Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jalal-Abad -- home of curative mud and sulphuric water

We set off from Bishkek in cloudy weather in a large, comfortable car driven by a friendly driver named Talant on October 15 for our first stop, Jalal-Abad. Our scenic drive took us through the Chuy Valley, through the Kyrgyz Alatau range and over the 3586 meter Tor-Ashuu Pass. We were surprised to be greeted by a snow storm on our way up, but although it affected the view, it didn't stop the constant flow of cars and strucks steadily making its way over the pass. About half-way through our 10 hour drive, we stopped for lunch at a lovely wood chalet restaurant, which seemed terribly out of place. We were surprised to be given a menu in English, eat freshly fried trout from the river across the road, and to hear that a group of Americans was sitting in the adjoining room.

The city of Jalal-Abad was dark upon arrival because as is the case in most of Kyrgyzstan, the electricity is regularly turned off. It seems that there is a shortage of electricity because the government has been selling its water to neighboring countries, thus depleting the water supply needed for their hydro-electric plants. Since in the dark we couldn't find the small homestay where we had planned to stay, we headed for the center of Jalal-Abad where there seemed to be some light. We stopped at an immense building in the center with large neon lights on its roof reading H tel. The Hotel Naruz turned out to be a very nice, Soviet type place, complete with 2 restaurants and a disco in its basement.

The next morning we set off for our first meeting with local artists at the university. To our surprise we were greeted not only by artists, but by about 20 female students who were studying to be teachers. We spoke with them for about an hour, presented our project and tried to engage them in a discussion about their interests, social practice art, etc. The students and the artists were generally shy except for an elder artist/professor who was particularly interested in knowing more about Mount Rushmore. They were all shocked when Gordon revealed the size of the presidents' noses. After the meeting we moved on to the sadly, decripit Union of Artists Building. The building and its yard are in complete dissaray and the few artists with studios there all seemed to be working on commercial commissions such as creating signs for local money exchange offices. Despite the difficulties of working in these conditions, the artists seemed committed to their profession and very interested in engaging in an exchange with U.S. artists. We spent the rest of the day with 4 artists -- Almasbek Samtudinov (the former head of the Union of Artists), Tamara Boctonkulova (the new head of the Union of Artists), Sharabidin Orozaliev and Sergei Kazadoev. Almasbek invited us to his lovely home where he treated us to fruit, vegetables and cognac at the early hour of noon. We discussed our project and they immediately expressed a sincere desire to participate and help by hosting artists in their homes. The isolation they felt as artists in a city where few artists remain was soon made clear along with their desire to participate in any project which might bring them opportunities to communicate with other artists.

Our day continued with an unforgettable excursion to the Jalal-Abad Sanatorium. This strange compound of mostly decripit Soviet style buildings on a park filled with statutes of everything from Lenin to turkeys offers a wide range of curative procedures designed to fix whatever may ail you. The local artists introduced us as future foreign clients to the Sanatorium administration and after some negotiating we were taken on a very thorough tour by a kind woman, who showed (and offered) us a wide variety of procedures from massage to acupuncture to mud baths for all parts of the body, including the mysterious "mud tampons." We decided to only try one procedure -- a very strange mechanical back massage contraption. We all laid on beds fitted with a metal pipe that rolled up and down our bodies -- it was not a particularly pleasant experience. At the end of our long excursion, we tried the curative mineral waters and promised our faithful guide that we would certainly return to try all their miraculous procedures.

Our day ended with a wonderful visit to the home of one of the artists, where we were treated to plov and vodka. After many toasts and promises to continue our conversation and collaboration, we set off for Osh.

Posted by Susan Katz

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