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Posts Tagged ‘Kyrgyzstan’

Out and About

Life is life, na na na na na. – Opus, ‘Live is Life’

It may just be the case that my visit here concludes rather sooner than anyone expected, for reasons that those pesky professional ethics preclude me from going into in any detail. Suffice to say that things are not going to plan and it is a struggle to keep the situation at work from colouring my whole perception of Bishkek and the trip. (What is it with me and this country?)

I am not seeing quite as much of the city as previously, as (as part of this week’s shenanigans) I have been required to move apartments. The good news is that the new place is closer to the city centre (about a block south of the Metro Bar, KR old hands – I will just mention that the closure of the US air base a few years ago has seemingly hit the place hard and it is a shadow of its former, never especially substantial self). The bad news is that it resembles the kind of place that recently-recanted still-under-surveillance political dissidents would be housed in: small, receiving virtually no natural light, and lacking in essential things like cutlery and anywhere comfortable to sit. Given the choice I would have taken the 35 minute walk and/or taxi fares willingly.

Walking around at least gives you a chance to get a sense of the city: mostly quite modern, laid out on a grid system, and sloping very gently away from the mountains to the south. I get the sense that most Kyrgyz with any money don’t tend to walk anywhere, as any time I ask colleagues how far away somewhere is the answer is wildly inaccurate – ‘it’s an hour’s walk to the office’ turned out to be only about half that, while ‘it’s only five minutes away’ in reality was more like a quarter of an hour.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which made the morning walk to work so pleasant.

In the morning, though, the streets are full of people going to work or school. If a dust storm has blown down from Kazakhstan (this is neither as interesting nor dramatic as it sounds) some of them will be out sweeping the pavement outside their shops with proper Harry Potter-style brooms. American-style sportswear is the preferred clothing option for younger people: older Kyrgyz men often wear the traditional Kyrgyz hat regardless of the rest of their wardrobe choice.

Walking around Bishkek is a decent option if you have the time and stamina for it, the only wrinkles coming from the poorly maintained pavements – you have to keep an eye on where you’re treading, doubly so after sundown, although people seem to have stopped nicking manhole covers to sell as scrap – and the constant adventure of negotiating the street crossings.

This is mainly because traffic signals appear only to be advisory here, unless a traffic cop is in attendance. One thing I suspect I will never get used to is a fully-loaded minibus screeching to a half about eight inches away from me while I am in mid-crossing with the green man still fully in effect. The people on board usually give hardeye to express their outrage that pedestrians should be on crossings, of all places. When possible I take my usual approach and try to make sure a local person is crossing at the same time as me, preferably between me and the oncoming traffic.

The other travel options vary. There are still buses and trolleybuses, wires zinging and twanging overhead, and while these are apparently cheap I have no idea of the schedule. Most people’s first choice is a marshrutka, which is the Russian name for one of those minibuses I mentioned earlier. There are swarms of these all over the city but I have always been very reluctant to use one – partly because (ten years ago at least) a foreigner boarding the vehicle unleashed every person’s inner pickpocket, but also because I can imagine getting on one of these things to go to work, making an elementary Russian mistake and ending up in Uzbekistan.

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One of the charming Kyrgyz water features which makes walking home at night so challenging.

Then there are taxis. These are also ubiquitous. One of the big changes since 2009 is that everyone who wants one now carries a smartphone and as a result the taxi meter has now reached Bishkek. Back in ye old days, the price of a taxi was negotiated in advance and likely to triple if, for example, it was snowing. In my experience, Bishkek taxi drivers were matched in sheer piratical ruthlessness only by the tuk-tuk operators of Galle in Sri Lanka. Everything is much more civilised now.

And, like everywhere else, you can learn a lot from talking to a taxi driver. A decent percentage of these have English good enough to carry on a basic conversation. One guy all but shook his head in marvelment as he shared his opinion that virtually every American traveller of his experience was basically a hedonistic kidult (I paraphrase). Another cheerfully told me of his three children, aged 19, 17, and 2. When I commented that they were (to put it delicately) unevenly spaced, he explained why. ‘For many years no kids. Then doctor he say I have problems with my Testarossa so I get injection in my arm and my daughter is born.’ (He was driving a Nissan when he took me home. I suppose his other car must be a Testarossa.)

***

But what kind of city are these people driving around? Much of it is unchanged from 2008-9: the traffic is mostly the same, the pavements are still unkempt, the nicer avenues lined with trees, the derelict buildings crumbling away. Most street corners still have a woman under a garish umbrella selling drinks to passers-by – it looks more professional, even branded, but that’s the only difference.

Bishkek has changed though: there is a swagger and colour and energy about the place that feels new. Construction sites are everywhere as new buildings shoot up; it now has at least three big malls. One of these, the Asia Mall, even has its own branch of KFC in its food court. (The quintessence of Bishkek is embodied by the fact that, as far as pedestrians are concerned, this supermodern consumerist temple complex is approached via the creakiest, ricketiest old  footbridge imaginable.)

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It’s an impressive pile, and I understand it was built by a local tycoon who wanted to go into politics (‘Make Kyrgyzstan Great Again’), as a blatant attempt to buy the votes of local shoppers and lovers of fried chicken. Apparently, when his run for office ended in failure he was obliged to flee into Kazakhstan, pursued by allegations of corruption.

One of the things I am obliged to do here is hang out with various NGO employees and I did comment on the amount of new construction taking place in the city. I asked them what had made this happen, expecting to hear that it was all about new inward investment. They had a different answer. ‘Political corruption,’ they said, matter-of-factly. It’s all a question of the right people getting the right kickbacks, apparently. The current government is attempting to tackle the problem but with only limited success, according to my informants.

And even if you view the regeneration of Bishkek as a good thing, albeit a compromised one, it’s still relative. My understanding is that the money flows into Bishkek and pools there, not benefiting the countryside much. And when I told some local colleagues how impressed I was with the changes in the city, even suggesting it was now a kind of boom town, the response was ambivalent at best. ‘I can see how you would think that, if you weren’t probably going to spend the rest of your life here.’ That gave me pause, and strikes me as fair comment. Right now I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, but it certainly won’t be long enough to really understand a city like this one. It is what it is. Bishkek is Bishkek (na na na na na).

 

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Dependence Day

The last time I was hereabouts, a couple of waggish fellow expats started a magazine they called The Spektator, which covered all aspects of Kyrgyz life in a usually-sardonic fashion. One of the contributors was a guy who I briefly shared a bathroom with, whom old friends and family may recall was the one who stole the bathplug when he moved out and had the habit of washing his dishes using the shower (our kitchen arrangements were a bit basic). Bits of veg and potato were wont to linger: in our apartment, one did not so much take a bath as participate in a rather large ad hoc casserole.

Bathroom Man’s finest hour came when he delivered a sizzling and, to be fair, very funny expose of an NGO away-day held near Issyk-Kul under the auspices of the UN, for whom he worked. His descriptions of ice-breaker games with Kyrgyz tribal elders forced to have post-it notes stuck to their heads and his portrait of the UN agency chief as a man who spent most of the weekend either sunbathing or playing ping-pong were certainly vivid and imaginative. Unfortunately his imagination did not extend to working out just what would happen when his bosses at the UN read his little essay, which was more than likely to happen given that the foyer of the UN building in Bishkek was one of the places which had agreed to sell The Spektator and his piece was mentioned on the cover. I have no idea whether he took the plug with him as a souvenir when he left the country a short time later.

I mention all this because I am reluctant for the same thing to happen to me. I am here primarily on a working visit, and I would like to say a little something about what I’m up to, but, you know, I don’t want to get into trouble for being remorselessly flippant about colleagues or the company or otherwise bringing the firm into disrepute. So bear with me and forgive a little vagueness: I’d rather not come home ahead of schedule. [Kind of ironic as it eventually turned out – A]

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The kind of anonymous picture of a Bishkek park which will not show up in search engine results and as a result help me keep my job.

***

August the 31st is the official day of our office’s Grand Opening, so chosen because it is Kyrgyz Independence Day (the 28th of that ilk, if my maths is correct). Everyone has been working horribly hard since long before I arrived getting the place spick and span and ready for the big day. The official ribbon-cutting is not until early evening but even so I turn up around 8.30 a.m. expecting a hive of activity.

I do not find it. Instead I find one of the girls from the front office sitting on the steps down to the front door (our place is, for want of a better expression, in a basement) with an enormous bucket which turns out to be full of raspberries. She is hugely apologetic about our being locked out but generous with the raspberries, which are probably the best I’ve ever tasted. (Apparently the berries are destined for jam.)

It eventually turns out we are not locked out at all, but I never quite manage to get to the bottom of why we couldn’t get in. Within there is indeed all the hustle and bustle I anticipated as about a dozen various members of staff make final preparations. Balloons are being inflated by the dozen, discoloured ceiling tiles in high-traffic areas are being swapped with pristine ones from quiet corners, and someone who seems to be a professional beautician has set up in one room and is working her magic on the staff (she refuses to let me come anywhere near her). Someone with a frankly underpowered electric drill is putting up pictures and signs at a rate of knots: halfway through the morning the health and safety notice falls off the wall and nearly causes a nasty accident, while my own portrait later does its bit to try and preserve the eyesight of our clients by hurling itself onto the floor in the middle of the night.

But it’s all very good-natured given the stress everyone is under. This is no small deal: we have been promised that the Vice Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan will be attending, along with various other eminent local bods. The fact that it is also Independence Day, and the third World Nomad Games are due to open the next day (basically they’re like the Olympics, but with more goats), may have thinned out the really top-drawer VIPs, but I can still sense the nervousness. Frankly, I share it: my previous and only meeting with a senior Kyrgyz politician came in late 2008, when the Minister for Culture threw me out of the National Opera House (it’s a long story).

There’s not much to do in my particular area of responsibility and so I end up floating about taking the odd behind-the-scenes photo (none of which I can really share, just to be on the safe side). I ask the local director if there’s anything I can do to help and get a startling response: BBC Kyrgyzstan is coming to cover the opening, and would I be willing to do an interview with them? Me? And the BBC? Would I ever.

***

The official photographer turns up, which makes me feel like even more of a spare wheel, and also the tamada, or master of ceremonies for the occasion. (I was slightly alarmed that this might turn out to be another encounter with the tamada from my wedding, who did a nice line in impressions of Soviet leaders, but it was a younger, hipper guy who appeared, resplendent in designer glasses and a velvet jacket.)

The office is reaching peak balloon, with a whole wall of the things erected to block off one of the site’s less appealing corridors: this turns out to be less of a good idea when it’s remembered the kitchenette is down there which the caterers will need access to.

We are all dragged into one of the larger rooms for another round of official portraits with the photographer. It is decreed that the shorter members of staff must stand on a large paint pot in order to make best use of the painted backdrop. I am not one of the shorter members of staff and end up standing on a wooden pallet instead.

All this time the tamada is warming up and checking his sound system at the other end of the room. We pose for our photos while sounds of beatboxing and chicken noises float around the room. It seems strangely in character with the rest of the day so far.

Finally the MD of the company arrives, looking as bleary as you would expect of a man on a business-related day trip to Central Asia from the UK. He wanders about looking duly and genuinely impressed with everything.

His arrival is shortly followed by that of the BBC crew, led by a middle-aged man in a loud check jacket which is, to be perfectly honest, a couple of sizes too small. I am all set to talk to them but a wrinkle rapidly manifests. Not only are BBC Kyrgyzstan more interested in talking to the experienced and important MD than some doofus from the UK who’s only here because he was the only person who vaguely met the job spec, they turn out to be a Kyrgyz-only TV channel, with special dispensation made for Russian speakers if the situation demands it. As my Russian only really extends to ‘Give me cheeseburger and Sprite, please’, the interview is off. I retreat to my office and brood darkly about how my licence fee is spent.

More dignitaries turn up from various regional bodies and the deputy UK ambassador to the region. We were hoping that the bagpipe band the British Embassy is sending to the opening of the World Nomad Games could spare us a few minutes, but apparently they are too jetlagged to puff at the moment. There is a genial encounter between various worthies in the corridor, followed by an awkward interlude in which half a dozen people with multiple jobs all exchange business cards with each other in near silence.

Finally, with a couple of jobbing violinists from the Kyrgyz National Orchestra filling in for the bagpipes and providing some mood music, the Vice Prime Minister arrives. (I am slightly bemused to report that half an hour of intensive research on the internet has left me no wiser as to what her actual name is. It seems to be some kind of state secret.) The moment of crisis arrives as I actually have to meet her, but I mumble ‘Nice to meet you’ in Russian before she is ushered away to company more fitting of her great status.

And so it goes on. The MD is given the traditional (in more ways than one) kalpak as a gift (this is an ethnic Kyrgyz hat) and we have the actual ribbon cutting ceremony. There has clearly been some kind of debate over status and rather than risk upsetting anyone, a five-foot stretch of ribbon is to be cut by no fewer than four people simultaneously: the MD, the Vice Prime Minister, the Deputy Ambassador, and someone from an important regional agency. They tackle this slightly unusual task with about as much dignity as one could hope for. Then we are off to one of the big rooms for speeches, the tamada‘s spiel, and a quick quiz about the company with prizes for the winners.

Finally it is time for the buffet, which is rather good (though as we are in Kyrgyzstan, it is heavily meat-and-pastry based). I find myself talking to someone who is either an assistant chef at the German Embassy or the Deputy Ambassador; either way she has dressed down for the occasion. Only having had a couple of bread rolls, some raspberries, and some sushi all day I do eat rather a lot.

Finally the event seems to be winding down, with senior guests heading off to events for Independence Day and the Games. I am looking forward to getting home myself, before I am invited to a swanky restaurant by the senior management and the MD’s party. I always struggle to say no to this kind of invitation, and we head off into the dusk.

***

The swanky restaurant bears the name of Mikhail Frunze, a famous Red Army commander and hero of the revolution who was born in the city and whom Bishkek was for many years named after; this is the kind of odd historical quirk that is really common in these parts (Frunze also has a chain of supermarkets named after him).

What he would make of the restaurant I am not sure. For me, it is heading into Bond film territory as we find ourselves sitting outside in a small pavilion (it is a very mild evening), six of us sitting around a table intended for twice as many people. Beefy men drinking beer occupy the surrounding pavilions and from somewhere behind us comes the vague football-crowd roar of thousands of people celebrating together in the centre of the city.

As the table is slowly covered by dishes of meat and bread and vegetables – far too much for us to eat all of it – the conversation turns to the events of 1991 and memories of the dissolution of the USSR: the MD recalls catching a train from Kiev to Moscow and being turned back at the Ukraine-Russia border as the visa requirements had changed in the short time since he’d bought the ticket. Kyrgyz colleagues recall the fact that their country won independence without having to struggle for it at all.

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On the other hand, it occurs to me (and I keep this to myself) that many Kyrgyz people, especially the older ones, still seem a little ambivalent about the move away from the Soviet system. Statues of Lenin and Marx are still cheerfully standing in the parks of Bishkek. Bishkek itself seems to be on a roll currently, but I can’t help remembering the deprived state of the countryside and its villages last time I was over here; agriculture was left in a terrible state by the withdrawal of support. I think many people might welcome the chance to again be part of something larger.

Which, of course, is really why I’m here. A long-established Kyrgyz company is going into partnership with one from Britain, giving up much of its autonomy to join the group. That is what today was all about, when you really dig down into it; although nobody was saying as much, of course. Still, maybe there’s something to be said for celebrating Dependence Day as well as Independence Day. Or it may just be that the local beer is going to my head.

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As the wisdom of the ancients tells us, a journey of 3500-ish miles begins with a short trip on the U1 BrookesBus. Having bidden a fond farewell to my landlord and landlady (‘I’m just popping out to Kyrgyzstan – back in a couple of months’), and spent the best part of an hour contemplating the importance of a close reading of the bus timetable, especially on a Bank Holiday weekend, I find myself on an almost-deserted Heathrow Express coach, contemplating an overcast evening and a trip which I would never have anticipated two months earlier. Was this how Sean Connery felt as he slipped the dinner jacket back on in 1982? It occurs to me that, actually,  I never said ‘never again’, but it certainly felt that way for a long time. And yet here I am, once more Bishkek bound.

***

Quite soon I am reminded that while I love to travel, the actual travelling is often not what it’s cracked up to be. The only really pleasant experience of air travel I’ve ever had was when I got bumped up to First Class flying home from Sri Lanka  in 2010, and you can’t rely on an exploding volcano every time you go anywhere. Quite apart from the grim food and the lack of sleep and legroom and all the hanging about in departure lounges, I always find airports to be rather dispiriting places.

In theory it should not be this way. Airports should be the closest thing to a crowd scene from a Star Wars or Star Trek movie that you’re ever likely to encounter in real life, as individuals from all ethnicities and cultures mingle indifferently with one another. And there is indeed an element of this. But it inevitably gets eclipsed by the Gucciness of everything: any sense that you are entering a global realm of infinite possibilities is branded into oblivion long before you get on the flight.

***

The evening wears on and shortly before 11 we pile aboard the good ship (well, Airbus) Boris Pasternak, a proud aircraft operated by (according to our captain) ‘the legendary Aeroflot’.

Well, maybe, for a given value of ‘legendary’. When I was a young man and had no ambitions to even learn where Kyrgyzstan was, let alone go there and play a role in shaping the future of this proud nation (hey, it could happen), I was still aware of the eye-opening reputation that Aeroflot had acquired in the early years of the post-Soviet era. Many jolly tales of people with crossbows in their carry-on luggage and flights being diverted after the discovery that the plane’s hydraulic fluid had been topped up with lemonade were in circulation, all good fun until you actually have to trust them to get you somewhere in one piece.

To be fair, Aeroflot seem to have got their act together in the nine years since I last travelled with them, and the experience is generally speaking much less character-building this time round. The flight is less than half full, giving everyone plenty of space to stretch out and relax during the short flight to Moscow; I am even able to ignore the person in front of me watching A Quiet Place on their seat-back screen and get it well out of my eye-line.

It’s still hard to ignore the fact that the airline feels a lot more slick and corporate than it did even ten years ago. Adverts for the ‘Aeroflot Bonus Scheme’ regularly flash up on the seat-backs while we are waiting to fly, and just below in the pocket is a hefty catalogue proudly entitled ‘Sky Shop’. They have learned to play this game rather well. Even the polystyrene cups that the water and fruit juice come in features the Aeroflot logo in conjunction with that of the Coca-Cola company. Globalisation at its most thrusting.

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On the other hand, it is still broadly speaking true that Aeroflot’s female cabin crew fall into two camps: those who look like they just failed to make the cut at supermodel school, and those who resemble niche-market dominatrices coming up to retirement age. The airline appears to have changed its uniforms since the last time I was in these parts, investing in lurid red-orange outfits for the flight attendants. All this, added to the fact the company logo still incorporates a discreet hammer-and-sickle motif, makes it hard to shake the impression that I am somehow appearing in a dodgy Brezhnev-era Gerry Anderson knock-off.

Partway through the flight they come round with the food and the attendant looks earnestly at me as he asks what I would like to eat: ‘chicken or lamp?’ I play it safe and go for the chicken; I’m 90% sure I know what he means, but this is still Aeroflot, after all.

***

It was Douglas Adams who wisely observed that no language on Earth contains the saying ‘it was as beautiful as an airport’. Ten years ago, Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow was particularly offensive to the eye, resembling a recession-struck shopping centre in the grim north of England, but these days it is borderline appealing. In addition to various places selling ethnic food from the former SSRs, ten metres from my departure gate there is even a branch of Burger King (or ВУРГЕР КИНГ, as the logo reads in Cyrillic). It seems this is to be the theme of my journey: the deafening sound of big brand music.

And it makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose. Airports and the like are the only truly international spaces, after all, so of course visiting them will reveal what it really is that holds international society together. And at the moment it seems to be fast food, big-name soft drinks, and fashion labels. The young Russian tourists waiting for their flights are often indistinguishable from their American counterparts, all of them in baseball caps and ripped jeans and other bits of designer clothing. They queue for the toilets (which seem to have temporarily packed up) with the greatest of equanimity, apparently united by their membership of this particular global fraternity.

***

And so to leg two of the trip, aboard the Adolph Joffe (no, me neither). Possibly because Mr Joffe is less famous, his plane is much smaller, and packed out with people heading to Bishkek. I am, to be honest, flagging by this point: my head thinks it’s 6am and I have only managed a few short naps in the preceding 24 hours. It’s not the fault of anyone, but this particular journey is air travel at its worst, for me – I can’t stretch my legs, which starts my knees aching, and every time I nod off I am snapped back awake by the lack of any real neck support. A long haul flight like this would be up there with waterboarding on my list of things to avoid.

Thankfully, however, this flight only lasts three or four hours and we arrive at sunny Manas Airport (27 degrees) in the middle of the afternoon (spending this last summer in the UK has at least prepared me for this kind of unreasonably warm weather).

I am collected from the airport and very soon we are heading into Bishkek itself, across the plains north of the city. Road signs with messages like ‘TASHKENT 536 miles’ flash by – only in Central Asia. And I have a very Bishkeky experience for the first time in years – looking out of the car window, I find my attention drawn to some unusual and distinctive clouds, only to realise a moment later they are actually the snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan mountains, looming over the city from the south, most of their bulk rendered almost invisible by the distance. I begin to remember just why I have come back here.

And, to be honest, even though there are countless adverts for Coca-Cola and KFC lining the road into Bishkek, I realise I don’t really have any justification for taking the moral high ground. It may indeed be that the consumerist element of globalisation consists of big brand names persuading people that they are, somehow, objectively better and more desirable than local alternatives, but then I am arguably in the same game myself, a footsoldier (or maybe now an NCO) in the battle to homogenise the world.

Do I really think this? Only really in my more self-doubting moments. I think that communication can help the world in a way which is largely denied to KFC, Burger King, and even Coca-Cola, and that is what I am here for. I find the prospect just as enticing as that of a chicken burger. The great brute of a city swallows me up: here we go again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some people think that I am a ‘great traveller’, but this is really not the case: I have barely set foot in a dozen different countries, once you take out the ones where I just changed flights or sat in a plane on the tarmac. But I have lived abroad more than most people I have met: somewhere between three and four years, once you tot it all up (much closer to three, if we’re honest). And one of the questions which comes up most often when this topic arises is ‘Why on earth did you go to Kyrgyzstan?’

Perhaps I should elaborate a bit on that. Whoever I’m talking to will wrinkle their brow as if they have encountered something deeply mystifying, perhaps even not susceptible to reason (they will probably not look at me and just stare off into space, as if seeking cosmic wisdom). And then they will say, in a tone of voice that suggests that this is a question without an acceptable answer, ‘Why on earth did you go to Kyrgyzstan?’

The glib answer I sometimes give is that I enjoy playing Scrabble and how could I pass up the chance of seeing a country worth 30 points even without multipliers? The more measured answer is that – well, maybe it’s the fault of the Eurovision Song Contest. Permit me to explain.

In the first half of 2008 I was living in the city of Bari, in south-east Italy, and to be honest while the job was pleasant it had not turned out quite as planned and (contrary to the hopes of my employers) I was planning on moving on. Part of my weekly routine there was to stumble the mile or two to the nearest internet cafe every Saturday morning and catch up on the previous week’s episode of a popular BBC TV fantasy programme (yes, it may only have been ten years ago, but it feels like another world, doesn’t it). Except that this particular week, or to be exact the previous particular week, Eurovision had occurred, messing with the usual schedule, and my normal Saturday morning entertainment had not been available to upload to YouTube or whatever. This left a gap in the schedule and so it seemed like a good time to contemplate the next job, following the stint at a summer school in Oxford which I’d already lined up.

At this point I was still relatively fresh from fifteen very happy months in Chiba, just east of Tokyo, and was coming to the end of a six month stint in Italy. Whatever else you care to say about Japan and Italy, these are not nations with an image or branding problem – everyone knows sushi and pizza, Japanese movies and Italian opera. When you go to one of these places you know what to expect; you may indeed have very specific goals and expectations. And I fancied something a bit different, a leap off the edge of the map, as it were.

So, as was my SOP at the time, I went to a leading recruitment site for my industry and checked out the current options, discarding the ones which excluded someone at my level of experience and qualification, with a particular view to those which were slightly off the beaten track. And I ended up with five countries on my list. Now, time has passed and I have basically forgotten precisely what one of them was, but let’s skip over that and make something up. On the list were:

Mexico (17 points without multipliers) – Staff needed at the University of Oaxaca (15 points). Pros: get to be called ‘Professor’ at work. Cons: the university was apparently six hours from anywhere, and I would need to find my own accommodation, in Spanish. My interest quickly cooled, which was just as well as I seem to recall Bird Flu turning up in Oaxaca about the time I would have arrived there.

Sri Lanka (12 points) – Small private outfit on the south coast; not far from Arthur C Clarke’s first house, as it eventually turned out. This progressed quite a long way until, I later learned, a computer failure left them unable to contact me for quite a long while (this was the level of competency I would later come to associate with this company, but that, as they say, is another story), by which time I was otherwise engaged.

Indonesia (10 points) – these guys never got back to me about my application and I’ve forgotten all the details.

Thailand (12 points) – likewise, they never got back to me.

And, of course, there was Kyrgyzstan (30 points, as discussed). It’s easy to get misty-eyed about these things, but right from the start there was something rather enticing about the prospect of spending ten months in a country I couldn’t even find on the map. At the time it had been in existence as an independent nation for rather less than twenty years and was therefore somewhat younger than some of the atlases I checked for it. The money was not exactly going to change my life, but then in many ways the main reward you get for living in a place like Kyrgyzstan is the chance to live in a place Kyrgyzstan; I suppose you’d call it experiential compensation. The benefits offered by the job looked quite attractive too.

So, to cut a long story short, away I flew to a country which really occupies a blank spot in most people’s mental map of the world. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of an experience to live and work there for ten months. My memories of the first four months I was there are mostly genuinely happy, or at least in retrospect quite entertaining. Some moments were exasperating, others slightly hair-raising, but I made some good friends and came away feeling like I’d made a difference for the better.

The latter six months were – more complicated. I was a long way from home, and had been for over two years by this point, and ended up making some very questionable personal choices. All this inevitably colours my recollection of the end of my time in Kyrgyzstan, and – to be perfectly honest – kept me from seeing much of the countryside in the spring and early summer. I was stuck in the city being strangled by my own politeness and reluctance to cause offence (what can I say, it’s a British thing).

And so, ever since I came back in the summer of 2009 (with some strange combination of stress and food-poisoning that left me horribly prone to migraines and presenting symptoms that led one doctor to suspect I had contracted malaria), my memories of Kyrgyzstan have been very fond, but also inescapably tinged with regret. I felt like I had missed the chance to see so much of what makes this country special, simply because my own personal issues got out of control. Yet, at the same time, I never seriously thought I would see the place again.

And then my company announced they were setting up a branch in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and were looking for someone to oversee the launch and the first month or two. The ideal candidate would ideally have: a) a certain level of qualification and experience, b) a good track-record with the company and knowledge of its principles and ethos, and c) significant experience of working in Kyrgyzstan.

Together those things made up a Venn diagram in which I was pretty much the sole occupant of the central region. Sometimes it just feels like the universe is calling you by name, and it would churlish to ignore the call. Twenty-four hours later I had accepted the job.

I am looking forward to seeing the place again – especially Bishkek, that crumbling, weirdly-proportioned sprawl in the lap of the mountains – much more than I would have expected. Hopefully this time will be different. If in other way, my life will certainly change in one respect: in future, I expect that people will now be asking me, ‘Why on earth did you go back to Kyrgyzstan?’ And the answer is that in a strange way, it really would have felt weird not to.

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Well, news from the Kyrgyz elections suggests that the formation of a coalition government may be imminent. You may have crippling electricity shortages, a total lack of industry, a bloody revolution threatening to topple over into actual civil war, and a deposed president hiding out somewhere whose associates are (supposedly) fomenting bloody internal revolt, but there’s always something worse that can happen to you, isn’t there? Let’s hope they get their position on child benefit and university tuition fees sorted out well ahead of time, or the country really could be in trouble.

It is, of course, a big world (though I’m never completely sure what people are comparing it to when they say that), and in a way it’s understandable that the recent travails of this tiny and insignificant country usually attract very little attention form the western media. I myself couldn’t have found it on a map before I went to work there in 2008, and indeed when I actually tried to I couldn’t, as the map was older than the country itself.

I have had the enormous good fortune to be able to travel and live in a number of countries in Europe and Asia, including some of the most charismatic and famous. And yet in some ways my memories of Little K (as we old hands of the place call it) are as vivid as any of them. Life there is hard, even for a relatively well-off foreigner – one might even say especially so, given the fondness of certain restaurants to institute a sliding scale of charges when anyone who’s a native English speaker walks in the door, and the keenness of certain members of the police to help in any way possible – help themselves to your money, help themselves to your passport, and so on. On more than one occasion I have ordered shashlik from somewhere in the capital city and received something either totally inedible or actually poisonous. The national dish is boiled offal on a bed of noodles, and manages to be even less appetising in the flesh than that sounds. (I should point out that Bishkek also hosts large numbers of terrific Chinese restaurants of various hues, a fine German beerhall, at least one great Indian place, and a number of pizza parlours, at least some of which are amongst the best I’ve ever patronised.)

Using public transport poses the multiple challenges of getting where you actually want to go while being probably unable to see out of the bus windows, while simultanously avoiding being pickpocketed. Using taxis is fine – and probably the best way to travel long distance, provided you can negotiate effectively in Russian – but you’ll have to use one or the other, because you won’t be walking anywhere for several months of the year. The streets turn into an ice-rink for three months of the year as the first heavy snow of winter thaws and then re-freezes day after day, night after night. In the summer, on the other hand, it can feel almost as hot as the tropics, although thankfully less humid.

For at least part of the time while I was there, we regularly received a schedule telling us when the electricity was going to be switched on – although unscheduled cuts also seemed to have a place in the hearts of the authorities. And for all its claims to be a thrusting post-Soviet state, the central heating is just that – centrally controlled. We had no heating until the government decided to switch it on at the end of October, necessitating many evenings spent bundled in duvets asking ourselves exactly why we’d gone there. There was no hot water at all for the month of May, as that was when the pipes were maintained.

Looking back on all these things now I am almost amazed that I stuck it out there for the full ten months – but it didn’t seem a trial at the time. I’ll never forget my first trip out of the crumbling capital to the mountains which had so stunned me every morning as I crossed the courtyard from my apartment to the building where I worked. Some parts of Kyrgyzstan can compete with the greatest national parks of America in terms of their beauty. The al-Archa valley is captivating in both summer and winter. The fame of Lake Issyk-Kul is just as well merited.

It has a bleak kind of beauty, to be sure – if I had to pick one image that defines my memories of travel through Kyrgyzstan, it would be seeing necropolis cities in the wasteland drifting slowly past, the roofs dotted with crescents or hammers-and-sickles, according to the interee’s tastes, mountains brooding in the distance. But beauty is surely too rare to ever be quibbled at.

And the people, of all their different ethnicities, were (mostly) lovely, epically hospitable, and good-humoured. I had the honour and privilege to spend a lot of time with Kyrgyz families as they celebrated their festivals, both national and personal. They’re by no means perfect people, but then the fact that they’re people might have tipped you off to that. But they just want to get on with their lives the same as anyone else – they didn’t choose to be born into one of the three poorest non-African countries on Earth.

I still find I care about the place more than I would have expected to. And despite being a man of generally liberal and egalitarian views I wonder if it’s really suited to Coalition rule. If living there brought one thing home to me, it was that living a life so hard, so rough, so close to the edge left the people with no time for finer sensibilities. When I expressed my general discomfort with the levels of copyright piracy which virtually the entire population seemed to be involved in, I was either stared at or laughed at. Poverty breeds pragmatism, extreme poverty all the moreso. I’m not sure that consensus is part of the national psyche. But I hope they manage to work something out for themselves.

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