Monday, January 31, 2005

Return from Mecca

I returned home late this evening and was surprised when Nigora said she’d also just returned home. An old couple, distant relatives, had just returned from Mecca and had invited her to celebrate their return. She said they’d taken a plane (a luxury compared to those who take the 15-day bus trip) and had spent a month in Saudi Arabia. They’d had a good trip, but didn’t tell her anything about it.

“They didn’t have time to tell about their trip,” she said. “Because so many people came to visit. They just fed us all.

At this time of year people are returning from Mecca and the tradition is that they must be ready to meet a stream of guests for several days after their return. I stopped by the home of a wealthy family who had sent a few members to Mecca, as they do every year. Upon their return, they slaughtered a cow and kept a table filled with food – a big pile of lepushka, plates of pistachios, raisins, candies, melon, wafers and delicious Saudi Arabian dates. On a small grill in their courtyard they grilled the fresh beef, bringing skewers dripping with fat and dropped with fresh onion to the table.

Going to Mecca means that a person has enough money for the holy trip, that they are probably a bit better off than average. And greeting people on their return seems to be a way of sharing the wealth.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Turkey slaughter and a steam bath

I’m back in Osh, my home for the foreseeable future. After a few weeks away in my own apartment, it was an adjustment returning to Uzbek family life. On the night I returned, I’d had a bad day, was tired and stressed and just wanted to be alone. First my friendly family invited me to have tea with guests. I declined. Then I had to fend off offers for dinner and tea, and even then, I didn’t feel I had any privacy as Nigora came by several times - to check on the stove, to ask for my help writing a card in English. And any time I wanted to go to the bathroom, I also had to emerge into the cold winter air and into the central family space, making it hard for me to isolate myself and mope as I wanted to.

I just have to get used to the lack of privacy, for that’s the price I pay for having interaction with a local family. And they are a great family. Nigora brings me dinner every evening, they are always friendly, and really try to make me comfortable. When I told them I got a headache reading at night because the lightbulb was so dim, they had a brighter one put in the next day. When I didn’t eat the almonds I’d bought because I couldn’t crack the shells, they bought a nutcracker.

This evening Habib came to my door and told me that his father was about to kill the last turkey. I’d heard some squaking outside my window, but thought the turkey was being especially vocal. It turns out Shavkat had been tying its legs together and preparing it for the execution.

I went outside and saw Shavkat standing in the courtyard area. One of his feet was on the turkey’s legs, the other stood upon the turkey’s wings. The bird’s head was located near a small hole they’d dug in the snowy ground. The bird seemed calm and rested, not knowing what would soon happen.

“What’s the holiday?” I asked.

“No holiday,” Shavkat said. “But all of us have been a bit sick lately.”

He lifted the bird’s head by wrapping his hand around the beak and sliced the neck, letting the blood run out into the hole.

“It’s better to not feed the turkey for 24 hours before killing it,” he said. “Then the blood becomes really thin and runs out quickly. But the kids forgot and fed the turkey this morning.”

Animal slaughter is strictly a man’s job here, but Shavkat doesn’t kill with pride. His face flinched as he cut into the neck for the second and the third time. He told me that he had never killed anything until a couple of years ago, when a neighbor woman asked him to come over and kill a chicken. He told her that he didn’t know how and she began to berate him, asking how he could consider himself a man. After listening to her harangue and her challenge to his manhood, he went over and killed the chicken, but only under duress.

He did a better job than the slaughter I’d seen at the market. There, the turkey flopped around headless for a while. But Shavkat waited until all the life had drained out before he released the wings and feet from his weight.

He sliced off the head and handed it to Faruh, who was going to feed it to the dog. Max began to jump up, eager for the treat.

“Don’t give it to him now!” Shavkat warned his son. “You need to boil it first. Last time I gave him a raw head he started chasing live chickens.”

The turkey was then passed to Nigora for defeathering, back to the boys for cutting into pieces, and then Nigora took charge again to boil a turkey soup. A few hours later, she brought me turkey broth with carrots, potatoes, and an overboiled turkey leg.

Also this evening, in addition to my first turkey slaughter, I was treated to my first banya in almost a month. They built a fire to heat up the bathhouse and called me when it was hot. I splashed steaming water from a faucet onto the rocks, breathing deeply as a layer of steam rose and the sweat emerged from my pores, taking in the sweet smell of the pine wood. Warmed by the stove, the soup and the banya, as well as by a surprise call from a friend overseas, I went to bed comfortable.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Jalalabat is a hard city to describe, even more so in winter. The town of about 200,000 has a long history, extending back to the time of the Silk Road. According to my guidebook, it’s named after Jalal-ad-din, who set up teahouses and caravanserais for the many pilgrims who came every year. In 1878, it felt the influence of Russians, when they set up a garrison and military hospital. Subsequently, some servicemen settled there, liking the hot springs, warm weather and good soil.

As part of the Ferghana valley, tobacco, fruit, vegetables, cotton, walnuts, wheat, corn and silk worms all grow in abundance in Jalalabat and I imagine it transforms into a different world in the summer. During Soviet times, it was known as both an agro-industrial center, and as a supply center for nearby coal-mining towns. Today, the population is largely Uzbek, with most of the Russians having fled at Kyrgyz independence. It’s home to many universities and their students but it lacks an intellectual vibrancy. Looking down at the town from the mountaintop, the city is a blanket of grayish-white roofs. There are a few five-story apartment buildings, but most live in aging single-family homes. The whole area seems as though it could be wiped out with one tornado, earthquake, or stamp of a giant’s foot.

When I think of Jalalabat, I think of tree-lined streets, market vendors lining the train tracks, movement, the monument across from the legislature symbolizing mountains and a Kyrgyz kalpak (traditional hat), and steaming water – coming from gutters, from tiny holes in the ground, dripping into manholes – reminding me that we are walking on steaming earth.

A couple incidents seemed typical for Jalalabat. One morning on my way to work, a train came through town. It needed to cross Lenin street, but instead of stopping the cars for the train, the police officer stopped the train for the cars. When the train began to honk, the police officer moved the gate to stop the cars. Even though they could clearly see a train there, the cars pushed ahead, refusing to stop. The police officer gave up and let the cars go, keeping the train in its place.

I also met a bank employee who told me about a religious Muslim client of his, who believed it was wrong to take a loan. But he needed money for a car. So he applied for credit, with the condition that the bank employee would take the money, would go with the client and hand the money over to the car seller. Then the client would pay what he considered “monthly rent” to the bank for the use of the car. And at the end of a certain period it would magically belong to him.

My landlady, Oksana, was an interesting character. She was a heavyset woman who couldn’t believe that I pulled the fat off meat. “That’s the best part!” she’d say. “I’m not supposed to have it, but I eat it anyway.”

She loved fat and she loved garlic. The food she made was so greasy that the leftovers gelled in condensed fat. She didn’t use any spices, but put giant pieces of garlic into everything. On my first night there, she pulled a piece of fresh garlic out of her pocket, asking if I wanted it, telling me it would be good for my teeth.

She was a queen of folk remedies. When I had a cough, she said she usually carves a hole in a radish, puts honey in it, lets it sit overnight, and then drinks the juice. She offered to do that for me and I declined.

When a sty began to form on my eye, she was worried. “That comes from walking around without a hat!” she said and told me that if I didn’t treat it immediately it would grow.

She gave me two pieces of unprocessed cotton, told me to hold them against a teapot full of boiling water and then press them against my eye. I wasn’t able to get the cotton very hot that way, so I held the teacup inside against my eye and the sty was gone by the next morning.

A very religious Russian Orthodox, she brought me holy water in a Coke bottle that she said she’d collected from the river during a service. She served as the church choir director and went there several times a week, for services, baptisms and funerals. Given the aging church membership, there are many more funerals than baptisms. But she’s not discouraged. Her own daughter is married to a Muslim, but she and her daughter secretly baptized her granddaughter.

One weekend, on the Old Russian New Year, she invited me to a church service. I asked if I’d need a headscarf because I didn’t have one.

“It would be nice, but it’s not necessary. Also, usually pants aren’t allowed. There might be some old women who will bug you, but as we say, each should take care of their own.”

The church was small, neat and inconspicuous, located behind a row of lepushka bakers, the scent of flour and yeast filling the air. Attendance was more than I expected, but given that it was a holiday, the 17 old women and three old men didn’t make for a packed house. Punctuality didn’t seem to be important, with people coming in throughout the service. Almost no one was under 60, though occasionally grandchildren came in to spend some time with their hunched over grannies in thick socks.

In Russian Orthodox churches, attendees stand during the long service. Only if they can’t take it anymore do they sit on a bench at the side of the room. I got lazy after a while and sat down, marveling at the old people who stood without a break.

The church glittered with greens and silvers and gold and the choir voices rang out like knives hitting crystal glasses, clear and melodious. The choir was hidden from sight behind a wall, as the metropolitan often was as well.

When it was time for confession, Oksana came out from hiding and sat next to me on the bench. I was very surprised to a see young man also emerge from the choir area.

“If you have sinned, you can tell the priest now,” she said, looking at me expectantly, eager for me to participate in her church’s practices. People were lining up at the front of the church.

“I can’t really think of anything,” I said. It was true, I hadn’t done anything terrible lately and I wasn’t excited by the prospect of trying to communicate whatever minor sin I could come up with in Russian. So instead I watched as people went up to the left side of the alter, near a fountain, told the metropolitan their sins, then bowed while the metropolitan laid a white cloth over their head and read a prayer. One woman burst into tears while she was up there and couldn’t stop crying.

I stayed for what seemed like a long time, but each time I thought it was about to end, I was mistaken. I was glad I came. I liked watching the money collection, when people put money into a bowl, then the collector handed some of it out to those in attendance who needed money. I also saw some individuals handing small bills to others around then. It was nice to enter a warm and pretty and melodious world, if for no reason other than a break from the daily sights of Jalalabat. But eventually I started to edge my way toward the door and returned to the frozen air and the warm smell of fresh-baked bread.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Today was a national holiday and a day off of work. The occasion was the Muslim holiday of Khurban-Eid. This is the second Eid, or Ramadan. The first one, including a period of fasting, was in October and November. This one is shorter. The holiday itself is only one day, but people make a three-day weekend out of it. Many people visit their relatives in the villages. On Thursday night, they prepared plov and other food. Those who lost a relative during the year sacrificed an animal.

On Friday morning, many people visited the cemetery. Women aren’t allowed to go to the cemetery for a burial, but they can go for visits. Then the rest of the day is spent remembering those who passed away, giving away food and plov to friends, relatives, and the poor, and visiting friends and neighbors.

My landlady is Russian (so this isn’t a holiday for her) and I didn’t have any locals to hang out with here in Jalalabat. So I enjoyed the day off by sleeping in, reading, and watching TV. Then I decided I’d go into town to check out a concert I’d seen advertised. I had no idea what it was other than a music concert that began at 3 and cost 75 cents.

The city was quiet, covered by a cool fog. I spent the 20 minute walk talking with my landlady’s husband, Victor, who I’d met along the way. He was going to see what might be going on for the holiday. On the way, he stopped several times to shake the hands of his acquaintances and to wish them a happy holiday. “It’s not a holiday for me,” he said. “I’m of another belief.”

There are seemingly very few Russians in Jalalabat and I hear more Kyrgyz and Uzbek than I do Russian. So that makes me curious about the Russians who are here – how they came here and why they stayed.

Victor, a 56-year-old Russian, told me that his parents came from Samara, Russia, together with their three children in 1944. They were escaping the wartime famine. Victor was the only child in his family born in Jalalabat.

He said that there used to be a lot of Russians in the Jalalabat region, but that most of them left (“ran” in his words) in 1990, when the Soviet Union came apart.

“Why didn’t you run away?” I asked.

“Because I had a job and an apartment and a family. Russians got nervous because the Kyrgyz suddenly became very nationalist and proud. But they soon learned that just because they are Kyrgyz doesn’t mean that they get everything for free. They also had to go start selling at the market.”

He seemed to be on good terms with a lot of the locals, based on the number of hands he shook on the way. And when I asked who Erdindik was, having seen a lot of things named after him, he told me that erdindik means friendship in Kyrgyz. But he said that now, he’s often the only Russian at work in a group of ten and that it can make relations difficult.

He has worked as a bus driver since Communist times and said that for him, life is only getting hard now.

“In the past, they used to give us a new bus every five years. But now I’m driving a 1990 bus. I pay rent and have to pay for all the repairs myself. There is a lot of competition now, with buses and taxis, especially since there are basically only two roads out of Jalalabat. In order to cover the rent and make a profit, a driver needs to work 30 days. But not many of these old buses can stand to be driven 30 days a month.”

He drives a route between Jalalabat and the Lenin village, 40 kilometers away. But for the past two months he hasn’t been able to work because he injured his hand.

When I reached the center and separated from Victor, I found the central park buzzing with families and young people. Most of the women wore headscarves and long coats, the men wore short black jackets. People sat in pairs on swings, twirling around on a automated swing-like ride. Others stood in pairs on the four boat-shaped swings on an old swingset, using all their force to send the boats up as high as possible.

Knots of people gathered outside the yellow Barpi theater, which sounded like Barfy to me. The concert was supposed to begin at three, but ticketholders had to wait outside until four before being let in.

The theater had been recently remodeled, funded by the US Agency for International Development and a couple of U.S. nonprofits. The lobby was carefully painted sea green. And the performance hall was a fresh pink and white, with red velvet curtains hung over gold arched doorways. But it was still unheated and still had old bleacher-like seats on a scratched floor, like a school gymnasium.

The performance began. A series of self-conscious male singers performed to the accompaniment of a keyboard player and an electric guitar. Above them on stage, trios of red, orange, yellow, green and blue balloons hung from the ceiling with tinsel. The lights flashed on and off, seemingly dependent on how the lighting person felt at any particular moment. A little girl, no older than three, emerged from the audience and began to dance onstage. Dressed in a winter jacket and an ivory cap, she confidently shook her shoulders and hips to the Uzbek pop music like an experienced woman.

The audience was restless. People came in and out, talked, and got up to greet each other during the performance. No one sat in their assigned seat. A couple attendees used laser flashlights to point red dots on the singers faces.

The hall only filled up 40 minutes after the concert started. At that time, young men began to gather in the back of the theater and formed a dance circle while a popular song was being sung. The audience attention and four videocameras turned to the back of the auditorium. I watched a woman in near the front turn back and smile, a row of pure gold teeth flashing.

The atmosphere was similar to several low-grade concerts I’d attended in Siberia. But there I usually knew someone. At the very least, most people knew who I was and accepted me as part of their community. Here I was just a foreigner, and with my puffy powder blue ski jacket, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I paused before I pulled out my notebook and pen, knowing that would draw more attention to myself, but I didn’t want to lose the details of the concert.

Not long afterwards, I had curious onlookers seated on either side of me – a 15-year-old to my left, a slightly older and inebriated man to my right. They took turns pulling on my sleeve and asking me questions – what was I doing there, what was I writing, was I married, did I have kids, did I know it wasn’t normal to not have kids yet at my age, did I understand Uzbek, where did I live, did I like the concert, did I like it there.

“Everyone is looking at you now,” the man on my right said. “They are wondering what you are doing.”

They weren’t too pleased with the concert, though the man on my right was more disappointed than the 15-year-old.

“How much did you pay?” he asked me.

“30 som (75 cents).”

“The good concerts cost 100 som ($2.50). There was a really good one a week or so ago and another good one over New Years. This concert isn’t very impressive and you can see, people are leaving.”

He was right, people were started to leave in droves. There were lots of empty seats in the previously overfilled auditorium. No matter that people were still up there singing.

I thought back to when I first thought of coming to Kyrgyzstan and I was told I could be posted in Jalalabat. I’d never heard of the place and looking on the map from across the ocean, it seemed like a remote, heavily Muslim and potentially unstable place. I remember thinking that alala in Jalalabat sounded a lot like Allah. I was nervous about the idea and hoped I’d be sent instead to the more Russified north.

I haven’t integrated into the city in my two weeks here, but neither have I had any problems. Every day I walk the street alone, live among locals in an apartment complex, and sit among them at a concert. It reminded me that no matter how frightening the idea of terrorism might be, I have to remember that terrorists are by far the minority. I see that I can come, uninvited, to a Muslim festivity, and be greeted with acceptance and curiosity. I remember that hiding behind my own culture and national border won’t do anything except increase misunderstanding and fear.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Bazaar Korgon

This morning I took a taxi to Bazaar Korgon, a market town of about 30,000 thirty minutes from Jalalabat. We drove through the gates marking the end of Jalalabat and passed several billboards en route. Most were large paintings of the face of President Askar Akaev, accompanied by a quote in Kyrgyz. Another had the president’s website written over a photo of green mountains. There was a billboard of fantasy-like horses, light colored with long manes, splashing across a river, apparently without a message. The one I found most interesting had a woman in white holding a male child with a soccer ball. “Drivers – remember who is waiting for you at home,” it said.

The road was good and was lined by stunted mulberry trees. We drove amidst snowy unpopulated hills, past an apple orchard and a brick mosque. On one hillside, the mini mosques and palaces of a Muslim graveyard dotted the land. A man sitting on a donkey atop a snowy embankment looked down at the road below, watching us go by. We drove along flat fields toward ridged mountain peaks covered by clouds. These mountains serve as the backdrop to Bazaar Korgon. I’m told if I were continue toward them I’d reach the beautiful village of Arsalanbob.

I walked through brick arches into the teeming marketplace. Vendors sold their goods on either side of narrow, muddy walkways, flimsy roofs and plastic sheeting overhead kept out the light. Transactions were conducted at close quarters.

I didn’t particularly need anything. I was just entranced by the narrow walkways, the endless stalls, the goods on displays, the way one could enter into the market and not be able to find a way out. I looked at the peanuts in their shells, at the orange rock candy, at the Uzbek manufactured cookies, at the bruised apples, at the plastic bags hanging from rafters. My attention was caught by two boxes containing shiny green wrappers. I took a closer look. It couldn’t be. Nature Valley Oat’s ‘n Honey granola bars?

I picked one up and it looked just like what I buy at home. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t even seen anything like that in Bishkek, yet I found it in the middle of a bazaar on the Kyrgyz/Uzbek border?

I was bubbling with excitement as I bought a bag full of granola bars. I planned to give some to my coworker, at least one for each of the five people I live with, I could show them something American. Something I just happened to find here.

And the price was great. 30 som (75 cents) for at least 20 individual bars. What a bargain.

Later that afternoon, after lunch, I opened the first bar, expectantly, looking forward to the oats and honey, the familiar crunch. Imagine my disappointment when I found a wafer instead, the standard local wafer, and rather stale at that. I opened another and found the same thing.

When I explained what happened to my coworker, with whom I’d been planning on sharing them, she laughed. “That vendor must have been pretty excited that you bought so many!” she said.

And thinking back on it, he looked at me blankly when I told him with excitement that we eat these things overseas and he didn’t answer when I asked him where he found them.

I learned my lesson in not trusting the packaging here. But if only Nature Valley knew that someone had gotten ahold of their wrappers and were selling stale wafers wrapped in their packaging, in a dark little bazaar in Kyrgyzstan.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The election wars begin

Shortly after I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, my boss told me, “There will be national elections in February and in the worst case scenario, there could be a civil war.” I don’t realistically foresee a civil war in the next month. But the first signs of organized discontent are manifesting themselves.

Individualized discontent is easy to come across. I see it every time someone fondly recalls how much better life was during the Soviet times and how terrible it is now in comparison.

While one can hear such complaints in Russia, they usually conclude with a more balanced opinion, recognizing that life was extremely difficult for several years, but now it’s getting better. The majority of Russians I spoke to had some hope for the future.

Here, people almost never end on a positive or even an equilibrium note. It’s pure nostalgia for the past. I hear it most often from middle-aged and older people. They are the ones who were thrown out of work, who are prevented from getting another job by ads that blatantly require applicants to be under 30, who flocked to the informal economy – the markets, services, and taxis – to make a living.

Yesterday, the day before President Akaev’s pre-election visit to Jalalabat, I was walking down Lenin Street with Farat, a young bank worker. Near the central government building, we saw a line of middle-aged and older people standing quietly along the road with picket signs.

“Wow, we’ve never seen that before,” Farat said. I thought he meant that he’d never seen a protest during Communist times. But he meant that he’d never seen a protest in his life.

The protestors wore strips of bright pink cloth, wrapped around their necks, or sticking out of vest pockets. The first man we approached was reluctant to talk and pointed out the leader. The more verbose leader told us that they were all politicians from the Jalalabat region, representing nine different parties. He complained that President Akaev put his cronies into regional offices and they prevented a fair election. They prevented candidates from running who could beat Akaev or his favored candidates.

“We want a fair election,” he told me.

“Do you think the election won’t be fair?”

“I know it won’t be fair. The chairman of the Kyrgyz Central Electoral Commission, Sulaiman Imanbaev, doesn’t work honestly. They’ve already put only their candidates on the list.”

As we walked away, I asked Farat if many people agree with the protestors. “Yes,” he said. “Probably most do, but people are afraid to say it.”

When I returned to the square from lunch, the protestors were gone. I was worried they’d been broken up, so I asked the photographers in the central square what happened to them.

“They’ve gone,” one said, while the other two stood to his side. “But they’ll be back. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. a lot of people will be gathering to protest. The head of the central electoral commission, Imanbaev, doesn’t work honestly and they want to tell Akaev to throw him out.”

These men, who make a living selling Polaroid shots of people in front of a monument represented a Kyrgyz kolpak hat and Kyrgyz mountains, stood to the side as the protestors picketed, but they seemed to eagerly support their cause. The intensity in the man’s face showed a certain pride in what the picketers were doing.

Today, as they promised, the numbers of picketers increased greatly. But again, it was a quiet, very hesitant type of protest. It is as though the protestors don’t know what to do with themselves or their signs. They are going against a humble culture in sticking themselves in the limelight and they are visibly uncomfortable.

The central square, where they had been yesterday, was blocked off. The streets around the government building were closed in anticipation of the President’s arrival and the protestors gathered on Lenin Street, about two blocks away.

When I first came by, there was a line of protestors with signs, like yesterdays but a little longer. Quite a few people stood nearby, on both signs of the street, gazing upon the happenings with expressions that seemed to say: I support what you’re doing, but I don’t have the guts to stand there myself. So I’ll watch and see how it goes.

The protestors rolled up their signs and stepped out of the middle of the street as the grey-blue uniformed police formed a line across the street and locked arms. Don’t ask me why. These were about the least intimidating protestors one could imagine – nervous and peaceful adults, clearly without much prior experience.

I was on my way to a meeting. When I returned, the police had dispersed, and a much larger crowd was standing in the middle of the street. They were at least 100 strong, and mostly without signs. They crowded around an old man with a pointed white beard, who was being interviewed for TV. Again, a sizeable group of people watched from the sidelines.

“Why are they congregated in the middle of the road?” I asked a man leaning against a fence on the sidewalk, clearly watching what was going on, but not getting involved himself.

“They want a change in government. They don’t want Akaev anymore.”

I then approached the group to take some photos and to see if I could learn any more. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before I was the center of a crowd of people, just like the old man being interviewed was.

One white-bearded man carrying a worn leather portfolio told me that he’d come to town from a village today. Just happening to come across the protest, he decided to participate. “We wanted to show Akaev that we’re dissatisified, to let him know our point of view. But he drove around that way and avoided us. He has set up a cordon between himself and his people and he doesn’t listen to what we have to say.”

One man from a newspaper stuck a tape recorder in front of my mouth and asked me, “Do you think Kyrgyzstan has a real democracy?”

Compared to other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan has a relatively high level of freedom. Government is weak and social services very poor, but people do have the freedom to speak freely (at least amongst themselves, if they might still fear speaking critically in public) and there is a good amount of economic freedom. But given rampant corruption, inefficient tax collection, and poor government services, not to mention the recent maneuvering to prevent opposition candidates from running, people have little faith in the government or its possibilities for the future.

The man at the protest asked me to pass along to the world their request for a donor-sponsored local TV channel, where opposition groups could freely present their views.

A comment on this blog mentioned protests in Bishkek, so I did a little internet research to find out what was going on. I found two great sites, for anyone interested in keeping up on Central Asian news: and (they have news translated into English for those who don’t read Russian).

For the past several days, there were protests in Bishkek, over an opposition candidate, Rosa Otunbaeva, being prevented from running as an opposition candidate for parliament. Her application for candidacy had been approved, then hours later was rejected. She had served as the Kyrgyz ambassador to the UK and the US, as well as deputy special representative to the UN Secretary General. The electoral commission claimed that because she had been out of Kyrgyzstan for five years, she didn’t meet the residence requirement, which says that candidates can’t be out of the country for more than six months of a year.

Inspired by the Ukrainians, the protestors dressed in yellow. In response, a smaller group protested the protestors, saying they were advocating destabilizing the country.

I understand the argument for needing to live in Kyrgyzstan regularly in order to be in touch with the people. But I think it’s a cheap move to say that Kyrgyz ambassadors weren’t Kyrgyz residents, when they were working as employees of the Kyrgyz federal government. And as far as I understood, I thought embassies were technically considered part of that nation, which excludes them from certain taxes and laws in the country where they are located.

Of course, the cynic would say that the argument for being in touch with the Kyrgyz people is a pretty weak one, since the typical politician is seen as being in the game for self interest. I haven’t even been here six months, but in this time I’ve figured out that anyone with the people’s interests at heart would pretty quickly start working on improving health, education, and roads and issuing passports so people can work.

In the course of my research, I found out it’s true that the authorities in Osh haven’t issued passports in 18 months. I also found out that 200,000 passports mysteriously disappeared, found available on the black market for 200 euros.

Just this morning, as I was walking to work – past the young woman staring tiredly at the passerbys, trying to sell cups of coffee and fried rolls; past the old Russian man playing the accordion, his wife sitting next to him, wearing black Coke-bottle glasses, stacking and fingering each som as it was donated; past the pair of Uzbek women in headscarves, wearing matching calf-length sweaters with peacocks on the back – that what most impresses me about Jalalabat is the way in which people have adjusted themselves to uncertainty. People were thrown from a system in which they were guaranteed support for life into one in which nothing is guaranteed – not even a decent education or basic healthcare. Yet they’ve taken on their new roles, whether it’s as a fortune teller, a shoe shiner, or a carpet seller, with vigor.

And today, watching the hesitant protestors, I saw people trying on yet another new role. And I was impressed.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Invitation to the Old Russian New Year

Today I walked the 30 minutes from my apartment to the center of town, feeling as though I was a witness to little snippets of life on the way. Enroute, I watched a young man pull a reluctant cow across the street, pausing for traffic, the cow bellowing in protest. I saw a large crowd of people, mostly elderly, lined up outside a savings bank. I saw a young boy hire himself out as a horse, transporting a cart full of heavy bags by pressing against the metal bar in front of his chest. Another young boy gripped a wide metal basket full of lepushkas, fresh-baked Uzbek bread, carrying them down the stairs to a café. I saw vendors lined up along the muddy, disused train tracks, selling red and green apples, oranges, bottles of bright red, green and orange soda. A heavyset older woman with a face dotted by brown spots crouched near a low table on the edge of the sidewalk, a deck of cards and a necklace laid out for display. I’m intending to try my luck at one of these fortune tellers someday. I went into a café, advertised “MILK CAFÉ” in large block letters. I ordered a glass of milk off the menu and was told they didn’t have any. An elderly peasant sat on a donkey and pulled a cart down a main street, right past a taxi stand, looking at me in surprise as I snapped a photo, perhaps recognizing himself as a relic of the past trapped in the present.

The snow is gone in the center of the city and the sun shone today. Only the white mountains gleaming in the distance remind people that it’s still winter. The weather here is very variable, changing from a snowstorm to a spring-like day within a matter of hours.

This sounds like a beautiful region in the spring and summertime. One driver told me that in early May, the view from the mountaintop is like looking down on a burning fire, with half of the valley red with flowers, the other half orange. Later in the season come the dates, almonds and walnuts that grow profusely from the trees.

A few hours from here is an Uzbek village, Arsalanbob, that is a major walnut growing center and also a popular tourist destination, with beautiful forests and a couple of waterfalls. Whoever comes to visit me this summer (mom and dad?) I’ll take there.

I’ve now been in my apartment for a couple of days. Even though the landlady lives in a separate apartment, she stops by twice a day, giving me the chance to converse at least a little bit with someone outside of work.

It’s also possible to meet interesting people over breakfast at the resort hotel, mostly visitors to Jalalabat. During my last stay I met an American Muslim, married to an Uzbek, fluent in Uzbek and living in Uzbekistan who is pioneering a U.S. government aid program that incorporates religion into development. He’d come to Jalalabat to see a family planning seminar being held for local imams, Muslim religious leaders. But since the hotel isn’t serving breakfast this week, I would have been in for a pretty silent week.

My landlady, Oksana, comes by in the mornings and evenings to bring me something to eat and while I eat alone, we have a few minutes to talk while she sets out the food. She told me that her daughter is technically the CBT member. But since Oksana lives closer and her daughter is busy with school-age children, Oksana helps out frequently. She lives in the apartment building next door, on the ground floor, so she is somehow able to keep 20 chickens. Right now she’s particularly busy because she had a new grandchild born in December. She told me that she’s doing a lot of laundry and cleaning up to help.

Oksana enjoys talking about her family. She has a 29 year-old son, a divorced father of one, who now has another wife.

“His wife liked to run around,” she said. “And everytime they met or passed the child off, there were so many scandals and arguments and fights.” So he moved to Bishkek, where he is driving a marshrutka.

Her 32-year old daughter, a former music teacher, just had the baby. She has two older boys and both she and her sons had really been hoping for a girl.

She also told me about a 16-year-old granddaughter, the child of her 40-year-old daughter, who has had three years of private English lessons and plays a traditional Kyrgyz instrument called the komuz. I saw a young girl play this instrument at Gulnara’s wedding in Bishkek and it makes a deep, resonant and powerful sound.

“She’s the only Russian in Jalalabat who plays,” Oksana said, with obvious pride. “And we didn’t force her to do it. She wanted to.”

Oksana is a strong believer in the Russian Orthodox faith. She was at church when I first wanted to see the apartment. Having spent 30 years as a music teacher, she’s now the choir director at her church.

She told me that she often refuses young couples who want to rent out her apartment. “I’m a believer, you know, and my sheets are clean.”

I nodded.

“Are you Catholic?” she asked me.

“No, but my mother is.”

“Were you baptized?”


“Then you are.” OK, I thought. If you think so. “There are a lot of similarities between the Catholics and the Russian Orthodox,” she continued. “You could come to one of our services. On Friday it’s the Old Russian New Year and we’ll have a service at 8 a.m.”

I told her that I had to work on Friday, the Old Russian New Year not being recognized as a holiday here. But I said that if they have a service on the weekend, I’d be interested in coming. I can’t imagine a Russian Orthodox church in the heavily Kyrgyz/Uzbek and Muslim region of Jalalabat having a very vibrant membership, outside of aging Russian women. But I thought it would be interesting to see who is hanging on to the faith and how the church is surviving.

She told me that their metropolitan got in a car accident and is waiting for an operation, so she’s not sure whether or not there will be a service on the weekend. But if there is, I’ll be there.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Living with the locals

This morning I woke up to a thick layer of snow covering the forested mountain overlooking Jalalabat. As I descended it in a slowly-moving taxi, the amount of snow became less and less. By the time we reached Lenin street, the central throughway, there was no snow at all, just a wet road.

On the way down the mountain, the road was lined by tiny bare trees, extending far into the distance, like orchards. My friendly gold-toothed driver told me that the trees on the left were date trees, those on the right were almonds.

“Who do they belong to?” I asked. There were no homes in sight.

“The government,” he said. “In September, we can come here and pick the dates and almonds. There is a guard here watching over the trees and we give half of what we pick to him (for the government) and the other half we can keep. So if we pick 10 kilograms, we can keep five.

“Picking five kilograms is a lot of work,” he continued. “Because they grow in bunches but the individual dates and almonds ripen at different times. If you are picking them for yourself, you should only pick the ripe ones and leave the others to ripen. That slows down the pace. Some people cut off bunches, like grapes, and just throw away the ones that aren’t ripe, a terrible waste,” he said, shaking his head.

Today I moved from my hotel room at the Jalalabat health resort to a compact little one-room, Soviet style apartment in a residential neighborhood.

The Kutbolson hotel is the nicest place in Jalalabat. The rooms are clean, and if not toasty warm in the wintertime, at least they are not freezing. The view from my mountaintop window overlooked the entire town and the valley extending to the next range of mountains.

But despite frequent foreign clientele, the service has not improved much beyond the Soviet times. Last night I asked for a heater and was told their only one burned out. I asked for two extra pillows (since the only way to keep warm was to sit under the covers on my bed) and was told they didn’t have more than one extra pillow. And this morning, when I walked toward the dark cafeteria, I was told that there would be no breakfast for the rest of this week because the cook is gone.

In such situations, I see the real lack of creativity that I frequently come across here. So the cook is gone – how about putting out something easy or self-serve, like juice, yogurt and rolls. But people don’t reach beyond their own responsibilities to think of how to compensate for someone’s absence. If someone is gone, their roles will not be fulfilled and people just have to deal with it.

The apartment that I moved into is part of the Community Based Tourism (CBT) project, a unique program that tries to put tourist income into the pockets of ordinary people. It was started by a Swiss organization, Helvetas, and seems to be relatively successful. People can sign up to become members of the network, either as landladies (most are women) of apartments, homes or rooms for rent, guides or drivers.

Those who provide accommodation go through a series of trainings, followed by regular monthly meetings. The topics include cleanliness standards for Westerners, customer service, and food preparation. They’ve come up with a series of pamphlets laced in every member home, advertising their services in other cities, as well as a menu of home-cooked meals that the landladies can prepare. A group of international organizations even produced a beautiful cookbook (that I photocopied) featuring healthy, Western-style dishes, all made with easily available local ingredients.

The CBT members hire a coordinator in each city and rent space for an office. The money comes from a percentage that members pay to CBT – 15% if the tourist was referred by CBT, 1% if the tourist contacted the member directly. In Karakol, the CBT members recently requested and received a Peace Corps volunteer, who will give the guesthouse owners private English lessons and help with coordination and marketing.

It’s a great idea and I feel much better seeing the money going into the pocket of this local elderly Russian lady than into the pocket of the big resort hotel owner. But they have their problems. Once people are in the network, it’s hard to avoid motivation by self-interest. The CBT coordinator, who receives a local salary, can be tempted to send tourists to their own home, or the home of family or friends, rather than licensed CBT members. In one CBT office I visited, the coordinator took people into her own home. In another, she tried to put me in her sister’s apartment.

And then there are also the local traditions that don’t always jibe with Western expectations. When I called a CBT office to ask about arranging a hike during my boyfriend’s visit, the coordinator told me that her mother had just died, and according to Kyrgyz tradition, she had to sit at home for 40 days. She couldn’t help me.

CBT accommodations are inspected annually and they receive the equivalent of stars, but here they are flowers.

In my two-flower apartment, one room serves as the bedroom and living room. I’m sitting on my narrow single bed, pressed against one side of the wall and looking at an old cabinet lined with ceramic tea sets and crystal. To my right is a couch and several chairs, all covered with the same dull brown and beige checked fabric that the bed is covered with. To the left is a Jinlipu TV, a fan, a tall brown wardrobe, and a large green plant on the windowsill. The heater is below the windowsill. The heat blows up from an open tube, facing upwards, causing the plant leaves to quiver.

Outside I can hear a young boy whistling, a dog barking. If I go closer, I can hear chickens and glimpse into the courtyard homes and over the corrugated iron roofs of the neighborhood residences. In the evenings, the call to prayer echoes over the city from a local mosque.

Inside the apartment, I hear the blowing sound of heat emerging from the pipe and the periodic rumbling of the old Moskva refrigerator. The kitchen has a small table, the 1950’s-like fridge, an old stove, a cabinet, and a tiny sink. The bathroom walls are painted like a bath mat’s – pale and dark blue daisies on swirls of color. There is a working toilet with a cord to pull for flushing, a sink, and an old, stained bathtub with a shower spigot. To get hot water, I have to flip on the water heater and wait 40-60 minutes.

So in short, it’s simple, but comfortable and warm enough. I seem to have caught a cold and am not feeling very well. The sound of the air emerging from the heater calms me and brings me closer and closer to sleep. Time for a nap.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Arrival in Jalalabat

I came to Jalalabat today with Batur, the owner of a bright blue Volga. He works as an accountant at a government office during the week. On the weekends, he earns extra money by transporting passengers between Osh and Jalalabat.

We drove north of Osh and I saw a group of large homes being constructed on the edge of the city, with a view of rolling hills and fields – the new rich beginning surburban expansion. Just beyond these homes, the land was empty. Silk worm trees lined the road and dotted the horizon at the edge of hilly brown fields, the starkness reminding me of Africa. Their stunted, thin, bare arms reached up and out wildly, as though they’d been electrocuted.

The road to Jalalabat, specifically to Uzgen (in between Osh and Jalalabat) is awful. Seventy of the 112 kilometers is like riding over a washboard, a bumpy and slow drive.

“You need a Soviet car for these roads,” Batur told me.

This is the final section of the highway, financed by the Asian Development Bank, that will connect Osh and Bishkek. Locals hope it will be finished next fall, though it’s hard to believe when I watch road crews slowly picking up rocks by hand. When it’s done, it will be an important step in linking Osh to the rest of the country.

Enroute, we passed rapid rivers cutting across snowy plains, watched fishermen hang up or hold their most recent catches, trying to sell them to passing cars, and rode alongside two red-faced children on the base of a horse-pulled cart, sitting amongst aluminum canisters. Past Uzgen, we entered a rural, mountainous region, the brown, green, red, beige, gold, grey, blue and white folds filling the landscape, eluding the my efforts to capture them with a camera. Cattle grazed on snow-dusted hills, the soil red under the dried golden-brown-green surface. The weather was sunny and relatively warm, bringing out bicyclists on old Chinese bikes, men on horseback, and pedestrians on foot, leaving their jackets at home.

Many people hitchhiked on the side of the ride and I tried to convince my driver to pick them up. I had paid for four seats in the taxi, but I was the only passenger. I empathized with those standing out in the middle of a rural field and as long as it was on our way, I wanted to give them a lift. Batur refused. “We’ve already passed by,” he said of a lone woman I wanted to pick up.

We entered Jalalabat via a small, rural, potholed road, barely wide enough for two cars, pedestrians and chickens. Dull beige box houses, topped by pale grey roofs, lined the road, interspersed by spindly, quill-like poplars. Above us, banners advertising credit quivered in the wind.

I would spend the night at the kurort, or health resort hotel. The entire resort, including the hotel, had the air of a faded, bygone era. I saw some people there who were clearly getting their cures, out for a walk in warm-up suits, caps and jackets. But I also felt sorry for them, strolling through the faded, peeling buildings, that might once have been beautiful but now are just sad reminders of what might have been.

Little benches were placed among copses near small silver and golden statues – a fallen torso of a child lay near a pile of rocks, a young girl petting a sheep, a beautiful golden woman, a golden statue of Lenin with hand raised. When I saw water trickling from a tiny hole in the ground into a manhole, with steam rising up, I bent down to touch it and found the water warm.

Since the resort was known for its curative treatments, and Kyrgyz citizens traveled there for especially for this purpose, I thought I’d give them a try.

I went into the sanatorium, a crumbling, pieced-together building, and found a crumbling, pieced-together interior. I went upstairs to the second floor to find a deserted space strewn with wires, construction and a loosely attached roof, the sky visible through the edges. I then went down several flights of dusty stairs, pockmarked walls and ceilings surrounding me, as was a deafening absence of other humans.

I eventually found a tunnel that brought me to another building and then to a room with a Christmas tree and New Year decorations. I turned into a corridor with new white doors, the walls recently painted white, and saw many numbered doors, which I assumed to be bath cabinets.

Even here, there weren’t any people. Only after wandering the silent halls for quite a while did I knock on a partially opened door that said “Doctor – physical therapy.” The woman there seemed distinctly unpleased to see me. When I asked about their services, she said I could take a ten minute mineral bath, as long as I paid 50% more than the locals. There were no massages or other treatments available that day.

I agreed to the bath. The naturally hot water, piped up from underground into the Soviet tubs, was said to contain 27 minerals and to cure all kinds of diseases. It’s the same water that they add carbonation to, bottle, and sell all over Kyrgyzstan. I was feeling a cold coming on and thought it would be a good test of the water’s effectiveness.

The woman led me past a red, Soviet dingy room, with old paintings on opposite sides of the walls and a pipe that occasionally emitted steam from its open end. She brought me into a cabinet and told me to undress. Then she turned on the water in a tub. “You can turn it off yourself, can’t you?” she asked. She was in a hurry to finish her duty.


The structure was almost identical to the two other former Soviet sanatoriums I’ve visited – on in Estonia and the other on Baikal. In this one, surprisingly, the door I entered locked. There were walls separating the tubs, so you couldn’t see other bathers while lying there. But there was an open walkway at the far end, where workers could walk between tubs and monitor the bathers. Since I knew I probably wouldn’t have privacy, I had brought my swimsuit and was glad I did.

First the woman who turned on the water came by to inspect me, looking surprised at my reading a book.

“You shouldn’t be wearing a swimsuit,” she said, while staring at me. “It’s mineral water.” I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to signify.

Then a cleaning woman came and spent what seemed a long time washing the floor right near my tub, as if it couldn’t wait ten minutes in order to give me some peace. I ignored the call of my cell phone and enjoyed the warmth of the tub and the steam rising up from my faucet, clouding the small, high windows.

I followed my bath with a lunch at the nearby panoramic restaurant perched on the mountain edge and overlooking the entire town and the valley beyond. I was the only customer, so I got a prime seat near a large window. While I ate my mushroom soup and fried chicken pieces with chopped tomato, onion and pineapple, I looked out over the quiet town, now covered by fog and cold air. There I was, alone, a secret observer.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Yesterday at work, two new employees came in to sign their documents. They had been selected among many candidates from a difficult competition and they were eager to begin work. But when it was discovered that they didn’t have passports, they were turned away until they could show passports.

Of course I understand that an official document is necessary to work and that one needs to make sure they are not inadvertently hiring citizens of other countries, a real issue here in a border zone. But these people claim they are locals who have lost their passports. And for over a year and a half now, from what people tell me, the government hasn’t had any passports to issue people. They promised to start issuing them in July, then said they’d be available after the New Year. From what I hear, they are still not available, unless you want to buy one of the very limited supply passports. One local told me his uncle got a passport several months ago for a $200 bribe, the equivalent of two months salary for a decently paid person. The passport workers auction off the tiny quantity of passports they have to those who will pay the most.

For those who can’t pay that much, they either carry the old Soviet passports or those who have lost their passports are stuck with nothing. Those who have old Soviet passports can’t travel internationally and those with nothing can’t get a formal job. I think it would be nice if President Akaev would sell his resort home on Lake Issyk-Kul and use the money to give his people passports.

I spent the day yesterday in Kara-Suu, a market town on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, about a 20-minute drive from Osh. It’s not a very attractive place – bustling, foggy, dirty, with square hulking Soviet buildings and monuments in the center. But it’s a fascinating crossroads of cultures, money and commerce. It provides a source of income for a lot of people, and quite a few, especially the market landlords, have done quite well.

I bought a winter coat there, a long cashmere coat from Turkey. There was a single aisle where everyone sold coats, and most of the coats were identical, long cashmere, wool, or wool synthetics, rose, mulberry, forest green, navy blue, tan, black, all with furry collars and muff-like fur lined sleeves. When I’d approach a vendor, they’d ask me, “What currency do you want to pay in?” meaning Kyrgyz or Uzbek som. Many of them didn’t speak Russian. In those cases, a neighboring vendor would come up and translate.

Men and young boys in tattered coats and worn boots pushed carts throughout the marketplace. Just slightly narrower than many of the aisles, people frequently got caught in their way.

“Kosh!” the call of the cart pushers could constantly be held throughout the marketplace.

“What does kosh mean?” I asked Maksim, one of my companions, after being pinned between a market stall and a passing cart several times.

“It’s a rude way in Kyrgyz of saying ‘get out of the way.’ It’s the word that we use for herds of animals when they are blocking a path.”

Tuesday was wholesale day at the market, when buyers from Uzbekistan, Osh, and other places come to stock up on supplies for their own stalls. Prices are lower than any other day of the week and the market was buzzing. Tables and benches in front of hole-in-the-wall cafes were packed with hungry buyers and workers drinking hot tea and eating manti (steamed meat dumplings) and lagman (a soup with homemade noodles, meat and peppers). I walked down an aisle with arched walkways leading into shops on one side, traditional Kyrgyz hats (kolpaks), standing upright on flimsy tables on the other side, smoke from fried meat and onion filled rolls swirling among the buyers, the rolling sound of cart wheels and cries of “Kosh!” filling the air, the smell one of mixed snow and wool and oil and smoke.

Together with Maksim and another local worker, Almaz, I visited a market vendor named Salima. She had a round face with smooth skin and a large smile, her upper layer of teeth all golden. Deep lines extending from her inner eyes out toward her ears, like fish gills, showed that she was middle-aged. After her husband died, she couldn’t find a house cheap enough in Kara-Suu, so she bought a home 10 miles away in Uzbekistan. Every day she crosses the border, illegally, in order to sell barrettes, hair ties, and other small accessories at her Kara-Suu stall.

We went with her to her relative’s home in Kara-Suu. Near the old home on the edge of railroad tracks, we came across a traffic jam and a crowd of people surrounding a bus – a strange sight on the out-of-the-way residential street. The bus was filled with people peering out the curtained windows – middle aged men, women with scarves tied over their hair – and preparing their belongings for the long journey ahead. A man stood in front of the bus with a videocamera, recording the departure.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“The holiday Kurban-Eid is coming up soon, and people are going to Mecca,” Maksim told me. He said that the trip takes 15 days in each direction and that it costs $600-700, including transportation and hotels, all organized through a tourist firm.

I asked my companions if they wanted to go to Mecca.

“Of course,” said Salima, “everyone should go to Mecca.”

“Maybe when I’m old,” Maksim said, without much enthusiasm. “Now when I’m young, I need to spend my time working and make money.”

Almaz, a tall, thin young entrepreneur with large, open ears, like oval pancakes, seemed least excited of all. “I don’t know how to answer that,” he said.

“When people have money, they go,” Maksim told me. “Those who have more money go by plane.”

Salima invited us to her home in Uzbekistan, promising that she’d get us through the border. I did believe that she could get me into Uzbekistan, and never having been there before, it would have been an adventure. But since I didn’t have either my passport or my visa with me, I wasn’t sure she could get me back into Kyrgyzstan. I didn’t want to be trapped in Uzbekistan, especially given what Almaz told me about it.

He recently went to Tashkent for his grandfather’s funeral. His parents left Uzbekistan for Osh during Soviet times, but all of his relatives are still there.

When he reached the capital, he found evidence of a large outmigration. “A lot of Uzbeks are leaving Uzbekistan for other countries, such as Russia and Kazakhstan,” he told me. “In Tashkent, I saw entire regions of the city that were empty, like ghost towns. We went to Namangan, a regional town, and stopped at the covered bazaar to buy lepushka (Uzbek bread). When we got out of the car, we saw that it was entirely empty.”

“That’s because they don’t have free trade there,” Salima said. “Here we have free trade.”

I’d heard from other sources that there is little incentive to open a business in Uzbekistan, because the government taxes it so heavily it soon goes right under. Therefore, people like Salima take advantage of the low cost of living in Uzbekistan, and the ability to work and trade freely in Kyrgyzstan. She has to break the law to do it, but people along the border are used to that. There are all kinds of means set up to keep trade flowing, even when politics are tense, including baskets slid across wires running over a river.

Maksim and I decided not to take the trip without our passports. Almaz went. He had a Kyrgyz passport with him, but should have had an Uzbek visa to get into Uzbekistan. As Salima promised, she did get him through without problem. “She paid a bribe two days ago,” Almaz explained when he returned, “and that bribe was still valid today.”

“It’s not hard to get into Uzbekistan,” Maksim told me. “But it’s once you’re in there that it’s dangerous. When we go, police recognize us as Kyrgyz and they stop us all the time.”

Almaz said that he went through 14 police checkpoints on the way to Tashkent and he had to stop at all of them. His luggage was searched twice.

“They have giant ‘wanted’ posters at every stop with tiny headshots of all the wanted people filling it up.” He indicated the size of the board with his arms. “Imagine how many people that is – all bandits.”

“There are a lot of terrorists there,” Maksim said. “So they need those.”

“Does that mean that money doesn’t interest those checkpoint guards?” I asked. “They are really searching people?”

“Of course money interests them. It interests everybody.” Maksim laughed.

“So if a real terrorist came through and paid a bribe, he’d get through?”

“Yes,” Maksim admitted.

“But if the terrorist didn’t have any money, they’d be stopped?”

“But they do have money,” Maksim said.

“Still, it somehow helps,” Almaz said, hanging onto hope.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Osh in the New Year

Today, the first work day after the New Year, I went to the market, and was surprised to find most of the vendors at work. It was a muddy place, with melted snow dripping down onto shoppers from the weak plastic tarps, forming puddles on the narrow dirt pathways.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a holiday or not, people will be at the market,” Shavrat told me. “Even if there is an earthquake, they’ll find their way there. People have gotten used to it and they can’t live without the market now.”

I saw a new product there today – an orange-colored crystallized sugar, like rock candy, that comes from Uzbekistan. One woman sat in a booth surrounded by the glittering orange crystals, as though she basked in a unique light.

I saw another sort of light as I came home this evening, my first time coming home by foot after dark. Coming uphill from the frighteningly dark, empty, muddy road, I looked out over the city, where the stars in the black sky and the twinkles from down below were almost indistinguishable. A city with virtually no street lights can be a beautiful thing – all of the lights are square, they are as separate and distinct from each other as the stars, they all come from places of warmth, where people gather.

The sound of a mosque calling believers to pray rose up over the city to me, distant, but audible. Entering the residential neighborhood, I navigated my way from the lights on peoples fences and from the illuminated windows. Only a block or two from home, I heard the sounds from another mosque, this one closer by. There must be one in my neighborhood that I haven’t seen yet. My street, Construction Street, is one of the one streets in Osh with street lights. They are low-powered, bathing the empty street, lined with several dirty old cargo trucks, in a faint golden glow.

When I got home, I belatedly made a fruit salad for Nigora’s birthday. Nigora, Shavrat, Lutfulo and I gathered around the table to eat it, excited by the new dish. Their two younger sons didn’t come until later. Habib was walking around the neighborhood with his friends. “Probably getting shashlik (grilled beef or lamb kebabs) from the nearby bazaar,” Nigora said. Their 12-year-old son Faruh was at Arabic lessons.

I asked about the lessons and Shavrat said they were held almost nightly at a teenager’s house. When Faruh showed up, he said that almost 30 kids attended, all boys.

“It’s the fashion now,” Shavrat said. “He wants to go because all his friends are going and that makes it interesting. If it was just him, he wouldn’t go.”

He told us that when he told his English friend Marvin about his son studying Arabic, Marvin said, “Oh, he’s going to be a fundamentalist.”

Shavrat reassured him. “No, I told him, we’ll let him study for a little while, then we’ll pull him out.” He pulled the back of his own shirt collar, indicating how he would pull his son away before he got too deep.

He also told me about a biweekly gathering of all the men in the neighborhood, that takes place at a chaikhana (a teahouse) over plov. I asked if it would be possible to see one of these gatherings and Shavrat said yes, even though Habib repeated several times that it’s only men.

“You know why it’s only men?” Nigora asked me. “Because they want to escape from their wives and children. And why do they meet in a chaikhana? Because in a café you have to sit up and behave yourself. But in a teahouse you can relax,” she slumped in her chair. “No one will yell at you for getting drunk, for talking too lately, or for smoking in the house. Even the young boys gather there.”

I asked Habib if he went and he said he goes rarely because most of his friends are Russian and Russians prefer cafes to teahouses. The teahouses are primarily haunts for Muslims.

They told me how there are 50 rooms in the chaikhana, all full of men, and how the plov is out of this world.

“It has to do with the fact that plov is made over and over again in their pots,” Shavrat said. “It does something to the taste.”

“And it has a man’s touch,” Nigora added. “It is really, really good plov. Maybe we could order some and bring it home,” she suggested.

“It needs to be eaten hot,” Habib said.

“We’ll get it home right away,” she said, and the idea floated in the air.

I hope I can find a way to visit one of these gatherings. It sounds like an atmosphere worth experiencing.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Nigora's birthday

Nigora turned 46 on January 1, so they had several guests over to celebrate – Shavrat’s brother with his wife and child, along with a Tajik friend, Aleksandr, and his Turkish wife. All of the men work for geologists, Russians and foreigners coming to Kyrgyzstan to hunt for gold.

Apparently here, the birthday girl isn’t allowed a rest. She spent much of the day preparing the meal for the guests and then cleaning up afterwards, receiving a bit of help from her sons.

Only one of the men, Shavrat’s brother, wanted to drink. Aleksandr hasn’t drunk for ten years and Shavrat was on his first day of giving up cigarettes and alcohol. Rather than supporting Shavrat, this brother and his wife put a lot of pressure on others to drink – basically just to keep the one drinker company. Here, others don’t abstain in order to help people refrain from drinking. Instead, people are expected to drink, even if they don’t want to, in order to provide company for the drinkers. I thought it was sad the way that they pressured him and the others, putting a shot of vodka in front of me when I said I didn’t want any, and placing a glass of champagne in front of Aleksandr’s wife, even as she shook her head no. Only several hours into the visit did Shavrat’s brother refuse to drink, saying that it was obvious that no one else was interested.

We sat in the same place we’d spent New Year’s, putting our feet under the heated table, enjoying turkey and potato soup, salads, and several hours later, plov – fried rice topped with a fruit that resembles an apple and chunks of meat wrapped with grape leaves into small square packages.

We watched old Russian movies and day-old New Year’s shows on TV. After a few hours, I was eager to spend some time alone, but the guests remained until 8. Then, as I headed into my room and picked up a book with relief, Nigora came in to check on the stove, then stood in the doorway and told me how a tour leader once brought her small soaps from the Hyatt in Bishkek and how they are her favorite soaps. I tried to smile politely, but I was really wishing she’d leave.

I was grateful for the company, and for the way they accepted me into their New Year’s celebrations. My European colleague spent New Year’s alone with the TV and if I was still living alone in my apartment, that would have been my likely New Year’s as well. But in this type of environment, it can be hard to get away and to spend time on my own.

Nigora left, smiling, happy with her birthday celebrations. She’d received two sets of dishes, flowers, and a cake from the guests, as well as some soap and a calendar from me. “I’m not tired at all!” she said, while leaving. I was glad when they all headed to bed, or at least to their quarter of the house, and I laid on the bed, feeling the warmth emanating from the nearby stove, listening to the coal crackle, luxuriating in the quiet and the escape of my book.

A Mouse in the House

Damn! I have a mouse in my house. I just saw it today, as I was enjoying my Sunday afternoon and peacefully writing on the sofa. I saw something scurry on the other side of the room. Fixing my eyes to that area, I definitely saw a mouse go under the chair.

I’d had some experience with mice in Siberia, so I avoided complete panic. I walked outside and told Faruh, the oldest son in the family.

“I’m scared of mice,” he said. He called his younger brother, Habib, and told him to go with me. Habib wasn’t so brave either, hesitantly moving around the furniture, seeming uneager to actually come across the mouse himself.

“They’re afraid of people you know,” he told me.

“Yes, and I’m afraid of them.”

He brought me a small wooden mouse trap and placed it in the area where I spotted the mouse.

“How will I know if a mouse is in there?” I asked. I didn’t want to be picking it up and checking it.

“You’ll hear it.” He showed me what happens when the mouse goes for the bread inside and I jumped when the trap popped shut.

I was just getting used to this place and it really ruins my tranquility to know that I’m not the only living thing here. I move around the room cautiously, keep a constant lookout, jump at creaks and bangs and scratches, and feel a general nervousness.

I had bought cheese for lunch this afternoon. In Siberia, the mice also appeared when I first brought cheese into the house. So I thought maybe I shouldn’t eat in my room. But unfortunately, there is nowhere else to go unless I want to eat standing up in an unheated room. I can only cross my fingers that this wasn’t the first of many.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Bringing in the New Year - Uzbek Style

On the last day of the years, shops buzzed with frantic last minute buyers stocking up for the holiday weekend. Even the tiniest entrepreneurs, those who sit behind a small card table arrayed with cigarettes, matches and candy bars, had expanded their selections, sometimes offering things like oranges or cookies in addition to their usual wares. I walked past a bakery shop selling cake for $11 per kilogram. A line of customers covered the display cases, as the three bakers, men dressed in white aprons, handed over one cake after another.

I bought some bananas and oranges to give to the family, as well as Choco-Pies and candy bars to give as presents to the three boys in the household.

Me, Nigora and Shavrat, and their three sons, Faruh, Habib and Faruh, gathered around the table at 6:30. Nigora uses one of the rooms adjoining mine as the place to receive guests and to hold events. A sofa and several chairs line a low table and they had brought in the TV and stereo system. As part of the “summer” section of the house, it’s unheated. So they plugged in a portable heater, and prepared what they called a sandal – they put a small heater under the table, covered the table with a heavy blanket before putting on the tablecloth, and instructed us to put our feet under the blanket, which effectively trapped the heat.

“If your feet are warm, everything will be warm,” Shavrat said. “Back in the time when there was no heat and no electricity, this is how my grandparents stayed warm, using coal under the table.”

For the first time, I saw Nigora dressed in normal clothing and also for the first time, I saw her hair. Given that so many of her household tasks are outdoors – from cooking and washing dishes to sweeping the paths, doing laundry and lighting the stoves or banya, I had so far only seen her wrapped in layers of non-descript old clothes, a scarf around her head. On New Years eve, she wore a beige turtleneck, a beige and black long plaid jumper and a thick gold chain. Her wavy dark hair fell down to her shoulders. Later in the evening, she put it up in a ponytail, much like a schoolgirl. She suddenly looked years younger. She has a small, round baby face and a pretty smile, gold teeth on the upper left side of her mouth, square white teeth the rest of the way across.

She pointed out to me that she has two crowns on her head, one on the left side of her forehead and the other, like most people, at the back of her head.

“I guess I have two brains in there,” she said.

“Then you must be pretty smart,” I replied.

“My husband doesn’t think I’m smart.”

Habib, her 17-year-old son, a friendly and handsome young man with her bright smile, interjected. “My mother has a university education and my father only finished school. But he somehow thinks he’s smarter.”

“It’s not that I think I’m smarter,” Shavrat defended himself. “I just believe that the man should always be above the woman. That is how it should be.”

“But it doesn’t always happen, huh?” I asked, and the boys laughed.

“I’m content letting him be the head and I’ll be the shoulders,” Nigora said.

Nigora said that she didn’t prepare a special meal, since it was only the family gathering and if she prepared a lot, everything would just be left over. When I returned from work in the afternoon I immediately noticed that our turkey population was down to one. Shavrat had killed one that morning and she used it to make turkey and potato soup, followed by a selection of premade “salads” – beet salad, soy meat salad, some kind of meat with milk and water added to make it gelled, an unidentifiable meat salad, and Chinese rice and starch noodles with carrot salad. We also had fresh fruit, rolls, cake and chocolate.

Nigora poured small cups of Bailey’s Irish Cream, a gift she’d received from an English friend, while Shavrat drank Georgian cognac, a gift from a Russian friend. Shavrat gave the first toast, hoping that everyone could make a wish and work to make it come true in the coming year.

“I wish that my dad wouldn’t drink,” Lufulo said. Shavrat had just announced his plans to quit smoking and drinking starting with the new year, but no one seemed overly optimistic. Shavrat refused his wife’s offer of a $100 bet.

“He really hates it when his dad drinks,” Nigora said.

Shavrat told me how he stopped drinking for five years. But after a colleague who he really respected unexpectedly died in an avalanche while mountain-climbing, he began to drink to dull the pain. His friend’s body was never found and he dreams of joining an expedition to find and bury him.

This was my third New Years spent in the former Soviet Union and it was definitely the lowest key of the three. We just sat around, ate, talked and watched TV. Every so often, the boys would go outside to see what was happening on the streets. As the night progressed, we’d hear more firecrackers being ignited on Technicheskaya Street, just outside our window. It was also a nice opportunity for me to get to know the family a bit better. I had imagined we’d eat dinner together every night, but instead, Nigora brings me food into my quarters. I’ve never been in their section of the house and last night was the first time I’d seen all the boys together and was able to imprint their names and faces into my memory. Before then, I may have passed them on the street without recognizing them.

Shavrat told me that he has a long history with this street. He himself was born and raised in this house and most of the neighbors have also passed their houses along through the generations, so they know everyone near by. He stepped out to say hello to the man who lives across the street. He has a two-year contract working as a welder in South Korea and is now back on his annual one-month vacation. He earns $1,000 a month there and is able to live on $250 a month, sending the rest home to his wife and children. They’ve bought a Mercedes with the money and when he returns, he plans to revive and modernize the family tire repair business.

Shavrat and Nigora told me about their marriage. They had a funny beginning in that they were both 25 and neither of them wanted to get married. Shavrat’s grandparents were looking for a wife for Shavrat and they found Nigora and spoke to her grandparents. They arranged a meeting and Nigora said no, she wasn’t interested. She was a Communist party member working as an engineer in Tashkent and she was happy with her career and her apartment. She didn’t want a family, especially given the expectations that went with marriage among the Uzbeks – that she’d have to take almost full responsibility for cooking, the home and children.

“I couldn’t believe that she refused,” Shavrat said. “I told her that I’d come in the night and steal her. I was a very attractive guy then and there were at least 50 girls who wanted to marry me. Whenever they said they wanted to marry me, I said that was the end. I wasn’t interested.”

“Listen to him praise himself,” Nigora said, smiling. Their sons were also smiling, as though they’d heard all this before.

“I couldn’t believe that someone didn’t want to marry me and that made me want to marry her,” he continued, as though he hadn’t been interrupted.

“But Uzbeks don’t steal each other, do they?”

“No, that’s only the Kyrgyz,” Habib said.

“I refused,” Nigora explained. “But my mother was very tricky. She started to say that she was sick, and she did become seriously ill. She said that her blood pressure was really high and she was going to die. So I said OK, OK I’ll get married.”

She was a Communist pursuing a career. Shavrat hated the Communists and said that through his musician friends, he foresaw their demire.

“I told her in 1984 that the party was going to end and she didn’t believe me,” he said.

I asked her how it felt when it did come to an end.

“By that time, I was at home, raising children, cooking and doing laundry, so it didn’t affect me that much. Of course, it’s painful when you believe in something and it’s torn down. It’s even worse to find out that what you believed in was wrong. But if I’d been working at that time, it would have been really hard.”

While Shavrat isn’t highly educated himself, he seems to be fairly smart and is very concerned with his sons’ educations. He told me how his two eldest sons studied at the elementary school nearest their home.

“They would come home with all fives (As). Even in Russian, they had 5, 5, 5. And I knew that they didn’t speak Russian very well and they couldn’t have received 5s. But Nigora doesn’t speak Russian very well, so she didn’t notice. And at the school, all the teachers and all the students were Uzbek and Kyrgyz. There wasn’t a single Russian there. So how could they learn Russian? I realized that it was a bad school and I wanted my sons to transfer.

“We have rules here though that children are required to go to the school nearest their home. But I took them to another school, showed the administrators their reports and told them – “Look, you need good students like these, don’t you?” They said yes and they took my sons.”

Habib explained. “The first year, we received twos and threes (Ds and Cs) in almost everything, but by the time we were in fifth grade, we were getting fours (Bs) and even fives (As). Now everything is OK.”

Habib is in the eleventh grade and will be going to the university next year. Faruh is currently a first year university student in the finance and credit department. He was admitted to a Turkish university in Bishkek, but they couldn’t afford to send him there. They are thinking of allowing him to transfer after he’s completed a few years here.
Faruh, a thin 19-year-old with a darker, mouselike face, told me how he is currently having a problem because his Kyrgyz history teacher refuses to give good marks to anyone who doesn’t pay. Shavrat refuses to pay any bribes to teachers.

“I’ll pay the tuition and that’s it,” he said. “There are so many students now who just pay and don’t study at all and don’t learn anything. I want my son to have to learn these things.” That’s a rather bold move in a society with such prevalent corruption.

As we talked, they would occasionally burst out laughing at scenes from an American movie that was on TV, a movie they said was called Black Diamond. It was set in an inner city, many of the cast members were African American and it featured lots of criminal activity and fights.

“This is a movie that everyone has seen several times,” Nigora told me, after they all laughed. “This time they translated it into Uzbek, but they make jokes throughout it. They’ve given all the characters Uzbek names. Right now we know the characters were having a serious conversation, but they translated it as, “So how’s the weather?” and the other guy responding, “I think there is going to be snow.”

During the action scenes, they inserted traditional Uzbek music. One scene that even made me laugh had an African American pizza delivery man, with corkscrew curls, large teeth and an overflowing personality, come into an office building to deliver three pizzas. He was bouncing around the lobby with his three pizza boxes with a lot of energy. Nigora translated for me.

“He’s sayng ‘I have fresh lepushkas (round Uzbek bread) for sale. Fresh, delicious lepushkas, right out of the oven.” He approached a fat Caucasian security guard and tried to sell the lepushkas. “I’m sorry, but I’ve just had samsi (Uzbek meat, fat and onion-filled croissants).”

It was pretty funny to imagine the American characters talking about lepushkas and samsi.

Just before midnight, the lights went out and Faruh took advantage of the darkness to light sparklers in the house. We then went out onto Construction Street. A few minutes before midnight, the street was smoky with the residue of firecrackers being lit off from each household, whizzing and popping noises filled the air as residents, mostly young boys, lit off everything from bottle rockets, to giant colorful fireworks that could be seen from a large distance. I covered my ears and looked all around me, at the explosions occurring from different directions.

The street was full of people, but because it is lined with single-family homes, the people were spread out along the street, each group congregated in front of their home. When I spent New Years with friends in an apartment in Latvia, it was more festive since all the apartment residents went out and congregated together. Some neighbors came by to say hello to Nigora and Shavrat – the man back from Korea, a woman in a scarf and fuzzy wool Uzbek vest.

A man across the street brought out a stereo and set it on a chair in front of his home, then turned on American rock music. A group of children began to dance.

“Last year we had a huge disco,” Shavrat told me. “One of our neighbors has DJ equipment and he set everything up. The street was full of dancing several hours before midnight. This year is calmer. Perhaps he found work playing music this evening.”

We went in to more salads, more champagne, and more Russian and Uzbek festive TV programs. I lasted until about two, Shavrat and Nigora stayed up longer – Shavrat getting drunk with neighbors on his last day before giving up alcohol, Nigora sitting by the TV with her children.