Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The difference in the news

On a recent afternoon, I sat at a table across from a Dutch colleague. We both simultaneously read the news from our respective countries.

“Listen to this,” I said. “The owner of Domino’s pizza franchise wants to create a new town in Florida basic on Catholic fundamentalism. There will be no access to abortion, contraception or pornography. He calls it God’s will.”

He proceeded to tell me the big news from his country. He told me that cafes are legally allowed to sell pot, but they are not allowed to legally buy it. So this creates complications for them to buy in bulk.

“The mayor of Maastricht wants to remove this inconsistency,” Marcus said. “So together with a famous punk group, he wrote a punk song about the topic. And the Minister of Justice, who is against this measure, replied by writing a rap song.”

We both laughed.

While people in the U.S. are fighting to place restrictions on people’s lives, Holland is fighting to lift theirs.

“I think I like your country better,” I said.

Monday, February 27, 2006

In the woods with a mountain lover

I spent my last half-day in Karakol with Valentin and Cholpon, two local guides I met at the ski base. They teach students studying to become guides and had planned a trip on Sunday for their students. They took a bus in the morning to the outskirts of Ak-Suu village, climbed a mountain with backpacks and cross-country skis on their backs, built a bonfire and had a picnic for a lunchtime rest, then skied down the mountain and back to Karakol.

Because I had to get back to Bishkek that day, I couldn’t join them for the whole adventure. But I did hike an hour or so up the mountain with them, then returned, alone, the way I came.

Valentin took us up into a forest that held 150 varieties of trees, some natural, others planted in a tree-growing institute. He pointed out the tracks of donkeys that pull sleighs filled with downed trees, squirrel tracks, new seedlings and a woolen birch. From the point at which we passed the last home, we walked through silence, the fresh, deep snow packed by the sleighs, the world quieted beneath the blanket.

He told me he and Cholpon each had 11 students, about a quarter of them female. Valentin started with 33 students in the fall and lost 22.

“We have a problem with people thinking tourism is going up to the mountains, eating a good meal, drinking vodka and driving back down,” he said. “So when I tell them they have to climb a mountain, carry skis or carry a heavy bag, they aren’t interested.”

Of his 11 students, only six are willing to go into the mountains, and only three joined us that morning.

“The others refuse,” he said. “So we divided them into two groups – the guide group and the excursion leader group. The excursion leaders will just be able to take people around town, to talk about things. But if they haven’t seen and done things, I don’t know what they’ll talk about. It’s nonsense.”

His love for the nature, for the area, came through so clearly. When he spoke about the different hikes available, when he told me his “big dream” of somehow owning freestyle skis, the white wrinkles emanating from the corners of his eyes danced in his tanned skin.

“We do this because we love it,” he said, “not for dollars. You see that we’d be here anyway, where you were here or not.”

And he was right. When I turned back, he cut a branch off a tree, peeled the bark with a knife he removed from his belt, and sharpened the tip. He gave it to me to fend off dogs. Then they continued on, a motley collection of dark and colorful jackets and backpacks, skis strapped to their backs, heading to the top so they could ski down back to town.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

More fresh powder

I woke up to another layer of fresh powder this morning. Natalya told me that was unusual, that Karakol hasn’t received much snow this year.

I headed up the mountain with the workers again. This morning, they sent two trays of eggs and five giant red mesh bags of potatoes up with us. The workers put their snowy feet on top of the potatoes as we rolled up the hill and I wondered who would eventually find these potatoes on their plate.

I had another good day of skiing. Being Saturday, some local residents came up to the base for a picnic and sledding. The base has a great lift for sledders. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, they sit on a long wooden sledge that is attached to a motorized rope and they are pulled up through the pine forest.

I stopped at the picnic tables where the locals were gathered to take a rest. From that vantage point, I could see the skiers lining up to go uphill. They were dressed in blues, purples, yellows, greens and reds, like so many jelly beans. In comparison, the locals wore only black and dark blue. These people carry bags of onions, huge thermoses of tea, plastic bags full of round white bread, and satchels of food for their picnic lunches. A group of men surrounded the skis I’d taken off, prodding the material, putting their feet in the attachments, ignoring my warnings that if they broke my rental skis, I’d have to pay for them. Only one man among them had skis, which he used to walk up a small hill, then ski down. His narrow, weak, wooden skis looked like someone had carved them by hand. He asked me to trade. I wished I could.

Among my new acquaintances on this day was a woman, Galina, who has worked for a Norwegian satellite company for the past seven years. When I told her I’d lived in Osh, she said she went there a few years ago.

“It’s a nice enough city,” she said. “But the people are something else. It’s like they live in another century. We saw signs celebrating Osh’s 3000th anniversary and we joked, in 3000 years they haven’t accomplished anything.”

Together with her new friend Olga, a beautiful photographer in her 30s with blond highlights and red lips, they planned the ideal Kyrgyz government.

“What we need to do here is to rent leadership,” Galina proposed. “For example, we will take the leaders from Monaco and bring them here. We need civilized and rich people. A country can never do well if it’s filled with poor people. But if rich people would live here, it would be great.”

Olga shook her head in agreement. “If we ever took a local leader,” she said, “it would have to be an old child and without a spouse or children. Anyone here has three villages he is connected to, plus three villages for his wife, and all those people trying to get them from them.”

I rode back down the mountain with Olga, her husband, son and friend. They were friendly, happy people, who sang together in the car, whistled and clapped, and stopped every two minutes to take photos – admiring the beauty of the trees, the mountains, a remote yurt, a melting snowpile. I found their joy infectious and I left their SUV happy, until a group of three street children surrounded me, staring at me with cloudy, menacing eyes. When I emerged from their midst and yelled at them to stay away, one ran after me and hit my backpack. In a place like Karakol, it is so easy to move between worlds within moments.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The best skiing in Central Asia

I spent a fantastic day on the slopes of Karakol’s ski base. I woke up to a nice layer of fresh snow, a present for men’s day some people joked.

I headed up the mountain in the giant green, military like vehicle (called a vahovka) that takes up the base workers. Almost 20 people, mostly men, squeezed along the three benches. Though it was early and still dark, they were in good humor from yesterday’s holiday. One man passed chocolates around.

“I was up late and my head hurts,” the friendly and honest man who handles ski rentals told me. “There was vodka and beer and a sauna and girls.”

They seemed like a nice team and after being reminded of the poverty and low wages in Karakol (people here seem to have a grey, worn look to them), I was glad to see so many people heading to stable jobs. Among them was a girl I used to work with, Natalya. She was fired because she lacked the energy and strength of character needed in her former position. But now she works in the ski resort administration, handing out ski passes, taking money for all the base services, and keeping the accounts. Her quiet and polite personality fits well with this work and she seemed happy.

On the way to Karakol, I saw so much development taking place along the shores of Issyk-Kul, people hurrying to finish before the summer season opens. Many of the structures were new, bright, and almost gauche, especially when placed directly next to a small, decaying wooden house. I worried that the rich and criminal were taking over all the good areas and business opportunities.

But seeing this base at Karakol reminded me that such expensive ventures also create jobs. Granted, virtually no locals can afford even one day’s ski rental and lift ticket, much less a night’s stay on the base (the cheapest room is $40). But quite a few people have been employed as a result of wealthier people coming to utilize these services and their lives are comparably better as a result. Yes, the rich are getting richer, but the poor are also doing a little better too.

I met lots of interesting people today. No one could seem to believe that I was there alone. But I enjoy traveling independently every so often. Not only do I have complete freedom to plan my day as I wish, but it’s so much easier to meet people. I finally met a few locals skiing, the director of a school for guides and some of his students. Skiing is part of their training to become guides. The base lets them ski for free in return for them helping out around the base.

I met a man who spent eight years in America (he wore a Green Bay packers jacket and excess weight as souvenirs). He said he liked the ski base in Bishkek that had a sit-down chairlift better. “Here you have to stand up going up and standing up going down,” he said. “You never get a chance to rest.”

I met a woman who’d come all the way from Omsk, in Siberia. I met a woman who traveled with a large group of family and children from Karabalta. She used to be employed by an international project doing internet training. Now she has her own internet cafe and IP telephone shop. I met a man from Bishkek who wants to head back on Saturday so he’ll have time to plant apple trees in his yard on Sunday.

And I rode back down the mountain in an SUV with Vitaly, a wealthy young Russian businessman from Bishkek and his family. He told me that two years ago, he had two small electronics shops. He took a bank loan for $20,000.

“I imported my goods from the United Arab Emirates,” he said. “And as soon as I took that loan, I suddenly became a wholesale, rather than a retail buyer. I got big discounts on my purchases and everything changed. Overnight, I reached a place that it would have taken me two to three years to reach.” He smiled at the memory.

He now has five shops and a $100,000 credit line.

The skiing today was just gorgeous, fresh powder snow, no lines, and few people. I often felt like I had the entire mountain to myself. After lunch, some paragliders started to fly off the top of the mountain. They wore skis and bent their legs as though they were skiing on air. They floated over the pine trees, over the mountain tops, looking out at Lake Issyk-Kul.

“Whoo-hee!” one of them cried out, as he rose up into the air, higher than the two falcons who live at the mountaintop.

Men's Day in Karakol

It’s men’s day again, that former Defenders of the Motherland Day, now searching for a reason to justify a day off work. I’m not complaining, as I’ve used the holiday to head to Karakol, on the north of Lake Issyk-Kul. I’m in an internet café that is literally an internet/café. Right next to the computers are tables where a family is gathered for dinner. As I type, I listen to women standing, lifting their shot glasses, and toasting the men in their party.

At work yesterday evening we celebrated by having beer and smoked fish and giving each man a beer glass.

I’m taking Friday off and spending the four-day weekend in Karakol. I came here last weekend – a hurried trip given the six hour drive each way – to try out the ski base. I’d heard that the Russians had invested in the base, making a nice hotel and café, and that the skiing was the best available in Kyrgyzstan. Also, given the warm weather in Bishkek, Karakol was about the only place that still had any snow.

The skiing was indeed fabulous. Wonderful snow, fresh mountain air, spectacular views of forested peaks and foggy valleys that changed with each trip up the chair lift. The only bummer was the chairlifts – tbars and individual poles that require standing and at least for me, often inspired falling. The given one’s proximity to their partner on a t-bar, I found myself in more conversations than I do on the Bishkek chairlifts. Everyone I went up with was from Bishkek. Unfortunately, no one in Karakol (where teachers are paid $30 a month) is able to afford skiing. I met an investor and director in the major bottled drink manufacturer, Shoro. I rode up with the nephew of a government deputy, who bragged to me how their family showed up with no reservations, but the fully-booked hotel cleared out two rooms for them.

“What about the people who made those reservations?” I asked.

“They told them the hotel owner came to town.”

I saw a well-built man who skied in nothing but a little pair of blue shorts, his brown body shimmering under the mountain sun. I saw a man skiing without poles, holding a baby in his arms as he went up the chairlift and skied back down. And I saw several families – mother, father and child, going up together on the t-bar. Somehow, they were able to prevent their three pair of skis from overlapping when I struggled to avoid crossing my skis with just one other person.

Anyway, I loved it and I’m back for more. I’m staying in a place that operates as a yurt camp in the summer. In the winter, I’m in a nice, wooden, relatively warm room. And I’m the only guest there. One of my colleagues should be coming out to join me tomorrow.

As I headed into Karakol in a shared taxi, a police officer stopped us at the edge of town.

“Have you been drinking on this holiday?” he asked the driver. He hadn’t. I asked the driver if he expected many drunk drivers on the road.

“Probably this evening,” he said.

So, before the local men get too crazy, I’ll be heading back to my yurt camp.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Things to Note in Kyrgyzstan

I think I might be at the point at which I’ve been here too long (it’s almost a year and a half). I’m finding the quantity of things I notice about the city, people, and culture is less than it used to be. It might be that I no longer have a family to live among and write about, it might be that Bishkek is less interesting than the regions, it might be that I don’t have enough of a life outside of work, or it might be that I’m losing my sense of perception as the unique aspects of life in Kyrygzstan became routine to me.

A colleague recently moved here from Bulgaria and complained about how dark the streets are.

“Dark?” I asked. “I can see a light,” I said, looking out the café window. Of course, I can remember back to when I first moved to Bishkek and I also found it dark. But now, compared to the true blackness of Osh, Bishkek is a bright, vibrant and orderly city to me.

So, if anyone chances to be reading this and there is anything you are interested about in Kyrgyzstan, please ask me and I’ll make an effort to take note and write about those issues.

One interesting little rumor floating through the air is that people are expecting another revolution on the one year anniversary (March 24th) of last year’s revolution. I don’t put much stock in it, but it’s common enough that at a recent training, people were discussing a future event and someone casually commented, “Oh good, that’s before the 24th, before the next revolution is expected.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Sounds Through the Heating Vents

It’s a good thing that I don’t spend much time at home. This weekend, I was bothered by the constant sound of a baby crying. Worse, this evening, the clear sounds of a woman crying filtered through my vent, as though she was just next door. There was no banging, no sounds of fighting, just her garbled speech (probably in Kyrgyz) and her loud, endless, hyperventilating cries.

For weeks now, spring has been in the air. The streets have long been devoid of snow and even in the mountains, snow is sparse enough to make skiing difficult.

Today I wandered around the Ortosai market, one of Bishkek’s central markets. I bought mushrooms from a man selling them atop a wooden table, overflowing in their bowls. I enjoyed looking at the variety of items for sale – electrical plugs, colorful magnets from China, household appliances, lamp shops, boots, clothing, maternity wear, canned and bottled staples, beans and flours sold by weight from burlap bags, all sold from within square green metal containers or from wooden tables.

This past weekend I rode a trolleybus for the first time. And I saw the greatest congregation of elderly people I’d seen anywhere. I’d heard that the World Bank was financing the purchase of 150 new buses. Because the main form of transport, the minibus marshrutkas, don’t accept the free passes issued to the elderly and invalids.

“It seems the difference in price between 7.5 cents and 12 cents plays a big role among the elderly,” I said to Sergei, noting the difference in price between the trolleybuses and the marshrutkas.

“Of course, when pensioners are living on pensions of $20 a month, every som counts,” he said. I knew that. Just that day I’d passed an old man who regularly plays his accordion on the corner for donations. His wife used to sit with him, but she is no longer there, making me worry that she is either sick or has passed away. Another old women walked through the marketplace with a bent back and worn clothing, asking for help, taking 1 som (2.5 cent) bills into her wrinkled hand. And yet another old women, missing her legs, sat on the ground in between stalls, hoping for donations.

“Just yesterday,” Sergei continued, “the President issued an order that marshrutkas must stop for the elderly and for children. Right now, they prefer not to take them as passengers. For the elderly, they know it will take a long time for them to get on and off the bus and they demand a seat. And for children, they know they won’t pay. So they just refuse to stop when they see young or old people flagging them down. But now the President says they have to.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Walk Through Town

Walking to work this afternoon, I passed an old man in an old, wooden blue kiosk. “Iron Repair” was painted over the door. I wondered how many people these days take their irons in for repair. I found it sad to see an aging man in a dying profession.

A few feet further on sat an old man on the side of an entrance ramp, selling low-quality gasoline out of plastic bottles. He is there from morning to evening, rain or shine. I don’t think either of these pensioners foresaw how they’d be spending their golden years.

I walked under a dark bridge, then took the stairs back up to the street. Along that street, prostitutes gather. I knew that from the bloody condom I saw once on the street and the beer cans, vodka bottles and cigarettes boxes that line the road – the numbing devices needed in that profession. But I usually walk that stretch in the mornings, before anyone goes to work. Today, at 1 p.m., a few prostitutes were already out.

For the girls themselves, young, thin and heavily made up, I felt only sadness. But what I found really disgusting was the men hanging about. There were two police officers, drivers of old Zhiguli taxis, and several youths just squatting aimlessly nearby. If the girls want to sell their bodies to earn money, I feel that is their decision. But for the men to assume control in this profession, as if they have some claim over the women’s bodies, is really gross.

One afternoon I drove down that street with our driver, Sergei. On one corner, I saw a few girls that clearly looked like prostitutes. A little further down the street, on the other side, a bunch of girls stood together in a huddle. They seemed to be teenagers and were dressed in typical clothing of young girls – skirts, pants, furry jackets. I thought that they were students.

“No,” Sergei told me. “They were prostitutes.”

I asked him how much they charged. He said he didn’t know, but guessed $2.50 to $4 per hour.

“It depends on how they negotiate,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll take one girl to serve two men. And then she’ll charge more, maybe $5 an hour.”

He told me that special, high-class call girls charged up to $100 an hour. “They come right to your house,” he said. “And they are the type of women you’d never in a million years guess work as prostitutes – girls who have jobs with international organizations during the daytime.”

Saturday, February 04, 2006

How Ainara got Stolen

During a recent visit of an Osh staff member to Bishkek, I heard more about how Ainara got stolen. Her coworker, Katya, told me that she hadn’t been dating this guy, but that he had been a friend.

Together with a group of friends, they were supposed to go somewhere. This guy said that he wanted to change clothes first and they stopped by his house. All the friends somehow left. He asked Ainara to come up to his apartment with him. She told Katya that at that moment she had the thought that he could try to steal her, but then told herself that it couldn’t happen. She went with him.

And when she got to his house or apartment, his relatives were there waiting. They cornered Ainara in a room and put the scarf on her, which according to tradition makes a woman married.

“How did Ainara react?” I asked Katya.

“She was screaming and crying, but they got the scarf on her,” she said.

“And how did her parents react?”

“At first her mother was against it, but then they talked her into it,” she said.

Among the women I know who’ve been stolen, I have known Ainara the longest and the best. It bothered me so much to hear about it that I even woke up dreaming about it one night. I wished there was something I could have done to protect her. And I wonder how parents possibly deal with the fear, the responsibility and the guilt. How can they possibly protect their young adult daughters, at all times, in all places?

A few days ago I was talking to a female government employee in Bishkek. She commented on the late ages of marriage in the U.S.

“Here people get married in their late teens and early 20s,” she said. “One of my distant relatives was recently stolen and she was only 16. She’s still a high school student and she’s married already.”

“In Bishkek?” I asked surprised. I didn’t think that stealings happened very often in Bishkek.


“Did she stay with him?”

“Yes, she stayed with him of her own accord. We talked her into it.” Again, my stomach rolled. The next 60 years of this woman’s life determined by the violent action of one man and the community’s support of him.
Today I took a taxi with a 23-year-old who looked 16. I noticed he had a small star-shaped pin of Lenin as a young boy pinned to his air freshener.

“Is that Lenin?” I asked, surprised. I very rarely see Lenin displayed, as much as some remain nostalgic for Soviet times.

“Yes. Would you like me to give it to you as a gift?”

“No thanks. I’m just surprised to see him.”

“One day I was an Octoberist. I found it among my things and thought it was nice to look at.”

A few hours later I met an inspiring middle-aged woman who left her job as a physics teacher in 2000 to begin selling at the market. With two children headed for college, she didn’t feel she could meet the expenses on her teacher’s salary.

First she worked as a saleswomen, then opened her own container, where she sells clothing she has shown here in Bishkek. The change from the warm classroom to hours in a freezing iron container hit her hard and she lost all but four teeth – she says to the cold.

Her container is well taken care of and her goods – mostly bathrobes and women’s blouses, are well presented. I told her I liked her container.

“I love my products,” she said. She patted one white, fuzzy robe as she showed it to me. “This is called snegurhichka,” she said, naming it after the pretty young woman who accompanies Father Ice at the New Year.

What was especially nice was to see how she’d been able to improve her families standard of living. Within the past few months alone she’d purchased a $450 modern washing machine, and a new gas stove.

This evening I invited my friend Zhenya over to share the pot of vegetable soup I’d cooked up. She came over with her son Algubek and a bunch of goodies from her new store – carrot juice, yogurt, gumdrops and cookies. She loved the richness of all the vegetables in my soup, but both she and her son had trouble adapting to the lack of potatoes.

Algubek spun his spoon around in his bowl. “I’m just looking for potatoes,” he said.

She works every day at her new store, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. She can’t trust her salespeople to open or close the store without stealing, so it’s impossible for her to take a day off.

“I’m dying to go to the mountains, to get out into nature,” she said. “But I can’t find a way to take a day off.”

It was nice to catch up with her. I feel like I’ve been spending too much time lately either at work or with my expatriate friends. Zhenya was the first friend I made upon arriving in Kyrgyzstan almost a year and a half ago and I’m very thankful for all she’s taught me about local life.

Tomorrow Zhenya will accompany me to my belly dancing class. That’s something that I’ve taken up in the last week, along with downhill skiing and Kibo. Belly dancing is very popular in Bishkek. At the health club that I’m currently attending (where I’m pretty much the only foreigner), they offer 20 belly dancing classes per week, and most are packed. As a tall, uncoordinated white person, I pretty much look like a fool. But luckily the people aren’t very judgmental and they allow me to make my slow progress at my own rate.

I finally visited Beta Stores for the first time since it opened in late December. This was the major Turkish supermarket and department store that was completely looted during the March 2005 revolution. Understandably, the owners lost a lot of money and it’s impressive they even rebuilt. But the new Beta stores is less exciting than the previous version. They seem to have filled less space with goods, offering a smaller selection. And the upper floors have been divided into small spaces and rented out. This makes it look more like Tsum, the former state department store, than the major department store it once was. It was sadly quiet and empty when I visited, as though the new, shiny walls held only the ghost of its former presence.