Dropped in the middle of I didn't know where, we dragged our bags along, chalky white clouds rising in our wake. The search for lodgings leading only to packs of dogs, eventually a young man with chestnut brown eyes and a broad, round face took pity on us.
"Zdravstvuyte!" he greeted us with a mild enthusiasm. "Vy govorit'e pa-Russki, da?"
"Chu," - "a few words" — I replied.
"Chu?" he echoed, the smile slipping from his face. "Uh... nomir... ruhm," he proffered, placing his hands together to form a pillow upon which he lay his head.
Sign language trumped a lack of Russian. At the homestay, where the owners two-wheeled Lada sat elevated upon stacks of bricks, the standard response to incomprehension was in full swing. The bearded grandpa decked in a tall kalpak—the traditional hat representing the mountains that cover the nation—repeating the same phrase ever louder. Finally conceding that this approach was doomed to fail, he drew the sun and the moon in the dirt with a stick and rotated his outstretched arm around and around until the penny dropped.
"Three nights," I answered, holding up my fingers.
I was traveling with my brother in Cholpon Ata, literally translated as "Venus Father," suspected birthplace of the black plague, which fleeing Genoese traders carried all the way to Europe, wiping out sixty percent of the population. A donkey eating garbage marked the beginning of the muddy trail to the lakeside beach, where recumbent on blankets were babushkas knitting souvenir socks and ramshackle huts offered inflatables, ice creams, buckets, spades, and a mind-bending selection of vodka.
On the burning sand as coarse as glass, raucous, pot-bellied Russians were enjoying a spot of standing sunbathing, gyrating like kebabs on a grill in search of an even tan. The freezing waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, which inexplicably translates as "Lake Naturally Warm" presented no challenge to these hardened souls: some of them were used to the Siberian tundra, where they'd chisel their way through the ice to take a morning dip.
With outsized umbrellas lining the water's edge, children frolicked in the shallows on wooden pedalos, like park benches on giant skis. Camel ride sellers and eagle hunting hawkers lazily patrolled the lakefront in search of novelty seekers, the dazzling sun reflecting off the rippling expanse as ominous clouds sat atop the dark, enveloping peaks.
The riviera of Central Asia, lightly salted Lake Issyk-Kul sits at 1,600 meters, ringed by the 4,000 meters-plus Tian Shan range, the "Celestial Mountains." In 1998, courtesy of the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine—the country's largest and practically only industry—two tons of sodium cyanide had found its way into the Barskoon River, which feeds Issyk-Kul. Bleaching powder was dumped in as the solution.
These days the lake doubles as a torpedo testing site for the Russian and Indian Navies. The Indians are particularly enthusiastic: it being a closed environment, they can collect their missiles and recycle them.
With noon approaching, vendors in Stetsons and knock-off wrap-around Ray-bans fanned the flames of their grills with sheets of cardboard. Grinning as they sharpened their knives, their gold teeth caught the sun. Swathed in the emissions from Soviet-era trucks which thundered through the one-road town, we chowed down on a layered cake of cold white rice, raw potato, egg, mayonnaise, and a bowl of French fries swimming in ketchup. Scooping up a lump from my plate, I offered it to a hungry, sad-eyed mongrel that was hovering beneath our table, but tail between its legs it fled with a mournful yelp.
In this holiday getaway, after lunch if not before, it was without fail time for a drink. It aided digestion and much-needed forgetfulness. Like a sugary Eurovision soundtrack on a loop, Russian pop poured from the bar's speakers. Occasional forays into Western music were worse, though; the singing DJ's rendition of "Tears in Heaven" could have made the angels weep.
"Kazakhstan? Ot Kazakhstan!" the DJ-cum-emcee cried with a false bonhomie as he hosted a Miss Central Asia pageant in miniature.
The losers looked resigned to their fate, their angry boyfriends less so.
Soon we were invited to join Tilek, his friend Tilek and their curvaceous dates, Cholpon and Bululu. It was the two Tileks' birthdays, both of whom were turning 32. One wore a shell suit top, the other the matching trousers. It was a popular look; perhaps they were sharing the outfit, as you rarely saw the whole get up on one person.
Tilek Abdulaev worked as a driver at the Kumtor gold mine. Beyond that, he didn't much want to talk about his job. As I'd come to discover, to say the mine was a touchy subject was an understatement. Protests against the venture take place to this day.
It's reasonably well known that Kyrgyzstan has no money, but less widely understood why this is the case. The first President of the independent Kyrgyz Republic was Askar Akayev, a short, bald, obscure scientist whose furious coal black eyebrows threatened to join forces. Commonly referred to by the American press during the Clinton years as the "Kennedy of Central Asia," he proved less popular with Russian President Yeltsin, who famously once played out a tune on his skull with a set of wooden spoons.
Akayev's downfall began with the arrival of Boris Birshtein. Originally a Lithuanian Jew, Birshtein's long criminal record meant he changed his citizenship almost as often as his underwear. Arriving in the newly independent country, the by now Canadian financier persuaded Akayev he could help make Kyrgyzstan the "Switzerland of Central Asia." He soon had an office opposite the president's, affording him unfettered access.
There were 16 tons of gold in the Kyrgyz vaults when the Soviet Union collapsed, Birshtein's role was to attract investors by using these reserves as collateral. Wooing Akayev with a lavish, all-expenses-paid trip to meet his cronies in Canada, Birshtein brokered a contract to run the Kumtor gold mine. Deeming the agreement "not in the nation's interests," the Kyrgyz Parliament has been fighting to annul it ever since.
In November 1991, Birshtein flew to the remote mine with Canadian Trade Minister Monte Kwinter and the first Prime Minister of independent Kyrgyzstan, Nasirdin Isanov, a vocal opponent of Birshtein's scheming. Their flight back to the capital purportedly grounded by fog, they set out to return by road, but were involved in a collision still shrouded in mystery. With Birshtein and Kwinter emerging unscathed, "moaning and groaning and holding his head," Isanov was taken to a nearby hospital where he died, much to the surprise of Kwinter.
"A strong, robust man in his early forties," Kwinter later recalled, "his injuries definitely did not appear to be life-threatening."
Shortly after the "accident," 14 tons of Kyrgyz gold "disappeared" on private jets belonging to Birshtein and a supporter who just so happened to have been appointed the new Prime Minister. The case of the gold scandal is still open at the Kyrgyz Prosecutor's Office. Only a single banker has ever been indicted.
Tilek told me he'd once had a large family based around Cholpon Ata. As the years went by, however, one by one they'd moved away in search of gainful employment. "One of my brothers, he is very clever, but now he works on a building site in Russia. Many of my relatives have gone to Bishkek," he concluded, "but there are no jobs there."
Getting his second wind, Tilek ordered another bottle. The Kyrgyz are the most laid back of the Central Asian people, for although if pushed they would speak of having one hand on the Quran, they're often holding a drink in the other whilst laughing boisterously. It being rude not to finish an open bottle, which always had the lid thrown away, the "vodka terrorism" continued late into the night, toast after toast being required.
"May you live a hundred years," I slurred, raising my glass and sticking to the classics.
"A good toast," Tilek number two responded, a metallic brightness in his eyes; "but no," he added with a disarming smile, "ninety years is enough."
In the main hall, Russian and Kazakh tourists shoulder danced, the rest of their bodies remaining perfectly still. At this juncture, things became hazy. I have a vague recollection of being dropped off in a jalopy stuffed with the six of us, rolling off Cholpon's lap and stumbling away with promises to meet in the morning for what their miming led me to believe would be some sort of dirt bike adventure.
Awaking bleary eyed at one p.m., the scratchy writing in my notebook confirmed our missed rendezvous, and my wallet told me I'd settled the bill. Exiting the homestay in urgent need of water, I ran straight into a local named Boris. As with many others in town, the question I'd asked myself the first time Boris approached me was: is that red-faced man coming at me with grievous intent or just staggering in my direction?
Boris lived in a rusted railroad car hemmed in by abandoned, roofless shacks at the bottom of a boulder-strewn mountain. Unfinished building projects littered the land; the intentions were good, the finances and the will less solid.
With my brother emerging from the homestay to rescue me, we set out to ascend a massif to the north of town, hoping to get a better look at what we presumed to be a weather station, but may have been some bizarre ex-Soviet military installation. A third of the way up, though, my brother doubled over holding his stomach.
"Oh, my guts!" he cried, inching back down the slope with an awkward, clenched gait.
To the receding cries of Boris and a muezzin in the turret of the local mosque, I finally reached the summit. At the pinnacle of the jagged ridge, all I could hear was distant barking and the view of tiny plumes of smoke rising from myriad barbecue grills. I may have been none the wiser what the installation that had piqued my interest was, but I did discover a surprising array of discarded knickers up there.
With a purple sky settling over the distant Tian Shan mountain range at sunset, distant thunder rumbled, threatening rain which would never arrive. Completing my descent in the dark, back at the homestay I found my brother getting stoned behind the outhouse with two teenage boys who, though eager to share their weed, spoke not a word of English between them. The act in itself provided a universal language.
Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com
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Abkhazia: Party Amidst the Ruins - Stephen Bland
The Cradle of Russia: Frozen in the Golden Ring - Antonia Malchik
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