Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
IN BISHMULLA I was happy.
I was suffering from an absurd, irrepressible, inescapable sense of joy. It bubbled and cackled like quietly lunatic laughter. Everything seemed worthy of note; the dirty table cloth, the cracked plates, the empty salt and pepper shakers and the foul glasses. Even the monumental indifference of the waitresses was a source of fascination.
We were renting rooms in an hotel on the lake shore which would have embarrassed Basil Fawlty. It was undeniably seedy. Our three bed room, with panoramic views of the construction site, was swarming with flies. The toilet was a pear shaped hole in a shit spattered concrete block, also swarming with flies. In the restaurant they had trained the flies to die in surreal patterns on the fly paper tacked to the wall. It was an unusual form of decoration.
The cook looked like a mountain bandit, with wonderful, thin uptwirled moustaches. He toyed with his meat cleaver in a way that suggested he found the idea of carving Australian Kayakers far more entertaining than cooking for them. There are restaurants designed so that you can see the Kitchen staff prepare your meals. This was not one of those places and I was thankful it wasn't. The food was fascinating, but dangerous.
With supplies of toilet paper reaching a critical low, starvation seemed the safer option. The restaurant also possessed the most hostile waitress service I have ever encountered.
The fact that they were dressed in dirty white overalls and aprons that made them look like workers in an abattoir didn't help. Reacting to simple requests, like, "Waitress, could we please have some glasses for the tea" as though they were profoundly insulted by the suggestion that they should interrupt their conversation and do something they reminded me of Mrs Ogmore Prichard, in Under Milk Wood who ran the boarding house but wouldn't have boarders in case they breathed germs on the furniture.
It was beautiful. Even the sullen, dark eyed waitresses, who never smiled when they were facing the customers, were beautiful.
Externally the resort looked like every lake side resort I'd ever been to from Jindabyne to Maccall. The scenery was magnificent, green hills falling to the water, and clusters of buildings huddling where the hills met the lake. Someone was building a new hotel, and who ever they were, they weren't monochromatic lego freaks. This new unfinished building managed to look modern and still blend in with the surroundings.
A man with a fibreglass pole knocked fruit down from the trees near the entrance. Women with wrinkled faces, wearing bright patterned headscarves and loud floral patterened frocks, sat on a blanket and sorted fruit into buckets. Jackie was looking for a rubbish bin, frustrated by its absence, until she realised that these people have no rubbish. They carry their fruit in iron pails, their food in cloth. Their meat is not wrapped in plastic, it's wrapped in flies.
Look closer. Dilapidation, shabby neglect. There are roses growing by the doorway that leads to our rooms, but try and count the flies buzzing merrily around Mark's bed or the open toilet. Each room has a carpet, a table, chairs, a wardrobe, even a framed picture on the wall. But everything is in the process of falling apart.
The paint is chipped, the wardrobe broken, the chair's strength questionable, the carpet long past the stage where cleaning was a remote possibility. It seems as though the idea and its execution exhausted whatever energy the people have and maintenance is not an issue. It seems that form, not function matters here. The bathroom had a shower that didn't work, and cold water that rattled and spluttered from the tap into the filthy basin.
The crowning irony was that there were salt and pepper shakers on each table in the restaurant, but they were all empty. It did not occur to whoever set them out that they were useless unless filled, and that their value as table decorations was non-existent. I was too busy admiring the wild exploded hairstyle of a middle aged Russian lady who Blodwyn had decided was going to be my dancing partner at the local hop that night.
The complex had a covered area, with walls on three sides hung with pictures of couples dancing, dressed in a variety of ethnic costumes. All day piped music played. I liked the music. It was alien and eerie.
I liked everything about Bishmulla. Even getting sick seemed appropriate.
After what seemed an age, during which several bad tempered people moved in and out of our rooms, we were allowed to take up residence. I never did understand what the hubbub was about. I remember sitting on my kit bag in the corridor waiting for orders; too numb and too tired to move. Blodwyn was back to worrying about the sleeping arrangements, but they were quickly solved. She scored the pleasure of sharing a room with Mark and me. The Admiral was being tactful; giving Jackie and Trevor a room to themselves.
After breakfast, and our reunion with Andrei the climber, who had managed to bring T and J's climbing equipment from Moscow, we headed for the banya. Mark was muttering: "All I want is a hot shower and the chance to get clean." Blodwyn was rambling about the more esoteric intricacies of taking a banya, giving me instructions out of the goodness of her heart which I was forgetting as soon as she said them and Jackie was still worrying about the possibility of mass nudity.
I was tagging along in a beautiful daze. I hadn't felt like this since I was a child, on beautiful afternoons when it snowed, and I came home from school and the rest of the day stretched before me so cramful of possibilities that it was almost impossible to know where to start.
The Banya house was very clean, very modern. The toilets were polished porcelain, with seats, and a cistern that worked, although it took me a while to work out that used toilet paper went in the ripe smelling bucket by the side of the bowl, and not down it. Jackie and Blodwyn disappeared in to the banya, and the males got themselves comfortable and settled down to wait. Tea was served, green tea, by more large wrinkled ladies. We listened to the muted sounds of splashing and laughing, refilled our cups, and waited some more.
Someone turned the television on.
Mark ceased to murmur. Trevor began talking to the Admiral about Russian politics. I drank more tea.
An hour and a half after entering, the ladies emerged. They looked as though they had bleached their skins.
And so to the Banya. A cold echoing room, walled with white tiles, with a plunge pool in the centre and showers down one side. Then a smaller wooden room. Steam. Choking steam. The smell of hot damp wood, and more steam. Vlod the banya monster wanted heat, more heat, and worked hard to cheat the thermostat in to believing it was cooler in the sweatbox than it actually was.
He lay down on one of the top shelves, with a look of bliss on his face. The foreign contingent sat on the lowest bench in the steam like three lost garden gnomes, or the three wise monkeys, bereft of clothes and wisdom, gasping for breath. This was obviously Expedition Suffering at its best, because we were doing this out of a sense of loyalty to our friends. It was obviously important to them that we enjoyed this sacred institution.
"How long do we have to wait before we can leave?"
"Give it another minute."
"I may be dead in another minute."
We left, trying to smile, and leapt in to the icy water of the plunge pool. "Dr. Robertson, are such extreme variations in temperature good for your heart?"
"We're supposed to do it again."
"I've just gone conveniently deaf. I didn't hear what you said. I think those showers work."
We emerged from the Banya to the tea room. The ladies were sitting sipping tea. Gena produced some Russian Champagne. "To the Chatkal!"
About the Pskem said Jackie. Vlod wants a meeting this afternoon to discuss what we're going to do.
I was going to sleep. As we would be in this earthly paradise for two days I was going to sleep and then explore the town tomorrow, having extracted a promise from Blodwyn that she would come with me and translate. I was planning to send a telegram home so they knew we were safe.
The other three were going "For A Walk". I warned Mark about this, but he bravely set off. They were his friends, he'd known them for a long time, and he should have known better.
So should I. When I closed my eyes I was back on the Chatkal, skidding down towards the diaphragm. The bed swayed and yawed, responding sluggishly to my paddle strokes. After Mark had returned, muttering about Mountain goats, we had our meeting. The Admiral spread his map on the floor and began to describe the river.
The Pskem begins at the junction of three rivers and ends in Charvak lake approximately 90 kilometres and 24 rapids graded three and above later. Rapid number five is graded six and is two kilometres long. 6 and 7 are graded five and are both three hundred metres long. Jackie didn't want to paddle this section, nor, to my surprise, did Trevor. Although two kilometres was a long way to carry the kitchen gear Mark and I were for doing the whole thing.
Plan B, the Admiral's new plan, was to start twenty kilometres further down stream at the Pskem bridge. We would then have time for a rest day, and one day to walk up to a scenic lake. The Admiral wanted earlier evenings, which meant travelling less distance, as no one was suggesting we get moving earlier or shorten lunch. I had the distinct feeling that it didn't really matter whether I agreed or not, plan B, to all intents and purposes, was now the only plan and we either put in at Pskem bridge or put in at Pskem bridge.
There didn't seem any point in arguing. It would be easier to talk the pope into installing condom vending machines in the Vatican than to get Trevor to change his mind, and what was the point in trying to force Jackie into attempting something she clearly wasn't happy about. I thought, to hell with it, I was on holiday, outvoted, and it sounded as though there was plenty of white water on the rest of the river. The new plan didn't jeopardise the journey to Samarkand and besides, we had one more day in Bishmulla.
I was too happy to be disgruntled, and after a volleyball game against the locals, in which the Russo-Australian team, led by the jungle volley baller from Toowoomba, Mark "The Spike" Silburn, gave the locals a run for their money, we adjourned to the restaurant. This time I couldn't eat. But while loitering over the tea, after almost everyone else had gone, it was fascinating to eavesdrop on the waitresses. One said: "I will be back tomorrow, for the afternoon shift, or perhaps the next day, for breakfast."
She was no longer dressed in her meat killing clothes, but was wearing a long dress of rich dark patterns, and a gold and red headscarf. Her eyes were dark, her lashes darkened, and she was laughing and smiling with her friends. While she talked a young man in the inevitable jacket and trousers arrived, and after much good natured banter which didn't need translating, they left together. Professional schizophrenia at its worst.
After breakfast Mark and I wandered into Bishmulla with Sasha and Blodwyn. Storm clouds were piling up over the lake as we strolled into the outskirts of the town. Sasha surprised us all by announcing that this was a popular ski resort in the winter.
The local children were coming out of school, which apparently occurs in shifts. They eyed us with open, giggling curiosity. Sasha seemed to be window shopping and we pulled into Bishmulla's answer to a hard ware store. A dim interior, with a counter that ran along three sides of the room in front of shelves of nondescript junk; a display case full of assorted electrical bits and pieces; one of each, their price tags and identification all hand written. I wondered what would happen if you wanted two of anything.
The other shops were the same; one seemed to be selling nothing but thousands of pairs of the one style of shoes, another little but huge jars of pickled things. Blodwyn said the great thing about shopping in Central Asia was that nothing tasted the same twice. You could buy two jars of the same pickles, and they'd taste different. No factories, no mass production.
The post office was dim, wooden, hopeless. I don't think they could have coped with a letter to Moscow let alone a telegram to Australia (The connection to Mars has not yet been established, please hold the line.) Blodwyn was looking for toilet paper and a T shirt. She was doomed to failure. Thankfully the popular ski resort of Bishmulla isn't sophisticated enough to make the "My Friend went to Bishmulla and all they brought me back was this .......T shirt." T shirt.
We found the local bookshop, which contained, amongst other things, a beautifully illustrated poem by Pushkin in a soft cover book the size and shape of a comic. And then met the Admiral who was depressed by his inability to conjure up some transport for our move to the river.
With little else to do, we retired to the local tea house. At the entrance two old men, with long white beards, were playing chess. Inside, another group of men played cards for money, sipping tea and throwing their cards down with exaggerated disgust.
The tea was green and beautiful, the bowl of Russian delicacy whose name escapes me, looked like large bits of ravioli adrift in a broth of salt, with a delicate layer of grease on the surface. Sasha began telling Blodwyn about the Camchatka, and after a while she forgot to translate. It would have been boring sitting there listening to them rabbiting on in Russian if the locals weren't so entertaining.
A younger couple in western style clothes appeared. The woman wore no scarf. While they decided on which delicacy they would purchase from the restaurant's one dish menu they touched each other. They were the first couple we had seen since leaving Moscow who physically demonstrated any public affection.
The houses were a pale brown, made mostly from mud brick, their blank walls facing the street. The road was bitumen which faded into dirt at the edges. Along the outside of the road a small stream ran, occasionally transformed into a permanent fountain by the addition of a piece of hose pipe tied to a post. Cows and goats ambled aimlessly along the street. Trucks and the ubiquitous motorcycles and sidecars threaded their way noisily between the houses. The locals didn't slow down when approaching livestock on the road; they simply slalomed in and out and if one got knocked over; instant shashlik.
As we passed the houses we occasionally saw into a courtyard; a glimpse of trees, roses, gardens. We heard the rhythmic pulse of a drum and the sounds of happy voices, and saw a circle of brightly dressed women dancing. Wedding said Sasha.
Later, as we left the town, we heard more music, the repetitive wail of a reedy pipe and the clatter of a drum. An open truck was being loaded. Old men were crowding into the back of the truck, sitting in a line against the back of the cab. To the accompaniment of pipe and drum, the sheep was helped into the back, to stand beside huge chunks of firewood and a large wok like implement. The proceedings brought the traffic to a halt but no one seemed to mind, and we watched, taking photos, until the truck set off, still piping the sheep to the shashlik where the women were waiting in the town below.
Fruit drying on flat rooftops. Sun dried tomatoes had just become the gourmet delicacy in Australia and were ludicrously expensive. I wondered at the market value of the roofs of the things in Bishmulla. Three little girls trailed us, doing silly walks behind Mark's back until he turned and took their picture and that sent them scampering away in a riot of shrieks and giggles.
As we walked back the first heavy drops of rain fell, exploding on the roadside, leaving crazy, dark orange patterns in the dust.
Half way through the celebration shashlik the Admiral arrived to tell us we had transport and we were leaving immediately. So we piled out into the damp, rose scented evening, and threw our gear into the back of an open truck, and returned for the last of the shashlik; burnt bits of lamb on flat skewers that looked like a racial memory of the times when the Khan's horsemen had barbecued their meat on their swords (though I have no idea what a mongol sword was shaped like). Climbing on to our gear, to one more chorus of "we're all going on a summer's holiday," we left for the Pskem river.
I was happy in Bishmulla.
End of Chapter
12 . . .
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