One of my favourite places in Bishkek is Smokie’s Bar-B-Q, a 24-hour American ribs and beer joint where many a late evening has been spent in good company.
You meet all sorts there: aviation engineers, diplomats, journalists, musicians. I’m talking to an embassy type when a tall black man in an immaculately-fitted suit walks in and stands at the entrance, surveying the premises. Heads turn, then go back to pints.
He takes off his coat and hat and orders a Johnnie Walker. He goes up to people, seemingly at random, and starts talking in the comically dreadful Cockney that Americans or South Africans attempt when trying to speak with a British accent. I assume he’s an American having a laugh.
An hour passes. No one seems to know or recognise him. He’s still talking like that.
Finally, to refill his glass, he stands by me at the bar and introduces himself. He’s half Russian, half Brazilian, and grew up in Moscow. I say who I am and try to guess his occupation. Lawyer? No. Stockbroker? No. Businessman? No. Consultant? No. Diplomat? No. I give up. My silence goes unrewarded. I say his English is good, but has an intriguing accent. Momentarily flummoxed, he says he was taught by a Frenchman. Ah, that explains all.
In Russian, he then interjects into a conversation a few yards away along the bar. There follows an awkward exchange that sounds increasingly heated, with others joining in, also in Russian. A few minutes later he puts on his coat and hat, and walks out into the darkness.
Then everyone erupts into wondering who he was. The fellow seemed perfectly pleasant, though rather odd, and nervous. As the only Brit present, I’m asked to pronounce judgment on his rather amusing mangling of the English language. A beer-fuelled consensus emerges that he was a Russian spy who’s new to the job. People laugh and say it’s a typical night in Smokie’s, where interesting things just seem to happen.
I order a plate of ribs, having previously described them in a newspaper review as resembling a car door in size, and a Rolls-Royce in quality.
When dinner arrives, a friend comes over and asks what we talked about. I tell him, saying the chap seemed harmless enough. My friend is fluent in Russian, and has lived and worked in Moscow. He narrows his eyes, and says:
“When the guy spoke Russian, it wasn’t with a Moscow accent.”
The never-ceasing mysteries of Central Asia…