearty, designed to keep a man alive, insulated and farting furiously on the top of a mountain whilst yak farming and is therefore heavy on meat, potato and onions combined in various starchy/carby configuirations.
I am informed there is a special Kyrgyz spirit made from horses milk.  I have not been able to verify this intriguing assertion yet, but will endeavour to do so in the not too distant future (purely in my role as a collector of knowledge about a little known culture of course). 

On a political note, I have just discovered that the honorary British consul Mike Astoparthis (who is honorary consul on the basis that the nearest full British Consulate is in Almaty in neighbouring Kazakhstan) is away from Kyrgyzstan at the moment.  In fact, apparently he is in Almaty in neighbouring Kazakhstan, so that’s useful. 

On other consular matters, there’s apparently a Halloween party going down at the former German Embassy building, organised by those scamps the Yanks...much fun to be had this weekend methinks (I wonder if it will be that great American institution, a kegger?).

On Arriving and Experiencing the Lag

Having only traveled any great distance westwards before, I wasn’t fully prepared for the strange sensation of chasing the night that you get when you travel east.  We had left Heathrow at about 2pm and after only a few hours we were drifting through darkness with only the moon for company. 

Of the journey there is little of note to add,  portly American expats talking baseball and spinning around and diving down over Almaty airport in Kazakhstan a couple of times before being allowed to land in our only stop before Bishkek were the only things of note that happened. 

And so I landed in a country shrouded in mist and stolid bureaucracy.    I handed in my completed Visa and Entry forms at the Consulate and was immediately requested to fill in some more forms with precisely the same details.   I then had to cough up 70 dollars (whether for the government or the pocket of the official I remain unsure) and was visa’d (an impressively shiny one), stamped and unceremoniously spat out into a strange land. 

Fortunately I was spat out only as far as a pretty, friendly, young Russian woman with an A4 piece of paper bearing my name in large curvy letters.  So I found myself at 4 in the morning trundling through the darkness on the way to the city of Bishkek and the London School where I would be lodging and teaching. 

Of the School I can say a little, of the city next to nothing.  This is because the last day has been spent in a half daze of dozing and jetlag (I believe it’s my first experience of it, I can confirm it is rubbish).  So I managed to raise myself long enough to wander through the courtyard and have a look at the small but modern classrooms and cafeteria of the school, but of the rest of the city and country in which I currently abide I maintain the profoundest ignorance.

To discover if I manage to rid myself of this ignorance, dear readers, or if I merely spent the next nine months dozing fitfully you will have to wait for the next installment.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The pre flight witter

There is probably some kind of multisyllabic syndrome or mental aberration associated with the urge to hurl yourself halfway round the world to live in a country you know next to nowt about, which speaks a language that makes as much sense to you as a drunken walrus with a soar throat gargling the Mongolian national anthem whilst wearing a conveniently walrus shaped spacesuit.  It may have something to do with an extreme defensive response to the fear of abandonment; although if you ask a Freudian it probably has more to do with willies.  Whatever is the root of this malady however, I fear that I am a sufferer.  Unfortunately, as I have a pathological aversion to support groups, benign bearded gentlemen repeating my last statement back at me as if it were a new question rather than just the last thing I said, and well meaning group therapy leaders shoving positive empathy in my face, I will just have to deal with the consequences of this affliction.
And so you find me, dearest readers, on the verge of taking a flight to the city of Bishkek, capital of the Kyrgyz Republic (or Kyrgyzstan if you like stanning).  Now I would like to say that I chose this particular course of action as a result of careful research and clear, logical decision making.   A more accurate description is that I chose this particular course of action because:
a)      I saw the job advert and thought ‘mmm, Kyrgyzstan, I know sweet diddly squat about that country...sounds intriguing’
b)      I liked the fact it was a country with k y and z in the name (if you can name another country with all three letters in its name I will award a prize)
c)       It was advertised as ‘The Switzerland of Central Asia’
Now although I have no great compulsion to go and work in ‘The Switzerland of Europe’ (though I have met a number of Swiss people and they were very fine, if worryingly neat, people); ’The Switzerland of Central Asia’ is to me a highly compelling concept.
I have done a small amount of pre journey complete ignorance reducing here is the distillation of my knowledge of the Kyrgyz Republic:
1)      It has lots of mountains and not much else (hence the Switzerland bit I think)
2)      It is a bloody long way from any sea
3)      It has a big inland lake which is traditionally held to be sacred
4)      Kyrgyz people ride horses, fly falcons and have been known to abide in Yurts
I figure that this should be sufficient information to allow me to blend in seamlessly with the local people. 
So there you go, on Saturday 23rd of October in the year of our lord 2010 I shall be jetting of to a country where my ignorance knows no bounds.  I shall of course be keeping you informed of any cracks that might form in that herculean and monumental ignorance. ..