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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying reading your blog; I don't remember where I found a reference to it. Please post more about the language situation: what languages are in use around you, and how you manage to get along. I gather that you are fluent in Russian -- is that sufficient for your work?

(Also ... 11,765 meters? Probably you meant "feet".)