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At the crossroads of Eurasia in KZ land: Ice fishing, the 'Beeb and Al-Jazeera.
For those of you that don't know, the dearth of recent postings has been due to spending a few weeks in the Republic of Kazakhstan, serving as the International Delegate and interpreter for the USA Ice Team (as well as a member of the International Jury presiding over the event,) during the IX FIPSed World Ice Fishing Championships. Now, to those of us in the northern tier of states in the USA, ice fishing seems as natural as walking or ice skating - all boys in Minnesota are quickly taught to do all three at the earliest ages of development - and the sport has a big following in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic and Scandinavian states. But for the rest of the world, to be frank, the sport must seem like like so much alcohol fueled insanity done mostly out of a serious need to relieve boredom and cabin fever during the winter months. Indeed, that is the popular perception even in the USA (and the UK, as I was to find out - more on that later) - that ice fishing consists of sitting on a bucket, in one place, and ends when the supply of beer and other forms of anti-freeze (such as the infamous Sno-Shoe Grog, a rather vile concoction of cheap brandy and peppermint schnapps that somehow doesn't taste so bad when sitting out in -30 F weather with a driving north wind at your back) are either exhausted or frozen solid.

Ice fishing in the States has been revolutionized by tech advances that 20 years ago seemed like so much science fiction - personal sonar units and underwater cameras from the likes of Vexilar and other specialized companies, specialized high end rods and reels designed specifically for ice fishing by St. Croix and Thorne Brothers, motorized and hand augers from Strikemaster, portable shelters from Clam Corporation, and high tech extreme cold weather outerwear and boots from Ice Armor, Cabela's, and Baffin...this is just a partial list of the gear that I personally use. This stuff is spendy, and the economies in Eastern Europe haven't caught up with the ice tech revolution (and subsequent prices) yet, so during the World Championships it is back to "old school" fishing - no sonar, no cameras, no motorized augers (hand augers only) - and the Europeans fish for small species of roach and bream that we would consider baitfish for bigger species (the Al-Jazeera reporter, a British national who I will introduce later, had a great word for the fish that only a native speaker of the Queen's English could get away with - he called them "tiddlers.") Nevertheless, the Europeans on their soil have held serve consistently and we've been relegated to the back of the pack - last place in Poland 2009, 8th out of 16 in Ukraine 2011, and 9th out of 11 in Kazakhstan 2012. The strong  teams in Europe have traditionally been the Poles, the Ukrainians (both have achieved medal status the last 2 years running,) the Russians, and now this year's upset winner from the Republic of Belarus. However, all is not bleak for the USA Ice Team - we continue to improve and learn from the Europeans on their home turf, and in 2013 the USA once again hosts the World Championship in Wausau, Wisconsin - the previous WC held in the USA, 2010 in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, saw the USA capture gold, barely fending off a 2nd day challenge from both the Poles and the Russians - as you can tell, home field advantage in these types of tournaments is huge - in American football, it is said that home field advantage is an automatic +3 (field goal) advantage, in international ice fishing I would be conservative in stating that home field is at least an automatic 10 point (touchdown + field goal) advantage.

Anyway, aside from the competition, I was somewhat surprised to see both the BBC World Service and Al-Jazeera's English Service send out their regional correspondents to cover the event. I got a chance to meet and talk with both of them, the 'Beeb's Central Asian correspondent Rayhan Demytrie (UK national, native Uzbekh) and AJZ-E's Central Asian correspondent Robin Forestier-Walker (UK national.)
The video piece from the 'Beeb can be seen here, and AJZ-E's video report can be seen here. (Interesting note: Ms. Demytrie and Mr. Forestier-Walker are also husband and wife.) I was intrigued to talk to them outside of the scope of the competition, as they both work in a troubled neighborhood where both their reporting aren't always to the liking of the local authorities. Although the Kazakh Organizing Committee members (fairly well connected, by my observation - most of them had personal drivers in Lexus SUVs) were overjoyed to see both the 'Beeb and AJZ-E out to cover the event, further investigation revealed that Ms. Demytrie has been personally cited as an "instigator" for trying to report on the western Kazakhstan miner's strike (taking a page right out of the V.V. Putin playbook, citing any kind of opposition political movement as Western press instigated), and she's none too popular in either Kyrgyzstan or her native Uzbekistan, either. Al-Jazeera, while being a relative newcomer on the world media scene, has quickly developed a reputation for objective and responsible journalism, earning them the moniker of the "Arab CNN" as well as a deserved reputation (and subsequent unpopularity with the regime officials at the time) for objective reporting on events last year in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Libya. Unfortunately, AJZ  is still perceived as a pan-Islamist mouthpiece in the USA, which couldn't be farther from the truth (as anyone who actually watched AJZ could figure out within 5 minutes.) I think AJZ still suffers from their decision to air certain questionable videos in the days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Gulf War II) of western hostages being beheaded (the most gruesome of which was beheading of an elderly British national in 2006 which I made the mistake of watching, and still can't get it out of my head.) Hopefully that perception will change soon enough.

Anyway, I give credit and props to both Ms. Demytrie and Mr. Forestier-Walker for coming out and being good sports about what I am sure to them seemed about as interesting as burnt toast. Special credit goes to Mr. Forestier-Walker for trying the hand auger and actually putting himself on film, the exchange with one of the Estonians was classic:

RFW: "It's not easy...I thought it was easy....now what?!"
Estonian: "I don't know what!"

I have to say that the highlight of the week for me was going on live on the BBC World Service's daily radio show "The World Today" - it is not everyday that one gets to speak to 30 million+ listeners live on the most respected radio service in the world. Ms. Demytrie and her technical producer were gamers, they had a plethora of technical problems with their satellite uplinks but stuck with it, and in the end was 2 minutes on the air that I will NEVER forget. I have a poor recording taken through my Blackberry, I am hoping Ms. Demytrie can intercede with the BBC Technical Department to provide an .mp3 snippet of the 2 minute piece so that I may post it here in the future.

BTW - did you notice that both Ms. Demytrie and Mr. Forestier-Walker had very cool and very functional headgear on? One thing we know in Minnesota - you can always take the measure of a man or a woman by the boots, headgear and gloves/mittens they wear during the winter months. :)