March in Kyrgyzstan


During March 2000 I had also been in Kyrgyzstan - for a week and a bit - and I had been attracted to the beauty of its nature and to the social diversity of the country. Kyrgyzstan for me this year was epitomised by the interactions I had with very kind people who made me welcome and made me happy (and by the freshness and clarity of the air - what a contrast after China!). The month I spent there also and perhaps most significantly opened my eyes to how it is possible for people to live a 'normal life' that I could relate to (going to university, attending concerts, spending time with friends, travelling between urban and country areas, washing, working, cooking, entertaining) within the financial constraints of a poverty that I had no familiarity with whatsoever. In Kyrgyzstan, outside Bishkek the majority of the population is in real terms unemployed (those who live in the country and don't have a job may have a small piece of land they can subsist on), and those that have jobs often have very low wages, whether measured in international terms (how does twenty American dollars a month sound? Or ten?) or measured in terms of local spending power, since the manufactured goods available are imported (try a small tube of 'cheap' Russian toothpaste: fifty cents. Do you spend five percent of your income on toothpaste?). This education forced me to reassess basic assumptions about what is 'needed', rather than simply desirous, to live a 'normal life' - is a working hot water system, or even running water in the home, vital? It appears not. Do we need to use shampoo on our hair? No, soap works. Does it matter that all the windows in the bus are cracked? Not if it still runs. How do we deal with rubbish in the streets when there is no money for public services because what there was has slipped into private pockets? The students have rotas to pick it up. How do we eat? We grow our own food. As you can imagine, when I landed in Kuala Lumpur, a city of concrete and tarmac and shiny glass and SHOPS, when I was in transit for Australia, I experienced what I would have to describe as culture shock.



Kyrgyz festivals and village life

During my four weeks in Kyrgyzstan (pronounced something not far from a slightly guttural 'Kergerzstan', FYI) I spent only about a week in Tepke, the village that my Kyrgyz friends, the Ibraevs, come from. But I was lucky that there were several Kyrgyz holidays during my visit to Kyrgyzstan, so that my village experiences were more fun than work! Since I was the first foreigner to stay in Tepke, a purely Kyrgyz village (no Russians, Uzbeks, Koreans, etc), I was something of a novelty; and news of my arrival at the Ibraevs' home had come before me. My friends Asel and Jalil normally return to the village to see their parents and younger siblings for the weekend, so we went to Tepke for the first time on my first Saturday in the country. When we got off the bus at the turn off for the village, we met an aunt who had been shopping in town, and was waiting for a car to pass to carry her heavy sack of sugar three kilometres back to Tepke for her. Jalil was deemed a suitable alternative to such a vehicle and lugged the provisions on his back as we walked slowly down the road, the evening approaching. The aunt invited us to her home for a meal the following day. Before being entertained there and plied with celebratory food on Sunday, Asel showed me around the village, taking me past the village hill and across the river, where there are fabulous views of the mountains. A superb place for a chat in the sunshine, throwing little snowballs into the water! The village is named after its hill, which itself is so called because it is shaped like the bridge on the national instrument, the Kumys, which is known as 'tepke' in Kyrgyz.

Monday was the second Eid of the Islamic year (the first Eid being at the end of Ramadan, which I had celebrated last year with the nomadic Arab family in Jordan. This year it was around Christmas time, when I was still in Beijing). In Xinjiang this festival is referred to as 'Corban' and is an important gift-giving ten-day holiday. My friends in Kyrgyzstan distinguished this Eid from the first one by telling me that the second one is a celebration of those living, while the first commemorates the dead. Perhaps in relation to this, a custom associated with this holiday is that you must visit seven other homes of friends or relatives. We did not make it to seven, having to return in the mid-afternoon to Karakol, the town where Jalil, Asel, their sister Clara and their cousin Elnoora all work and study. But if we had, I think my stomach would have burst. Since it was festival time, we were all eating 'borsok', rather than normal leavened bread, as our staple at each sitting. Borsok is delicious when fresh and soft: puffed-up little rectangles of deep-fried light bread - especially when eaten with homemade jam and freshly churned butter or cream! Up there with the finest Devonshire tea!

I should mention that having been entertained by their aunt and her lovely children (my favourites of all the little cousins) the afternoon before, we had spent the evening at the home of a man who is an old friend of Mr Ibraev, complete with local wine (which seems to come in two varieties, one rather like port, the other like sweet sherry) and consequently long toasts, including from me. Poor Asel was getting tired at this point - having been my personal interpreter the whole day! But we still managed to talk about Kyrgyz life and life in the West. These friends were the first to pay a visit to the Ibraevs' home the following morning - just as we were eating our breakfast before setting out on our own round of calls! Our most important visit that day was to Elnoora's home, where she and her mother and two sisters had prepared chicken and noodles as a hot dish for us, and a kind of 'biscuit' that is made to look like dried honesty - wound around long stalks when it is fresh and soft from the oven, and presented in a vase. Rich in eggs and sugar, they are as you can imagine very tasty!

Two weeks later I was lucky that there was another festival, Norruz. Norruz is held every year on March 21st, and is a feast of Persian origin (pre-Islamic) that celebrates the new year. In Iran there are numerous traditions around how Norruz (or Nauroz) should be celebrated. The Kyrgyz and the other peoples of central Asia learnt the feast from the Persians (though it seems not to have got as far as the Uighurs in Xinjiang), but Norruz was banned under the Soviet Union. So in the ten years since independence people have been trying to remember how to celebrate Norruz. In the village it is considered first and foremost a family holiday, with some community events organised too (Mr Ibraev being responsible for volleyball competitions and chess) but in the town there are public concerts, and young people go out with their friends. So Clara and Elnoora chose not to come home to the village for their one day off in the middle of the week, and Asel, who has been living in Karakol for the last eight years, came home on this date for the first time since they have started to celebrate the festival again.

My novelty factor had not worn off the village yet, and in addition to the principal celebrations with one large branch of the Ibraev family, I was invited to the homes of some of the teachers in the village school (Mr Ibraev is the Physical Education teacher). Tepke's school has classes from the first to the eleventh (final) form, with a total of just over two hundred pupils, and one teacher for each subject, so the teachers know everyone. The evening of March 20th was spent at the home of the English teacher, a woman who speaks remarkably clear and accurate English for someone who has not only never been abroad but also never prior to meeting me even met a native 'British English' speaker (but she has met a couple of Americans: the occasional 'Peace Corps' volunteer, etc). Kyrgyz children now start learning English very young - in some schools in the first form. The English teacher's husband is the History teacher, a reserved and gentle man who entertained us after we had eaten to our full or more than (a warm-up for the following day perhaps?) by playing a few songs on the Kumys, which is a lute-style instrument with a sound board and I think six strings. Mrs Ibraev lent her voice to accompany him.

The following morning after a light breakfast (not borsok this time, but special rolls made with milk and glazed with egg, which I had tried to help shape before baking, but I simply could not get the perfect spheres that Asel and her mother and even twelve year-old Aijamal achieved) we visited the 'Director' (headmaster) and his very nice wife. He is a good friend of Mr Ibraev as well as being his boss. Although it was only ten in the morning, after we had had tea with warm milk to accompany the borsok, bread, salads, apples, cream, jam and manti (hot steamed mutton dumplings, a bit like ravioli), a bottle of the sherry type of wine was brought forth. Luckily the glasses that you down are fairly small! My toasting practise continued. Also at the director's home, and at several other homes while I was in Tepke, we drank bozo, which is Kyrgyzstan's equivalent of a pint of bitter. And in fact it tastes not far off, although it is made from wheat rather than hops. Bozo is served (like everything to eat and drink) in bowls, at warm room temperature, and with a lovely froth on top. In each home it tastes a bit different - sometimes in fact a bit bitter tasting, so you are able to add sugar or honey - I wonder if that would work with beer???? You do not make toasts when you drink bozo (perhaps toasts are something learnt from the Russians and vodka-drinking?), and when I asked someone how young the Kyrgyz are when they start to drink it; the joking answer was while the children are still on the breast!

The tradition is developing among the Ibraev clan that each year a different home hosts the rest of the relatives for the Norruz celebration. This year it was the turn of the parents of Nazira, one of Asel and Jalil's cousins, who is also an excellent English speaker studying in Karakol. I should note perhaps, in case you are wondering, that my Kyrgyz made very little progress throughout the month that I spent in Kyrgyzstan - I did re-learn the customized Cyrillic alphabet used in Kyrgyz (including the unfamiliar vowels) and a few very basic phrases ("I'm full/ men toydum" was the one that got the most practise!), but with my friends speaking such good English and without any study aids (no dictionaries, grammar books etc could I find in Bishkek that were written in English, rather than Russian, and I don't want to have to learn Russian before Kyrgyz) I did not get very far. Anyway, once we got to Nazira's family's home we were sat down in a large room which had the floor covered with 'table' cloths that were spread, of course, with food. We sat on cushions around the edge (though there was a 'corridor' down the middle of the room between the cloths, for easier access), women with their legs tucked underneath them (very difficult for me used only to crossing my legs all my life but it is considered improper, even if you are in trousers, for a female to sit that way), and began to EAT! Again, the starting drink was tea with milk. On a day-to-day basis tea is drunk black, usually with lots of white sugar. Passing on the sugar I had conceded to adding homemade blackcurrant jam as a sweetener instead. I did this with my milky tea that day and it was thought very strange. I suppose it is! So I reverted to my English habit of milky tea with nothing sweet inside. For the sake of politeness I squashed pickled vegetables and some rice-noodle and horsemeat salad downwards to join the food from the headmaster's home. Some time after the patriarch (Jalil's great-uncle) had arrived with his ancient blue-eyed wife I was relieved to hear the suggestion that we go outside to the sunshine.

The many little children danced to music from a cassette player, and were given prizes of tinsel. We then played an elaborate form of 'tag', where all players except for the chaser and the one being chased have to stand in two concentric circles, that requires short bursts of energy, and SPEED. I haven't tried that hard to sprint since I was running the hundred metres when I was ten! The fun in the game was the fact that both children and adults were playing. A good way of tiring out energetic children, too! There was a family photo session - including portraits taken by a professional photographer who was in the village for the day (and was very drunk on the same bus as Asel and I going back to town in the early evening). He is in the bottom left of the photo that I took, and everyone else are family members.

The eating was not over yet though - before we were able to take our leave we first had another sitting, this time with 'lagman' (Kyrgyz spaghetti bolognaise, perhaps) in addition to everything else still laid out on the floor. Those dishes had been constantly replenished, so despite the volume of sweets, salad, bread, biscuits jam and cream consumed it was as if we had all touched nothing! The men and women had now separated into two rooms, with the children in the third room of the house. At this point the toasting began, and in our room one woman would sing a local song and another would toast. After Mrs Ibraev had sung I toasted them all with a glass of some type of fruit alcohol, and Asel interpreted for us. The oldest lady in the family, Asel's great aunt, who is a tiny independent woman managing her small property on her own in her late seventies, leaned over and gave me a big kiss, saying to Asel that she had wanted to do it when she first saw me but had been a bit shy. Her preceding vodkas had quashed her inhibition. After another hour or so, again we tried to leave - Asel had an important class to teach the following morning - but the horsemeat (eaten on special occasions) that had been cooking all afternoon was finally ready. So we moved again - this time into the smaller room that the children had been in, which was next to the men's room and had a low table. We ate the meat with plov (rice cooked with carrot and fat, and drenched in the liquid that the meat had been cooked in), and when at last loaded up with a bag of food to take back to the sister and cousin that had stayed in Karakol Asel and I were allowed to go, leaving the women to their stories and toasts.



Back in the Urban World

As I said, the time I spent in Tepke was only a week or so, the rest of the four weeks being split between Bishkek (the capital city) and Karakol, the town where I had first met Jalil last year. In Karakol Asel teaches English (and Jalil studies it) at the local university. My stay with the family there did not attract quite as much curiosity as in Tepke, but I was able to meet a number of Asel, Jalil, Clara and Elnoora's friends, as well as the majority of Asel's students. With photos of my family and friends from home and an introduction to my life I think I provided a welcome break from classes on English prepositions and tenses! I most aroused interest among her class of very lively students that is studying Chinese as its first language, and English as its second. The students are mostly Uighurs from Kazakhstan and 'Dungans' (Chinese Muslims, known as 'Hui' within China itself) living in Kyrgyzstan. Jalil introduced me to his best friend, Macsat (which means 'aim' in Kyrgyz), who is a dental technician, and spends his days creating made-to-measure false metal teeth (Kyrgyz people cannot usually afford ceramic ones) from wax and plaster of Paris moulds. One evening I was shown around the lab and into the dentist's consultation and fitting room - quite a surreal experience!

The week before Norruz, Asel took me to a concert given by one of the hottest stars of the country at the moment. The theatre was packed with Kyrgyz, only Kyrgyz, and me. I wondered if they wondered what a Russian was doing there. The majority of the audience was women - but not screaming teenagers, rather sedate groups of friends, and mothers trying to keep their small children still, perhaps with their husbands or their own mothers too. Some young men had come with their friends. The curtain opened: on two synthesizers, with men in matching t-shirts standing glumly behind them. The main man, with black clothes and a large stomach and double chin, came onto the stage, and was politely applauded. He dedicated his first song to 'yellow girls'; (yellow is used where we might say 'white'). There were some pale-skinned and pale-eyed Kyrgyz in the audience, but I felt he was singing just for me! As he finished, and the applause broke out, it was accompanied and regulated by the synthesizer on the left of the stage, which sounded emphatic drumbeats when it was time to stop clapping. During song number three a very small poised girl with a china-doll face and well-brushed hair strolled confidently into the middle of the stage and began to dance programmatically. I assumed she was part of the show. To the audience's delight, the singer gave her a kiss at the end of the song and sent her back to her parents. Two songs later she was back, this time adding a 'vogue' move to her dance steps, her small hands held straight underneath her chin! Again she was sent down.

But the concert was not just about the big guy and his soulful tunes - it was to be a variety show! Having heard jokes from Jalil and his father, I got to see just how good Kyrgyz humour is. Three times during the evening men (including two who doubled as players of the right-hand synthesizer) came onstage and performed short sketches. And each time the whole audience was in stitches, including me, unable to speak a word of Kyrgyz. I won't even try to describe the joke about the three chickens... But the best and most hilarious part of the evening for everyone was towards the end - there was a talent show! First prize for the adults, a horse. The stage filled with contestants - first almost all children, apart from one solemn track-suited greasy-haired young man clutching a kumys. But as the children performed (each hopeful having to render his or her version of one of the star's own songs) many more poured onto the stage. Soon there would be none left in the audience! After a few lines of song, each contestant had to pass the microphone on, and wait in the wings till 'adjudication'. When the flow of children to the stage had ceased, and they had all had their turn (the rear of the stage now being full of hopeful adults, too) they were judged according to the applause that each got. Some of the little boys had been excellent - with drama, confidence, tunefulness and style - so I whistled clapped and screamed to support their cases. One of my faves got through to the last three, but the winner for the night (to go through to the final) was a girl. China Doll had of course come back for this stint in the limelight, and despite her terrible singing (she was only about three) she still got a large round of applause - but thankfully not enough to win!

Most of the adults had less talent than their children - some being almost painful to listen to, but amusing therefore. The greasy-haired young man came up to the mike and strummed his instrument, doing more justice to the songs than almost all the other contestants. He had won the night before, apparently. Two sultry young women who played kumyses too and sang in harmony came up late to challenge him - in my mind they were better than he, but he had won the audience over so that night he again knocked out possible alternative competition in the grand final a week later. It was already ten o'clock by the end of the talent show, but there was still comedy and music to come - the final song being a rousing number about the worthlessness of fighting (with references to the conflict in the South last year) and the value of children to the future of Kyrgyzstan. The singer was dressed in khaki for this one, and he was accompanied by real local soldiers (one of whom Asel had taught at the start of the year before he dropped out and joined the army) who waved their (empty) rifles and performed some combat moves on stage. Their performance brought home to me what a young and unsure country Kyrgyzstan is. A buzzing and happy audience then went home, eating ice cream.

On my last day in Karakol, Mr and Mrs Ibraev came to town with Kolye, Aijamal, and a freshly-killed turkey. With toasts to health, good fortune and friendship we shared another bottle of sweet 'sherry' wine that we washed down with fizzy orange. I promised to return in July, when it is possible to swim in the lake and walk in the mighty mountains. If all goes well then Asel and Jalil will accompany me from Kyrgyzstan back to England for a visit during August. We just have the minor hurdle of them being issued visas by HM Embassy in Almaty to get over first.



Malaysian 'Shock Therapy'

To get to Sydney, which is where I am now, I had to go first through Tashkent in Uzbekistan (a forty-hour transit which I used to do some emails and go back to the incredible covered bazaar there) and then to Kuala Lumpur, where I took the opportunity to catch up with some friends for a couple of days. As I wrote at the top of this journal entry, KL was a bit of a shock to the system - in more ways than one. It was not just a matter of getting mentally used to hot water and air-conditioning, smooth roads and lots of cars, shiny malls and cappuccinos. My body decided to give me the worst internal bi-directional revolt that I have experienced since I was in India ten years ago!!! A result of several things I think - some unwashed apricots from Tashkent might have been the source, but they might have got through unnoticed if I had not taken a seven-hour flight, experienced a dramatic change in climate, and gone from eating mostly bread and jam to eating coconut seafood curry and similar foods. Lucky perhaps that the attack happened while in a friend's comfortable home (though having both ends in a toilet bowl is never that comfortable). I was down for a day, but I still managed to spend some time with Kay, my room-mate from my first Chinese course in Beijing last year, as well as with my Cambridge friend Ben and his girlfriend Ollie. Kay introduced me to 'pulled tea', some of her friends and as much of the KL shopping scene as I was able to handle, her mother to a lovely part of preserved secondary jungle at the edge of the city, her father (also a former tóngxué, or fellow-student, in Beijing) to the museum and to views of KL, as well as to....seafood curry. And Ben and Ollie took me out for my first western meal since December, and showed me a bit of what the rest of Malaysia is like with a trip to some local beauty spots including an unintended drive almost to the nearby hill resorts! It was lovely to be able to catch up with all of them, and they certainly managed to ready me for Australia.

I arrived in Sydney just over a week ago to warmth at six am and the smiling but sleepy face of my cousin Nicholas. I want to try and w****e a b**k, as I have told many of you on email over the past few months, when you wonder when or whether I am coming back to the more familiar world and lifestyle. Scary prospect, and I'll spare you the details till they are worth sharing. My hope is that in Sydney, where friends and family are fewer than in England, I can live an hermitic yet cushioned existence and make progress on the project. By mid-July I will decide - whether it is to be ditched, or finished and a publisher sought. Although perhaps a bit ambitious, I've got to give it a go or I will never know! But between now and then I promise to reply to all those emails that I owe!

Lots of love



This news page is decorated with the family portrait of my friends on Norruz Day. |Click here to view the original photo|