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Three Keens in Kyrgyzstan – Part I

April 28, 2011

After seven months of being separated from my family, I was happy to see two other Keens walk through the doors at Manas airport. They had traveled twenty hours to get to this nowhere-place, and were as worn out as their trampled luggage. They were here to see what I had been writing about for months on my blog, what was really behind all those strange pictures I’d posted on Facebook – Was it all real? What is this life you’ve been living? Bishkek was our first stop, and we didn’t have much time. I allowed them a nap for recovery and then I did my best to wear the tour guide suit and show the guys around town.

We went to a teahouse and ate laghman, plov, oromo, vareniki, and olivier. We walked past the White House and its monument to sniper victims from last year’s revolution; we took a trip to the top of a ferris wheel to admire the city from above and flirt with the mountains beyond. In the national museum, we saw a sculpture of baby Lenin and a mural of an American cowboy wearing a deathmask, riding a Tomahawk. In the park, we ate ice cream and watched ping pong. The city was ours to dissect and inspect. Tall American bodies were stuffed into marshrutkas. We headed to the bazaar.

A Bishkek without bazaars would be like life without birthdays. They are what reminds this city that it’s still alive. The endless apartment blocks sometimes look ready for the apocalypse, but at the northern edge of town they shrink into the ground and something much greater grows up – the amorphous mass of metallic shipping containers that is Dordoi. They are stacked two apiece for what seems like miles, shops in one container and storage up above. We walked through aisles of shoes so long that we grew sick of the smell of leather and looked for sunlight, but this was an ecosystem that swallowed you whole. “World of Shoes,” it was called. Maybe it was a shopaholic’s dreamland, but for three fashion-averse men it struck us as a strange form of torture.

We had only two things that we wanted to get at the market that day: a towel for Palmer, and a poster for our wall.  How could it be that as Shoeworld spit us out into the open air we fell right into the only container in the whole market that catered to such a niche? They sold only two things – towels and posters. The towel was cheap (and turns out to be miraculously unabsorbent) and the posters were charmingly kitschy (Chinese storks and Mecca) but the ladies working the container were pleased to meet our needs, and were wary to let their generosity run dry– “Come visit us in Issyk Kul!” they said, “We will cook you beshparmak! We will give you the finest kymyz!” Palmer and my dad grinned, unused to the attention. “This is the norm, you guys,” I said. “People here are so kind it’s tiresome.”

We took a ‘shrutka around the suburbs to Osh bazaar, where food was the main draw. A tube of horse sausage caught my eye, and the kindness continued. “Try a slice!” the vendor said, and handed me a circle of sausage that looked like a yin-yang, with as much white fat as dark meat. I’d already tried chuchuk before so I passed it off to Palmer, who said he liked it but spent the next few minutes chewing. The dad-guy refused. “There are some things I will not do.” Palmer teased him but kept gnawing on the fat.

There was more: drinking beer on public lawns, eating rabbit pizza and duck kebab, laughing at the leopard print bed at the Russian sauna they provide for hookerly escapades. We were well-fed and well-steamed, but Bishkek only has so much to offer. We were called to the wilderness.

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