Sabyrbek has a cat. After nearly three months of acute feline deprivation in the mangy dog-philic streets of India, that’s all we really needed to know to stay in his guesthouse for three days.
Fortunately, at the steep price (read: an absolutely reasonable one, but out of our irrationally low range) we paid to sleep in his bewildering, precariously constructed M.C. Escher-esque multilevel dorm beds, a fuzzy little meow machine wasn’t the only thing Sabyrbek offered us. Nay, the concrete Soviet-cum-Victorian guesthouse of Sabyrbek was a Wonka Factory of oddities that, had we the money, we’d still be enjoying.
For one, there were the Brothers Sabyrbek. Middle-aged, gold-toothed, bare-chested, and boozey-breathed, these two siblings of the owner gave us an urban taste of traditional nomadic Kyrgyz culture by prowling the more wild parts of the property, cooking humble meals outdoors, over gas stoves, and living in a dilapidated shed behind the house. Our interactions with them were few – as they were typically occupied by hammering pieces of wood together, adding to their impressive piles of garbage, being yelled at by their wives, or being excessively drunk – but definitely memorable.
Several minutes after putting down our bags, the eldest engaged us in a conversation, propelled entirely through Russian cognates and comical gesticulations, about our plans to go to Lake Issyk Kul. This conversation quickly devolved into the topic of different swimming techniques, and after much debate it was agreed upon by both parties that swimming techniques do exist, and that they look “like this”.
Later, the other cornered Devon and an Australian guest, keeping them from leaving the porch and exploring the city by diving into more pressing matters: business. Although the only intelligible words heard were “Australia”, “sheep”, “fly to Kyrgyzstan”, “money” and “vodka”, from the accompanying wild hand movements it was fairly obvious he wanted the Aussie to transport wool to the guesthouse’s backyard so he could sell it, and then — either after this plan or at that very moment — drink a lot of vodka. No such deal was ever reached
The project the brothers worked on intermittently in the yard was an elevated shed which, should you ever find rocking, you must surely refrain from a-knocking, as Sabyrbek will be renting it out solely to couples who arrive at his house. For men of such advanced age and receded sobriety, it was constructed extremely quickly. But the “Shwing Shed” wasn’t the most interesting part of their outdoor realm. Nor was it the full-sized yurt being used as storage for rusted bicycle parts, nor the convenience store divided between the backyard and street, whose ownership was never really made clear to us.
It was the backyard itself that was astonishing. Sandwiched between three embassies and two skyscrapers, this shambles of a property, surrounded both by crisp modernity and rusty metal sheets stacked into a semblance of a fence, ensures that you’re always aware of the amazing disjunctions in this part of the world. Or maybe it was just this particular house.
Because as it turns out, the house has history. Or, its former owner had some. Or, made some. Sabyrbek’s dad, numerous enormous portraits of whom hung all around the house, was an eminent 20th century Kyrgyz writer (note: link may or may not be about him). One of the first to write in the Cyrillic alphabet, back when, as Sabyrbek put it, “Kyrgyz people were very ignorant”. His work spanned all styles and themes, and, we were assured “we wouldn’t get” them. As none of them have ever been translated into English, or any tongue remotely Western European, we’d have to agree. Luckily, the guesthouse’s literary legacy managed to manifest itself into a fairly substantial traveler library, from which we (Steve) stole three books, two maps, and five postcards.
Within this strange universe sat Sabyrbek’s daughter, whom he referred to only as “The Monster,” a bouncy little two year old. Sabyrbek is about 70. We didn’t ask him about where she came from; it didn’t really matter. She was a cute kid who, true to her national identity, ate her weight in watermelon on a daily basis, and to our concerned amusement played easily and frequently with dead bees.
Finally, one of the best parts of Sabyrbek’s guesthouse was that it put us into close proximity with Francois and Marc, two globe-trotting Frenchmen who would later catapult us deep into the Bishkek nightlife. To read about that evening, its subsequent terrors, and our very abrupt and unexpected falling out with Francois and Marc, stay tuned!