Monday, August 30, 2004

arrival in Kyrgyzstan

August 30, 2004

Hello from Kyrgyzstan!

I’m a first time blogger, so please let me know how this works for you. I hope to post some photos soon.

I left New York for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday night. At the counter, the check-in agent asked me, “Where is Bishkek?”

“In Kyrgyzstan.”

“Where’s that?”

“In Central Asia, near Kazkhstan, Uzbekistan and China.”

“I’ve never heard of that.”

She passed me to another agent. He checked me in, then announced, “Your bags are checked through to Frankfurt.”

“To Frankfurt? I’m not going to Frankfurt.”

“Yes, Frankfurt,” he said, looking at the FRU on the luggage tags.

“You must mean Frunze,” I said, “the old name for Bishkek. I’m going to Bishkek.”

He looked more carefully and realized his mistake. “I don’t think I’ve ever checked anyone in to Bishkek before,” he said. “I’ll have to go home and look that one up on a map.”

The fact that travel professionals had never heard of my destination was a bit disconcerting. But as I watched my baggage move down the conveyor, I knew I was going whether I was ready or not.

I flew to Baku, then switched to a plane flying to Bishkek, with a stop in Baku, Azerbaijan enroute. When we flew over Georgia and I began to see places like Dushanbe, Astrakhan, Iran, Kabul and Lahore on the flight progress map, I knew I was definitely headed to a new territory.
I met two Kyrgyz on the flight, a student spending the year in Germany, and a man setting up a new private university in Bishkek. Both were very friendly and answered many of the questions I had about Kyrgyzstan.

I landed in Bishkek at 4:20 a.m. on Friday morning. Four of my six check-in bags made it. The other two are still missing. I later found out this is a common occurrence on British Airways flights through London and I’m just hoping that the other two arrive soon. Among the missing items is my bicycle, which I am anxious to use.

A driver picked me up and drove me the half hour to town. My first sights were encouraging – rows of poplar trees, the bottoms painted white, lining the road, golden fields, old men in white pointed traditional Kyrgyz hats, old women wrapped in colorful wool sweaters and headscarves and piles of squash, watermelon, tomatoes and other fresh produce for sale along the road.

The city itself looked very Russian, and except for the Kyrgyz people walking the streets, it reminded me of urban Siberia. It has the same dated Soviet monuments, the same white bus stands, the same Soviet apartment buildings and peeling concrete or wooden homes, the same government buildings and storefronts, the same kiosks selling the same stuff – alcohol, sweets, bread, sausage, cheese, eggs, milk, and yogurt. Even the Kyrgyz people brought back memories of the Buryats, with their brown skin, high cheekbones and wide faces.

My driver was a friendly Russian. He was on his way to Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, to pick up his wife and children, and invited me to join him for the day. I was too tired at that time, but I do hope to be able to go there some weekend.

I spent my first two nights in the Asia Mountains Guesthouse. It was a chalet-style house with a pool and cozy rooms filled with new wooden furniture. The only downside was that my coworker told me that the “Bikini Club” next door is a brothel, so I wasn’t comfortable going out at night.

When I arrived in the morning, the sound of a passing train caused me to look out my small third-floor window. Beyond the passing green train, snow-capped peaks rose up. I smiled as I lay down and went to sleep.

I spent a few hours in the office on Friday and had a good impression of my coworkers and the work they are doing. A colleague invited me to join her for dinner. Over fish kebab and stirfried beef and mushrooms, she told me about some of the challenges she’s faced. Most compelling was the practice of bride-stealing, still prevalent among the more traditional Kyrgyz in the south of the country. Not only did it occur among the people she serves, but once it happened to one of her employees. This employee went out in the afternoon to do some work and didn’t return. The next morning my colleague asked where she’d been and the employee begin to cry, asking if she had to tell. She’d been stolen as she was walking down the street.

According to tradition, when a man steals a woman, he brings her home to his parents. They can reject her and send her home, can notify her parents, giving them an opportunity to demand her release, or can say nothing. If the woman spends the night at the man’s house, she is obligated to marry him. In this case, luckily, the man’s parents sent her back, but the employee was traumatized nonetheless.

“For someone who grows up expecting to be stolen and to not have a career, maybe it’s not so bad,” my colleague said. “But for someone who has a higher education, a career, or who wants to go overseas, it is terrible. But even they feel they need to follow the tradition.”

There was a similar tradition among the Buryats in Siberia, but I only met one woman who admitted she’d been stolen. She hadn’t wanted to get married, but she did know the man who stole her. For most Buryats, the man and woman agree to marry, then they often reenact the tradition of kidnapping in a humorous way.

Yesterday I moved from the hotel into an apartment nearby. It’s in a block of Soviet-style apartment buildings and is in the center of town, though it’s pretty far from work. The benches on either side of the entrance door are broken. Neither of them have a board across them to sit upon. And the entrance, like most, is crumbly, dark and dank. But greenery grows on either side of it and walking through the courtyard, past the other entrances makes me feel much more a part of the community, as I watch children playing on the Spartan toys, see colorful blankets and rugs hung from balconies or from metal structures in the courtyard to dry, and hear people who have functioning benches sitting outside and chatting.

The landlady is a young, friendly Kyrgyz woman whose mother lives in New York. She told me that her husband recently left her for another woman. When I said I was sorry to hear that, she said it was a good thing, because he played at the casinos too often.

With two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bathroom I have more space than I could possibly use. It’s also equipped with amenities, including a TV, stove, phone and best of all, washing machine. The plan is to stay here for about a month and then move to Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, Osh.

Jet lag is causing me to head to bed early, but I was able to walk around a bit yesterday. Bishkek is a strange town in that there is no absolute heart. I live in the center, but my work is also in the center, although it’s across town. And in between the two is everything from rose gardens, government buildings, cafes and movie theatres, to empty lots, rusting metal, tall Soviet-style apartment buildings, and small, decrepit homes. There are no clear divisions. Yesterday I saw a shining blue and green new office building right next door to a stinking row of garbage bins and slum houses. I was happy to find a market, with piles of Iranian nuts and dried apricots, fruits, vegetables, plucked chickens, pickles, salads, and all kinds of other goods. Near my apartment is a bread maker, who stands on the corner baking 600 round loaves of the local bread daily in a giant stove that looks ancient, but is only 18 months old. A woman passes balls of dough through a small window, to the baker standing outside. He flattens one at a time against a shaper on the end of a stick, then places it in the oven. A muscular, sweaty man with taut bare arms, he pulls the baked bread out of the hole in the top center with a wire stick or a woven basket attached to a long rod. He plops them on top of the stove, where passerbys can admire then and smell the warm, rich scent, while an assistant, a first year medical student, handles the sales. One loaf costs 8 cents. So far, my favorite part of the city so far is the people. I have yet to meet anyone who has not been incredibly friendly and kind.

These are my initial impressions and interactions with the people and environment. I’ll be in touch later in the week when I’ve had a little more time to adapt. Also, please let me know if there is anything in particular you'd like to know more about.

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