Dangerous drives, dodgy coppers, devil dogs and dead goat polo

Sunday 20 March

With the Chinese government being the capricious bastards that they are, there was little else to do but go off exploring this beautiful country, so partner in crime Alex and I loaded the wagon to trek part of the roof of the world to Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  620 KM away and taking TEN HOURS to get there – we set off on our road trip to Osh.

Car advert

Car advert

Accompanying us on this perilous journey is none other than Margot – ankle biting scourge of the Krygyz, feared near and far by the heartiest of men, the hammer of Central Asia.  No bigger than a mutated rat, this harmless pooch nonetheless instills the deepest dread in all who cross her path, so much so that it’s getting utterly hilarious.  You see dogs aren’t kept as pets here.  Nobody has a dog.  So when you take little Margot out for a trundle, I’ve seen large, grown men literally leap to get out of her way, yelping with fright.  Girls have heart attacks if they catch sight of her as she nonchalantly skips past, unaware of the distress she’s causing.  I’ve watched boys ten yards ahead spy the K9 catastrophe and run and hide behind a tree until she’s a safe distance away.  They are mortally terrified of a tiny little thing with four legs.

Margot - scaring the shit out of locals since 2014

Margot – scaring the shit out of locals since 2014

Yet not so a bigger thing with four legs.  Finally I’m lucky enough to catch a game of Kok-boru, a violently aggressive team sport played on horseback, and certainly one you won’t find at the Olympics anytime soon.  Two teams of five players battle to drag a goat carcass into the opposing teams goal, with few rules to say how you manage to do it.  Players punch and kick their opponents, riding horses hard, with the beasts seen to mount each other in the ensuing melee.  Not surprisingly both rider and horse fall regularly, in a chaotic free-for-all dance kicking up dirt and dust, blood sweat and tears.  The carcass itself weighs around 20 kg (apparently filled with rocks).

Goats wanted.  Apply within

Goats wanted. Apply within

Going for goal

Going for goal

Utter chaos

Utter chaos

Meaning “blue wolf” in the Kyrgyz language, Kok-boru has its roots somewhere with shepherds chasing ravenous lupines from their helpless flocks.  It’s been played for centuries in pretty much every Central Asian country, with top players hailing from countries like Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan, where it goes by the name of Buzkashi (literally “goat dragging” in Persian).  Players are significantly weathered, with hands like tree roots often sporting more than a few missing fingers.  Games can last for days, and the festivities also include wrestling, arm wrestling, and chasing women on horseback to get a kiss.  With barely a member of the fairer sex in sight, it’s basically a day of men proving how fucking hard they are.

Until they meet Margot…

As entertaining as the sports are, it appears Alex and myself are something of an attraction too.  We’re in a backwater town called Kara Kol around halfway between Bishkek and Osh, through the stunningly beautiful Naryn river valley, and it’s impossible to escape the attentions of the locals.  We stick out like sore thumbs regardless of our cameras and killer mutt, and to be perfectly honest it grows a little uncomfortable.  In particular this can be said for yours truly, who, obviously partnering Alex, is expecting any minute to be challenged to some kind of brawl for her affections.  At one point indeed I feel the “playful” bounce of small stones hitting my back, accompanied by a gaggle of giggling.  Mounted Kok-boru players awaiting their game stare inquisitively, grimy faces accentuate gold teeth flashing in the sunlight, while Alex has no fear in snapping portraits candidly and stealing souls.  That’s because she’s not the one going to get pounded into the dirt in a murderous show of testosterone.  I’ll take anyone in a thumb war.

Men

Men

Also taking an interest are the police.  Or “cunts” as I like to call them.  This is one of the three main reasons I do miss the UK, as apart from our health and postal service, our police are the best in the world.  Of course my parents met in the force, so I use the word “cunts” specifically for those corrupt badges that seem to darken law enforcement all over the world.  Not least here in former Soviet states, where it’s an art form to avoid getting stopped by them.  Alex has already been collared for barely doing a tickle over the speed limit, and here again we’re hauled in front of some uniformed jobsworth to be given a grilling.  Lucky enough these guys are just curious more than anything else – but it’s the slimy, lazy ass traffic cops  you’ve got to watch out for.  They linger at the side of a road waving a fluorescent traffic stick like it’s a mini lightsaber or an extension of their cock.  Swinging it willy nilly and pointing at random, drivers have to pull over and pay a fine regardless of the offence.  There’s no regulation, rhyme or reason – it’s just a cop cash machine.

The stunning drive

The stunning drive

On our return trip, I’m caught (well under the speed limit) and the officer shows me a still camera image of our car way back in the distance apparently doing 78 in a 60 zone.  I was not a whisker over 55.  Lying, cheating, scheming, chancing, dirty, filthy, corrupt fucking cunts.  We stick hard to our guns this time however and he backs down, the two of us shaking our heads in utter disgust.  Alex speaks to his commanding officer in her fluent Russian, and I’m just incredulously grinning and repeating “Nyet!” into the face of the scumbag that pulled me over.  We get lucky this time though, as more often than not you don’t have leg to stand on however right you are.  This is the way of life for people here – you just accept it, pay the fine, take it up the arse, and maintain the status quo.  The powers that be rub their hands in glee.

Breathtaking

Breathtaking

Police abuse aside, the road to Osh is just beautiful and is a pleasure to drive, and cannot be spoiled by the occasional arsehole try as they might.  It winds through rocky canyon and gorge, with rolling hills, brilliant snowfields, stunning turquoise rivers, epic vistas and cows.  Oh the cows.  Dodging them becomes as difficult as dodging the police.  But the ever changing backdrop of incredible scenery is more than enough to make up for it.  From mountain to glen, snow to grass, sea to shining…no wait…we’re landlocked.   Anyway it’s like being on another planet, and it’s gorgeous.

Another gorgeous vista

Another gorgeous vista

Osh, much like Bishkek, is nothing to write home about.  The Kyrgyz don’t do cities well – they are people from the wilds of the steppe.  They are people that use the horse as their ally and nature their comrade, and concrete and cars are not so competent.  Seriously – nobody here can drive for shit.  This is mainly due to the fact that they buy their licence – AND – they can’t drive for shit.  After having driven on the most dangerous roads in the world in Iran, I’m semi used to the lawlessness here.  But much like Tehran – inner city driving isn’t for the faint of heart.

Dodgy Osh museum taxidermy

Dodgy Osh museum taxidermy

We visit a dodgy museum situated in “Solomon’s Throne”, Osh’s overlooking mountain that they’re pretty proud of.  it includes a rocky outcrop shaped like a pregnant woman that superstitious local ladies come to slide down to improve fertility.  The museum itself contains some outstandingly bad taxidermy my sister would adore.  Margot terrorises residents once again, and we attend an interesting evening of karaoke, singing along to midi backing tracks that sound like a 2 year old playing their ‘my-first-keyboard’ they got for Christmas in 1985.  We don’t sound much better while drinking a bottle of red at 6 in the morning.

Osh mosque

Osh mosque

Our adventure winds down with being the first to stay in a wonderful new guest-house one night, followed by roughing it on the way home in the back of the motor on a windswept hillside as we could drive no further.  Driving at night is also extremely dangerous – and the reason for this might surprise you as much as it did me – it’s because they don’t have cats eyes.  Trying to see the road without reflectors is a nightmare – especially snaking through steep passes with hairpin turns and sheer drops into blackness.  As fun and educational as our adventure is, it was with a sigh of relief when I turned the engine off after pulling into home.  It’s lovely to go, but it’s wonderful to return.  And it’s astounding to return alive.  Although I can’t say the same for my hair, as somewhere in the interim I’ve allowed a Kyrgyz village barber to shave it for less than 70 cents.

This is a dreadful mistake

This is a dreadful mistake

Alex doesn't know I'm throttling Margot behind her

Alex doesn’t know I’m throttling Margot behind her

Safe and tucked up in familiar surroundings with nearest and dearest is a comforting feeling, and the memories of our adventure will live long.  But solo adventures must continue, and continue they shall.  Yet at the time of writing, China still isn’t issuing visas to anyone crossing land borders and you can get bent if you think I’m flying.  If the situation doesn’t change in the next few weeks, I’m going to have to punt for plan B.  Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I wonder what their roads are like this time of year…?

Please enjoy the pictures from our adventures below dear readers, including more Kok-Boru madness, and shots from the remote village of Arslanbob.  We will talk again soon.

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China-China-China, Krygz dance recitals and abandoned Soviet factories

Saturday 19 March

Everything’s a bit shit at the moment isn’t it?  And by everything I mean the USA.  And this blog post.  Like many of you I’m honestly sick to the back teeth of hearing the name of Donald Trump, and seeing his chicken fillet face spout the words ‘China’ and ‘wall’ at mindless, brain-dead supporters shrieking as only Americans can shriek at something not worth shrieking about in the first place.  I do always chuckle though – because ‘trump’ was the word for ‘fart’ in our household as children, and I’ll never take him seriously as a result.  And that’s what he is.  A fart.  Fuck off you smelly cunt.

Short foray into politics over.

Speaking of China, I’m about to find out if I can apply for a visa.  Yes, yes I’ve been saying this for an age and you may wonder why the silence?  Well quite frankly things have been all quiet on the hitching front as I previously mentioned, I’ve been waiting out the cold weather, and figuring out which Chinese embassy actually has employees.  If Trump is barking on about their efficiency – he’s never been to one of their consulates.  Mind you neither have I – I’m just trying to be clever.

Winter in Bishkek looks to have left us with all but a whimper, spring has sprung and the time to move on is drawing nigh.  In the meantime, current partner in crime Alex and I have been having adventures.  On International Woman’s Day (something they take very seriously here in Kyrgyzstan) we took a day trip to Issy Kol lake.  Alex is also something of a keen urban explorer (one of the many things we see eye to eye on) and she’s been champing at the bit to explore the ruined, abandoned former soviet factories and boat yards of Balykchy.  This of course is music to my ears and porn for my camera.  We set off early morning to cram in as much dereliction as we can.

Bleak

Bleak

Apparently once a bustling lake port and industry hub, Balykchy is now a wasteland of crumbling factories, glimmers of former glory and what surely is a record number of Lenin effigies.  The population rose sharply in the 70’s and early 80’s, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, like many other CIS backwaters clinging to history, Balykchy has been left to wrack and ruin.  Being a Russian speaker, Alex has talked us into an all but derelict boat yard, and in chatting with the security – one of whom believed me to be James Bond – we glean that the town used to thrive with business and commerce.  Our thirty-something guide remembers times as a child when he used to frequent the docks to witness the throng of workers hammering the rivets in a deafening symphony of opportunity.  Now industry has dwindled to nothing – with only a decrepit tanker being converted into a floating night club for the summer season two years hence, presumably for the more popular resorts along the shores of Issy-Kol.  Yet one wonders if anyone will want to voyage on her at all.

Hustld?  Someone has been.  The floating night club takes shape

Hustld? Someone has been. The floating night club takes shape

The locals loss is the urban explorer’s gain, and Balykchy doesn’t disappoint.  What does is the light however, and with a four hour trip back to Bishkek we need to make tracks.  Our highlight came in the twilight though, as we finally track down and scale a fence into a former Soviet power plant, hug close to the walls, and find ourselves inexplicably whispering.  It’s exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, as the old behemoth makes unfamiliar noises, creaks and groans – perhaps a security guard on patrol or the floor about to fall through.  Margot (our K9 companion) doesn’t help matters by giving away our position with constant yelping, but to most she would just sound like any other street dog.  With light fading, we barely scratch the surface – including what appears to be an old hospital which is more or less intact.  I guess we just have to save that for another day – it’s not going anywhere for the next 50 years – except slowly into the dust.

Breaking and entering

Breaking and entering

The collapse of the USSR has got a lot to answer for (and more well than I could ever hope to cover in decades of blog posts) but countries that previously flew the hammer and sickle continue to fascinate me. The architecture, the traditions, the art, the languages, the crazy hats.  The choices communities make in what to hold onto from by-gone days and what to leave as relics in a not too distant past.  Some – like the crumbling industry of Balykchy or the decaying ships of the Aral sea – were not out of choice.  But I was (un)fortunate enough to be invited to a dance recital in Bishkek, which has traditions long established in soviet culture and is alive and well for better or for worse.

Pure nightmare fuel - and some bored looking kid dressed as a samovar

Pure nightmare fuel – and some bored looking kid dressed as a samovar

Picture – if you will – maybe thirty 4 and 5-year-olds on a stage, wearing eyebleedingly garish garb, dancing in near perfect unison to something that sounds like a vocal royal rumble between the Teletubbies, the cast of Rainbow and the backing track of the Disney ride “It’s a Small World.”  Utterly terrifying and genuinely uncomfortable, nonetheless the watching parents gush with pride and adulation while I witness the apocalypse.

Please make it stop

Please make it stop

And it didn’t end there – the event went on for a fucking eternity (as only they know how) while the curtain call was longer than the actual performance.  Different age groups took to the stage in droves to bless us with their interpretations of every dance EVER, surrounded by a sea of grotesquely garish flowers, balloons, bouquets and colour clashes that would make Monet weep.  (I’m coming to the flowers anon).  But it was always when the toddlers twerked from the wings that we squirmed in our seats and didn’t know where to look – especially when doing numbers you might witness at “The Titty Twister.”  How much do they know what they’re doing?  How much are they implicit in this?  Is it my fault I have a problem?  My own conditioning from a nanny state where filming a nativity play is illegal?!  The iPhones were out in force as toddlers in ra-ra skirts spun twirls and kicked legs like a vaudeville can-can act in a gunslinger saloon, but you’d be in the back of the Police wagon in the UK if you took a picture of a kid that wasn’t yours.

Where do you draw the line between respecting cultures and time-honoured traditions, or ripping the absolute piss while so damningly convinced that it this needs to die?  Yet for the most part the youngsters seemed to live for it – and so each to their own.  Live and let live eh?  One 4-year-old’s dream is another’s nightmare right…?

Also just as baffling is how much they venerate exorbitant bouquets of flowers, and just how much men can get away with depending on the size of the vase required.  For example – on a dating website – EVERY female profile (I kid you not) has at least one picture of her sniffing a MASSIVE bunch of blooms, regularly accompanied by one heel in the air and sporting those giant celebrity bug-eyed bitch/tart-sunglasses. (It’s similar to western women sucking on a drinks straw in their profile pictures to make them look like they’ve got big lips.  Honestly girls it’s just was bad as pulling the duck face).

“Look how much I’m loved/was loved by another dude!  How many roses can YOU buy me?”

“My man’s cock was THIS big!  This is why I’m still single and on a dating website!”

“He cheated on me several times – but so long as he gives me ALL OF THIS STUFF I’ll take him back!”

Seriously have a word with yourselves.  Money can’t buy you love.  Just ask Donald Trump.

I’ve heard the reason behind such flamboyance is a simple one.  That from where people once had nothing, now they have a something – however little –  and they’re desperate to flaunt it.  So was true for visiting the “silicone valley” in Belgrade, where women brandished brand-new boobs and men drove around in pseudo-flashy cars.  This unashamed brashness and display of gaudy wealth might make most folk with taste a little sick in their mouths – but certainly in the UK you only have to go out downtown of a night to see exactly the same behavour.  I was supporting “homeless” people who’d just bought enormous wide-screen TV’s, brand new smartphones and loud Nike trainers, but couldn’t afford to feed themselves.  Perhaps I’m noticing it again recently because it’s more commonplace behind the former red curtain?

Fascinating stuff, but onwards to update the update.  I’m stranded.  The Chinese government have seen fit to not allow anyone into the country unless you’re flying.  Currently I can’t get a visa without going through the airport and getting into one of those plane things that go missing or randomly fall out of the sky, so you can imagine I’m not game for that. Here therefore I will reside, with possibly a sneaky, unplanned visit to Tajikistan while I await the situation to change.  But in the meantime with the company I’m keeping, there are worse places to be than still stuck in the Bishkek bubble.

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