Monday, May 16, 2011

Kyrgyzstan - Part 1 - Bishkek

"In the end, what is right? What should be the standard for distinguishing between right and wrong? I have to believe that it is love for our fellow human beings, a love that wishes all who have been born on this planet happiness and freedom. No ideology or national structure is more important than this. And it is when people love that they become true heroes."
- Chingiz Aitmatov (after his father was discovered in a mass grave. Aitmatov's father lay with 138 other bodies, all victims to Joseph Stalin's regime) READ MORE about Aitmatov

Sayakbai Karalayev, one of the few chon manaschi ("Great" Manaschi), sang the entire Epic of Manas before his passing. 
It is said that it took 6 months.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

There once was a time where elaborate tales were told by word of mouth. Those renowned include Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, and Mahabharata. However, another is easily forgotten or unknown amongst the great epics that demands respect as ancient and beautiful oral ingenuity.

Manas, the holy grail of Kyrgyz storytelling, totals 500,553 lines. 20 times longer than both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, it describes the life and lineage of the nomadic Kyrgyz' greatest hero, Manas. For centuries preceding his rise to power, the Kyrgyz were pushed and scattered about central Asia from momentous battles with their arch-enemies: Kalmyks, Manchus, and Kïtai (Chinese). Manas would end this age of struggle, born "straight on his feet! / In his right hand, khan Manas / Came out holding a clot of black blood..." It was these initial moments of his life that prophesied his destiny as the quintessential hero to the Kyrgyz. And so, the epic wraps the Kyrgyz' longing for a hero into the birth, life, and legacy of their greatest leader, Khan Manas.

Now over 1000 years old, Manas has grown to become one of the greatest symbols of Kyrgyz national identity. Memorization of any such tale would seem ludicrous today, and finding a person who can tell you ancient Uruk, Greek, Algo-Saxon, or Hindu epics from memory is rare or nonexistent. Yet the life and legacy of Manas has and always will be told within the Kyrgyz culture by heart. So is the role of the manaschï (once called the jomokchu), the men (and some women) who memorize the Epic of Manas.

This monumental task is unique to other Kyrgyz storytelling. Wavers, cries, shouts, bellows, and hums resonate through every verse and transform the epic into a beautiful emotional song, interconnected with smashing fists, waving hands, pointing fingers, and many other mighty gestures. There is no single form of dictation and today there exist over 60 versions. It is not common to find a manaschï that knows the story in its supposed entirety. However, there are some chon manaschï ("great" manaschï) that have claimed to hold strong spiritual connection to Manas himself. Sayakbai Karalayev (considered the "Homer of the twentieth century") claimed that he encountered a Bakai (a direct adviser to Manas himself) in a dream. This Bakai gave Sayakbai the gift and wisdom to sing the epic. Years of endless practice and learning brought Sayakbai to the level of chon manaschï. As his life began to wane, Sayakbai found reason in vocally recording the entire epic of Manas for all to hear. He is the only person to ever record a complete version, and doing so supposedly took 6 months.

Today, several new and inspired manaschï have emerged in their passion to connect with their country's ancient roots. Even some chon manaschï still live to tell those aspiring the ancient knowledge of their great national hero, Manas.


Kyrgyz culture, though revolving significantly around the epic of Manas, is far more extensive. I looked forward to experiencing a drastic change from India as I stepped off Air Astana and into Bishkek Airport. Two whole weeks to go here in Kyrgyzstan, and the moment of arrival was already a culture shock and a half.

Customs was pristine, yet the dull white wash walls and marble floor rang an ominous echo with every step. The room was occupied only by four men bearing massive military hats. All were grunting and mumbling to each other in conversation, some staring me down in a glare occasionally. I had been forewarned of this behavior towards tourists, especially Americans. I tread lightly and respectfully to avoid misconception and approached the visa booth to find it deserted. Of the 6 people on the inbound flight, only 2 others required registration besides me. A man knocked on the opaque window of the booth only to be met with the same utter silence. He waited momentarily and knocked again. All of the sudden, the window flew open. A man had been there the whole time. Apparently, he had been sleeping as he yawned and began to devour a late night snack. Without looking at any of us, he held his hand out. "Papers," he said, and continued to eat. The man first in line handed everything over, as well as 80 US dollars.

Shit. I was hoping that an ATM would be available upon my arrival, but I was wrong. There was nothing here except for the booth, one bench, and a phone. I had no paper money except tattered rupees, all of which were meaningless to the Kyrgyz Visa processing booth. There was nothing I could have done to prepare myself for this because India does not allow withdraws of any other currency except their own, even at the airport. I took a deep breath and waited for both the men to have their visas processed. I was one lucky man who happened to be in the presence of a very friendly Japanese tourist. He had brought hundreds of US dollars with him from home. We vowed to visit an ATM after my Visa was processed.


He paused for a moment on my passport to inspect the long wavy hair in my photo. "America?" I acknowledged politely, and followed by joking ever so slightly on how different I looked. He snorted, and chuckled for a brief moment. Phew, at least I'm on this guy's good side... within a moments time he smacked a sticker in my passport, and I was done. I tried to thank him but the opaque door was already snapping shut. ...well, at least he doesn't hate me. I approached the customs desk and without a moments delay, the guard slammed a stamp on my visa. I was in.

Rounding the corner, I made a withdraw from the ATM. To my surprise, the exchange rate was exactly the same to rupees. Awesome, this place is super cheap too! Always good news to the weary traveler. My Japanese friend and I broke even and chatted for a moment outside the airport. As the conversation collided with language barriers, I took a long, deep breath.

I was in a state of nirvana. Besides the small parking lot, I was surrounded my massive trees. A slight drizzle coated Bishkek that evening, and so my nose was met with the finest aroma; oxygen, moisture, and pine. This was going to be an unforgettable part of my trip through Asia, for there was nothing more that I missed than a freshly wet evergreen forest. I stepped out and away from the shelter of the airport awning, face first into the darkness above, until a silver Mercedes pulled up. Out stepped Dennis.

I was loving these reunions with friends exponentially more as my trip progressed.  Dennis Keen, a good high school/UCSC friend from Manhattan Beach and a fellow traveler during my time in Goa, had been living in Kyrgyzstan for 8 months prior to my arrival. Throughout this time, he had been studying everything about eagle hunting in central Asia and Kyrgyz culture. I highly recommend that you take time to read his exceptional blog on all of this. Dennis' stories and information are one of a kind:

We hopped in the Mercedes and Dennis began to converse in fluent Russian to our driver explaining where I had come from and what I was doing in Kyrgyzstan. This kicked me into my overwhelming excitement mode. Dennis and I began to babble on about everything at once: what we'd been doing since Goa, the wild differences I was already experiencing, where the driver was from, what he thought of Americans, what I thought of vodka, and so on. We both decided to help out my Japanese friend get a ride to his own hotel as well, for without Dennis's superb translation ability the traveler would have easily been wearied. And it wasn't just a matter of conversation and comprehension, it was a matter of respect that Dennis brought that quickly changed people's potentially judgmental behavior towards our presence. Within 15 minutes we found the hotel, bid farewell to our fellow traveler, sped away into the night towards Dennis' humble abode.

Diner Date

Our arrival at the apartment brought wonderful surprise. I had completely forgotten that Dennis' brother, Palmer, was also living in Kyrgyzstan teaching English. After getting settled, we all decided to hit the local diner walking distance away for a first experience into the delicious, meat-laden cuisine of Kyrgyzstan. Boy, was I stoked. I had been eating spicy, fatty, sketchy food with only the choice of vegetarian, mutton, or chicken for the past 5 months, and finally I was sitting down to a simple, greasy platter of meat. Don't get me wrong, I loved every Indian meal I ate, even if it did make me sick. But my body was jonesing for simplicity of fresh bread, sharp cheese, and juicy beef.

We stepped into the diner with grumbling stomachs. As we sat down, a waitress immediately served a pot of tea, sugar, and bread. Blessing #1, received. I devoured the bread as soon as Dennis vouched it complementary and he called the waitress for our order soon after. "Devushka," he called with no avail (the word for woman. This is strangely used to call a waitress as well. It would be the same correlation for a man if the scenario came about). "DEVUSHKA!" he called, in which the waitress slightly addressed his presence yet did not approach. We waited another good while in the empty diner and eventually that same grumpy waitress approached our table, took our order, and disappeared as soon as she arrived.

This meal would end up being one of the top three in all of my excursion through Kyrgyzstan; meat, cheese, tomato; no peppers, no spices of any sort; wholesome, greasy, savory blandness. The meal was gone almost immediately after our grumpy waitress presented it. My stomach and mind were at peace after a wild 2 days return from Leh to Delhi, Delhi to Almaty, Almaty to Bishkek, which involved a 5 hour traffic jam to the airport from 907 Mukherjee Nagar and an 8 hour delay in the Almaty (Kazakhstan) airport. Just another day spending 20 hours traveling from one country to the other...

As Dennis, Palmer and I all exchanged stories about the past few months, a beautiful young Kyrgyz woman peeped her head over the booth wall. Her elegant hand slid into sight soon after, with a small shred of napkin attached. It dropped into Dennis' lap. "Call me :)" it said, with a phone number provided. We all looked at each other, and the conversation happened without words. We knew what Dennis was thinking; why add the complication of a phone call when he could just sit down with the elegant devushka right now?

And from that moment forward, I knew. Dennis, fluent in Russian, was one fine commodity for any lady of Kyrgyzstan. All he had to do was summon his slavic tongue and they were throwing him napkin shreds with phone numbers and other absurdly obvious attraction. Palmer was close behind with his brotherly connection to work with. Dennis' date, Aiday, had a friend on the other side of the table that was already making moves on Palmer. I watched from the end of the table as each woman scanned them up and down, lightly lashing their luscious eyes in an obvious, suggestive manner. DAMN Dennis! TOO easy! Not a couple minutes later, all 5 of us were back at the apartment drinking vodka, and by the end of the night Dennis and Palmer went to bed with both Kyrgyz devushka. Though I had expectations for what what would happen next, the two were keen on being fine gentlemen instead. As the wee hours of the evening drew on we all began to dose off. The devushka were first, sinking into the arms with a sigh of comfort and happiness. It was a night well spent in good company, and they'd leave it at that. But as we all sank to sleep, a smile stuck to my face for the ladies men of Bishkek.

A World Apart

Daytime in Bishkek brought a whole new zest to the city that once looked barren and bland in the dark. My initial ecstatic reaction to the greenery of Bishkek calmed as I found each and every inch of sidewalk lined with massive evergreens. I inhaled a smooth, fresh breath of air with every step. Even sidewalk canals were pristine and absent of sewage! Dennis corrected me on this appraisal, explaining that these canals channeled rainwater out of the city streets. Better yet, all the trees adjacent received rainwater from holes in the canal walls, a simple yet innovative move on the Kyrgyz to immediately reuse rainwater and benefit urban flora. I fell deeper in love with Bishkek at every street corner; auto traffic moved to the order of street lights; no horns were honked, no driving lane was ignored. And all the while, a steady flow of people both anti-social and anti-inquisitive bustled by on the sidewalk, completely ignoring my existence. The acoustic peace of mind warmed my body in a tranquil bliss as the afternoon sun shimmered through the leafy parasol above. I didn't care where we went, so long as this nurturing natural radiance did not leave me behind.

At one point, we ended up in Dubovy Park. As the sun shined down on the three of us through the clear blue sky, a strange visual caught my attention. A shower of white dots filled the sky, the park, and my face. How? I caught a particle in my hand only to find that it was a seed, covered in some sort of fuzz. An allergic hell hole or a white wonderland? "Yeah, if you have allergies in Bishkek at this time of the year, you're screwed," Dennis said. Thankfully I did not apply, and the floating pollen scattered across our visual like a peaceful daytime snowfall.

Near the end of our walk, we encountered a structure that could only remind me of an alien spaceship. After explaining that the building was used for entertainment events, Dennis remembered that the circus was in town. Freaking, glorious. We inquired inside the spaceship to find that many tickets were still available, for 2$ each. Score.

Victory Day

The most peculiar event I experienced in Bishkek (besides the circus, which you'll soon hear all about) involved the celebration of Victory Day, or the day that the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis. But hey, what better excuse than to roll out the infantry... and tanks! And why not move this mass of military power all over the city while they're at it!

Good ol' Lenin, greeting the Kyrgyz military.
No need to think about possible damages of a multi-ton tank on the road! Just let the machine leave massive tracks dug straight into hardened concrete! (I soon found out later that while the tank was being reloaded off the street, it was accidentally dropped off the lift vehicle and flipped over. I hope it isn't their best tank!)

It was getting late and we all had dinner on our minds as the soldiers marched on and into their luxurious charter buses to be transported back to base. Dennis provided some choices. "Well, there's this great Chinese restaurant, or we can get some sausages over at this spot near my place. And there's also a burger spot." ...burger...

My mouth salivated at the word. "Burgers," I demanded. I hadn't eaten a burger in 5 months, and though I suspected to have the chance in Kyrgyzstan, this city made that a reality. After a short marshrutka ride back to the apartment and a quick clean up, we were out on the streets again in pursuit of a freshly charbroiled cheeseburger. BB Burger was my hole-in-the-wall of "salivation," and the largest man I saw in my entire 6 months in Asia bestowed me this moment of glory. Even though the place was about half the size of an earthquake bin, the man still took up the entire kitchen. And he wasn't alone. Two of his big buddies were sitting in 2 of the 5 counter chairs available. I assumed they had both packed down multiple cheeseburgers at some point before my arrival. My shock at their collective monstrosity, however, ended abruptly as the patty hit the charbroil. My eyes never left the char. I'm actually going to experience America, right now. FOR $1.50! No way. I couldn't even believe it was happening until the aroma hit my nose. Those few minutes seemed like an eternity as my craving for its juicy awesomeness devoured what patience I had left to wait for glory. Then, the moment came. I wish I had a picture of my face when I took the first bite, but it was something like this:

I never felt such scrumptious euphoria from any single meal in my life. The savory, charbroiled beef patty was cooked to perfection, melting in my mouth with every bite. I entered a state of silent trance, losing connection with time through every bite. Long done with their own meal, Dennis and Palmer sat and observed. When the moment was over and not a single crumb was left, there was only one thing I could say. "Wow. I want another one." Dennis translated my immeasurable thankfulness to the chef, describing where I had come from and how long it had been since I last ate a burger. The massive man smiled and acknowledged my state of bliss as he handed my second cheeseburger over. We left, and within 100 feet from the door my to-go had disappeared. Of the 5 days I was in Bishkek, I went to BB Burger 6 times.


During the day, Dennis made plans for us to visit a local banya. Left behind from the Soviet days, these are communal same-sex spas where, for a very cheap price ($8), a group of friends (men only at this location) can relax in a sauna. For Palmer, Dennis, and I, we went big and reserved their largest spa. This included a private bathroom (equally putrid to the India poop holes), a massive bath (equally clean and large as a small American pool), a lounge room (complete with a table for 20, a fireplace, and stained glass windows), a three-tiered sauna... and a really nasty bedroom (old leopard-print sheets on the bed gave the right suggestion). And what did we add to the equation? The only thing left besides ourselves: Vodka! A bottle and 5 steam sessions later, the three of us were happily cleansed, intoxicated again, and on our way out. A wild night it was at bars and nightclubs, but all its insanity could never compare to the absurdity that following day. (READ MORE about the Banya in Kyrgyzstan at Dennis' Blog!)

A Central Asian Circus
It had all the aspects of what I expected to see at a Ringling Brothers Barnem and Bailey; multitalented people that performed comical, impressive, death-defying stunts, acts with animals that were anything but safe and controlled... and a finale speech from big-name Kyrgyz politicians. Words cannot describe the obscurity of several things I witnessed during the performance, as I was both dumbfounded and speechless for its entirety. I'll leave both videos and photos for your interpretation. I think you'll understand what I mean after viewing the media below.

Yep... make sure you show a political presence... especially if you get to see the circus at the same time!

Later that evening, Dennis and I packed to prepare for greater portion of our trip. This would be the last of my wild adventures through magnificent Asia. As the taxi drove off and into the great green pastures east of Bishkek, I began to ponder India. 3 days in Kyrgyzstan left me feeling the subcontinent as a distant past; so wildly different was India! So boundless were its landscapes of mountains, lakes, plains, jungles, cities, and people. But it was that wild, untamed infinity that my gratitude lay. When, I thought, would I ever feel that again?