The Socceroo Diaries: Road to Russia 2018
Travels with Pablo Bateson, Socceroos fan extraordinaire, on his trip to Bishkek Kyrgyzstan for Australia's first World Cup qualifier for the 2018 campaign15 June 2015 | Pablo Bateson
EXCLUSIVE report from Pablo Bateson in Bishkek
After long and yet comfortable flights with Royal Brunei Airlines from Australia to Dubai for an overnight stopover, it was touchdown in Bishkek just before 5am on Saturday. The four-hour flight was shared with the Kyrgyzstan national team on their return from Bangladesh and a morale boosting 3-1 victory. It was a good opportunity to share some good will, respectful exchange and diplomacy.
Renewing old friendships and making new acquaintances is a wonderful part of the rich journey for travelling Socceroos fans. The power of football has helped put this exotic and remote part of the world on the map for all Australians including those with the means and sense of adventure to travel to a fabled land of yurts, shepherds, horses, lakes, high mountains, bazaars, wonderful cuisine and so much more.
The locally owned and managed boutique Hotel Rich was chosen as the base for many of the modest numbers of supporters who have travelled from Australia, by all means of challenging and creative routes and methods – admiration for those intrepid few who entered via China, either by air or in one case by road! Yet this was, of course, still much faster than when the likes of Marco Polo and Genghis Khan travelled along the Silk Road route on horseback many centuries ago.
The main languages are the native Kyrgyz and Russian, and although Islam is the predominant religion it is far more relaxed and liberal than other Islamic countries I have visited. There are fewer restrictions in terms of, for example, dress code, visibility of women and availability of alcohol. Quite a contrast to our time in Saudi Arabia last year for the Wanderers’ Asian Champions League triumph at Riyadh.
No time for catch up sleep, and we eased into this city of almost 1 million people by exploring on foot following the grid like layout of tree-lined streets and wide avenues. Apart from general sight-seeing, by mid-afternoon in very warm and sunny conditions we made to the centrally located Dolen Omurzako (Spartak) Stadium, a relic of the former Soviet Union era. Informal access was allowed throughout the facility, and we observed at close range ongoing works to repair degradation to the turf at goalmouth area at one end. There must surely be concern about overall conditions of the pitch.
There had previously been conjecture about whether or not new floodlights would be operational in time for this game. However, the Kyrgyzstan Football Federation had assured FFA and FIFA that all would be in order. The scheduled kick off time was put back from an original 6pm start to 8pm local time (12am AEST).
On Sunday, we engaged a driver for travel to Ala-Archa Canyon in a State nature park over 40 kilometres to the south of Bishkek. From the track-head entrance known as the Alplager our challenging day trek took in wild rivers, alpine meadows with wildflowers, waterfalls, deep valleys, and amazing views up into snow capped mountains and even glaciers with peaks up to nearly 5,000 metres. Fortunately we made it back to the car park just as the forecast rain tumbled down and temperature dropped dramatically.
Later in the evening our group enjoyed dinner with staff from the Australian embassy in Moscow at Cafe Faiza, renowned for authentic Central Asian cuisine and much appreciated by locals. Then it was coffees and more conversations back at the hotel of the Socceroos, with the squad only just arriving after their charter flight from Dubai where the main preparations had been a week long training camp.
By late Sunday evening, thunderstorms with impressive lightning displays rolled into Bishkek. The promise of slightly cooler conditions will be welcomed by players and fans alike.
The game on Tuesday has achieved huge awareness across Kyrgyzstan and about their opponent (the “Socceroos”) viewed as a powerful football nation with star qualities. We cannot underestimate just what a positive impact this opportunity is having for a nation of only 8 million people with a FIFA world ranking of 177.
We have already experienced overwhelmingly positive and appreciative responses, feedback and hospitality from Kyrgyz people across all walks of life.
More news from Pablo soon on the build-up to the Socceroos first challenge on the road to Russia 2018 World Cup.
You can follow Pablo via Twitter @PabloFootball.
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