We had been in Kyrgyzstan less than a week when we made the pilgrimage to Karakol: the lakeside trekking hub of the country. The lake of course being Issyk-Kul: the second largest mountain lake in the world (after Lake Titicaca in Bolivia) and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.
Naturally, on the first day we set off with the lake in our sights. Well, not that we could see it yet with it being approximately 12km out of town, but you know, figuratively speaking. Hoping that a lake-bound mashrutka may pass us on route, we set out walking along the highway. As it became obvious that we would end up walking the entire distance we stopped at a small road side shop to buy a bottle of water. As we emerged we were waved over by a bunch of men parked on the side of the road tucking in to – of course – a bottle of vodka.
We were enthusiastically introduced to everyone and plastic cups with a dash of vodka pushed into our hands. “Vere you go?” we were asked. “To the lake, Issyl Kul.” “No, no nooo, we vill take you. Very far. Very far.” We were encouraged into the first car – in which a bored looking (sober) driver was waiting patiently for the others to finish up. We graciously accepted the lift – this sort of thing is quite common here – and just as we were about to pull out, the drunkest man of all ordered the driver to get out so he could drive. Before we could object he had pulled out and was off down the road.
Luckily for us, there were very few cars on the road, and he did not seem to drive at the normal pace of Kyrgyzstani drivers. Before long we were at the edge of the lake, and happy to be getting out. “No, no, no, wrong place,” and he reversed rapidly (almost into the front of a taxi) and took off again to continue further round. He was a little ambitious at a split road and turned onto it a little too quickly, resulting in the car making a sharp drop over a small bank. Stopping 50 metres down the road, and getting out to check the front of the car, we all saw the damage: the front bumper was grossly indented and dragging on the ground, and the green antifreeze was forming a large puddle around the front-left tyre.
We thanked him and after much resistance (on his part) we managed to leave and continue on foot to the lake.
But the Kyrgyz hospitality did not stop there.
After some photo taking expeditions up a hill, we ventured down to the beach for a quick swim and a sit-down. It wasn’t long before another curious local had waved Angelo over, pulled out a previously hidden bottle of vodka and poured him a glass. Some moments later he reappeared at our side with a cellphone in his outstretched hand and his English-speaking sister on the line, explaining to us that he wanted us to go round to his house. Curious, and without anything else to do, we agreed and after a rather full glass of fermented mare’s milk, we were on our way.
The house of Mirlan, Indira and their little girl Gerbana was humble and uncluttered. It consisted of two buildings: one with three small rooms and a large pile of blankets and mats against the wall for visitors; the other, an open room constituting the living/dining/bedroom, and a kitchen and sink in the lean-to, as you walked in. We were given the grand tour – which included also the long-drop in the garden – before being invited to sit at the table.
As you can probably imagine by now, it was mere minutes before a bottle of vodka was placed before us, and the drinking saga that would make up the coming days began. The glasses bowls were placed in front of us, and a very hearty amount poured into each. I visibly shuddered as the mere smell of it brought back memories of the many times I have almost puked on a bar after someone has roped me into doing straight vodka shots. Give me tequila, give me sambuka (even though I HATE liquorice), give me chartreuse, for Pete’s sake. Anything but straight vodka.
I struggled through the first shot, and when I tried to pace it, I was given an insulted look from Mirlan and begged to drink up. That was that, it was drink up or… well that was clearly the only option. My only saviour was the fact that they had small bowls of cherry preserve on the table, and a teaspoon of the syrup straight after tricked my abused tastebuds into thinking I was drinking Schnapps. This could work.
In approximately 20 minutes the litre was gone (thank God) and I was suitably pissed.
In approximately 23 minutes there was another bottle on the table and I was suitably worried.
In between shots, and the subsequent facial distortions and groans, the animated Mirlan was making noises about our staying with them in their home. The (sober) neighbour was called, and we were bundled into the back of his car to be taken to collect our things. After another bottle of vodka emerged, and a light dinner in the garden we stumbled off to bed.
A scruffy Mirlan appeared at our door around 8am to explain to us that he had been quite sick during the night and now needed some more vodka in order to feel better. His wife – quite understandably – was refusing to give him more money for vodka and so could we spare 100 com ($2) for his sanity. It probably doesn’t even need to be said that we woke with splitting headaches and unstable bellies. We had ran out of bottled water and I desperately turned to the suspiciously cloudy water stored in their water cans.
We settled around the table and watched apprehensively as Indira served up big bowls of meat and pasta soup for breakfast (let me remind you now that we were hungover AND vegetarian), and Mirlan appeared in the doorway – much chirpier than half an hour before – with, yes you guessed it, ANOTHER bottle of vodka. Despite our pleas of rejection and hangovers, we were coaxed into the ritual once again, and by 9am we had polished off another litre of paint stripper vodka.
Newly pissed, Angelo was asked to accompany Mirlan on a quest to find a car that could take us up into the mountains – as this was the reason we had come to Karakol (well, trekking). We agreed to put up for the petrol – even if $40 seemed a little steep for this part of the world – and within half an hour a TRUCK arrived, with two drivers, the neighbour and his young kid, and four more bottles of vodka.
We all jumped on the back and took off into the hills. We arrived at a picnic spot and were led through the trees to a stunning view up and down the valley looking one way up to the snowy peaks, and the other at the small sprawl of Karakol and the sparkly waters of Issyk Kul lake. Alas, we were allowed five minutes only before being dragged back to the vodka drinking table.
Dilemma: no cup. No problem. The neighbour’s three year old boy was running around with a small bottle of coke. After he was successfully tricked into giving it up for nothing more than a stone, Mirlan found an old bottle of vodka on the ground (of which are fairly abundant in this part of the world), smashed it on a rock, and used the jagged shards to cut the top off the bottle. He handed back the serrated plastic bottle of coke to the kid, and ta-da! We had our shot glass.
I endured a couple of large-multiple-mouthful shots before I convinced them that if I had to do them, then they had to be smaller. Angelo had a smarter technique which was to just throw them back over his shoulder when the others weren’t looking. Between four of us, three bottles were emptied, and the singing began. Unbeknownst to us, some Italian opera singer is quite the star in Kyrgyzstan and we were treated to the bellowing melodies of the drunken neighbour at a very high decibel.
Then just as quickly as it started, it was all over, and off we roared in the truck. Thankfully this time we had sober drivers.
We were served up more meat when we got home, and collapsed into a drunken slumber. The rest of the night consisted of us trying to keep down the one meal in Kyrgyzstan that we, so far, have found inedible – mutton fat dumplings with chives – and having to meet a constant flow of random people, who were no doubt, invited to meet “the tourists.”
Eventually we excused ourselves to go to bed and decided that tomorrow we would leave. The ongoing vodka escapades, meat, and lack of clean water were taking their toll on us – and the toilet, as we would find out the hard way, was a long distance to run to in an emergency…
Sometime after the sun came up and the toilet paper ran out, Mirlan put in an appearance and we thanked him for the hospitality, and insisted that he didn’t need to accompany us to our bus. Thank God he took the bait, cause as soon as he was out of sight we made a detour and headed back to our hostel to recover for a few days. The hostel at least had a sit down toilet. And a shower.
No more vodka.