All around us, over 200 people are merrily dancing and singing; men in kalpaks (the traditional Kyrgyz hat) with their arms around each other necking shots of vodka, and women in colourful gowns and headscarves cutting some very smooth shapes on the dance floor. I however, could only feel the hot breath and the penetrating glare of the drunk man sitting next to me, who was staring directly at the side of my head from only two feet away, as I tried (and failed) to enjoy watching the dancing.
In the quiet town of Karakol, on the Eastern shores of Issyk Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan, we were looking forward to another early night and cracking sleep before we venture into the daunting mountains that surround the town in the coming days.
We have just finished an excellent dinner of shashlik and mantis (Central Asia's version of dumplings), when we hear music pumping out the rather fancy looking building next door, with giant white marble columns and a sweeping staircase that lures us in. Naturally, we assumed there was a wedding going on, and even more naturally, we decide to invite ourselves.
To be precise, as we are British and all, we do it in the most passive and meek manner possible. Still in our rain jackets and hiking boots, we open the venue door and creep up the stairs, only to realise we are standing directly behind the family (who are being filmed, I should add) in our bright yellow jackets, and we are now very much being projected onto the big screens that all 200 guests are watching.
After a muffled bit of bad language, we scuttle back behind the wall, looking sheepish, only for a very confident 14 year boy in an immaculate suit to approach us, and in near perfect English, asks:
"Would you like to join us for a drink and a dance?"
And we're in.
Let's be clear here; I hate dancing, so I am very much here for one reason, and one reason only. A philosophy I will later come to regret.
We later learn it is not in fact a wedding, but a coming of age party for two young boys who have just been through a rather painful procedure. Due to there being no mutually convenient language to share the technical details, this information was gleaned through hand gestures only, which you can probably imagine was quite a sight.
We are quickly shown to 'our' seats, and have to politely decline the three course dinner on offer, as the lamb shashlik has absolutely done it's job. An obscure collection of people come to introduce themselves, from young people wanting a selfie, to elderly women whose first question isn't really a question:
"Why don't you have children?" She doesn't wait for an answer, and just tuts instead.
As we are learning, introductions in Central Asia are a little different. Small talk consists of asking your name. The next question will most likely be one of the following:
"How much do you earn?"
"Are you married?"
"Do you think Arsenal will win the league?"
After delving into our personal lives, I am thankful (for once) to be told the dancing will now be starting. I am even more thankful to be grabbed round the arm by a man I have never met who insists we drink vodka together before dancing. I'm a bit of a lightweight when it comes to booze and I positively dislike vodka, but if given a choice between drinking or dancing, I am choosing drinking every day.
Sadly for me, being in a neon yellow jacket with bright red hair, I don't exactly blend into the background, and I can't avoid the dance floor for much longer.
Some people are having a great time dancing. One woman in particular, probably approaching the third quartile of her life, with died purple hair, was strutting around with a swagger and confidence I could only dream of. While singing 'I am a disco dancer', of course.
Once again, I am grabbed round the arm by another strange man (above), although this time with considerably more force than the last. If I was being nice, I'd say he had a shaved head. However I am not being nice, and he is most certainly nearly bald, with dark sunken eyes that I will never forget, and a blue shirt that is too small and is losing a battle with his protruding stomach.
At the dance floor he immediately begins an energetic disco dance routine, that I begrudgingly have to admit is pretty good. The unnerving element is that during the entire routine he maintained an unbroken eye contact with me. I'm almost certain he has never blinked in his life.
Upon completion of his elaborate routine, I get the impression he is waiting for a round of applause that doesn't arrive. What does arrive though is a summoning to the dance floor, again with unbroken eye contact. I understand absolutely nothing he says, which is in fast and slurred Kyrgyz, with each word projecting a little more saliva my way. I get the impression he is trying to coax me into some kind of macho competition that only he is interested in, saying 'Are you man enough for this dance off?'
Obviously I am not.
Acutely aware that this playful ruse could turn a little more edgy very quickly, I decide to take the politicians approach of answering a question with a question, gesturing we should drink some vodka together instead. This is the only time during our encounter that I felt I was in control or had the upper hand against my challenger, as I usher us off the dance floor towards the safety that is the table and chairs. And the vodka bottle.
Three shots later... Who am I kidding? These shots were huge. I have no idea how big they were but each one felt like a pint.
Three drinks later, after some polite chit-chat about how much I earn and how fertile he is with his large family, I unclamp this man's hand from around my upper arm, and extricate myself away from him to take a moment's breath that wasn't immediately followed by vodka.
My peace and tranquility doesn't last long. I place myself as far away as physically possible from this man as the dancing ends and the speeches start up again, only for the idiot next to me to naively vacate their chair. Like a moth to a flame. Like a fly to shit. Like Boris to a party. Here he comes again. Sure enough he plonks himself down next to me, breathing heavily now, and decides to stare directly at the side of my head for the entirety of the speeches. I can feel his presence, which I try to ignore, until I realise the only course of action is to run.
After a fun filled, and extremely drunken one hour, I turn to my partner and suggest we leg it while I am still sober enough to run.