Postcard from Central Asia #1: Almaty, dead sheep polo, and an encounter with Kyrgyzstan’s finance minister

Dead sheep polo

Dead sheep polo

Remarkable: it’s late January, and barely a month ago was so cold a five minute walk at night numbed my gloved fingers, but the sun comes out every day now and it could be a pleasant English afternoon in April. As the months go by, I have learned to walk on inches of crushed snow, overcoming initial amazement at how everyone here seems to rush around without ever slipping.

Bishkek is home to countless grand old Soviet-era hulks of buildings, now commandeered variously by trades unions, nightclubs, offices and gyms. What strikes me on first arriving was the absence of the ezan: you can go almost anywhere in the city but you likely won’t see or hear a mosque, while in Turkey, by contrast, minarets are only round the corner wherever you are, city centre, suburbia or village.

The shops are mainly cafes, restaurants, travel agents, money changers, and internet cafes, with the odd designer baby clothes boutique. I found a bookshop with a few shleves of English-language Agatha Christie, Dan Brown, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was told later that collectors of the latter in the UK and America would pay good sums for Central Asian-language editions of Sherlock Holmes.

Almaty, four hours’ drive away over the border in Kazakhstan, resembles the City of London’s skyscraping glass and steel next to crumbling warehouses and car yards, compared with Bishkek’s endless grey-brown medium-rise housing monoliths, and occasional luxury apartment tower block. The former capital of Kazakhstan reminds me of Istanbul, in terms of its sloping streets, designer shopping, and sprawling valleys of multi-lane highways, hotels, and parks.

The trams are crisply efficient and cheap: office shoes going uphill and downhill pavements of compacted ice are not recommended. You can tell how important someone is by their footwear: they travel by car from door to door. My sturdy Clarks shoes, by contrast, are on the way to ruin after a few months of snow-trudging.

Marble is everywhere in our vast, mid-20th century hotel, and the solemn majesty of its dining hall is enlivened by a mural showing Kazakh warriors on horseback massacring some poor doomed foe:

Hotel dining hall, Almaty

Hotel dining hall, Almaty

A trip to another hotel for a meeting of Almaty’s British Business Group, to be addressed by new ambassador from the UK to Kazakhstan, Dr Carolyn Browne. Lots of tall Brits in suits – most of those working in oil tend to be Scottish – some impeccably-powerdressed Kazakh businesswomen, and a few Russians. The main industries seem to be natural resources, aviation, mining, property, and financial consultancy.

The ambassador emerges through the buffet-and-drinks crowd with that unmistakable sheen of charm, confidence, poise and purpose common to senior FCO staff. When we’ve sat in a hall, she introduces herself and tells us that British Airways is to establish a new route to Kazakhstan via Georgia. I’d taken a direct flight to Almaty on Air Astana, Kazakhstan’s national airline. An astonishingly brief six and a half hours from the UK, bearing in mind we were only a short drive from the Chinese border. The only Central Asian airline permitted direct flights into the European Union, its management bolstered by British experience.

It’s a small world here, and you can meet all sorts of people that walls of bureaucracy prevent in London. At a reception in Bishkek, held by the Japanese embassy to celebrate the birthday of the emperor, an acquaintance steps away to take a phone call and I find myself alone. A faintly familiar Kyrgyz face in a suit appear beside me, devouring a plate of canapes. Smiling, I venture:

“Oh, do you not know many people here either?”

He glares:

“There has been some mistake. I am the Minister of Finance.”

The road to the celebrated tourist destination of Issyk-kul (warm-lake in Kyrgyz: saline, while subterranean volcanic activity means its 2,230 square miles never freeze) is a dirt track in parts. But it reveals spectacular mountains; a sonic prevalence of the js, ts, ks and occasional Turkish-sounding word of the Kyrgyz language in place of Russian; and plentiful box-shaped mosques with squat, meringue-topped minarets.

Alas, I was on a coach attending a tourism conference, and couldn’t stop to hear the ezan.

A sprawling Soviet-era hotel, of long, wood-panelled corridors and enormous conference halls. Eager students, and a handful of Kyrgyz, Kazakh and Russian tourism industry types. We were treated to a splendid Central Asian banquet of barbecued meat and noodles. A young Russian I sit opposite asks if I like this kind of cuisine. Of course, I replied, it’s delicious and deserves a global audience. He looks away in disdain. He tells me later that he’s a youth representative of United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party, swinging by various former Soviet, CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries to put in appearances at such events.

Dining done, we are taken outside into the crystalline air for a recitation of an excerpt from Manas, the Kyrgyz epic poem 20 times longer than the Iliad and of unknown origin, by a young, robed manaschi. Literary scholars will no doubt be horrified, but the closest analogy I can provide is the haka of the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, in terms of its compelling intensity, yet in the few brief minutes we enjoy it varies considerably in tone and delivery. I have yet to find an English-language translation, though I dare say there’s probably a CD box set of a recitation for sale somewhere in Bishkek.

Some men appear with horses. A ripple of excitement through the gathered: this was to be a demonstration of what I call dead sheep polo, and what seems to have several different proper names, so I won’t attempt any. Each team tries to scoop up the forlorn woolly corpse and drop it through a tyre, thus scoring a goal. Great stuff, and for a few moments I forget the creeping cold of the late afternoon.

An edited version of this was first published in the Royal Society for Asian Affairs newsletter of Spring, 2013 


About James Willsher

Newspaper and magazine reporter since 2004, has freelanced in Russia and Central Asia, and does local government PR. Likes green tea and interviewing people / places. Phil Garrett was a pen name. @JGWillsher
This entry was posted in Almaty, Bishkek, Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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