Lake Issyk-kul, Eerie & Enchanting (2003)

Lake Issyk-kul, Eerie & Enchanting (2003)

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It seemed a minor miracle that we survived the landing, considering the extent of blinding snow all around the tarmac. Our tiny Uzbek Air plane of Soviet provenance, was probably held together more by the indomitable will of its engineer than by the laws of physics.  As I stumble out of Bishkek airport at this unearthly hour – it is past six in the evening, nearly three hours after sunset in winter in the Kyrgyz capital – there is a single taxi cab parked at some distance.  I dart out, braving the blizzard, skid over the ice to make my way to the rickety Lada. With nary a by-your-leave, I yank open its backdoor and dive in.

Maximilian Alexandrovich – I would learn his name later –  the grizzly Russian driver was obviously not expecting any passengers this evening.  He stares at me blankly.  From the fumes inside the cab, I presume he is in a vodka-induced daze. I wonder if ex-Soviet taxi drivers consider passengers an occasional interruption to their daily schedule of lazing around in their cabs.  I also wonder whether it is wise to hire his taxi, but unfortunately, there is no other outside Bishkek airport tonight.

I had not planned it this way. I was to arrive in Bishkek by noon, take a cab directly to Lake Issyk-kul, six hours away and check into Abror Gastanista, recommended by my good friend Ramakant.  But my plans went awry when the flight from Tashkent to Bishkek was delayed by six hours.  Now I have no hotel bookings, speak no Russian and have to survive by my wits in this strange city.

Optimistically, I show the cab driver the scrap of paper on which Ramakant had scrawled the name of my Issyk-kul hotel in Russian.  Maxim mumbles incomprehensibly, groans, turns the paper upside down and holds it inches away from his nose.  This is going to take a while.  After a volley of more incomprehensible exchange –  mine in Tamil and English, his in Russian, a lot of it swearwords, I presume –  and much gesticulating, it finally dawns on him that I am asking him to take me all the way to Lake Issyk-kul, not to Hotel Issyk-kul in Bishkek.   Then follows a complex mime act as to how many days I plan to stay there and whether he should also bring me back to Bishkek. Finally, we arrive at the price of 200 US dollars for the package.  The taxi will stay in Issyk-kul all three days and bring me back to Bishkek (or at least that’s what I hope his understanding is).

He is still grumbling, half talking to himself, shaking his head, gesticulating. I jam a hundred US dollar bill into his grimy hands and gesture him to get going.   Reluctantly he starts the car.  As the heating comes on, tempers cool down.  Fitful attempts at conversation prove futile. I draw my jacket around my shoulders and stretch out on the back seat of the Lada. I have enough time to rue my foolishness in not staying back at the airport that night and to pray that he takes me to my desired destination.

Eventually, the car screeches to a halt and I am jolted out of my slumber. It is still dark although there is a flicker of light somewhere in the distance.  We have stopped in front of a locked gate with a winding drive way behind it. But there is no building in sight, nor any signboard.  I notice the snow swept neatly off the road onto the sidewalks has turned into ice.   There hasn’t been any fresh snowfall that night.

Maxim gets out of the car, scales the gate, jumps on the other side and is off without a word.  My stupor has vanished to be replaced by rising apprehension.  The seconds move excruciatingly slowly and seem like hours.  At last, I spy two forms shuffling towards the gate.  Maxim probably came back in five minutes, but in my disorientated and torporific state, it could well have been hours.  The other man has a huge key bunch and a torch. He fiddles with a couple of keys before finding the right one to unlock the gate. Maxim gets back into the car and we drive half a kilometre or so to reach the main entrance of Abror Gastanista, or so I believe, vaguely making out the Cyrillic script.

When I enter the precincts, I feel as if I have stepped through a time machine.  The lobby is as cold and still as a crypt.  There are life-sized wooden chessmen and women placed on the chequered floor at one level. The hall is high-roofed and massive and there is a central staircase with carved banisters, much like in old Bollywood movies. The red carpeting is slightly mouldy.  Several over-ornate chandeliers give the lobby a cinematic opulence although the place is devoid of any signs of life.

Maxim leads me to the reception desk where no one seems to be around. But then as we approach the counter, we spot a diminutive babushka dozing off behind a glass case full of Matrushka dolls.  We tap the counter and she wakes up with a jolt. She reacts as though she had seen a ghost and I almost return the compliment. She is not expecting any guests in October, the start of winter in the Tien Shan mountains. I did not have a reservation either. Ramakant had assured me it was not necessary since the gastanista has more than a 100 rooms and unlikely to be fully booked off-season.

If you wonder why and how I chose to go to remote Issyk-kul of all places, that too in winter, here goes: ever since I had seen a centre-spread picture of the mysterious vast blue expanse fringed by snow-peaks in a magazine – probably National Geographic,-  I had come to covet this placid lake in the middle of nowhere. I dreamt of going there some day. My desire was fuelled not a little by the ecstatic descriptions of my friend Ramakant who had visited Issyk-kul many times during his university days in Tashkent.  So, when an opportunity came to travel to Tashkent on work, Ramakant urged me to go to Issyk-kul, never mind the season. Seldom do such opportunities come one’s way and one must seize the day, he insisted.

With Maxim doing all the talking, it transpires the babushka is happy to accommodate me for the next three days for a princely sum of 25 US dollars a day, all meals included. I pay up and hand over my passport for photocopying.  Maxim gestures to indicate he would go and stay somewhere else and would come back at 10 am. The babushka lifts my bag effortlessly and leads me down the corridor to a heritage elevator with collapsible grill gates. Instead of buttons, the elevator has old-fashioned round switches with numbers painted below each switch. She throws the switch (did you ever wonder what throwing a switch means?) for floor 5 and the elevator takes off with a jolt. It makes so much noise as to drown out a jet engine taking off, that I fear it will shatter the glass panes.

On floor 5, there is a long corridor with rooms on one side, much like a hospital rather than a hotel.  Everything is blinding white – the doors, walls, windows, balustrades. I later learn that it is indeed a sanatorium where Soviet big bosses used to holiday in summers.  Now it is used by Kyrgyz bosses who bring their mistresses whenever they can. The babushka leads me through several corridors and finally reaches one where she opens a door and signals me in; she then turns back wordlessly and disappears down the long corridor.

I enter the room and survey my surroundings.  It seems straight out of a period film from the Soviet era. The décor was so outré it would have made Shanaaz Hussain blush. The bed is a high four poster with a heavy mattress and brocade sheets on it; one wall is completely glass, curtained by frilly transparent nylon with lace borders.  The enormous bathroom has an enamel wash basin on a white-painted iron-stand and a massive bathtub standing on curved lion feet made of metal. The mirror is ornate and so are the lamp fittings. This must be the presidential suite reserved for the commissars in Soviet times.

I go up to the windows and part the lace curtains and jump back in amazement. In the dawn glow, the view is simply spectacular.  The pink-tinged snow peaks of the majestic Tien Shan range are almost at touching distance. In the foreground, just below the window, is a shimmering lake, with its waters gently lapping against the snowy bank.  This is even better than the picture that has haunted me all those years, I tell myself. The snow is fresh and sparkles like diamond. The silence is so deafening I could hear my own heartbeat.  I stand mesmerised for a few moments.  But I am tired.  I clamber up the bed and collapse in a heap.

After about three hours, I get up and get ready to go down for breakfast. That’s when I realise how foolish I had been. I had not made a mental note of the way we came in and am truly lost in the labyrinthine corridors and multiple wings all of which look alike. A sanatorium with 300 rooms and identical corridors can confound even the janitors and bell-boys who work there. There is not a soul in sight anywhere and no sign of that heritage elevator. After several minutes of wandering here and there, I spot a staircase and decide to go down. But even after I have descended five floors, the lobby is nowhere in sight. I go through several heavily curtained doors and dark alleyways and suddenly find myself in an industrial size kitchen with gleaming stainless steel cooking machinery.  Nothing seems to be cooking or sizzling anywhere. Finally, I locate a lone woman in uniform and accost her. Of course she speaks no English, but leads me out of this maze into the dining hall.

It seems like a banqueting hall, a heavily chandeliered, smothered in satin curtains with nylon ropes and tassels and packed with hundreds of round tables. The sideboard is neatly stacked with glittering vodka and wine glasses in hand-carved crystal. The Soviet bosses surely dined in style. In season, the dance floor must have rung out with the rhythmic steps of hundreds of restless feet. There is a grand piano at one end of the hall and a well for a full orchestra. Tchaikovsky must have provided a backdrop to the impassioned shouts of “Nzdazarovia’’ in better times. Now the hall wears a deserted look, a grander version of Miss Havisham’s minus the cobwebs.

I am led to a corner table on the edge of the dance floor.  Today, I seem to be the lone diner in a hall that could seat several hundreds.  I suspect I am probably the lone resident of this monstrous sanatorium. The attendant slaps some kasha (buckwheat porridge) on my plate and goes to fetch some tea from a steaming samovar. As I swallow the milkless sugarless kasha, I hear some voices – in American English. Five persons – four men and a woman – troop past me, eyeing me with interest. They seat themselves at the table next to mine and steal a few glances at me as they bend over their kasha and omlettes.

I am so grateful for human presence in this eerie, spooky sanatorium that I decide to address them directly.  After the usual preliminaries, I gather they are from Manas, the American military base not far from here. They are very surprised to see a lone traveller, that too from India, in this godforsaken spot in the middle of nowhere in Central Asia. They can’t fathom why a loony Indian woman would choose to travel alone in winter to this isolated place even if it is paradise. They themselves can’t wait to get back home. Thankfully, today is their last day in Manas and they are off home to the US in the evening.

After breakfast, I step out of the hotel. The blizzard from the night before had subsided, and the sun was shining in all its glory, turning the vast virgin snow fields into incandescent plains of the purest white. And looking beyond, I see the lake itself, shimmering in the morning sun, its waters the deepest imaginable shade of blue. And beyond that, an endless range of snow-capped peaks, perfectly framing the scene. And off to one corner, our bent little hotel, dwarfed by its surroundings, half covered with snow, the only man-made speck on the most primordial of landscapes. I had truly reached the ends of the Earth.

But wait a minute, there is much more to Hotel Aurora. It’s a full-fledged sanatorium with clinical and medical facilities for all kinds of ailments as well as various therapies. It has a heated indoor swimming pool, sauna, table-tennis and a fully-equipped gym. Later I am to learn that many of these therapies as well as three meals are included in the paltry room rent I paid. I take full advantage of the offer and give myself a hydrotherapy, a massage and a dubious spielotherapy where I am made to sit in a cottage pieced together with rocks that are supposed to give out radioactive rays to cure unspecified illnesses! Hotel Aurora has more doctors, nurses and attendants per square inch than Ram Manohar Lohia or Breach Candy. But they are all mostly invisible, behind shut doors in their respective clinics. The only people I do meet are the four yanks posted in the US Airbase in Manas and after a few pleasantries, even they are off, warning me to be careful.

I take a long stroll along a poplar-lined pathway to the shores of the lake. I am struck by the primordial quiet of the place. Not a blade of grass moves, not a soul in sight, no machines, no hum of motors pumping up water, no noise or movement, period. Perhaps it is this solitude and quiet that is the most therapeutic contribution of Hotel Aurora. The trees are bare – they’ve already shed their leaves preparatory to winter. As I near the shore, I can hear the gentle lapping of the waves, and am grateful for some sound, any sound. I sit on the sandy shores and watch the sun play hide and seek behind the clouds. On the horizon I spot several flocks of migratory water birds. It is a veritable parade of cormorants, herons, geese, ducks and mallards. Issyk-kul squirrels look almost like rabbits, white with a golden tail. I spend the entire afternoon on the lake’s shores without encountering a single human being.

In the evening, Maxim drives me up to the mountains. The spots of snow in the lower reaches soon become a thick blanket. Maxim points out Brezhnev’s dacha overlooking Issyk-kul from its vantage perch. A few Kyrgyz horsemen pass us by and oblige cheerfully when I want to take a picture with them. Soon we’re into thick jungles and it becomes difficult to tell the path from the bushes in the twilight. Far below in the valley, Issyk-kul beckons. I tell Maxim to turn back, albeit reluctantly.

2 thoughts on “Lake Issyk-kul, Eerie & Enchanting (2003)”

  • I do not even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I don’t know who you are but certainly you are going to a famous blogger if you aren’t already 😉 Cheers!

  • Ma’am, Loved your description. It just conjures the images of the plve…. transported me to the place. Really admire your intrepidness and passion.

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