Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bishkek (f.k.a Frunze) Kyrgystan

Visas, vodka and crooked cops

The above sort sums up what I have been getting up to in this fair city. In order to make some chronological sense I will say how I got here and also because it introduces what I think might be recurrent theme in Central Asia; Borat Moments.

Borat Moments are when Central Asia gets really weird from a Western perspective. The reason I want to identify them as such is because I might be jotting a fair few of them on this blog. If I don't highlight them as out of place or one of those special moments that make backpacking interesting I fear my reports from CE might become an increasingly nasty collection of stereotypes. So here goes:

I managed to catch a Mashrutko (minibuses that have taken over from the dying public transport sytem) to Bishkek after wandering around the Almaty Bus station and pestering people. Word got around and I was identified to a huge man with a complete set of golden teeth who was trying to fill up his mashrutko and off I went. Though not as interesting as I am in China I still stood out hence a joyful Q and A in Russian. Lots of Qs, precious little As.

One chap had some halting English and happened to be a Hui Chinese (Chinese Muslims). We got to chatting in bad English and bad Chinese and had a good time as he was as Hanzi illiterate as I was and we spent some time slagging of the Chinese Alphabet. As we got closer to Bishkek he gave me his number and told me to call in case of probs. I was quite chuffed then he said that he would sort me out with a pozzie. I was pissing myself and shaking my head and he started to backpedal. Sort of. He leaned over and told me not to worry. The girl was very clean and she worked for the Chinese embassy. Borat Moment number 1.

Anyways I got myself settled in a nice guesthouse and got to chatting with other backpackers, many of whom had been in Bishkek for a while. This is odd for Bishkek is not the most charming place on Earth. It looks a bit like a rundown Almaty with a lot of crumbling Sovbloc architecture. It's not shit per se but, in a country reputed for it's mountains and trekking, it a bit strange to meet so many folk dossing around. The reason for this is visas.

A combination of dictatorial/paranoid decrees, bureaucracies based on the Soviet model and evershifting international politics means that the Stans are a place where the unprepared, happy go lucky and foolish backpacker (like me) is confronted with the same idiotic obstacles to travel as we place on citizens of poorer countries.I have had to play this game but as it is in process I don't want to jinx it by giving details.

Aside from begging for visas Bishkek is a great place to learn how to deal with the bent cops of Central Asia. They are very light fingered and prey on foreigners as they have sussed that we have an inate respect/fear of the fuzz. The name of the game for them is to isolate a tourist and remove them from public sight. They will then serach the poor soul and steal some cash. I am often spared as I look a bit Russian but I have recently lost my crooked cop virginity and managed to walk way with my dosh intact. As this blog might be read by folk who might one day come here I will now give step by step instructions on how to deal with this.

1: Get surrounded by blokes who may or may not be real cpos. Get shown badges and asked for passport.
2: Remember that under no circumstances whatsoever you should hand over your real passport and give them a photocopy.
3: Get asked for real passport.
4: Invent feeble lie about passport being at embassy, hotel, with wife etc
5: Get asked to go round the corner/get into a car/come to the police station
6: Say Nyet
7: Repeat steps 5 and 6 a few times
8: Have awkward moment of silence
9: There are 2 options here. a) cops get bored and tell you that you are free to go. b) You get bored and just walk away.

It's scary the first time but after that it's a doddle. People who have been stuck here for a long while have reached the point where they don't even stop for a play. They just tell the cops to fuck off and keep walking. I know it sounds like a very risky strategy but in fact the cops are trying their luck and ther is precious little they can do. It's not worth the risk trying to frame you and getting consulates involved for the sake of a few dollars.

Another fun thing I have been doing is getting used to drinking vodka. I still think of it as a drink for teenagers, russians or slappers so it takes a while to adapt. It's cheap as can get here but it's worth upgrading a bit. There is the less than a dollar for a litre variety which is foul and might kill you. There is is the 2-5 dollar bottles that are OK and there are the pricey bottles which are pointless because vodka is a tasteless booze anyway.

If Vodka is not your thing you can try kumyz which is fermented mare's milk (or some other animal when not in foaling season). It tastes as good as it sounds. Just say no.

I have also been to the public baths with a group of equally culturally inquisitive and mildly pissed backpackers. The baths were a collection of strange Borat Moments. We got the hint this would be weird when we got to the locker room. One drunk chap mimed to us that a lot of the people came as they don't have washing facilities where they live. as a result the place is packed and we had to wait for a locker to free up.

All good you might think but this means standing amidst shedloads of naked Kyrgyz blokes and, bear in mind this is a Muslimish country, 2 bored middle aged women who opened lockers and sold soap. 2 of our party bailed out at this stage. We eventually got a locker, stripped, felt awkward and walked into the first room. This was the shower room.

The first thing that greeted our eyes was a table where the locals lie down and get a mate to soap them form head to toe up before hosing them down. Other activities in the shower room were scrubbing bollocks in front of a mirror, shaving the bikini line (WTF???), getting a mate to aim the hose at your arsecrack and staring at naked foreigners.

We then went to the insanely hot sauna where we sweated and got instructions on how to beat ourselves and each other with twigs fomo a fat bloke who wore nothing but a Kyrgyz felt hat. Once we started to find it difficult to breathe we pegged it to the cold pool inside a large dome, dove in and shouted profanities. We repeated this a few times

After a final shower and we walked out of the baths and went to the bar. The same dress code of fuck all applies and you can buy cold beer and sandwiches. Stage as it seems it's hard to leave the bar as the combination of a sauna and cold beer leaves you very relaxed.

Anyways I am getting out from Bishkek to get some hiking done before it gets too cold. I have been sitting here getting pissed and grovelling in front of consular officials for too long. I like the boozing though as Central Asian backpacker war stories are a fuck of a lot more interesting than south East Asian ones. It's a bit more tricky to get around here so there are precious few gappers on a pisstrip here and lots of old trailers who have been milling around the world for a couple of decades on and off. There are also a lot of chaps who seem intent on making life as difficult for themselves as possible. Example below.

If any of my more sedentary readers think what i am doing is intrepid/interesting/outright stupid you might want to check these guys some of whom I have just met at the hostel ( just to get some perspective. They are doing a similar route to mine (the other way) but they are doing it in Trabants which happen to be both iconic and very, very crap. Getting around the Stans is annoying enough for people and you can imagine what bureacratic hurdles they face trying to do it in silly cars with 2-stroke engines. They are a good laugh though and I am suprised they are still upbeat and not suicidal.

Off to the hills,

Take care,



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