Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tales from Kyrgyzstan

The Road to Osh

My back is aching as we drive the seven uncomfortable hours from Batken to Osh. The rust bucket flight out of Batken has been cancelled due to the dirty fog lurking too low across the runway. Now the only way back to Bishkek is to set off on a seven hour race skirting the southern side of the Ferghana valley and hope that flying conditions at Osh are favourable to the launching of aging riveted tubes of metal into the clouds.

Maybe it's a beautiful drive through the mountains. One day I may find out. This February Tuesday it seems bleak and unforgiving, walls of snow covered rock briefly intruding out of the steel grey fog. Tough looking men on horseback appear and disappear like shadows.

"Who is this?" my colleague asks, indicating the earphones she is sharing with me.

"Salif Keita. He's from Mali".

"It's great".

I nod and smile my agreement. My baladeur skips to a song called 'Madan', and our heads bob loosely to the beat as the car makes its descent down another broken mountain pass.

"It's a bit incongruous" she says quizzically, indicating the grey miasma of fog outside the car window.

"That's what I hoped".


5 Gerzen str, Bishkek
Tel: 29 33 01 / 68 02 70

There is no need to spend time and money on murder mystery weekends, or going abseiling. The secret to good professional team building is simple: a large plate of sausages and copious amounts of beer.

Bishkek's Steinbrau brasserie welcomes us with a bright and warming atmosphere. Coats off and hands rubbed we take in the Bavarian beer hall styling and the magnificent copper kettle brewery that forms the centrepiece of the barroom. Apparently a couple German fellas decided to set up shop here years ago, and revolutionised beer in Bishkek. It's certainly the place to be judging by the weekday crowds tucking into mugs a Steinbrau and huge plates of meat.

Several German style beers are brewed on the premises, and I opt for a light Helles style beer that reminds me a little of Lowenbrau. To be honest, I'm pretty ignorant of beers outside of the British Isles, so I'll be glad to return to Steinbrau in the summer time. I imagine a couple of afternoons spent sampling the beers in the garden outside will be educational.

They also make their own wurst, or 'firm German sausages' as they are described on the menu. Everyone loves a firm German sausage, and each of our team selects a different wurst,before haggling over who gets to swap with who. I try simple pork wurst, and do a swap for one of my neighbour's kabanosy. Both are classic sausages, tight in their skins and bursting with flavoursome fat, served up with sauerkraut, smooth mashed potato, and punchy, grown up mustard.

If sausages aren't enough, give the kitchen a couple of days notice and they will prepare you a whole suckling pig (or 'sucking pig' according to the menu).

A whole suckling pig! You know I'll be back.


The Cowboy Club

N says the Cowboy Club is the place to go after a good sausage feast. He says he doesn't like the modern style places in Bishkek as they are too clinical and pretentious. I suspect he has other motivations too, when we arrive to find that female guests outnumber males at least 8 to 1.

"What's with all the girls?" I ask N.

"I think they come to meet rich guys. The sons of politicians, wealthy Russians, that kind of thing".

They did seem to be enjoying themselves though, dancing and giggling enthusiastically in little groups. It all seemed quite innocent, more like wannabe WAGs on a night out than the pouting, jaded bar-girl culture I'm more accustomed to in the tropics.

It takes a few more Russian beers before I can be coaxed onto the dancefloor. The sexagenarian bleached-blonde DJ is spinning a mix of eighties western pop, new to the young ears of Bishkek, and bad Euro dance. She cues up "La Bamba". I'm not a sailor, or a captain, but at least this has some sort of groove I can shake self consciously to.

And then a pause, a stilted electronic stutter, and a familiar wave of five female voices:

"O lakka lamma le......."

My colleague points at the ceiling and mouths the words "Salif Keita?" with a grin. I nod, and loosen my limbs into the disco-remixed groove.

The dancing girls look confused. It's a bit incongruous.

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