When you imagine your wedding day…

This is about weddings. I’m not talking about weddings as they once were or as Kyrgyz custom dictates. I’m talking about weddings as practiced here and now by the Kyrgyz middle and upper class in Bishkek. This generation was born either during or right after the USSR crumbled. Late 1980’s to mid 1990’s – those are the ones getting married now.

ZAKS, the official marriage civil registry.

ZAKS, the official marriage civil registry.

So the first requirement for a wedding: it has to be loud, it has to be seen. Young couples in Bishkek rent out stretch limos on their wedding day, adorn them with ribbons and flowers and cruise along a set route (though the order may vary): to ZAKS, the government wedding registry office; to the eternal flame, a memorial dedicated to those who died in WWII; to Kok-Tash, a funky Chinese-style garden on the outskirts of the city; up and down as many of the main throughways as possible. During this entire 3 to 4 hour cruise around the city, the limo is trailed by cars and SUVs decked with ribbons and flowers, while the drivers honk as loud and as often as they can.

In a stretch limo, galavanting around Bishkek.

In a stretch limo, galavanting around Bishkek.

If you’re rich, you rent out 10+ matching SUVs and limos and stuff them full of friends and drinks and candy. If you’re poor(er) you just deck out as many cars as you can get your hands on. The limo, though, is a must. No scrimping there. So you drive along this route, making as much noise as you can, groom and bride in the limo and friends screaming along. You hire a camera man, who periodically hangs out of one of the trailing matching cars to get shots of the limo and then magically compile a 15-minute video of this romp in time for the ceremony. Which happens right after the crowd arrives at the wedding hall.

Next: the wedding. While the young’uns are galavanting about in their limos and cars, the elder, more respectable members of the bride’s and groom’s parties trickle into the wedding hall, the earliest usually showing up at least 45 minutes after the announced wedding time. The gallavanters will of course arrive at least an hour and a half late, as everyone knows (but if everyone expects it, is it really late?). As a side note: the first wedding I went to, I purposefully showed up 15 minutes late, assuming that that was the proper amount of delay for such a major event. Of course I was wrong. Being totally alone in the massive wedding hall for a half hour inspired me to never show up semi-on-time for anything in Kyrgyzstan ever again.

These city weddings are heavily inflected with Western – or at least Russian – ways. The groom and his party wear suites. The bride wears a white gown and veil. There’s (usually) a lot of vodka drinking. But there are Kyrgyz aspects too. So when the bride and groom show up, they walk to every table a bow deeply – kow-tow – three times to their relatives and guests, a sign of respect. The bride is forbidden from smiling. Really, she’s supposed to look beautiful but miserable, as any chaste young woman would when contemplating her wedding night. After 20 minutes of walking and bowing, the bride and groom sit on a podium draped with white curtains and flowers. Guests sit at tables divided into the bride’s side and the groom’s side, both groups on opposite sides of the massive wedding hall. This leaves a big, wide aisle open in the middle of the wedding hall, which is where…

A standard Kyrgyz wedding hall.

A standard Kyrgyz wedding hall.

The MC holds court. It’s like being in a 60’s game show. Tacky costumes, over the top antics, prizes. The MC leads the entire bash, from announcing random games with which to torture guests (solving riddles, doing feats of strength, boy v. girl dance contests … these get better as everyone gets more drunk), to calling up groups for toast-giving (man’s family, woman’s family, distant relatives, friends, neighbours … these also get better as everyone gets more drunk), to launching into his own singing and dancing routines. Talking among guests is kept to a healthy minimum, as they’re subjected to constant prattling by the MC. In between rounds of eating, drinking and toasting, the lights are turned down and guests dance to a weird mix of terrible Soviet ’80’s music, US pop and Kyrgyz love ballads. This will always, always include ABBA’s “Maria.”

Food: given that this wedding-hall portion of your wedding will generally last from 7pm (announced time 6pm) to 1 or 2 in the morning, you must stuff your guests with as many different Kyrgyz national foods as possible. This includes shorpo – soup, basically the broth in which goat meat is boiled, samsi – fried dumplings stuffed with meat and onions, and of course besh barmak – the quintessential Kyrgyz dish of boiled goat and noodles drenched in oil, meat and onions. There are Russian additions, like various salads smothered in mayonnaise, roasted chicken, fried fish and of course a slice of wedding cake. A tip for those who attend Kyrgyz weddings: you’re not expected to eat the massive hunk of goat put on your plate after you’ve already spent 5 hours eating chicken, fish and dumplings. No, no – you bring the goat home with you. That’s what the plastic baggies from the waitstaff are for. At the end of the ceremony, you along with your fellow guest-enemies will make a mad dash for the food left on the table – bread, fruit, candy, dumplings, hunks of meat – and cart it all off in these baggies when you leave. I’ve seen people sneakily slip whole bottles of vodka into their take-home baggies. I’ve also seen people be very, very angry when their seat mates took all the pears and left only the mealy apples. Don’t take all the pears.

Posing for photos outside the Hyatt Hotel.

Posing for photos outside the Hyatt Hotel.

So that’s basically it … once everyone is pass-out-tired and/or pass-out-drunk, the wedding is over. Guests head off to their respective houses, the bride and groom head off to the groom’s house.

There will be a week-long “viewing of the bride,” in which the bride hides behind a curtain in the groom’s house and his relatives come to see her. Literally see, as in to take a look at her and comment on her bride-e-ness. She can of course leave her curtained room to help serve tea and cook for the copious number of relatives who come for this viewing, but under Kyrgyz tradition she’s not supposed to leave the house – not even to take a stroll – for at least a month. There are Kyrgyz traditions that I will not follow.

The curtain, behind which the bride is waiting for her next viewer.

The curtain, behind which the bride is waiting for her next viewer.

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