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Back Roads Beat

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

By Published: December 2, 2006
My lingering memory, however, is the large number of elderly women sitting next to bathroom scales on the sidewalks, asking the equivalent of about two U.S. cents to learn your weight. I paid one a dime for my weight and the privilege of taking her picture, using crude notebook sketches to communicate with her. Another was selling a few items of used clothing, including a drab brown fur-lined coat I bought using the same negotiating technique for about $4, having left my previous one behind a few days ago in the 90- degree heat of Bangkok.

Street vendors near the markets sell anything and everything, and the so-called mall is simply a cluster of them in a bustling five-story building. One floor is packed almost exclusively with CDs and DVDs, all pirated and selling for a few dollars each. But the word "jazz" isn't part of the limited tourism vocabulary.

"We don't have anything like that," said a woman in her 20s at one booth, after determining a lone Ella Fitzgerald disc in her stacks wasn't what I was after. She named a few nightclubs, but said they all played rock or dance music.

That was the most productive exchange during two hours of searching and I was feeling a looming sense of doom as I headed for the exit. Just before getting there I heard my first jazz notes since entering the country. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a big-screen TV dealer playing a promotional DVD of a U.S. concert. Not for sale, he stated firmly. But given my need for accomplishment and willing to take a chance in the presence of 100,000 pirated albums, I did some pantomime-heavy bickering and eventually exited with the disc and a wallet nine dollars lighter.

It was much the same during two more days of visits to everything from the gloomy casinos to museums where I couldn't even get into gift shops without paying the entrance fee. I bought a couple of CDs packed with pirated MP3 albums from area bands, featuring a mix of beat-driven techno dance music and traditional instrumental folk. Twice I chased futile leads to clubs, getting rockers one night and DJ-pumped CDs the other.

Not wanting to get stuck only pounding concrete, I made two efforts to get to the mountains using private drivers. They're a relatively expensive option at around $50 a day, but the only realistic one I found on short notice during the off-season. Even if an outsider could rent a reliable car in the winter, it'd be insanity trying to navigate their rough and tangled roads using the cyrillic-letter signs.

A 20-year-old well-maintained Mercedes awaited outside my hotel for the first trip out, a notable step above the rickety minicars cabbies usually favor. A studious driver in his 30s with a neat casualness befitting the non-profit responsible tourism agency he worked for greeted me in solid English. Once we got past greetings and destinations, however, the language gap got more pronounced. It was annoying, for example, he couldn't spell his name in English, but downright embarrassing I couldn't say it in Russian.

Fog shrouded the mountains as we left the city on an unremarkable two-lane road, leaving little to see beyond a continuous stretch of farmlands that could be any any high plains state. Aside from the avoiding the occasional stray livestock or cattle train, whose presence on the road quickly becomes ordinary in such countries.

The hope was to make it to Ysyk-Kol lake, by far the country's largest, with the town of Balykchy an obvious starting point roughly 100 miles away. But before long we encountered snow, turning a grey city day into a full-fledged winter storm within a couple of hours. The road became little more than a couple of snow ruts and, while my driver was willing to plough ahead undeterred, my nerves weren't as steady. I tried with a different agency the next day despite similar weather conditions, with similar results.

I was bit edgy by the last night of my jazz quest, following one of my final leads to Doka Pizza. Bright lights and a bustling crowd stood out among the mostly closed storefronts, but the hope from those was nothing compared to opening the door—and hearing the blare of a saxophone. Maybe it was the camera or maybe the inexplicable shout of triumph from an obvious outsider, but after 10 minutes of unfailingly polite conversations and smiles with the previous mentioned burly security guy, I managed to stake an empty table in front of the tiny stage.

Dew, the visitor fronting a quintet of old friends who comprise the regular house band, helped turn what might be a pleasantly forgettable evening elsewhere into an oasis here by talking with me between sets. While the music scene has regressed, he said the country has attractions even this time of year not found in his current homeland.

"Here you have a nice climate— no winter. No cold winds like Russia," he said. That, he added after a moment, is a relative comparison.

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