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.

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