Sick and the supermarket

By Rob Packer

I was ill last week with the flu (not a cold, this was flu alright), and when you’re ill, what makes more sense than soup? It’s wholesome, good for you, delicious and universal. The CIS is deservedly known for its borshch and shchi, and there are some excellent Kyrgyz soups like shorpo, which was part of our Eid celebrations at work. Supermarkets in Bishkek are normally palaces of Romanian pop and their permanent loop always manages to give me a twinge of ancestral pride; current flavour of the month is Akcent’s That’s My Name, which my friend Annie described as where Lady GaGa’s Poker Face meets accordions. I was expecting my local supermarkets to be palaces of soup too.

Unfortunately in Kyrgyzstan, things don’t always work as easily as that. I must’ve trawled every aisle of that supermarket looking for canned soup. But it seems that in Kyrgyzstan soup is something that you really only make at home, because canned soup is not imported to Kyrgyzstan (I now check every supermarket I go into, just to confirm this). Normally, I’d support this kind of enforced soup-making, but does an ill person really want to make chickpea soup from a powder? I’m guessing the answer is no.

While I was at the supermarket, I did pick up some salt. This is the smallest packet they had.

The smallet pack of salt I could find.


Kyrgyz Kimchi

By Rob Packer

The first time I mentioned kimchi in Kyrgyzstan to some of my friends, I could tell that a collective eyebrow was raised because I was actually expecting it to be good. The fact is that I was, not because I automatically expect kimchi thousands of kilometres from Korea to be good, but because Bishkek (and Central Asia, in general) is home to a reasonable population of Koreans who were uprooted by Stalin and resettled in Central Asia. One of the influences of this on the food culture in Kyrgyzstan is the way that something called “kimchi” keeps cropping up in unlikely places.

Standard kimchi in Kyrgyzstan is something else though. The first time I had it, I thought it was disgusting, but by the time it was brought out at work for lunch, I’d got used to the idea of it. It really needs to be put in perspective: there’s a deep pickling culture in the former Soviet Union, but it’s more of the briny kind and most locally produced kimchi ends up following the Russian method. It’s almost like someone left the recipe behind in Vladivostok and it had to be taken down over a crackly phone line from Pyongyang. Once you’ve got used to the idea that what you’re about to eat is a kimchi-inspired pickle, rather than kimchi, the soggy, briny, not very spicy cabbage on your plate starts to make sense. And once you reset your expectations, it’s actually pretty good.

Kyrgyz kimchi. It's not really kimchi, but it's not really not kimchi either. More of a kimchi-inspired pickle.

Luckily for me, Bishkek actually does have decent real kimchi at Cheong Gi Wha at the far eastern end of prospekt Chuy, although the improbably named Santa Maria is more famous and more central. They have good kimchi (Korean-style), their kimchi jjigae has real spice (no pseudospice here) keeps out Bishkek’s winter chill and – this is what makes it authentic – like many other Korean restaurants around the world they have a selection of Korea Sparkling posters, including the one of the young girl in traditional dress with two red spots on her cheeks. The only thing they don’t have is tabletop cooking. It may not be Seoul, but it’s one of the best restaurants in the city.

Found it! The object of my cravings.

Kimchi jjigae, or kimchi soup. Keep that winter cold out!

Ait mairik bolsun! (Eid Mubarak)

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog.

Islam in Kyrgyzstan feels different; more of a personal matter compared with other countries I’ve travelled in. While it’s probably an exaggeration when the Lonely Planet for Central Asia says that the Kyrgyz “limited it to what they could fit in their saddlebags”, there is probably some truth in the matter in a culture where kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, is a key cultural pointer and a toast with vodka is often not that far away, especially amongst the more Russified population of northern Kyrgyzstan. When you remember that the Kyrgyz are a people with a nomadic heritage who were first permanently settled under the Soviet Union’s policy of ‘militant atheism’, you might expect the relationship with religion to be a little different from the norm. (more..)

An Islamic cemetery outside Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan.

A Trip to the Lenin Museum

By Rob Packer

First of all, this museum is really called the State Historical Museum. During Soviet times, it was called the Lenin Museum and I’m not sure how much has really changed since then. The first floor is a scene-by-scene re-enactment of the October Revolution cast in Socialist Realist bronze. In my opinion, it’s one of Bishkek’s must-sees. Take a look at the pictures and decide for yourselves.

Outside the State Historical Museum on Bishkek's main square.

Life was pretty miserable before the October Revolution, especially if you were one of the many "emancipated" serfs after 1861.

Hello boys! Marx and Engels to the rescue.

Getting the good news in Iskra.

He's back! Lenin comes out of hiding.

The Proletariat strikes back.

Come with us!

Finding the proletarian Holy Grail.

Which way for freedom?

"All power to the soviets". Any student of the October Revolution will know that this is not what happened next; it was all power to the Communist Party.

Looking very pleased with their socialist freedom.

Marching as to war.

Coming to Uzbekistan!

By Rob Packer

It’s been a tense week and a half while my Uzbek visa process has been going through. Uzbekistan is notorious amongst Central Asia veterans and novices as being the second-hardest of the ‘Stans to get into (number one is famously bizarre Turkmenistan). So I stayed sceptical of my chances when I arrived on a cold Tuesday morning last week at Bishkek’s Uzbek embassy as a citizen of a country, which does not have a fantastic relationship with Tashkent, with nothing but my passport, some photos and a visa form. For a select number of nationalities, these are supposed to be all you need, but for everyone else you’re supposed to be invited by a travel agency and arrive at the embassy brandishing a letter of invitation. None of these were required and as I sit here with an Uzbek visa in my passport, I’m left wondering whether Anglo-Uzbek relations have thawed, the fierce look I tried to give as I went in worked wonders, the woman took a liking to me, the rules really have changed, or I’ve just seen the consular equivalent of an astronomical conjunction.

My Uzbek visa. Worth the wait.

Although I didn’t have to come bearing paper, I did have to deal with the bureaucrat’s other weapons: multiple visits (three), a long wait (10 days processing) and slavishly following your request (I may have the world’s only 11 day visa). And then there was one last hurdle and CIS special: the soiled note. This is when you give someone a US bill and they decide it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on because it’s dirty, torn or has some other imperfection. My $100 bill’s crime? That note had a very small stamp mark, probably done by someone in a bank. This is a fight that can only be won with a new bill. So I jumped back into the car with the driver from work who took me to the nearest bank while I was sweating inside my coat. On the way back from the bank, where they seemed to be getting their dollars straight from the US Mint, Zakir was telling me about when he’d been at the Russian embassy in Tashkent and had been asked to explain why they was a pen mark on his bills and who’d put them there: I decided the best answer would be Barack Obama. At least when my unsoiled Franklin was changed hands, I got the crispest notes I’ve ever seen in return.

A soiled $100 note. See the small grey mark? Not counterfeit, but as good as.

Happy Thanksgiving, any of you USA people!

Money from Siberia (Part 1 of 3 of a Kiva Fellows’ series on Remittances)

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog and is part one of a three-part post on remittances with other posts by Meg Gray (KF9, Nicaragua) and Agnes Chu (KF9, Samoa).

In the US or Western Europe, we often think about remittances as something that people send from our home countries back to their families in Mexico, Ghana, the Philippines, Ecuador, and so on. Remittances and the hope of wealth are the one of the driving forces in all kinds of global migration, so it seems fitting that the subject of remittances is a recurring theme in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report from October 2009, which this year focuses on migration and aims to “challenge our preconceptions”. While movement from the West to developing world is one side to the story of remittances, it is not the only side: remittances do not necessarily touch the “rich world” of North America or Western Europe, or they can linger below the radar and have an enormous impact on countries where people are barely aware that they have an emigrant community. The three Kiva Fellows contributing to this co-ordinated post are posted in the countries currently hosting a Kiva Fellow and where remittances make up the largest percentage of the country’s gross domestic product (data from the World Bank): Samoa (22.8% of GDP), Nicaragua (12.9% of GDP) and Kyrgyzstan (19.1% of GDP). (read more…)

I Love Gloves

By Rob Packer

Anyone who has heard anything from me over the last week has probably heard me complain about the cold, and more specifically, the fact that I only have heating in one room of my apartment. Now that I’ve been to Dordoi market to get a coat, my winter wardrobe is complete, and there’s one item that’s easily my favourite: my gloves. There’s nothing like walking along in the cold with your hands in gloves. Even with my Russian-style coat, going without them just makes everything so cold. And I don’t mean to sound like Curley from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, but gloves definitely keep the amount of moisturizer you use in the winter to a sub-industrial level.

I love my gloves. They are one of my prized possessions, and it’s not just because I’ve realized that I can just about use my phone with gloves on. What makes these guys really special is that you can clip them together. Isn’t that great? It’s the non-five-year-old version of tying them together with wool and threading them through your jacket, although I have a feeling not even that stopped me when I was younger. Yes, this means that if you’re going to lose them, you’re going to lose both at once. While that sounds like an absolute pain, there is nothing worse than having a pair of gloves, and then coming home after a vodka-fuelled night in Bishkek (it could happen) and only having one glove. Seriously, one glove is useless: it’s nothing like a lost sock. In a desperate moment, you could just about get away with matching one odd sock with another, as long as you keep it quiet and blamed the fact that you got dressed in the dark if anyone notices. One glove just mocks you, telling how much warmer your hands would be if you hadn’t been such an idiot for losing its other half. And I’ve never found somewhere that really sells single gloves, so it means you have to buy another pair anyway.


Gloves. So great.

Simply put, I love my gloves.

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