Bishkek, immediately referred to as ´fishcake´by all those who have just come across the name for the first time, seems a city confused. The Kyrgyz, or at least those we are staying with, are hibernating while outside the window a squirrel with exagerrated pointy red ears who ought, surely, to be curled up with his or her nuts in the hollow of a tree is frolicking around in the snow. We´ve been here two days now and still haven´t met one of our two hosts, a 21 year old student. She´s here, but in bed, emerging very infrequently only to flit across the hallway to the bathroom and back. Clearly she has a good stock of nuts. Our other host, Almaz, 42, a very affable freelance trader and bassist in a local band has now been asleep for 22 hours and counting. Had he performed last night to a packed stadium and then enjoyed some groupies I´d understand but instead he strutted his stuff in a cafe empty except for Ayelen, me and a very young and bored waiter. The band played a few covers – very well in fact – and a few rock numbers of their own and then gave up and we went to a pie kiosk. There were quite a few people at the pie kiosk, stocking up for another long sleep, I suspect.
This journey being, amongst other things, our honeymoon, I might have been expected to throw economic caution to the wind on the first day and have my princess installed in Kyrgyzstan´s most fabled hotel. Luckily for the camel fund however, she controls the purse strings and instead, two days ago and upon our 3am arrival at Manas Airport, Fishcake, we were headed for our new friend Almaz, the introductions having been made on www.couchsurfing.com. We thought it a bit early to phone him so decided to wait a few hours first, but a gang of taxi drivers, ignored by our fellow passengers, closed in. Stocky, broad-faced individuals with the appearance of bouncers at the court of Genghis Khan, they were experts in the arts of sleep deprivation and relentless persuasion. “Almaz you say? He must be Kyrgyz and it is winter. He will appreciate to be waked up! Look, I have phone!” And thus they duly gained control of Ayelen´s notebook of numbers. Almaz´s first number went straight to answer phone. Almaz´s mother was the owner, it emerged later, of his second number and she took 5 calls before answering shortly after 4am. She joined the barrage of calls to his number and eventually the drivers had their address. Once safely ushered into the warmth of Almaz´s apartment we chatted for an hour and then all fell asleep. Later Ayelen and I got up and tip-toed out to explore and find a battery charger my funky camera gear was still missing. We walked for some 6 hrs, bouncing from one cyrillic street sign to another, from one non-existant shop to the next, watched by squirrels from the occasional parks. We knew we must get home before Almaz went out to play because he´d had no extra keys to give us, but when we did return at 6pm he had already left. Unbeknownst to him his lodger, normally asleep, had then left shortly afterwards. We were locked out.
The temperature dropped steadily as we reitred to a cafe to call Almaz repeatedly, getting only voicemail. Meanwhile he was calling us also but for some reason both our phones do not take incoming calls in Kyrgyzstan. In fact they “do not exist”. I cannot even call Ayelen, nor she me. And the number we were calling was the phone he´d lent to his mother. The hours dragged by in a series of empty bars and cafes. We ate and drank the equivalent of a night in a decent hotel, occasionally calling his mother again. I wasn´t dressed for the evening and froze the moment we hit the streets after midnight to actually find a hotel. Things were looking bleak.
Neither of us had seen a single hotel in a full day´s walking around and it must have been around minus 10C already. As early stages of hypothermia set in I asked two young lads if they knew of one. They were aware only of the Hyat (3 camels per night) but had another suggestion.
And so it was that on the first night of our honeymoon we bedded down in the backroom of a Baptist church. Thank you, Nariq, Pastor Joseph and the wonderful Duishenova family who all showed us such amazing hospitality and warmth.
Shortly after we returned to Almaz´s flat in the morning his mother, 72, presumably angry and bewildered at the number of phone calls directed towards her son at all hours of every night and at what kind of life he must be living, returned the phone he had lent her in a child´s woolly sock.
Worn out by general exertions, Almaz has gone back to bed.