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Of Barstools And Honor In Central Asia

Into the land where people go to battle for barstools.

“This is Kyrgyzstan!” she roared.

“You don’t understand, you can’t do that in Kyrgyzstan!”

From the sounds of it, you would think that I had made some kind of grave cultural faux pas, you would think that I had deeply rippled the social fabric. In a way, I had — although I couldn’t make any sense of it, which is perhaps a defining attribute of an intercultural miscue.

I had a stool at the rock bar in Bishkek on a busy night. Something that’s apparently highly sought in this part of the world. But eventually I grew weary of sitting in the same spot and decided to sacrifice my equity for a change in scenery. While I was gone some guy and his girl came and claimed it. No problem, right?

Wrong.

This girl that I was talking to earlier had seen what had happened and took it upon herself right the order of things.

“You can’t let him do that to you!” she continued yelling at me. “You can’t let him take your chair. This is Kyrgyzstan!”

No amount of explaining that I didn’t care and didn’t really want my chair anymore did any good. This wasn’t a
matter of a seat at a bar, it was a matter of honor and self-respect.

This girl, who when she found out that I was an American, told me that she had grown up near Alaska (in Russia), wouldn’t take no for an answer. She physically dragged me over to the guy, tugged at his sleeve, and began yelling at him in Russian. As she did she kept pointed back at me. The dude and I are now looking at each other. The girl then gave me a big shove in the direction of my unwitting and unwanted adversary, and left us to man it out.

I tried to get out of it by giving him my best “Yo, this fucking chick is nuts” look, and he seemed to have done the same.

“You have to make him move! That is your chair!” I could still hear this girl screaming from somewhere in the bar.

The dude, of course, couldn’t move. He’d look like a wuss. We were thus launched into a standoff that had brought countless friends to blows and numerous ships to war. It was a matter of principal; the barstool itself was just the symbolic apparatus for the ritual. The prize here was honor — or, more accurately, the fear of losing honor. One man took something that was possessed by another man, and we were going to see who was the stronger by whoever ends up with it in the end — whether they want it or not is irrelevant.

This is a scenario that I’ve seen play out over and over again as I’ve traveled in Central Asia. Bar stools seem to be a prime catalyst of physical conflict here. In Almaty, I watched as a mild mannered friend had to fight some guy who had toppled him from his seat. In Astana, I watched as some poor girl was verbally decimated by some lady whose seat she apparently sat in for a moment.

Where I come from, if you don’t properly maintain your seat at the bar you move on to find another. In Central Asia, you beat the bastard, least you join me in forever being known as the sorry sap who moved his feet and lost his seat.

Filed under: Kyrgyzstan, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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