Saturday, October 29, 2005

Life in Bishkek

I’m now approaching two weeks in Bishkek. It somehow seems as though it’s been much longer.

Leaving my family in Osh was very difficult. We’d become quite used to each other over the last 10 months and I knew even before I left how much I’d miss their company, our friendly dinners and our evening discussions. In my final days, I tried to spend as much time with them and others in Osh, to drink in all the scents, sounds, and sights that I could possibly take with me.

Mark came to visit three days before I moved. We spent a full day with Shavkat, Habib and Faruh exploring two caves near Aravan. For the first time, I saw some of the famous ancient rock drawings I’d heard so much about.

Mark and I made fajitas for the family, and on our last night, Nigora made us the apple cobber I’d taught her to make and her family likes so much. On the morning I left, I headed to the airport in tears. It was helpful to know that I’d be able to return a few weeks later for a seminar. I could be reassured that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see them. And I was able to leave half of my belongings there, making the move a bit easier.

The view from the plane before landing in Bishkek was a bit depressing – dull, brown, post-harvested fields stretched out under a cold, cloudy sky. We were taken to the hotel where I spent my first week.

During the work week, I searched for an apartment. Mark was able to join me and got a tour of living options in the Bishkek capital. I worked during the day, adjusting to the new office and team, and spent my evenings with Mark. One evening we were able to attend a performance put on by an experimental Kyrgyz group. Even though it was in Kyrgyz and we couldn’t understand anything, the excellent costumes, vocals, and the incorporation of traditional music in all aspects of the performance made it very enjoyable.

On the weekend, we took a trip to Bokonbaevo, a town of 14,000 on the southeastern end of Issyk-Kul. There, I showed Mark the beautiful clear waters and we joined a father-son team on horseback to go hunting with golden eagles. That was a spectacular experience. We rode over bare, rocky terrain, looked over white mountains, over the blue waters of Issyk-Kul stretching to the horizon, and to the red cliffs in the distance. Always ahead of us, were two men, each carrying a large, heavy eagle on his arm. It was a timeless experience. Though they unmasked the birds several times and even let them fly, unfortunately they didn’t catch anything. Despite that, the experience was still well worth it. When we returned to the hunter’s home, we were allowed to hold the heavy birds on our leather-gloved arms. Then we joined the family for a wonderful tea of homemade bread, butter, apricot jam and apples. Fox skins hung on the wall behind us.

The same day Mark left, I moved into my new apartment. It’s a good find, a 20-minute walk to work, located near a market and near the health club where I work out. The owner recently did repairs to modernize it and I’m his first tenant. It’s the perfect size for me – a living room, bedroom, small kitchen and bathroom. And the price is right - $250 a month, or $300 including utilities and cleaning services. It’s bright, clean and cozy. But very lonely in comparison with my living arrangements in Osh. I’d gladly walk outside in the rain to use the toilet if it meant I had people to share my dinner with in the evenings.

If I didn’t love Osh so much, Bishkek would be easy enough to get used to. It really is a pleasant city – green, relatively clean, easily walkable, and populated by friendly people. All kinds of little things surprise me, from seeing women driving cars (which almost never happens in Osh), to the softness of the toilet paper, the way the cars usually stop at stop lights, the vast selection in the shops, the street sweepers, and the garbage scavengers (which despite the poverty, I rarely saw in Osh). One reason I may not have seen scavengers in Osh is that we barely had any garbage there. Paper was burned in the stove for heating, cooking and preparing the banya, organic material was fed to neighboring livestock, bottles and containers were reused and there wasn’t much of other types of garbage. I find it quite difficult here to throw away my paper or my vegetable rinds knowing that plenty of stoves or goats could put them to good use. Unfortunately, there aren’t any nearby in my apartment complex.

There have been a couple of incidents that brought a smile to my face and made me feel a little bit like I did in Osh. One evening, on the way home, I stopped at the market. Three Kyrgyz men wearing kalpaks serenaded the stall-keepers, playing an accordion and two traditional Kyrgyz instruments. The music was lively, passerbys handed the musicians money, and the entrepreneur being serenaded prepared a small bag of whatever they sold (cookies and candy, fruit, vegetables) to give them. At the end of a song, the musicians cupped their hands and led people in a short prayer before moving on.

I knew it was part of Ramadan tradition for children to go around and sing and for people to give them small amounts of money to make them go away. I heard them often during my final days in Osh. It’s kind of like a 30-day Halloween. But I didn’t know that adults could do the same thing nor that they could make the rounds and sing so professionally.

In my neighborhood, I was happy to see a truck pull up outside my apartment building on Saturday morning. Crates filled with onions, beans, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and garlic surrounded it, while piles of pumpkins, squash and bags of onions filled the cab.

“Do you come here every day?” I asked the heavyset, aproned woman who was urging the crowd of buyers to take more, comparing her low prices with those at the market.

“Only on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” she said. “This all comes from our field and we have a lot of work collecting everything.”

I stocked up on all kinds of vegetables and spent just over a dollar. Knowing I could have fresh produce almost delivered to my doorstep each Saturday from a nearby farm was a definite plus to life in the capital. It brought the rural life closer than I expected.

In matters more pressing to the general population, there have been some large “meetings,” (protests) in the capital, following the killing of a third politician. He was shot when he went to a prison riot, where prisoners were protesting their living conditions. His brother thinks that the Prime Minister, Kulov, was somehow involved in his death, and is organizing protests to force him to resign.

Kulov, a northerner, brings northern support to the southern President. If he were to go, it would be a big blow to stability.

I admit I don’t pay as much attention to the political maneuverings as I should. Unfortunately, despite the seeming development in Bishkek and rise of an upper class here, the political instabilities remain. The potential remains for the situation to change at any time. I just hope that whatever happens, it will not be at the expense of the people outside of politics who are trying to work and build a life for their families.

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