Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Trapped in Germany

May 23, 2006

For the past several days, I’ve been attending a seminar in rural Germany. It’s a pretty enough place – surrounded by green hills soaked by rain, chapels, and forests. When I go for walks, I pass streams, walk through thick patches of trees, and see wide brown insects that look like pods.

However, it’s a 50-minute walk just to get to the nearest gas station. There are no stores, restaurants, supermarkets, cafes, or entertainment facilities. No cars and no bikes. Several days of low-quality, cafeteria-style food and too much time spent looking at the interior of a single building have made me itch for some life and freedom.

My one trip out, latching onto the single person with a car, brought ice cream from metal tins and a stroll around a quaint town, complete with castle, old town hall, and flowered park. A little taste of the life outside that makes me long for more.

I look forward to going to the airport tomorrow.

Another update

May 17, 2006

This afternoon my friend Zhenya called me. Busy, I promised to call her back, then stupidly forget. In the evening she called again.

Today was the seventh day after her business partner’s death. Usually locals mark the 7-day and the 40-day anniversary.

“I prepared a table of remembrance at the shop today and wanted to ask you to come by. But now I’m already going home,” she said, in a disappointed voice.

I apologized profusely for forgetting to return her call. “Well, maybe you can come to the 40-day pominka,” she said. “It will take place around my birthday.”

I’m putting it on my calendar now.

Yesterday I was listening to the area’s most popular radio station, EuropaPlus. The female DJ introduced a caller as someone who didn’t believe in love.

The young man, Almaz, went on to explain in a dejected voice how he’d loved a girl. Then she was stolen (kidnapped) and married her kidnapper. Now he doesn’t believe love is possible.

The DJ didn’t break her chipper voice for even a moment. Nor did she recognize that love is certainly made more difficult in a place where people have the right to kidnap others and pressure them into marriage against their will. She told him that life would go on and everything would be OK, and then, on to the next caller.

Following Rysbek’s murder, about 5,000 people in Cholpon-Ata gathered for his funeral. I heard that 2,000 of them were mafia.

“Yes,” a colleague who was in Cholpon-Ata that day confirmed when I asked. “The mafia came from all over, even Almaty and other countries.”

After that, hundreds of people in Balykchi (my very least favorite town on my bike ride) blocked the Bishkek to Issyk-Kul road, demanding that the prime minister resign.

When I met a young student in dreadlocks from the Russian city of Kazan, who’d barely made it through the crowds, she told me it was mostly young men.

“They looked rural and kind of crazy,” she said. But on a quest to tour “uncivilized countries” Kyrgyzstan met her expectations. “In Russia we have stability now, so this place seems kind of crazy in comparison.”

My colleague, Alisher, who traveled through the same area said he saw mostly women and elderly.

“I suppose they were probably paid by someone rather than protesting out of principle,” I said.

“They had killed two cows and had some alcohol,” he said. “They seemed to be having a good time.”

On Sunday I took a trip to the Ala-Archa mountains, together with a group of about 50 students of a language school. Ala-Archa is the closest and most accessible park to Bishkek. And because of that, it really attracts the crowds. People streamed in nonstop from morning to afternoon – locals, tour groups, and everything in between. I suppose for that reason, the excursion group I usually travel to the mountains with avoids that park and this was my first time there.

The setting was gorgeous – tall snow-capped mountain peaks, towering juniper trees, silver-white water rushing through the valley. While we baked under the sun, we watched students of Arabic, Chinese, English and Russian present well-prepared skits, games and jokes. Tourists from America, China and elsewhere came off the paved path to watch, attracted by the bright, colorful costumes.

Following several days of sun and extremely high temperatures, today we had a welcome cool and rainy day. A day that actually felt like early summer. A day that allowed one to notice the greenery and the activity.

The markets are now filling with strawberries and cherries from Osh. For me, the giant red mounds are a paradise. Currently at 60 cents to one dollar a pound, the prices will only fall from here.

I’ve been noticing an interesting trend – of people parking their cars somewhere in the city center, and selling things out of the trunk. I’ve seen t-shirts and today and I saw tea. And both times, they attract a large crowd.

Until more competition enters the area, it’s quite a good idea. They are mobile and can reach many markets in a short period of time. And they have no expenses for rent or taxes, which probably allows them to sell their goods cheaper.

And the last piece of interesting local news is that Bishkek is fighting a little malaria problem. Thirty-six people have been diagnosed, mainly migrants who live in the novostroika, newly built communities on the outskirts of Bishkek, largely located on former farmland (which tends to get swampy in rain).

I just got over a few-day virus myself. I’m getting ready for a seminar in Germany and then, a much anticipated visit from my mother. In all this time, it will be only my second visitor in Kyrgyzstan and I have to pass along the positive impression the country has made on me.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

An update on the last week

May 13, 2006

A lot has been going on in the past week and I have not found time to write.

I spent three days in Moscow shortly before the May 9th holiday, to celebrate victory in the Great Patriotric War against Germany. Even after 61 years, this holiday is still a really big deal in Russia. News reports estimated that there were 4,000 events held with 5 million people participating.

In Moscow, red, orange and yellow flags decorated all the main streets. At any particular place, I could look around and see at least one or two banners or billboards proclaiming – Happy Victory Day.

We stayed with my friends Mary and Jim, in their apartment just feet from the Red Square. It’s pretty amazing to start finding the red walls of the Kremlin a natural part of one’s daily scenery.

After a search across town for Bolshoi tickets, we ended up finding a pair to an opera for $16. While the Bolshoi is under renovation, the performances are held in an adjoining hall. But the quality was still as top-notch as always. The 3.5 hour performance of The Tsar’s Bride, a story of the bloody intrigues surrounding Ivan the Terrible’s search for a new bride. Since its premier in pre-revolutionary Russia, it had been shown over 1,000 times in the Bolshoi.

When I returned to Kyrgyzstan, I called my friend Zhenya.

“I’m in the hospital. I can’t talk now,” she whispered into her cell phone, then hung up.

I called her son, Algubek, to see what was going on. I worried she was sick.

“Her friend is dying of asthma,” he said, in his straightforward, child-like way. Could people die of asthma? I wondered.

Her friend was a 50-year-old Turkish man. Her former tenant, he became her partner when she opened her new business. He rented half the store, selling groceries, and she rented the other half to sell drugstore-type goods.

When she called me later she told me that he’d asked her to call emergency services. He couldn’t breathe and she assumed it was due to asthma.

“So I called the emergency services for asthma. But the problem was really with his stomach. I should have called the emergency number for stomach problems and we lost time that way.”

She accompanied him to the hospital, where they said he needed an operation and it would cost $500.

“I didn’t know how to find his friends, I didn’t even know his passport number,” she said. “I was running all over the place trying to get the money together. I finally found it and they did the operation. They removed his stomach, just leaving a little piece in there. They showed me his stomach and it just looked horrible. It was completely filled with blood.”

She said they were going to send it off for an analysis for cancer.

“He’s now in a coma. When you called, I was holding his IV. They said if he lives 4-9 days, he might be OK. But it doesn’t look good.” Her voice cracked.

I told her to call me if I could do anything to help. She spent the next few days running out daily to buy blood, trying to contact the Turkish embassy, and being with him. She closed her store.

A few days later she called me. “Thanks for your offer, but there is nothing to be done to help now. I’m on my way back from the Manas airport, where we sent his body back to Turkey.”

She’s having an understandably hard time with his death. When I spoke to her this morning, she was still running around collecting documentation.

“They still haven’t finished the cancer analysis,” she said. “I’m scared that his family will think that we worked together and maybe I had some interest in his dying. I’m afraid they might not believe that he was sick or that he needed the operation. So I want to gather all the medical reports, get them translated and have them sent to the family.”

At the same time, she needs to keep her store going. She was planning to go to the market today to buy notebooks and pens, then going to her store.

“It’s really terrible being at the store – knowing he was always there, that he ate there, that we talked there. I think I’ve lost ten kilograms in the past week.”

It sounds like he probably had stomach ulcers and just didn’t get treatment. So, one more rather young person died rather needlessly in Kyrgyzstan.

The biggest news in Kyrgyzstan this week was the murder of the reputed bandit Rysbek Akmatbaev. I’ve written a bit about him in past entries. He had recently been elected to Parliament, despite several outstanding charges of murder, and was the single person most capable of destabilizing the country. His murder came as a rather welcome shock to locals.

“I think that now our country has a chance for stability,” was the reaction of my coworker, Aizhana.

I heard the following story of events: On Wednesday, Rysbek went to court regarding a charge of murder of a police officer. Apparently, he was charged in three separate murder trials and (probably due to bribery or influence) was acquitted in all three. The family of this murdered police officer appealed the acquittal. Rysbek was in court for the appeal and he was unable to formally assume his seat in Parliament until this was resolved. His main motivation in seeking a Parliamentary seat seemed to be a desire for immunity from his past crimes.

After going to court, he went to a mosque to pray.

“Very nice. He goes to pray after being tried for murder,” I said to the journalist telling me this story.

“Yes, he’s a very good Muslim,” he said, smiling.

Upon coming out of the mosque, he was gunned down by what were probably machine guns. I heard that two bystanders, one 9 and the other 12-years-old were injured. And this journalist suspected that the killers were members of an opposing mob.

After his death, I saw a picture of him for the first time. He wore a black leather baseball hat, had a shadow of a mustache and beard, and his round, brown face wore an almost undetectable smile. He looked like he could have been a pleasant, normal Kyrgyz man. I wondered what factors in his life led him towards the path he chose. And I thought about Malan, our driver in Osh, and how he would have wondered why someone would sacrifice peace of mind and security for the short term pleasures of money and power.

A development that has a similarly large impact on the local population is that the city shut off the hot water for a month. I didn’t hear about this in advance.

I woke up one morning with no hot water. I figured it was just a problem in my apartment and would resolve itself by the next day. It didn’t and I had a cold shower for the second day in a row. By then, it was becoming uncomfortable.

When I mentioned it at work, my local colleagues weren’t surprised.

“No one has hot water,” my 8-month pregnant colleague, Janna, said. “It won’t be turned back on until June 10th. In the meantime, they are doing repairs.”

“That’s why I sent my family back home now,” said Talai, a colleague from Kazakhstan.

I contacted my landlord and it turns out I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a hot water heater that he just needed to turn on. But many people are in for a month of cold surprises in the morning and it’s funny how people band together to help each other.

When I spoke to Zhenya this morning, she just assumed I didn’t have hot water.

“Do you want to come over and take a bath?” she asked. “I have hot water.”

And I make similar offers to others. Tomorrow night a colleague is coming over to take a shower.

A lunchtime conversation

May 4, 2006

The other day at lunch, two of my colleagues got into a discussion over spoiled milk.

“When my milk starts to go bad, I pour it in the bathtub,” said Natalya, from Russia. “It makes the skin feel like silk and it’s really good for the hair.”

“But it’s really hard to get out of your hair,” said Janna, an ethnic Russian from Bishkek. “Whenever articles write about putting milk in your hair, they also include instructions on how to get it out. There is too much fat and it stays there.”

Janna told us how her grandmother lives near a dairy factory in Kant, a town outside Bishkek. After skimming off the fat for cream, they give away the remainder for free. Neighbors can come by and pick it up, which they use to feed their pigs.

Sometimes her grandmother will collect a jug or two of it and give it to her for use in her hair.

I told them that in the U.S., skimmed milk sells for more than milk with fat in it.

“Then we can start a business!” Natalya joked. “We’ll collect the free skimmed milk from the dairy factory and somehow export it to America!”

I found it interesting how one product can have such different values, uses and perceptions in two different places.

Biking Around Issyk-Kul day 6: Bokonbaevo to Tamga

May 1, 2006

This morning, upon leaving my hotel, I walked past a small tractor pulling a truck. Suddenly, the cord snapped and the truck started rolling downhill. A man in a kalpak ran in front of the truck, trying to place rocks in front of the tires. He failed and the truck rolled on.

The driver, a round-faced Kyrgyz, opened the door and shouted, while a group of men in kalpaks stared, transfixed.

“He went without brakes or anything,” one man said to me as I also stopped and stared.

I felt that sickening feeling of imminent disaster that I can’t do anything to prevent. I looked at the pedestrians, who crossed the street oblivious that the truck rolling toward them was out of control.

Needless to say, seeing that made me extra cautious while biking. Just because a vehicle seemed to be in control didn’t necessarily mean that it was.

From Bokonbaevo I coasted downhill. I soon met up again with the shoreline and was grateful to see the water lapping against the land and the blue ribbon as my companion. Blue-green waves lapped gently against an arc of sand. On my right, red sand cliffs formed peaks, fissures, canyons and castles, doted with grass and scrub. A variety of birds flew across the water, soared over the cliffs, and hopped alongside the road.

Not far outside of Bokonbaevo, I had my second scare of the day. While taking a short break in a village, I saw two men get into a cargo truck. One of them, with loose white pants, and a long headscarf reaching down his back, looked eastern. He looked straight at me and I felt like a target, the strange foreigner encroaching upon his territory.

I’m sure I’m overreacting, I thought, though I was grateful when they pulled out and ahead of me, disappearing down the bumpy road.

A little while later, while I was riding along a completely barren and unpopulated stretch of road, I saw their truck stopped on the side of the road. Three men, including the man in white, wandered on the road, near the truck. What if they have guns? I thought. What if they try to stop me? For the first time I felt the danger of being so alone.

I picked up speed and decided not to stop, no matter what. I briefly waved at the white-turbaned man, without losing speed, and sped beyond them, not stopping again until I reached the next populated area, quite a few kilometers ahead.

Except for that one unnerving incident, the amount of remote, unpopulated space around the lake is truly amazing. I rode for miles and miles alone – just me following nature’s trails.

A few distinctive features of the south shore, other than several eastern-looking drivers (the road must lead to Pakistan, Tajikistan or another international route), include the prevalence of large white trucks coming down the road from the goldmine, the genuine friendliness and interest of the residents (who see fewer tourists than do those on the north shore), less tree-lined sections (which means less shade), and long stretches of depopulation through a variety of landscapes. All alone, I could listen to the wind blow, feel the rain coming, hear the water lap up against the shore.

At one point, when I could see rain falling from the clouds behind me, I decided to take shelter, rather than get soaked out in the open. I brought my bike into a tunnel, what seemed to be a dried-up river bed, and waited there for the rain clouds to pass. Sitting near cow poop on the ground and birds in the eaves, I was able to see what water views as it flows into the lake – scattered rock, raised edges, scrub lining its path, small trees along the shore and the vast blue of sky and water. I watched the waves grow larger and whitecapped, in protest, as the wind blew more strongly.

In Khaji-Say, a lakeside village with a spectacular stretch of shore, I took a picture of a roadside lepushka-baker’s daughter. When I promised to send him a copy, he handed me a round, fresh lepushka. I was able to enjoy the hot, yeasty bread on a cliff, while overlooking the lake.

The mountains transformed from red to beige, orchards lined part of the shore, and I passed the same fascinating cemetery-towns that line the lake elsewhere.

When I reached Tamga and waited on the roadside for a passing marshrutka, I looked out on a bay that resembled a giant blue vase, filled with water like a gourd. The water shimmered in the warm, bright wind, extending out to the horizon of white mountains. Behind me rose rocky, sand cliffs, groves of bright green poplars, wrinkled mountains and snowy peaks. The southern part of the lake belongs to national park territory.

I took a marshrutka back to Bokonbaevo. Enroute, we passed a rowboat with two passengers out on the water. Both me and another passenger stared at this unexpected human presence on the lake. The beauty of the lake is that it’s largely untouched by humans, a giant, powerful magnet attracting vistors to its sides, but not allowing them too far in. That and it’s everchanging combination of silver, blues, greens and white, the endless patterns it forms combining with the clouds, sky, and mountains.

I took an 85 Moskvich to Balykchi. My driver, Turusbek, was a 27-year army veteran, a father of three children in college, a voter for Rysbek Akmatbayev and a nostalgic for Soviet times.

“Lenin was a great man,” he told me. “I can’t imagine where Kyrgyzstan would be without him. People wouldn’t know how to write.” He told me of his admiration for Roosevelt, Kissenger (“he was tricky”) and Kennedy (“a great man”).

“Genghis Khan ruled this area for 300 years,” he recalled. “The Soviet Union lasted only 70. I never would have guessed that such a great empire would disappear in 70 years.”

When I asked him about current politics, he said he liked Bakiyev because he thinks he’s trying. I asked why he voted for Rysbek.

“Isn’t he a bandit?” I asked.

“He was. Definitely. But he’s 46 years old now and has outgrown that. He has enough money that he doesn’t need more money for himself. He’s going to help us.”

We became silent, lost in our journey. I marveled at the joy of reaching places that from a distance looked just like the meeting point of water and sky.

“Look at the clouds, sitting on the mountaintop,” Turusbek commented.

Like a toupe, I thought. Just as the people inherited their landscape, the land took on some aspects of its residents.

Biking Around Issyk-Kul day 5: Balykchi to Bokonbaevo

April 30, 2006

I learned today that I don't enjoy biking up mountain passes. I especially don't enjoy it when I've already been on a bike for 7.5 hours when I reach the mountain pass.

I also learned that the view upon exiting a mountain pass can make it almost worth it, and that the coast down the other side is pretty darn fun, even if I'm sunburned and exhausted.

It took me 11 hours to get from Balykchi to Bokonbaevo, the first town with a hotel. The long, empty stretch on map indicated it would take a while. So I started at 7:30, hoping to outrun the weather.

Luckily, I managed to avoid rain. But I had a long, tough trip, covering somewhere in excess of 90 kilometers with quite a bit of uphill.

In my younger days, I would have stopped somewhere short of my destination and tried to find a family to stay with in a local village. And perhaps if I'd been traveling with someone, I would have done that. But I didn't want to have to try to speak Kyrgyz or to answer 100 questions. I just wanted a quiet place where I could lay down and veg.

I'm amazed by the variety of landscapes I went through in that distance. From the barren outskirts of Balykchi, where garbage was strewn across the dry landscape and plastic bags stuck to scrub bushes, I reached the lake, which gleamed so brightly I couldn’t look at it. The beautiful mountains became even more of an attraction than the lake, as I moved through red wrinkled, brown folded and white-capped. I went past a marsh, where small, black ducks and white swans floated on water rippled by the wind, then looked out over dry golden grasses dancing in the breeze. I moved through coastal areas, through farmland, valleys, mountains, and even badland-like areas – hot, rocky, scrubby and abandoned.

Compared to the northern shore, the houses were more basic and people seemed poorer. They also seemed more kind, open and interested in visitors. I crossed paths with an entire family cheerfully herding cows, that waved me on my way. A sullen, unsmiling teenage boy on a horse remained silent when I greeted. He allowed me to pass. Then I heard the clomp of horseshoes behind me. I watched the dust rise as he rode ahead. Once he made it clear he could beat me, he’d slow down, let me pass, and then repeat the cycle. I met several young boys riding bikes or herding sheep (“there are a lot of rich people here,” a boy in a kalpak said when I praised his herd). I stopped to let these kids try out my bike and to take some photos with them.

In one village, I noticed a white statue prominently placed in front of a central building.

“Who is the man represented in that statue?” I asked a passerby, strolling with his wife. I expected to hear about a local hero I’d never heard of.

He looked at the statue and smiled. “Marx. That’s Karl Marx,” he continued with an exaggerated emphasis, in friendly recognition of Marx’s current irrelevance.

There seem to be just about as many animals as people on the southern shore. I rode along with sheep, cows, horses, donkeys, and bird, many accompanied by their young. When I emerged from the mountain pass and started downhill, I frightened four dark horses as I whizzed down. They galloped in a herd down the mountain, away from me.

Cruising down a mountain, looking out over multicolored mountains and a green valley, accompanying by galloping, unbridled horses, definitely rates as a Kyrgyzstan high.

Due to the lack of traffic, I could ride in the center of the road. The rock was like rocks stuck together with cheap tar – technically paved, but not so well. Potholes were numbers and outlined in red paint, awaiting filling. When I passed pothole #670, I wondered how high they were willing to count.

At 6:30 I arrived, exhausted, in Bokonbaevo, a run-down town at the point just before the road rejoins the lake. I found a pleasant, closet-sized room in the local Rahat hotel. For $5, I get a narrow, hard single bed, fresh, sparkly wallpaper in silver and ivory stripes, golden drapes and a shiny varnished wooden door. Best of all, I got a hot shower and the ability to lie down in quiet, where I plan to sleep for a very long time.

Bokonbaevo isn't known for its food. But I ate a whole bowl of lagman and found a great store that has such luxuries as oranges and ice cream.

This is actually my second visit to Bokonbaevo. I spent two days here last fall when I took my boyfriend falcon hunting. The falcon hunting is super cool, and makes Bokonbaevo worth a visit. But since I'd already done that, and already wandered the town, I'm using this only as a place to rest and move on.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Biking around Issyk-Kul day 4: Tamchy to Balykchi

April 29, 2006

Though I didn't travel a great distance (somewhere around 40 kilometers) this stretch was the most difficult and unpleasant by far of the four days I've now spent biking around Issyk-Kul. At times I wondered what I was doing and at others, almost thought about giving up.

One problem was the imminent rain. I could feel it in the air when I woke up and when I sat on the beautiful, empty beach in Tamchy. Sonya didn’t think it would arrive until after lunch and thought I could make it to Balykchi in time. Given the intense heat yesterday, I couldn't even think of packing things like pants, a jacket, or a turtleneck. So with my bike shorts, a long-sleeve t-shirt and a light wool sweater, I was seriously underdressed.

But the biggest problem was the wind - the fierce, constant, wind. The wind that forced me to put my head down and to pedal ahead, with the motivation only of making a little progress towards shelter. I sometimes had to fight the wind to stay on the road, the powerful gusts blowing me off to the side. I worried that a sudden gust could blow me right into the path of an oncoming truck. When I opened my water bottle, the wind played a song across it. The wind howled in my ears, making me deaf to any other sounds. I felt like my head was wrapped in cotton and that I couldn't escape.

Balychi has a reputation for being a windy city and any time I'd stopped there for a bathroom break, the wind had wrapped its cold mantle around me. But I'd never spent more than a few minutes at a time there. No wonder property values in Balkychi are close to nothing. I don't know how people live with the constant howl.

When I later arrived at my hotel, a single room within a ratty apartment, I asked the administrator about the wind. She was a large, overweight, middle-aged Kyrgyz woman, with a low voice, a suspicious, downcast glance, and an appearance of having been beaten up by life here. She told me that such winds can blow for an entire week. It's called a sunde when everything is whipped up by the wind and people can't do anything but to try to stay indoors. She said they all emerge together one week later, when everything is calm, an exodus of movement and excitement.

I asked if she knew why Balychi alone has such wind and she said she didn't. I asked if it bothered the locals.

"Of course it does. But we've gotten used to it. What else can you do?"

I did end up getting caught in the rain. I had just reached the edge of Balykchi when it started, so I thought I could make it to my hotel quickly. But Balykchi is a 10-kilometer-long town and I ended up spending about an hour under rainshowers. I arrived coated with a film of water, droplets dripping over the visor of my helmet.

"Why are you wearing shorts?" a little Russian boy asked me when I stopped to take a photo of a Lenin image on top of a central building.

"Aren't you cold?" a woman holding dried fish out to passing cars called out to me.

"You must have frozen," an older woman, also holding a bunch of salted fish, commented a few moments later.

Before starting out this weekend, I picked up a few new accessories, including a rack, a bike bag, and biking gloves. These give me an even more serious biker appearance and I got even more surprised looks from the locals as they tried to take in the sight of a woman alone in silver and black.

I didn't spend so much time looking at scenery today. The landscape was largely bare and rocky and I focused on trying to move ahead. My best view was in the morning, when I walked to the beach in Tamchy. I sat on the chill sand, alone except for the horses and cattle wandering along the shore. The sky matched the silver-blue, cloudy color of the water.

I watched the water fold over into small silver waves washing up against the shore. It then pulled back and was incorporated into the next wave. A light breeze riffled the water's surface, making thousands of ripples. I listened to the peaceful, rhythmic pounding and felt there was something besides the legend that makes the lake magesterial. The size, the amazing clarity, the powerful mountains always within view, and the every changing palette of colors inspire awe.

Despite some decrepit homes and a lot of for-sale signs, Tamchy is a pleasant, quiet village. I left shortly before ten and immediately started riding aginst the wind. Rocks strewed the dry, brown landscape. Except for the large body of water, it seemed desertlike to me. Then, suddenly, the fields exploded into yellow wildflowers. Occasionally a red flower popped up like a lantern leading the way.

The lake water had turned dark blue. Later in the day it became a turquoise ribbon to my left, dotted with whitecaps during the wind. Purple and white mountains rose above it on the opposite shore.

As before, I saw a lot of cemetaries - the crumbling ancient sand castles of history, the fenced-in compounds that looked like small towns of cement, brick and sand temples, castles and tombs, the roadside markers to all the young men who drove too fast and whose cars tumbled off the pavement, taking them to death within sight of the peaceful waters. In 1997, a carload of four young men, age 17 to 24, all died together. A monument with their pictures stands on the side of the road. I could only guess that the 24-year-old was probably at the wheel and that either under the influence of alcohol, or showing off his speed to his younger pasengers, he took them all to an early death.

My hotel is not very comfortable. I share a bathroom with strange men. And I have to rely on the administrator to let me into my room and out of the apartment. Balykchi is not a very nice place. Garbage - plastic bags, wrappers, scraps of paper - piles up against any solid structure, blown out of control.

I had dinner in a Korean cafe that served only local food. The only other customer was a drunk who fell asleep on the table over his lagman. While I ate, he started snoring. The young Russian waitress was patient with him, largely ignoring him.

From the higher areas of the city, it's possible to see the lake. And the mountains on the opposite side glowed purple, white and pink in the evening. Here, all the beauty is in the distance, a promise of something far away. But I think it's hard for people here to escape. These are the people that feel so powerless, 80 percent of them voted the reputed bandit Rysbek into Parliament.

I don't think many foreign tourists stop here and the locals show an interest in me. Two little girls ran after me and seemed happy when I asked to take a picture of them. When I asked two teenage boys how to find the mosque my hotel was located near, they looked at me questioningly, probably wondering what a foreigner on a bike in the rain wanted a mosque for, then said "Welcome!" as I rode off. The apartment area where my hotel is located is littered with children, who play ball, jump rope, and run around the rocky, garbage-littered windy grounds.

I saw on the Moscow news that the protests in Bishkek went peacefully. Surprisingly, President Bakiyev and Prime Minister Kulov came out and addressed the crowd in the rain. Kulov held a red flower with both hands as Bakiyev spoke. The footage didn't show the reaction of people watching the President speak, but I heard people whistling and it seems they dispersed soon afterwards. They are giving the President a month to fulfill his promises, threatening more protests afterwards if he does not.

On the Kyrgyz news, they first covered Bakiyev's diplomatic reception in Moscow and meeting with Putin before they talked about the protests (called “meetings” by the locals), which is clearly the biggest news here. I couldn't understand the Kyrgyz, but the broadcast did spend quite a bit of time on the issue.

I'm really unsure about my ride tomorrow. I'm afraid there will be rain again, it's a long way to the first sizeable town (about 70 kilometers), with a lot of emptiness enroute, and I don't even have a place to stay lined up. It's tempting to put it off until better weather, but I can't let a rare 3-day weekend go to waste. So unless I awake to downpours, I'll probably try to get an early start, to outrun the rain, and to realize it could be another tough day.

Monday, May 15, 2006

evening in Tamchy

April 28, 2006

I'm lying under the covers in a Tamchy guesthouse, a village on the shores of Issyk-Kul. My plan is continue my bike ride around the lake tomorrow. I'm not sure how much the weather is going to cooperate though. After a hot, sunny day in the 90s - a heat that made the thought of packing a jacket unthinkable - I'm listening to a strong wind blowing outside. It sways with a steady hum, sometimes picking up in gusts as though it has encountered something in its path and is carrying it along.

I arrived in the darkness of night, so I haven't seen the lake yet. But I can imagine the clear waters being whipped into small waves, crashing against the shore in protest.

I'm staying in a guesthouse that is part of the Community Based Tourism network. Sonya and her husband are a middle-aged couple who live here with their daughter Alina. Their two older children are students in Bishkek. I don't know how they came upon this place, but they have a gigantic premise that accommodates up to ten guests at a time.

I love the concept of the Community Based Tourism, I like staying in local homes and knowing that the money is going to people in the community. The only bummer is that while most members provide very good service, it can sometimes be more like a hotel than staying with a family. Sonya warmed up the banya for me, and afterwards, kindly offered me tea. But I drank the tea alone at a table for ten. Listening to the wind howling outdoors, it felt a little bit lonely.

I drove to Issyk-Kul with my two colleagues, Lena and Sandra, and a friendly driver Kenche. We left the city, passing stands of fat, red radishes on the road to Tokmok. I watched a man move though the dust raised by a truck on the main road with a hand-propelled wheelchair. And I noticed the scenery tranform from extensions of Bishkek, to green fields extending out to the base of mountains, to mountains that rose up on either side of us as we drove through the Shoestring Pass.

The entire landscape is covered with a patina of green - from the green that blankets the formerly brown mountains to the green that spouts from the trees, to the green shoots emerging from the plowed fields.

Our driver pointed out the road to the Kemin district. I asked why it was special.

"That was where Akaev (the former President) grew up," he said. "So there are especially good roads there."

"Are they going to improve the roads to Jalalabat now?" I asked, referring to the current President’s place of origin.

"Of course," he said. "They've already begun. “As soon as he became president they started improving the road."

At one point, we passed a police car with a flashing light leading a group of five or six cars and marshrutkas. Several of the cars were labeled in Kyrgyz. We asked Kende what that was.

"It's probably people headed for the protest," he said. We felt we were headed in the right direction, in the opposite way.

Kende was nice enough to go a bit out of the way to take us to the Burana tower. The reddish-brown stone tower appears in just about every advertisement I see for Kyrgyzstan. Located in a field just over an hour from Bishkek, I'd never made it to see the 10th century tower, renovated in 1974.

We arrived just as the sun was receding in strength and the air cooled with evening’s approach. The tower and the museum were already closed, but it was still impressive to look at the ancient structure, as well as the 6th to 10th century gravestones scattered in the nearby field, many of them carved into the shapes of human figures representing either a deceased hero or someone he killed. They stood within a beautiful background - green trees and fields, and in the distance, green and white mountain tops. The tower marks the site of the Karakhanid town of Belasagun. Founded in 960, it became a busy market town on the Silk Road. I tried to imagine a civilization once thriving in a place now best appreciated for the clean, fresh air.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The language of protest

April 19, 2006

Today I was thinking about all the useful phrases that are not included in standard Russian textbooks. While in the U.S., when I came across Russian speakers, I felt self-conscious, as though my Russian was too full of mistakes. But immediately upon arriving here, I dove right back into using Russian as my main means of communication. My vocabulary includes the following useful phrases, none of which I came across during my formal studies of Russian:

“It’s a mountain pass, damnnit.” (Said to a taxi driver who ignored my requests to slow down, risking both of our lives as he sped ahead of several vehicles, driving in the wrong lane and with no visibility of oncoming traffic).

“I think there is a dead person lying in front of the central department store.” (said today to a police officer, one block away from where I saw a motionless person lying in the central thoroughfare, a blue cloth covering his face)

A colleague informed me that protests are scheduled for next Saturday. Organized by the former speaker of Parliament, Omurbek Tekebaev, they will demand that President Bakiyev fulfill his promises to the people. Specifically, they have 10 demands:
1. To provide citizens with order and security and protect businesses from criminals.
2. To effectively fight corruption.
3. To reform the Constitution.
4. To reform law-enforcement bodies
5. To provide fair economic conditions and ban using official power to eliminate business competitors.
6. To move control of executive bodies under the President to the government.
7. To reorganize the state TV into public television
8. To return the stolen property and stocks to the attacked Pyramid
television company.
9. To establish order in the sale and production of construction materials.
10. To ban unconstitutional proposals that limit freedom of speech and other civil rights.

She seems to be well-versed in current events, so I asked her why the
government was going to let Rysbek run for Parliament and why the people of the Balykchi region would vote for him.

She told me that Rysbek has close ties with Bakiyev’s son.

“Maxim Bakiyev now controls all the businesses owned by Akaev. He always shows up together with Rysbek. In Balykchi, the elections will not be clean. People fear that if they don’t vote for Rysbek, the voting officials will tell him and they’ll face consequences.”

Despite the slightly depressing things like finding dead people in the street and notorious criminals running the government, Bishkek is a beautiful and pleasant place. I ate lunch today at an outdoor table, enjoying the smell of greenery and perfumed lilacs in the air. I received an email from someone at a rafting company, reminding me that the rafting season will soon begin. From this point on, the markets will fill with a rainbow of fruit, vegetables and flowers. And the mountains will similarly explode, making for wonderful outdoor opportunities on the weekends.

Back in Bishkek

April 18, 2006

I returned to Bishkek after a very enjoyable two-week vacation. In that short time, I covered a lot of miles. I visited an indoor waterpark in Owatonna, Minnesota, drove down the spectacular California coastline and marveled at the lemons growing outside our host’s home, visited World’s End State Park in rural Pennsylvania, and spent valued time with my boyfriend and family.

It was a bit difficult to get back on the plane, however, I returned to a beautiful spring world. Early in the morning, the sun already beat down strongly, lighting up the bright green trees, the red tulips, yellow daffodils and puple lilacs, and the flowering fruit trees. Green garden shoots already pushed up from tilled soil.

I took a bus from Almaty to Bishkek. I asked the attendant what ended up happening with Ryspek.

“The government didn’t remove him from the ballot,” she said. “They are letting him run and the Balykchi region will probably elect him to Parliament. Just imagine – he is our biggest bandit and he’ll be sitting in Parliament. It’s awful.”

“Why are they letting him run?” I asked. When I left they’d planned on taking him off the ballot.

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head with disgust. The decision-makers must have been bribed or threatened.

Far from the struggles for power, I look across my cozy living room at the large bunch of white and purple lilacs I bought for 50 cents. Their sweet scent wafts through the roof, allowing me to think that all in Kyrgyzstan is OK.

Getting out just in time

March 30, 2006

Looks like I’m again getting out of Kyrgyzstan, just before some potential trouble. The problems this time are caused by Rsypek Akmatbaev. Bayaman used to be the main bandit I heard about, now it’s Ryspek.

This guy really sounds like something else. He’s the one who created the giant memorial on the Issyk-Kul road. Locals claim the marble monument cost a million dollars.

Now he wants a seat in Parliament. That would be a great help to him since he has several criminal cases open against him and the government position would make him immune from prosecution.

One of my colleagues told me today that he was on a government wanted list. He officially explained his disappearance for a few years by saying he was out of the country – in Kazakhstan, Italy and elsewhere. Now he wants to run for Parliament, this document he submitted himself is being used against him. If someone has been out of Kyrgyzstan for the past five years, they aren’t allowed the right to run for office.

Accordingly, he was refused the right to register as a candidate. And now he’s causing a ruckus, in advance of the April 9th elections for an open Issyk-Kul region seat. Today, he and his supporters (or more likely, his paid minions) blocked the road in an Issyk-Kul village.

Tomorrow they are scheduled to come to Bishkek. I received the following email shortly before leaving the country for vacation, “Please be informed that according to I.Kochkarov, an official representative of Ryspek Akmatbaev, his supporters are planning to start demonstration in Bishkek tomorrow. The demonstrations are planned to be in three places at the same time: Parliament, White House and Mayor’s Office…. Please neither walk nor drive around the above mentioned locations and do not leave your homes during the dark hours except emergency cases.”

Coming home this evening, I was pleased to see a group of young boys and their mothers playing the animal bone game in front of my apartment building. It’s a traditional Kyrgyz game. I asked them which animal the bones were from. A young boy told me the larger bones were from cows, the smaller from sheep.

They stood, throwing the bones onto the black pavement, with an attentiveness and passion I respected.

A few days ago, I took a taxi with a driver who told me he was originally from Tyup. He moved to Bishkek 40 years ago, when his mother, who held a high position in the Communist administration, was moved there for work.

“I haven’t been to Tyup in about 15 years, since the Soviet Union fell apart. I’d hate to see what it looks like now. But in Soviet times, it was a beautiful place, with paved roads, nice buildings and centers for children.”

His mother was German, his father Russian. He considers himself German.

He told me that his brother was sent to Germany in 1978 on a trip for Komsomol youth and while he was there, he escaped.

“Right after that, my mother was removed from her work and I lost my job. It was really hard for us.”

His brother was able to communicate through a sibling in New York that he was OK. But besides that, they had no communication until the Soviet Union fell apart 13 years ago. Now this driver has another brother and sister living in Germany. They now support the family financially.

I asked if it was a good thing in the end that his brother escaped.

“Well, it ended up being good. But at the time, it was really difficult. We kept being called into the KGB to see if we knew anything, and that was really uncomfortable.”

He himself plans to emigrate to Germany soon. “I want to wait until my daughter finishes the university,” he said. “But after that, in two years, it’s auf weidershein!” He smiled, a grin filled with long, wide, yellowed teeth. Well into middle age, beaten about by the Communists and the change in regime, layed off after working ten years as a driver for an American tobacco company, he continued to dream and to hold on to hope.

Biking around Issyk-Kul Day 3: Bosteri to Tamchy

March 26, 2006

At 7:10, I was already outdoors, eager to take a walk along the beach before the 8 a.m. breakfast. I walked through the dull and faded sanatorium grounds, lit up by the bushes flowering yellow. On the beach, the sand glowed a golden brown under a light coating of frost in the soft light of morning. Water lapped gently onto shore, pale and limpid. I looked straight into the sandy bottom. The sky, a pale whitish-blue, blended with the lake.

The sanatorium, behind me, was almost invisible, dwarfed by the snow-peaked mountains rising up behind it. I watched a man jogging – running forwards, backwards, sidestep, as though he were dancing. I could tell he was here for his health and that he was taking every opportunity he had to improve it.

After breakfast with the same women I’d eaten dinner with, I headed back on the rock. My first stop was at the Bosteri market, which was already in full swing. The once-weekly market was filled with the excitement of people buying and selling, having traveled from throughout the region to gather and trade. The most people crowded around the fruit tree sellers. This region is known for its apples, pears and apricots. One of the spindly little branches I saw for sale would yield fruit in two years.

An old green Zhiguli pulled out in front of me, fruit trees tied to the top and hanging out of the trunk. An entire family of oversized, aging Russians packed the small vehicle. A little baby with a kerchief on her head poked her head out from the large bodies surrounding her and smiled at me.

From Bosteri, I rode a few kilometers to Cholpon-Ata, the tourism central town.

Yesterday I’d moved from softer land into drier, more rocky territory, from an agricultural zone to a more developed tourism area. As it wasn’t yet tourist season, I didn’t have to deal with the crowds. I found myself in a harsh, rocky, inhospitable area, where people lived poorly, but had a view of the lake over the rubble.

I was there to see the petroglyphic rocks and I found them a little ways off the main road. These remnants from the Saka-Usun date mostly from the 8th century BC to the 5th century AD.

A couple young boys herding goats approached me and pointed out the best rock drawings, including goats, hunters, and ibex. There were also stone circles and tombs, remarkable remainders of a civilization long disappeared. When I offered the kids 50 cents to buy themselves chocolate, they smiled and walked away happy.

Many of the small, neat homes in the village of Kara-Oi set up roadside stands – selling a little bit of everything to the vehicles passing by. It wasn’t even tourist season, and I found all the following for ready sale – apples, pears, potatoes, mushrooms, flour, animal furs, a cow, sheep, bull, tractor, home and store.

I rode under a sunny sky, with a light breeze and the music of chirping birds. The scenery alternated between rough, rocky, barren segments and nice views of the lake beyond the rocks and scrub. My favorite scene was another pair of ancient mud graves that rose like fortresses behind me. Further on, brown mountains drizzled with snow rose above them. It amazed me to find such a combination of history, culture and nature, right on a major roadside.

I’ve traveled this road about ten times in the past. But I realize by biking it how many villages and other sites I didn’t notice. Coming through on a bicycle lets me take in the places with all my senses, not just see a sight whipping by.

When I reached my destination, Tamchy, I flagged down an ancient red bus. The driver made room for my bike in the back and I walked down the aisle to the only open seat. Kyrgyz filled the bus – men in kalpaks and women in headscarves. When I sat down, the men turned and looked at me, with seemingly impressed expressions. My seatmate, who was drinking a homemade drink made of wheat, hops and milk, looked out at the mountains and said, “Each time you go to the mountains, they reveal one of their secrets to you.”

I couldn’t agree more. I breathed in the scent of alcohol, fish and dust and settled in for the slow, easy ride to Bishkek.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Biking around Issyk-Kul Day2: Ananyevo to Bosteri

March 25, 2006

I started out the second day of my ride wondering if I could get my legs to work for another day. Luckily, my planned ride – from Ananyevo to Bosteri, was modest. And I could look forward to a night in a sanatorium, complete with swimming pool filled with heated Issyk-Kul water.

In this segment, which covered the middle region of the northern edge, I moved through a greater variety of landscapes than on the first day. I started out on the poplar-lined road filled with cawing ravens. Then I moved past fields and collective farms and into a region filled with orchards. Small trees with tangled branches spread from the road to the lake on one side, and from the road to the mountains on the other. Clouds floated lazily above the snow capped peaks. Just a little snow dotted the fields, the last barrier to spring.

I spent my day listening to the birds and to the clomping of horses hooves, as a couple of children, or a family, would pass me in a horse-pulled wagon. In the village of Grigorievka, I watched boys playing soccer. In the village of Karagai-Bulak, I stopped to look at an ancient grave near a soccer field. The palace-like sand structure had probably stood for hundreds of years. And the grassy bumpy mounds nearby probably contained some kind of buried archeological treasures.

At my slow pace, I had time to look carefully at the graveyards as I passed – the structures shaped like mosques, like castles, and like towers. I noticed the many early deaths – the people who departed at age 15, 20, 30. And I noticed the prevelance of tombstones for people who died in their 40s or 50s. That seemed to be the median.

Shortly after Semyonovka, I saw a large white monument to Sadir-Ake (1821-1905). I don’t know who Sadir-Ake is, but it seemed to be the expensive monument built by the reputed Issyk-Kul bandit Rysbek. My taxi driver told me that Rysbek spent a million dollars on the monument. It was hard to believe it cost that much, but still, lugging marble to Issyk-Kul was probably not a cheap venture and the monument looks rather ostentatious on the shoreline, especially when illuminated at night.

After Grigorievka, the population became denser and I entered the smell of burning leaves and garbage. The road approached the lake and followed right along the barren, rocky shore, dotted with sheep. I could see the rocks beneath the turquoise water. On my right, orchards rose up to cloudy, snow-capped mountains.

Just past the place where the Kyrgyz and Kazakh leaders have lakeside homes, I found a mini tourist attraction, a revolving platform on a mountainside. I climbed up the stairs, passing a couple of middle-aged Kyrgyz women enroute. They were singing national Kyrgyz songs and swayed with light inebriation.

When I reached the top, I looked out at the sparkling mass of Issyk-Kul. Light blue streaks wove through dark blue, as though a paintbrush had moved through. I looked to either side and couldn’t see an end to the lake. The water seemed so still, so beautiful, and so remote from the life around it. It felt like an impressive journey to encircle this body of water, to mark with my presence an area that seems boundless.

Turning in the other direction, on the moving platform that only moves in summer, I looked out over red rock moving into snow-capped peaks.

I saw the images I’d viewed along the way, the people I’d met, in fragments, isolated parts of a whole that compose my image of Issyk-Kul, a private filmstrip that comes out differently for each person on each visit.

I spent the night at the Kyrgyzski Vozmore, a sanatorium popular among locals and Russians. It had a bit of a run-down, Soviet feel, but I loved the view of the lake I had from my balcony.

Guests eat dinner together during a one-hour dinner period. The administrator sat me with two women and a young girl. I learned that one woman was an economist and had come with her 13-year-old for a week. Both of them had red cheeks from their walk along the lake. The other woman had a daughter married to a US soldier and living in Watertown, New York. She waited for her daughter to reunite the family.

They told me that the sanatorium had hosted a concert at dinner the previous night in observance of the one-year anniversary of the revolution. I asked if it felt like a holiday concert to them.

“It felt like a day of rest,” the economist said, “but not as a holiday. So many people suffered. And the Turks lost everything in Beta Stores.”

She told me that she lives in an apartment in the city center. “My daughter was home alone with a friend. She stood on the balcony and watched everything.” She shook her head, ashamed.

“There were so many young men and they were really loud,” her blond daughter said. “It was scary.”

As the sun set, the guests played pool, table tennis and pinball, the sky and water turned pastel, and the world quieted.