Friday, January 13, 2006

The President comes to visit

This morning I came out of my apartment to find a string of police lining the lot across from my building. I didn’t see anything particularly of interest there. It seemed as though some construction could be underway.

“What’s going on?” I asked one of the officers.

“The President is coming,” he said.

“Why?” I couldn’t imagine what could be interesting there.

“They are building a big house here.”

I later told our driver, Viktor, about the hoopla. “It’s probably the new apartment building they are going to construct for government deputies,” he said.

“What? They are using tax money to build a large apartment building for deputies?” Most of whom spend at least tens of thousands of dollars to get into office. They are about the last people who need to receive free housing.

Sergei explained to me that now, deputies come to Bishkek and complain they have nowhere to live.

“So they government pays for them to buy an apartment. But then when t their term is up, the government doesn’t take it back, but it remains in the name of the deputy. There have even been cases of deputies who already owned an apartment in Bishkek. They put it in a relative’s name, then ask the government to buy it for them. They are basically get the government to pay them for their own apartments. It’s gotten that bad.”

So while the new system seems a bit ridiculous, given the number of poor people who need housing, now all the deputies who need housing will live together in one building. And when their term is up, they’ll move out and the new deputy will move in.

The large expenditure in constructing the building will stop the more expensive practice of buying every new deputy his own apartment in Bishkek.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Another staff member stolen

On Wednesday evening I received a phone call from a former staff member in Osh. After catching up on all the news, he hit me with the biggest news of all.

“Ainara is getting married,” he said. I especially liked Ainara, with her continuous bundle of energy, her good intentions and her intelligence. But I hadn’t even known she was seeing anyone, much less planning marriage.

Damir told me she’d been seeing someone for about five months.

I expected she’d invite me to the wedding and looked forward to the excuse to return to Osh.

“When will it be?” I asked.


“Tomorrow??? Why so little notice?”

“She was stolen on Monday,” he said.

He told me that her boyfriend and his parents worked in Kazakhstan and that he and his parents had apparently planned the stealing in advance to time with his parents’ visit home for the holidays. Her boyfriend wants to reestablish himself in Osh and is looking for work there.

Nobody on Ainara’s side knew about it – not her, her friends or her parents. But the boy’s side knew far enough in advance to plan a wedding party to take place two days later.

“How did he steal her?” I asked.

He didn’t know. He’d only seen her for a short time when she stopped into the office. But he said that she looked happy.

As to why, if they were happy together and wanted to marry anyway, he didn’t just ask her, Damir didn’t know. “I suppose it’s just considered an old tradition,” he said.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Zhenya starts a new business

One evening my friend Zhenya stopped by on her way back from getting a cavity filled. I made her a cup of tea and she sat at my kitchen table while I finished preparing dinner.

Just a few weeks ago she left her job selling jeans at Dordoi and opened her own store. She said she sells groceries and cosmetics. She’s working long days, from 8 until 8, and so far isn’t earning much more than she did as a salesperson. But it’s now hers and should develop with time.

She hired an 18-year-old girl from a neighboring village to be a salesperson for her.

“She was just sitting at home, had finished school and couldn’t find a job. And do you know why she wasn’t working?” Zhenya asked. “Because she’d lost her passport. The passport department isn’t giving out new passports and nobody would hire her without a passport. So I gave her work without a passport.”

She said that the girl’s 20-year-old sister is in the same situation and she may hire her as well.

I was glad to see that she’s building a business for herself and I hope to go visit it at some point. In the meantime, she’s lost, at least temporarily, her source of support in America.

Her mother, who was working as a home aide to an elderly man in New York, was fired upon her return by the man’s daughter. The reason for the firing was her two week absence, though she’d asked permission before she’d left and it was her first time home in seven or eight years.

“She’ll find something else easy enough,” Zhenya said. “Because she doesn’t charge much, just $500 a week, and she has a lot of experience. She’s buried so many women already. But my mother felt sorry for the old man, who really liked her and was crying when she was let go.”

Monday, January 09, 2006

Return to an icebox

One week ago I returned to Bishkek after a short trip home for the holidays. I spent Christmas with my family and New Year’s with Mark in a fantastic log cabin we rented in a Pennsylvania state park.

I returned to the most absolute cold I’ve ever experienced in Kyrgyzstan. When I got off the bus from Almaty in Bishkek, my watch read 8:30 a.m. But the streets were dark and silent. There were no taxis, virtually no moment, and few lights illuminating apartments.

The bus stop was about a mile from my home and I decided to walk yet, seeing as I frequently walk that stretch without problem. But I hadn’t walked it before with four bags, on a snowy street, in the dark, and in what I later found out was minus 20 degree Celcius temperature. It was so cold that my fingers burned in pain and I worried about getting frostbite.

I tromped home almost in tears. Not only was I freezing and exhausted after over 30 hours travel, but I couldn’t understand why the city was so dark and lifeless. Finally, I asked someone the time.

“6:30,” he said.

I’d set my watch ahead one hour instead of behind one hour and that made the two hour difference. So life was still carrying on in Bishkek and I still had a warm apartment to gratefully arrive at.

A few days later, having warmed up sufficiently, I decided to go on a skiing trip with the group of outdoorspeople that go out of town each weekend. We went to a ski resort 1.5 hours outside of Bishkek, called Tugus Bulak. Ski rental was $15 and an all-day lift ticket $7.50. There is only one lift and it extends far up into the mountains, a 15-20 minute ride.

“Last year they only had a rope pull,” a young software company owner, Volodya, told me.

“A rope pull, going up to 2000 meters?” I asked. That was a long way to have to hang on to a rope. “Didn’t people fall off?”

“Off course they fell off,” he said.

There was only one lift and one two paths down, of about equal difficulty. From the top, a beautiful panorama of endless white mountains was visible and I had the privilege of skiing down into them.

My first run down, I didn’t consider it quite such a privilege. There were two steep parts on the run and I hadn’t put on skis in two years. Terrified, I stopped after every turn and it was a long way down. Near the end, I collapsed from altitude sickness. After lying in the snow, certain I would vomit, I took off my skis and staggered to the lodge.

A few hours later, I was ready to give it one more go. Knowing what to expect made it much easier and I had some fun coming down the second time.

By the next day I’d decided I would take up skiing this season. When again will I have the chance to live 1.5 hours from mountains and to have relatively cheap access to lift tickets and equipment. So I bought a pair of ski boots, which reduced my rental costs to $5 per visit and decided I’d try to ski at least weekly.

We had a four day weekend. We got Monday off for the Russian Christmas, which was Saturday. And Tuesday was a religious holiday, Khurban-Eid, the day that Muslims remember those who have passed away. So on Tuesday I joined Mihail and his group for another trip to Tugus Bulak.

This time, unfortunately, the chairlift was under repair and there was no way up but by foot. Some people did walk, at least partway. I foresaw a long day in the lodge. Until Volodya came to me,

“I’ve negotiated with the owners of some horses,” he said. “They’ll take us up the mountain and we can ski down.”

I was tempted to decline. It sounded too crazy. Then I remembered I’d be very unlikely to ever again be offered the chance to go up a mountain on horseback and down on skis, so I accepted.

We each got on a horse, we put the skis in a bag across his lap, and the owner walked in front of us. We probably went about halfway, or a little less up the mountain.

A thick, white fog covered the mountains and we couldn’t see more than 10 feet in front of us. It was like a movie, moving uphill on horseback into the unknown whiteness. Even Volodya talked about images of Nepal and Tibet that floated through his mind.

Skiing down the mountain was fantastic. Because there was no chairlift, we were the only people that high on the mountain and we had it completely to ourselves. Thick snowflakes fell throughout the day, so we had a nice layer of powder. And due to the complete whiteness that blocked our vision, we couldn’t even be afraid of the steep parts because we couldn’t see ahead far enough to tell what was steep. We could only make sure that we stayed in the area marked by ski and footprints and headed downward.

Before we reached the bottom, the horses met us and took us on one more trip up the mountain.

While I didn’t get in the skiing practice I’d expected, that experience was unique enough to make my day. Afterwards, I filled my water bottles at a natural spring nearby and admired the trees covered with frost that formed fine art patterns on all the branches.