almost 3 weeks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
I arrived in Manas International Airport (Which is also a US Military base) at somewhere around 4:00 in the morning. I had a total of five flights and was exhausted. A man waved me through customs and immigrations and I continued to find my two bags with the help of 3 old Kyrgyz ladies that I befriended on my flight from Turkey. I walked out of the terminal to see a large group of people holding up a bunch of signs. I spotted one with my name on it and was greeted by my host father, Ruslan, and my host aunt Gulmeera. The drive back from the airport was nothing short of terrifying. My host father drove well over a hundred miles an hour. Seat belts? I don't think so! After we dropped off aunt Gulmeera at her apartment building, for the remainder of the drive, my host dad started talking really fast in Russian and Kyrgyz, and I had no idea what he was saying. I decided to repeat the last word he would say, nod, and say yes. It seemed to work. We arrived home, I was showed to my room, then I slept until about 1:00 in the afternoon. My first day, my host dad, my 11 year old brother Beklar and I went to the mountains. From where we were standing, we could see all of Bishkek. He pointed his finger to the north and told me that that was Kazakhstan. Later, we went into the city with aunt Gulmeera and went out to lunch. I tried sheep for the first time, and surprisingly, it was actually really good. I've also tried ram, lamb, horse, fermented horse milk, and the most memorable, dried, salted, horse milk that was rolled into balls... After lunch, they showed me the city, then it was time to go to sleep.
I started school a week ago, and its been great. All of my classmates are kind, and helpful, so it was easy to make friends. None of my teachers speak English, and only a few of my classmates do, so my Russian is improving quickly, especially since my host family doesn't either. In school, I doodle, attempt to take notes, answer ridiculous questions the students ask me ( Such as, "Have you met Denzel Washington?" "Joe, do you love me?" "Sarah Palin is the queen of Alaska, right?" And many more) sleep, study Russian and make friends. School is only from 8:00 to 11:30, so the rest of the day is usually spent walking around the city, going to parks, visiting one of the countless bazaars, and much more. To get home from school, I take the Marshrutka. The Marshrutka is a brightly colored minibus that if you pay 2 cents, will take you to a destination in the city. Lets just say you get what you pay for. There are about 8 seats in a Marshrutka but today I counted 32 people in one. Usually, I have one hand on my wallet, and one hand on the pole holding for dear life. It's basically a god send to have a seat on a Marshrutka. When you need to get off, you yell, "остановить!!" (Stop!!) And the driver will slam on the brakes and give you about 2 seconds to get off.
Kyrgyzstan is not a perfect country, it has many problems, and it's not hard to see them/be exposed to them in daily life here. The poverty, ethnic tensions, corruption, the lack of sanitation, it was very shocking for me my first week here. But now that I'm becoming more used to it, I'm starting to see past it all and I'm now enjoying myself. Its not uncommon to have little girls trying to dig in your pockets and steal your money, or see the poverty. Its not strange anymore to see men passed out drunk on the sidewalk, or literally walk in trash sometimes because of almost nonexistent sanitation system. I'm not trying to talk people out of going to Kyrgyzstan, its a wonderful country, with welcoming people, and strong vibrant culture, but I'm not going to lie either and only tell the sunny side of things. Future exchange students should try to understand that when they get off that plane, their lives are going abruptly change. Nothing can prepare you for his experience, but try to come with no expectations, because it will never be what you thought it would be. I would like to thank my family in Florida for all the support whom I miss dearly, and for the Rotarians that made this all possible. THANK YOU!
Here's just some of the differences and things I've noticed in Kyrgyzstan
-Kyrgyz squirrels are orange
-Stray dogs are everywhere, and sometimes they run in packs around town
-If you go out in the country or suburbs, cows, horses, sheep and even camels can be seen in the streets
-Women here either dye their hair either maroon or blonde
-There are large holes, and random metal object sticking out of the ground always waiting to trip me
-Gypsies hate getting there photo taken, and sometimes may try to give you a cat
-After almost 3 weeks, my 5 year old host sister Ademi, many classmates, and most of the teachers think my name is John
-Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, but sometimes you'll see a women in a full burqa next to a women in high heals and a mini skirt
-A few days ago I saw a man carrying a baby cow on a moped
Asalaam Alakoum, eshterim zhakshi bi? For all you non Kyrgyz speakers out there, Hello everyone, how's life?
People always want to know what it is like to live in Kyrgyzstan, so I am going to do my best in this journal to explain. As of right now, Central Asia is the least explored region of the world. It has earned nicknames such as "Land of The Stans", Because Central Asia consists of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Another nickname, is 'Absurdistan'. All the Central Asian countries (excluding Afghanistan) were once part of the Soviet Union. Now, 21 years later, there is a movement in these countries to reclaim their identity as Kyrgyz or Tajiki, their religion Islam, their culture, and of course their language. Kyrgyzstan has two official languages- Kyrgyz and Russian. My Russian is far better than my Kyrgyz, but I am learning both.
I have a few favorite pass times here in Bishkek. Americans may like to watch Football, but the National sport of Kyrgyzstan, Ulaktartish is far more entertaining. Ulaktartish is an old game played by nomadic Kyrgyz. It is a mix of Rugby and Polo, on horseback, but instead of a ball, the Kyrgyz people decided to use a decapitated goat carcass. Nothing sets off the weekend like an Ulaktartish party. The city of Bishkek is filled with many bazaars (Outdoor markets). Bishkek also contains the largest bazaar in Central Asia- Dordoi Bazaar. However, my personal favorite is Osh Bazaar. I'm not sure how to explain Osh Bazaar. This market in particular is known for being dangerous, hectic, loud and dirty. Whoever told me that was right! Osh Bazaar is a place where you can by fruits and vegetables, dishwashers, any part of a sheep, knock off purses and bags, your neighbors cow, basically anything possible. If you visit, make sure you are a good bargainer, keep your hand on your wallet, and never look the gypsies in the eyes.
Kyrgyzstan is still highly undeveloped. 3/5 million of Kyrgyzstan citizens either live in small villages in extreme isolation, or are still practicing nomads. If taking a trip outside Bishkek, you are bound to see a LOT of yurts. What is a yurt? Well, a yurt is a circular felt tent made of animal skins, and nomadic Kyrgyz still live in them with their cattle, and migrate seasonally. However, not all the nomadic traditions are acceptable nowadays, although still practiced. One 'tradition' is bride kidnappings. Some nomadic Kyrgyz families believe it is socially acceptable if a young woman is not married, that a man has the right to forcefully take her and force her to do so. Most of the time, families of the groom and of the bride know about the wedding. Once the girl has the wedding veil on, the wedding evident in Kyrgyz culture. Approx 1/3 of Kyrgyz marriages are bride kidnappings or forcefully arranged. But, this is only practiced in small villages or in nomadic families. There are many human rights groups working in Kyrgyzstan against this practice.
Kyrgyzstan is 95 % mountains, and it is filled with high mountain lakes (Second highest in the world) forests, barin landscapes and rolling hills of the Tien Shan. Kyrgyzstan is a very ethnically diverse country, There are 40 ethnic groups, and out of my class of 25, there are 3 Uzbeks, 2 Russians, 2 Uighyurs , 1 Korean and an Afghan, all of which are from Kyrgyzstan.
Northern Kyrgyzstan, where Bishkek lies, is currently safe and peaceful. Southern Kyrgyzstan is both culturally vibrant and extremely unstable due to rising ethnic tensions with Uzbekistan. The southern cities of Jalal-Abad and Osh, endured the worst violence in Kyrgyzstan ever 2 years ago because of ethnic fighting. Also in 2010, Kyrgyzstan's former President Kurmanbak Bakiyev fled the country after violent protests erupted in Bishkek. As I said in my first journal, I am not going to only tell the sunny side of things.
I am SO so happy that I was chosen to spend my year in Kyrgyzstan. Despite the problems the country may have, I LOVE Kyrgyzstan, and it is my home. Time is going by quickly now, and I am able to speak comfortably in Russian, but I still have far to come on my Kyrgyz. Again, THANK YOU ROTARY! Anyone who is thinking about applying for Exchange, please do it!
January 1st, 2012.
Over 4 months in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan!
Happy New year!
NOVEMBER: In November, Kyrgyzstan had its presidential elections. This was very interesting to observe since the past presidential elections haven't exactly gone smoothly. But luckily for me, there was no major rioting and only minor protests. In the end, Almazbek Atambaev won, and is now the current president of Kyrgyzstan. I also got to go to his inauguration. Soon after that, I went to the namaz prayer with my first host father. I had never seen so many people in one place before. Thousands of Muslim men all congregated together and prayed. it was definitely one of the more interesting things I've witnessed.
A week later, the Rotaract president and friend of mine, Daniyar, called me and asked me if I wanted to go with him and his parents to western Kyrgyzstan for the weekend. I said why not? The next day I was off to the village of Dzongtala in the Issyk Kul region of Kyrgyzstan. It was a five hour drive from Bishkek, and we drove on the border of Kazakhstan for a 2 hours then drove in the windy roads in the Tien Shan. Finally, we reached a mountain peak where we could see the village. Near the border of China,. nestled in the Tien Shan, Dzongtala is a small village filled with more sheep, cows, donkeys and horses I have ever seen in my life. It is home to a few hundred people, and I was told I am the only foreigner these people have ever seen, and for most the only one they will ever see.
The purpose of the visit was to finalize the marriage of one Daniyar's cousins. After a couple has been married and had there first child, the marriage is only finalized when the child has taken its first steps. While on the property, I saw that his family had a large number of animals. I befriended a nice sheep that I named Jonathan. Later that night, Jonathan was tied up and brought out for everyone to see. I thought everyone was going to pet it, but then I saw the knife being pulled out, and only then did I realize Jonathan was dinner. While everyone else was chowing down on Jonathan, I was told 'Oh eat him Joe! Jonathan is delicious!' I was also told that this family goes through 3 'Jonathans' a month. The next day, I went Donkey riding and horse back riding in the Tien Shan. I have never felt more Kyrgyz.
The mountains surrounding the village are so high and beautiful, all of which are snow covered. I also was able to see how poor most of Kyrgyzstan really is. Most of the homes are made of mud, and are falling apart. The water system is horrible, and most people have to walk to a river about a mile from the village to obtain drinkable water. Rotaract in Bishkek is hoping to do a water project there, which I'm hoping to help with.
DECEMBER: Christmas wasn't exactly 'Christmas'. On Christmas Eve. Two other exchange students, Josette from Alaska, and Greg from Nebraska and I went to an American restaurant Called Metro Pub. The only American restaurant in Bishkek that has food that actually tastes like American food, crazy right? We exchanged our presents and had fun. The place was flooding with Americans. Believe it or not, Bishkek has a large number of American expats because of the American military base. I can't tell you how many American contractors I met that night.
On Christmas day, I woke up, and opened up my presents from America. I then went to one of the 2 churches in Bishkek with my English teacher from school who is from Russia. After that, I went home and watched Madea's family Reunion on TV in Russian, took a nap, then Skyped my family back home. It wasn't exactly 'Christmas', but it wasn't so bad. A few days ago, Josette and I were walking in a department store and ran into a pair of American flight attendants who were stuck in Bishkek for the week. They work for OMNI air, transporting American soldiers in Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Anyways, we served as their tour guides and translators for the day. We showed them the biggest bazaar in Central Asia, took them on their first marshrutka ride, laughed at their reaction to fermented horse milk, and so much more. We had a great time. They will be back in Bishkek in about a month and hope to do something similar again.
NEW YEARS: On New Years Eve, I went bazaar shopping with my host brother and later that evening I went and visited my first host family. They were all happy to see me, and my little sister Ademi, who's 5 insisted on me being a 'horse' and running around the house while she was on my back. I went back to my new host family and celebrated with them. My host grandma came over, and a few of my host cousins. it was a lot of fun, and I even got a home made 'Shyrdak', a wool blanket that my host mom hand made.
Next week, the other exchange students and I may go on a day trip to the neighboring city of Tokmok for fun. In April my American parents are coming to visit and in may, I hopefully will go to Turkey for my district conference. I'm half way through my exchange, and I can hardly believe it. Time is going by all too fast, and I'm told it will only go faster after Christmas. Congratulations and good luck to all the newly selected outbounds! Until next time
February 2, 2012
Feb 2nd- over 5 months in Kyrgyzstan
I can't believe I'm over my half way point already, time really flies, but I'm really enjoying my self here.
In January, me, Josette (Alaska) and my friend Jason who is a Peace Corp volunteer in Bishkek were able to get a tour of the American Military base outside Bishkek. It was strange being around so many Americans again, I noticed how much I've changed culturally and felt almost out of place at times. The soldiers were very interested in us, since civilians are seldom allowed on base. Everyone was so nice to us, and they let us steal some of the American food and bring it back to Bishkek with us. I am now in possession of a ridiculous amount of Poptarts. I thought it was funny that some of the soldiers who lived on base didn't even know how to say Kyrgyzstan. The military personnel often do charity work in the more impoverished areas of Kyrgyzstan. They told us about projects such as distributing coats, rebuilding homes, and helping with clean water supply which is a big problem in rural parts of the country.
The next weekend, I went snow skiing. I went with a few people from a Rotaract group, up in the mountains maybe an hour from Bishkek. I was told that they would have bunny slopes and easier hills to try first, since I have never skied before. Well, it turned out that they didn't, the only slopes offered were extremely advanced, steep, and impossible for a beginner. I decided to give it a shot. I fell the grand total of 42 times. At first I thought I could do it, then the skis just started going super fast, and that's when I realized this just wasn't going to work out. After falling a bunch, I tried a new method by trying to lay down on my belly, and try to boogie board down the mountain. This resulted in a series of bruises all over me. Next, I tried to slide down on my back, but was almost ran over by some people who could actually stand up on there skis, so in the end, I walked, slid, and fell down the mountain until the bottom which took about 2 hours. I have decided I never want to ski again. But no one can say I didn't try.
A few days ago, me and my friends Islam and Nursalton decided to go to Tokmok for the day. Tokmok is a smaller city an hour and a half away from Bishkek. We took a taxi on the way there, and we were slowed down on the way because a herd of sheep got into the road. I heard my taxi driver mumble, "I just got instantly hungry". When we arrived, we got lunch at some tiny cafe along the road. one thing I noticed about Tokmok was that there were so many animals everywhere. In Bishkek, sometimes there is a herd or some cattle, but here, there were cows in the backs of trucks, in the road, herds everywhere. I asked them why, and they explained that there is a large animal market in Tokmok. We all decided to go see it for the experience. Well, I am very glad we ate before, because the animal market was downright disgusting. People were selling every farm animal imaginable, dead and alive. I saw people pushing cows into there car, on top of there car, on the trailer, everything. One old lady was selling live goats from the trunk of her car. If you all can imagine what this all looks like, imagine what it smells like...After that experience, we wanted fresh air. Just past the market, there were mountains and a field, and we went for a walk there. After about 30 minutes, a military jeep came zooming towards us. The soldiers were neither Kyrgyz nor American, so we were all confused. The soldiers began speaking to to my friends, and I realized we had wandered into Kazakhstan! We were told we had to leave, but not before I got an action pose photo of me in Kazakhstan.
Thank you all for reading!