Sunday, 29 May 2011

Это западня (Of Chocolate Wrestling, Bottle Popping and Admiral Ackbar)

      <<What kind of idiot is going to fork out to buy an Admiral Ackbar Mask in Kyrgyzstan?!>>

That's how it all began, some months ago now.  We were having a wander through цум (Tsum = Central Universal Store) a giant department store that sells all kinds of bric-a-brac, including (it turns out) latex masks of Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars.  Not, it must be added, a collection of different Star Wars masks. There was not a whiff of a Darth Vader, Storm Trooper or Chewbacca mask.  No.  Admiral Akbar, alone and proud.

Tsum loves you - as Soviet a piece of architecture as you could want

The obsession began here, but grew when we watched Star Wars dubbed into Russian.  In particular, this scene:

Now in Russian, Admiral Ackbar's cry of 'It's a trap!' is 'Это западня!' (pron. Eta Zapadnya).  This became an in joke in the oh-so-injokey, pressure-cooker of cliqueyness that is London School, with shouts of Это западня being regularly dropped for the slighest of reasons.
But the answer to the conondrum of what idiot would throw away good soms on a bloody great latex monstrosity depicting a minor character in a 40 odd year old sci-fi film would have to wait five months to be answered.  The answer, it turned out, was me.  Yep, I'm the mug.  A wilfully dumb, overpaid Brit buying a dumb, overpriced item for his wilfully dumb, overpaid Brit friend's birthday. 
For May 21st saw a triple birthday celebration in Bishkek, of Kurt Davies, Kirsten Styers and Daniel Mahony and the largest party yet at Kurt/Alice/Laurence/Dillon/a-rolling-stock-of-other-ex-pats apartment.  The place was packed to the rafters.  Although my Ackbar mask for Dan was a pretty damn stupid present, it had some competition in the form of a 3-litre behemoth of Russian Standard Vodka:

A few days later, you find us sitting in Dan's room, supping beers and getting our Это западня on trying the many flavours of Ackbar possible.  Here are our results for your delectation:


Next day, another birthday party, that of the Keen brothers (Palmer and Dennis) and also the last night out in Kyrgyzstan for that Alabaman stalwart Logan King.  Logan's modus operandi for the night was as follows:

 <<I'm gonna get silly tonight>> 
...and so he did.
 The party was full of new faces, interesting conversation and cheap Kyrgyz champagne.

The exact moment that the night got silly
Around midnight a large party decamped to Chelsea Dance Pub.  Now, I'm no fan of this particualar venue, a great big sweaty shed of a place with a clientele inclined to agro, and I find the idea of a Dance Pub frankly execrable, but it was Logan's last night so off I went.

Chelsea Dance Pub - How do you spell 'copyright infringement' again?
And I must confess there were two rather intriguing sights to be seen that night, 
The first, a massive flaming tower of booze:

The second, some ladies doing a little, light chocolate-wrestling on the dancefloor know, as you do:

The Scene of Battle
I can confirm that Logan, a man of his word, did as much getting silly as possible and rocked in a little after six in the a.m.   Master King, we salute you sir, Bishkek will be a quieter and less colourful town without you.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Of King Charles, The Black Prince and The Game of (Somewhat Smelly) Kings.

It is traditional in most cultures of the world to mourn the dead.  In the case of the Bishkek ex-pat community the dead are any lost souls that have left Bishkek.  As each person takes their leave of the Kyrgyz capital, they are granted a funeral/wake where people come to celebrate their time here and mourn their passing.  At this team of year their are many funerals, a very suicide cult job-lot of corpses being swept away to their respective Ellysia (or Underworld) in great winged hearses.  Today, I would like to mourn a specific member of the glorious dead, his name was King Charles.

Not King Charles of foreshortened head and Oliver Cromwell-baiting fame, this King Charles was a wanderer who has graced many of the world's more obscure corners, his royal chariot a truck, and his court an ever-changing gallery of adventure holidayists.
His arrival in Bishkek was quiet and understated, he was a student of languages seeking to add Russian to his list through diligent, focused labour.  His first evening out with us a week or so later was not quite so quiet and understated. It began with a few beers, followed by a few beers, leading to a few more beers and ended
at a drunken houseparty, with Charlie informing randomers that Dan was his bastard son to a chinese lady.  
Now, every king needs a prince, and the horseradish sauce to King Charles' roast beef dinner was one Edward Charlton-Jones (a.k.a The Black Prince).
My first awareness of Edward's arrival was when Eve said to me; 'Have you met the guy with the voice like an old-fashioned BBC presenter'  and indeed he does have a marvelous fine public-school accent, with all the boyish charm to pull it off.  Hailing from the unbelievably middle England sounding vilalge of Little Hawksley, he studied at Oxford, and is in possesion of  that general all round affability that is the hallmark of the better type of public school boy (for non-Brit readers, in the mad world of British schooling, public schools are decidedly private, fee paying places).  
Soon after their taking up residence in the Students' rooms at London School, the little kitchen of intimacy that characterises the students flat at London School became a place of meeting, fine conversation and something of a gaming den, accompanied by coffee and cake and the occasional cheeky пиво (that's beer to those not in the know)  Shithead was taken on as the game of choice and played unremittingly.  Slowly but surely the game began to accrue extra rules. initially to assuage the gents' concern that they were slacking off work, so the Jack of Silly Words (when it's laid you have to look up a random silly word in Russian and remember it) and the Jack of Remembrance (when it's laid you can challenge anyone to remember any word from the Jack of Silly Words) were introduced.  These extra rules began to gain terrifying momentum to the point where almost every card had some special meaning, and a story built up with cards dedicated to the people around.  Thus, the Queen of Hearts became the Alice card, dedicated to Alice Janvrin, a fine anglo-French rose muchly admired by the gentlemen; everytime the card was laid you had to comment on what a very lovely card it was indeed. 
Both Edward and King Charles managed to combine this joviality and social lubrication with a hefty workload of language learning and a great love of bursting randomly into verse.  These two gloriously came to a head at a school performance evening where both The Black Prince and King Charles himself performed a poem in Russian.

El Rey Carlito en su majestad - leyendo poesia
And why King Charles and the Black Prince?  Well it's simple really.  People at London School seem to soak up nicknames like plant roots soaking up water in a deset after the first rainfall in a year, and as their were two Charles's at the time, they needed to be distinguished.   Well Charlie's natural regal quality dredged up King charles, this going extraordinarily to his head almost instantly, and the logical extention was for Edward to become Prince Edward, hence the Black Pricne.
So there they be, gone but not forgotten. 

p.s. Honorary mention must almost be made of Ceci's death.  On the night of her funeral she was having kidney stone issues and had to leave a few minutes into the party, Making her, as Max Bishkek wryly observed, the only person ever to get up in the middle of her own funeral and walk out.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Of Kazakh Wine, Couchsurfing Parties and The Northwest Passage

Advance Warning: This entry will have precious few photos (at least those taken by me) because some utter swine called Ulanbek (How do I know his name?  All shall be revealed) stole my camera (plus another camera, a phone, an i-pod, a tent bag and two camping stoves, the blaggard) while we were camping in the mountains of the Alamedin valley.

A stock photo of the Alademin Valley - definitely not taken by me

So.  What news from Central Asia?  The previous month has seen the fair denizens of the London School Flats take up Couchsurfing with enthusiasm and aplomb.  The catalyst for this was the arrival into the Bishkek fold of one Alec Forss.  Restless wanderer, mountain man, lover of rollicking Canadian folksongs (of which more later), overenergetic puppy, Alec is many things to many men, but one thing he certainly is is an advocate of couchsurfing.

The Lesser-spotted Alec Forss, in his native mountain habitat.

It's an idea I've been interested in for some time but never been in a position to get fully invovled in.  The idea is gloriously simple, if you have a spare couch (bed, bit of floor, Central Asian floor cushion) you offer it up to weary travellers who msg you to request a place to lay their weary heads for a night or two.  In return, when you are travelling, other gracious hosts give you a place to crash for the night. 
Logan, with his usual all or nothing zest, took to it like white on rice, got signed up, set out his profile page with care and his first surfer accepted within about a day.

My Couch - A pair of Tushuk (floor cushions)

A few days later, surfer number 1 arrived in the form of Ingrid, a gently spoken, dryly humourous Norwegian with a penchant for the classics (she polished off a Jane Austen while she was staying with us)  who was travelling overland through Russia and Central Asia.

Ingrid holding a big ass bird - just 'cuase she can

Her stay proved to be a delight.  She introduced us to some belter Norwegian music including (to Logan's great pleasure) Diamanter og Kirsebær (Diamonds and Cherries) by John Olav Nielson.  A number of fine evenings were spent drinking beer and chatting into the wee small hours, with much badinage and dollops of wry wit  She even managed to get up and check out not one but two bazaars the morning after a binge which wound up around 7 in the am...a true trooper.. 
Our next visitor was
Julia from Kazakhstan, a charming computer expert from Almaty who had a few days before hosted our fine friend Edward Charlton-Jones (a former Russian student at London School and gentleman of the highest calibre).

Ta da - The super-charming Julia from Kazakhstan

She arrived bearing gifts of Kazakh chocolate and Kazakh wine (both rather fine actually) and we reciprocated in this cultural exchange by introducing her to the wonder that is Borat
Once she realised that it wasn't meant to be an accurate representation of her country, but rather a massive pisstake of Western ignorance about Central Asia and a handy tool for revealing people's prejudices, she laughed along heartilly. 
I think Julia was slightly underwhelmed by her first trip to Kyrgyzstan.  Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have gone on opposite trajectories since the split of the Soviet Union.  After some initial teething problems, Kazakhstan, rich in oil and natural resources, has flourished with a growing middle class and a shiny ultra-modern new capital city.  In contrast, Kyrgyzstam, which enjoyed artificially high importance during the Soviet era, has suffered from a paucity of natural resources, little arable land and growing poverty, struggling through a series of violent revolutions and venally corrupt regimes.  And Bishkek, although a pleasure to live in, is no grand tourist destination, with few major sights to see and only a sprinkling of museums and attractions.
Nevertheless, she seemed to enjoy herself.  We went out to a really nice traditional Kyrgyz restaurant, and I think she enjoyed the challenge of being in an English-speaking environment.
Bare hours after I bid farewell to Julia, I was hard at work on prep for the next Couchsurfing adventure, London School's first Couchsurfing party.  I cooked up a hearty stew of mince, onions, carrots, white wine, rosemary and thyme in the big party pot ready for the evening's festivities and then pottered off to do some of that teaching malarkay. 
Lessons over, my hopefulness for a big turnout was dashed upon the rocks of adverse weather conditions.  The rain (a rare thing in Kyrgyzstan but proof positive of the old chestnut 'it never rains but ii pours') was bucketing it down so hard that the London School Flats had developed a not inconsiderable moat.   The situation looked grim.
I shouldn't have worried though, a few hours later, and 20 odd portions of stew served,  I'm wending my way through a mass of revellers (I think we had about 35 peeps in total), these included friends, friends of friends and couchsurfers from the Phillipines, Japan, Kyrgyzstan and England; the last of whom, one Iain Webb, ended up becoming London School couchsurfer number three by crashing down on my Tushuk for the night (insert cheap pun of choice here).
The next morning was a (relatively) early rise, a quick cafe lunch at Lola's and then off up into the mountains.
 The plan; three days trekking through and camping in the glorious Alamedin valley to take advantage of the long weekend.   You can just imagine the beautiful views and stunning vistas which we photographed.  Actually, you'll have to just imagine them since all our beggaring cameras were swiped.
The team; myself, Logan King (on a rare foray out of Bishkek into that nature), mountain man Alec Forss (who earned the nickname Billy-goat Forss from Logan due to the way he bounded up a mountainside), a fine Melbourne lady called Katie (who's studying Russian at London School at the mo, whilst setting up the Central Asian Environment Coalition), and our erstwhile couchsurfer/crashee Iain.
The first day we wended our way along the left bank of a river for several miles past yurts and horses, finally scrambling through a good half hour of heavy, thorny vegetation and rocky outcrops, ending in a steep cliff fall over whitewater and no way forward.  We decide to head back to a fire pit we saw about forty minutes back and set up camp for the night
An hour or so later and the tents are set up, a fire is going, a noodly concoction is bubbling away on the stove and a bottle of cognac and cups of vodka and fanta are doing the rounds.
As I was nearing the end of the bottle of cognac (my addition to the even's libations) Iain proposed roasting some bananas over the fire.  Now, anybody worth their salt knows that the best way to cook a banana is to  flambée it in that is what we did.  The last of the cognac was poured into a travel pan and we feasted on flambéed bananas (the taste for which I have to thank a Parisian banker in whose house I was a guest a few weeks many summers ago for).  This was followed by open-fire-blackened bananas with chocolate inside (also rather tasty).
And so, well fed and watered, the singing began.  Now, Alec is a huge fan of the Canadian Folksinger Stan Rogers, whose songs were inspired by Canadian History and the daily lives of its working people, particularly those from east coast fishing villages, and Alec's enthusiasm for said artist has spread like a rather tuneful virus amongst the London School flock.
In particular, we have taken to belting out The Northwest Passage, his celebration of the explorers who attempted to discover a northwest sea passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
So that is what we did, two Brits, an American and an Aussie, belting out a Canadian folktune about the sea, at the top of our lungs, on a mountainside in Kyrgyzstan (a completely landlocked country). 
This was followed by a 'guess the missing word' quiz convoluted from Iain's bizarre imagination and a 'History of Philosophy' book, and then a limerick making circle.  The things one cooks up to entertain oneself while camping are truly many splendoured.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, which Logan appreciated mightilly.   Everyone else languished in bed untill the sun had pottered off to be replaced by a constant mizzle and mist interspersed with occasional bursts of full-on, lashing-it-down rain.
On an early-morning trip to clear his bowels Logan had dsicovered a series of well worn paths not much higher up the mountainside, so we take one of those routes up the mountainside.  A few minutes in, at a paticularly spectacular view, I note that we've all left our cameras at the camp and wonder whether we should head back and get them.  The collective decision is to keep moving.  What fools we are!
We cross a burn and trudge over pastureland in the persistent mist and mizzle, an experience a little like wandering through a cloud full of cows.  After a few hours the rain grows heavier and we picnic beneath a large slanting boulder for shelter.  The rain still sheeting down, and visibility increasingly low through the fog, we decide to head back to camp.
We return to camp to find that a good deal of small but valuable stuff has been nicked; including cameras, an ipod, mobile phone, a tent bag and, intriguingly, a bag of haribo sweets.  Much swearing ensues.
By this time the ground is a great slurry of mud, but our alcohol supplies were all consumed the previous night, and this kind of bad news needs to be washed away with a bevvy or three, so  me and Iain splodge off on the 2 and a bit hour round trip in search of beer, returning with dusk at our footsteps laden with 9 litres of Kyrgyzstan's very own (bloody awful) beer наше пиво (tip: drink арпа instead, it's miles better)
We arrive in high spirits to find that Logan's tent has flooded and the fire is completely unlightable.  Buggar and indeed buggaration.
Not to be deterred, we decamp to the party tent to feast on a creative mix of raw fruit and veg formed into a four-course menu by some mysterious alchemy of Katie's doing.  The night wended away nicely with beer aplenty, a four second trivia game (once again dredged from the depths of quizmaster Iain's imagination),  plus a hearty second rendition of The Northwest Passage.  The evening was further enlivened by Logan's phone ringing (the reception in the wilderness was surprisingly bloody good).  Who was our mystery caller?  It was the bounder who stole our stuff ringing us to show off his English.  This extended to repeating 'Hello, I am Ulanbek' several times and giggling. 

                                    What a total nobjockey!

And so, the next morning, we made our way back down to the car park and took a taxi back to Bishkek, stopping at the roadside to buy a bottle of fresh kumyz, a traditional Krygyz drink made from fermented mare's milk. 

So, there you have it.  The tale of London School's initiation into the wonderful world of couchsurfing.  In the coming weeks we have at least three more couchsurfers staying, including the return of the legendary Max Bishkek, fresh from his month's volunteering as an English teacher down in Osh.   He will be spending his final days in Kyrgyzstan before returning to normalcy and his dayjob in the Big Smoke that is London, in the guise of a humble couchsurfer.  Stay tuned for the next thrilling instalment of the Bishkek saga.