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British Ambassador: I was mistaken for Prince Charles in Kyrgyzstan

A new Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Kyrgyzstan Charles Garrett has been appointed a little more than three months ago. In the interview with 24.kg news agency, the Ambassador told about his favorite places in the country, how he was mistaken for the Prince of Wales, and learning the Kyrgyz language.

Charles Garrett has been a diplomat for 32 years. He had spent a part of this time in East Asia: he worked in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as in Europe — in Cyprus and Switzerland.

Outside the Foreign Office, I worked for the organizing committee on the Olympic Games for 3 years when London was hosting them. Fantastic job!

Charles Garrett

And then he went back into the Foreign Office to be an Ambassador to Macedonia

«Outside work, I have a family, wife and 5 children, which takes up a lot of my time, energy and love. I have particular passion for mountains, for cycling and football, watching football. I support the Arsenal,» Charles Garrett told.

— I know that your childhood is partly connected with the Soviet Union ...

— I was not born in the UK. I was born in Finland. My parents were living at that time in Moscow. My mother was pregnant with me and they took advice that it was not a good idea to give birth in Moscow, partly because of the hospital facilities there. Also partly because it would be easier, if I was born not in the Soviet Union, but in a Western country.

So I was born there, and grew up mostly overseas. I spent about 10 years of my childhood in Moscow, in Germany and also in Vienna. And I like to think, because of the time spent in Moscow as a child, that I have already lived in the same country that now I am working in, because then Bishkek (Frunze) was a part of the Soviet Union.

My parents came to Frunze, to the old airport, which is no longer working. I think that there is some romanticism that I’m living here now. I want to bring my parents here next year.

Charles Garrett

 — Therefore, probably, your Russian is so good...

— No, at that time the diplomatic community in Moscow was a very closed community. It was very difficult to have a contact with the Russians. I went to an international school — an Anglo-American school in Moscow. And then I went to the UK to a boarding school. So, for most of the year I spoke English all the time. We had one or two Russian who we saw occasionally, but it was a weird opportunity to learn any Russian. But it did spoken interest in the language. So when I went to a secondary school at 13, I had an opportunity to learn Russian immediately. I said: «Yes, I want to learn it.» So, there is a connection, if you like.

— You arrived in Kyrgyzstan 3 months ago. What did you know about the country before the arrival?

— Nowadays, with the Internet you have access to huge amounts of information about anything that is important in your life. And, of course, after I was appointed here, in fact, before that, I was already researching a lot about the country. I knew a lot about the geography. I knew a lot about the politics, about the society here, the economy.

I had also seen a number of films like «Jamila». It is a very good picture of Kyrgyzstan in a different era. It is a very strong picture of the culture of the country.

Charles Garrett

 So I knew very much what to expect. But, of course, the Internet gives only a small part of the picture.

— Has your opinion about the country changed when you arrived here?

— When I came out here, of course, I recognized the mountains, I recognized the buildings, but I had not understood the full depth of the warmth of the people, the smells, the feel of the country, the atmosphere of the country. That all was new to me. And, certainly, it was a wonderful discovery.

Before coming to Kyrgyzstan, I did not think that the creative sector was developing so actively in the country. There was no information about it on the Internet.

— You have already visited not only Bishkek and its suburbs. What is most surprising in our country?

— Some things really surprise me about this place. It is a country, which for a sorts of reasons is unique. One of which is the region of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is the only one that has made real effort for development of democracy, to allow freedom of expression, freedom of speech, which is, of course, a wonderful thing.

But what surprises me is the people unprepared to use more, to speak out and to demand more of the government and of the authorities. They do not complain or take steps to improve their lives. I often hear about discontent among the population, but have not yet seen that active steps are taken to solve the problems.

Charles Garrett

I have a small, but personal example. Two weeks after I came here in July, I bought a car from another diplomat and needed to register it. Three months have passed, but I still have not successfully completed the process. I understand this is typical of the bureaucratic process that also exists in the UK, but our procedures do not take so long. I am sure that such processes can be simpler and faster.

I also can’t understand why the people don’t clean up after themselves. The country has incredible nature, and people come, enjoy this beauty and leave garbage, not preserving the place as it was before.

— Have you already had any funny cases here?

— There was an extraordinary moment, when I went on a field trip with some colleagues to Batken region. We went to visit a project that the British Embassy has been supporting there to renovate and to rebuilt an irrigation canal as a way of supporting local farmers in the border region and improving the profitability and generally strengthening stability in that difficult area. So we go down there and we drive up into the mountains on these roads, which are more rocks than roads.

We eventually get to the place by the village, where the irrigation canal has been mended. A big group of villagers was waiting for the ceremony. I got out of the car, and, of course, there were two young ladies with the bread and the salt went over to do that ceremony.

As it was going over, I could hear someone talking to someone else in the crowd, saying: «Is it the Prince Charles or the King Charles that came to our village?» It made me laugh, and I thought that I was not going to tell that a was just a British Ambassador.

Charles Garrett

 — Is there anything in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan that reminds you of England, native places?

— The one thing that struck me quite earlier on was the similarity between the taxi drivers of Bishkek and taxi drivers of London. It struck me that in both places 99% of the taxi drivers you meet are very professional, very efficient. They might talk to you, have a nice conversation. They might stay silent. One percent of them just want to argue.

One evening I got into a taxi and started a conversation with a taxi driver to practice my Russian. He must have assumed that I was from America, because he just wanted to attack Donald Trump, the American system, the America’s role in the world and he went on and on like this.

Eventually, I had to tell him that I was not American, but from London. And there was a small pause. And he said: «David Cameron.» And he attacked David Cameron, attacked the British democracy. It was very funny and it reminded me very much of us sometimes, as if I sat in a taxi in London.

But in general, Kyrgyzstan is very different from the UK: it has different geography, different cultures, different traditions, food, politics. And it is exactly what I like.

I do not want to be a diplomat in my own country. I want to be a diplomat in an interesting place, an exotic place like Kyrgyzstan.

Charles Garrett

— Do you have a favorite place in Bishkek or in Kyrgyzstan?

— Yes, I do. I particularly like the markets in Bishkek. You might have seen my trip to the Alamedinsky market. I love the markets here, because they are a place where the people are totally natural, totally real. This is not a diplomatic reception, it is not Parliament, it is not a profitable business. This is people living their ordinary lives. I go there to talk to people on these markets. In any way, they are fascinating, because it is a mass of activity and energy going on and business being transacted. You see people, speak to people from all over the country.

When I went to Alamedinsky, there were people from Chui region, Talas region, Naryn, just from everywhere. It is a wonderful picture.

Charles Garrett

 So, I love the markets, but there are many places as well. As I have mentioned, I like cycling and I cycle out of Bishkek whatever I can. I was at ZIL ski base, which is incredibly beautiful. I have been up to Ala-Archa few times. It is just the most wonderful place for a great bike ride, and when you get there, the mountains are so beautiful. It is really fantastic. I am developing a list of favorite places, which is pretty long.

— Maybe there are places that you would like to visit?

— I am looking forward to going to Naryn in November to speak at the university there. I have not been to Osh yet; I have not swum in Issyk-Kul. There are several mountains that I want to climb.

One of my sons wants to climb Lenin Peak and I was asked to do it with him.

Charles Garrett

 It is Karakol — I was there briefly. It is an incredible town. I have to go back there.

— What do you miss here?

— There are not enough people who support the Arsenal football club in Bishkek, but more seriously, it is not that much what I miss, certainly about the UK. I mean, I am a diplomat. I chose my career, because I liked to work overseas and it is that experience that I like. Of course, it would be nice to have something coming out from the UK, for example, my favorite cheese, or my favorite chocolate. But I do not sit at home saying that I really wish to have that.

— Do you like the national Kyrgyz cuisine?

— Your national food is amazing. I have sat in a yurt and I had a full banquet: meat, beshbarmak. I have had liquid kurut. It is absolutely delicious. I have tried kumys.

I have tried it with a friend of mine from the UK who is a cousin of James Blunt. He came out just driving a motorbike around the world and stopped in Kyrgyzstan.

Charles Garrett

 We went to have Kyrgyz meal. We had lagman, manty and samsy and everything, and, of course, drunk kumys. It was delicious.

— What national dish do you like the most?

— It is samsy, they are absolutely delicious. I have not eaten Osh samsy, but tried Talas samsy and I have had Bishkek samsy. We have a very similar dish in the UK. It is called a Cornish pasty. It is meat inside pastry. But samsy are tastier, although I think my mother will not be happy to hear that.

— Is there a dish that you are afraid to taste?

— No, there is no dish I am afraid to taste. I think I want to taste everything. I will not necessary like everything, but the one thing that I find slightly uncomfortable is enormous amount of meat in a meal. I mean, in Europe we have used to a small bit of meat and a lots of vegetables. Here is completely different- a small amount of vegetables and half a sheep in a dish.

— What has fascinated or disappointed you in acquaintance with the local population?

— I have not come across anything that is upsetting here, actually.

I mean the warmth and the welcome are being quite extraordinary. And there is a real interest in the UK.

Charles Garrett

 And I am very happy to meet with the people, to talk to them. It is interesting for them what the Embassy has got to offer. It is the country where talks about its neighbors, especially China, Russia, Kazakhstan and so on predominate. And the UK is sometimes seen as somewhere, not many people know about it. I think it is wonderful, it is a sign of openness that you are so enthusiastic to hear more about it.

— Is it worth returning to Kyrgyzstan having visited it once and why?

— I have mentioned James Blunts’ cousin. He came here on his motorbike and said: «I am not going to drive through Kyrgyzstan. I am going to leave my motorbike here and come back second time to drive around the country, and then come back for the third time to go off again. I think I will fairy do the same in four years. I am already falling in love with this country.

— I read on your Instagram that you started learning Kyrgyz?

— Ooba («yes» in Kyrgyz)

— Why did you decide to learn the language?

— When I came out here, the Foreign Office told me Russian because it was necessary for business. But it is not the language of the majority of the people here. It is language, which is useful to understand if one speaks.

But I have always believed that when you go to a country to work, it is basic curtsy to learn something of the local language.

Charles Garrett

 But is more than just a curtsy, it is just a way of understanding. If I was a literary person, I would say: «It is a window to the soul». It is the way of understanding the culture.