The Bishkek bubble, blizzards and balls.

Thursday 28 January

Ahhhh January you little devil you.  Colder than a witches tit, and getting colder.  But the first few weeks fly by because you’re coming down from the parties good ol’ December was throwing you, and you’re still in a daze of booze blankets, mistletoe mishaps and regret.  And then just around the corner sneaks in that absolute bastard.  February.  February can fuck off.

Winter.  It's a bitch

Winter. It’s a bitch

And so I’ve been holed up between hostel and bar, watching the white come down, trying not to break my neck on the icy streets of Bishkek.  I’ve been crossing paths with a host of wholesome and insalubrious characters, and for the most part they’ve been making it hard for me to leave.  There’s one of the funnest, friendliest Aussie girls I’ve met on the road who has pretty much been my guide to the city.  There’s the ex Marine in his 60’s turned WW2 aircraft archaeologist, who I have been affectionately calling ‘dad’.  There’s a trio of unobtainable Russian goddesses owning and rocking my home-from-home bar and helping me break my Bloody Mary record.  There’s an Indian guy from the US who has been my partner in crime on many a night and day, seeing eye to eye and putting the world to rights.  The dulcet bass tones of a shaggy-haired American, a splice of Slash and Howard Stern who drinks whisky like water.  There’s a chess playing porn film director who offered me a starring role, and an artist who wanted me to pose nude for a life drawing class for 40 bucks.  A Texan hunter and serious Jameson fan, not to mention a beautiful Kyrgyz woman whose interest I can somehow hold.  And then many an expat and local far too numerous to list here, each extending the warm hand of friendship to battle the winter cold.  Consequently I am now either in the Bishkek Bubble, or I’ve stumbled into a Coen Brothers movie.

The deserted fairground.  Crying out for blood on the snow and a suitcase full of money

The deserted fairground. Crying out for blood on the snow and a suitcase full of money

The city itself isn’t that remarkable, but it garners a certain run-down ex-soviet charm.  It’s built on a grid system which I really like (reminding me of Glasgow and making it impossible to get lost regardless of the state I find myself in).  And for all of its size (just shy of 950,000), it has a remarkable diversity of bars, restaurants, clubs and karaoke.  Many of which – much to my delight – are open 24 hours.

Pre snow.  The Osh Bazaar

Pre snow. The Osh Bazaar

And on one such occasion I go on something of an adventure, following a bender with some of the aforementioned folk.  Leaving a watering hole at 8am, I decide to frequent a karaoke.  Now I’d imagine a lot of guys at that time would either go home or to a brothel, but I demand to sing a pissed up version of “Chasing Cars” before calling it a night.  Karaoke is extremely popular here, but by the time I arrive to one regular establishment they’re closing it off.  Thus I sit and drink vodka with a load of Kyrgyz dudes who can’t speak English.  After a while I decide it’s time to brave the sunshine.

Upon exiting, I hear music and shouting coming from over the road, and at that time I naturally believed it to be a club.  So over I cross and in I go, only to discover a large sports facility, with two astroturf pitches.  One of these pitches has a load of kids aged around 7 to 10 kicking balls around.  I don’t need asking twice, even though I was never actually asked in the first place.

So I fall into the cage and start running soccer drills, penalty practice, three on three games, and Wembley singles.  Yours truly is in goal and I must have looked a strange sight.  At 10 am in the bright, blazing sunshine, a drunk foreign man diving around between the posts wearing a shirt and tie.  It’s honestly a wonder I wasn’t arrested.  When I just can’t breathe anymore and I’ve embarrassed the hell out of myself, I give all the kids a high-five and return to the safety of the bar.  I’m in bed by 1 pm, but when I wake, my arse, thighs and sides feel like they’ve been beaten with a crow bar.  Hey it was well worth it though.  I still got it.

Ala-Too Square

Ala-Too Square

Beyond the drab concrete housing blocks and bar debauchery, there’s Kyrgyzstan.  A country whose name I still can’t spell in spite of a month here, so I’ve basically resorted to hitting the letter ‘K’ and then mashing the middle of the keyboard until Chrome offers me a way out with the spell check.  But it’s beautiful here, sitting in a mountainous grandeur I’ve not seen since the Carpathians, nestled inside a block of Wall’s Viennetta.   Alas I’ve not been able to see what I really want to see or do what I want to do on account of the weather, but it’s definitely a country I would like to return to.  Most of you dearest readers will know I adore riding horses, and horses are “the wings of the Kyrgyz.” Lo! What a place to get on the back of the beast!  But alas, the treks are expensive in the off-season and the ground hard for the hoof.  Climbing back into the saddle is a country and month or two off yet.

Ala Archa Gorge

Ala Archa Gorge

But they have a fascinating national sport here called “Buzkashi”, which literally means “goat dragging.”  It’s effectively goat polo, whereby teams on horseback have to heave a goat carcass towards a goal.  I’ve been told that this carcass is gutted and filled with rocks, so you’re basically trying to lift a dead animal off the ground weighing maybe 20KG.  Trying to lift anything from the ground on horseback at speed is a challenge, and all the while you’re being beaten, kicked and punched by opposing players.  It’s incredibly violent and the “world championship” is typically (obviously) won by Kyrgyzstan every year.  However I have heard that Germany are interested in entering a team, and as with anything the Germans do, never write them off.  Alas once again however, for it is a summer sport, and I have no opportunity to either watch or play.  And yet if I could participate, I feel I’d need metal rods inserted into my hands at the final whistle.  What a shame I’m here in winter eh…?  But yet one more reason to return in warmer climes.

A hand-made goat horn horse bow and arrows.  WANT.  I've never seen such a diverse range of souvenirs for such a small country

A hand-made goat horn horse bow and arrows. WANT. I’ve never seen such a diverse range of souvenirs for such a small country

The Chinese new year is fast approaching, and as much as I would love to be across the border for the festivities, I’m just not sure it’s feasible.  I’m sitting in a cafe nursing a coffee, watching the snow come down heavily and there are worse places to be.  Shivering on the side of a freezing cold road trying to hitch a lift is one of them.  Beijing was a staggering minus 28 degrees a few nights ago, and I’m happy I’m not running the risk of a polar bear mauling.  Although the temperature is dropping rapidly and I’ve not yet got my visa, there’s still ten days before the border closes.  I’ll see how I go.  But with the hospitality and friendship I’ve experienced here, the warmth of the characters of Bishkek, and the fact that my hostel bed is right by a heating pipe, I think China is just going to have to wait.

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New year, Bishkek visa run and losing our heroes

Sunday 10 January

As I’m still far behind due to being bone idle and actually having no real humdingers to regale you with, I’ve rolled a few stories into one just to keep you entertained and up to date, beginning with a brief description of my New Year.  Now as far as this goes, this wasn’t a bad’un.  Standing on the 11th floor  roof of the hostel as the Almaty night sky lit up with 360 degree fireworks and there were worse places to be. I didn’t take any pictures because I couldn’t really be bothered so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it was good.  Kazakhs prefer to stay at home with family until after midnight, then all hell breaks loose on the streets.  You’ve got to be careful you don’t get a rocket in your eye too, as nobody really cares for health and safety, and you’ll get little warning of one whizzing toward your head.  Still, it’s all fun and games eh?

One by one the party team of travelers and peace corps volunteers dwindle until it’s just me.  Standard.  This was a combination of a friend nearly starting a fight with a bouncer and numerous casualties vomiting in taxi’s.  People in glass houses shouldn’t throw parties.  As ever yours truly isn’t done until the fat lady sings, but she was well and truly belting it out at around 10 am in the morning.  My days here were numbered.

I stick around in recovery mode until my Kazakhstan visa expires, which in hindsight I really shouldn’t have done, as I was playing a little fast and loose with the time frame and hitchhike.  As it turns out, two older travelers are making a visa run to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which is only a few hours up the road.  I weigh up my options, and decide to join them, taking a skeletal back pack and leaving my guitar and other bits and bobs.  I figure I’ll jump around Kyrgyzstan for a few days doing wholesome activities, before returning to collect my Chinese visa, pick up my stuff, and continue the hitch from Almaty to the Chinese border.  All being well, I’m shooting for Beijing for their New Year on the 8th February.  Two Christmases, two New Years.  I haven’t had enough of getting fireworks thrown at my face.

Then the wheels start to come off a little.  David Bowie dies.  Now I try to stay away from current affairs, opinions and what’s going on in the world – because I don’t want to piss anyone off and I find writing something fresh about it all to be quite a challenge.  However added to the fact that less than a week later Alan Rickman also leaves us (both at the age of 69), I felt that I just wanted to pen a few words.  Especially as they both lost their respective battles to cancer.

You only had to see the enormous outpouring of grief for these two incredible men to appreciate the impact and inspiration they had in their fields.  There’s nothing I can say here that hasn’t already been said, and I won’t dwell on it, but there’s something I want to touch on that I discussed with my sister.  If you were born in the late 70’s or early 80’s, we’re reaching an age now where all our heroes from those decades growing up are going to pass on.  Every generation has men and women of legendary status in the arts, sports and so forth, but one thing they all have in common, is that as much as we’d wish it wasn’t so, they’re not going to be with us forever.

But 69 is really too young isn’t it?  Dad went at 76, mum at 68 – both from cancer related deaths.  We shouldn’t have it in this day and age!  For the millions we spend on research, support, medicine, treatment and operations, surely we have the technology to cure this horrible blight on our society?  Often courting conspiracy theory, I wonder if we do have the ability to successfully fight the disease, yet the pharmaceutical companies and money men are keeping clandestine for profit.  Will we ever really know?

But we must keep fighting the good fight I suppose.  I’m still trying to raise some pocket-money for Macmillan Cancer Support, so if you’re that way inclined, please donate a couple of bucks via my donations link at the top of the page.  Thank you.

And so begins a time when the best are taken from us and we wonder why we’re crying our eyes out over people we never met.  But we invest so much of our lives in our heroes that we almost come to know them personally.  Especially the likes of Bowie and Rickman – two men so charismatic in personality that they were your best mates and if you asked them round for tea they would have come.  Meanwhile there are those still wasting good air providing nothing of value, while the people who make the world a better place leave us and it just doesn’t seem fair at all.

But the simple fact of the matter is – that’s just life.  People die, and we need to get used to it.  Just be thankful you were around to share in that magic in the first place.  Here’s to our heroes.  Whether they were family members, teachers or global superstars – the world will never see their like again.

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