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.