Issyk Kul and a crazy Kazakh

Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk Kul lake is the place that first made me want to see Central Asia, but it was an eccentric Kazakh tourist who introduced me to the holiday hot spot.

The first I heard of this random corner of the earth came from the Asian news service I worked for in Sydney. We ran a lot of stories from Central Asian wires about which of the five stans – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – were scrapping with another now.

But good news stories about Issyk Kul came up an awful lot and what can I say, the not-quite advertising campaign worked on me.

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So here I am in the main beach town Cholpon-Ata, stretched out on my bed in a beautiful homestay, full of salad from the garden and probably worms from the kitten and two tiny puppies, and exhausted from speaking in tongues with Tamara, an unusual Kazakh woman who is proof that knowing a language isn’t as important as being able to get your point across.

I jumped out of a car this afternoon in search of Blue Homestay, which apparently you can’t miss because it’s bright blue. Unfortunately every second house is blue and all are homestays.

As I wandered, lost, confused, ticked off because of the seemingly national Kyrgyz inability to give decent directions, I came across Tamara, all dressed for a swim.

Tamara was in her 50s (probably, she’d had a lot of plastic surgery done) and was from Almaty. She spoke minimal English but immediately took the situation in hand and marched me to her homestay. Number 25: take the low road opposite Pegasus Guesthouse and keep following it around to the right, for anyone interested.

I’ve never met anyone so competent at expressing themselves. As Tamara explained the price, endorsed the food, and made me a cup of tea – all in Russian – it took me a few moments to realise she didn’t co-own the place; the real proprietor, Tatiana, watched the pantomime in bemusement and wasn’t able to get a word in.

I’ve also ever met anyone who dries themselves after a swim by posing as a scarecrow for five minutes. I was swept along on Tamara’s swimming expedition and in the course of our walk there and back I felt the full force of her conversation. I must walk in a certain way around the roaming dogs, we would take a loop path to and from the beach, I shouldn’t swim too far out because of sewerage. The usual ‘are you married and have you any children’ question came up and we covered my family and hers with unusual clarity for two people who couldn’t understand each other’s language.

Later at dinner when Tatiana was sitting with us, I found myself turning to Tamara as a translator even though both women were speaking Russian.

During my first weeks in Kyrgyzstan I’d been sheltered from having to learn Russian or Kyrgyz because I’d been surrounded by English speakers who could translate, and before the trip to Issyk Kul I’d been nervous about my lack of language skills. But Kazakhian Tamara put me at ease, proving that you don’t have to know the language to get your point across.

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