It’s not every day you manoeuvre a former President of a country into doing something they didn’t want to do, and in front of a room full of lots of people.
Roza Otunbayeva stepped down as President of the Kyrgyz Republic four months ago, and we want her to open our tourism forum in Bishkek at the weekend.
She has declined our invitation on grounds of ill health. Fair enough. But the night before our opening she’s billed as a keynote speaker at a public banquet in honour of a delegation of visiting Chinese businessmen.
I’m tasked with attending and asking her once more to come to our event, something which would increase its profile and media exposure.
Ticket booked, I arrive early with a colleague to a loud, long, low-ceilinged dining hall rendered more obscure by weighty pillars throughout. There’s no way of getting to the end of the room, and to the top table, without using elbows.
The scraping of chairs: it’s too late, we must sit and be served. A pillar in front our of table blocks much of the view.
Glamorous Kyrgyz waitresses bring mayonnaise-laced salads, manti (dumplings) and other delights that can only be described as high risk to a shirt and tie.
The clatter of cutlery fades, the speeches begin. Polite applause. And another. More polite applause. The clock ticks, a plot to lurk in the hall doorway is hatched.
Then a young man in a suit walks out among us. I have no idea what he’s saying, but he comes across as a game show host. Others appear, microphones in hand. My colleague whispers that he’s inviting questions from the assembled.
This is it.
I raise a hand. Some minutes later, I stand, lean past the pillar, smile, and ask in English that my question be interpreted into Russian, so that the whole room can understand. The young man in the suit grins and agrees. I thank him.
I say that to continue the spirit of international cooperation, which this evening so excellently illustrates, I wonder might our distinguished guest, the former President, be so kind as to open our event tomorrow morning, [giving its name and location], also extending the invitation to her guests from the People’s Republic of China?
The young man in the suit interprets. A very long moment passes. Then a murmur from the former President. The young man in the suit interprets.
Next question, and the microphone moves away.
The hours blur. It’s morning, the former President’s people are texting estimated arrival times, then changing them, then changing them again. Extra security is brought in. The current minister for tourism will also attend now, we are told. National and regional television news crews are on their way, along with Russian state media.
She makes an entrance, informing my employer that she is to be referred to as the ex-President of the Kyrgyz Republic, not the former President. She adds that she wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for “that Englishman”. She looks at me and sails by.
The ex-President gives a stirring opening speech about the need for more tourism in Kyrgyzstan as way of increasing employment and prosperity, and that she has often thought that with better infrastructure, Kyrgyzstan – sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of Central Asia, for its beautiful mountains – could become a world-renowned skiing destination.
Later that evening I would be told that the Emir of Bokhara used the phrase “that Englishman” when sentencing to death either Captain Arthur Conolly or Colonel Charles Stoddart, in 1842.
Hopefully it’s apocryphal.
The Discovery Central Asia Travel Forum took place 28-29 April, 2012, at the Golden Dragon Hotel, Bishkek. A two-minute news clip can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOM-7Ej7YY4