Sunday, 28 November 2010

Of Presentations, Celebrations and the Modern Silk Road in Action

Amidst an impenetrable stream of utterance that sounds like it's being made by someone made apopleptically angry because they've had their tongue superglued to the bottom of their mouth, emanates a solitary familiar combination of vowels and consonants.  'Brian'.
Hold on, 'Brian', I do believe that's my name.  I snap myself out of the distant reverie that is my constant companion about a minute after starting to listen to speeches in a language I don't even begin to comprehend.  I have a job to do...I'm no daydreamer who's just wandered in off the street....I am a role model, a teacher, a representative of my country in a foriegn land.  My job on this day is to present a certificate for an essay competition being run by the London School, my erstwhile employers.  The prize the winners will receive is a few months of free English tuition at London School.  Such a prize!  The English language, the key to the world.  The password that allows access to treasure troves of literature, education, trashy internet postings and job opportunities.  How strange that this melange of influences, this mongrel tongue born of a mongrel isle should have emerged as a worldwide lingua franca.  Had not the inhabitants of a goldilocks isle (not too small, not too big, just right) at a goldilocks distance from a continent on the up, chosen, for reasons of their island status, to put more money and effort into its navy and its maritime activities than its land-based capabilities at a crucial period of it's history; had it not possessed at that point a highly flammable powder devised in a faraway Empire to the East, content in its own intrigues and vastness, and a few thousand handkerchiefs full of germs unknown to the antibodies of the people of a continent kept isolated for thousands of years by the vast expanses of two great oceans; and had that nation (by this point those nations, due to a bit of squabbling over taxes and some soggy tea) not held pre-eminence at a time of super-rapid expansion, invention and ingenuity; this obscure linguistic corner of the great Indo-European tree of languages might have remained a curio, rather than the world-eating behemoth that it has become today.
That is not what I was thinking at that moment though.  O no.  Not for me such lofty ponderences.  What I was thinking at that point was...'Whoah!  That kid has an immense mullet!'
And so I shuffle up to the front to present a bit of fancy paper to my bemulleted essayist.  I have been told that I must say some 'good words' to him by way of encouragement and praise.  I have a paragraph of biographical information to inspire me.  He likes cooking pizza and wants to be a lawyer and goes to school number 13 (all the schools here seem to be numbered which feels somehow 1984esque).
From these titbits of info I cobble together my good words, which went thus:

Well done, I hope you use your newly learnt English skills well.  
Whether as Kyryzstan's top lawyer of as Bishkek's most famous pizza chef'

Amazingly, this fine addition to the illustrious annals of British wit and humour actually gets a laugh.  Other teachers have attemped subtle biting irony, self-dprecating wit and bone dry sardonic misquotation to the ringing silence of incomprehension.  The rule is, my dear readers, when speaking to an audience that barely knows the language you are speaking, subtlety goes out the window and broad is best.

The audience, enthralled by the proceedings
Max, presenting the grand prize with a polished speech

And so, my duties as an upstanding citizen and pillar of the community completed, we move on to a bit of cultural celebration.  Though not a Central Asian cultural celebration, this one has travelled a few thousands miles to get here.  For saturday was the day on which the ex-pat Unitedsatesers and their invited guests celebrated that fine American tradition of Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings, including roast turkey, american sports on the tele and specially imported cranberry sauce.
A good time was had by all, despite the apparent evidence of the one photo I could get my hands on of us sitting around looking seemingly rather glum.

Thanksgiving photo - scenes of chaotic revelry confusingly absent
The next morning I awoke with a belly still full of Turkey, yorkshire puddings (cheers Kiwi Ben for giving Thanksgiving a Brit spin) and pumpkin pie ready to experience a far more local cultural phenomenon.  
The Dordoi Bazaar lies a short bus ride outside of Bishkek and is reputedly the largest market in Central Asia.  Now, saying it's 'the largest market in Central Asia', is like saying it's 'the most outrageous dresser in Japan' or 'the fattest person in the US'.  It truly  is enormous, a township of packing-crate shops that runs as far as the eyes can see (and then some).

Within this seething cauldron of capitalism one can find on sale pretty much anything one might desire (and plenty of stuff one definitely wouldn't desire) hats, scarves, gloves, clothes, spices, household goods, ballerina's outfits, traditional Kyrgyz hats, Brtish football tops, American baseball caps, the finest Chinese tat, little batgirl outfits, giant pots and pans for commercial kitchens, knicks and knacks and bric-a-brac, fur-lined boots, skipping ropes, plants and flowers, christmas decorations (in a Muslim country), a thousand knock offs and, if you're lucky, one genuine article.  Mingled in with all this dizzying variety there is an extraordinary ammount of repetition, there is even a huge section dedicated exclusively to the sale of footwear and actually called 'SHOE WORLD'

Shoe World - sponsored by Emelda Marcos.
  To avoid being crushed by the mass of people, the canny shopper gets himself into the slipstream of relative  calm behind the unstoppable hurricanes that are the guys pushing wares around on great big metal trolley-type affairs (you can see one in the photos above).  You can then allow yourself a moment to take in the shear surreality of the whole thing.  At one point I found myself wandering, packing crates of sharp suits on one side, packing crates of thigh high leather boots on the other, a ray of sunlight shimmering dazzlingly in a haze of cigarette smoke, with a stream of bubbles floating past from no apparent source, when a blind accordian player strolled past.  Now, if that's not going to give you an out of body experience, then nothing will.
But for me the highlight of the experience, and a neat metaphor for the confluence of influences and east-meets-west meltingpottery of the whole thing, was when my compatriot Dan found this Kazakhstan Tracksuit:

A couple of sizes too small, a couple of decades out of fashion, celebrating a neighbouring country but probably manufactred in China, and with some gloriously substandard stitching, how could a man resist buying such a treasure.  The answer, in Dan's case, is that he couldn't.
Clutching bags full of random items, some useful some less so, and our pockets significantly lighter, we hopped a bus from the great, noisy, vast chaotic shoppers heaven of Dordoi back to the London School.
And that is where I leave you for now.  One final thing before I potter off.  I would like to introduce you to Dirt Woman, the London School teachers' black cat.  She is a woman, she is invariably dirty, she is aptly named.  She may be pregnant, she may just be getting fat from eating too much.  Only time will tell...

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Of Red Days and Turkic Towers

It somehow seems an apt demonstration of Central Asia's melting pot of influences from East and West and indeed all points cardinal that I spent last saturday visiting an ancient Turkic tower, eating Chinese food, watching Russian heavy metal bands and ten-pin bowling.
Central Asia has always had an eclectic mix of cultural influences, being the backbone of the ancient Silk Road.  Confusingly this is not a road or made out of silk.  It was a network of trading routes stretching from China, through Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa to Europe. Along this route were traded textiles (including silks) spices, walnuts (more about this in a later blog I think), and all manner of goods and wares.
Conaequently, the cities and stop-off points of the Silk Road played host to traders from all manner of nations and consequently an easy going, cosmopolitan attitude developed.  As long as you have stuff to sell or buy from us, the logic went, you can look howsoever you want, and kneel down before any idol that takes your fancy.
And so I find myself about 40 minutes by marshrutka (privately owned van/minibuses that ferry people about, imagine a juddering tin of sardines fried out of a cannon, but slightly less comfortable and comodious) from Bishkek wandering through the Kyrgyz countryside in search of the Baruna Tower.  This was formerly a minaret from a mosque in Basalagun, a city founded by the Karakhanids in the 10th century and an important link in the Silk Road chain.  This being Kyrgyzstan and me being me, when I and my travelling companions arrive at this cultural attraction we find ourselves sharing it with a merrily drunk and rowdy Russian wedding party.

The tower collapsed as a result of a series of earthquakes (the last being in 1900)  and was faithfully and painstakingly reconstructed Soviet-style in the 1970s, with no cupola, some rather modern mortar and a nice shiny, clunky metal spiral staircase which does the authenticity of the site the world of good.  As a result its only half the original size, 26m not 46.

Burana Tower - cheap soviet fix up job comes at no extra cost

On the other hand the sound of a call to prayer emanating from a mosque in nearby Tokmok ululating on the wind gave a slightly goosebump inducing quality to the whole thing

                     Tokmok Mosque (I think) providing appropriate atmospheric chanting                                 
 (probably not for the benefit of passing tourists though)

By all accounts Basalgun was a pretty impressive city, excavations indicate it stretched over a 25 - 30 km square area, they've found Chinese coins, Nestorian christian crosses, Indian Cowries and magical charms so a big tick in the cosmopolitan box (see some of the finds in the dinky little musuem onsite).  The poet Jusup Basalgun took his name from it and he's now on the 1000 som note so a big Kyrgyz thumbs up there:

Ghengis Khan even liked it so much that not only did he rename it Gobilik (good city)  he had the good grace not to rampage through it raping and pillaging and then raise it to the ground, so it must have been quite something. 
A lot of people complain that the Baruna Tower is not very impresssive because it's just not big enough which is a concept I rather like, as if the ancients who built the tower having built it high enough for every man in the city and its environs to hear the sonourously droning call to prayer, might have thought to add a few more storeys on for the benefit of tourists a millennia later.  Admittedly the Soviet fix up left it smaller than it was but only by 20 metres so I think the point still stands.
By the site there is also a collection of amazing ancient holy point/burial ground markers called Balbals; which date from the 6th to the 10th Century AD.  They reminded me of the description of the Pukkelmen in Lord of the Rings, with their time-weathered faces staring intensely out at you.


All in all twas a fine visit and a pleasent bit of genuine culture to mix in with the craziness of my time here so far.  I also visited the Ballet for the first time two days back (got interviewed for Kyrgyz tele while I was there which was surreal to say the least) so my existence has not been a complete cultural void.
I'm going to try and avoid getting overly bogged down on the tedia of English Teaching Existence, but I feel one moment in my teaching so far is worth mentioning.  We were working on emotions and character traits and someone was saying 'be nasty to someone because of their ...' so I introduced the word 'flaws'.  Cue rapid dictionary moving onto the next point....more silence....slight giggling in the waffling on some intrepid soul asks the question everyone has apparently wanted to ask for the last five minutes

                         <<Brian, does 'flaw' mean 'ladies' red days'>>

errr...hhhhhhmn, nope.  That would be a period.  I am truly intrigued to find where he got his dictionary from. 
And so we come to poker night the first.  I've been putting off going to the poker night for a few weeks but thought <<what the hell I get paid tomorrow, in for a penny in for a pound>>

It's my opinion that you should never gamble more than you'd normally spend on a night, the time you spend gambling not ammounting to more than the beer you would have drank instead.   It is good I feel that way because I was roundly thrashed and knocked out first but as this left me with losses ammounting to about 4 pound 10p I was not overly troubled.
The final was that age old Revolutionary War Grudge Match between the UK and the States, their was only ever gonna be one winner.

U.S.A  A.O.K
UK - yeah not too bad