From Sydney to Sydney



Three months have passed without any of my intervening activities making it to this website news and journal. As you will see, the opportunity to write it has scarcely been there; but I am left with the challenge of keeping this update engaging and not too long.

I returned to Sydney two days ago. As September passed into October I was here for ten days, immediately buried in writing up recipes collected in the preceding months in Kyrgyzstan and Iran, and in starting the part-time course I am undertaking to achieve a qualification to teach English. However on October 2nd my uncle Martin Field passed away, and two days later I flew back to the United Kingdom to attend his funeral in the Highlands of Scotland. The large number of friends and members of the local community that were there was a testament to his full involvement in everything he did and his real interest in those he met and knew. He will be missed by many. Through this website, Martin was a keen follower of my experiences, even from his bed; he was eager to learn of 'real life' (as he put it to me) in the world beyond his own. Martin, Sue, and my cousin Fiona were extremely welcoming to Jalil and Asel, my Kyrgyz friends, when we visited them in Ross Shire in mid-August, during Jalil's and Asel's visit to the UK. I know that in their home, Jalil and Asel felt really appreciated as visitors from afar.

August was an extremely hectic month, as many of you know or were part of. My apologies to those of you in the UK whom I did not manage to catch up with while I was there. Even before I arrived with Jalil and Asel on August 3rd I had created a packed timetable for their visit; this then got even fuller and more varied as the month advanced! As first-time visitors, Jalil and Asel loved automatic doors and other technological advances, labour-saving devices and luxuries that still have to reach everyday life in Kyrgyzstan, but we take for granted (for example, hot showers at any moment). They appreciated the greenness of England and the many flowers, even in urban areas. They admired our cities and fine buildings, and the chance to try new forms of transport - planes, boats and ferries, trains and the Underground, and they could not help being impressed by the volume of traffic on roads everywhere, and the fact that there are so many roads that you cannot travel far without a map! They were in awe of the fact that Grandma is 81 and drives, and they loved her Leicester semi more than any other home we visited.

For Jalil, the highlight of his visit I think was the cloudless warm afternoon we spent at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, including the experience on the 'SkyCoaster' that he shared with Steve and me. Thinking of it now, even two months later, my stomach still churns, my palms clam up and my knees feel a little weak, quite honestly. But I have to admit that the sheer pleasure of swooping and swinging, almost flying, over Blackpool's yellow sands and the lapping Irish Sea, firmly harnessed to my friends, and slowly coming to a halt back where we had begun, surpasses the horrible fear that swallowed me as I was winched upwards however many 100s of feet, watching Blackpool's terraced houses get smaller and smaller, until we jolted to a halt at the top, aware that the only way down (because Steve would never lose face for me on this one) was for Steve to pull the 'rip cord' that released us; to hurtle earthwards face first until the cable holding us to the top of the apparatus was fully extended. I should mention that we enjoyed (?) this incomparable activity twice - after we had come to a halt the first time, the exhilaration was such that I agreed to go straight back up again, still harnessed, and the men on the ground told me to look up, not down, as we were winched to the top. It was less terrifying that way, but I could never go for a 'flight' on my own. Jalil, whose nights are often filled with dreams of flying, would not have any such qualms. (As I write this the room is shaking - it is not just knocking knees from terrifying memories, as I can see the telephone cord across the room moving too. Perhaps Sydney is having a small earthquake….)

Jalil also enjoyed the time spent in our 15-year old Peugeot - familiarising himself with English road signs, and telling me when I had to 'reduce speed now'. In Cambridge he punted us upstream from St John's College all the way to the Anchor pub before relaxing on the way back, and back in Witney remained the table tennis champion, beaten only rarely by John. He learnt very quickly how to use the computer, and with no teacher could put two hands together on the piano in two evenings.

It is harder for me to say what Asel most enjoyed about her visit to the UK. Being on holiday for a whole month and having a bedroom to herself was certainly something she relished. She calmly observed all that was happening around her - noting our different eating habits and table manners, our romantic yearning for life away from cities, and the unmarried status of most of my friends - and took it all in her stride, despite the tiring schedule I was forcing them through and the tidal wave of novelty. Asel loved seeing swans, ducks and seagulls; she danced delightedly in the grey English Channel, her first venture into saltwater; and she even braved the calm cold of Coniston Water on a cloudy morning. (Jalil meanwhile had already made two new Turkish friends, stripped off, and thrashed with them through the Sea of Marmara on our first very hot afternoon in Istanbul, where we stayed for two days en route to England). Asel listened hard, drew maps, and kept a diary - and her English improved dramatically. Speaking to both Jalil and Asel on the telephone since they have returned home, it is lovely to hear natural and colloquial English in their conversation.

Both Jalil and Asel enjoyed the days we spent in Edinburgh with Richard and with my friends Levy, Steve and Dave, just before we visited Martin, Sue and Fiona further north. Perhaps Edinburgh was so well enjoyed because of its contrast to the prior three days, camping in the Lake District. Those days were probably the least favourite of their UK visit. Why do we choose to sleep in a cold tent among lots of other people and have to pay for showers (if we shower at all) when we could be in our comfortable homes? But the experience certainly improved their understanding (or knowledge) of Western habits and customs. And we were all exhilarated at the top of the Coniston Old Man.

With Jalil, Pascal and Alexa, I had not made it to the top of any mountain while we were in Kyrgyzstan - where the highest mountains are over 7000 metres tall (but Alexa and Pascal did some 'trekking' activities later). Together, though, we spent three days in the Kyrgyz jailoo or summer pastureland (pronounced 'jylor' - 'jai' is the Kyrgyz for 'summer'), camping next to Tepke's semi-nomadic shepherd families who are responsible for the sheep, goats and horses that belong to members of the village. The jailoo is real steppe and alpine too - swathes of hills like thick green velvet, and mountainsides that make you feel like you are on the set of Heidi, where the cowslips and foxglove-type flowers are taller than you are. We were brought to this special place by Akulbek, one of Jalil's relatives, who himself had grown up in a shepherd family in Tepke so had spent his childhood summers in this place.

Every two hours a stream of horses galloped across the flat bottom of the high valley we were camped in, dutifully lining up to be milked so that they could return to their free grazing for the next two hours. Much of that milk was then fermented, to become kumyss. So I got to taste what I had missed out on in Mongolia 9 months previously. The alcoholic content is not the issue for me - just imagine overpoweringly strong pinkish liquid goat's cheese and you are coming somewhere close to the kumyss experience. One small bowl at a time was quite enough, I felt! Stol was the primary shepherd of the younger generation - he is a brawny man for a Kyrgyz, and he towered above all of us. He had no problem gulping several bowls of kumyss and a few shots of vodka to boot. The children were already all able to ride - with the babies being put onto horses when they could scarcely walk!

Alexa, Pascal and I went with Asel and Clara Ibraeva to take the waters of Issyk-Köl at the pleasant-enough tourist development of Bosteri a couple of hours along the lake from Tepke village, and to enjoy the related fringe benefits. 'Kyrgyz Seaside Resort' (imagine a Russian communist version of a 1970s Hilton hotel) was full with conference goers we were told - so we joined the Kazakh and Russian holiday makers in cement huts roofed with asbestos next door at 'Friendship Camp'. But we were able to benefit from the large hotel - we all had a superb massage from a friendly Russian Kyrgyz woman, and swam in the large echoing hotel pool in allotted half-hour slots, before being chivvied out and into the showers by more beefy Russian redheads. That's in addition to enjoying the lake itself, of course.

Before my friends had arrived from the UK, I had been warmly welcomed by the Ibraevs upon my return to their country and village. On my first evening we had a celebratory dinner with Mr and Mrs Ibraev's friends, with one of Jalil's sheep killed for the occasion. We also had a wonderful 24 hours in Shapak, which is a village in a cold and rainy (but stunning) valley where Mr Ibraev's younger sister lives with her husband and six sons, and with five nephews next door. Aijamal, the youngest Ibraeva, had been spending a few weeks of her summer holiday staying with her relatives, and she needed collecting. These cousins took Asel and me riding on their horses, showed us their rabbits and puppies and kittens, and killed a goat. More eating at 11.30 pm…..

The final feast was shortly before Jalil, Asel and I departed for the UK. Every year on July 28th the Ibraevs commemorate their grandmother, hosting all the village elders who were her contemporaries, as well as younger relatives. It was a chance to see the Shapak cousins again - and to eat another sheep! The meal was beshparmak, Kyrgyzstan's national dish; and it was eaten by the visitors and family scattered in groups according to their status around the house, yard, kitchen and orchard. Everywhere I went I was instructed to look after Jalil and Asel well, and to make sure that they returned home safely. But both of them were also told upon their return (though I think by people in the town, not the village), that it had been assumed that they would not be coming back!!

During those weeks in July I also managed to collect some recipes for the special Kyrgyz foods I have enjoyed - and these should make it into my book, whatever form it eventually takes. At the moment the recipes are back in Asel's hands - some good material for her university students in Karakol to correct and learn lexical sets about cooking from!

More recipes were collected in the rapid ten days in mid-September that I spent in Iran with my Tehrani friends. Maryam is seven months pregnant but she still taught me precisely how to cook some of their delicious dishes, and their mother, who is an absolute expert when it comes to food, provided more guidelines and recipes. Apart from eating (which there was a lot of, as anticipated!) I had a couple of special experiences.

For the weekend Maryam and Abbas took me to the Caspian Sea, where we stayed in heavy misty heat in a villa with some of their friends. I learnt how Iranians behave at the seaside - and that more women go swimming than men. I was taken out on a rudimentary motorboat, and had to clutch the sides as the driver took pleasure in bouncing us hard over the tips of waves and down into the troughs beyond. The Caspian Sea is scarcely salty, by the way - more brackish! And the waves are made mostly by boats and not by the forces of Nature. The Caspian Sea is referred to in Persian as a 'darya', a word which means 'river' in Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turkmen and Uighur (I have a Turkic dictionary these days!) - and their words are presumably taken from Persian. My friends told me first that darya means sea, but when I mentioned the Amu Darya and Syr Darya (Oxus and Jaxartes rivers), they said it actually means big river. And Abbas showed me how to make kebabs so that they don't fall off the skewers while they cook.

After the weekend in the north, I went with Marzieh and her mother for a picnic in the grounds of the holy shrine of Enali Zenali Emam Zadé in the west of Tehran. Every month her mother's female relatives gather in a different spot to catch up, eat, and ... run a sweepstake. The winning name is picked out of a hat by one of the children present, and the winnings are not at all insubstantial. I was assured that this kind of game of Chance was not against Islamic Law After lunch and the sweepstake were over, the women sat and chatted, some discreetly breastfeeding their babies with their backs to any male passers-by (we were in public), and many of them going to the Shrine to say their prayers and to leave donations. At about five we ate again - ash-é reshté (noodle herb soup), which you may remember I had previously enjoyed with Marzieh on the slopes of Darband in January 2000. Most of us got two bowls each - after we had eaten that brought by a woman in our group, we were distributed servings of ash by a woman stranger who had come to the shrine to offer this soup around as part of a nazr (in thanksgiving to God for something specific). Needless to say supper was a light affair that night..

On a side note, I found that Tehran in September is not insufferably hot. Except, that is, when waiting hejabbed-up in the crowded downstairs hall of a cinema. We were there to see the latest big hit on Iranian screens, an allegorical story of the life of 'Holy Mary' (Mary is highly revered by Shi'ite Muslims). It was a beautiful production, but I wondered (working as the film did within the guidelines of Iran's cultural bureaux) whether the vilified (Jewish) temple elders of 2000 years ago in the story were not intended to also portray contemporary Iran's ruling mullahs. I found the pollution in Tehran as appalling as 20 months previously, inducing headaches after any length of time spent walking through the streets. After spotting women (and one man) with large bandages on their faces, Marzieh informed me that the latest fashion in this image-conscious urban society is cosmetic surgery - primarily nose jobs - for those who can afford it.

I flew in the middle of the night from Tehran to Istanbul, and spent another day visiting previously unseen mosques, and returning for the third time this summer to my favourite köfte restaurant for lunch. But I was exhausted, and whiled away an hour in the afternoon sleeping on a bench in the heart of touristville. That night I flew to Bangkok, where I had to connect with my flight to Australia. But I stopped for two days first, in order to visitGiang, my Thai friend from the Bai Gong apartments we both lived in this time last year in Beijing. She is hard at work in her family's small goldsmiths firm, but she took time off to show me round on my first afternoon, and introduced me to Thai tastes in their native setting (including excellent Phad Thai) and to her family and one friend. My experiences on the day I explored alone were highlighted by some excellent massage! I knew my tired and confused body needed gentle stimulation, so in the must-visit temple Wat Po, which houses a superb huge golden reclining Buddha I joined the throngs of not just tourists. After 30 minutes of manipulation by a thin young man, lying on a bed under a huge fan in a large teak room between two other customers, I decided I had not quite had enough. So I forked out for a further 45 minutes! This time my treatment was a reflexology session on my feet and ankles - ow! Almost as good as Beijing! Coming back to Australia again two days ago, again through Bangkok, I used the hour off the plane not just to stroll around but to invest further - this time in a head and shoulders massage in a small parlour very close to my departure gate. If you are ever in short transit in Bangkok, I highly recommend it.

I am now trying to get my life and routine back to normal (so perhaps not good that I am up at 2.30 am doing this!) This Tuesday evening I will teach my first supervised English class to recent Australian immigrants - 40 minutes of Listening Skills and Pronunciation! I will be using techniques that I learnt in class only yesterday morning, when I discovered just how much more interesting Listening (Tingli) could have been in Beijing last year...

I will be in Sydney till Christmas time. So please write, e-mail or ring!

Lots of love


The tiles on this page come from the wall of a Bangkok temple. |Click here to view the original photo|