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Grandma’s got a goatee and uncle Ivan is a junky

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Last night the sky glowed a bright pink and Jamal told me today would be a good day for the beach.  It is.

I leave after lunch when it’s warm and when Jamal feels better having fed me two square meals for my walk.  Before long a group of Russian teenagers builds the courage to come over and say hello.  One of them is 15-year-old Gallena who speaks fare English and takes on the role of translator for the day.

We arrive at the beach and it’s a postcard.  The water on the north shore is shallow and turquois blue.  You could imagine yourself on some Mediterranean shore if it weren’t for the wall of peaks that surround the lake, constantly shrouded in white puffy clouds.  Just when you think a big afternoon thunderhead is going to make its way past the mountains it melts away and the sky above the lake stays perfectly blue.


We swim, chat, and enjoy the day.  Slowly the word trickles down the beach that an American tourist is here and more come to meet me, some hazarding a phrase or two in English even.  I figure it’s just a matter of time before the drunks join us and minutes later the huge hulk, Sasha, has his arm around me and is blowing cigarette smoke at me tinged with the smell of vodka.  Sasha could tear me in half but I can tell he’s a jovial drunk by his hugs and dopey grin.  I keep bracing for a kiss on the cheek but thankfully it never comes.

His friend Ivan comes over to meet me next and I can tell right away he’s the more cunning of the two.  He’s short and stocky and his huge forearms are scarred.  He chain smokes and always smiles but his eyes have trouble in their stare, like he’s always sizing you up whether enemy or friend.  I stay on guard around him. 

On cue the vodka arrives and we take a few shots and all swim again.  I’m no slouch at vodka shots a Ivan seems sold on “the yankee.”

“We go…chu-chu(little bit) eat, chu-chu vodka.”  As he says this he taps his throat, a gesture I learn means that anything but “a little” vodka will be drunk; a bottle each is more likely.  Then he starts tapping his arms, turning to Gallena to translate.

“He asks, do you like narcotics?”  Gallena laughs as she says this and I’m surprised by the casual nature of the question.

Ivan turns to me waiting for an answer.  “Chu-chu narcotic, horosho? (good)” pointing back and forth between us.  I look down and notice that above Ivan’s scars are track marks and I recall what I’ve read about Issyk-kul’s hills being covered in poppies in the spring and summer.

“Niet, niet.” I say.  “Vodka chu-chu, horosho.”

“Narcotic no?  Horosho.”  They can tell I’m a bit uneasy leaving with them and as we depart Ivan says something to Gallena:

“Don’t worry,” she says.  “They don’t kill you.”

Perfect.  So with the worst case scenario off the table I follow my enebriated new Russian pals away from the beach to where I have no idea.  It turns out we only walk 200meters to the trees where the whole clan is feasting on a huge picnic of borsh, carrot salad, coleslaw and chocolate cake.  The kids all gather around me shouting their hellos and telling me their names.  Grandma, whose beard rivals mine, thinks I look cold and promptly drapes her musty green sweater over my shoulders.  I must look ridiculous.

Ivan shoves a spoon in my hand and never stops urging me to eat.  More vodka comes and everyone drinks the bottle dry.  More borsh, more cake, more offers to shoot up heroin, more of everything.


(Ivan 3rd on the left)

In public Russians are unfriendly and callous, but when they take you in as a comrade their hospitality knows no end.  I find it difficult to leave but soon the picnic is all wrapped up and they drive me home just in time for dinner at Jamal’s house.  I’m stuffed but do my best to eat more while recounting my day on the beach with the Russkies.

Jamal & Ermek’s Guesthouse, Issyk-kul

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

The small village of Ananyevo isn’t in any of the guidebooks and is just a spot on the map, but I’m here following a homestay tip left in the recommendations book at Nanchan’s in Bishkek.  There is no telephone number, no email address, and only very simple instructions on how to find the place, but Adrian from Switzerland is adamant that staying with Jamal and Ermek shouldn’t be missed.  So here I am.

The town isn’t much but a couple shops and a bazaar and I wander my way south searching for the brown fence that supposedly can’t be missed.  After confirming that none of the neighboring streets have any brown fences I stand at the brownest one I can find and ring the bell.


“Uh, eta Jamal dom?” (Is this Jamal’s house?)


“Eta guesthouse?”

“Da, da.”  Soon a chuckling woman comes out to greet me followed by a little girl who’s smiling ear to ear.  Jamal is a matronly woman in her 50s and is all heart.  In no time the table is covered with bread, jam, butter, cookies and my teacup is never empty.  For the first hour she just seems shocked that I found the place and through broken English and basic Russian she tells me I’m the first tourist of the year.

Nine-year-old Alina doesn’t have a shy bone in her body and within minutes decides that if I’m going to stay here I’d better learn some Russian.  How else is she supposed to talk to me?  Out comes the notebook and soon I have a long list of antonyms and verbs and she’s drilling me on pronunciation.  And she’s tough.  I tell her I’ve never had a stricter teacher in my life and they both laugh.  I get the feeling Alina is the entertainer of the family.  I flash surprised glances at Jamal during Alina’s animated stories and the look she gives me says, “yeah I know, she’s a real character.”  Faces always speak the same language.

I decide to venture out to the lake but soon find the townfolk won’t let me get there.  The rural economy is poor and people have a lot of time on their hands.  The main road is full of people milling about and a few come up to me offering a place to stay.  I do my best to politely refuse and continue to the lake.  When I spot it it’s still a ways off and I decide to save it for tomorrow.  At the same time a blond Russian girl of 12 trots up on her horse and her Kyrgyz friend starts circling me on her bike.  At this point I’m convinced this town is only full of crazy girls because they follow me all the way back to the bazaar blathering on and on in Russian.  I try to fight back with a long string of English but she’s not even phased.  The girl on the bike just giggles and tells me her friend is crazy. 

When I start back home the duo are still tailing me and I’m starting to pick up some of her miming.  The blond one finally asks what I’m doing in her town? 

“You walk to the lake, you walk to the bazaar.  What are you some kind of terrorist?”  As she says this she starts shooting her imaginary gun around wildly.  They both laugh for a while and I do too.  I go halfway around the world and end up in a country ending with a “stan” only to be called a terrorist by a blond Russian twelve-year-old.  I wonder what’s next?

Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007
Lake Issyk-kul in the northeastern part of Kyrgyzstan is a marvel. It doesn't freeze in the winter because it's just salty enough and apparently has some volcanic heaters stoked down below.  The place is beautiful, surrounded on all sides by ... [Continue reading this entry]

Shake your booty-stan

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

If you're disturbed by your teenage daugter's obsession with the lives of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan stay vigilant and know that things could be worse: they could be Russian.

It only takes a minute or two watching Russian TV to ... [Continue reading this entry]

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Thursday, May 24th, 2007
As a kid I used to spin the globe and let the finger fall, as kids do.  Over and over the result seemed to come back Russia, with Canada or the Pacific Ocean thrown in occasionally.  I'd stare in disbelief, ... [Continue reading this entry]

Mongolian Tour Options

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007
I've divided your Mongolian tour options into three categories: Guided, English speaking driver only, or "any driver will do."

Guided trips 

These come in all shapes and sizes.  It's possible to book online with a big, expensive tour operator, have ... [Continue reading this entry]

South Guesthouse-Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan/Japanese backpackers

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007
South Guesthouse is an interesting little slice of life in the 8th microdistrict suburb of southern Bishkek.  Twenty-eight year old Nordan, or "Nanchan" as he's affectionately referred to by his Japanese guests, runs this cramped but cozy little ... [Continue reading this entry]

Back Door Route to Kazakhstan, Olgii to Almaty flight

Monday, May 21st, 2007
My first plan to get to Kazakhstan was the overland border route from China, but then I heard about this weekly Wednesday flight from Olgii, in far western Mongolia. This is a cool way to enter the country, and ... [Continue reading this entry]

Hostel Reviews Beijing

Sunday, May 20th, 2007
Beijing has an endless list of hostel options for budget travelers. If you're not familiar with this immense city, I would definately recommend staying within ring road two, or the blue loop line (same thing.) If you're going to be ... [Continue reading this entry]

Almaty: The Greenest city

Sunday, May 20th, 2007
Most would be disappointed by the weather that met me in Almaty, but the drizzling rain in this verdant city makes me nostalgic for my hometown of Portland, and this makes my visit good. If Almaty ever develops an accomodation ... [Continue reading this entry]