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.

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