Several weeks ago, during a periodic bout of food poisoning, I found myself heading home from a night out particularly early. Here in Bishkek it’s extremely common for taxi drivers, barmen and bathroom attendants alike to ask foreigners about their impressions of the capital. Often phrased as ‘Do you love Bishkek?’, it’s as much a question as ‘Do I look fat in this ?’ and will often set the tone of the rest of the relationship. Given the onset of an excruciatingly painful stomach, I was more than willing to hand over the required compliments to ensure I got home via the most direct route, heaven forbid he do laps of the block to debate my opinion of the city’s air quality. After 2 minutes of singing praises I suddenly found myself invited to the taxi drivers wedding in 2 weeks time. Being a lone foreigner in a very far away land, there are often trials one must endure for the sake of compassion and safety. As I walk the streets, children have pointed and stared; I’ve been heckled for being an assumed American and endured lengthy lectures about how the Ukrainian crisis is purely America’s fault. Such is life. Realistically rejecting the taxi driver’s invitation to his wedding was not an option, especially given he probably has a lot of taxi driver friends he could call to convince me. And now he knew where I lived. Although it’s cynical to assume that everyone is in for the kill, keeping one’s wits about them is just another fact of life for the conspicuous foreigner from assumed wealthy country.
As the date drew closer I gradually forgot about the stranger’s invitation until a call before the big day shamed me into attending. At first I was too embarrassed to attend a 5-minute acquaintance’s wedding, but was then was too embarrassed to turn down his hospitality. It was the ultimate Englishman’s dilemma.
On the day I found myself among the intimate ‘inner circle’ of friends to attend the ceremony. After walking right past the groom and not recognizing him (granted it was dark in the taxi and I was convulsing in pain at the time), I was promptly introduced to the family and friends. The father of the bride was in his late 50’s, manager of a factory and a man of few words. Given my newfound insecurity when using Russian grammar, I appreciated his lack of chit-chat. Kyrgyz father took a particular like to me due to me sharing the first name of Oliver Kahn, the famous German soccer player. Despite the fact I know next to nothing about the game, my remarks about Rooney being good and Brazil being bad were taken as particularly insightful. I did happen to ask him about the two revolutions which had occurred in the previous decade, and his responses were tinted with Soviet indifference. ‘They happen, but they go away soon’, accompanied by an ample shrug. And the current President ? ‘Doesn’t do a lot of good, hasn’t done a lot of bad’. When he enquired about the head of my country, the fact that the Queen (or more correctly ‘monarch’) as the head of the nation elicited a sly chuckle. ‘You don’t get to chose your leader?’ he queried, ‘Much like here’, he chuckled again.
The ceremony took place in a Soviet wedding hall, which is all the rage for those to wed in Bishkek. Resembling a crumbly white marble version of ‘The Emerald City’ in the Wizard of Oz, the hall boasted a now-dry water fountain in front and stained-glass windows that would make the Pope blush. The windows were so beautiful that after independence it was decided that they would stay, despite their elaborate use of Soviet and communist symbolism.
Only knowing the groom’s first name and unable to correctly pronounce the bride’s name, I found myself paired with one of the bridesmaids and seated in the front row. Despite an accumulative fluency in 10 languages between us, none were shared and so we sat in silence. In Kyrgyzstan it isn’t uncommon for marriage to take place in the late teens, and thus I’m regularly asked if I have a wife and children back home. I sometimes like to tell people that I do, but I don’t wear my ring ‘for fun’. Only joking. Sitting next to the silent ‘new friend’, it slowly dawned upon me that I was now ‘that unmarried friend’, who was shamelessly paired off with the bride’s friend who ‘just hasn’t met Mr. Right’. I couldn’t help pity the poor unmarried woman, at the timely age of 23, for how many random men her friends have flung her towards introduced her.
The ceremony itself lasted about 5 minutes and, given how we were hurriedly ushered in and turned out, had the air of Vegas. There was a bit of signing documents, a little candle lighting with what looked like an Olympic torch and then some white dove-throwing. We slowly made our way across the street to the Victory monument, commemorating the success of the Soviet Union during the Second World War. It was at this point that I realized how thirsty I was, having stood around in the baking heat all day. There the newlyweds laid a wreath and took a minute of silence in commemoration. On a serious note, this action was a stark contrast to the way we conduct weddings in the West. Although speeches may briefly touch on loving friends and family, the focus of a Western wedding is the couple. To take a moment to remember those who fell for the nation (or its predecessor) was thus particularly poignant.
After we’d paid our respects, it was time for a lighter turn. Despite being at such a venerable place, the vodka and champagne appeared along with Styrofoam cups for the debauchery to begin. It was at this point that the bride and groom left to make their rounds of the city. In Bishkek it’s common practice to inform complete strangers of your recent marriage, best achieved by driving around the city playing loud music, repeatedly honking your horn and hanging precariously out of the window of a moving car. The more cars involved, to give the appearance of a mob-like entourage, the better. If you’re really looking to splash out, a friend will drive a little ahead of you and himself hang out of his window with a video camera in hand to capture the hooliganism joy. While this procession was taking place, I found myself at the war monument with just the groom’s friends. If you’ll remember my previous mention of being parched, the sudden arrival of beverages was greatly appreciated.
An uncle once told me that ‘Alcohol is the international language’. This phrase didn’t particularly strike a cord with my 10 year-old self at the time, and it would take a Kyrgyz wedding at age 21 to fully convince me he was right. Slowly but surely I got to know the group, most of whom were also taxi drivers and between the ages of 25-30. We chatted as a group and my inhibitions slowly faded as the vodka loosed the awkwardness of the situation. Full of questions about my own country and impression of theirs, we laughed until it was suddenly time to head on to the wedding reception.
Piling into a car with 3 strangers on the back seat, I was well aware that I should keep my vodka celebrations in check should the need for quick thinking arise. Knowing neither the driver nor the destination (and debatably the groom), I was feeling somewhat apprehensive about carrying on the festivities. That being said, I was feeling confident in my language skills, the fact I had a mobile phone and that I had just the right amount of cash (not too little, not too much) to get me home in a taxi from anywhere up to 5 hours away. Why not, you only live once.
As we wound our way through the city, the driver (who I’d noticed before hadn’t drunk anything) blasted Akon’s 2004 album. It was at this point that some of the fellow passengers thought it amusing to hoist themselves, two abreast, through the sun-roof to dance out of the car. Eventually the driver reeled them in as we pulled over at the start of the highway. The road north out of Bishkek is a 6-lane highway, flanked by shrubs and farmland with the occasional general store. It was at one of these stores that we stopped to refuel the vodka supplies. Conscious of having drunk other people’s vodka all day and being treated as a guest of honour, I felt it necessary to contribute to the cache. As we wandered into the poorly lit store, filled with random Chinese knickknacks and non-perishable food, I asked the attendant for ‘the most expensive vodka’ they had. The crowd of gentlemen surrounding me erupted into a chorus of ‘oooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ as the attendant reached for the shiny bottle, covered in dust, from the top shelf.
Ostentatious? Maybe. Logical? Definitely. Hesitant to keep drinking and in full knowledge that I would be expected to do so, as if at some Kyrgyz hazing initiation, I decided to make it as easy as possible. The better quality the vodka, the less it generally tastes like paint-stripper. Equally, the less painful tomorrow will be. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to taste extremely cheap vodka, you’ll understand my logic. Furthermore, given that there wasn’t a working light-bulb in the room, the attendant wasn’t wearing shoes and we were in the rural outskirts of Bishkek, my gamble paid off when the attendant asked for the princely sum of $6 USD with a raised eyebrow, as if to question ‘and how do expect to pay for it?’. 6 dollars less and 2 litres of vodka in hand, we headed back to the car where the driver had set up plastic cups on the roof and turned up the speakers so loud the cups struggled to stand. There we took shots of vodka and started to dance to early 2000’s RnB in English. To fully appreciate the bizarre nature of the scene I must reiterate that there were 6 Kyrgyz men and a single gangly white English man (a complete foot taller than them all) dancing and drinking vodka around their car on the side of the highway…on a Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, several passersby thought it appropriate to honk and jeer from their cars at the tribal initiation I was withstanding. Others came to join the festivities.
After nearly an hour of ceremony, we headed off along the highway to the next stop 20 minutes further out of Bishkek. Before arriving at the wedding reception, those who attended the wedding were assembled at the current location in order to ensure that the party arrived all at once. There we waited for another half an hour, with the bride and groom joining the main party. It stuck me as bizarre that the bride would get out of the car in her long, petticoat wedding dress, and even more bizarre that no one offered to help her as her dress dragged through the gravel and dirt at the pit stop.
We eventually headed off to the reception where 200 family members were waiting seated in the wedding hall. Various speeches were made by family members, albeit in Kyrgyz and so my understanding was extremely limited. Various distant relatives took turns in beckoning me over to their table, asking the standard ‘Why are you in Kyrgyzstan? Do you love it yet? Have you found a wife?’ and insisting I take at least one vodka shot, ‘for the groom’s sake’.
After several hours, the music started and the dance floor became flooded with middle-aged women doing traditional dance moves to very untraditional music. After the sensory overload of the past few hours, at 10pm I decided to head on home. Despite the offer to stay at the groom’s house the night and keep partying the night away, 9am classes the next day dictated my return home at a reasonable hour.
I’m still somewhat in awe of that day, and will be for a long time to come.