Two years after my last trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in Central Asia (±3 800 kilometres due east of Turkey) there I was literally winging my way back there for a mid-July break. Two weeks of heat (temperatures are constantly in the upper 30° Celsius) and a certain, old world, oriental charm (if you’re acquainted with life in rural Russia you’ll know what I mean). I’ll skip the bit about Kyrgyzstan consolidating its place in the 21st century Central Asian Geo-Political stage but I will just say that getting there and then getting around is still a trip that requires a certain preparation, mental as well as logistical, and may still surprise main stream tourists, used to certain, normally taken for granted comforts and amenities, but that’s half the objective of going to Kyrgyzstan.
The flight out of Cologne Bonn airport followed the same time proven ritual, whatever the airport I fly out of: Check-in, security pat down, cup of coffee, cappuccino before 11 am, and … a trip to the nearest bookstore for an English version copy of the Nat Geo magazine and an often vain glance at the English language paperbacks just in case something catches my eye… Sounds familiar?
I said “vain” because more often than not the so-called “Best sellers” list invariably fails to inspire me and I end up walking away empty-handed. I also refuse to buy a book just for a flight simply because I use that time catching up on films I’ve wanted to see but missed*…
(*On one transatlantic flight (there and back) it was an overdose of Harry Potter, this time it was the 02nd installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”, for the flight to Istanbul and Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” on the flight to Bishkek.
…No, the idea was to take reading matter for the holiday especially as a) it had been ages since I actually last read a book, and b) where I was heading is what could be called a virtual backwater, sure they all have Satellite TV but the lack of Wi-Fi coverage in rural areas rendered Smartphone and Tablet virtually useless and access to Social Media quasi zero.
(Note to myself: must remember to download more offline apps for such occasions).
Stories and symbols
I’d already packed JRR Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion”, which, if you don’t know the book, is definitely two weeks reading matter in itself. It’s an inspirational collection of shorter stories that, posthumously, set the stage for Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. It’s as fantasist as Homer’s “Odysseus”, as digestible as Dickens and sufficient in itself had I’d once again left the book store with just the Nat Geo magazine. This time it wasn’t to be. At last I’d found the (by me) long-awaited paperback version of Dan Brown’s latest best seller “Inferno” on the shelf. Yes my guilty secret, apart from liking Abba, is that I’m an avid reader of Dan Brown so believe me book was in the bag faster than you could say “Symbology”.
Someone recently took me to task for reading Dan Brown. I replied by saying that half the fun of these books is then to check to see how plausible some of the theories actually are, plus I am interested in Symbology. Dan Brown is a) a good storyteller, b) his books are well documented, c) they’re good learning matter for budding writers and d) it made a change to read a good story after the multitude of posts I’d read recently on Social Media!
I’ll also add that for people immersed everyday in multiple languages, i.e. professionally, as I am, Brown’s frequent references to idioms, in their original language, in this case Italian, Greek, Latin and Turkish, makes it all the more interesting to learn where some of the words we use every day, and generally take for granted, originally come from!
Personally I enjoyed cross checking some of the facts, that’s how I learned that “Museum” originated from ancient Greek word “Musseion” and that a Musseion was a place of assembly where the thinkers of ancient Greece gathered and subjected their reflections to their peers… and to the Muses, for their benediction. I also liked the explanation about how the Medusa was a Chthonic monster, Chthonic meaning subterranean, and how the Medusa was in fact a fertility deity? Hard to imagine that without double checking. And finally it made a change to learn from a source other than Wikipedia the origin of “Tragedy” and “Comedy”: “Tragedy” meaning works destined for the erudite elite and works defined as “Comedy” were destined for the general public.
Without giving anything away about the central theme in his latest book Brown uses Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, composed of “Purgatory” and “Paradise” and of course “Inferno”, as a backdrop.
I have my own opinion about the “The Divine Comedy” and the way it’s been exploited, even miss-appropriated over the centuries but I found the story’s (Brown’s) many cross references to the works of other period artists such as Michelangelo, Botticelli, Albrecht Dürer (1471-1524) Giorgio Vasari incentive enough to want to go and look into their works and preferably in their places of origin, notably Florence, Venice and Istanbul. Speaking of Istanbul, I visited the city in 2000 but promised myself to go again simply because last time I went I never got to visit the “Saint Sophia”*
* Nb. I’d always thought that the Basilica “Saint Sophia” was named after a patron saint. It never occurred to me that its original name is “Hagia Sophia” meaning “Holy Wisdom”. When you look it like that the raison d’être of the place takes on a whole new perspective, a perspective the building’s monumental exterior does nothing to alter**
** In his book Brown explains that the walls inside the “Hagia Sophia” are covered with millions of golden tiles and that the dust from the tiles actually floats in the air. Conclusion. If you don’t leave the basilica spiritually richer you can at least console yourself with the thought that you leave it physically richer, your lungs having, the time of the visit, been coated with a fine film of gold from the tiles.
On a totally different subject I fleetingly mentioned Social Media above. One small film I watched while on holiday, albeit in Russian, was a film called “Chef” by and with Jon Favreau. The film “Chef” is essentially about a celebrity chef in the US who has a meltdown, loses his job, drops everything, goes to Miami and crosses the southern states in a beefed up sandwich van with his son and a partner selling local specialties in a sandwich where ever they stopped. I won’t go through the whole film, suffice to say that the son, a product of his time, Smartphone in hand was perpetually Tweeting and filming then uploading to YouTube.
Long story short, and having duly ruined the film, the son went from Tweeting out of boredom to Tweeting about his dad’s enterprise as they went from Miami to LA, via “The Big Easy” and Austin, Texas. The son’s Tweets would appear on the screen either as text messages or as little blue birds flying out in all directions, with the result that as they made their way across the states each time they stopped the queues in front of sandwich van got longer until on reaching LA a ticket system was needed to make sure everybody got theirs… all in all a so, so film but a good illustration of the use of social media/Twitter and how some smart social media communication can turn a mundane business creation into a business with wings, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Meet Joe Black
So now I’ve totally ruined one good book and a so, so film I can get back to my trip to Kyrgyzstan. After a six-hour stop-over in Istanbul the 5.30 am arrival, border check and baggage collection at Bishkek airport was a lot faster than on previous visits. Gone are the days of waiting for a sleepy border agent to hand out the 50€ entrance visa and after a maximum of some thirty minutes there we were stepping out of the arrival terminal surrounded, as ever, by a horde of more or less official but very dubious taxi drivers.
Accompanied by family we left the airport and made our way to a small string of villages collectively called “Leninskya” some twenty minutes, by car, from the capital city Bishkek.
The name in itself should give you an idea of the atmosphere of the place and although the SUVs and upper market German and Japanese saloons have long since replaced the soviet era Volgas the world of the villagers is still limited to the end of the street, the local food store, the pharmacy and an occasional trip to the nearest watershed bazaar, some 30 minutes away by Marshrutka (minibus).
NB. Cell phones rather than Smartphones are also common place and very useful especially to let a neighbour know that their chickens had got out!!! (I saw that one with my own eyes)
Talking of Marshrutkas in “Inferno” Dante explains that each sinner suffers a fate in accordance with the sin originally committed. After having suffered diabolical conditions cooped up in hellishly hot and overcrowded minibuses, driven by some very demoniac Bishkeki Marshrutka drivers, in sweltering hot and dusty July weather, through nightmarish Bishkek traffic (where the devil were the Police?) I wonder what sin I’d committed to merit that?
Seriously. I’ve driven around several European countries, rode the highways and freeways of the Lone Star State, experienced rush hour in Shanghai and watched Drifters in downtown Shinjuku, Tokyo but I have never, ever, seen anything so (expletive deletive) stubbornly chaotic as the traffic in Bishkek and I measure my words.
Example. Two guys going in opposite directions meet each other head on at an intersection. Wanting to turn respectively left but not wanting to give way and go round they start honking, then heckling and finally insulting each other. Don’t believe me? Just position yourselves at the intersection Sovietskaya/Moscovskaya in Bishkek. I guarantee you won’t have to wait too long.
The one unexpected interlude in this “Bucolic” holiday was a couple of visits to one of Bishkek City’s universities and a hospital, for admin purposes I will hasten to add. With the “Hagia Sophia” in mind a question begged asking. If one breathes in the atmosphere of such institutes does one leave them a spiritually richer man than on entering and if yes wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people visited such institutes and meditated on how life could be if we did things differently?
I hope he won’t mind but with current conflicts in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Ukraine in mind I’ll finish this post with the quotation Dan Brown uses in his book “Inferno”, itself extracted from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”:
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”.