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The Workers’ Paradise – Pt. 1

May 24, 2011

The city life was squeezing the air out of us. My brother Palmer has been living with me, doing a version of the nine-to-five at a school down the street, and he’d been stuck in the belly of Bishkek for a month without reprieve while I played with eagles in the countryside. He started to look a little pale. There’s a place I know in the mountains…” I told him to lift his spirits, “…and it’s called Father Heat.” Issyk-Ata, it’s called in Kyrgyz, because  it has hot springs boiled by radon. Palmer could not say no. After weeks of urban grime and the city’s annual Hot-Water Deprivation Month, we could ask for nothing more than a nuclear cleansing.  Rucksacks were filled with swim trunks and we said goodbye to the city with a “whew” and a wipe to our brows.

The van we flew there in had thirty-five people piled into it, like 1950s frat boys cramming themselves into phone booths. I wanted to tell the girl pressed up against me, begging for English practice, that our fellow passengers were like sardines, but I figured her seafood vocabulary didn’t extend that far. I ran it through my idiom emulsifier and out it came – “we are like fish in a can!” “I am fish?” she said. No, no, no, I pleaded, but pantomiming packaged sardines seemed hopeless. I sighed and stared at the backs of the necks in front of me.

It took us two hours and then we were there, an arched gateway announcing our arrival at the Issyk-Ata Sanitarium. The complex was built over the hot springs during the Soviet times as a mountain retreat for the urban proletariat. Dormitories and bathhouses were built along a tree-lined corridor. The path pointed to a peak looming above it all like a postcard Matterhorn. A river gurgled nearby. The Soviets had found serenity, and built a Lenin statue on top. He waved his hand over the place from a pedestal under the panorama. Welcome, Brothers Keen, to the worker’s paradise!

We got ourselves a room in Lenin’s getaway, but through not-so-sanctioned means. This was a health resort, and in theory you needed some kind of prescription to be there (which is an interesting concept in itself. Doctor: You have liver disease? I hereby prescribe you a week’s worth of mountain air and daily dips in radon water). Palmer and I were a little too young and spritely to fake our way in, so I had to turn up the charm instead. “Здравствуйте!” I said to the caretaker of the dormitories. “My name is Dennis and this is my brother. We just arrived from Bishkek and are looking for a room. Can you help us?” “Go check in at registration” the woman said like a demoralized clerk. “Okay, but can you help us?” I said with a smile perhaps a little too sincere. “It will be two hundred and fifty som. Follow me…”

Our wily insistence got us a room on the top floor, overlooking a lush courtyard and mountains dressed in cottonballs of fog. The television didn’t work, but this was a place where that hardly mattered. The world would provide us our entertainment. Creeping around outside from curiosity to curiosity, we came across an old Soviet car, a Zhiguli, parked haphazardly near Lenin. An old man saw me taking pictures and waved us over with the usual puzzlement and concern. “What are you doing? Why is that interesting?” he asked. “I’m interested in old Soviet cars,” I said. “Why are you here?” he asked this time. “I’m interested in old Soviet resorts…” He found this as amusing as we would find a Russian tourist taking pictures of worn-down motels with Cadillacs in front. Nevertheless, he humored me, and told me about those golden days.

“In Soviet times,” the man said, “this was all free! You’d be sent here by your workplace and spend a week, just relaxing. Now it’s all private, just like everything else.” Lenin’s bucreaucratic ancestors may not run the thing anymore, I thought, but it seems like the new management has hardly moved around the furniture. The grounds were overgrown but the fountains still ran, the flowerbeds were still shaped like communist stars, and hammered and sickled monuments still stood with pride. And the man was still coming – that was his Soviet car, he said, still good after twenty years, and he still drives it here every spring to stay in building number seven. The weeds grew up around it but the memories of another time would never leave this place.

Curious passers-by shook our hands and interrogated us about our plans. I told one old man more than five times that Palmer didn’t understand Russian, but he shook my brother’s arm and spoke slowly as if it would help. “We. Are. Kyr. Gyz!”  he said, enunciating each syllable. “We. Ride. Horses! We. Lived. In. Yurts!” Eventually he realized it was futile and took to shooting an invisible machine gun into the air, railing against American imperialism. He asked us if we were spies. I started to tell him that the CIA isn’t interested in old Kyrgyz health resorts, but two kids came by and saved us. “Have you had dinner yet?” they asked. We hadn’t, and they whisked us away to the mess hall.

Kamin and Kubanych were maybe fifteen and were thrilled to have somebody to ask about American boxing heroes. After I told them I didn’t know Roy Jones Jr., they snickered and started making fun of my Russian. I changed the subject. Their parents, apparently, worked at the resort, and this camp in the mountains was their one and only home. We didn’t have a meal ticket for the cafeteria because we smuggled ourselves in, but the boys knew the chefs so they whisked into a back room and fed us bowls of leftover laghman. When the owner came in, we snuck out the back door through the kitchen, and the boys ran off to pray. “We must go to the mosque,” they said “Asalam alleikum.”

As the boys prayed, the sun set, and Lenin greeted the stars. We retreated to our room and ate strawberries. The TV didn’t work but it was for the better. Curled up in a new bed, my imagination buzzing, I fell asleep with the windows open to the world.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. A Feng (Like The Wind) permalink
    July 10, 2012 2:52 am

    Yes, your American version of reality is far better for the masses of humanity in the world.

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