Friday, February 24, 2006

Men's Day in Karakol

It’s men’s day again, that former Defenders of the Motherland Day, now searching for a reason to justify a day off work. I’m not complaining, as I’ve used the holiday to head to Karakol, on the north of Lake Issyk-Kul. I’m in an internet café that is literally an internet/café. Right next to the computers are tables where a family is gathered for dinner. As I type, I listen to women standing, lifting their shot glasses, and toasting the men in their party.

At work yesterday evening we celebrated by having beer and smoked fish and giving each man a beer glass.

I’m taking Friday off and spending the four-day weekend in Karakol. I came here last weekend – a hurried trip given the six hour drive each way – to try out the ski base. I’d heard that the Russians had invested in the base, making a nice hotel and café, and that the skiing was the best available in Kyrgyzstan. Also, given the warm weather in Bishkek, Karakol was about the only place that still had any snow.

The skiing was indeed fabulous. Wonderful snow, fresh mountain air, spectacular views of forested peaks and foggy valleys that changed with each trip up the chair lift. The only bummer was the chairlifts – tbars and individual poles that require standing and at least for me, often inspired falling. The given one’s proximity to their partner on a t-bar, I found myself in more conversations than I do on the Bishkek chairlifts. Everyone I went up with was from Bishkek. Unfortunately, no one in Karakol (where teachers are paid $30 a month) is able to afford skiing. I met an investor and director in the major bottled drink manufacturer, Shoro. I rode up with the nephew of a government deputy, who bragged to me how their family showed up with no reservations, but the fully-booked hotel cleared out two rooms for them.

“What about the people who made those reservations?” I asked.

“They told them the hotel owner came to town.”

I saw a well-built man who skied in nothing but a little pair of blue shorts, his brown body shimmering under the mountain sun. I saw a man skiing without poles, holding a baby in his arms as he went up the chairlift and skied back down. And I saw several families – mother, father and child, going up together on the t-bar. Somehow, they were able to prevent their three pair of skis from overlapping when I struggled to avoid crossing my skis with just one other person.

Anyway, I loved it and I’m back for more. I’m staying in a place that operates as a yurt camp in the summer. In the winter, I’m in a nice, wooden, relatively warm room. And I’m the only guest there. One of my colleagues should be coming out to join me tomorrow.

As I headed into Karakol in a shared taxi, a police officer stopped us at the edge of town.

“Have you been drinking on this holiday?” he asked the driver. He hadn’t. I asked the driver if he expected many drunk drivers on the road.

“Probably this evening,” he said.

So, before the local men get too crazy, I’ll be heading back to my yurt camp.

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