Then he invited me to a lunch in his honor to be held in the drafty shack of a local village elder, a stern man wrapped in many layers of clothing. My Tatar drivers were eager to get back to Bishkek and warned me that this “quick lunch” would last most of the day. I started to believe them on the seventh or eighth course when various soups, rice dishes, and many servings of meat gave way to manti, Kyrgyz steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton, onions, and chunks of fat. You eat them with your hands, and it is said that the true measure of a good dumpling comes from the sensation of fat trickling down to your elbow as you raise the dumpling from plate to mouth. In that regard, these dumplings didn’t disappoint.
By the time I felt I could manage an escape from the lunch and crawl back to the car—since walking no longer seemed possible, given the gluttony—a man sitting next to me handed me a boiled head of some animal and a sharp long knife. Tradition demanded that a guest of honor cut strips of meat from the head and pass them around. Since I had traveled the farthest to be at this feast, it was decided that I should scalp the head, my neighbor explained. I protested that Beknazarov was the true guest of honor—I was just a pesky lunch crasher and therefore should be disqualified from the task. I didn’t want to steal another man’s boiled head. Seeing my confusion, my neighbor laughed and passed the head to a Beknazarov aide, who proceeded to slice and dice it with an authority born of many such feasts. Sensing our lunch was starting to morph into dinner, I quietly slipped away. Beknazarov stayed behind, sitting cross-legged on the floor, chatting with the elders and enjoying being the man of the moment again. Within a month he would be leading crowds of protesters yet again.