Monday, 24 January 2011

Three Vignette's - The Banya, The Tea Party and Mirbek Atabekov

Vignette The First
                        <<Thank you for coming to our coutry during these troubled times.>>
It's been a common refrain, variations of which I have heard at regular intervals since my arrival in Kyrgyzstan, though I confess this is the first time I’ve heard it from the mouth of one of Kyrgyzstan’s top pop stars.  Well, not directly from the mouth of the great Mirbek Atabekov, but via the expert translational skills of Jana, onetime barmaid at the bar in which we are currently seated.
Indeed, as she had only resigned from said bar job mere hours earlier, Jana probably wasn't expecting to be back so soon.   So when she casually mentioned that Mirbek was there whilst explaining about her bust up with her boss, and the western numbskulls she had the misfortune to associate herself with, instead of being consoling and supportive, became randomly excited and dragged her back to the scene of her recent unpleasentness, she was bemused to say the least.    

Jana, Logan and myself - shiny happy people

But she is a trooper, so along she went, tempted Mirbek over with her womanly wiles and proceeded to translate his expressions of gratitude for our presence in his country.
But I am no missionary of the West, sent to spread the word unto a blighted and benighted population; I am here to experience, learn and enjoy at least as much as to teach, share and give.  Indeed, I’m mightily sceptical of the benefit of going anywhere with the sole intention of shoving your altruism in people's faces.   And my worst experience of hardship in this nation has been getting hassled one evening by a drunken rabble of Kyrgyz guys who thought we were ethnic Russian and wanted to pick a fight, which ammounts to no more hardship than a night on the lash in most towns of the UK. 
So I feel on considerably more solid ground when the conversation moves on to the topic of girls. Mirbek informs us that the girls of his native Talas are highly physically appealing by the subtle bodilly motions of a big thumbs up and sticking his tongue out and waving it about vigorously.  Then the secret agent assigned to protect Mirbek shows us his gun and Mirbek wanders off with several of the attractive ladies that have been seeking his attention all night, promising to return later and have a photograph taken with us.  
He doesn't. 

Vignette The Second

Classroom 14 - my (very) humble abode

When I arrived here a few months back, my bedroom had ceased to be a classroom bare days before.  It was spartan to the point of being barren.  My level of redecoration since then has been so minimal that the words 'Classroom 14' still remain clearly marked above my door. 
So a few days ago me and Max headed to Osh Bazaar in search of some soft furnishings to make the room feel a bit more lived in. 
Now, all the accounts of Osh Bazaar I have been regaled with have made it sound like a very Sodom and Gomorrah of a place, a Hieronymous Bosch painting come to life, where dead dogs lay rotting beside fruit and veg stalls, human shit can be found proudly deposited in the centre of pathways and dog-fighting dvds can be purchased at bargain basement prices.  Now, although I saw none of this on my visit, I can confirm that it is a veritable rabbit warren of narrow, twisting pathways and rampant commercialism, where the wares of the stalls bow in on you like ghouls on a fairground ghost train.  
We both hunt down what we are seeking, Max a pair of Tracky Bs (that's tracksuit bottoms for the unitiated) and myself a pair of long, decorative Central Asian floor cushions and a tablecloth. 

Purchase made

Set off with a tea-set, it made my hovel look almost liveable.  So I decided to invite a few peeps over for a dinner paty.

Despite my best attempts to cremate the pasta I was preparing, all went fine and dandilly, with genial conversation being exchanged to the gentle sound of Tom Waits hollering.


Vignette The Third
I am standing, naked as a newborn babe, drenched in sweat, beating one of my colleagues repeatedly with a handful of crudely interwoven branches.   Surprisingly, this is not, as it seems, a scene from a low-budget, German porn film.  No, this is all part and parcel of the joyous sensual overload that is Banya.   A form of turkic sauna which includes a positvely arid hot dry room, a hot wet room where sitting down for more than about a minute puts your buttocks in serious risk of third-degree burns and a plunge pool so baltically cold as to make your testicles want to take a permanent vacation in the warm cosiness of your internal organs; all whilst surrounded by fat, perspiration soaked, middle-aged businessmen.   The experience, all told, is surprisingly invigorating and you leave with a sensation of healthilly revitalised and cleansed wellbeing. 


These three vignettes provide a brief snapshot of my January in Bishkek.  It's been a relatively quiet month, but it seems no month in Bishkek can pass by entirely uneventfully.

Monday, 3 January 2011

New Year in Osh / Новый год в Оше (Pt2 Ozgon, Gulcha and other shenanigans)

A mural on Kurmanjan Datka Avenue in Osh

We are walking down a nondescript corridor on the American second floor of a building that has seen better days.  The building is two storeys high, so there is no British second floor.  We are seeking the Osh CBT (Community Based Tourism) office which the guidebook says is located in this building on the American second floor.   But it is nowhere to be seen.  Eventually we knock on a door to make enquiries. The door is opened by a middle-aged lady in surgical whites, behind her is what appears to be both a doctors' and a dentists' surgery combined.  The bright light emanating from the room is glaringly painful in the stygian gloom of the corridor.  She looks at us, impassive.  Max enquires:

                      <<Excuse me, would you be able to tell us were the tourism office is?>>

She responds, blank faced:

                           <<The place you are looking for is on the second floor.>>

and closes the door, plunging us back into semi-darkness.   If at this point a dwarf had meandered down the corridor and begun talking to us backwards, I would not have been surprised.  This is the first, and hopefully the last, time in my life that I've felt like I've stumbled unwittingly into the dark recesses of David Lynch's psyche. 
We make our way out into the light of day and the bustle of Osh's Kelechek Plaza.   Max does what he always does at such moments (and indeed at every available opportunity), he gets out his i-phone.  Now, Max is truly obsessed with this piece of kit, and with all the other gadgetry he has in his i-collection.  He mentions them so often, and with such regularity, that I am beginning to believe he's been sent undercover by Steve Jobs to singlehandedly expand Apple's influence in Central Asia.  A little bit of conspicuous i-phonic internet surfing locates the CBT website and confirms that the office has been moved to the first floor (British) of a hotel nearby.  When we locate said office however, it turns out that nobody is in.  Max rings the number written on the door to be greeted by a chap called Talant who tells him that everyone is on holiday but he could certainly arrange a new year's trip into the mountains to stay in the Alay Valley if we wanted.  We agree to call back tomorrow morning to finalise the details.
Job done, we hop in a taxi to take us to the town of Ozgon, 55km north-east of Osh.  Our taxi driver is a cheerful Uzbek chap who happily points out the various sites on the way.  As we are passing through an area on the outskirts of Osh still derelict from the June riots, he shows us in an equally offhand way the enormous scar he has on his belly from being knifed during the troubles.  The amiable manner in which he does this somehow makes the whole thing more, rather than less, shocking.  <<What's the situation like now?>> Max asks.  <<Back to normal.>> he replies.  Long may it remain that way

A merrily harrowing taxi ride to Ozgon
  Ozgon itself has had its fair share of troubles.  In the summer of 1990 violence broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek factions over issues of land tenure.  The violence was short lived but between 300 and a 1000 people lost their lives.  No outward mark of that violence remains today however, the town is pleasent and lively, with an atmosphere that makes one feel instantly relaxed. 

The three Mausolea - with inscriptions in Kufic and Naskhi script
The mausolea we have come to visit date from the heyday of Kharakhanid Mavarannahr ('The land beyond the river') in the 11th and 12th Century.  A time when Ozgon was one of the largest cities in the Fergana Valley and a centre of Silk Road activity.  
An 11th century minaret also found onsite

The central of the three Mausolea was probably built for Nasr Ibn Ali, the founder of the Karakhanid dynasty, who died in 1012/13.    
The mausolea are clearly viewed with much pride in Kyrgyzstan as they gloriously adorn the Kyrgyz 50som note.

As we wander away from the mausolea, a bunch of teenagers sitting on a bench listening to music on their mobile phones (it is reassuring to know that the world over teenagers are teenagers) shout a cheery greeting to us:

<<Hello Baby!>>

Too much American music and not enough English lessons methinks.
Returning to the town we are tempted into a cafe by Shaslyk (succulent, spiced junks of meat on a skewer) grilling on an open barbecue outside.

The proprietress posing proudly

After a hearty lunch of nan, shashlyk, chai and laghman (a noodle dish with many varieties) we had a wander around Ozgon's bazaar.  Got laughed at by children whilst taking a photo of the cornucopia of nan on sale (this is fair enough as it's the equivalent of a Kyrgyz guy coming to the UK and taking a photo of Tesco's bread aisle) and hopped a taxi back to Osh,

The gates of Ozgon Bazaar

The following day finds us in a taxi bound for the small town of Gulcha in the Alay valley.  An hour and forty minutes of wending our way through stunning mountain scenery on a route which would eventually take us into China and we are there.

On the road to Gulcha

This is true rural Kyrgyzstan, cows roam the streets, you can hear the bleating of sheep from every homestead and the backdrop in every direction is a stunning panorama of snowcapped mountains.

Roaming the streets of Gulcha
We are led into an attractive family home and ushered into a side room where we are served a lunch of freshly baked bread, fruit from the family orchard, honey from a relative's aviary and plentiful supplies of hot chai.

Chilling, waiting for lunch to be served

Chai Sippin' Boy


The man of the house comes in to welcome us to his home and tell us that his son will take us for a tour of the town.  He introduces himself as Alaybek, which translates roughly as 'Man of the Alay Valley'.  So, we have inadvertently become guests of the anthroporphic personification of the area we're visiting...intriguing. 

Walking the mean streats of Gulcha
In the centre of town preparations for the coming New Year's celebrations are well underway, a giant Yolka or New Year's Tree is set up and Djed Moroz and his granddaughter Snegoorochka are interacting merrily with all and sundry (any similarities to the Christmas celebration are purely incidental and imply no copywright infringement whatsoever).   Our arrival inspires a similar reaction to the arrival of the Beatles tour bus in a small town in the USA in the mid-1960s...I get the feeling Gulcha does not get foriegners wandering its streets casually very often.

The Yolka in all its glory

Posing with Djed Moroz and Snegoorochka
We buy some presents and a bottle of beer each at a nearby grocers, potter through the town back up to our Homestay house and take an afternoon nap.  By late afternoon, the merest hint of boredom is beginning to set in.  Max proposes a game of scrabble on (of course) the i-phone.  We are one move into the game when we are ushered into the main room to be greeted by an extended family gathering and a feast of herculean proportions.  Very little scrabble will be played tonight methinks.

The New Year's family gathering
Introductions are made, conversation and chai flows, much food is consumed.  Like all great feasts and banquets, it becomes an endurance contest, everything you could possibly want to eat is there in abundance and you want to eat it all.  Just when we thought we could fit not a morsel more food in our mouths, the main course of Plov (a rice dish which originated in Uzbekistan) is brought out.  In this type of endurance contest the meal always wins.  But the battle is a hell of a lot of fun nonetheless.

Our genial hosts - Alaybek and Alynkan
Although he has not drank alcohol for many years, Alaybek generously provides us with glasses of Kyrgyz wine and toasts begin to flow.  Alaybek begins to philosophise:

<<Back in the days of the Soviet Union, we used to get drunk and we would laugh and sing.  Nowadays, young people get drunk and they fight.  It must be they drink bad alcohol nowadays.>>

Blame it on the Jaguar. 

We perform a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne for the family's benefit (conplete with crossed hands and half-remembered lyrics) and then everybody decamps outside to watch the fireworks and see in the new year with sparklers and Champagne.

Alaybek pours the champers

The next day we thank our hosts vociferously and make the return journey to Osh with smiles on our faces.  The day is spent wandering and checking out museums.  The evening is an epic affair in which we consume 10 litres of liquid (5 of water, 5 of beer) during a mammoth 3 hour session in our guesthouse's private banya (a turkic style sauna room/plunge pool combo).

All in all, a fine end to a fine holiday.  Our rickety old Soviet plane touches down at Manas Airport and we take a taxi back to Bishkek content in the knowledge that we flouted all safety warnings and the worst of our suffering as a result was a little indigestion from overeating.

Some photos courtesy of Daniel Mahony

Sunday, 2 January 2011

New Year in Osh / Новый год в Оше (Pt1 arrival in Osh)

We advise against all but essential travel to the Oblasts (Provinces)
of Osh and Jalal-Abad.

I am sitting in an Airplane that does not comply with accepted international air safety standards, about to fly to a city that my government strongly advises me not to visit, to celebrate New Year there in spite of the fact that the Krygyz aurhotities have banned all fireworks, celebrations and public gatherings in said city.  Many people would consider this a distinctive decision, perverse even.  But I am not many people, when the idea was suggested to me I thought, <<Wow, that does sound interesting... I'm in.>>
The engine sputters into life, wheezing like Darth Vader with a 50 a day habit; gradually settling into a regular rattle and thrum:


My erstwhile companion Max Bishkek, observes with interest that the pilot's cabin visible through the slightly parted curtains looks remarkably retro and 50s.  We all realise simultaneously that this is probably because it does indeed date from the 1950s.  The plane wheels clunk and clatter as the plane leaves the ground. 
And so, here we go, bound for a new year's date with the city of Osh.

The year is 1042.a.d. and the streets of Osh are bustling.  The Karakahnid ruler Muhammad 'Ayn ad-Dawlah has recently ascended to power in the great city of Bukhara many miles to the west.  It is the height of summer and trade is booming.  The many eateries and drinking holes that line the alleyways of the bazaars are packed with an eclectic mix of soldiers, merchants, pilgrims, moneylenders, missionaries, traders, nomads and thieves.   A caravan of valuable spices has just arrived from Bactria (Balkh in modern day Afghanistan), A merchant is bartering with a trader over the price of a consignment of lacquerware.  Another merchant packs his newly acquired sacks of pistaccio nuts from Persia onto his beasts of burden ready to be taken east to the secretive Chinese Empire for sale at a lucrative profit.  The sound of the call to prayer can be heard emanating from the minaret of a nearby mosque.   In farms in the surrounding area Bombyx worms, driven by the fuel of mulberry leaves, are industriously dribbling gossomer threads from their salival gland to produce a cocoon which will shelter them during their arduous metamorphosis into a moth.  Little do they expect to be unceremoniously plunged into boiling water so that the threads of their cocoon can be woven into a sensuos, soft, strong, long lasting cloth which is cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather, destined to travel far to the west, maybe as far as distant Byzantium.  It would probably be of little comfort to our friend Bombyx Mori to know that the name given to this cloth it was so pivotal in creating would come, some eight centuries later,  to symbolise the whole transcontintal network of trade routes of which Osh was a key point, when a 19th century German geographer called Ferdinand von Richthofen coins the phrase 'The Silk Road'.

The year is 2010.a.d. and the streets of Osh are burning.   It is the 12th of June and ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants of the town have spilled over into terrible violence.  Gangs of young Kyrgyz men with firearms and metal poles are rampaging through Uzbek neighbourhoods, burning down houses and businesses.  Uzbeks are streaming from the city in droves in a desperate attempt to reach the border with Uzbekistan a few kilometres to the north-west.   Young children are crushed underfoot, screaming, trampled to death in the streets in the mad dash to escape.  The Kyrgyz government and military admit to being powerless to stop the violence.  The Russians have refused pleas to provide military assistance.  The sky is rank with acrid black smoke. 

The year is 2010.a.d. (for a few days more at least) and the streets of Osh are ...normal, if still a little subdued.  It is the 28th of December and three British tourists are arousing a certain ammount of attention among the local populace.  A man has just approached us, claiming he can guess our ages, got both mine and Max's age spectacularly wrong and asked for a hundred som for the privelage of his predictions (he didn't get it).  The buildings we walk by are a mix of beautiful old architecture, Soviet brutalism and modern craziness.

The sleek shiny glass of the
Kyrgyz Republic Radio building

The streets of Osh

The imposing frontage of Osh University

Although the situation has calmed considerably, and the streets have normalised to a greater or lesser degree, there is still plentiful evidence of the recent troubles; the burned out buildings dotted around the city a visual testament to societal scars which may take generations to truly heal.

Nowhere is the devastation more evident than in the city's main bazaar, the Jayma or Osh Bazaar, where it seems every other stall is empty or burnt out.

Riverside Cafe in ruins - Osh/Jayma Bazaar

But there are still things to be sold, and this is Central Asia so sold they shall be.  And it's an indication of the hardiness of Central Asian trade, and the variety of wares available, that I can buy traditionally embroidered cushion covers whilst Max buys some truly eyebrow raising 'Wolf Come' viagra.

The Genuine Article

Warning: may induce pack behaviour
Our first destination was the Taht-i-Suleiman (Solomon's Throne) A jutting mountainous outcrop of rock above a large muslim graveyard, that dominates the centre of the city.  So named becuase the fabled King Solomon is said to have visited Osh and slept on top of the mountain. 

Steps leading up Solomon's Throne
At the top of the slope lies Babur's House, a Muslim shrine and place of pilgramage (particularly for Uzbeks) originally constructed by Zahirrudin Muhammed Babur, a descendent of Tamarlane the Great and founder of the Indian Mughul Dynasty.  The current form of the shrine is sadly not the late 15th century original but a reconstruction due to earthquake damage,  but it is still attractive enough.

Babur's House

If you are feeling a little lacking in sexual oomph, there is a long, smooth, sloping chunk of rock, thought to resemble a pregnant women, just behind Babur's House.  Sliding down this feet first is said to be beneficial for your health and confer fertiflity.

Daniel Mahony and the Rock of Potency

Funnily enough, a female admirer texted Dan not long after his sliding experience so maybe there's something in it.
Having climbed the mount, we made our way back down towards a mosque close to the bottom of the slope.  We were intrigued to find ourselves in the middle of what appeared to be a building site.  We were even more intrigued when a work-stained and wiry gent in overalls came up to introduce himself and invite us in for a look.  It turned out the mosque was being totally reconstructed and this chap, who's name was Rashid, was resposible for the electrics (as well as a good chunk of the building and guard duty).  He showed us round his work with great gusto and pride and it was intriguing to see a great religious building
mid-construction.  Also intriguing was the realisation that the main direction of prayer was pointing westward, not east, towards Mekka.  It's strange how these little details bring home to you the realisation of how far you are away from home.

Rashid the many skilled

Inside the Mosque
The exterior of the Mosque

Having thanked Rashid vociferously for his time and enthusiasm we stopped of at a traditional Chaikana, for chai (that is 'tea'), soup and some simply glorious, warm fresh nan (that is 'bread').

Maxton pours

Traditional Uzbek Raised Seating Platforms

I want the finest nan known to humanity
I want it here and I want it now

The rest of the day consisted of a little more wandering followed by a stop off in a cafe where a lady from Osh University thanked us for coming to Osh, also trying to convince us to come and volunteer to teach English for a month or so at the university (they are despereate for native speakers to help the students improve their speaking skills), all whilst we were drinking beer and cognac and eating rich chocolate.  After which we retired to our guest house, freshened up, popped out for a bite to eat for tea. and then retired early in preparation for the next day's activities.
Thus ends the account of our Arrival in Osh, tune in again tomorrow for the next thrilling installment, with our trip to Ozgon to explore Karakhanid Mausolea, a David Lynch-esque episode in search of a tourist office and a journey to a small town in the Alay Valley.

Some photos in this article courtesy of Daniel Mahony