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Moyindau at Pik Lenin, Kyrgyzstan, (from left to right) Susanna Mendlow (cello), Ryan Ptasnik (drums), Alex Kreger (piano), Kevin Bene (sax)

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August 2, 2011

Quartet in Kyrgyzstan

The quartet (Kevin, Susanna, Ryan and I) has been together for about five days now in Kyrgyzstan.  Thursday morning Ryan and I picked the others up at the airport and blasted 10 hours straight to Osh; we arrived at 5pm or so and then got in another taxi bound for Sary Tash, where we finally pulled in just after nightfall, 10,400 feet above sea level.  It was cold and rainy.  The next morning we hitched down the road to Tajikistan; just before the border is a town called Kashka Suu where we had to hire a jeep to drive us across the barren valley to Achik Tash and the Peak Lenin base camp, where the At Chabysh (Kyrgyz Horse) festival was held. 

At the festival we observed some pretty interesting sports played on horseback, including one where a man must try to kiss a woman as they're racing side by side.  If he's unsuccesful, the woman has the chance to try to beat him with a whip.  At night we slept in yurts, and our meals were prepared by the local Kyrgyz villagers.  It was cold; on our last morning there (July 31), we woke up to find a thin layer of snow covering the valley.  We performed once, a short 10 minute set because it was so cold, on a stage constructed from two pickup trucks backed into one another.  The festival audience seemed appreciative of our different kind of music, and afterwards quite a few Kyrgyz guys wanted to try Kevin's saxophone.  Susanna, unable to get a cello in Bishkek for the journey, sang instead.  As it turned out, a cello wouldn't have fared well in the below freezing temperatures of Achik Tash.  The view of the mountain from the festival site is incredible, I've never seen anything like it.

After two days at the festival, we made our way back to Bishkek, hitching with a Chinese truck back to the crossroads at Sary Tash (he was headed to Kashgar, in Xinjiang, and I was so tempted to continue with him across the Irkeshtam Pass back into China, because I still had an entry left on my visa, but now our time is short, and we needed to get back to Bishkek because tomorrow we're leaving for Kazakhstan, and we'll have a busy schedule full of shows and hopefully some masterclass-type stuff as well).  So we got off in Sary Tash, waited for a few hours as the wind whipped our faces and I tried to hide my forehead from the sun with my hood, even though it was cold and the sun felt good.  And then two vans full of young NGO development workers pulled up; we had met some of them at the festival and they happily agreed to take us with them to Osh.  We squeezed into the cars, and on the way I learned so much about the world of international development and NGOs and all the career paths open to people interested in such things, and also about Central Asian politics, the situation in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (last summer when the riots occurred and the Kyrgyz-Uzbek ethnic tension), the Aga Khan Foundation, and other things that I've been curious about the whole time I've been traveling here.  I was inspired by their passion, their love of the local culture and commitment to learning the language and interacting with the peoples among which they lived and traveled.  I felt more connected with them than with most of the backpackers I've met, because they are here working, building, creating...  In Osh we had dinner together (the best shashlyk I've had in Central Asia), and they took us to a hotel and arranged a cheap room for us.  The hours we spent in Sary Tash, turning down the bids of persistent taxi drivers, had paid off.