We had been alternating days of hawks, hills, poverty and song with evenings of banquets and debauchery at a bankers’ convention. The extremes of the human condition were beginning to wear me down, and I thought that a jaunt to the marketplace in town was just the thing to set me right. Perhaps a bowl of noodles for lunch and a walk by the river.
We were staying at the Aurora, a former sanatorium where political elite would go to rest their nerves and find new vigour in Issyk Kul’s waters. I headed down to the marble-clad, timeworn lobby and asked for a taxi or directions to the nearest mashrutka stop. The concierge beamed at me and promised that a ride would be there in a moment. A few minutes later I heard the roar of a motor more powerful than any Lada, and a well-muscled Mercedes rolled into view. The driver got out, in a suit as shiny black as the SUV, and opened the back door. I turned to look at the chap at the reception and he flourished an arm in the direction of the vehicle. “No”, I said, “this isn’t necessary, a local cab will do very well”. After all, the idea was to blend in, have a little break from the financial freakery.
Security men frowned, the driver frowned, everyone clucked and talked about safety. I climbed into the Merc meekly, and made up my mind that I would shake the driver as soon as we got into town. The fabric strained against his biceps as he manoeuvered his bulk into the car.
It was a bright day and the Tian Shan mountains glittered with snow. We passed a cemetery, off-limits to the living, and fields full of petroglyphs. Karakol town was a quiet, genteel place. The driver braked with skidding wheels, to show off to the local peasantry. Our arrival had not gone unnoticed: teenagers were all agog and elders looked on, aloof. I darted out of the car and waved a quick goodbye. I didn’t think a man of his size could move so fast. He caught up with me and looked at me reproachfully. I gave up, offered my hand and introduced myself. He told me he was Yuri, a local lad.
We walked through the market, he haggled for me, and I bought the bright spices and beautiful felt goods that would, a few weeks later, infest my home in Helsinki with exotic insects. Despite the suit and the mirrored Ray-Bans, Yuri turned out to be down to earth and friendly. He walked respectfully a metre behind me and carried my shopping. He knew a good place for noodles. We sat in the garden and conversed in signs and halting Russian.
By the time we returned to the car, we were fast friends. I suggested he put on some music and he turned up his favourite hip hop. The car began to bounce in sync with the bass and we bawled over the noise. He pointed out his favourite spots on the way.
We climbed up on the hill where he comes when he has a fight with his girlfriend and wants to get away from it all. The Western Paradise where Chinese emperors come to pass eternity after death, aka the Tian Shan mountains, reared up in front of us and washed away all differences between us. We ate some nuts and raisins in silent companionship.
Back into the beating, bouncing, shiny Merc we went, and half an hour later we arrived at the Aurora. Beethoven rolled over from the grand piano over the stained marble floors. I collected my shopping, and Yuri shifted his massive weight from one foot to the other with a sheepish smile. I thanked him for a lovely time.