Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas in Bishkek

The Devil on Santa Claus's knee
 - which is a neat visual summary of what follows

It is approaching midnight on a cold Christmas Eve.  The snow, though neither deep nor especially crisp nor conveniently even, is nevertheless present.  I am in a cellar bar and my boss Natalia is hollering the communist anthem The Internacionale in my face at the top of her lungs.  This could be the prelude to a bar brawl ending in the painful death of a few decadent westerners, myself included, but it is not.  In fact all is good...all is more than good.
Let us take a step back for a moment in order to get a little context.  For the last few hours the native teachers from the London School and the foreign teachers from the London School (plus a few students) have been engaging in a very different type of battle. a Christmas Carol Off.  So far, the halls have been decked with bows of holly, our collective hearts have been given away the very next day, the twelve days of christmas have been invoked and the snow has been dashed through on a one horse open sleigh.  Then, eep,  out come the national anthems.  That blind patriotism can be chanted at full volume and produce no rancour or malcontent is a good indication of the quality of company present. 
Having been here for a few months already, it has been fairly shocking the paucity of contact with the local teachers I've had.  This first opportunity to really interact in an informal environment is in every way a breath of fresh air.

Drinks at Anton's - a Bishkek institution
The cellar bar in question is Anton's, Bishkek's premier location for carousing with guitar, piano and voice; imbibing of scarily cheap beer and experiencing of some seriously questionable toiletry facilities.  The experience of entering Anton's is difficult to describe in words.  But if you imagine the moment from Silence of the Lambs where Clarice first descends into the cells of the high security mental asylum where Hannibal Lector is held, to the collective gurns, gawps and grimaces of the inmates, and add an incongruous moment where she bumps her head on an oddly located set of rusty windchimes, you will be getting pretty close.

Anton's Bog - Not for the faint of heart (or the sensitive of nose)

The whole experience was capped off nicely with a textbook demonstration of the fine art of the putdown.  After the singing subsided and a fair proportion of the gathered masses had trundled off to their beds, a man approached Anya (ethnic Russian, smiling or scowling with nothing in between, has a penchant for bunny ears, boxer outfits and other similar costumery) with a cheep pick-up line about the festive bunny ears she was wearing.  Her response (in glorious deadpan)

<<Yes, I have ears here and ears here.  I AM A MONSTER>>

Slightly taken aback he mumbles a garbled response.  Without a moments hesitation (in English mind you, her second language)

<<Yes, it is funny.  It is very funny.>>

The man slinks off, tail between his legs, dismissed.  A true masterclass in sleaze management.

It is a few hours earlier.  I am stalking around sneering, dressed as a skeleton, surrounded by the collected students and teachers of London School who are clapping, laughing and whooping with the sheer glee of it all.  It is the New Year's Play (they don't do Christmas so much here but have New Year's (Новый год) trees with tinsel and so on and so forth).  The plot is (approximately) as follows:

Sneegurochka, the granddaughter of Djed Moroz (equivalent of Santa Claus, translates literally as 'Grandpa Frost') has had her laugh stolen by an unkillable bad man called Kashay (yours truly).   Kashay has stolen the laugh because Baba Yega (old, female, badass) wants it, and she is the only person who knows were Kashay has hidden his soul (in an egg, in the branches of a tree, at the top of a mountain).  Because Sneegurochka's laugh has been stolen, the festive spirit has fallen flat and all is sadness and bad cheer.  A series of crazy games are played to make her smile and laugh, they fail.  Until Inspector Kurt (not part of the traditional story as far as I'm aware) catches Baba Yega and Kashay and some of the students complete a 'Mission Impossible' challenge to retreive Sneegurotchka's laugh.  She laughs and all is merry and festive and happily ever after (until next year).  THE END

My first piece of acting in Broken Russian (plus plenty of solid gurning) goes relatively swimmingly. Interspersed with all this are a series of songs, performances and games including traditionally festive bodypopping and fan dancing...

The play ends and the dancing begins.  Now... people in Kyrgyzstan dance.  That is how it is.  They dance readilly and unselfconsciously and with a gay abandon that is truly refreshing.  All in all, a fine Christmas Eve was had.

It is 11.30am on Christmas morn and I am in a supermarket helping the recently remonikered Max Bishkek (remonikered for reasons of facebook convenience) to fill a bag with industrial quanitites of potatoes.  For it is Christmas, therefore Christmas Dinner will happen.  There will be roasties and carrots and a variety of meats, mulled wine shall be supped and merriment shall reign.
As Eve (last night's Sneegurochka, Massachusetts raised, epicly caustic) says her goodbyes and heads off to Kazhakstan to meet up with Holly for a long-distance, holiday-season trek westwards in search of seashore (a rare thing in Central Asia), preperations to feed the hungry foreign types hanging around London School commence...

Dan prepping

Cole Peeling

Kevin carving

Max mulling

All goes to plan and at approximately 3pm food is served.  A few moments later Eve reappears siting some Visa issues Holly is having.  After half an hour or so all is resolved,  but it allows time for Eve to bear witness to a ukulele rendition of Silent Night, join in the Christmas feast and for Logan to request to borrow some gaffer/duct tape (of which more later).

Tucking in

Supping post-christmas dinner champagne - yes that is indeed a man spotwelding bars onto the window in the background.
A few moments later, Eve returns bearing a roll of tape and sporting a rather fetching Santa beard, Logan is both thankful and nonplussed.

Santa Eve arrives - Logan despairs

It is mid-afternoon in a swanky flat in the centre of Bishkek and a crowd including Tajik, English, Turkmen, American, Polish, Finnish, Italian, Kyrgyz, Scottish and Canadian people are watching a lady called Jyldyz (London School teacher, smiley, mad as a bag of badgers) wrap a rug around herself as if it were a dress.
We are engaged in a glorious Christmas tradition known as the White Elephant.

Jyldyz showing off the rug (before putting on the rug)

The name of the game is to be the last name picked out of Djed Moroz's hat.  Everyone who wants to play has brought a present and everyone who plays will take a present away with them.  But which one?  That is the question.  Each person picks a present without opening it up.  They open it, and can swap it with any of the previously opened presents.  Then they pick the next name from Djed Moroz's hat, who has the opportunity to steal your recently won merch.  Much ribaldry ensues.

Jyldyz picking the next name out of Djed Moroz's hat.

Max showing off the Obama viagra
- Yes I'm afraid you did hear that exactly right. 

Ruta sporting a fetching pirate hat
- though who got it in the end I wouldn't
even care to hazard a guess

Улукбек (Oolukbek) ponders his
potential present
For me, the highlight of the White Elephant experience was when Aaro picked at random Logan's now legendary Jaguar Rocket (i.e. two cans of Jaguar energy drink strapped to a bottle of vodka with the aforementioned gaffer/duct tape).  Now, although to most sane people Jaguar is the very urine of Beelzebub himself, we have already discussed in a previous blog how to Aaro it is pure nectar from the gods, a very ambrosia of sugary, caffeine-rich, alcoholicity. 
Aaro selecting his future Brutus

So when Max chose to snatch it from his loving grasp, it caused Aaro to utter a wail of genuine despair.

Max raising the legendary Jaguar Rocket in exaltation
- Aaro despondent

But Aaro has a fine lady who happened to be the last name picked out of the hat.  And Ceci had the good grace to take one for the team and win Aaro's precious Jaguar Rocket back for him...

Ceci - a very classy lady
The White Elephant over, the Christmas Tunes begin.  Much fine conversation is had.  At some point, Master Tom Walling drops a cheeky Grime (filthy London-centric dance/rap music) tune into the mix and the inevitable dancing kicks off, to run happily and in a highly over the top manner for several hours.


It is the point where late evening begins to blur into night and we are sliding along the icy streets of Bishkek town toward the Metro Pub, where a multi band metal extravaganza awaits us.  The Christmas Party has raged for some hours now, someone has slipped fully onto their arse, in the corner of the street urination has happened, and a number of our party are quite filthily drunk.  Not Kate though.  An ex-student of mine (16 years old more or less), she arrived late to the party and is on a strictly soft drinks diet today.  During the month in which I taught her, she was generally taciturn and kept her cards very close to her chest.  Tonight, after a few minutes to get used to the crazy drunken expattage of it all, she is talkative and funny and inquisitive and in every way a pleasure to be with. 
The half hour trek through the frozen streets of Bishkek dissapears like a snowflake melted by a heavy duty welding torch wielded by a powertool crazed metalhead and we arrive at the normally execrably expat Metro Pub to find it filled with energy-filled, excitable, mostly underage, mostly ethnic Russian carousers with moshing on their mind.  Dancing is highly likely to happen...

It is at the time of the morn when midnight is but a distant memory.  Much metal music has been moshed and pogoed to, much fat has been chewed and a not inconsiderable quantity of beer and vodka has been drunk.  I have watched someone (once again names omitted to protect the guilty) segue a handshake with a passing punter into an invitation to grind lascivously to a passing lady in one fluid motion.  I have moshed in a hardcore manner with smiling randomers and I feel my Christmas experience has been most satisfyingly rounded off.   I am now fully certain that celebrating Christmas in a predominantly Islamic (though relatively liberal) country, is not only possible, but can be a true and many splendoured joy.  I am laying in my bed on the verge of slumber with the broad smile of a man who has enjoyed the finest day and a half that Yuletide has to offer. 

And so,

                     Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night

Some photos in this article courtesy of Daniel Mahony
Credit for the photo of Anton's loo goes to Aaro Vitalo, a braver man than I 

Sunday, 19 December 2010


It is 8:20pm on a frosty friday eve.  The last garbled grammar explanation of the day has escaped my lips; all thoughts of the past simple, conjunctions and teacher/student talk time ratios can be shelved untill monday rears its ugly head.  As I slip my textbooks into my bag and say my last 'have a good weekend's, there is but one thing on my mind.  That one thing is the imminent approach of a moment where I will willfully strap two bendy planks of wood onto my feet and throw myself down a mountain. 
A nightbus to a cheeky weekend's skiing lies tantalisingly close, but it is not quite time for that yet.  First there is the matter of a super-early christmas meal before Stuart (a Geordie and a gentleman) heads off to do his Air Stewardly duties, throwing a girdle round the earth, not to return until 2011 has arrived, had a few beers, put its feet up on the table and thoroughly settled in.
Stuart's description of it was 'I've invited one or two people out to eat at the Turkish retaurant on Gorkava'; so when we arrive after work to a near empty restaurant without even a distant whisper of rowdy ex-pat banter, we are momentarilly nonplussed.  
The puzzlement increases when the waitress beckons us over to a door at the back of the restaurant which leads to the toilets.  What could this all mean?  Is this what waitressess have to lower themselves to for a decent tip around here?
As we follow her through the door puzzlement skips bafflement and jumps straight onto wide-mouthed, fish-faced incredulity as we are led through not to a urine covered, Turkish-style, squatty toilet, but to what can only be described as a mediaeval nightclub, with a bizarre mix of wood-panelled walls and flashing, swirling scanner lights from a sizeable lighting rig.

 We reach the top of the stairs to be greeted by the one or two people that Stuart invited.  Here they are:

Needless to say (but since this blog principally consists of me saying needless things I will continue undettered by the sheer needlessness of it all) our intimate gathering passed by in a seasonal flurry of vodka toasts and merriment.  At approximately ten of the clock, Aaro (laid-back, Finnish, a great lover of filthy alcoholic energy drinks), Ceci (Sardinian, anglophile, a great wearer of funky, printed t-shirts), Logan (Alabaman, gregarious, a great lover of Boxing, American Football, Rugby and other sports that involve people's faces being forcefully readjusted) and I say our fond farewells and head off to the West Bus Station to catch a nightbus to Karakol.
The journey lasted aboiut 7 hours or so, though would have been considerably shorter if the driver hadn't stopped every 40 minutes of so for a fag break.  I appreciate that tobacco can be highly addictive but if I'd been prewarned I could have bought him some nicotine patches and thereby chopped about an hour off our travelling time.

Fortunately, me and Logan wiled away the time in highly productive fashion, by creating the 'Country Music Scale'; by which you can tell how Country any song is by checking how many items from the following list it includes:

                           1) Love (bonus points for the words 'southern belle' or 'cowgirl')
                           2) Roots (your hometown, the state you're from, Southern Pride)
                           3) Alcohol (particularly whiskey or beer, which is almost always
                           4) Trucks (bonus points if you mention the tailgate)
                           5) Religion (top marks if you 'thank god' for your beautfiul cowgirl,
                                                  for being born in the South, for being able to afford a
                                                  truck, or for how ice-cold the beer you're
                                                  currently drinking is)

If it doesn't mention at least two of these five things, no matter how much pedal-steel guitar you smother it in, you know it's just not a true Country Song.   If it mentions four of the five things, it's as Country as doffing your cowboy hat to a perty lady whilst sipping sweet tea in a truckstop cafe. 
Having put the world of traditional American music to rights we arrived in the misty early morn in the fair town of Karakol. 
Karakol is, I believe, the fourth largest town in Kyrgyzstan and the excellent hiking, skiing, mountaineering and horse trekking available nearby makes it probably Kyrgyzstan's tourism capital.  Being Kyrgyzstan's tourism capital is, however, a little like being Jamaicas most popular snowboarding resort, and there is little in the handful of dusty streets of cafes and convenience stores that make up the centre of Karakol, to indicate you are in a tourist hotspot. 
Having said that, the town, which was founded as a Russian military outpost in 1869, has its fair share of attractive, timber, gingerbread houses, including the pretty little guest house in which we stayed (complete with gloriously out-of-tune, honky-tonk piano)

The living room area of the guesthouse - a severe textile overload
Having not skied for about 14 years, I was feeling a certain ammount of apprehension on the taxi ride up to the ski resort.  I needn't have worried.  On the first run down I fell on my backside half way down and my right ski came apart, forcing me to walk back down the slope.  On my second atempt my ski pass beeped twice on the automatic barrier to the ski lift, which meant I just had to sit around for 10 minutes waiting for the others to ski back down to me.  At this point, Aaro, in his infinite wisdom, decided that that was sufficient preparation for me to tackle a black slope, and took us up a ski lift which went...and went...and went...and kept on going...and going, right to the top of the mountain.  This caused Logan, who had never been that high before in all his livelong days, to invent his own distinctive style of backwards skiing, which for some reason made it far easier for him to stomach the insane, might fall off the side of a mountain any minute, black slope experience.
And so, I soldiered on, chewing the snow every few minutes, down the mountain, thoroughly enjoying my own total inadequacy for the task.  All told, the first day's skiing was a pleasent madness.
We got back to the guesthouse about five and decided the only reasonable response to the day's events was to begin drinking.  We ran into a Coloradan guy who'd been staying at the guesthouse for several months while he developed a cross-country ski route with a series of yurts as waystops (while we were skiing, he'd been constructing a toilet).  He suggested we go eat, so we headed to a restaurant and the alcohol began flowing (although admittedly it was beer, which many Kyrgyz people deign to regard as 'real' alcohol).   After a quick stop off at a mini-supermarket (shopping list: more beers, Jaguar alcoholic energy drink, a can of Manchester Gin & Tonic, cheep Russian champagne and a glass grenade of vodka) we reconvened in the guesthouse and engaged wholeheartedly in a merry session which was fully burned out by midnight.  Sleep happened and then another half-day of skiing, this time on slightly more sane and achievable slopes.

The hotel on the slopes - pleasingly pointy

And so, another crazy weekend drawing to a close, we took the ride back to Bishkek in a very flashy Marshrutka (with wood panelling and flat screen TV no less).  Shortly after nightfall, we arrive into Bishkek West Bus Station, then all that was left to do was hop into a souped-up, sports-car taxi driven by a gangster rap loving Kyrgyz guy who kept calling us brat (Russian for brother) and wend our way back home to bed.

p.s. I strongly suggest you follow this link and look carefully at it.  Really, it is worth your while.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Of Wild Times, Felines and The Coming of The Big Chill

It has arrived.  After an apparently unseasonally warm November, my first Kyrgyz snow has finally arrived.  And arrived in some style; on friday the heavens let rip and verily did cover the land with not so much a blanket as a TOG 13.5 duvet of snow.

Here be the snow as she do fall

This, combined with the large ammount of parkland and foliage in Bishkek town, has given me the vaguelly disconcerting feeling that a faun mihgt accost me at any moment, or I might see a sled mushing by driven by a disgruntled dwarf.  This feeling has only been compounded by this piece of graffitti in the big underpass on Sovietskaya.

The Lion is away on business, but his name is still in the mind of streetwise beavers with a can of spraypaint to hand.
Incidentally, while we are on the topic of felines, I would like to draw your attention to a genuine Kyrgyz election poster....

Political propoganda par excellence

This is surely the ultimate way of gaining votes (and heavy duty political credibility);  have yourself snapped in a boyband pose showing off your guns next to a big cat.  Oh Mr Brown, if only you'd been pictured with a tiger, your fate could have been so different now.
The duvet has died back to a thick wooly blanket now, but the Giant has walled his garden, the White Witch rules the land and the Big Chill is here to stay, three months of solid post-soviet winter.   It's a strange experience though, I've walked contentedly (wrapped up like a good boy though mum, it's ok) through temperatures of -15 and lower, but not felt as baltically cold as I've felt in the UK before at much higher temperatures.  The lack of lashing rain or biting winds makes the experience much easier to bear, and the stillness of the cold gives everything a rather fairytale quality, as if you are being provided with the concept of cold, without having it thrust in your face.

The still winter morning in Erkindik Boulevard - the statue is pointing the way to Cair Paravel

And indeed rain (or rather its other lower temperature precipitation brothers snow and ice) has done nothing to stop play, the last week or so in Bishkek's ex-pat bubble has included a cast of German nihilist philosophy loving prostitutes, 'never have I ever' drinking games in English theme pubs, Cuban cigar toking Alabamans, a clinic offering a range of VD tests under the title 'Sex in the City', White Russians, Geordie shenanigans and a plethora of vodka toasts.   All in all, just another quiet week in Central Asia.
The view of the first snow from a London School window.  The Builders' ambitions of completing the work before the snow hit sadly unachieved.

 And so, once again I must bid you all adieu for a few days.  There is a strong possibility of a night bus to Karakol tomorrow, following by a weekend of skiing, so I may have shenanigans to report soon enough.  Untill then, farewell to all and to all a good night.