Thursday, November 7, 2013

Traditions of Naryn

I thought Kyrgyzstan is as exotic as it can get but there is still a strong connection to Russia in the Chuy and even the Issyk-Keul region. People speak russian, they are a bit civilized even though they sometimes live in houses made of mud. If you push it far enough, you might even see some european influance in the mix.
Naryn is different. I often see people speaking obly Kyrgyz. The woman's position is well defined, she often wears the Kyrgyz traditional scarf when she is married, her social status is clearly below the man and it is not rare that she has been stolen according to the tradition.
Traditions are strong and very much alive here in Naryn. Every breath you take is guided by a tradition.
People eat meat in Naryn. Fat sheep meat, all the time. They eat so much meat that they think that you die if you stop eating meat. Vegetarians in Naryn probably eat chicken. Narynians are very proud to eat meat. They are serving it as often as they can, in as big quantities as they can in a completly random preparation. Actually there is no preparation. They often serve you a giant bowl of cold sheep meat with a lot of fat and they wait to see your admiration because of the quantity.
Sometimes, instead of tea, they drink bouillon of meat, a soup they make by boiling fat and bones.
"We can eat 5 sheep in a day," says one guy I meet proudly, "we invite guests, and it's 5 sheep minimum. Mi-ni-mum."
After five seconds of living there, I get it, these people are proud of their meat. Naryn is also very cheap. A samsa is 10 soms here while it can be 30 soms in Bishkek. There is only one road in Naryn, it is about 10 kilometers long and the city is organised around it. Not more than 500 meters to each side, then the high mountains stop every attempt at civilisation.
Naryn is the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan but it has every aspect of a mountain village. Besides a few official institutions because it is a regional center, it is just an accumulation of farms and cows are running throught the streets. The whole thing is 2000 meters high, so it is pretty cold.
There is a river flowing through the city

I don't really want to put up a tent but so far it seems that I have no choice. The guys that brought me to Naryn left without inviting me anywhere, it is already 5PM and how the hell am I going to find a place to stay. I am not going to a hotel that's fore sure. My electronics are all runing low on battery. My camera is on half of it's backup battery, my phone is almost depleted and my computer is on about 20% of it's primary battery, the backup one being depleted.
Walking randomly on the street doesn't solve anything, I was kind of half-hoping somebody would invite me in out of curiosity. But it's too cold and Narynians are eating their sheep inside.
I look for a place to put up my tent. It is easy to get out of civilisation, even from the center, I just have to walk a few hundered meters to the mountains nearby. My phone battery dies while I am calling Janela. Me and her, we talk everyday. I think we are seriously in love. Who would have thought. I put my tent just outside the garden of a house. A lady comes out, I ask to recharge my phone and I get dinner.
She only speaks Kyrgyz, I don't understand a thing and after giving me loads of food she throws me out to the cold of the night. I put up my tent, I can't believe that I'm sleeping outside again after such a long time of being hosted. When I put all my clothes on, I can manage to keep a normal temperature  from 9PM to 5AM. Then, the cold wakes me up no matter what and I stay awake until 7AM when the sun goes up, warms the air a little bit and I can sleep again. So all things considered, the wheather is still kind enough to let me sleep in a tent.
However I am not staying in a place where fate is not kind with me so I buy a bunch of sweets, start eating them and prepare to leave towards Osh.
"Don't eat on the street, come to my shop!," says a happy hyperactive guy in an orange coat. I follow him, curious about what he wants. His name is Urlan, he was a soldier during the war with Uzbekistan. After having seen atrocities I couldn't even see in a movie, he quit the army after 4 years and started working in a shop in Naryn. The local mafia tried to shake him down once or twice but he and his good friend beat them up so now business is going well.
Urlan, my host during my time in Naryn
He serves me coffee, biscuits and I eat some fruits from his shop. He even lets me sell stuff because he thinks it is funny. Some customers are confused.
Me selling bread
When I tell him my story and that I came down from Son-Kul on foot, he invites me to his home and even pays fora Banya. Urlan is one of the most energic people I've seen in a while. He keeps running around, doing things, talking, he is always smiling and he eats a lot of meat. His wife is pretty as a picture and they have two small children.
The only bad new is, I cannot recharge my tablet. It just doesn't work. I think my charger is broken. The next day I look in all Naryn to find a replacement but nobody has seen such a charger before. Actually, they have never seen a device such as my tablet, I have the impression to be an alien here who arrived in a flying saucer with superiour technology.
Urlan says his relatives are going to celebrate the Kal'em, a ceremony where the newlywed husband gives horses, sheep or money to the bride's parents. The amount of money depends on the person wealth but ususally it is around $2000 which is quite high considering what people make. It is not unusual that people take credit to pay Kal'em. Actually, Urlan says, people take credit for almost anything.
"It's how we live, we can't help it. It's stupid, it ruins lives but we take credit"
Kyrgyz people take credit to celebrate a wedding, to buy a car, a TV, to celebrate a birthday and pretty much any celebration and then they spend their lives paying the credit back. Everyone knows credit means doom but they do it anyway the same way a smoker smokes pack after pack.
I don't know what Urlan said to the people but at this Kal'em ceremony I am invited to be the official photographer. I am running around with my small compact camera, constantly taking pictures of everything. People are gathering into groups, taking pose and asking to take a picture of them. Some of them are treating me as an object; just striking a pose in an uninteresting place with some uninteresting people and wanting me to take a thousand picture of that. I'm realizing that being a professional photographer requires a bit of self control.
Wife's family with eldest in the center

We are invited to the small table which is full of any kind of food that you can imagine in Kyrgyzstan (which is not actually not that much in diversity but a lot in quantity). There is borzok, thir oily bread, salads and a lot of different sweets. Everything is super-tasty so I eat all the time and a lot. I'm definitly not dying of hunger now but I have mongolia to get through so let me enjoy myself now.
Women are cooking like crazy in the kitchen. I realize that the kitchen is just some wooden cabin with a fire in the corner but they are making wondersthere. They brought two enormous containers full of sheep meat ready to be cooked.

Urlan says that organizing this ceremony usually costs more than the money the husband pays. So in the end, in spite of the husband and his ralatives gathering all the money they can get and taking credit, the bride's family doesn't make a single cent (or som to be exact) and also takes credit. Everyone lives happily in debt for the rest of their lives.

We are waiting endlessly for the husband to come. There are several times when we are called outside (it is getting cold) because he would be here any minute but then everybody waits, nothing happens and we go inside again.
"Make room for the photographer!" Urlan yells everytime. I try to get the best angles for pictures but it's not easy in all this chaos, people are running in front of  my lens all the time.

At least the husband comes. According to the tradition, they take away the rope in front of him and let his car freely pass.
It is a young guy with his best Kalpak on. He goes to greet the Khazai, the master of the wife's house, the girl's father probably. Everything is very ceremoial. I wouldn't say prepared or formal because these are Narynian peasants, you can't even think about formal when it comes to them. However, to my taste, everything lacks genuine feeling and is, as everybody repeats me, "a tradition".

Urlan explains to me a very peculiar tradition of stealing knife. You cannot give a knife as a gift, it means that you wish death on that person. You also can't buy a knife because people don't sell them. So your only alternative is to steal a knife. If you are a guest somewhere, it is commonly accepted to steal a knife for example when a person is killing a sheep and leaves his knife out of sight.
It is polite to leave a symbolic amount of money when you steal a knife but never the price of the knife. And nobody will think badly about a person who stole a knife. However, stealing other things is very tactless and they will probably beat you. But I didn't steal a knife.

People are starting to drink vodka and behaving like animals, I seek a calm place to text Janela, I am not really in the mood of discussing stupid stuff with drunks.
"In here we have this tradiiiition...," tells me a small ugly drunk for the thousandth time. He is always coming to me, hugging me with his breath stinking with vodka and saying: "In here we have this traditioooon..."

I have the impression that this party is more about losers getting drunk than about the newlyweds. If I ever get married, I will bring only close relatives who will have some understanding of the moment. No need for show-offs. Janela is on the same page with me on this.
"I'd rather eat half a sandwich with a person I love than to have a diamond." she always says.

I try to talk less to the drunks and eat more mati and random stuff instead. Not far from me sits the elder. He is about eighty years old but looks about eight hundered. He looks that he is about to die any minute now and everybody treats him with respect.

The guests from the husband's side go dine at the big table. I thought the little table was luxurious, the big table is even more. There are giant amounts of food and everybody is eating with the elder grandfather in the center.
Urlan serves vodka after a while but doesn't drink himself. His brother is an alcoholic and he doesn't need to mess up his head with this shit. On the whole, Urlan has his ideas straight, he knows what he wants and what he doesn't and he takes no bullshit from anyone.

In the end of the evening I get into an argument with Urlan's grandfather over dating a Kyrgyz girl.
"I'll tell you something, we don't need any french here. Kyrgyz girls are happy with our own guys."
"Obviously your guys, with all the vodka they are drinking, have forgotten to please one of their own."

The grandfather doesn't appreciate my replu but appreciates my character.
"You communicate a lot with your eyes," he says to me, "you are not afraid."
Urlan takes me apart, he tells me I should be wary of grandfather.
"Grandfather is a bad person. From any point of view. He was in jail for fifteen years. In Kyrgyzstan, when you go to jail, you are a bad person."

Urlan said that Grandfather likes me but that I should avoid any possible conflict by replying strictly yes or no to his questions.
There are interludes where we dance but it is frustrating how nobody has a clue of how to do it. I would not ask for salsa but any alternative to the stupid club-style dancing. Appearantly, people here don't even suspect couple dances exist.
The drunk guy who always hugs me comes dance with me and repeats:
"In here we have this tradition..."

The decision is taken that a sheep should be killed for the sake of the ceremony. They bring the poor animal, all people make an omen, it creates a weird atmosphere. The animal seems to be stressed out, perhaps it senses something. Four men take it and put it on the ground. It tries to get away but finally gives up. One of the guys pulls out a knife. Just an ordinary knife, nothing special. He has a wild look on his face, I think he likes killing this sheep a little bit too much. He has this wild look at his face. I wouldn't be surprised if he could kill a man and I wouldn't be surprised if half of the people present here kidnapped their wives.
However Urlan says the guy is a good guy, he is his friend and the ability to kill humans doesn't make him a bad person anyway.
He cuts the sheep's throat with an assured gesture. The sheep dies very fast and blood starts accumulating in the recipient they stuck under it. There was a moment I felt a little uneasy but just a moment.
I text Janela "they killed a sheep it's horrible". Janela is the most sensible person in the world, the kind of person who will reassure you if your throat hurts because you got a cold but now he just replied "come on don't be a pussy, it's their habit!" This kind of sheep killing seems to be as normal as breathing air.
"If you think this is bad, how would you feel if you seen a person's throat being cut?"
"Anyone would feel bad seeing that"
Urlan has an amused look.
"We've cut throats of the Uzbeks during the war with Uzbekistan not long ago. You get used to it. I can show you on video."
However the battery of his phone was dead and the video was on it so I didn't see people being cut alive. But I guess you can get used to anything.

I start to get tired and overeaten, I go find a place to sleep. Soon there is some girl sleeping next to me and I have to give her space because people are accumulating like sardines. There actually isn't enough space for all the people to sleep in the house. Urlan sleeps outside, in the freezing cold, I have no idea how he does it.
The next day we have breakfest: meat with fat with meat with a boal of oily bouillon to drink. Actually all the meat was good, I don't complain.

I am leaving Naryn for Osh now. Urlan's wife gives me a bottle of jam and a ton of borzok and also cookies.