Sunday, 11 September 2011

До тех пор, и спасибо за все баранины (So long and thanks for all the mutton)

So this is the end...the last hurrah. the tale of my final days (for now) in the Kyrgyz Republic.
It's been an insane, jumbled, eye-opening, belly-building, gratifying and intense experience.  I leave Kyrgystan a far better informed individual with a re-drawn mental map of the world. 
My last few weeks in the country consisted in me cramming in as many of the many things I loved about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan as I could, so there was plenty of meat on a skewer and beer in chilled glasses at the railside shashlyk jount, a certain amount of cocktails on the 13th floor looking down over the city at 12bar, numerous strolls down Bishkek's many leafy boulevards and park areas and my leaving do, where we rocked the full Bishkek Korean experience.
To this end, a great (I was taken aback how many actually, thanks all) swathe of Brits and Aussies and 'Mericans and Kyrgyz and Russkies gathered at a Korean place over at vostok pyat to munch beebembap and bulgogi and lashings and lashings of rice (but not pudding).

Many merrymakers
I was showered with presents, including a traditional kyrgyz jaw harp and, from Ana, the bunny ears that caused her to so impress me in this episode.

I think you'll agree I look rather fetching...What do you mean it reminds you of Donnie Darko!

Next up, off to the karaoke (or should I say Noraebang).   The PA wasn't properly set up in our private room, but the set up time was the perfect excuse for me and Alec Forss to belt out an a cappella version of The North West Passage for one last time.

Fuck a beat, we go acapella
Technical issues dealt with, the night settles into good solid karoake.  A mishmash of tunes from the inspired to the insane, often out of tune, rarely in time, sometimes with the right lyrics, sometimes in the right language.  A particular highlight was Dan's deadpan, Merseyside tinged version of 'Forgot about Dre'.  After all, everybody knows that hip-hop originated in Birkenhead.

Balls Deep Mahoney and The Big Ian performing a jaunty rendition of Electric Six's popular dittie 'Gay Bar'
And then came the leaving speech, which involved Dan unravelling a giant roll of toilet paper covered in a litany of the many and varied nicknames I have acquired in my time in Bishkek (plus a few new gems that Dan had coined especially for the occasion).

Leaving do done I hopped on a plane back home..............................................................

No, wait, hold on, that can't be the end.  There hasn't been any spurious cultural comment or observation to counterbalance the druken revelry yet.  
Fortunately, I didn't follow tradition and leave after my leaving do.  Oh no, I didn't even stay to the end of my own leaving do.  At 2am, me and Miranda said our goodbyes and hopped into a taxi to take the overnight ride to Karakol to catch a day of traditional Kyrgyz horsegames.
After a quick nose at Karakol's Russian Orthodox Church, we took a bus provided by CBT from Karakol up to a couple of yurts on a mountainside, to be greeted by a band playing traditional Kyrgyz music (beautiful) and a plethora of tourists who wouldn't shut up throughout the performance (damned annoying).

We were then invited to join in with the erecting of a yurt.  If this experience taught me one thing it is that many Kyrgyz people are good at erecting yurts, but most foriegn tourists are bloody terrible at it.

Tourists using our well-honed skiills to set up a yurt
A Kyrgyz gent sorting out the mess our well-honed skills have made of it

There then followed a display of traditional Kyrgyz eagle hunting.  I have no intention of saying anything about this on the basis that you can find far more engaging and informed commentary on the topic at the excelent Keen on Kyrgyzstan blog than I could ever hope to write.

And so...On to the games!
The first game, Ulak Tartysh, is a little bit like football; except very violent, played on horseback and the ball is a decapitated goat.  Actually, come to think of it, it's not very much like football at all.

It's a hell of a thing to witness, but certainly not for the faint hearted (those cantering horses get damned close to the crowd) or the weak stomached (watching the goat being slaughtered is part of the attraction.

The next game, Kyz Kumnai, involves a guy on a horse chasing after a girl on a horse with a whip. The guy tries to catch the girl and kiss her and the girl tries to whip the boy so he can't catch her.  Once the guy has kissed the girl, he runs the hell away and she (suddenly enthusiastic) tries to chase after him and catch him.  Now if that's not the perfect metaphor for the traditional course of male-female relations I don't know what is.
The final game was Oodarysh, or horse wrestling; which is exactly what it says on the tin.  Two guys on horseback try and wrestle each other off their respective horses.   So simple it's genius.

Traditional games done (big tick) and on to the next hastily crammed-in cultural experience...the obligatory Central Asian yurt stay.
So we hop on a marshrutka down to a yurt camp near Bokonbaaev on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul (incidentally as 'kul' is Kyrgyz for lake, calling it Lake Issyk-Kul is a little bit like calling an Italian resaurant The La Trattoria).  The yurt was down by the lakeside and after a comfortable night's sleep we awoke to some of the most beautiful views I have seen in Kyrgzstan.
Unfortunately, Miranda's camera ran out of batteries before we went to bed, so we only have an image of the yurt in the stygian gloom of night (I curse you Ulanbek).

Our yurt (on the right) in the gathering gloom of nightfall
And so, like the boy who cried wolf, having inundated you with photos of Bishkek and told you repeatedly how beautiful the Kyrgyz countryside is, I once again (see my trip to Ala Medin through the Ulanbek link above) have to describe without visual backup the gloriousness of the Kyrgyz countryside.  We hired a guide to take us on a day's horsetrek up thorugh the surrounding mountains with vistas of lake, pasture, farmland, scrub and mountainside all jumbled and intermixed into one picture like the overactive imagination of a feverish six year old.  The effect is glorious and intoxicating. 
At the end of the trek, our guide invites us in for chai and lepyoshka, shows us around his smallholding and feeds us fresh apricots from the garden.
The guy who organises the horsetreks in the area (who by a marvellous coincidence has a name pronounced 'jockey') takes us to pick up our stuff from the yurt camp and then drives us to the marshrutka rank in Bokonbaev town.
Halfway to town Jockey receives a phonecall and we stop unexpectudly at the roadside.   He explains that our guide for the day wants to go to town as well and would we mind waiting a moment for him.   We say no problem.  We wait,  A few minutes later our man gallops into view at full pelt. parks his horse in a convenient parking spot, tethers it up and hops in.
And then a Marshrutka back to Bishkek and the final preperations for leaving.  After a final meal at the Georgian restaurant (spicy, stewy yum) I take a taxi to the airport ready to catch my flight back to the UK....

...or so I thought.. I arrive at Manas Airport with some 6 hours to kill just sitting around.  However, I am determined that I won't fall asleep, definitely not, I'm going to stay awake, sleep will not happen, fall asleep, not...awake, won't, asleep, awake, sleep, going....sleep....
And I jerk awake to find that I've dozed off for a few hours.   It's 5am though, still plenty of time.
I wander over to check the situation and find that the flight has been delayed a little.  By a bloody day, 24 of them hours.   So I get a taxi back to Bishkek and turn up in the early morn on the doorstep of Miranda, Eve and Dirk throwing my shouldn't-you-have-left-the-continent self on the mercy of their charity.
An extremely pleasant final day of pottering around the sunny Bishkek streets and saying my last goodbyes (again) later and finally I board the plane back home to the U of K

And so Goodbye to Bishkek, to Kyrgyzstan.  Goodbye to Lagman and police shakedowns, to komuz and kumyz, to shashlyk and ice cold beer by the railway lines, goodbye to London School, to wednesday night poker sessions, to kalpaks and kurdak, to The Lake Issyk-Kul's azure shores, to majestic mountains and vast bazaars; and to more fine people than I could possibly mention. 

So long Kyrgyzstan and thanks for all the mutton.

Credit for the photographs in this blog article must go to Miranda Phua and Daniel Mahony, thank you both.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Lake Issyk-Kul (A weekend in Cholpon-Ata)

                              <<Have you been in our Issyk-Kul?>>

With the exception of the gold standard; ‘What the hell have you come to Kyrgyzstan for?’ query, this is the most common question asked by locals to foreigners visiting or coming to live in Kyrgyzstan.  Lake Issyk-Kul has (since their arrival in the area around about the 14th century) become the spiritual home of the Kyrgyz people and is their pride and joy.
And indeed they have much to boast about; with a length of
182 kilometres (113 miles), a width of up to 60 kilometres (37 miles), and covering an area of 6,236 square kilometres (2,408 sq mi); it's the tenth largest lake in the world, the s
econd largest mountain lake after Lake Titicaca in South America and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.
Located in the north-east of the country, perched between the stately peaks of the Teskey Ala Too range in the south and the Kungey Ala-Too range in the north (both offshoots of the great Tien-Shan mountains); its name,
Ысык – Көл, means ‘hot lake’; referring not to the waters' balmy temperature (I can assure you) but to the fact that even though it’s at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft)
in the middle of a bloody great load of mountains, it never freezes, not even in the depths of winter.
Since Soviet times, it's been a popular seaside holiday destination (or as seaside as you can get in a landlocked country) and during the summer it seems like the entire population of Kyrgyzstan decamps to its azure and highly culturally-charged shores.  With this in mind I've been holding off going to visit until the weather improved to the point when I could get the typical Issyk-Kul experience (I even looked the other way on the bus rides to and from Karakol so I wouldn't see the lake...yes, I am indeed that sad).
But summer is getting into full swing now, and what better location to expeience the typical Issyk-kul from than its most popular resort; Cholpon-Ata.    
And so at the end of a weary week, myself, Dan and The Big Ian dusted off our workday cobwebs, grabbed a bite to eat at the Vefa Centre and then hopped a cab for the 5 hour drive to Cholpon-Ata.
Except it did not take 5 hours, no nor 4 neither, nor 4 neither.  In fact it took a little over three hours.  Why was this, I hear you ask? (is it you, my dearest reader?  Or is that the voices in my head?   Nevermind, its all much of a muchness).  The answer was that the taxi-driver turned out to have a Michael-Schumacher complex and drove like a fecking lunatic.  Still, we arrived all in one piece, just after 1am, in time for a few bevvies with those of the advanced guard who were still awake (i.e. Rhys and Eve).

So, who was the company, all told, and what was our purpose at Issyk-Kul's sacred shoreline.  Our party was 8 in total; The Big Ian (veterean tefler, Edinburgh born, ironist, sometime philosopher, man of many wisdoms), Dan (Merseysider, speaker of outrageous wrynessess, pathological nickname creator), Cole (soft spoken Oregan gent, dryly humourous, sometimes too generous for his own good), his fine fiancé Кызжыбек (pron. something like Koozj'bek) an affable and petite Kyrgyz lady, Eve (sharp tongued Massachusett, fond of the telling of jokes and of rambling, nonsequitous anecdotes), Miranda (a recently-arrived Melbournite, maker of gentle acoustic guitar pluckery, talker in tangents, currently saving the world one borrower at a time through the mystical art of microfinance), Rhys (an understated Canadian who, recklessly fanning the flames of stereotype, used to work at an ice-hockey rink) and your (relatively) humble narrator.  Our stated aim was twofold, to thoroughly relax body and mind, and to celebrate Cole's last weekend in Kyrgyzstan before his return to the States.   
And now, the company and its purpose introduced, it's time for bed... 

The next morning we rose and shone for a breakfast of tea, freshly made pancakes (courtesy of Cole, fine gent that he is) and laid-back acoustic guitar accompaniment (courtesy of Miranda, Cole and myself)  

Stomachs sated, we made our way down to the beach.  There's something unnervingly surreal about seeing a typical beachfront resort in a country about as far away from the sea as you can possibly get,  But Cholpon-Ata has the typical trimmings, complete with people selling ice-creams and candy floss//fairy floss/cotton candy (plus dried fish, savoury pastries and beer), big beach parasols, slides and diving boards, giant gerbil balls you can trundle across the water in, parasailing and one particularly disgruntled-looking camel giving rides to kids along the longsands. 

- Cholpon Ata's Camel -
With all the charm, amiability and job satisfaction one would expect from a worker in the tourist industry

Parasailing - looks like much fun.  Unfortunately, I'd forgotten the thing
that holds my glasses on so I couldn't bloody do it.  Grrrr!
(shakes fist in impotent frustration at own damn stupidity!)

We got set up with a parasol, found a choice spot on the beach and then headed in for a dip.  The water is bracing but refreshing (it's got nowt on swimming in the North Sea) and not overly salty, approximately 0.6% salinity compared to 3.5% for average seawater, so it doesn’t give you that familiar seaside feeling of your eyes stinging as if a jellyfish has crawled into them and invited all his friends along for a big party.   It does, however, provide a gentle, bobbing, buoyancy.  This buoyancy might be one reason to explain how, despite spending every summer bumming around at a beach resort, none of the people in Kyrgyzstan can actually bloody swim.

Kyrgyzstan's entry for the Turner Prize

For lunch, I decided to opt for the generally lauded choice of beer and dried fish.  Now, bear in mind that  not a morsel of fish had crossed my lips in almost a year, and I love seafood.  The result was a display of barely restrained savagery for which the word 'devour' only begins to cover. 

After we'd popped back to our lodge for a wee siesta, we made our way out to the petroglyphs that lie to the north of the town.

A relaxing evening stroll to go see some ancient stuff

We found a large, open-air site with about 2000 or so petroglyph in various states of clarity and fade-age, dating from 800 BC to 1200AD. 
The word Petroglyph comes from the Greek words Petro ‘rock’ and Glyphein ‘carve’, and refers to images carved or incised into a rock (not to be confused with a Pictogram where the image is painted onto the rock)

The Cholpon-Ata petroglyphs are widely spread around a several hectare site, which also includes a number of stone circles and burial chambers.  Many of the stones depict animals, particularly ibex, goats, wolves and horses.  A number of the stones depict hunting scenes in which hunters on horseback are hunting with the assistance of tame snow-leopords (which is, quite frankly, pretty damn bad-ass).

Rock and Rhys

Another common image on the stones is that of the sun, and this, along with the south-east/south-west orientation of many of the stones and stone circles, has led a number of archaeologists to postulate that this used to be a large open-air temple dedicated to the worship of the sun.  A lot of the glyphs have suffered from the effects of weathering and also a little bit of more modern petroglyph work (mostly people’s names scrawled in a strong, clear cyrillic hand).  Nevertheless, a fair number of impressively well preserved examples remain and it provided an extremely interesting hour or so's wander.

But, as always seems to be the case in this blog, every cultural insight must be paid for with a drunken revel and so, after an incredibly tasty tea of fresh, sizzling hot trout on a platter, we made our way down to the beachfront armed with a plentiful supply of beer and fizzy wine.
The champagne, direct from the champagne region of Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan/Moldova (I'm not quite sure which), was provided courtesy of The Big Ian and turned out to be for the purpose of toasting his 35th birthday, the fact of which he'd been keeping under close wraps all day, the sly dog.  So we all drank a toast to his good health, and he extolled his hopes for the second half of his life.  These ran as follows:

              1) to gain respect
              2) to have some of them bairns (that's children to the uninitiated)
and         3) not to become a hope-bereft, washed-out, lecherous, old drunkard
                  wandering vaguely from country to country because he's too socially
                  inept to survive in his half-recalled homeland, sipping vodka and
                  coke from a colourful plastic cup during lessons he no longer has any
                  enthusiasm to give, to an endless treadmill of students, ever-changing
                  but always the same, for whom he is at best utter indifferent,
                  schlepping his way through a series of trainwreck relationships
                  with a thickly-made-up procession of initally enthusiastic but
                  switly dissilusioned, nubile, young golddiggers.
                  This is the great fear and potential fate of all long-term

The Big Ian divvying up the bubbly

As his pièce de résistance, Ian whipped out the by now legendary Admiral Ackbar mask for a photo opp.

Return of the Ackbar
After a while Miranda, being sensible, decided to lay her head down and have a snooze, the rest of us, not being sensible decided up and polish of a large quanitty of beer and shoot the shit into the wee small hours.
And so, the next day dawned, as dull and heavy as our hangovers  Overcast. windy and gloomy,  our enthusiasm for the beach lasted barely an hour.  A quick meal in a cafe with waitresses as speedy and enthusiastic and mathematically acute as the Cholpon-Ata Camel later and I was in a marshrutka heading back to Bishkek, with Miranda introducing me to the wonders of Aussie hip-hop.  And what finer end to a fine weekend at the lakeside could there be than that.

A hearty thank you must again go out to master Dan Mahony for allowing me to use his fine photographs. 

Sunday, 12 June 2011

A Moment of Reflection

Today you find me in reflective mood, contemplating what the the future might hold for Central Asia and Krgyzystan in particular.  So you'll find a want of  tawdry tales of drunken debauchary, surreal occurences, comic goings on, off the cuff quips and self-deprecating comedy rambles in today's blog.  Today shall be a serious taking of stock, a heartfelt analysis of what the future might hold for my sometime country of residence.
Good, so now that I've scared off the vast majority of my readership (if I'd thrown in a handful of facts and figures into the opening paragraph I might have got rid of you all) lets get contemplative.
For I confess that over my residency I have grown to care for this country and its peoples, with all its problems, idiosyncracies and occasionally just damned illogical opinions.
So, what does the future hold?  Well, though I confess my opinions probably don't ammount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, here is my tenpenn'orth worth. 
The main problem/danger/stumbling block to progress (call it what you will) that most people here can identify clearly enough, but everyone plays along with whilst at the same time bemoaning, is that of corruption.  Bribery, cheating, backhanders, nepotism, a bit more cheating, cronyism and the whole unmarked brown envelopes stuffed with unmarked, non-sequential bills rot of it all is so endemic, so normalised, that it will take some serious political will (which is decidedly lacking) and a major seachange in attitudes to even begin to make a change.  As a partially sighted person, noone in their right minds would allow me behind the wheel or a car, but I've been told in all seriousness that with a few crisp bills in the right pocket I could be driving the streets, fully licensed before the week is out.  A good friend of mine recently took a series of  finance exams and presented a thesis, but not as herself, in the role of a friend of hers who is away working in bloddy Moscow.  My friend didn't even study finance herself, but this is all seen as normal.  Lord knows, the ex-president was so corrupt he happily sold of chunks of his own country to neighbouring regimes in order to line his own pocket.   Want a degree?  Driving licence?  To have a day out hunting endangered species with your pals?  Handy Kyrgyz Passport?  Murder someone and have it discreetly hushed up?  All achievable to a man with the right contacts and deep enough pockets. 
Another major problem for Kyrgyzstan is a paucity of natrual resources.  Although there's a few companies rooting around in the mountains for minerals of one sort or another, it has nothing like the oil reserves that are currently making Kazakhstan one of the best loved, most befriended authoritarian regimes on earth. 
And thirdly, and tellingly, ethnic tensions are still very much present, particularly in the south.  The ethnic Russians are still leaving in large numbers (indeed, there is a general brain drain of the well educated out of Kyrgyzstan), and the bitterness between Kyrgyz and Uzbek in the aftermath of the riots in Osh last year is palpable (read my old colleague Max Bishkek's Guardian article about his interviews with victims of the violence to get an idea of the extent of the emnity).
So, the problems are clear...but where are the opportunities. 
Well I can see two big opportunities.  The first is in tourism, most specifically adventrue tourism.  There's huge, still largely untapped, potential to develop skiing (both on piste and cross country), horse trekking, climbing and gorge scrambling, hill walking and mountaneering, rafting and kayaking and any number of other outdoor pursuits.  The key to achieving this is simple, investment.  And investment will come if political stability is maintained (there's a Catch 22 here pretty clear to see). 
The second opportunity is water.  Kyrgyzstan has a pretty abundant supply of water, meltwater from the mountains mostly, in a fairly arid region that is still trying to grow water intensive crops like cotton.  This resource is likely to become increasingly impotant in the coming years (have a look at this for an informed point of view about why). 
So there you go, my pontifications, for what they're worth. 
King Charles is on his way back through this coming weekend and there are a number of leaving do's coming up, so no doubt it'll be back to tales of drunken debauchary soon enough.

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.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Of Earthquakes, Opera and Hiking in Sary Chelek

Wanderers in a white land
I feel a judder and then a sensation of motion somewhat akin to being a bit squiffy after one too many glasses of pimms    What has occured?  Is it the lumbering passing of a convoy of trucks along Sovietskaya road below?  No, I have just eperienced my first earthquake, a little brother to the hiedous behemoth which devestated Japan mere days before.  And it is, frankly, a little underwhelming.  Though this does not stop it spooking a few of my students, who inform me, 'this is not a good building to be in.'.  Hhhm, not reassuring news.  But then Iskender (a pleasure to have in the classroom and incidentally a big Chris Rea fan) breaks into a rousing chorus of Bobby McFerin's Don't Worry (Be Happy) and this inexplicably calms everyone down.

- / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - / - \ - \ - / - / - \ - / - \ - / -
I feel a judder and then a sensation of motion somewhat akin to being a bit squiffy after one too many glasses of pimms     What has occured?   I've fallen face first into a two foot drift of snow.  That's what's happened.  I've been carearing around in this, disoriented, cod-inebriated  fashion for a good hour now, staggering along behind the rest of the group with my balance all shot to hell.
Perhaps we should backtrack a little.  The trip during which I am tripping is to the mountain lakes of Sary Chelek Biosphere Reserve.  The planning for this trip was extensive, essentially consisting of a phone call to CBT Kyrgyzstan where we were told it was madness to go trekking in Sary Chelek this time of year, that treks there didn't start til May and we'd be damn fools to attempt it.  A phonecall to another rep, who may have been a bit tipsy and suicidally bored at the time, gave a slightly different opinion:

                    <<Come over, it'll be fine!>>

So we headed to a map shop tucked round the corner of the Kyrgyz cartographic institure and clearly signposted with an A4 piece of paper saying 'Maps in English', and purchased a map of Jalal-Abad province in glorious technicolour...

We head eastwords across the plain, traversing the wasteland of Gorgoroth to the very foot of Mt. Doom
Over Gerorgian food (an extremely tasty, spicy stew type cuisne that I'd never encountered before) that night we (we being Dillon 'D-Solid' Cases, my fine co-northeasterner Stuart Colquhan and the newly arrived in town Alec Forss) arrange to meet at 7:30am the following day and get set off nice and early.
I wake up sharpish next morning, brush my teeth, check I've got everything in my backpack.  The doorball rings.  It''s Alec arriving to inform me that although he had brought everything necessary for backpacking with him to Kyrgyzstan, he'd unfortunately forgot to bring a beckpack to put them in, so was going to have to regretfully bow out of this one.
Undettered, I wend my way to the rendezvous point; Stuart and D-Solid's fine abode.  I arrive at the flat at 7:30am prompt; the door is opened by a bleary-eyed, pyjama-d Dillon.  He is not packed and has emails he needs to send.  On the sofa lies a crashed-out Stewart, sporting a sign which says:

                                <<Wake me immediately!>>

This instruction being carried out, he precedes to open his eyes, gaze around and begin swearing volubly, this toxic stream of obscenity carries on unabbated for about an hour.  It transpires that he's been drinking all night, got stuck in the middle of a heated row for which he spent several hours playing peacemaker, and has had approximatley an hour and half's sleep
After a few hours of variously frantic and lackadaisical packing we head off to get essential supplies.  These essentials include oranges (bloody expensive), sausages, goose liver paté and vodka. 
Stuart has realised he's forgetten to bring a hat and gloves, so we stop of at Osh bazaar, which is where we need to go to get taxis anyway.    He disappears into the densely packed throng of stalls while me and D-Solid provide idle amusement to a few pre-pubescent bazaar kids who know two words in English and aren't afraid to use them...repeatedly, repetetively, seemingly endlessly.  After half and hour, Stuart has not returned and we are beginning to get a wee bit concerned.  Five minutes later, he appears with not a glove to be spoken of, with a hat that merely says 'ATTACK' in large letters on it and is a few sizes too small and informs us he has been shaken-down by the police and they've been practising their sleight of hand by slyly pocketing 500 som.
Slightly, but not unduly, deterred we hop a taxi to take us to a the village of Kara Jigatch, where our homestay man is due to pick us up and deliver us to our evenings rest.  It;s a considerable journey and we stop off at a pitstop cafe on the way, where I engage in a fine lagman (a Central Asian dish of thick noodle stew), Stuart has a fine roast chicken and D-Solid ends up with what could best be described as a lump of slightly dried-out spam.

D-Solid, master of concealment
At nightfall, we approach Kara Jigatch.  But something is awry.  Our man is nowhere to be seen, the light is switfly vanishiing, his mobile is swtiched off, we are stood next to a billiard hall and surrounded by boozed up Kyrgyz fellas, a phone call to our man's house confirms his wife doesn't have a damn clue where he is either.  In desparation, we get a taxi to the homestay, and by taxi I mean a beaten-up old banger driven by two drunk Kyrgyz twenty somethings.  They laugh, burst into song, stop to talk to friends, veer erratically around the road; the chance of us getting mugged in the dark, far away from any kind of assistance, seems high.  We are now quite considerably deterred.
But all is well, we arrive and the worries and weariness of our long journey is soothed with broth, bread and steaming hot tea.
Next morning we meet our guide, a becapped and wellington-booted gentlemen called Juma, in the further end of his middle age.  He  tips us a nod, and we wander out of the village up into the mountains
Heading Off
We pass a few little farmsteads and hamlets, some livestock and some bemused cows
Some Bemused Cows
The initial going is not too bad, some inclines but not too steep, some log bridges to cross over streams, a few little fordlets to wade through but generallly nothing too strenuous...

A gnarly old tree - Gnarly!
But then we reach the snow and my coordination goes haywire.   In places two feet deep, every step felt like 10 steps on normal ground, feet sunk into the snow, the tent kept falling off my backpack and I was swaying like an uncoordinated drunk with a wooden leg.  The fact that my other companions, including a man at least a quarter century older than I, seemed to be making light work of it, made me feel like a hobbit struggling up Caradhras whilst Legolas the elf lightfoots it effortlessly over the top of the snow.
As night fell, we were still some 40 minutes short of our chosen destination, but decided to camp by a smaller lake
We set up camp and Juma lit a small fire, whipped out a cooking pot and proceeded to whip-up the kind of stodgy, filling, carb-heavy magic that you need after a hard days trekking.

Dog tired, we roll into bed.  Just as I am beginning to drift off into the realms of the unawake, the rain starts. It proceeds to rain (or snow, or sleat) solidly all night.  At 4am, we awake to find the outer tent area flooded, and our shoes and bags sopping wet.  Buggar!
Morning dawned, crisp and clear, but we ignored it completely and slept on through til 11:30.  When we finally dragged ourselves out of our pit, it was to discover that Juma had miraculously managed to get a good fire going with wet-through, green wood and was warming up some чай (chai = tea).  We also got a good look at the stunning frozen lake we'd glimpsed in the half light; great concentric circles of different thicknesses of ice created swirling patterns over the lake and there was one end where the lake was not frozen, where the water formed a shape that could best be described as a touch phallic

The willy-shaped water
Juma whiled away the breakfast by whittling me a walking cane to try and counterbalance my total inability to stay upright.
We trekked the 40 minutes to the main lake, a stunning great alpine vista of snow-capped mountains and denuded trees still far short of springs first budding.
We sat for some time by the lakeside musing on the transient nature of travelling life.  D. Solid explained to us  his theory that keeping relationships going had been made more complex in the last fifty years or so by two factors; globalisation and feminism.  It is an itriguing theory, which probably has a fair ammount of truth in it, but as he pointed out, more complex doesn't necessarilly mean worse.   We learn from Stuart that one of the former London School teachers, who had a fling with a German girl while living in Bishkek, had just moved to Munich to be with her, having kept contact through a good few of months of him living back in the states.  More difficult indeed, but not impssible.

Stuart Colquhuan - Gentleman Adventurer
Myself - doing that smiling, posing, nonsense
Having taken our heady fill of intelectual debate and emotional ramblings, we equalised the mood somewhat by throwing stones at the lake and prodding it with a big stick.  That done, we took our leave of the grandeur and trundled back to camp.


The rest of the day past by with us trying, with fairly limited success, to keep a fire going that Juma had begun and perfected with seeming ease before wandering off to prep the tea.  The evening saw us curled up in the bloody-chilly confines of our tent (thanks for the hot-water bottle mum, you are a lifesaver) playing a game of Texas Hold 'em Poker by the light of a single mobile phone. 
Keeping the home fires burning (just)
The walk back down was a much more gentle affair, with rolling slopes rather than steep inclines, which all went well until I got cramp and shooting pains in my right foot, causing me to exclame every few hobbled steps, like some half-mad, invalid, drill sergeant

Wild Garlic growing by the wayside
                                                                                       We stopped on the way to pick some wild garlic that Juma pointed out on the roadside. The stinging, allium, tartness of the leaves was a great pleasure to taste and D-Solid and Stuart gathered a loud with the intention of making wild garlic soup on their return.


Gathering Wild Garlic

Our return leg was no less eventful.  We accepted a sum of 5500 som to take us back to Bishkek, from a village guy who clearly didn't want to go all the way.  Stuart's lack of haggling incensed D-Solid, but I was inclined to be on Stuart's side, we could afford it and this was just some poor village fellow who couldn't afford any extravagances, only essentials.  When we discovered that his 80s monstrosity of a car had tinted windows and a souped up sound system complete with dayglo tweeters and big-ass subwoofers, I felt less positively inclined.  We reached the crossroads town of Tosh Komur and he had a quick chat with another taxi driver who agreed to take us back the rest of the way for the agreed sum.  No rats were sniffed until a moment before the guy sped off, when Stuart jumped out to check the details.  Too late the cry went out!  The guy was no more than a cloud of dust and a burst of dopler-effected Kyrgyz dance music toss.   We had been jipped for a thousand som.  We ended up paying the same ammount, but had to share the taxi with an extra passenger.  Curses were laid on the double dealing swine, the taxi driver was amused at our naivity.  In fact, amused turned out to be his default setting and the rest of the journey back was highly convivial.  That is until, about twenty minutes outside of Bishkek, a chunk of the back of the car fell of with a resounding screach and thud.  We pulled over to the roadside, a cloth was laid on the ground, and the driver borrowed my walking stick to knock the still half-attached lump of vehicle onto the ground and deposited it in the boot (Americans read 'trunk'). Crisis averted, we made our way back to our homes and warm beds, or in my case made my way back to Anton's Bar for a few bevvies.

In other shamelessly unrelated news crudely tagged on the end, I had my first operatic experience in the form of a ticket costing the princely sum of £2.80 to go and see La Traviatta at the Opera and Ballet Theatre.  It was a real pleasure, the opulence of the setting not entirely met by some of the male leads reedy voices. and the chorus being sung in Russian while the leads warbled away in Italian took a bit to get used to.  But the Prima Donna had a cracking voice and the music was stirring and powerful.  I have not the slighest clue how they could be breaking even with the event, as their were four extravagent sets and not that many more people in the audience than were onstage, but it was a ine evening.

So, mountains, mishaps, earthquakes and opera have been the flavours of my last few weeks.