Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Trip to Illinois

During the holidays I took a short trip to Illinois. There I became acquainted with a new service – mobile notaries. We needed to have a document notarized and as always, were on the run. Instead of canceling our planned museum visit to go find a notary, we were able to call up a mobile notary, who would come to the museum on his bicycle to meet us. The service, including his signature, cost $5. And he showed up right on time. Very cool.

In Illinois, I took a Greyhound bus from Chicago to a rural town 1.5 hours away. I’ve taken enough Greyhounds in my life to know that the bus stations tend to be a collection point for the down and out in society. But it really disturbed me to see that on both the buses I took, a good 80 to 90 percent of the passengers were African American. That is in far disproportion to their actual representation in the population there and is a sign of their disproportionate overcrowding into the marginal segments of society.

Many people were overweight and unhealthy. At one 11:30 a.m. stop at a convenience store, the woman next to me ate Reeses Peanut Butter cups with a soda, the overweight woman across the aisle had a whole bag of junk, washing down Ritz Bitz with chocolate, and the man behind me crunched on Fritos while sipping a large soda.

While downtown Chicago is beautiful, the inner city areas where many of the passengers disembarked were run-down and depressing. They looked much worse than many areas of Kyrgyzstan.

It’s scary how in America, it’s possible for middle and upper class people to live with virtually no contact with these types of neighborhoods, with this type of life. It’s possible to almost forget that people live this way. And most people probably prefer to forget, because to admit such inequalities would be shameful.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Snow-free Christmas

It seems Kyrgyzstan is one of the only places in the world with a real winter, however mild. In Minnesota, the second coldest state after Alaska, there was no snow at all this Christmas. Luckily, the local ski slopes manufactured some snow themselves, so we were still able to pretend it was winter enough to go snowtubing.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Chocolate for Men

This is a new product, Chocolate for Men, by Nestle that appeared on the Bishkek shelves shortly before the holiday. Just to be rebellious, I bought one for my fiancé, then ate it. On the inside, it has little stamped pictures of women crossed out, like a no smoking sign on each square. It costs 30% more than the same amount of gender-neutral chocolate. I’d be very interested in hearing how and why Nestle came up with this idea.

Interesting developments in Central Asia

It doesn’t seem right to be writing at 5:20 a.m., especially when I’ve been up for most of the night. I’m at the airport, on my way home for the holidays. If anything below doesn’t make sense, you’ll know why.

This afternoon I heard a squeal come from my Maria’s, my boss’s office. She soon came out. “The President of Turkmenistan has died!” she said, with a smile. She is Kyrgyz. A former Turkmen colleague of hers SMSed her the news.

“What do you expect will happen?” I asked.

“Hopefully some positive changes.”

A Turkmen friend of mine recently got married in a hurry to a Georgian, for fear that her government was soon going to pass a law banning marriages to foreigners. From what I’ve read about Turkmenistan, Turkmenbashi’s portrait was everywhere. I wonder how they are going to dispose of, or memorialize, his face.

In Kyrgyzstan, the entire cabinet has resigned. The government is without an executive branch, except for the President. Even Kulov, Bakiyev’s duo, has put in his resignation.

What I told Maria I didn’t understand what is going on, she said they are playing. “According to the new Constitution, the Parliament has the responsibility to form a government. But the rules are very complicated. The President and the Executive want to show that the parliament isn’t capable of forming a government. If they fail two times, then the President can dissolve Parliament.”

“And Bakiyev will remain alone in the government?”


“He is hitri,” I said, a Russian word that means clever, somehow weasel-like. It doesn’t have a good direct translation.

“Yes, he’s not very smart, but he’s very hitri.”

The Kyrgyz government just goes from one crisis to the next. It’s only just over a month since the almost November revolution. Clearly, the President is still bitter over the threat to his rule. And he’s determined to discredit Parliament wherever possible.

In other news, the irresponsibility of Americans is getting play in Parliament. An American employee of the Manas military base shot and killed a Kyrgyz truck driver at 3 p.m. one afternoon. He claimed the man was behaving aggressively. At 3 a.m. I’d understand. But at 3 p.m., it’s harder to argue. The government claims the shooter had just been transferred from Iraq two weeks earlier and was still in a state of excitement. General opinion seems to be there was no evident reason to shoot this man.

And at the same time, the case of an American who hit and killed a Kyrgyz with a car in July, but was protected by immunity, is being brought up by parliamentaries. They want to remove immunity from employees of the military base and hold people responsible for their actions.

The three-day disappearance of Jill Metzger, also an employee of the U.S. military base, still remains a mystery. A parliamentarian says she just went for a walk. The situation is fishy – a video surveillance camera shows her leaving the Tsum department store by herself and she apparently had hair dye stains on her hands when she was found. But she claims she was held by force and beaten. No one knows for sure what happened except her, and both she and the U.S. government are being strangely silent. If there was a risk to U.S. citizens, one would think they’d tell those of us living here what happened. This is only conjecture, but one theory I came across on the web is that she was kidnapped by someone from the nearby Russian military base (which is located in the town where she reappeared). The diplomatic discomfort that would cause could explain the silence.

Though Kyrgyzstan has a well-developed network of radio-called taxis, as well as plenty of on-street competition, it can still be hard to reliably order a taxi.

Recently, I called a company at 7 and asked for a taxi to pick me up at 8:30.

“Call a bit later,” I was told.


“There are no cars available now.”

“I don’t need one now. I need one at 8:30. And I’m going to be on the phone until then. I’d like the taxi to be here when I get off.”

I could hear the dispatcher talking to her manager. “We can’t do that,” she said.

I said I’d call another company. Which I did. They took my order OK, but at 8:30, there was no taxi. I called again and they sent one out after the second call.

This evening I called at 10:15 and asked for a taxi at 10:45. At 10:45 there was no taxi. I called again.

“It’s already left,” the dispatcher told me. “It will be there in five minutes.”

So much for timeliness.

I’m very happy to be on my way home for the holidays. It’s too bad that I’ll miss my work holiday party, as well as the holiday celebrations I’m sure I could have experienced with my local friends. But it’s been too long since I’ve seen my loved ones and I’m really looking forward to the time with family and friends.

It should also be a productive trip. After two months of cross-oceanic wedding planning, we’re finally going to visit potential reception sites ourselves. Within a few days, we should have a definite date and location.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Spelling and passports

My friend Zhenya just called to ask me a word that rhymes with beak.

“Peak,” I said.

“How about silk?”


She said it was her son’s homework. That he’d done as much he could and she was helping him. But she didn’t know how to find these rhythms.

“What about look?” she asked.

At that point, I realized her son was being lazy.

“That’s easy,” I said. “Ask Algubek to try.”

I heard him make a halfhearted effort. But at 10:30 p.m., it was probably easier just to get his mom to do his homework. Rather than finish his homework for him, I gave her a suggestion.

“Have him write out the entire alphabet. Then go through it one letter at a time, replacing the first letter. Start with A. Aook. Nope. Then B. Book. There it is.”

She seemed to like that idea.

I must admit that getting calls asking me to find rhyming words for beak and silk is one of the things I like about living overseas. It’s unusual, unexpected, a little glimpse into what non-native English speakers spend their evenings doing.

Today Nigora turned in her application for an international Kyrgyz passport. The Kyrgyz have two passports – one for internal use, and a separate one for those who want to travel outside of the country. They weren’t accepting applications at all for the last two weeks. And the entire first week of January is going to be an official government holiday. So Nigora paid $150 for 8-day service, a huge amount of money for an average person in Osh.

But she needs the international passport in order to apply for a U.S. visa. And if she doesn’t get it, she can’t come to America. This is her once in a lifetime chance to see the West (she only saw Bishkek for the first time seven months ago).

In the period when the passport office wasn’t taking applications, she spent her days running around collecting any and all papers and documents that might be needed. In the evenings, she went over her checklist to make sure she’d done everything she could.

“At this point, nothing depends on me,” she said, after she’d collected everything she could. “It only depends on whether or not they’ll accept my application.”

We both feared that they might not. Or that they might angle for some kind of a bribe. I asked if she thought they were doing so.

“I don’t think so because everyone there is ready to offer money in order to get the passport they need. But they say they aren’t accepting applications, that they don’t have any passports available now.”

So we were both relieved when they took her application today and promised it back by the end of the month. I was more worried about her getting a Kyrgyz passport than I am about her getting a U.S. visa.

Given all the kind people who have shown me so much hospitality overseas in the past years, I’m very excited to finally be able to reciprocate and bring someone to my country who wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to visit. I wanted to invite my Siberian friend Ayuna as well, but unfortunately she’s expecting to deliver a child in the same month I invited her to come.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Kazakhstan in daylight

I regularly fly in and out of Almaty, but since the flights always leave and arrive at the crack of dawn, until yesterday, I’d never seen Kazakhstan in daylight.

The scenery between the border and Almaty was pretty similar to what I could see in the lifting blackness – snow dusted golden steppes and plains, snowy peaks in the distance, scattered small towns.

It was dark by the time we got to Almaty, but cars filled the streets in an endless traffic jam and people walked and waited for buses home from work. We drove around for a long time looking for our destination. In that time, I noticed a lot of upscale cafes and restaurants, especially Asian, and very impressive New Year’s decorations and lighting. Trees glimmered with fine lights, blue and gold bulbs resembled sheets of illumination cascading from buildings and storefronts.

“You can really feel New Year’s here, can’t you,” my colleague Aizhana remarked.

“You can tell this is a big city, not a little town like Bishkek,” Maria said.

From Almaty we transferred into SUVs and headed up a mountain to the Chum Bulak resort. The roads were remarkably smooth and the driver seemed to enjoy swerving back and forth along the curves. Then we started to head uphill. At times, it seemed almost vertical. But the road remained smooth and well-maintained. Ahead of us stretched a yellow ribbon of the lighted path leading up the mountain. A sign indicated we had 3400 meters to climb, then others indicated the progress we’d made.

At the bottom of the mountain is a famous skating rink, called Medeo. Chum Bulak is supposed to be the best place in Kazakhstan for skiing. I brought my skis here to try it out, but it seems unlikely that there will be enough snow. From our lodge at the end of the road, a five hour path leads to a glacier. It would be possible to hike from here to Lake Issyk-Kul, over the mountains that separate the two countries.

I compare this place with the Kyrgyz resort, Kashka-Suu, where we held a seminar two winters ago. There, it was cold and basic. There was no skiing available at that time, no skating, and we weren’t allowed to go up the chairlift for a view. People shivered and several returned sick.

Here, I lucked out and ended up with my own room with a private bath, reliable electricity and hot water. The room is so warm that I have to open the window. Yes, I woke up last night to find a bat in my room. But besides that, it’s really nice and comfortable. And the food is fantastic – chicken breast with melted cheese and mushrooms, stir-fried vegetables, dried fruit platters, fish baked in tinfoil. I feel like a country hick marveling at life in the big city – except we are up in the mountains!

We’ve had little contact with the people, other than the drivers and resort service staff, but they seem quieter and more reserved than the Kyrgyz – few smiles, little small talk.

It’s been a busy month, between Osh, Kazakhstan, and soon, America. But I’m glad to have the chance to at glimpse at our large and rapidly developing neighboring country.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Departure from Osh

I spent the majority of the day trying to get out of Osh. My flight was delayed for hours due to the fog, which is a common occurrence in the winter.

The airport was busier than I’d ever seen it before. Cars packed the parking lot, the road that went nearest the entrance was blocked off, and crowds of people milled around. Near the front doors, people had set up tables and chairs outside and were grilling shashlik over coals, their breath mingling with the smoke from the grill.

“People are going to Hajj,” Malan said.

“They must have become more wealthy in the past year or two for so many to be flying.”

“Buses aren’t allowed this year. People can only go by air.”

He told me it had cost $700 to travel by bus, almost $1500 by plane.

“Who can ban buses from going? And why?”

“The head mullah in Kyrgyzstan banned them. The trip is too long and too difficult. Especially going through Russia, where they have a lot of problems at the border and the temperature is cold. Last year several old people died enroute due to the difficulties. So this year, they decided not to allow buses.”

I thought that made it harder for people to afford the trip. But he thought it was OK. He said that the rich Arabs used to feel sorry for the poor people who traveled such a long distance and in such discomfort by bus.

“They’d give them $10,000 or $20,000 as a source of assistance. But they’d hand it to the driver and he’d put it in his pocket. I’ve heard such stories,” Malan said in his singsong voice, that seems to take pride in the amount and breadth of his knowledge.

Malan is a great guy. I would have suspected him of being a spy sometime in his past life if I wasn’t convinced of how important it is for him to lead a life with a clean heart, without guilt or regret for what he engages in.

He doesn’t sit idly in his free time, but is always talking to people and finding things out, from modern farming techniques to what the current political intrigues are.

We passed a group of people gathered in the city. I asked what was going on and he didn’t know. A while later, the group had grown substantially larger.

“Malan, you know everything,” I said. “How can you not know what’s going on?”

“You know, that’s the prosecutor’s building,” he said. “I heard that there is a fight between two deputies. First they stripped one of his mandate and put the other one in. Now they are stripping the second. And those are probably people there to complain.”

He paused. “You know, if someone asked me to stand out in the cold to support a deputy, I wouldn’t do it because I have a full-time job. Those are people who don’t have enough to do. And right now it’s very easy to gather such people for a protest. But if we develop to the point at which people have enough work and they are well paid, they won’t be able to find people to stand around for them.”

He showed me the café where a deputy was recently shot, a popular traditional café on a central street.

According to Malan, the deputy was sitting with some people in a separate, private room that had a window looking out onto the back of the lot. Apparently he was sitting in front of the window. And the assassin shot him through the window.

“It was so clean that there was just a single, little hole in the window. And nobody even heard anything. Even the deputy didn’t realize he’d been shot in the back of the head. They say his last words were, ‘What, did somebody turn on the heat in here or something?’ then his head fell forward onto the table.”

“Was the killer caught?”

“No, and he never will be.”

The second week of December seems to be the start date for beginning New Year’s preparations in Bishkek. I hadn’t seen any signs of the holiday when I left one week ago. But today I returned to sights of people decorating trees, to happy new year’s banners hanging across shops, and kiosks selling small plastic trees and brightly colored tinsel.

I have a very short time here. Only enough to unpack, do a quick load of laundry, and repack for a departure tomorrow to Almaty. I’ll be spending three nights in Kazakhstan at a seminar. While I’m a bit homesick for my apartment, I’ve never actually spent a night in Kazakhstan and I’m looking forward to a little exploration of my neighboring country. And I’m especially looking forward to skiing on Sunday at Kazakhstan’s premier ski resort. I’ll have to see whether it’s able to compare with Karakol.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Kara-Suu traders

Today I made a trip to Kara-Suu, the most important southern bazaar, on the border with Uzbekistan. It’s a place of contrasts. While it is an incredible generator of wealth and many average people have made their fortunes there, it’s also a very drab and depressing place.

When heading in that direction, the air becomes dusty, the fog clouds the sky and covers the land. A woman in a black headscarf and a long black coat crossed the road, in between snow-dusted fields. The fog, the emptiness, the long woman in black created a lonely sight.

Today was wholesale day, and car after car passed us loaded beyond imagination with boxes, panes of glass, rolls of blankets or fabric, tied bundles of clothing. The tires looked like they’d collapse under the weight, not to mention the roofs of the old Soviet cars.

“The fog and the bad weather don’t bother them,” our driver, Malan, said. “Business continues.”

He told me they were Uzbek traders who come to Kyrgyzstan to buy Chinese goods. They are cheaper here because of the high tariffs Uzbekistan puts on imports.

“And there are women inside those cars too. Imagine how they can fit!” He said that woman dominated the trade business because they can fight with border guards more effectively than men.

“It’s all illegal, but they find a way to get it in. They’ve been sitting there since 3 a.m. this morning. And then they have to sell it secretly in Uzbekistan. I talk to them sometimes and they tell me it’s not like here where people can sell openly.”

“Good thing you ended up on this side of the border,” I said.

“If I ended up there, I’d leave. I couldn’t live like that. People in Uzbekistan used to live better than us. But not now.”

He told me most of these traders used what’s called a black entrance – a house that is located right on the border. “The front door can be in Kyrgyzstan and the back gate opens into Uzbekistan. The owner of the house pays the border guards a certain amount so they look the other way. They act like they don’t see anything. Then the owner offers traders to allow them to transport their goods through his property for 200 som ($5).”

In the past few months, now that more promising banks are working in Kyrgyzstan, I’ve been encouraging my local friends and colleagues to think about their futures and save, even if a little. This goes very much against the mentality generated by the bank failure and the devalued currency of the 1990s – spend all you have or at least buy some of value.

Investments, especially in real estate and cattle, are a common and good way of saving money here. But plenty of people don’t have enough to buy real estate, and don’t have the time or space to raise cattle. For them, it’s a shame to have money sitting under the mattress when banks are offering 10 to 11 percent annual interest on deposits.

Also, with the very low levels of pensions offered, which are virtually impossible to live on, young people need to start thinking of their futures in a way their predecessors didn’t have to.

Today I brought some brochures about savings products to the office. Malan, our driver, Baktigul, our office manager, and Valentina, the guard and cleaner, looked at them with interest. Then they began a spirited discussion amongst themselves about what was the best way to save. The previous day, after we’d discussed savings over our chicken dinner, Baktigul calculated how much she’d have if she saved with interest over 20 days.

“It was quite a large sum,” she said, raising her hand to her neck to indicate it would be more than enough to meet her needs.

Malan put 70,000 som he’d saved into a piece of land where he hopes to eventually build a home for his retirement. “Within a few months of buying it, it wouldn’t go for less than 100,000 som. That was my good investment!”

Baktigul wondered if she’d do better than a deposit if she were to buy a calf on credit and have her parents raise it into a cow, then sell it at a profit.

I listened from a distance and thought it was great to hear three people, of three different nationalities, and three different decades, talking openly about how to best invest and prepare for the future. They all have dreams and I hope they are able to reach them.

Tonight is my seventh night in Osh. It’s been wonderful to catch up with the family, with staff, to see the city again, to feel its vibrant current. But in these kind of accommodations, it’s much tougher in the winter than the summer. I’ve actually been longing for my apartment, wishing I could have the Osh city and company with my Bishkek living standards.

I’m tired of going to sleep worried that I’m drugging myself with carbon monoxide, with timing my activities based on the availability of heating, electricity, or an indoor toilet, of sleeping till the very last minute because it’s just too cold to get up and do anything in the morning. I’m looking forward to a hot shower, to my washing machine, to the temperature-controlled climate, to the indoor toilet.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Surprise Chicken Dinner

On Friday morning, Baktigul, our office manager, asked if I wanted her kill a chicken for dinner.

“We still have 12 and the feed isn’t worth the cost of keeping them,” she said. “We could kill one and have a soup in the office tonight.”

“Fine,” I said. I didn’t care too much either way.

When I returned to the office after the meeting, she opened the door holding a goosebumped, defeathered chicken corpse in her hand. The neighbor, Valentina, a middle-aged woman who works part-time as the cleaner and security guard, was helping her.

“The problem is that the electricity is still out and it takes a lot of gas to boil water with the generator,” Baktigul said. “So we’re waiting for the electricity to come back on, though it means dinner might be late.”

“OK, whatever,” I said, feeling this was definitely not an area for me to intervene.

When I took Malan to a meeting, Baktigul made arrangements with him to pick up some vegetables on the way back. A while later she called me.

“Do you want to invite your family to the office to eat?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, continuing to go along with the plan. If she thought there would be enough for an extra five people, fine.

When I returned in the evening, I brought some salads, fruit and pastries I’d picked up on the way. I found a large table set with a white lace tablecloth. A warm aroma of boiling broth filled the air. Malan diced dill and cilantro while Valentina and Baktigul completed the finishing touches, setting out the boxes of juice and round, yeasty lepushkas Malan brought.

By the time the family filed in the door, it looked as nice as a restaurant banquet. Baktigul set a plate of boiled potatoes and carrots in the center. Another plate held the chicken, cut into small pieces. We each received a steaming bowl of broth, into which we could put whatever we wanted. There was grated carrot salad, a red bean and onion salad, a cabbage salad, and a salad with grated beets, walnuts and mayonnaise. We had a chocolate-covered wafer cake, a selection of chocolate cookies, and bow-shaped pastries filled with cottage cheese and apples.

After all that work, the chicken turned out a little rubbery. But everything else was delicious. And best of all was the conversation. Me, Malan, Baktigul, Valentina, Nigora, Shavkat, Lutfulo, Habib and Faruh sat at the table for three hours laughing and chatting.

Valentina, who appears Russian, has a son, daughter-in-law and grandson in Moscow. She and her husband would like to move to Moscow, but can’t sell their house for enough money to buy a flat in Russia. Her son’s wife is Kyrgyz and the girl’s parents had been against the marriage because they wanted her to marry a Kyrgyz.

Baktigul, a Kyrgyz, is facing the same problem. She has a Tatar boyfriend whom she hopes to marry next year. But her parents are against it because of his ethnicity.

In the U.S., attention is usually focused on racism, overt or subconscious, among Caucasians. But I don’t hear much about racism coming from other ethnic groups, though it can be just as common and virulent.

“The Kyrgyz don’t think of it as racism,” Baktigul told me, “but tradition.”

Valentina agreed. “Whatever ethnic group a woman marries into, that becomes her group and she’s expected to adopt their customs and traditions, losing her own.”

She said it got so bad with her son that the girl’s relatives beat him up. I don’t know how they eventually went through with the wedding.

“Maybe our children will be free to choose their own spouses and for their ethnicity not to matter,” Baktigul said. “But today, it’s still the parents who make the decision.” I couldn’t help crossing my fingers that she’d find a way to marry the person she loved, and not give him up because of the group he was born in to.

“The Uzbeks are even worse than the Kyrgyz in trying to keep their children within their ethnic group,” Nigora, an Uzbek, said. “But all of us, if we look far enough back, are all mixed to a certain extent. My family is mixed with the Uighurs.”

“And I’m Arab!” Malan, an Uzbek, said, pointing to his chest with pride.

We talked about the people we knew, the news we’d heard, about the development and future of the city. We gossiped, debated and laughed until 9:30, which tends to feel like midnight in winter Osh.

I returned home with the family in their little white Tico, which feels like riding in a tiny plastic model car. They gave me the front seat. Nigora and the three boys somehow squeezed into the back, which comfortably seats two. We puttered along the bumpy, dark streets to home. Laying in bed, near the warmth of my coal fire, I looked forward to a calm, quiet, weekend.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Coming Back to Osh

It’s both good and hard to be home. The company can’t be beat and the evening conversations around the dinner table are enlightening and missed. In the past two nights, we’ve had plov, boiled duck, homemade raspberry jam, home-baked round loaves of bread, and fried apple pastries. We’ve talked about tourism, about the political situation, about the educational system, about Uzbekistan, about Kyrgyz/Uzbek relations. They are all kind, energetic, thoughtful and insightful.

But I’ve definitely gotten unused to the simple living conditions. Last night I ate dinner, indoors, with a blanket over my shoulders and another over my head. It was so cold walking out, across the icy pathway, to the bathroom, that it’s easy to skip on teeth-brushing or other evening rituals, with the goal of just getting back inside where it’s warm. Knowing that the bathroom was available to me until morning made it seem that much more desirable.

My paper-hoarding habits returned, with my seeing any possible piece of unneeded paper as a potential source of heat.

The stove and heavy blankets kept me warm at night, but by morning the fire had already died. And I needed to go back out in the cold to take a shower. Hot water poured from the spigot, but the tiles below, on which I went barefoot, were frigid.

I stayed under the spray for a long time, dreading the thought of having to drip in the unheated bathhouse, then walk back outside across the courtyard to my now unheated room.

As soon as I got back to my room, I crawled under the covers, finding bed the warmest place. Nigora came in to bring me tea and soon after carried in the small space heater. I felt bad causing her to worry.

For the first time I went into the regional administration building today, the hulking white square structure across from the Lenin statue. A long strip of cloth, which looked like a rag, ran down the front steps. A similarly ragged cloth lay across the four flights of steps leading upstairs. I suppose it was to protect the carpets from wet feet. But it looked tacky.

The building itself was nice, with high ceilings, red carpets under the rags, and large golden nameplates on the doors. But it smelled like a stolovaya, with the scent of cabbage and lamb fat wafting through the halls.

I saw many of our staff. And it was especially rewarding to see the people I’d hired myself in the past 1-2 years, as well as other inexperienced staff I’d worked with and trained, now in positions of responsibility.

“The results increased by three times since I’ve been in charge,” one man in his mid-20s said with evident pride.

Another young woman from a rural area, who looked quiet and modest in a headscarf, I know is actually extremely intelligent. She got a scholarship to a high-quality Turkish university in Bishkek, speaks fluent English, and is now in charge of a team of one.

“I’ve selected another person who is now in training and we’ll soon get one more employee,” she said, her eyes glowing at her team’s growth.

I could see their confidence, their leadership, and their professional development in their appearance and demeanor, not to mention their dialogue. Best of all, a market for such people, with experience, knowledge and skills, is starting to develop. While before, only connections mattered. Now, some employers are clearly willing to pay for the people who can do the job, whether they have connections or not. This trend ensures a promising future, professionally and financially, for our staff and I’m happy to see them gain such opportunities.

It’s cold in Osh now and there is not much to enjoy in terms of the scenery. Like usual, it’s the people who really make Osh the welcoming and colorful place it is.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Ski Season Opens

December 3, 2006

For some reason, I haven’t had much motivation to write lately. Maybe it’s a lack of time, maybe a lack of exciting events, maybe I’m losing the eye for detail that happens with prolonged time in one place. But I’m feeling like I don’t have much to say.

Today I welcomed in the ski season with a trip to Tuguz Bulak, a ski base about an hour outside Bishkek.

“Is there enough snow?” I asked Boris, the trip organizer.

“Of course, there is lots!” he said.

He was lying. While the chairlift was running, the lower slopes were brown with the earth showing through the snow. I went down once - to inaugurate my brand new skis, to make sure I remembered how to ski (I made it down with no poles and no falls!), and to not make it a completely wasted day.

I spent the rest of the day in the chalet, reading The Great Game, one of the best historical books I’ve ever come across and a very insightful look at the great power intrigues played across Central Asia.

The ski business is clearly developing in Kyrgyzstan. Work on two new cottages was underway, the parking lot was full and customers packed the chalet. But customer service has lagged far behind the progress in chairlifts and buildings. The waiter yelled at me and others in turn for bringing our skis inside, saying they’d be fine outside but refusing to take any responsibility for them. They won’t allow people to leave their belongings indoors, forcing most people to base themselves either out of their cars or outdoor picnic tables. And this same waiter made me feel guilty for taking up space (one seat on a bench for 4 or 5), despite the fact that I welcomed any customers who wanted to sit at my table.

He made me move in order to make room for a party of eight. So I ended up in a corner, where another party of 8 or so soon came. He saved this table for them, refusing to allow others to sit there, even though these people brought their own food and bought only drinks and a few bowls of soup from the café. Somehow they’d been deemed important though.

Though I tried to focus on my book, as my table-mates drank more and more, I ended up getting pulled into conversation with them. While I love the nature and the sport of skiing in Kyrgyzstan, it’s a strange experience for me to suddenly be surrounded by so many privileged people – people I generally have little interaction with and don’t always feel comfortable around.

The guy next to me, let’s call him Rysbek, was focused on flirting with me. But in between pick-up lines, he told me he’s finishing his Ph.D. at the end of this month and is the Chairman of the Board of a rural credit union, with $50,000 in personal capital. He couldn’t have been more than 30 years old, making me wonder where he got so much money. This credit union charges 30% interest per year, paid on the original amount borrowed.

I found his friend, Nurbek, more interesting. He was an assistant to Akaev and works as a procurement consultant for several international organizations. In his spare time he breeds rare dogs and horses at his country home. He seemed cultured and intelligent and wants to get together and talk sometime, saying he felt I had an analytical mind.

He told the group how he had an American girlfriend, Carrie, when he was a student in Moscow. “We lived together, and we almost married,” he said. “She was such a strong feminist. Sometimes I’d do something like offer my hand when she was getting out of the car and she’d say no, she could do it herself. But she was something else, very capable and self-reliant.”

“Why didn’t you marry her?” I asked.

“Because of my mother,” he said. “She was strongly against it. She said that as the oldest son, I had the duty to come back and live in Kyrgyzstan. I needed to have a Kyrgyz wife and Kyrgyz children. She wouldn’t even consider it.”

I marveled that he’d listen to his mother and succumb to her pressure from the distance he had in Moscow. And I found it tragic that he threw away his love and his opportunity for an international life because of the pressures of tradition.

“It sounds like the movie, Sunduk Predkov,” I said, referring to a locally popular recent movie about a Kyrgyz man and a French woman in love. “But he was able to convince his family.”

I asked if he found himself a Kyrgyz woman.

“Seven years later I did,” he said.

“And did Carrie marry?”

“Yes. But we still keep in touch sometimes, and write each other letters.”

He said that he’s spent about two months in Washington, D.C. on trainings and what surprised him most was the strict rules regarding interactions between men and women.

“It can take a month to get to the point of where you can ask someone out,” he said. “The sexual revolution and the quick relationships that characterized it have past. This made a positive impression on me.”

It was good to hear something positive about the U.S. Because earlier this week, I attended a classical music concert with one of our employees, Natalia, an intelligent and motivated 24-year-old. I handed her a summary of the news I’d picked up in English, thinking she’d like the practice. Iraq and Afghanistan led the headlines.

“Do you want to live in America?” she asked me.

I didn’t know how to answer her. I told her that my friends and family are there and they provide the main draw. And there are some good things. But the political situation is disheartening and I get bored there when I stay too long.

“I used to want to live in America,” she said. “But not anymore.”

I asked why.

“I’d rather go to Europe, because I think the societies there have values closer to ours. I’d still like to travel to America, but just not live there.”

To me, America falling from the place of Natalia’s dreams was more serious than any military or political loss. It means that a bright, motivated, talented young person no longer sees the U.S. as a place to fulfill her dreams. Instead, Europe shines brighter.

In Bishkek, the maniac seems to have disappeared from the scene. I don’t hear much about him, other than someone occasionally dissuading another from walking at night. My co-worker, Aizhana, said he was caught.

“The police spoke on the TV and said they’d got him.”

“Did they show a picture of him?”


“Did they say his name? Anything about him? Where he’s from? What might have motivated him?”

“No, just that he was crazy.”

“Did they ever name the victims? Did any of their relatives talk on TV?”


I didn’t think I’d heard any of those details, but I wanted to check. Based on her answers to my questions, I think I have to join my friend’s theory that there never was a maniac, that it was a scare conveniently thought up by those in power to keep people off the streets and to make Bishkek residents afraid of young Kyrgyz-speaking men from the south.

Given that it gets dark early now, I take taxis more frequently than I used to. But I’m starting to regain my comfort level.