It was like it was meant to be. It really was. Usually, I don’t believe in fate, or kismet, or what have you. But this weekend everything was falling into place so perfectly, it couldn’t be anything else. Fate. Kismet even. Or just damn perfect luck.
We arrived in Cholpon Ata around 2pm on Saturday, after a 4-hour drive from Bishkek, with mixed road qualities from perfect Chinese-made highways to crap roads bumpy like braille from years of pot-hole filling. The lake makes all the crappy driving and drivers worth it though. There is just something magical about this lake.
That’s where we went swimming as soon as we arrived. The kids and I dropped in for about 30 minutes in the cold, refreshing water. Daughter number one and I seem built for this type of water, at least enough so that we can take the temperature better than three others of our kin. The water felt in the range of about 18C, +/- 1.5C, and really felt better the farther out we went. That little red blob in the middle of the picture is about a meter long with DIVER BELOW printed on the side. If you look close, you can see four of us swimming by it.
So after this quick swim, we jumped into the car and tried to find Akhmed Anarbaev‘s pool. It is a LCM pool, as I’ve mentioned before, and certainly must stand out or at least be known to people here. We drove east through the village, nothing resembling a giant indoor pool catching our eye, until we got to the edge of the village, and stopped for gas. While one of the techs was pumping the gas, I asked a young lady employee if she knew Anarbaev and where his pool was.
“Come with me,” she stated, and I followed her into the gas station. She grabbed a copy of Friday’s Vechernyy Bishkek (Evening Bishkek) and turned to a middle page and asked, “Him?”
Sure enough, there was an article in the paper about Anarbaev. She directed us 10 minutes further east outside the village, saying that we couldn’t miss his pool. We got back into the car and headed out.
It didn’t take long to realize how wrong she was, either in our ability to spot his pool or in her knowledge of where his pool was. We turned back and returned to the guest house. When we got back, the wonderful hosts asked how our outing was. I pointed to the picture of Anarbaev in the newspaper and said that we tried to find his pool. They both looked at me, pointed to the house next to them, and said, “He lives there and his pool is right over there,” pointing a little farther off.
So I called Anarbaev. I know, I know, I should have done that earlier. But I’m just so bad on the phone speaking Russian. I do better IRL, when I can see the person talking, using some of their facial expressions to help with the context, to make up for my so-so (чут-чут, по-русски) Russian. He explained that the next morning as his place he was hosting a bunch of veterans for a swim meet and I was invited. I thanked him and said I’d try to be there.
Breakfast in Cholpon Ata
The next morning after breakfast the owner took me over there. It was past the time of the meet, which was fine by me because me and pool meets just don’t get along. His pool was so close, about 50 meters away from the guest house. Anarbaev was nice, immediately stopping all the other swimmers there (Soviet teammates of his from the late 60’s through the 70’s) that he had a guest all the way from America who was here to swim with them. Talk about embarrassed! I tut-tutted and explained that I was an adult-onset swimmer and very slow, which made them laugh. I don’t know why.
Daughter #2 and I left there with a small bucket full of very tasty locally-grown plums and an invitation to an afternoon open water swim…at the same place we swam the day before! What a coincidence. I had asked Anarbaev about talking to him about logistics on the lake and to interview him for an article on his swimming endeavors. The newspaper article had mentioned that he not only crossed Issyk Kul “several times” but also Lake Baikal, which was news to me, and the Bering Strait, which I had read about. He told me there’d be plenty of time to talk tonight at dinner.
Yes, he invited me and all my kids to dinner, where he’d be cooking plov [link jpg] and we could talk. It was like something wanted me to meet this guy. Who, by the way, is the nicest guy you’d ever meet! I also met another Soviet Olympian who now lives in New Jersey. I hope to get names of the other veterans this evening.
I managed to talk both daughters into swimming with me. The boys went with us to the pier where we’d been the day before. All the veterans and Anarbaev showed up and he explained how the swim would go. We’d all jump in and swim leisurely to a beach about 200m away (300m according to Google), where we’d line up and all swim back to the pier. The girls and I managed to talk son #1 into swimming too, in his canvas cargo shorts. Which was nice, because the most exercise that boy ever gets is walking to work (half-mile) or using the joy stick on his computer. That left boy #2 to be the photographer.
We jumped into the cold water and all swam “leisurely” to the beach. My son took the longest. The elevation was getting to him. Girl #2 was freezing while we were standing waist deep in the water waiting for the boy. Before we knew it, Anarbaev said March* and everyone took off. I told the kids I’d see them at the finish and took off too.
About half-way through I thought, wow, I’m already winded. I’d forgotten about the elevation, too. Lake Issyk Kul is at an elevation of 5,269 feet, making it an alpine lake. It’s area of 2,408 mi2 makes it the second largest alpine lake in the world, after Lake Titicaca. Bottom line: I wasn’t intaking as much oxygen as I was used to! I managed to say with some of those guys, but most of these guys (in their 60’s!) beat me handily. We gathered together in the water for some pictures, then I waited for my kids to come in.
I managed to get a picture with girl #2 really quickly before she beat almost everyone out of the water. Poor thing is a stick and more suited to swimming in a nice warm pool. Girl #1 hung out with me for a while, after she was done talking with one of the veterans as they both swam in. Boy #1 was last in and he was having no pictures (although boy #2 did get some of him) as he was having trouble catching his breath and wanted to get out. That was the most cardiovascular work he’d done in I don’t know how long.
So we ended the afternoon with a promise from Anarbaev to call me with directions to where the plov will be. I’m hoping I’ll get to sit near him so I can talk his ear off. It’ll be good Russian practice, and I’m dying to know about his crossings. For history’s sake, I want to get a good rendering of his experiences for the marathon swimming community. There’s probably a lot for us to learn from this side of the globe, and I’ll do my best to chronicle it.
So, check in tomorrow. I’ll see what I can learn tonight and report back tomorrow. And once I get home, I can upload some pictures that are stuck on this old digital camera of ours that has some fascist card in it that’ll only work on certain computers that are not Chromebooks.
*For some reason, he said марш which is also how Russian troops start marching. No idea if this is typical for starting races or not.