Yes at the age of forty-two, I was finally married – in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan! I have known my wife Asel – the name means ‘sweet’- for over a year now, having met her on the internet, and have visited this beautiful and rugged country four times.
Asel comes from a large and traditional Kyrgyz family and I have seen and done many strange things on my long journey to woo her. Fortunately I was well equipped for this, having travelled to most of Europe, Turkey, Brazil, Gambia and Egypt in my life, usually on my own, and often on the cheap. I visited Egypt when I was only nineteen, on my own, and I roughed it. Boy, did I rough it! My experiences included being mugged in a youth hostel, and staying in the Oxford Pension – listed by Fodor’s as the ‘Notorious Dive of the 60s. Two of its ‘permanent’ residents, Frenchmen, were pursuing a dubious career brewing Marihuana Tea, made from leaves hauled up in carrier bags from the street. Their room was a factory, equipped with rows of tripods, burners and bottles, and, to the psychedelic sounds coming out of their huge ghetto blaster, they manufactured their brew. In a timeless stupor, the two danced around the tools of their trade, dressed only in loin cloths, their waist length dark hair dancing manic patterns to the music. This was 1982, the year after President Sadat’s assassination.
I was well equipped to deal with anything the Kyrgyz people could throw at me, or so I thought. I first arrived at Bishkek’s Manas airport at 4 a.m. on an icy cold December day. The small 3-engined Tupolev jet, used by Aeroflot between Moscow and Bishkek, had amused me. Its 1960s wood panelling, with only one ‘engaged’ sign and one ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign, right at the front, smelled vaguely of babies and perhaps a lingering memory of 60s airline food. I had also been amused, and slightly wary, of the many soldiers with fierce Asian faces, wearing typical high-peaked Soviet caps. Customs went fairly smoothly, and then I was through, and there was Asel, looking just like the pictures. I was off to a good start. As we drove in the taxi towards the city, I looked in astonishment at the fairy tail fir trees lining the wide, snow-ridged road.
The first thing you notice about Biskek, is the weather. The locals call it Sun Town and believe me, even in the depths of winter, you rarely see a cloud. There is also rarely any wind – even a twig moving is unusual – and it rained once in a month. I arrived at the flat that we were to share, and a host of Asel’s friends greeted me with the biggest breakfast spread I have ever seen. A fourteen foot table was completely covered in various dishes, all for me! Of course there was no way I could eat much of it, but I did my best. Kyrgyz hospitality is legendary, and whenever a guest arrives, the fridge will always be emptied. The rest of day 1 was spent relaxing and doing a little light shopping. Asel felt that my quilted jacket was inadequate and persuaded me to buy a wool lined overcoat and wool lined boots – fashionably pointy-toed.
I awoke the next day and peering through the curtains, I was surprised to see an idyllic scene of snow and fir trees, there, in the centre of the city. In the afternoon we set off by taxi to visit the Ala-Too mountain range, and the old Mercedes taxi ground and skidded its way ever higher into the snowy wilderness, until we reached a lofty village. I was shown a Yurt – a traditional dwelling constructed of an extending, lattice wooden frame, covered with animal furs or canvas, and beautifully decorated inside, with many richly woven carpets and wall-hangings. Some, like this, are erected in people’s back yards, so that they can use them in the summer, but retire to a modern dwelling when the weather turns colder. We moved on, further up into the mountains until, struggling, the taxi finally reached the sanctuary of a car park, guarded by solders. This was the Stalin Memorial, or more correctly, a memorial to the many thousands of Kyrgyz people killed in the purges of the 1930s and 40s. Approximately half-million Kyrgyz people are thought to have been slaughtered, and many more left to rot in Gulags. Considering that the population now is only some 4.5 million people and was then much less, this must have wiped out nearly half the population. The most poignant part of the memorial is a straight path leading to a precipice, over which is suspended, in a simple frame, a large bronze bell with a rope. Anybody who visits the memorial is invited to ring the bell, whose sound failed to echo off the snowy blanket that covered the landscape when I rang it. We skidded and slid solemnly back to Bishkek, following a military truck, filled with a squad of curious soldiers.
Within days, I was carted off to meet Asel’s uncle, and his family, in his large house. I had seen pictures of this imposing man – broad shouldered, with glasses perched on a wide and open face. His large hand clasped mine as I uttered the solemn ‘Salaam Alaikum’ and we sat down to eat. Kyrgyz people have many particular customs which must be observed. One never wears shoes indoors, a man must always keep his nails clipped very short when meeting other men for the first time, and one must never whistle indoors. I violated two of these, several times and was severely berated! My nails had been clipped at the last minute so, fortunately, this meeting went alright. I eagerly ate the many pasta dishes, lamgman, manty and chon-tash, and drank the Kumys – fermented mares milk. This seemed to go down well and the whole family waved and smiled when we left.
A few days later we visited the ski resort of Norouz. The journey there was the most exciting part of the day. Asel is a good driver and her uncle let her drive the ubiquitous Niva – the most common, and popular 4×4 in Kyrgyzstan – actually a Lada. We must have missed a turning somewhere, and soon we were bumping over rough country tracks, on our way up into the mountains. At many points we seemed to be crossing open fields, and then at other times we would reach a narrow bridge, only to find that the road was so snow-rutted, that it was simply too dangerous to cross. We stopped and asked locals for directions, and eventually we picked up what must have been the main route. There were countless Audis and Mercedes, which had slipped into the gulleys on either side of the road, and were waiting for the tractors, based at Norouz, to come and haul them out. We smuggly ground our way up into the foothills, as the road grew ever steeper, and the cars fewer. It seemed like some strange game ï¿½ ‘how far up the slope can you get your car’ – and all the high scorers were lying by the road.
Only a few hundred metres below the incredible steep finishing-line, we finally succumbed, and the poor Niva slid gracefully into the gulley on the right. There was a 15-foot drop so it was lucky that the little vehicle gripped the snow enough, with the hand-brake on, to keep us suspended above this. We tried to push it out, and I got several mouthfulls of snow, but eventually we had to admit defeat, and waited for the tractor to get round to us. I was amazed that even up here, there were a few heroic BMWs and Mercedes. When we reached the car park, we opened up the boot and had a stand-up picnic before setting off for the slopes. It was really busy – the kids had taken all the skis – so we took toboggans, and made our own fun on the beginner’s slope. I ended the day pushing fathers-and-daughter pairs over a ridge which stopped them getting all the way down. It was great fun! Kyrgyz people know how to enjoy themselves.
There were other highlights of my stay. One was watching President Akaev announce New Year a few minutes early, just so that people could rehearse, by downing a few vodkas, and then running out into the street at midnight, to watch cascades of glittering fireworks, blooming all over the city. Another was visiting Burana tower, an ancient and enchanting archaeological site, where we struggled up an impossibly steep staircase, in pitch black, on our hands and knees.
I finally came home, in late January, after one month in this beautiful country.
When I returned, in the summer, I continued to explore – this time, the murky depths of Kyrgyz bureaucracy. All this was against a background of political dissent and revolution. I was actually in Bishkek, just a few streets away, during part of the uprising. Interestingly however, less people were hurt in this revolution than in London’s recent bombings, and in Uzbekistan’s uprising and I think this indicates something about the Kyrgyz people.
A visit to Kyrgyzstan is a journey to one’s roots. They are a deep thinking people and their history is not that different to ours. I found many parallels, one being Manas, their hero, and our Arthur.
I don’t think anybody could visit the country and fail to learn something about themselves.
More reading: Ivory Pomegranate in Kyrgyzstan