Pilgrim’s Pages Autumn, ‘kyrgyzstan, Squirrels & Marina’s Library’

10th-21st September, Kyrgyzstan

In September I went to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to renew my visa for Russia. Whilst there I visited an American woman who was conducting research on wolves near Issyk-Kul lake. She was extremely welcoming and indulging my greatest passion, took me to a petroglyph site at Cholpon-Ata on the North side of the lake. An international project on petroglyphs was held in Bishkek in the nineties and this site bore witness to its memory with a large stand at the road side informing us that we were entering a ‘zapovednik-musuem’. It took us a while to find it as we drove away from the village and up a pot-holed track towards the foot of the mountains. A group of young boys offered to show us the way. They squeezed into the back of the car and demanded sweets. Shortly after we arrived, a young man appeared and sold us tickets in som for about one pound. Narrow tracks showed the way around a huge field filled with stones and boulders. The boys were eager to show us that they knew where to find the best picture of a camel, an Ibex or a goat. Orange numbers were stamped on the back of the stones, probably the remnants of a former cataloguing system. One can’t help but wonder just what these images are doing there and whether the stones are naturally located here or chosen for their peculiar qualities and brought from afar? Somehow it doesn’t seem as peculiar to see images carved into an unusual grotto or a cave as it does to see them filling a whole field situated between the mountains and the lake. It was as if some huge giant from the mythical world had taken the decorated jack stones from his pocket the size of a mountain, leaned forwards towards the lake and scattered them along the ground in a gesture of , ‘there, go play!’ I received my visa and returned to Altai.

5th October, Going public.

 My advert for private English tuition went out in the local paper a few days ago. The initial response was varied. One man rang asking me to find him contacts in the west with whom he could retail his honey. Another called wanting to play me his accordion down the phone after offering me to come and live with him and yet another called to ask if I didn’t by any chance have a copy of a book called ‘Unusual psychic phenomena’. Having weaved and dived through the nutters and the lonely I have now found a group of pupils and students in need of some extra coaching. I keep warm and find my fulfilment in relative clauses, indefinite articles and participle adjectives.

6th October, Squirrel Today, after lessons I went to visit Natasha and Nogon. As always Natasha had a table covered with interesting things to eat and drink and we sat and discussed family and friends. I have long been used to eating lamb and tucking into a plate of bones. I have even tried Ibex and so the anxiety of being a vegetarian in Siberia is buried in the past. On this occasion as I scanned the table for a tasty little smackerel of something my eyes rested on what looked like a pile of boiled rats. Hoorah! As it turned out they were not rats at all but squirrel. Now is the time when young men hunt for squirrel with noose or bullet and sell their fur. At the present time a fur can sell for 78 rubles which is about one pound and fifty pence!!! The meat is said to be very good for you as the squirrels only eat healthy things like nuts. The bodies once skinned look pathetically tiny and thin as if indeed they have come from a rat but the meat is moist and delicious with a slightly nutty flavour.

23rd Marina’s Library

When I’m not teaching I spend a lot of time in the local history section of the public library. Recently, a meeting was held for the library staff. A friend of mine, Marina, who works herself as a librarian in Boochi village, Ongudai, was invited to give a talk as she has become well known for her unusual librarian style. One of the most popular features of the library is the toy shelf. The toys are but a handful of stocking fillers posted from Scotland to Boochi last Christmas. However, news of their arrival in the library spread through the village and they entice very young children into the library for the first time. As it turns out there are no small things in life! It’s more a matter of where they are and for what purpose they are used. A mirror has been placed in the library just opposite the stove to encourage the children to take care of their appearance when visiting the library. ‘Banya’ in the village is usually only once or twice a week and so being covered in cowpat won’t do! A ‘bad habits’ bag hangs in the corner and all are encouraged to write their bad habits on a piece of paper and then place it in the bag for the suslik (ground squirrel) to take away! The library itself consists of one small room only with a stove which provides heating in winter. Needless to say there are no computers to be seen. Marina’s library is as far from the Cambridge University library or the Republican library as we are from the moon. It doesn’t have the hushed, authoritarian atmosphere of larger libraries. Nor does it have the particular feel that rooms filled with large dusty books carry. In some ways it is fresh but empty. One might wonder why a village librarian in her first year of work should be invited to a Republican library and be asked to give a talk there. The answer is probably that in the emptiness there is room for something special which Marina brings to her work. Her library is full of life and as a result the village community are using it. Every individual young or old is greeted and assisted politely and encouraged in their reading interests.

In the absence of wealth, raw enthusiasm is creating a centre of activity and the smallest things have become significant. A few stocking fillers which one might ordinarily throw away after the Christmas festivities have brought a new generation of readers to the Boochi village library. I think the experienced and professional librarians invited Marina to give a talk at the republican library because of what she practises. So often it is tempting to have a dream but think ‘I can’t do that because I haven’t got a laptop or a thousand dollars or long legs or whatever it happens to be…It is remarkable to discover just how many talented village children have appeared given just a little attention. Aside from her talent with children Marina really proves that it doesn’t matter how little you have or what the obstacles are. Do what you love doing with love and maybe not straight away, but in the end the rest of the world will find your love and fall in love. Now, people who have been inspired by Marina send her donations of books, toys and paper. When Marina had finished speaking she was whisked off into the corridor for an interview on local television.

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