When I was travelling in China, towards the end of it, my brother in law Joe called up to say that the Company he is associated with has contacts in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Accordingly he gave me the contact of K Ajayan, a veteran of CIS countries. Ajayan kept in constant touch till we got to Bishkek. Since I was already scheduled to stay with the Raveendrans I told Ajayan that we would be at his disposal this day. When breakfast of dosa, chutney and sambar was being served Ajayan came over to Raveendran’s flat. Dosa had been a distant dream for Baiju from the time we entered China. He could not have been happier. We all relished the tasty fare served with much care and affection.
Ajayan had landed in Russia at the tender age of 17 to do his graduation. Since then he has been in various CIS countries, except for a few years in India, working in the Pharma industry. He presently lives alone in Bishkek while his wife, a teacher in the Foreign Language University in Hyderabad, and two kids live in India. Ajayan first took us to the Ethnographic Museum. The Museum is not well maintained and does not have any inscriptions or plaques to indicate what was sought to be showcased there. Ajayan and I had a long chat about the various ethnic influences on the development of the Kyrgyz nation. The lady who was in charge of maintaining a Yurt in the Museum showed us around. The Yurt had three compartments – the main hall and the two smaller ones for the lady and gent of the family. There were traditional garments and warriors’ attire to be hired for photo sessions. It was so cool inside the Yurt while it was steaming hot outside. The tall structure and the lamb wool felt produced an air-conditioned effect.
It was too hot to be roaming about. Therefore, we decided to spend time in Ajayan’s apartment to sort out the route and logistics in Kazakhstan and Russia. The fruit stall in the apartment complex stocked a wide variety of fruits. The watermelons were so huge that it would have taken a whole army of starving gluttons to polish one off! Ajayan picked up a local melon, which he said has diuretic properties. Next door was a store that stocked variety of liquor, short eats, cakes, provisions and the like. I was amazed at the amount of liquor that was neatly stocked in the store. Alexander had told me that the Russians are blamed by the locals for introducing vodka into this land. It had virtually taken over the daily lives of people once they lost jobs and became impoverished Independence from the Russian federation. Unlike the manner in which we drink vodka in India it is had neat in small shots. It is said that a vodka bottle once opened is not meant to be corked. Accordingly, many bottles have caps that cannot be used to close the bottle once they are opened! Ajayan picked up a bottle of Russian Standard vodka, fruit juices, gerkins in brine, sausage and cheese; the last three for the traditional zakushka – salty meals one has with the vodka.
Ajayan lived in an apartment that belonged to the Police department in the erstwhile Soviet time. The over 6 decade old building was in good condition and absolutely cool inside, thanks to the thick walls and high ceiling. The owner of the apartment is a retired police officer who bought it when the apartment was sold after Independence. Magnetic locks keep the apartments safe from intrusions. Once comfortable inside the apartment, Ajayan poured out vodka as per our requirement – Baiju refrained from the mid morning tipple. First it was a peg with orange juice and next it was with Tonic Water. Accompanying the jolly morning drinks was lively conversations on life in the CIS countries, business opportunities, traditions and culture. Prior to it Ajayan and I finalised the re-route in Kazakhstan and Russia. Elvis Roberts, of Cruz Lines in Almaty, helped seal the route and logisitics. Later Alex Alexander, another contact given by Joe, confirmed the arrangements in Almaty, including dinner with a few Keralites. Ali, a businessman and a contact provided by a friend in Cochin, called to say that he had made arrangements for border clearance in Kazakhstan as well as an escort to Russia! HIS help comes in many ways – I was personally a bit concerned about the drive from Kyrgyzstan to Russia. Assistance promised by all the Guardian Angels dispelled every bit of the anxiety that may have lingered.
Ajayan took us for a Shashlik meal after some justice was done to the Russian Standard vodka. En route we stopped at the Russian Orthodox Church for worship and touristic reasons. The service was over but many devotees came in to say their prayers and seek blessings. The Church had many icons of Saints, Our Lady and Jesus. They were in many sizes. We offered our prayers and went around the Church admiring the ornate Sanctum Sanctorum and prayer halls. From there we went for lunch to the Arzu restaurant. A Shashlik lunch with salads and lepreshka was ordered. It did not take much time for the lunch to appear on the table. Of course, it took much less time for it to vanish without a trace on our lips or plates. The effect of the vodka started to show. Eyelids got heavy and the yawns became so wide that the hand could not politely disguise them. I excused myself for a sound nap in Ajayan’s house on the sofa.
By the time I woke up it was time to go to the Ala Too Square, which was called Lenin Square till 1991, to watch the change of guard. A few steps away from Ajayan’s house is a lovely walkway lined with trees. The long rectangular walkway cum park has many eateries, ice cream vendors, play things for kids, bicycles for hire, TT tables, etc. the park also has open drains that play host to the water that comes down from the mountains and joins streams and rivers. The flowing water is even used to cool watermelons! The Ala Too Square is a favourite with locals as well as tourists. Fountains provide relief from the heat and the park by the side of the Independence Monument is an ideal place for lovers and elders alike. In close proximity is the White House, the office of the President. Ajayan recalled that horrific day in 2005 when security guards shot and killed many protestors in front of that building. Taking the President to safety involved ploughing down hundreds that had lined up to protest misrule of the incumbent, who now lives in exile in Belarus. The change of guard takes place every 90 minutes at the square. We were fortunate to be there when the peculiar stepping guards moved in to take their position relieving the couple that had been on watch the previous hour and half. We walked around a bit savouring the monuments in the Square such as that of the legendary hero Manas on his magical horse Al-Kula, Statue of Freedom, Victory Monument, etc.
Dinner was hosted by the Raveendrans in their house. The night wore on effortlessly in the company of Vishnu (working in the Pharma Industry) & his wife Smriti, Wilson (working in the Indian Embassy) & Panchami, Johnson Lawrence (MD of a plastic utility company) and Ajayan, besides the hosts and us. After the excellent vegetarian dinner was got over with I requested Raveendran to sign the Campaign Poster. Over tea, and after Ajayan had taken leave of us, we had a lively debate on whether it is improper to refer to people, who occupy senior positions in government, by their first names in private conversations. While Raveendran thought it most inappropriate I was of the contrarian view.
During the course of the evening the route from Bishkek to Russia underwent drastic changes. Ali and Alex were on the phone with suggestions. I decided to let the matter rest till I got to Almaty.