Posts Tagged ‘pretend travel writing’

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.


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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