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.

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