Caught in the Caucasus

Hitting a gray note in Kyrgyzstan

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2006

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many ex-bloc countries experienced a cultural awakening. In Kyrgyzstan, the artists fled.

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Saxophonist Arthur Dew makes this observation between sets at a pizza joint in Bishkek, the capital city. The sports bar-like buzz and young crowd are hardly indicators of deprivation, but there may not be a similar band playing anywhere else in the country on this wintry evening.

"After the revolution, perestroika, you had all the Russian people going to Russia, the Ukrainian folk going to the Ukraine, the German folk going to Germany," said Dew, who now lives in southern Russia, and is only back in Bishkek to visit his daughter. Unlike bustling former Soviet republics in Europe, there isn't enough history or stability to feed the arts in Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous Central Asian country where horses still outnumber cars outside the city.

Yet Kyrgyzstan gets referred to as the "Switzerland of Central Asia," with jagged Himalayan mountains covering nearly 95 percent of the landscape.

For Alaskans who thrive on the unscathed wilderness of places such as the Brooks Range, Kyrgyzstan may well offer something akin to the best of an unspoiled Nepal. Everest-like treks, yak riding, paddling and skiing are among the numerous options. The country also features a rich nomadic culture from being part of the historic 7,000-mile Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean. Just expect few English speakers, a shortage of modern conveniences such as ATMs, and the need for a respectful and pleasant attitude amid bureaucratic headaches.

"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 Bishkek. He had waited nearly two hours on the other side of a long customs line.

My four-day visit was unconventional in both purpose and timing, as I was arriving in late November to see if I could find any jazz musicians as part of my quest to find them in the world's most unlikely places. Kyrgyzstan was something of a scouting mission to determine if a more in-depth trip to the surrounding region - with its numerous visa and other requirements - might be worthwhile. Despite all the news about Afghanistan lately, articles about sax players there are unsurprisingly scarce.

Resisting help is futile

During the 30-minute drive to the city, Karimov and I talked tourism and politics. I mentioned I'd need cash, if an ATM was available, to pay him and buy food. At 3 a.m. I wasn't looking for an adventure, but finding one of the perhaps three ATMs in the city that take international cards took time. Cash finally in hand, we found a small food store near my hotel for a quick stop.

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

"I'll be back in a minute" 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).

The desire for close personal attention wasn't just a quirk of my host. The hotel desk clerk insisted breakfast be delivered to my room at a time of my choosing, despite my preference for hitting their buffet whenever I woke up.

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

On the flip side of the close personal attention were people like a security guard at a restaurant, who gave me a lengthy Soviet-style interrogation after spotting my notebook and camera.

seeking chic at a soviet-style pace

the problem with having a bunch of countries with long names ending in "stan" grouped together is it's easy to get them confused.

as an actor on the west wing put it, after realizing he'd made a terrible misstatement to a reporter, "khazakhstan is a country four times the size of texas and has a sizable number of former russian missile silos. kyrgyzstan is on the side of a hill near china and has mostly nomads and sheep."

it's also hard sounding hip if you're from bishkek, the krygyz word for a churn used to make fermented mare's milk - the national drink. everyone i saw was drinking vodka and beer, but that's probably because mares foal during the spring and summer.

the country has few claims to fame, although the world's largest natural-growth walnut forest is there. their ancestors were driven out of siberia by the mongols around 1000 a.d., living as mountain nomads while the mongols, russians and others took turns violently dominating the region.

kyrgyzstan's moment in the modern media spotlight was a tv documentary about bride kidnapping - the tradition in which relatives snatch a surprised and often unwilling bride on a wedding date set by the groom. a few weeks ago most of the president's cabinet tried to resign. the populace remains frustrated by the government's rampant corruption and crime, a year after the president came to power in the violent "tulip revolution." it doesn't help that the average annual salary of $300.

for optimists, perhaps krygyzstan's biggest appeal is its vast potential for progress. it may be the 28th most unstable of 146 nations in a 2006 world foundation survey, but at least forbes magazine dropped it from its list of the 14-most dangerous countries for tourists.

"Why do you want to write about that?" he asked. 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

It's not like Kyrgyzstan people need to learn jazz fundamentals.

The country's traditional instrumental music involves changing rhythms and versatility - techniques embraced by masters such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Chick Corea observed multi-instrumentalist Kurmangazi Azykbaev.

My hunt started ingloriously as my cab driver got lost looking for the largest shopping area in town. He eventually dropped me off at the "memorial," one of a handful of words and destinations apparently familiar to him from driving other visitors around.

The memorial turned out to be 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. My lingering memory 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.

The so-called mall is simply a collection of street-style vendors condenses 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" only garnered looks suggesting I might be somewhat unbalanced and on a futile quest.

It was much the same during two more days of visits to everything from neon-outside/gloomy-inside casinos to the museums. I bought a couple 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.

Show me the mountains

Not wanting to get stuck only pounding concrete, I also made two efforts to get to the mountains. The only transportation available on short notice during the off-season was a private drivers, at around $50 a day.

A 20-year-old Mercedes waited outside my hotel the first day, a notable step above the rickety minicars many cabbies favor. The studious driver was in his 30s and had a neat casualness befitting the nonprofit tourism agency he worked for. He greeted me in solid English, but once the conversation progressed past greetings and destinations, the language gap grew more pronounced. It was annoying, for example, that 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. Aside from avoiding the occasional stray livestock or cattle train, the view of farmlands could have been any high-plains state.

My 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 again the next day despite similar weather conditions, with similar results.

I was a bit edgy by the last night of my jazz quest, following one of my final leads to a place called 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.

Dew, the visitor from Russia, was fronting a quintet of old friends making up the regular house band. He was playing standards on an alto sax with a solid, if not exceptional, sense of improvisational poetry. But what might be a pleasantly forgettable evening elsewhere was like an oasis here, even if the youthful crowd focused on their pizza and conversations with scarcely a glance or applause for the musicians.

"Young people today have very little information about jazz in America," Dew said during a break. "Where they sell discs there is no jazz. Without all that special intellect they do not understand all that," ending the sentence by vocalizing a bebop run of notes.

He left Bishkek because better opportunities as a musician were available elsewhere, but returns because his daughter still lives in the city and he considers it a good vacation spot.

"Here you have a nice climate - no winter. No cold winds like Russia," he said, adding it's a relative comparison after seeing my surprised reaction.

Traveling several days to hear a single jazz gig might not seem like much of a triumph, but there's more than enough to suggest a return visit is worthwhile. In addition to better weather during the warmer months, Kyrgyzstan hosted its first-ever international jazz festival in April, including five performances by Bishkek bands.

Still, the country faces a long climb out of obscurity. Its best known native jazz player is 18-year-old piano prodigy Eldar Djangirov, who's earned raves since coming to the United States as a child. When I interviewed him in Seattle a month after my visit to Kyrgyzstan, he didn't make much of the connection. Djangirov doesn't follow the often turbulent news from his homeland, nor make a point of listening to current players. Even his last name (pronounced John-GEAR-off) is something from the past, as he no longer uses it in public.

"When I was 10 I moved to Kansas City," Eldar said. "That's where I grew up."

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