Thursday, April 28, 2011

My First Banya

The first thing to know about banya, traditional Russian sauna, is that it involves a whole lot of hair-pulling and rib-thumping: the next and possibly more startling fact about banya is that it involves no clothes whatsoever. However, sheets are kindly made available for the squeamish of heart. 

Here is a medieval description of a banya (lifted from wikipedia):

I saw the land of the Slavs, and while I was among them, I noticed their wooden bathhouses. They warm them to extreme heat, then undress, and after anointing themselves with tallow, they take young reeds and lash their bodies. They actually lash themselves so violently that they barely escape alive. Then they drench themselves with cold water, and thus are revived. They think nothing of doing this every day, and actually inflict such voluntary torture on themselves. They make of the act not a mere washing but a veritable torment.

My friend V rightly suggested that a banya experience was necessary for anyone seeking true cultural immersion, so we visited one of palatial and Roman aspect this afternoon. The whole complex was a maze of massage rooms and pool rooms. There was a posh restaurant with white tablecloths, strange enough in Bishkek, but stranger still to see it peopled with large Kyrgyz women wearing very, very little. Of equal oddness was the Karaoke room next door, presumably for light entertainment in between stages. 

First stop, the steam room: within seconds, the skin drips with sweat and the lungs feel scalded. Ten minutes tests the endurance, but the idea is that you have a cold shower or a swim and go back in a couple of times, after which you are quite refreshed. In this lightened mood, you might go for a massage, which is a violent procedure but surprisingly effective. (I'm pretty sure she actually punched me at one point.) The whole thing takes about two hours, and it's marvellous, though I can't see it really taking off in modest, prudish Melbourne.

We followed up our cultural experience with a very good meal and some chocolate ice cream and good conversation. Thus, I retire now in a pleasant stupor of relaxation.

Friday, April 15, 2011

In Which a Fear is Addressed and Action Taken

Maybe it's the INFP in me, but I've conceived a deep-seated antipathy to marshrutkas; there's something about being confined at such close quarters, with so many people, that makes me exceedingly weary. In the beginning, it was interesting and exciting and new. Now it's just squashy. I particularly hate the fact that you can't see out the windows for the bodies, and the driver will only stop if you ask - and when you don't know where you are, and you're frantically racking your brains for the right phrase in Russian, it can be a bit stressful.

Or maybe it's just that I have a very western attitude to personal space. I get tired when it's invaded.

Either way, I've begun to walk pretty much everywhere. I prefer the independence and the space. I'm learning the names of the streets in a ten-block radius: Moscovskaya, Sovietskaya, Jibek Jolu, Chui, Toktokul, Pravda, Karpinsky, Frunze. I walked home from a friend's place in the rain tonight. There aren't a lot of street lights, even on the main arteries, but there were enough cars to throw splashes of light around. My legs are long and when I'm walking on dark rainy streets I walk with purpose and I can set a cracking pace; my jaunty shadow stretches on forever. 

At the top of Gogolya there's a mosque. At night the minaret is lit with green spotlights that make it hazy in the rain and silhouettes are cast by the men in the tower who call people to prayer. It's a beautiful building; you can see inside the high windows of the rounded prayer hall, how the ceiling is gorgeously decorated in deep blue. 

Tonight I was having dinner with a group of women friends - all single. They started to confess their fears - about dark streets, unscrupulous taxi drivers, about language and door locks and marketplaces. Someone asked if I found anything particularly scary: I  said - actually, I don't really get scared - and then she looked at me thoughtfully and said - actually, that's something I've noticed about you. Which struck me, because I don't think of myself as a particularly fearless person. 

So, as I strode home with my jaunty shadow, through the puddles, past the mosque, I contemplated the extent to which I feel afear'd. And I came to this conclusion: I'm not afraid for my safety. I'm not afraid of new experiences. I'm not afraid of losing material possessions or my health. As Juliet said to Friar Lawrence in Year 8 English today, what must be shall be. That's quite a good m.o., in fact, and a certain text. But I don't think these things together make me fearless. Indeed, I have many fears that aren't of a daily nature, but hearken ahead to future things, and they can be bunched up together in one word. 


That was my conclusion tonight. It took all of five blocks to reach it, and another two blocks to determine that this was a fear to be overcome by the end of my time in Bishkek. Because, after all, if I'm not scared of the dark, why should I be scared of the future? Both the dark and the future are under the dominion of the same king; all things have been placed in his keeping, and he is beautiful, strong, good and true.

Fear not, for I am with you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

...underneath are the everlasting arms.

Here endeth the lesson. Assessment will be conducted in June 2012, at which time the candidate will undertake to show that she fears not.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Silly Lines Before Bed

A choral score of flushing pipes;
Yo ho, apartment life for me!
Four locks, a ticking clock, two spoons,
A second-floor calamity.
Since 1983, the walls
have not been scrubbed, or windows shined.
The stove is black with ancient stew.
The doorframes are all misaligned.
(When they took the Iron Curtain 
down for washing - Хорошо! But hell,
I wish they'd taken mine as well.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Afternoon Sun

The women are beating carpets in the courtyard. Somehow, single-handedly, they've draped these room-sized rugs over the buckled play equipment and are swinging racquets at them. Kyrgyz boys, clad in Just William caps and jackets, have abandoned their satchels and are playing industriously in the same sand that their fathers played in before the USSR dissolved. A clutch of dumpling babushkas sit at the entrance to my apartment, watching proceedings with grim pleasure, while our resident homeless man smokes a cigarette on the curb. The only people unchanged by this new warmth are the black-jacketed men, all lean and bow-legged, spurred on to other destinations with intensity of purpose. Given that the unemployment rate is over 50%, I don't know where that purpose comes from. But there it is.

In the Crumpler bag I've hauled from school, there are the following items: an increasingly battered Mac Pro; a copy of Gaudy Night; the package of Haigh's chocolate freckles which arrived today by post; a motley assortment of grading (I don't 'mark' any more, I 'grade'); and some yarn and knitting needles which were donated to me by an outgoing teacher. Thus is my weekend organised.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Antidote to Aloneness

After several stifling months, the heat has been turned off in my apartment, and indeed across most of the city. Naturally, it snowed the day they did it. The new chill in this bleak apartment invites loneliness, as do the grubby Soviet-era walls; when before it was present around the edges, now I am in a conscious confrontation with the spectre of loneliness. So there are three things that I do to defend myself:

1. I wrap myself in the warm blankets of friendship, which were sent to me by post. One is made of squares of old jumpers in cream and brown and grey, patched and sewn together. The other is Scottish wool. Together, they are as nearly heart-warming as the hug of the friends who sent them.

2. I make a cup of Whittard's tea in the small red teapot from my mother. There are psychological benefits in this that know no bounds.

3. I read/write/listen to the plethora of good music that I was sent on my birthday. Currently, I am reading a commentary on the book of Ruth, The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton, and Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds. (My tastes were ever eclectic, and more so now that the range to choose from is limited!) Among other things, I'm listening to the music of a group called Page CXVI. As for writing - well, it's like grinding teeth - in fact, it is literally grinding teeth - but I am trying to write in my journal most days; partly so the experiences and sensations of my days aren't lost in the fog of my grainy memory, and also in an effort to break through the mental and emotional writing block that I've been experiencing since I got here.

It's interesting - as the weeks have melted into months, I am beginning to pray more regularly, easily, and intimately; the rigours of loneliness and the challenges of everyday living cause me to throw myself more readily into conversation with God. Supplication, thanksgiving, repentance, expressions of joy; I lean more heavily on my Maker, and he gladly hears and supplies what I lack, and more besides. One day, when you have time and we are catching up over a good Melbourne coffee, I shall tell you of the abundance in which he has provided for me.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mountains and The Blues

I confess it; I'm a Europe junkie. A continental snob. I sicken not of Renaissance art collections, nor do I grow faint at the sight of Gothic architecture. Italian pasta, French cheese, Swiss chocolate, German bread and Greek - well, anything Greek - all send me into conniptions of delight. I can listen dreamily to the Romantic languages without understanding them, identify all the major cityscapes, and take artistic pictures of cobblestones. Yes, Europe is my happy place, a sentiment that was only heightened when I lived there for a year.

It won't surprise you when I say that Kyrgyzstan is not remotely like Europe. It is a curious mixture of Asian, Turkish and Russian cultures. There are many beautiful, unique, exciting aspects to this country, and I hope I've given you a glimpse of those. But most decidedly, Kyrgyzstan does not smack of Europe, not even a little bit - except in one respect: the countryside. It has mountainous vistas to rival Switzerland. I once spent time in the mountains near Bern, and was reminded of them on a recent trip through the foothills of the mountains near Bishkek. These aren't the glorious Tian Shan mountains (at least, I don't think they are! Pretty sure they're to the North of Bishkek; these are to the South) but they sure are beautiful, fitted out with waterfalls and fir trees and snow caps. Now that Spring is here, these mountains will be green and covered in wildflowers in a few months - I'm impatient to see it!

Believe me, you're going to see these mountains again when I visit them in Summer. And in Autumn. Numerous times. They're only an hour out of the city, which means they are a perfect day trip away, and there are plenty of excellent picnic spots.

Plenty has been happening in addition to mountains. I had a birthday today, and celebrated by having a nice dinner with friends and going to a very good concert by the Kyrgyz national chamber orchestra. I must confess, however, to feeling rather flat. None of the expected parcels have arrived, which means they'll most likely start trickling in this week - but I would have liked them better today. I also felt the absence of my friends and family quite keenly, although my new friends are very lovely and kind and caring. Consequently, due to feeling sort of blue and self-pitying (which will pass by tomorrow morning) I'm not terribly motivated to write.