Saturday, September 18, 2004

Lake Issyk-Kul

One evening I happened across Lost in Translation on TV. I didn’t like the movie much the first time I saw it, but watching it in Russian in Kyrygzstan gave it entirely new meaning. Suddenly, the portrayal of cultural isolation, of feeling oneself alone on an oasis among a sea of otherness, suddenly rang true. I could relate to the strangeness, both in being looked upon as odd and gazing around me at the strangeness, having to get used to everything from the dates being written backwards, to people buying goat heads off the street, to large ads promoting BARF laundry detergent and figuring out that hot water requires turning the handle to the left in the bathroom and to the right in the kitchen.

While I have lots of interaction with the locals, it’s been difficult so far to form relationships, especially since I live alone and spend most of my time at work. I’ve gotten to know several employees through the course of work, but haven’t spent any time with them outside of work. Unlike teaching, where everyone is pretty much on the same level, I’ll soon be managing the type of employees I currently work with daily and that adds a level of complication to social relationships. There are several shopkeepers I buy from frequently and we have friendly relations, but it doesn’t go beyond casual conversation. And except for the man who came here for internet love and my two German colleagues, I haven’t had any contact with Westerners.

I decided to get out of the city last weekend, to see Kyrgyzstan’s famous lake while the weather was still warm, and to get a glimpse of life outside the capital. Early Saturday morning, I took a minibus for the four hour trip to Lake Issyk-Kul. It seems Boris Yeltsin was traveling to the same place at about the same time, so the streets of Bishkek were lined with police. I’d seen Yeltsin on TV, handing out awards to students at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavic University in Bishkek. Someone later told me that they recently put up a silver statue of Yeltsin on the university grounds. “In Russia, no one will even name a primary school after me,” I was told he said, “but here they give me statues.”

The scenery along the road to Lake Issyk-Kul was much more rocky, scrubby and rough than I expected. We started out driving through golden fields leading to snow covered mountains, then entered a dry, dusty landscape that soon led to brown mountains folds on either side of us. A silver, rapidly flowing river cut rudely through the landscape. Cows grazed lazily alongside it. The land was empty – no billboards and no strip malls, just fields, clusters of homes, and occasional roadside stands, selling apples, pears and mountain honey. As we passed through the mountains and into the open valley, the river water stilled, the sparkling blue so pure in the dusty, rough landscape.

Issyk-Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s equivalent of Russia’s Lake Baikal, and is the prime local vacation spot. Issyk-Kul means ‘warm lake’ and the light salinity, depth and thermal activity prevent the lake from ever freezing. The tourist resorts are concentrated on the north shore, where the water is more shallow and the beaches sandy. I chose to go a village mentioned in my guidebooks that didn’t have major tourist infrastructure, but was supposed to have a good beach. It sounded like a nice place to enjoy the nature without the noise.

I hadn’t made any plans in advance and was a little nervous when I was dropped off alone in the village of Tamchy. The only sound on the main street, Manas, was that of cawing crows and barking dogs. Luckily, I found that lots of houses had “rooms for rent” signs posted to their fences. Since I arrived after the season had already ended, it was easy to find a place to stay. I walked down the lake and approached a house on the shore to see if they had rooms available. They did. For $2.50 I got a lakeside view. I also got some bedbugs, but it was worth it.

After having a simple lunch of fried lamb on the bone in a lakeside yurt, I changed into my swimsuit and relaxed on the poplar-lined beach. I marveled at the blue band crossing the horizon right in front of me, pushing back the mountains on the lake’s southern side. Across the water, the snowy mountains were distant, ephemeral, floating. The mountains were barely visible, just the snowy tops floated in the sky like low-lying clouds.

I ate my meals in the house owned by the Kyrgyz family, at the cholpon, a long table on a raise platform surrounded by dirty felt and wool blankets. A large, old poster of a waterfall covered the white wall and two abacuses lay against the walls. A small TV in the far corner played cartoons. The room was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and smelled of livestock and butter.

For dinner I had manti, steamed dumplings filled with meat, potato, onion and fat. For lunch I had plov, fried rice with lamb, onion, carrot and fat, along with some fresh apricots from their trees, homemade butter, and a homemade tomato sauce. During both meals, I had long chats with the family. The husband, Barat, was a round, serious man with a large, protruding stomach. His wife Gulnya was also wide, with a friendly, round, wrinkled face and a worn, pale-blue skirt and shirt.

“Life was better during Communism,” Barat told me, as I chewed on my manti, continuing the chorus that I heard repeatedly, especially from middle-aged and older men. “We didn’t have to worry about tomorrow then, but now we do. People thought that if they got rid of socialism, there wouldn’t be war. But even without socialism, Chechens are fighting, there was war in Tajikistan, and fighting in Georgia.”

His wife entered and chuckled at hearing his socialism reminiscences. “He was a Communist party member,” she said.

“For how long?” I asked him.

“Twenty years.”

“Was it hard to become a member?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied proudly. “The problem was that the Communist at the top didn’t practice true Communism. They took everything for themselves. If our society was 60 percent rich and 40 percent poor it would be OK. But we have over 90 percent poor. It’s not good.”

He came to the village of Tamchy when the Communist party sent him there from his birthplace on the southern lakeshore, to work in the village kolkhoz. He met his wife there and they’ve lived on the lakeshore since 1973, where they raised five children. They start their day at 6:30 by milking the cows, then sending them up to the mountains that rise over the village to graze. When I visited, they were digging up potatoes from their garden, and packing apples and pears from their courtyard trees into a wholesale vendor’s car. They also run a pharmacy and have been renting rooms to tourists for the past four years.

I asked about wife-stealing and Barat said that he didn’t steal his wife. “She agreed, and even smiled,” he said. He told me that wife-stealing was forbidden during Soviet times, as was having multiple wives. “People would go to jail for that,” he said. “But now, the government has decided to not take a stand, to neither prohibit it or to encourage it. As a result, we have some top government leaders with multiple wives.”

He said that in his village, like among the Buryats in Siberia, couples usually mutually agree to marry, then act out a kidnapping for the sake of tradition. “The kidnapped woman still cries,” he said. He said that unexpected and unwanted wife-stealing does happen in his village, but rarely. He said it’s much more common in the south, where I’ll be living next. “There, an older man like me can see a woman on the street, talk to her father, and arrange to have her stolen. His son may never have even seen her before. But love will come later.”

Barat and Gulnya offered to serve as my adoptive parents if I end up working in a nearby city and invited me to come next time as a guest.

I had been developing what I thought was a cold over the weekend and by Monday I was definitely sick. I came home from work after lunch and was flat on my back with a bad case of traveler’s sickness for another day or so. I’m better now, thanks to the miraculous Cipro and just appreciate my health.

In the city, the leaves are not so much changing color as drying. The leaves, turning yellow after months of heats, twirl gracefully toward the ground, as smooth, barrel-shaped acorns fall from oak trees onto the heads of pedestrians. It’s still warm, especially in the afternoons, but the feeling of fall is in the air.

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