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Back Roads Beat

Beauty or Bleakness? Seeking Jazz in Kyrgyzstan During the Holiday Season

By Published: December 2, 2006
"We get many visitors who are interested in our mountains, (but) most are from nearby countries," said Garib Karimov, a tourism agency manager who met my 2 a.m. arriving flight in the capital of Bishkek. He had to wait nearly two hours on other side of a long customs line moving at a glacially slow pace, along with his brother and a friend.

Resisting help is futile

First impressions are a mix of frustration and friendliness, although even the latter can be annoyingly overbearing.

Clearing immigration at the Bishkek airport requires a $27 entry visa, and possessions such as CDs and books to be listed so customs can censor them. My jazz CDs from several previously visited Asian countries were no problem. But their requirement of declaring all foreign currencies to be declared was a nuisance since I was carrying trifling amounts as souvenirs from the roughly two dozen countries I'd visited to that point.

Karimov and I talked tourism and politics during the 30-minute drive to the city. I mentioned I'd need cash if an ATM was available to pay for his services and buy food. I wasn't looking for a cultural adventure at 3 a.m., but finding one of the perhaps three ATMs in the city that take international cards took time. A travel tip: Exchange all of your som back into real currency before leaving, as no other country in the world seems to want to have anything to do with it.

As for food, one of the few businesses still open was a small grocery store near my hotel, making a quick stop possible.

Or at least it would have been quick without Karimov as an escort.

"I'll be back in a minute" was a phrase that fell on deaf ears, as did increasingly blunt requests not to have my purchases scrutinized as he insisted on following me and explaining each item. He kept pointing to items in the rows of sardines and vegetables long after I'd chosen a can of horse meat out of pure curiosity (verdict: better than Spam, worse than tuna).

(Speaking of food, a brief primer: I ended up eating a lot of roasted chicken served with massive flatbreads, samsi puff pastries stuffed with meat and "gamburgers" with gyros-like meat, all readily available cheaply from street vendors. They have the worst Diet Coke in the world, containing carbonated gas and artificial sweetener in trace amounts. Enterprising cooks wanting to make the national dish, Besh Barmak, need only boil one medium sheep and two pounds of chopped onions for two hours, make noodles from four cups of flour and an egg, then boil the noodles in the sheep broth while cutting the meat into smaller than bite-size pieces. Or get some store-bought noodles and seven pounds of lamb.)

I learned the desire for close personal attention wasn't just a quirk of my driver when I checked into my hotel. Call me a wuss, but I opted for one of Bishkek's cushiest places (roughly equal to a Ramada Inn) over a rustic homestay due to the time of year and miseries experienced while traveling there. The desk clerk kept insisting breakfast be delivered to my room at a prearranged time despite my preference for hitting their buffet ?" the typical tourist lineup of bread, pastries, cheese, cold cuts and cereal—whenever I happened to wake up.

"There's no extra charge," she said at least half a dozen times, either feeling I wasn't understanding her or unable to grasp a person rejecting such an offer.

The flip side of the close personal attention came from people like a security guard at Doka Pizza, who gave me a lengthy Soviet-style interrogation after spotting my notebook and camera.

"Why do you want to write about that?" he asked when I told him I was there because of the band. It's hard enough convincing most people jazz is interesting, to say nothing of a humorless, burly guy in a uniform who speaks only a few words of your language and is probably carrying a firearm.

Exploring the sights and sounds

My hunt started ingloriously on the first day as my cab driver got lost looking for the largest shopping area in the center of town, perhaps due to language misunderstandings. Undeterred, he smilingly insisted on finding it through the process of elimination by driving around town, stopping occasionally to ask directions based on an English- language note I'd written that nobody seemed able to read. He eventually dropped me off downtown at the "memorial," one of a handful of words and destinations apparently familiar to him from driving other visitors around.

A half-dozen statues of figures honoring military and cultural heroes, each occupying a block-size public square where a handful of vendors sell trinkets, make for an interesting walk. Statuesque museums and auditoriums—featuring theater, opera and classical—are also heavily promoted by the city.

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