Thursday, December 30, 2004


I’ve just spent my second night with my new Uzbek family and things are getting easier. They bought a small portable heater during my absence, but even better, they lit the stove last night. It was wonderful to finally feel warm and I enjoyed learning how to remove the metal rings and to put in chunks of shiny black coal with the metal tongs. It’s my first experience with a coal stove and I think it works pretty well. The coal is less heavy and less work than chopping wood.

Nigora, the woman of the household, told me she prefers coal to other options. “I have neighbors who keep everything neat and tidy by using a gas stove,” she said. “But then the city cuts off the gas and they start to freeze, for one day, two days, a week. They run around shivering and saying how cold it is while we stay warm. I don’t like to deal with such psychological stress.”

I’ve made more progress unpacking and it’s starting to feel a little more like home. I’ve also started to get into routines that make things easier here – always go to the bathroom before leaving work (taking advantage of the indoor toilet), hang my bath towel and what I plan to wear the next day over the heater before going to bed, hang onto any paper trash that could be burned, take a hunk of bread with me when heading to the toilet or shower to build better relations with the dog that barks at me on the way.

There are still some aspects that I’ll have to get used to. I have almost no privacy, as Nigora comes in every hour or two, either to check on the stove, or to bring me tea or something to eat. I have no access to running water without going outside to the toilet. I noticed the absence of that yesterday while finding something sticky as I unpacked my suitcase. I had nothing to wipe it off with. And of course, leaving the warmth of my room to head across the courtyard to the bathroom is never very appealing. To get to the shower this morning, I felt as though I was bundling up for a trip to the Artic. Stepping outside into the morning blackess with plastic sandals over my socks, I walked through a layer of snow that had fallen during the night. Luckily, once I made it to the shower, I found scalding hot water and was very appreciative of that. Returning to my room in a winter jacket, with a towel wrapped around my head, I passed Nigora, who was sweeping the snow off the sidewalk.

There are also the unique sounds of residential life. A car started up across the street and the two caged turkeys gobbled in unison. I’m not sure whether either of them will live past New Year’s. Through my bedroom window, I hear the steady chirp of birds and the banging of pots, as Nigora cooks on her outside stove.

Now that it’s warmer, I think I’ll like living here. It’s excellent in terms of safety, it’s nice to have dinner prepared and I like having someone outside work to talk with. But best of all, I hope I’ll be able to learn more about local life and culture. If I were back in my apartment, I don’t know what I’d do for New Years, possibly the most important holiday of the year here. But now that I’m living with a family, I automatically have people to spend the holiday with and I’m sure it will be much more interesting.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Christmas in London

I’m on my way back to Kyrgyzstan after an enjoyable 3.5-day Christmas holiday in London. It was a rather luxurious departure from Osh. My boyfriend found an internet special for a four-star hotel in the heart of London. We were greeted with glasses of champagne and chocolate-covered strawberries and pampered with access to a health club and Jacuzzi, a regular supply of Christmas mince pies (bite-sized pies filled with a mixture of dried fruits), and giant $30 English breakfasts delivered to the room.

I hadn’t been especially excited about London as a destination, a bit leery of the weather and the food, but it turned out to be a nice place to spend the holiday. There was no snow on the ground and in comparison with the recently frigid air in Kyrgyzstan, London almost felt balmy.

There was plenty to do. We started out our visit with a West End production of The Producers. It was shown in the Drury Lane theatre, the oldest theatre in London and the place that the West End theatre district built itself around. One of the lead actors, Nathan Lane, didn’t show up for that performance. Either he was sick or he decided to take Christmas Eve off. Even with the understudy in the lead role, it was still enjoyable, a huge difference from the one musical I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan – where drama students in costumes made from scraps performed the first Kyrgyz musical in an unheated hall.

The city effectively closed down on Christmas day. But crowds of tourists still wandered around, looking for holiday entertainment. The few cafes and restaurants that were open, mostly run by foreigners, did a brisk business. We decided to turn down the $100-$150 Christmas lunch options on offer at several hotels and on Thames River boats. Instead, we joined a giant horde of tourists on a two-hour walking tour. It was supposed to cover Dickens in London, but instead seemed to be a patchwork of information from other walking tours on offer – telling us about different haunted sights, giving us some insight into history and architecture, as well as a few anecdotes about Dickens. It did add a little life to the scenery though to see the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, to hear how a woman’s head was knocked off near Trafalgar Square when her carriage emerged from a hotel with a low overhanging, to see where Benjamin Franklin lived, to hear of Dicken’s boyhood experiences working at a blacking factory.

We had our holiday meal at our hotel. For some reason, lunch seems to be the main meal on Christmas, so dinner was half the price. I had parsnip soup, turkey with carrots, spinach and cranberry sauce, and winter fruits with ginger ice cream. We were each given a “cracker” at the meal, a tradition we’d learned about during the tour. A “cracker” looks like an oblong holiday gift. They are available for purchase, ranging from the very cheap to the extremely expensive. If you receive a cracker, you pull the ends and it bangs open with a pop, similar to the sound that Pillsbury croissants or cinnamon rolls in the blue cardboard rolls make, and a present falls out of the center piece. Inside, we found paper crowns (so that’s why many of our fellow diners were wearing colored crowns), remniscent of the kind Burger King provides to children, and a measuring tape. We guessed these crackers must have been amongst the cheaper versions.

On Sunday, Boxing Day (so named because it used to be the day when people would give service workers, like milkmen, boxes with tips or gifts for the holidays) we attended the Chelsea versus Aston Villa premiership soccer game. This was an event my boyfriend had been looking forward to for ages and it was what drew us to London for this visit. I hadn’t been to a soccer game in a very long time and I knew virtually nothing about English soccer. Nevertheless, I donned the blue and white striped Chelsea scarf my boyfriend bought me and I joined the ranks of fans streaming into the stadium. The game was virtually sold out, with close to 40,000 people packing the stands. I learned how the opposing team fans are relegated to a tiny little corner of the stadium and that they stand up for almost the entire game, that games are played outside in an unroofed stadium, even in the middle of winter, that fans sing songs that don’t seem to have a lot of relation to the players or the game (one song went; “One man went to mow a meadow,”), that numerous guards in fluorescent orange and yellow vests line the stands on the lookout for hooligans, that beer is sold on the premises, but not allowed into the stands, that the thin billboards that line the rim of the field change simultaneously, making an entire colorful ring of ads for a single company and that overall, the fans, while largely male, were quite enthusiastic, but well-behaved. Chelsea won, 1-0.

On Monday, the first day a number of stores were open, we decided to go shopping. We both hoped to purchase winter coats, but neither of us was successful. Walking down Oxford Street in the center of London was like wading through a virtual sea of shoppers. The dense pack of humans extended as far as we could see, slowing our pace to a crawl, making us pay more attention to not getting separated than to what was in the shop windows. Inside the stores was even crazier. At Marks and Spencer, shoppers attacked the sale racks like ants around a breadcrumb. The staff couldn’t keep up with the shoppers and the merchandise had become disorderly. The only fitting room I could find was out of service until the new year, and those who found items to buy then waited in a tremendous line just to pay.

At Selfridges, a very expensive department store, the staff managed to keep their merchandise neat and shiny and the crowds were more orderly. But that may have been helped by the fact that not many people could actually afford to buy anything there. The only long coat I found was on sale for $500. The coat my boyfriend was interested in was also on sale, for a mere $700. The line for Subway sandwiches went out the door and the line for the Gucci department at a department store wrapped around the building.

We took refuge from the crowds in an Indian restaurant, where a piece of naan bread went for $5, as did a side of plain rice.

We spent our final afternoon playing merry-go-round in the subway, as the Piccadilly line was halted due to the smell of smoke, available again, halted, slowed, finally puttering along at a slow pace to the airport.

During my time in London, I missed the more reasonable prices of Kyrgyzstan, as well as the spicy excitement of the unknown and unexpected that fills the air there. But I also enjoyed a short reprieve into a world that was fairly orderly, where people use soft white toilet paper instead of hard brown cardboard, where a herd of 100 tourists can be processed with an ease that comes from practice, where the bright reds of the telephone booths and double-decker buses, the black taxis, and the ivories, greys and browns of the elegant buildings provided a sense of stability and where the quality of life is high enough that people can afford to pay $4 for a hot chocolate at the corner café.

I have to admit that I didn’t actually meet anyone, I didn’t have the chance to engage a Brit in casual conversation to ask about the details of daily life. In fact, one of our most memorable encounters was during our walking tour, when a grey-bearded, thick waisted man in his 50s, dressed in trousers and a suit jacket, barreled down the narrow alley toward us, crying out in a deep, angry voice, “Get out of my way, fucking tourists! You cunts – go back to where you came from!” The tourists and the tour guide moved slowly, uniformly, in shock, then returned their attention to the tour as though nothing had happened.

That’s the uniqueness of London - the city is set up so that one can live, eat, be entertained, travel and learn while remaining distinct from the masses, an anonymous little atom of humanity, able to move through the streets without bumping into others, averse to causing chaos amidst the order.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A holiday gathering with friends

I’ve just arrived at the Istanbul airport and I’m blown away by the cleanness, brightness, warmth and modernity. I’m seated next to a pair of escalators, ascending and descending, lined with smooth, white, fluorescent beams along their contours, reflections repeated endlessly in the glass barriers. The grey steps are empty and move with an eery slowness, that makes me wonder what the purpose of their movement is. But when a stray passenger steps on at this early hour, the steps suddenly speed up, propelling her to her destination.

I’m also amazed by the shops. Everything is vibrantly open at 6:30 in the morning and the products are so beautiful – the packages of expensive chocolate or Turkish delight, the gleaming bottles of liquor, the shiny leather coats and purses, the seductively advertised perfumes and banking services, the frothed milk on the coffee people sip in the bustling café. I’m seduced by the consumerism, wanting to buy things just for the sake of buying them, just because they are beautiful. But since I don’t actually need anything I’ve seen, so far I’ve resisted.

I spent yesterday in Bishkek, at the apartment I lived in when I first came to Kyrgyzstan. When I arrived on Wednesday evening, my former landlady and current friend Zhenya organized a welcoming party, inviting Svetlana and Elena to join us.

We sat around the kitchen table, joined by Elena’s new Spanish boyfriend, a middle-aged military doctor named Juan, eating chicken, mashed potatoes, salads covered in mayonnaise, chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, sausage slices and olives, bread, and slices of cake.

All three women are in their 30s, all are pure or mostly Russian, all are smart and attractive, and none of them have been able to find a local man for a long-term relationship. Zhenya is still technically married, but has been separated from her husband for years due to his gambling addiction. Her eight-year-old son Algubek watched TV in the other room.

Svetlana has been dating an overweight, retired American for several months. She told me at this dinner that she was engaged. I asked her to see her ring and she hid her hands under the table, saying that he would bring it when he returns from the Mexican retirement community where he is relaxing. I asked how it happened, expecting to hear about a formal proposal.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and kept telling him that I didn’t know – maybe yes and maybe no. But I finally decided that it’s something I want to do.”

Robert has been depressed lately in Kyrgyzstan, not speaking Russian and not having an occupation to busy himself with. He dreams of retiring in Mexico and has found the particular place he wants to live, speaking of it often. My guess is that he finally said that he would leave, with or without her. For her, it was a choice between an aging man who cares about her, but is addicted to junk food, and is far less active, both physically and intellectually than she is, or to hope she could find someone else who could fund her hobbies, give her a comfortable standard of living, and an opportunity to travel. He’s looking for company, she’s looking for escape.

Svetlana seemed subdued. She usually chatters non-stop in English, but that evening she was quiet, asking me to translate what Juan said from Spanish into Russian, her blond hair often sinking into her wool, round-necked beige sweater.

Elena also has a middle-aged boyfriend, but I think their relationship is more promising. Elena has three university diplomas, works in a bank, and has never had a serious relationship. She’s a mild-mannered but bright and very kind person. At her age, she’s already considered pretty much past hope for marriage. Her mother lives in Kazakhstan and she tries to stay away from home, making her home in Kyrgyzstan, because her mother bothers her incessantly about why she isn’t married.

Some time ago she registered with a local marriage agency and never received any responses. Within the past few months, she suddenly got a call from the agency, saying that there was a Spanish doctor who was in Bishkek and was interested in meeting her. She was very surprised that he hadn’t written or anything beforehand. They arranged a meeting and things have gone well from that point.

According to Zhenya, “He didn’t have stereotypes that Russian women were easy, but was very gentlemanly and took things very slowly. He considers her very young and says that in Spain a woman her age would consider him an old man.”

He is 14 years older than her and that made her uncomfortable at first. But on the positive side, she feels that he considers her young and beautiful, while most local men already consider her old and past her prime.

“The people at the agency told Juan that Elena was old and asked why he didn’t want to meet some women in their early 20s. He said that he didn’t want a child.” I found that a promising sign.

He’s leaving soon for Spain, but seems committed to Elena. “I can chose which country I want to go to and I’ll be coming back here for one simple reason,” he told me in Spanish, pointing to Elena. He has just hired a teacher for her to learn Spanish.

It’s great to think that if things go well, Elena’s life will change from fearing to lose her $50/month job to vacationing in Majorca.

Zhenya is the only one not dating a foreigner, but her mother lives in America. They are all searching for and reaching out for lifelines to the West, means of escape, ways to realize their potential.

Yesterday I took a risk and decided to get my first haircut in Kyrgyzstan. I was hoping to hold out until I returned home, but it was really looking bad. So I called the Hyatt Hotel and asked who they recommended. They send me to a man named Shamil, a thickset man in his late 30s with curly black hair that reached his shoulders. He was quiet and very calm.

“Are you alive?” one of his colleagues asked him, as he prepared to wash my hair.

“I just want to sleep,” he answered. I hoped he didn’t fall asleep while chopping.

He took over an hour to cut and style my hair. During the last 20 minutes or so he woke up and began talking. He told me how he recently spent three months as a barber on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan. He was paid $200 a month, but said that including tips, he made $1,000 a month. That’s amazing money in Kyrgyzstan and I asked why he returned.

“The desert light was too bright and it hurt my eyes. I couldn’t see properly. Also, it seems Americans like main dishes, and lots of them, while I’m more used to first courses, soups and salads. It didn’t do good things for my stomach.”

“They didn’t have any soup?” I asked.

“No. Only a Mexican soup that was really thick. But I like thin soups.”

He told me about all the wonderful facilities there – the 24 hour cafeteria, the free internet and phone calls, all of the amenities, the kind soldiers who left generous tips. “It is really clear that the President loves his soldiers,” he said. “They had everything – everything except alcohol. They only had non-alcoholic beer.” I found that hard to believe and he said that alcohol did get in through people who traveled to the capital. “There is also lots of marijuana, it’s really cheap and easily available,” he said.

“On the base?” I asked.

“Yes. Almost everyone smokes. They can’t do without it. People don’t smile there. They walk around like this,” he imitated a stunned, zombie-like person. “During the three months I was there, five soldiers were killed.”

“Out of how many?”


Last night, Zhenya and her son came and spent the night at the apartment. I was leaving in the middle of the night and needed to pass off the key. Shortly after she arrived, she received a phone call.

“I already paid her $50!” I heard her say. When she hung up the phone she looked upset. “Oh, this is bad news,” she said. “I feel sick.”

She is in her last year of studying at the economics faculty. In order to graduate, each student has to write a dissertation. “You turn in the dissertation and they say no, they won’t accept it, there is this and this problem. So you do it again, and they no, there is this and this problem. Then they say if you pay them they will accept it.”

“So last year,” she continued, “my friend paid $100 to have her dissertation accepted. Since I’m finishing one year later, we decided to share the dissertation. I paid her $50 and she gave me the dissertation, which I submitted this year. There are lots of teachers and we figured that since we are in different years, no one would notice that we submitted the same paper. But by chance,” she frowned, “my dissertation ended up being read by the same woman who read my friend’s and she remembered that they were the same. So now I have to pay again!”

“How much?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” She paced around the room.

“I know this must seem strange to you. At Harvard I’m sure it’s much different. But here students usually just pay for our degrees. Half the students in my class never even show up – I don’t even know who studies with me. They just pay enough and eventually get their diplomas – they are like ghosts.”

She wasn’t worried about being disciplined or about being prevented from graduated for cheating. She was just upset that she’d probably have to do a bit more work and to spend more money.

Time to board my flight to London, where I’ll spend Christmas with my boyfriend. Happy holidays to all!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Best Place to Buy a Cow

I got up just before seven this morning and took a taxi to the livestock bazaar, picking up a Kyrgyz coworker, Kanylbek, along the way. My Russian driver had light blue eyes, gold front teeth, bristly red skin and a brown fur hat. He was rather gruff, constantly bantering with other drivers on his CB and showing clear annoyance when my companion was four minutes late. “What are you doing, coming so late?” he asked, when Kanylbek got in. The expert looked at his watch and remained silent.

Children were using ruddered sleds and pairs of short poles to slide down the streets, enjoying the emptiness in the morning pink sky. The roads were covered with a thin, slick layer of snow and ice packed into the dirt.

We arrived at the livestock market and pushed our way through a doorway in the fenced, open-air compound. I was amazed at what I saw. Below us, the entire square was packed with people and animals. All around them, like a second fence enclosing them in, were the white mountains, the peaks glowing pink in the morning light.

“The cows are on the right, the horses on the left,” Kanylbek explained. “The sheep are outside the market, in an adjoining area, so as not to mix them up.”

A local had warned me a few days before, “There is no order at all at the livestock market,” he told me. “It’s not like where you live where they have stalls and line up in order. Here it is just a mess. You’ll be shocked by what you see. And be very careful walking in between the horses. Two people have been killed already this year by walking in between horses and getting kicked.”

A giant mass of people and animals jumbled together. Ninety percent were men and most were Kyrgyz, dressed in dark hats and coats. Few wore kalpaks. “It’s cold already,” Kanylbek told me. The headscarves of the few woman provided small flashes of color among the browns and blacks and ivories of the people and animals.

We were looking for a particular person selling a cow, so we waded through the crowd, trying to find one person among the masses. There was no order. We walked in between muddy cow rears, pulled cow horns to allow us room to pass, and moved with caution when we heard the fountain-like tinkling of a cow urinating or saw steaming fresh cow dung hit the icy ground. It smelled of manure and leather and fresh mountain air. It was also cold, -15 one person guessed, and my feet could feel the ground underneath.

We made several trips from one side of the cow vendors to the other, without luck. We then went to look at the sheep, and finally stood near the stands selling double shots of vodka to men crouched in a circle. Kanylbek went to make one more round through the cow vendors while I went to look at the horses, careful to keep my distance from the regal animals. Several people stood on horseback, rising above the crowd. Occasionally the crowd would bustle, as if a drop of oil fell into water, when a horse would rear up and neigh or one cow would mount another.

I saw people tying up a small cow by its legs and loading it onto a horse-pulled cart filled with hay to take home. I saw a blacksmith hammering horseshoes onto a horse. And I saw people eagerly engaged in transactions, genially bartering, exchanging money, and seeming to enjoy themselves.

I took a picture of several old women selling a cow and they smiled and laughed, especially when they saw the picture.

“How much are you selling it for?” I asked, pointing to the cow.

"18,000 ($450), but we’ll let it go for 15,000 to a pretty girl.”

Finally we found the man we were looking for. He had arrived at the market at 4 a.m. and together with a relative bought three cows, one small one and two medium sized ones. He had just sold the last one when we arrived. Kanylbek told me that the wholesaler sellers arrive at the market at 2 a.m.

“People like this man come very early and buy at low prices,” he told me. “Then they can resell the same animal within hours. The prices rise from the early morning until 9 or 10 a.m., then start to decrease again as sellers worry that they won’t make a sale. By noon or 2 everyone has gone home.”

This man had sold all three cows by shortly after eight and said that he rarely fails to sell what he has bought in the morning. He and a relative together made a $75 profit within several hours – not a bad business, but unfortunately it only happens one time a week.

It was really cold and we were ready to go, so we left the festive atmosphere to find a taxi. We found a taxi and while we waiting to get into the car, another Lada pulled up close by us. A group of men opened the trunk and pulled out a brown sheep.

Our driver told me that he and his father had come to the market today to sell two sheep. They planned to sell one for 2,000 ($50) and the other for 3,000 ($75) som.

“Why are you selling them?” I asked.

“Because we need money at home. We went as guests to people’s homes. And when we do that, we tend to spend a lot of money, 1,000, 2000… I took a loan and now I need to return it.”

In addition to his work as a taxi driver, he keeps 50 sheep (“not bad” as he described it). I’m starting to gain a new respect for the investment value of livestock.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Arrival in Karakol

I arrived in Karakol on Thursday evening, after a one hour flight from Osh to Bishkek, then a six hour drive, though a mountain pass, along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, and then up past apple orchards and along poplar lined roads, up into snowy mountains.

I’m staying in a guesthouse in a residential neighborhood. It was dark when I arrived at 5 p.m., so when I looked out my window on Friday morning, I was treated to a view of boxed village homes. In our yard, there is an annex with some guestrooms, chickens and geese pecking around a pile of hay, a dilapidated outhouse and a barn. The guesthouse owner, a former doctor, is well-off now, but it’s easy to imagine how they used to live.

Bare trees stood in between the homes - small fruit trees, white birch, and a tall tree that glowed a yellowish green. In a line extending across the horizon, rising above all the local scenery, was a ridge of snowy mountains, giant bulks of earth, like clumps of milk-filled breasts, rising up to meet the light morning sky, dusted with a white cloud cover.

I walked to work on my first day, hearing pigs grunt behind me as I left the guesthouse, enjoying the exercise of the 30-minute walk. I imagined walking to and from town every day, forgetting that at night it is cold and dark, like walking through a pitch-black icebox.
Walking straight down a residential street to the center of town, I paid attention to the local architecture and life. Bare poplar trees and little wooden box houses lined the dirt road. I found the roofs to be interesting, some with balconies, others with windows, and of various colors, shapes and sizes. The street was quiet, dotted with sheep and dogs, and I felt as though I could be walking through any small Russian town, except that many of the faces were Kyrgyz. I watched two young boys emerge from their home to throw paper airplanes at cars, saw others pulling wooden sleds across the snowy streets, and watched a broken water pipe splashing water against a tree, which froze in a uniquely shaped clump of ice.

Karakol, now the third largest city in Kyrgyzstan, with a population of about 75,000, was first founded as a Russian fort in 1869, and it still retained that atmosphere, with many more Russians than in a place like Osh, and horse-drawn carts frequently clip-clopping through the city streets, alongside Mosvichs, Nivas and Audis.

My guidebook tells a story of a large storm coming through the city, just as the cartographers were finishing up mapping the Karakol fort. The winds blew away all the contents of the yurts, including the maps. The next day the local Kyrgyz offered to help. Together with the Russians, they formed a line toward the river, searching the land in the direction the storm had gone, and finding all but a few pages. In the 1880s the population grew considerably with an influx of Dungan, Chinese Muslims, escaping persecution in China.

In 1886 Karakol was renamed Przhevalsk, in honor of a Russian explorer who died here while preparing for an expedition to Tibet (I’ll soon write more about him). Lenin returned the name Karakol in 1926, until Stalin gave it back to Przhevalsk in 1935 (did these guys really have nothing better to think about than the name of a city on the very fringes of empire?), the name it retained until 1991 when it again became Karakol (which means “black wrist”)

The center of town was pretty dull. I walked through the central square, where some photographers were set up with stuffed animals, and signs that said things like “Happy Students Day” or “Happy Birthday, Karakol, 2004.” There are several shops, a small market, and a few cafes in the center of town. There are also a lot of universities. As the capital of the Issyk-Kul region, Karakol hosts five universities and a large population of students.

Today I took a quick look at the attractive wooden Russian church, built in 1895. Fourteen old Russian woman and one Russian boy, probably accompanying his grandmother, stood at attention for the service in progress.

On my way home, I walked through a mini-market on the way home, impressed by the salad sellers lined up under a roofed marketplace with no walls. Most of them sold white noodles in a bowl that buyers could eat there, a Dungan dish that reminded me of Vietnamese pho.

On the way home, I watched a man fill a bucket from a streetside pump, watched others cart water home in tin canisters on wheels, watched children playing on old-fashioned sleds with rudders and watched young adults sliding along the icy streets.

I find this a completely different world from Osh and it’s pretty remarkable that they are part of the same small country. In my one month in Osh, two male local staff members stole female staff members. Bride stealing happens here, but as far as I know, it’s not so common that it affects our staff. It’s generally calmer here, there is a bit more of a Russian mentality, and there aren’t the concerns with fundamentalists, terrorists, and cross-border problems that are issues in Osh.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

what's been going on lately

I'm sorry that I haven't been posting much lately. It's been a busy time during the past couple of weeks, but I hope to get back to posting soon. For those wondering what's been going on lately, I'll fill you in on the highlights. I finished my training and started working in earnest. During the last half of November I took over for someone on vacation and managed a regional program with 90 staff. It was challenging and a lot of fun. I'll be getting my own region to manage in February and until then will be traveling quite a bit, learning some more and filling in for staff on vacation. Right now I'm on my way to Karakol. I don't know too much about it other than that it is supposed to be a very beautiful and popular destination for tourists in the summer. I'll fill you in about this town in the winter after I arrive tomorrow.

In other news, I had my first visitor. My boyfriend came to visit for a week and I had fun showing him Kyrgyzstan and seeing many things again through fresh eyes. We took a two-day trip to the southern mountains and also attended a wedding in Bishkek, the first Kyrgyz wedding either of us had experienced.

Also, I decided to move from my nicely furnished foreigner-style apartment. When I return from my travels, I'll be living with an Uzbek family. I think that will make for much more interesting evenings and weekends and I'm looking forward to learning from them - though I'm not so excited about having to go outside to use the toilet or shower in winter.

That's it for now, but I promise I'll be in touch soon.

Friday, November 05, 2004

A surprise protest

Yesterday, while walking to work, I noticed a rusted, old trolleybus sputter by, packed so tightly that the bus tilted to the left and the wheels were barely visible. I marveled that such an ancient contraption could still run and could attract so many passengers. I wondered why I didn’t notice before how full they were.

A few hours later, I sat in the car with Malan, the Uzbek office driver. He poined out the large crowds of people standing on the sides of the street.

“There are no marshrutkas today,” he said. “They are on strike.”

Marshrutkas are minivans that seat about 14 people and serve as the main source of public transportation throughout Kyrgyzstan, both within urban areas and between cities. Drivers register for a numbered route and post the number in the front window. People can stand along the street anywhere on the route and wait for their number to come along in the endless flow, like waiting for a lottery number to be drawn, or the final number to be called on a winning bingo card. When they see it, they wave the marshrutka down and the drivers swerve over to pick up as many passengers as they can.
“Why are they are on strike?” I asked.

“I think they want to pay less taxes.”

“I watched the local news last night. Why didn’t I hear anything about this?” I’d seen all kinds of footage of Kyrgyz President Askar Akeav shaking hands and smiling, and similar footage of the President of Kazakhstan. Why wouldn’t they mention that the city would be without public transportation?

“Because this isn’t America,” Malan answered. “If you talk too much, people come for you in the middle of the night.”

Back at the office I asked Anton, a Ukrainian coworker if he knew more about the situation.

“Due to the high price of gasoline, the drivers want to raise the marshrutka fare from four som (10 cents) to five som (12.5 cents). But the government doesn’t agree.”

His answer to why it wasn’t announced in advance was that maybe the drivers decided to strike just this morning.

I asked a few people whether they thought the drivers demand for a five-som fare was just. In Bishkek the fare is five som.
One student in my aerobics class said, “Given the high price of gas now, five som is fair. But during normal times, it should go back down to four.”

Gulnara, our 24-year-old office manager, thought that five som was too much to ask. “Salaries in Osh are low,” she said, citing the example of her friend who got a job teaching English after graduating from the university and was paid $20 a month. When she moved to Bishkek, she was paid $50 for the same work.

It wasn’t until I asked a third person, a taxi driver, about the strike that I got a complete picture. “Four som isn’t enough for the drivers because they are being asked to pay very high taxes. So they need five som to compensate for the taxes.”

Most people reacted to the strike by either walking or taking the stuffed, slow trolleybuses. Since the trolleybuses get their power from electric wires, they aren’t dependent on gas prices.

Vika, the same student who bathes after aerobics in order to access hot water, told me, “I live near the Kyrgyz National University, where I study, so I didn’t hear about the strike until I was already at my classes. My classes end at 3:30 and then I have English at a different institute at 4. I had to walk 45 minutes there and was late for my lessons.” She told me that she planned to walk the hour and a half home after aerobics.

“Isn’t it dangerous at night?” I asked.

“No, because my friend is waiting for me. His lessons end at eight and we’ll walk home together.”

I had planned to take a taxi home, but when she exclaimed how close my neighborhood was, I felt bad about my easy ability to afford a dollar for a taxi and decided to walk and feel what it’s like to not have transportation available. Other than the close glimpse I got of a rat running alongside a building and under a door, it was actually a nice walk, especially since there were more people than usual on the roads.

The strike continued into the next day. In the morning, it was clear from the large number of pedestrians on the street and the occasional trolleybus passing by, stuffed to the edges, that the marshrutkas still weren’t running. By afternoon, the first drivers returned to the road and quickly filled their vehicles. As I watched people piling in, well beyond where one might think the minivan was full, I was glad to know that people would have a safe means of returning home in the evening. Whether or not the drivers achieved their demands, I still don’t know. There was no mention of it on the evening news.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

The value of hot water, transport and communications

Sometimes I forget about the everyday realities of poverty here. It can be hard to remember that people who appear to be educated and urban are surviving on pennies.

I met a student named Vika during aerobics who told me that she lives in a dormitory and doesn’t have a phone. After class, she undressed and prepared to take a shower. Someone asked why she was showering in the evening.

“They have hot water here and I don’t have that at home,” she said. “We just have a teapot and gas.” I thought back to the year I spent washing with a teapot and understood what a treat a hot shower could be.

I left the health club and tried to take a marshrutka home. At the bus stop, people waiting there told me that buses to my neighborhood weren’t running at that time of night and I’d have to walk to a different stop. That stop wasn’t far away and I was going to walk there. But I met a couple of girls who said they were also going to my neighborhood.

“We’re moving and have heavy bags, so it would be hard to walk to the other stop. But we don’t have money for a taxi, so we’re trying to figure out what to do.”

One of them suggested to me, “Maybe if you could chip in some money we could get a taxi together.”

I agreed, they negotiated a price with the driver and I got in together with the three girls and their belongings, wrapped in blankets. One was a computer science student, another had a degree in English and was working as an English teacher. I figured they’d expect me to pay more and I was prepared to pay more than half. But they all got out before my stop and didn’t seem to have contributed anything.

“Did you give anything to the driver?” I asked.

“You’re paying,” the driver said, looking at me.

“No, not yet,” the English teacher told me. “We don’t have any money.”

“Can you give him 15?” I asked, asking them to contribute less than half. The money wasn’t really an issue, I just couldn’t tell if they were trying to take advantage of me or not.

“We only have small money,” she said. “We were preparing to just seat one girl in the marshrutka.”

I really didn’t know what to think. I resented being used to rent a taxi for all of them, when I myself was planning on taking a marshrutka. But if they were so poor that this girl only owned two blankets full of belongings and couldn’t afford a 30 cent contribution to a taxi, I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.

“I’ll be your free translator for a week,” she told me.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll send someone to bring you the money.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Both the girl taking the shower and the girls who couldn’t afford a taxi reminded me of the real poverty here, so often disguised by educated speech and a middle-class appearance.

On another topic, someone asked about language here. I use Russian as my means of communication. Those who have studied English are eager to practice with me, but given that I need a really high level of Russian for my work, I try to avoid speaking English when possible.

In Bishkek, a much more Russified city, Russian was undoubtedly an acceptable means of communication. Sometimes local staff would communicate with clients in Kyrgyz. Usually those people understood Russian, but were more comfortable in Kyrgyz. But that was more the exception than the norm. I sometimes heard Kyrgyz on the street, but heard at least as much Russian, if not more. In our headquarters office, no one, including the ethnic Kyrgyz, are fluent enough in Kyrgyz to be able to speak and write.

In Osh it’s different. Not only are there very few Russians, Ukrainians, ethnic Germans and others who would primarily use Russian, but there is a sizeable Uzbek population. Most within Osh speak and understand Russian, but I hear Kyrgyz and Uzbek much more frequently. In fact, one afternoon I was standing in the market area, waiting for a ride, and I realized that not only was I the only Caucasian within sight, but that I wasn’t hearing any Russian spoken in the commotion around me.

The program I work for uses Russian as the language of operation, so all local staff are required to speak Russian. Therefore, I have no problem communicating with people at work. But the local staff here frequently speak with clients in Kyrgyz or Uzbek.

I haven’t had a chance to travel much, but my guess would be that I could have problems communicating in the rural areas around here. While in the small town of Uzgen, the site of fierce ethnic conflict between Kygyz and Uzbeks in 1990, killing 300, I stopped in the market to buy Uzgen red rice, which I’d heard was supposed to be really special. I bought half a kilo and asked the vendor how to prepare it, but she didn’t understand me. I asked those nearby if anyone spoke Russian and no one spoke it well enough to be able to tell me what ratio of water I should add to the rice.

So the obvious question is why don’t I learn Kyrgyz? I asked my boss about learning Kyrgyz and she said to not waste my time. I’m not sure I agree it would be a waste of time, but it depends on where I end up living. Certainly, anywhere in the south or in more remote areas, it would come in handy. And since it seems likely that I’ll end up in the south or in a remote area, I would like to learn something.

The second problem was finding a Kyrgyz language book. I’d looked overseas without luck and I looked in Bishkek without luck. I had easily found good books for English speakers to learn Latvian, Swahili, Bengali and Vietnamese. But there is nothing I know of for Kyrgyz. The only thing I could find was a thin book for Russian speakers that used the formal, grammatical method popular among the Soviets. I didn’t think I could get anything out of that. I needed big, round type and pictures to go along with basic vocabulary, not grammatical theories.

When I met some Peace Corps trainees, they told me that they had a great Kyrgyz language book that was written by Peace Corps employees. I called up the Peace Corps and they kindly agreed to sell me a copy. It is a beautiful book, with the nice, simple style I was looking for. Once I get settled somewhere, I’d like to find a teacher and start studying. Until then, I still have some progress to make in Russian. I’m not doing any formal study, but I carry around Russian-English vocabulary cards, try to speak Russian whenever possible, only watch TV in Russian, and read every third book in Russian (I’ve only read one book in Russian so far, the first volume of Harry Potter. It took me ages and I was really frustrated by the slow pace, but it felt like quite an accomplishment to finish. Now, after enjoying two books in English, I’m starting Chekhov’s Ward Number 6.).

Monday, November 01, 2004

7:45 a.m. in Osh

This morning I left my apartment for work. As I began to walk down the five flights of stairs, I saw a creature race down one flight in front of me. Initially thinking it was a rat, I froze in fear, then realized that it was a bird, the source of the loud twitterings I often hear in the morning.

I emerged onto the street in the cool, sunny air. The empty, faded playground stood still. I walked along the Soviet style apartment building, reading the graffiti and marveling that this is one of the most exclusive areas in Osh. I was looking for a garbage can, since I still didn’t know where to throw my garbage away. I saw a pile of plastic bags in the grass near my building and another pile of leaves and garbage on the street, near a bus stop, but no actual bins.

I passed the taxis, lined up in their usual spot, and crossed the street. The vendor who usually sets up a table within the fenced in Foreign Languages faculty hadn’t arrived yet and the street was strangely silent. The swishing sound of the street sweepers followed me as I walked to work. At least four people were sweeping per block, using clumps of branches tied together as brooms. They worked intently, sweeping the dried leaves into gutters, then setting the piles on fire.

No one seemed to be out but me and the street sweepers. The old woman who usually sells sunflower seeds and cigarettes on a corner was just putting out her wares. Usually she sits ready when I walk by, watching the passerbys from her small chair, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf. On this morning, there were no other pedestrians and very few cars. I felt unusually tuned into my surroundings.

Dirty water ran under the sidewalk, appearing in pools and canals tinkling, somehow retaining a blue color. Pigeons cooed and fluttered amidst branches, dropping some of the last dried leaves to the ground. Smoke rose from burning leaves and garbage. With the golden carpet dried up and swept away, my feet tapped against the uneven sidewalk.

I arrived at work and found it dark and empty. The suspicion had been growing and I finally had to accept it - daylight savings time had occurred without anyone telling me. It was actually 6:45 in Osh.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

move to Osh


I’m so sorry for the delay since my last post. It’s been a busy few weeks. After a short trip to Osh two weeks ago, I returned to Bishkek and then had to get ready for the first of what may be many moves within Kyrgyzstan. This past Sunday, I took a taxi for the twelve-hour drive to Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and urban center of the southern region.

There were so many things I wanted to tell you about in Bishkek, such as my first rat sightings, two wonderful Sunday trips to the mountains, meeting some great Peace Corps trainees, a fun evening with my landlord, her friend and the American/Russian internet couple and the story of a coworker who suddenly moved to Chechnya to marry someone she’d met briefly this summer. But it’s probably best to just fill you in on my trip to Osh and to try to stay better caught up from this point forward.

The main reason I drove to Osh, instead of taking a 45-minute flight was due to the hassle of putting my bike and my many bags on the plane. A secondary reason was that I’d heard that the drive was spectacularly beautiful. As far as I know, none of my coworkers have ever driven and I thought this was a good opportunity to see the sights. I had flown when I visited Osh earlier in the month. It was a stunning flight, with mountain peaks reaching up above the clouds and toward the plane windows.

Anatoli picked me up in a silver Mercedes wagon that he’d just recently purchased. He used to have a nice bus that he used for tourists, but he sold it in order to buy this Mercedes as well as a minivan that he gave to his son-in-law to use as a marshrutka (the main form of local transport). His son-in-law has a college degree, but can’t find a job. His daughter gave birth to his first grandson just last month. “He needs a means of supporting his family,” he told me.

It was a long and tiring day, especially since I’m following Ramadan (called Ramazan here) and don’t eat from dawn until sundown. But it was really wonderful to get such a good sense of the country’s landscape. Leaving Bishkek, we followed the road to Sosnovka, where Gulnara had invited me to her parent’s home. We drove past the waterfall where we’d gone hiking that weekend, then continued south into area I hadn’t visited before. The ambient mountains of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too closed in upon us, mauve rock surrounding us in every direction as we wound through the passes. We climbed and climbed until I could look out the window and saw clouds below us. Anatoli stopped, I jumped out to take a picture, and returned winded. We were at 11,765 feet and I could feel the altitude.

From there, the highest peak of our journey, we descended into a wide, barren valley, the Suusamyr, beautiful in its starkness. There were so few signs of humanity or civilization enroute. The little stands selling koumiss (fermented mare’s milk) and bottles of gasoline seemed to be run by some type of intruders to this planet.

We moved on, crossing the Talas Ala-Too range, then followed a rapidly moving river lined with golden trees and marble mining sites. The ratty tables along this stretch of road were filled with bottles of thick mountain honey, glittering gold in the afternoon sun. We wound past the Toktugul reservoir, a vast smooth blue shimmer amidst the mountain landscape, then wound through another range of mountains. For the last several hours, we returned to flat land, driving through the Ferghana valley, where horse-pulled wooden carts and passengers on donkeys plodded along through cotton, tobacco and rice fields, stretching golden-brownish-green to the sun setting behind the mountains in the distance.

For about two thirds of the journey, the road was great. The Bishkek-Osh road has been recently redone, thanks to financing from the Asian Development Bank, and the northern segment is considered the best road in Kyrgyzstan. During that part of the drive, Anatoli gave me his card and told him to call him whenever I wanted to return. The last several hours went over a horrendous road, alternating patches of asphalt and gravel, long stretches of rocky gravel, and dark, potholed areas that put heavy wear and tear on the cars passing through. During this time, Anatoli couldn’t help but to exclaim his frustration at least every two or three minutes. “I’m not coming back here for the next two years!” he said with determination. “Until they’ve finished this road.” It was dark before we reached Osh and even on the main road heading to the second largest city in the country, there were no streetlights. We drove in darkness and arrived in darkness.

I stayed in a hotel my first night, then found an apartment on my first day. I visited three and chose a nice one about a 15-minute walk from work. The rent of $300 is pricey for this area, but the apartment is newly remodeled and very comfortable compared to local standards. I have a bedroom, a living room, another small room, a kitchen with a stove and refrigerator, and a bathroom. The toilet is in one small room by itself and the bathtub and sink in another room. The TV has a satellite dish with something like 300 channels. I’ve only turned on the TV once and then watched the local Russian news. Part of the deal was that the landlady would use my rent to buy a washing machine. She did that on the first day and will soon have it installed. It’s cold and will remain so until the heat gets turned on in mid-November. The tiny Chinese heater I have only heats a small space. So I very rarely use any space other than the bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.

My first few days were not short on adventure. A car ran over one of my suitcases (thankfully, it only contained clothing), I woke up to a small fire when the extension cord to my heater exploded, the next day my heater cord melted to the floor, leaving a black burn mark, and the entire city water supply was shut off for 24 hours, overflowing toilets and making the whole city stink.

The work here is intense. It’s very interesting and I’m finally getting a good sense of what I’ll be doing when I finish training at the end of next month. But the hours are very long, 10-12 hour days, Monday through Saturday, which has left me very little time for any exploring. Thankfully, a good portion of the work involves driving around the city and the region, so I’ve been able to get at least a visual picture of where I am.

Osh in the daytime has a color and a spice that I like. I was immediately struck by the darker skin (there are a lot of Uzbeks here and few Russians), the colorful clothing, the women’s headscarves, golden jewelry, flowing skirts and slipper-like shoes, the golden carpets of fallen leaves covering the sidewalk, the fruits and the vegetables, the chaotic commotion and bustle. Everyone in Bishkek has a reaction to “the south.” I was told that the people were “different,” that traditions are stronger, that the mentality is trickier, that the food was cheaper and better, that the weather was warmer. It’s definitely a different world from the much more Russified Bishkek.

Osh at night I don’t like so much, though it doesn’t help that my colleague frightens me with tales of thefts, accidents and high numbers of drug addicts and AIDS cases. I haven’t had any problems, but what I really hate is the darkness. Bishkek is the darkest capital city I’ve ever seen. Osh is definitely among the darkest major urban centers. While Bishkek lacked street lights, at least there were people and cars that would provide some light and activity. Here, by the time we leave work at around eight, it’s pitch black dark, there are few people out, and very few cars. Leaving work requires either crossing a small pedestrian bridge over a river (where my colleague says muggings occur) or walking up a tall flight of stairs through the darkness, to the main road. Even on the main road, I put one step in front of another in the hope that it will land on a solid surface. I often end up walking in the road just to benefit from the occasional headlight coming by. During the day it takes me 15 minutes to walk home. At night it’s definitely slower.

I found an aerobics course and hope to attend three nights a week. The first lesson was really surreal. It was held in a brand new sports center built by a local politician. A young Kyrgyz woman taught the step-aerobics class. During a five-minute break, she talked to her six attendees (all local except me) about her new Mary Kay business and tried to recruit clients. I had walked to the club past a mosque emitting the call to prayer and what I assumed might mark the setting of the sun and the ability for those fasting to eat. I then entered this new sports complex, where everyone has to take off their shoes and put them in boxes at the front door, walked past the mats where at least 50 local men were engaged in wrestling, and up the stairs to where locals engaged in the American traditions of step aerobics and Mary Kay. Tradition and modernity seemed to be fused together here, rather than distinct concepts.

Other than aerobics, I really haven’t had any free time. I’m usually pretty cold and tired when I get home and I tend to spend my spare time in the evenings and early mornings sitting in front of my portable heater and reading. I’m about halfway through Ramadan and have to admit that I’m surprised I’ve made it this far. The hardest day was the third, when I took a trip to the mountains and couldn’t eat during the hike. At this point, I think I’ll last the entire month. Since I don’t eat lunch, I treat myself to dinner out almost nightly. The cafes located between work and home don’t offer as much of a culinary adventure as those I found in Bishkek. Last night I found a really good place, owned by an American married to a local. Not only was it the first place I found milk (I love tea with milk, but no one seems to carry milk here), but they also had beans. I always get excited to see things outside of the ordinary and I don’t think I had a bean during my entire time in Bishkek.

I’ll leave this first update at this and will try to write more frequent and shorter posts in the coming weeks. Also, for those who communicate with me directly, if you haven’t heard from me in a while, please check your junk mail files (or send me another email). It seems as though some of my messages are ending up in people’s junk mail boxes, even though they are sent from an official account. I guess email from Kyrgyzstan is considered suspicious.

Friday, October 08, 2004

upcoming elections

On Sunday, city-wide elections will take place in Bishkek. I only directly heard about them today, when a coworker who recently finished her university studies told me that she’d be going to vote for the first time on Sunday. I knew something was coming up though, because I’ve been finding all kinds of advertising wedged in my door cracks when I came home. I got a mini 2005 calendar, with a candidate on the back, and lots of leaflets. I hung onto one of the first and largest that I received. Given upcoming elections in other places, I thought you might be interested in seeing how a Kyrgyz politician tries to earn the votes of the residents of my apartment building.

This is a rough translation of the flyer. It’s printed on paper that is so thin it’s transparent. A black and white photo of the young and thin candidate stares out seriously from the upper left-hand side. He’s wearing a white dress shirt and a tie and standing in front of a city planning map. The entire flier is black and white except for the first “The capital in clean hands,” which is printed in bright red.

The political party

The capital in clean hands
Kuban Kandiev

Born in 1963, married with two children. University education in economics.

I, Kuban Kandiev, appeal to you, residents of Zhibek-Zholskovo region number 10, to go to selected sites on October 10 and to vote for the candidate who can change our lives and the lives of our children and relatives for the better.

Our Program
Corruption and embezzlement of public funds. Corruption has soiled all echelons of power. Bribes have become the main force to decide any question. A large amount of funds, needed for the city, are spent. But turn and look around – electricity turned off, swarms of rats, garbage on the street, children with nowhere to play and many other problems that surround us. This is a result of the absence of effective control and the ineffective work of the parliament, quiet appendages of executive power, approving all executive decisions. For the control of the parliament, a fight against corruption, “reaching the seventh floor of the White house” it’s necessary to take in honest people, sincerely defending the interests of the electors. Because of this we need to put the capital into clean hands.

Housing and tariffs. Communal services live by the principle – housing for the public, the interests of residents don’t interest them. The prices of communal services are exorbitantly high. In our country, rich in electroenergy, we are going to strive for a reduction in the electric and utilities tariffs. Because of this we need to put the capital into clean hands.

School and children. School has been placed in the backyard of government interests. Bribes are rising, but many school buildings find themselves in an unsatisfactory condition. The work of many children’s institutions has been discontinued because of a lack of financing. Children are mainly denied a harmonious and well-rounded development, while those in power attend only to their own children. Because of this we need to put the capital into clean hands.

Pensioners and the unemployed. Pensioners and the unemployed have become one of the most undefended categories. The pension levels aren’t enough even for people’s minimal needs for food, medicine and utilities. The government and the power in the capital have closed their eyes to the needs of these people. Social security and a minimal standard of living for the undefended populations – are the demands of our candidate. Because of this we need to put the capital into clean hands.

I’m starting to experience communal living myself. The heat is turned on on the same day for everyone in the city.

“When is the heat going to be turned on?” one of my foreign colleagues asked a local several weeks ago.

“November 1st.”

“I thought I read it was October 15th,” I said.

“That’s the official date,” the local woman replied. “But it never actually gets turned on until November.”

My landlady, Zhenya, came over the other night. “If you get cold before the heat comes on, this is what you do,” she instructed me, and showed me how she lights the oven and leaves the door open. “The place will warm up really quickly,” she promised. So that’s what I’ve done for the past two evenings, at least until I go to bed. Tonight the evening temperature is forecast to be 0 to 2 degrees Celsius, or about 32 to 36. And still over three weeks to go until heat!

Other than the risk of fire, does anyone know if there are any health/safety risks to leaving a gas oven running over an extended period of time?

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

into the mountains

I think that in comparison with Siberia, I considered Bishkek to be a tropical paradise and I tended to reject the idea that the beautiful late summer would ever end. The transition to fall has been gradual, moving so slowly as to be almost unnoticeable, yet persistent all the same. The ground is now covered with a carpet of dry yellow leaves. My image of an endless summer is gradually vanishing. While Bishkek is, on average, sunny 330 days a year, this morning I rode to work in the aftermath of a rainshower. I mistakenly didn’t listen to my former roommate when he advised me to get wheel guards, so as my hands froze in the chilly air, I was spattered with muddy water. It’s frequently been chilly in the morning, but always heats up in the afternoon. So I usually dress for the afternoon weather. But for the past two days, it stayed cold all day and I froze in my short-sleeve dress and sandals.

On a positive note, I had a pleasant surprise when I went into the bathroom to change. I’ve moved to another local office and this was my first morning there. This office is much better equipped than where I was last. When I opened the bathroom door, I was shocked to find a shiny tiled floor, a sit-down toilet, and even toilet paper and a mirror. I had become used to changing on a dirty floor next to a smelly open pit. And toilet paper and mirrors were things I thought could only be found in the luxury of headquarters.

I still owe you some news from last week. I’ll tell you about the highlight and write more about other interesting events later. On Sunday I paid my first visit to a local home. A coworker named Gulnara had shown special interest in me. She’s finishing up her studies in economics and is one of two people on the staff that speak English really well. She’s really excited by opportunities to learn about other countries and to practice her English and she seemed especially eager to get to know me. I spent a few days following her around, learning how she does her job. During that time, she told me that her parents live in a village outside Bishkek and that they can step outside their front door into the mountains. When I expressed interest, she promised to invite me home.

On Sunday, I met Gulnara, a middle-aged Indonesian friend of hers, currently visiting for work, and two local friends, classmates of hers at the university. We took a bus to the edge of the city, then got a taxi for the remainder of the 100 kilometer trip to Sosnovka village. Except for my one excursion to Lake Issyk-Kul, this was the furthest I’d gone outside of Bishkek.

Pretty clumps of yellow leaves hung from the trees lining the road. We passed the auto market, which was packed with buyers and sellers, and a busy village bazaar. We didn’t have to go far out of the city before beginning to pass lots of horse- and donkey-drawn carriages and people who seemed to carry the heavy weight of poverty. Then we entered a very rural part of Chui Region, characterized by large golden fields, old kolkhoz equipment, and occasional small villages.

We were driving straight into the mountains, and just as we were about to crash into them, we arrived at Gulnara’s house. As she’d described, her parents have a view of the mountains from their home and can literally walk out their door and into them.

Gulnara’s mother, a young and attractive Kazakh who looked like an older version of her daughter, met us outside their blue gate. Gulnara introduced us to her father, Ahat, her 18-year-old brother Erdan and a few cousins, then led us inside. We went into a spacious, airy, sparsely furnished home, with red-toned rugs covering the floors and walls. One room had two narrow twin beds for Gulnara and her brother, another had a sofa and two armchairs, the third was entirely empty, used only for gatherings. And the fourth contained a painted chest and a tall stack of homemade bedding, covered with a shimmering peach and gold sheet. Gulnara lifted a corner of the sheet to show us what was underneath.

“This is for my wedding,” she said. She said that her mother made it all over a period of a month.

“When you see this, does it make you feel that you must get married?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “My mother prepared it when I was 13, nine years ago.”

Gulnara had told me earlier that her parents were anxious for her to get married. A woman over 25 is considered overage for marriage and at 22, Gulnara is getting close. With shiny wavy black hair, a trim figure, stylish clothes, and an outgoing, friendly personality, she doesn’t lack for proposals. She’s had three already, including one from someone she’d dated for five years, a German, and a Turk, but her mother rejected them all. She is insistent that Gulnara marry a Kyrgyz, wanting her to stay near home.

Gulnara isn’t eager to get married. “I want to work and to travel,” she told me. But since parental permission seems to be essential for a wedding here, her mother’s conditions may limit her options.

She lifted a sheet covering some objects against the opposite wall and showed us a sewing machine, also waiting for her marriage. “It’s a tradition for mothers to give their daughters sewing machines on their wedding,” she said, laughing. “But I won’t use it because I don’t know how to operate one.”

We were led into the fifth room where baskets and bowls of fruits and cookies lined the center of a beautifully set table. As the guests, the Indonesian and I were seated at the head of the table and quite a bit of ceremony was made by them scooping a tomato and cucumber salad onto our plates and urging us to eat. There were apples, green and purple grapes, homemade strawberry jam, borso (the Kyrgyz national bread), chak-chak (fried bits of flour covered with honey) and watermelon.

Gulnara poured us glasses of Shoro. She’d stopped to buy two bottles on our way to Sosnovka, after I’d asked what the women were selling out of the blue and white dispensers I frequently saw along downtown sidewalks. The Indonesian’s face looked as mine probably did when she took her first sip of the sour, grainy brown liquid that tasted like sand poured into old yogurt. Gulnara’s mother poured tea, and just as we’d completely stuffed ourselves, she brought in homemade galupsi (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice) and stuffed red peppers, which Gulnara had told her were my favorite. I couldn’t take more than a bite of either.

“I wasn’t expecting more food,” I said.

“Didn’t I tell you? We drink tea before we eat,” Gulnara said.

All this was at 10:30 in the morning.

Gulnara and her family went to prepare our picnic lunch, leaving us to stare out at the piles of food that remained while the smell of frying chicken wafted over to us. When Gulnara returned, she showed us the grounds, pointing out the banya where they wash once a week, their chickens and their stylish outhouse, with a concrete floor and toilet paper. Her parents live in a three-room house across from the house we’d been in. Gulnara pointed out the wood and coal stove that heats her parent’s house during the winter and her mother’s rose garden that separates the two homes.

We also visited her mother’s store, located just outside their front gate. She started her business as a kiosk, a small enclosed stand with sales conducted through a window, shortly after the fall of Communism. She moved up to a pavilion (a bit bigger than a kiosk, with a door so that customers can see the products), and then to a full-size store. From the age of 11, Gulnara helped her mother by working in the store.

Her mother now has three salesclerks working for her. The shelves were mostly full of alcohol and grains such as macaroni and rice. A small room off to the side offered a place for customers to sit and enjoy their purchases (drinks, I would guess). I commented that it looked like a café.

“No,” Gulnara said. “A café wouldn’t be profitable in a village because everyone wants everything to be really cheap.”

Together with Gulnara, her friends and two young cousins, we piled into her parents two beige Ladas. Her brother drove one and his friend the other. Just outside the village we went through a toll booth for the recently refinished road to Osh, then immediately entered the mountains. As mountains rose on either side of us, the rushing white Kara-Balta river skipped alongside us, first to the right, then the left. Erdan stopped several times along the way to allow us to take photos.

We parked at a roadside waterfall and walked to the top. After a perilous crossing of the waterfall, which freaked me out enough that I preferred to stick my feet in the water and get wet, we finally found a good trail on the other side of the falls and followed it into a valley. All around us rose stark, tall mountains with grey and purple slate-like rocks clanging against each other as we stepped over the pieces. Lime green lichen grew on the rocks at the base of the mountain, forming patterns that looked like ancient symbols. A cool breeze ran through the valley and it was a perfect fall day, sunny, a golden tinge to the landscape, and we were alone, surrounded by mountains on all sides.

I became really excited about the possibility of long treks in Kyrgyzstan. But for the moment, I had to turn back. My companions weren’t trekkers and they wanted the food we’d left in the car.

When we returned, the others had already set out felt mats and the backseat from one car around a tablecloth. They were cutting the tomatoes, cucumbers, and oranges and setting out the bread and chicken. When Gulnara cut into the chicken, blood ran out. It was clearly underdone. I thought we’d just do without it, but she sent her brother home to have it cooked. By the time he returned, Gulnara’s friends were huddled in the car, shivering, and the two children were sliding down the mountain, creating avalanches of small rocks as they went. The chicken was fantastic. Fried in mayonnaise and garlic, juices ran all the way through each piece.

On the way home, we stopped by one more waterfall. There were several groups of people there and the signs of civilization detracted from the beauty. Gulnara and I scampered to the top while the Indonesian woman gathered crab apples from a tree.

We weren’t allowed to go home before eating yet one more time.

Over lunch earlier in the week, a Kazakh coworker in her early 20s had explained the importance of feeding guests well to me. “There must be an endless supply of food,” she said. “If I go as a guest and I’m not received well, I won’t want to have any further contact with that person. It will end the relationship. But if I’m treated well, then there will be return invitations.”

We were given a few minutes to relax and try to work up an appetite, then were led back to the table for Kyrgyz soup, made with meat that had been boiled for two hours and potatoes. For such a simple soup, it had a surprisingly rich taste. Gulnara had warned me that they drank tea before they ate, and the tea hadn’t appeared yet. I waited apprehensively for a giant entrée to appear. When Gulnara poured tea and it didn’t seem as though anything else was coming, I asked, “I thought you said you drink tea before you eat.”

Gulnara laughed, “I guess we didn’t this time.”

Gulnara’s dad drove us to the city, an hour and a half trip. On the way, we dropped off one of Gulnara’s friends. Her mother was standing outside the gate, knitting, waiting for her.

“It’s getting late and she’s worried her daughter could be stolen,” Gulnara’s dad joked.

That of course led us into the subject of wife stealing. Gulnara’s father claimed that it never happened between people who don’t know each other. “Usually, the situation is that a man and a woman are dating and love each other. Maybe the man wants to get married, but the woman isn’t ready yet. So he’ll steal her. It speeds the process along.”

I asked how he’d react if his daughter was stolen. He said he didn’t know, then was silent. “If someone took her, they’d have to send a representative to us and let us contact her. I’d ask her if she was happy with this person. If so, it would be OK. If not, we’d take her back home and complain to the police.”

“Would the police do anything?”

“If the woman and her parents complain, maybe. But a tradition is a tradition and what can you do about it?”

When I told him about my colleague’s staff member who was stolen by an unknown man in a southern region, he replied, “Naryn, Osh and Jalal-Abad are the three regions that have really held onto tradition and things are different there. But in Talas, Issyk-Kul and Chui (where he has spent his whole life) it’s different.”

“More modern?”


I’ll soon be heading to Osh for a month. I’m looking forward to seeing the differences.

As we approached Bishkek, the road remained black, no streetlights anywhere. People crossing the road looked like shadows. It wasn’t just in my residential area that people struggled through the blackness. I think Bishkek is the darkest capital city I’ve ever seen.

“Is it difficult to drive without streetlights?” I asked Ahat, who as an employee of a road construction company in Bishkek, spends a lot of time on the roads.

“If you don’t have them, what can you do?” he replied practically. With a smile and an offer to serve as my surrogate parent in case I’m ever stolen (promising to contact the police), he dropped me off at home.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

my first visitor

This weekend I had my first visitor. On Sunday, I invited my 32-year-old landlady, Zhenya, and her 8-year-old son Algubek over for a dinner of homemade pizza and fruit salad. Since Zhenya’s mother lives in America, I thought they might especially enjoy a typical American dish.

Zhenya arrived wearing a short white skirt and a lavender knit tank top. Her naturally curly hair, black with a reddish tint, frizzed out from her scalp toward her shoulders. She pulled out house slippers for herself and her son from a plastic bag, then brought out a bag of rolled waffles (kind of like cylindrical waffle cones) which she told me she’d made herself that afternoon with her waffle maker. Algubek paused to admire my bike, then headed straight for the TV, leaving Zhenya and I to talk.

Zhenya is an unusual person. She’s a follower of an Indian spiritual leader who lives in New York and who frequently organizes marathons for peace. She practices yoga, likes to run, and doesn’t drink or eat meat. She told me that her mother was a very active person, who’d come home from climbing mountains with a sunburned face. Her father didn’t enjoy much besides watching TV and her parents divorced before Zhenya was one. Her mother, who is an artist and also a follower of the Indian spiritual leader, had the chance to go to Italy while working on a film about Genghis Khan. After spending two years there, she moved to the U.S., where she has lived since.

Zhenya studied economics at the university and even did an internship where I am working. She is not working now though because she said her son is very “dynamic” and needs her attention to focus on his studies.

Zhenya married an attractive man, part Turk, part Uighur, when she was 22. They met while working as camp counselors and dated for a year before marrying. Utilizing her economics education, when her mother gave her a thousand dollars for the wedding and told her to do what she wanted, she put the money in the bank and bought a cheap dress, cheap Chinese shoes, and had a small dinner at home.

She spent eight years with her husband. For the first several years, he worked as a geologist, but then he became tired of living in a tent in the mountains from May until September each year.

“He wanted to find a job in the city,” she told me. “So he found a job as a driver in a firm run by a young local businessman. But he’s so friendly that he soon became more of a friend to the firm’s director than a driver. And when the director would go out to the casinos, he’d invite my husband. He began to play at the casinos with zeal and it changed him as a person. He’d come home nervous, started borrowing money from people, and made people get tired of him.”

Two years ago they separated and while she claims she’s divorced, it’s not official.

"In order to process the papers, both people have to show up at the government office and he never has any time,” she said. “He’s still playing in the casinos.”

I was surprised. Couldn’t one person divorce another?

“If you go and pay something like $15 or $20, you can get a divorce in ten minutes,” she said. “But I don’t want to pay. I want him to go down and fill out all the paperwork for 100 som ($2.50). And it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m divorced or not. I have a child and I have a lot of interests. I don’t have any interest in marrying again.”

Zhenya’s main source of income is renting out two extra apartments. She seems to quite well by that. I pay $330 a month. That’s a pretty good income for her, given that my local coworkers earn between $50 and $230 a month at their full time jobs. She provides great service in return, replacing light bulbs and clock batteries without being asked and once, while she was there waiting for the telephone repair person, washed all the floors.

She told me that earlier that day, she’d been at the other apartment she’s renting out, waiting for workers to come do some gas repair. They showed up drunk, which really made her worry, since they were working with gas.

“All the service employees, the electricians, telephone repairmen, plumbers, they all come to work drunk,” she said.

When I asked why she said that it was because they were all men and men drink a lot.

“When I was here last, I was reading your newspaper and I saw an ad looking for a sober electrician,” she said. She pulled my old newspaper off the top of the TV and showed it to me. “This really made me laugh!”

“Do they pay more for a sober worker?” I asked.

“No, they are all paid the same.”

I asked how poor people were able to find money for vodka.

“Don’t you know?” she asked, surprised. “There is always money for the bottle. For those who can’t afford to buy a whole bottle, they sell glasses of homemade vodka for five som (12 cents).”

Tomorrow I leave for Germany for a four-day seminar. I’m not so much looking forward to leaving Kyrgyzstan, as I still have so much to learn here. But I am looking forward to a few nights in what I hope will be a soft bed.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Lake Issyk-Kul

One evening I happened across Lost in Translation on TV. I didn’t like the movie much the first time I saw it, but watching it in Russian in Kyrygzstan gave it entirely new meaning. Suddenly, the portrayal of cultural isolation, of feeling oneself alone on an oasis among a sea of otherness, suddenly rang true. I could relate to the strangeness, both in being looked upon as odd and gazing around me at the strangeness, having to get used to everything from the dates being written backwards, to people buying goat heads off the street, to large ads promoting BARF laundry detergent and figuring out that hot water requires turning the handle to the left in the bathroom and to the right in the kitchen.

While I have lots of interaction with the locals, it’s been difficult so far to form relationships, especially since I live alone and spend most of my time at work. I’ve gotten to know several employees through the course of work, but haven’t spent any time with them outside of work. Unlike teaching, where everyone is pretty much on the same level, I’ll soon be managing the type of employees I currently work with daily and that adds a level of complication to social relationships. There are several shopkeepers I buy from frequently and we have friendly relations, but it doesn’t go beyond casual conversation. And except for the man who came here for internet love and my two German colleagues, I haven’t had any contact with Westerners.

I decided to get out of the city last weekend, to see Kyrgyzstan’s famous lake while the weather was still warm, and to get a glimpse of life outside the capital. Early Saturday morning, I took a minibus for the four hour trip to Lake Issyk-Kul. It seems Boris Yeltsin was traveling to the same place at about the same time, so the streets of Bishkek were lined with police. I’d seen Yeltsin on TV, handing out awards to students at the Kyrgyz-Russo-Slavic University in Bishkek. Someone later told me that they recently put up a silver statue of Yeltsin on the university grounds. “In Russia, no one will even name a primary school after me,” I was told he said, “but here they give me statues.”

The scenery along the road to Lake Issyk-Kul was much more rocky, scrubby and rough than I expected. We started out driving through golden fields leading to snow covered mountains, then entered a dry, dusty landscape that soon led to brown mountains folds on either side of us. A silver, rapidly flowing river cut rudely through the landscape. Cows grazed lazily alongside it. The land was empty – no billboards and no strip malls, just fields, clusters of homes, and occasional roadside stands, selling apples, pears and mountain honey. As we passed through the mountains and into the open valley, the river water stilled, the sparkling blue so pure in the dusty, rough landscape.

Issyk-Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s equivalent of Russia’s Lake Baikal, and is the prime local vacation spot. Issyk-Kul means ‘warm lake’ and the light salinity, depth and thermal activity prevent the lake from ever freezing. The tourist resorts are concentrated on the north shore, where the water is more shallow and the beaches sandy. I chose to go a village mentioned in my guidebooks that didn’t have major tourist infrastructure, but was supposed to have a good beach. It sounded like a nice place to enjoy the nature without the noise.

I hadn’t made any plans in advance and was a little nervous when I was dropped off alone in the village of Tamchy. The only sound on the main street, Manas, was that of cawing crows and barking dogs. Luckily, I found that lots of houses had “rooms for rent” signs posted to their fences. Since I arrived after the season had already ended, it was easy to find a place to stay. I walked down the lake and approached a house on the shore to see if they had rooms available. They did. For $2.50 I got a lakeside view. I also got some bedbugs, but it was worth it.

After having a simple lunch of fried lamb on the bone in a lakeside yurt, I changed into my swimsuit and relaxed on the poplar-lined beach. I marveled at the blue band crossing the horizon right in front of me, pushing back the mountains on the lake’s southern side. Across the water, the snowy mountains were distant, ephemeral, floating. The mountains were barely visible, just the snowy tops floated in the sky like low-lying clouds.

I ate my meals in the house owned by the Kyrgyz family, at the cholpon, a long table on a raise platform surrounded by dirty felt and wool blankets. A large, old poster of a waterfall covered the white wall and two abacuses lay against the walls. A small TV in the far corner played cartoons. The room was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and smelled of livestock and butter.

For dinner I had manti, steamed dumplings filled with meat, potato, onion and fat. For lunch I had plov, fried rice with lamb, onion, carrot and fat, along with some fresh apricots from their trees, homemade butter, and a homemade tomato sauce. During both meals, I had long chats with the family. The husband, Barat, was a round, serious man with a large, protruding stomach. His wife Gulnya was also wide, with a friendly, round, wrinkled face and a worn, pale-blue skirt and shirt.

“Life was better during Communism,” Barat told me, as I chewed on my manti, continuing the chorus that I heard repeatedly, especially from middle-aged and older men. “We didn’t have to worry about tomorrow then, but now we do. People thought that if they got rid of socialism, there wouldn’t be war. But even without socialism, Chechens are fighting, there was war in Tajikistan, and fighting in Georgia.”

His wife entered and chuckled at hearing his socialism reminiscences. “He was a Communist party member,” she said.

“For how long?” I asked him.

“Twenty years.”

“Was it hard to become a member?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he replied proudly. “The problem was that the Communist at the top didn’t practice true Communism. They took everything for themselves. If our society was 60 percent rich and 40 percent poor it would be OK. But we have over 90 percent poor. It’s not good.”

He came to the village of Tamchy when the Communist party sent him there from his birthplace on the southern lakeshore, to work in the village kolkhoz. He met his wife there and they’ve lived on the lakeshore since 1973, where they raised five children. They start their day at 6:30 by milking the cows, then sending them up to the mountains that rise over the village to graze. When I visited, they were digging up potatoes from their garden, and packing apples and pears from their courtyard trees into a wholesale vendor’s car. They also run a pharmacy and have been renting rooms to tourists for the past four years.

I asked about wife-stealing and Barat said that he didn’t steal his wife. “She agreed, and even smiled,” he said. He told me that wife-stealing was forbidden during Soviet times, as was having multiple wives. “People would go to jail for that,” he said. “But now, the government has decided to not take a stand, to neither prohibit it or to encourage it. As a result, we have some top government leaders with multiple wives.”

He said that in his village, like among the Buryats in Siberia, couples usually mutually agree to marry, then act out a kidnapping for the sake of tradition. “The kidnapped woman still cries,” he said. He said that unexpected and unwanted wife-stealing does happen in his village, but rarely. He said it’s much more common in the south, where I’ll be living next. “There, an older man like me can see a woman on the street, talk to her father, and arrange to have her stolen. His son may never have even seen her before. But love will come later.”

Barat and Gulnya offered to serve as my adoptive parents if I end up working in a nearby city and invited me to come next time as a guest.

I had been developing what I thought was a cold over the weekend and by Monday I was definitely sick. I came home from work after lunch and was flat on my back with a bad case of traveler’s sickness for another day or so. I’m better now, thanks to the miraculous Cipro and just appreciate my health.

In the city, the leaves are not so much changing color as drying. The leaves, turning yellow after months of heats, twirl gracefully toward the ground, as smooth, barrel-shaped acorns fall from oak trees onto the heads of pedestrians. It’s still warm, especially in the afternoons, but the feeling of fall is in the air.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Independence Day


Thanks so much to all who have written. I’m still in the adaptation stage and letters from friends and family invariably cheer me up, regardless of the day’s experiences.

I’ve been working for almost two works and have started settling into a routine. I’ve taken advantage of the prolonged jetlag to try to make myself into a morning person, going to bed by 11 and getting up at six. Those who know me well can probably place bets on how long this will last, but for now there’s not a lot to do in the evenings and I like having some time to myself before the work day begins.

My missing bag and bike finally arrived and I’ve been biking to work every day. The 15-20 minute ride to work is probably my favorite part of the day. The air is fresh, crisp and cool, the city doesn’t quite yet seem to be in motion, and the exercise invigorates me. I knew that riding my shiny silver mountain bike would attract attention and my helmet makes me stand out even more, but I receive more curious stares than outright laughs (though there have been a few). I get the most attention from young boys, who seem to think the bike is pretty cool. As any person looks for others like them in a crowd, I’ve kept a close eye on bike riders. I see about five bikers in a typical day. Most are Kyrgyz men and most seem to be not very well off. I’ve seen one foreign man on a shiny silver bike like mine (sans helmet) and several foreign serious bikers, equipped with helmets, biker shorts and road bikes. But I have yet to see a female of any nationality on a bicycle. I offered to let my landlady take a ride, but she said she was afraid of bicycles.

Riding is not easy, with the combination of potholes, surprise obstacles, and both drivers and pedestrians that seem to pay no attention to dividing lines or other rules of traffic. I’m on the constant lookout for surprises and that prevents me from going very fast. But with time, I’m finding quieter roads to take and learning where the main obstacles are. The city is flat and during the day, it’s a lot of fun to ride. After dark, it’s treacherous, with virtually no lighting and a constant fear of an imminent hole in the road. I try to avoid it whenever possible.

This week I’ve been based at a local office, versus the headquarters office where I was last week. I’m the only foreigner there and it’s given me a much better look at how things work and also allowed me to get to know a lot of local staff. On the down side, about ten of us are packed into a small office with no ventilation, fan or air conditioning and the bathroom is a dirty porcelain squat toilet with no mirror or toilet paper.

I eat lunch at the office cafeteria. A typical meal might be a pepper stuffed with meat and rice with a side of oily cabbage or lagman (a stew made of homemade noodles topped with beef and chopped peppers) with a side of fried cottage cheese patties. Lunch rarely costs more than 75 cents and for the price, it’s quite good.

Frequently, the employees will bring in a bag of apples or plums that they’ve plucked from their gardens to share with the staff. This country is rich in fruits and vegetables. Watermelon costs about two cents a pound and grapes are 30 cents a pound. Many families have grapes naturally growing in their home gardens. I visited one home with grapes hanging down from a latticed walkway. When I expressed surprise at the small green bulbs hanging above my head, the first time I’d seen grapes growing at someone’s home, they told me that almost every family has grapes.

The work days are long and I’m usually pretty tired in the evenings. I watch the news in Russian, continuing a full day of language immersion and end the day in English with a little reading or writing. Since I live alone and don’t have much time, I haven’t had a lot of motivation to cook and either go out or just put something together from groceries for dinner.

There is a nice health club near my home, apparently a joint American-Kyrgyz venture and I’ve been able to attend aerobics and aqua aerobics there a few times. Last weekend I paid a visit to the Fine Arts Museum. The concrete hulk of a building, surrounded with stale water from non-functioning fountains, contained an array of work featuring mountains and valleys, yurts, livestock, old men and falcons, and vast skies. The enormity of nature in comparison with the size of humanity seemed to be a common theme.

Perhaps the most interesting event I’ve attended so far was Independence Day, on August 31st. I was curious to see how it would be celebrated, given that 90 percent of Kyrgyz residents voted against the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the day before, I asked Sergei, a silver-haired driver, whether he felt independence day was a holiday or just a day to rest. “For me, it’s just a day to rest,” he said. “The decision for independence wasn’t made by the people. It was made by those in power. They wanted to retain what they had and weren’t thinking about the people. It was the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that decided this. We still live pretty much like we did during Communism. People are still poor.”

I thought it would be most interesting to attend with a local, so I called up a young woman I’d met the previous day who said she wanted English practice. “Americans are like Gods,” she’d said upon meeting me, giving me the impression that she got very little practice. I asked if she’d like to attend the ceremony on the central square. She paused, speaking to someone in the room, “This is J. calling. I told you about her,” then agreed. I figured it must be her husband and thought it pretentious that she spoke to him in English. I soon found out why.

While walking to the central square to meet Svetlana late Tuesday morning, I soon found myself in a mass of cheerful, excited people, all heading in the same direction. The sheer number of people made crossing the streets much easier, as cars were forced to yield to pedestrians. As we nearer the center, the roads were blocked off to traffic. I got there just as a parade was going by, with floats for human rights, company floats, like the champagne factory, and people dressed up in costumes. Yells, whistles and cheers accompanied each float and it was amazing to see such a celebration for an independence that only 10 percent of the population wanted. Smoke rose from shashlik stands on practically every corner and small vendors were busy selling drinks, ice cream, popcorn and cotton candy to the crowds.

I didn’t find Svetlana until after the parade went by. When the crowds dispersed, I saw her tall, slender figure, dressed in loose white New Age clothing with embroidered edges. She was accompanied by an overweight man in his 50s or 60s who she introduced as Robert. She said that he was a retired military officer. He started out speaking Spanish, but then said he was from Connecticut. I wondered where she picked him up. Was she interpreting for him, did she just happen to run into him? I soon found out that he’d come here to Bishkek in February and plans to stay here for the rest of his life. He was planning to retire to Guadalajara, but after meeting Svetlana on the internet, he found their connection “so strong” that he agreed to come visit and now doesn’t want to leave. He seemed proud that he’d lost 30 pounds since his arrival. “He might look OK to you,” Svetlana said, “but here, people aren’t that fat.” He swore that the lack of chemicals, the natural foods, the mild climate and the nature were doing him good.

We walked to an outdoor café and sat down on red plastic chairs. They had plov (rice with meat, fat and carrots) and I had lamb shashlik, grilled chunks of meat and fat that were tender and juicy, almost velvety. We stayed there for quite a while, then walked around the packed central park areas, where photographers offered people instant photos of themselves and their children with people dressed in Teletubby outfits, or in front of fountains. We visited a row of statues, watched two girls play with a balloon in front of a statue of Marx and Engels conversing, and walked through an outdoor gallery, where artists sold their work. Cooks stirred giant iron vats of plov while vendors sold such delicacies as intestines and goat’s heads, placed on tables for easy viewing. After taking a picture, I asked someone standing in line if people actually ate the heads. He said yes.

“Where is the meat?” I asked.

“You’ll have to ask the vendor.”

I’ve since read more about the ritual of goat head eating and think I’ll have quite a story to tell you if you I’m ever offered one.

Besides the fact that the Kyrgyz enjoy a holiday, even if it was one they didn’t want to establish, I’ve also been noticing a very strong nostalgia for the Soviet days. In Russia I’d hear fond reminiscences from some elderly people, but it was not uniform. Other elderly people were just as happy to see it go away. Here I’m hearing it from middle-aged people as well and I’m generally not even asking. The topic just comes up.

One afternoon I was riding in a taxi with Koibagar, a middle-aged man who several years ago moved from a village, where he worked as a teacher, to Bishkek. Now he runs two small Sony Playstation centers, where children spend their afternoons playing video games for 25-35 cents an hour.

When we passed the Krygyz National University, he recalled his student days in the 1970s.

“The way we lived! Back then a pair of shoes cost 12 som (25 cents). I had a stipend of 50 rubles per month.”

The driver, a spunky, elderly Russian, acknowledged that it was hard even in Soviet times for those who didn’t work, but shared Koibalgar’s nostalgia. “Yesterday Putin said that it was good during the Soviet times,” he said. “He’s not like Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who wanted to tear everything apart.”

“Oh yes, it was good then,” Koibagar recalled.

“The whole world was afraid of us then,” the driver remembered. “But look at us now.”

Koibagar turned to me in the back seat. “America needs to help us so that me and especially my children can work freely, like you do.”

“What about your government?” I asked.

“Our government is made up of us and it doesn’t work. We went right form feudalism to socialism and don’t have any experience with capitalism.”

After visiting his home, where he grew large cabbages, roses, tomatoes, marigolds and potatoes in his garden, we continued on to our next destination.

“Look at our life now,” Koibagar said to the driver. “We have to run everywhere.”

“You can thank Gorbachev for that.”

“Gorbachev? No, Yeltsin.”

“But Gorbachev began it all,” the driver insisted. “At that time, no one thought about where everyone would work. They said, oh yes, they’ll be work, but look at it now. Students finish the institute and where do they go? To the bazaar?”

During this fond reminiscing about the past, a young man in his 20s, in the back with me, remained silent. When he countered their arguments that there were no jobs, they attacked him virulently. He didn’t say another word, letting the generational division remain.

PS - In order to protect the privacy of anyone I write about, I'm changing the names and some indentifying information.