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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.