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.

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Gloves. So great.

Simply put, I love my gloves.

Salad Daze

By Rob Packer

Kiva Fellow Initiation Test: Offal

A couple of weeks ago at work, we had some delicious salad to go with our samsy, a delicious Kyrgyz meat-filled pastry that bears quite the resemblance to the Cornish pasty. The salads were a slightly pickled shredded carrot with mushrooms or tofu. While I was passing through the supermarket after my Russian class this evening, I saw the salad section and suddenly remembered how delicious they were. I pointed at my salad of choice, mumbled some Russian (it’d been a hard class) and went on my way.

I arrived at home toying with the idea of making some pasta, but a gurgling sound and no water from the tap quickly made up my mind. The first place I went to check after that was the gas stove to see if the water was coming out of there. Instead I decided to have some lepyoshka (flat Kyrgyz bread, delicious when still warm), cheese and my salad. I’d had an enormous plate of rice for lunch, so a German-style Abendbrot seemed like good idea. I was not happy when I opened my salad, and saw that instead of tofu skin, I had a carrot and tripe salad.

I feel like a bit of a hypocrite complaining about a spot of tripe, especially after a semi-boast yesterday about my love of thousand-year eggs and durian. In my defence, I like offal slightly more than the next guy, which I why I happily chugged down the lamb bits on the top of the plov, Central Asian pilaf, at the weekend. But tripe is something I’ve never been able to get into: whenever I’ve had it before it has to have a pretty strong sauce and be hot to make me like it. The slightly spicy vinegar dressing didn’t hide the fact that I was eating a carrot and tripe salad. Nor was it hot.

Carrots and tripe

Tripe salad. Even at this distance those could be mushrooms. Caveat emptor!

When I was taking a night-time stroll to my supermarket to top up my internet credit, I decided to stop by the salad section. Sure enough, next to where my tripe salad had been, were more cartons: one was carrot and mushroom, the other was carrot and tofu. Suddenly it became clear my the woman was slightly hesitant to give me the carton I was pointing out when I picked it up.

I feel that it’s almost understood that an offal experience will be part of every Kiva Fellow’s time in the field, and I’ve been patiently waiting for mine. I just never expected it to be self-inflicted.

The Big Softies

By Rob Packer

I’m not normally one to pass up the chance to try something new, especially something related to food and drink. If I didn’t do this, I’d have never learnt to love the durian and wouldn’t have the occasional craving for congee with thousand-year eggs. And every time I go to my local supermarket in Kyrgyzstan, I’m impressed by the number of fridges full of drinks I’ve never seen before. So today, I decided to go on an adventure and see what I could find. The results were not pretty.

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The contents of your supermarket drink cabinet: bozo, tan, bio-kvas, dyushes and kvas

First up, Bozo. Rather than meaning a bozo, this is a wheat-based fermented drink and a bottle of it has been sitting in my fridge taunting me for a couple of weeks now. When I’m looking through the fridge, this bottle of chocolaty swamp water leers at me and I pick it up every now and again wondering just how thick the sediment at the bottom is. One of the first things I did was to shake the bottle to loosen the sediment: this is not what you do with bozo. It’s fermented and will spray the walls of your kitchen. The smell was sour, salty and doughy and the taste was a mixture of slightly sour milk and rye bread. This one was a maybe.

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Bozo, rich in carbohydrates and vitamins

Shakedown

Never, ever do this with a bottle of bozo!

Bozo in the glass

Bozo in the glass. All bubbly.

The next drink is something I don’t know the name of and can barely describe. The label says it’s called Tan, the Russian description is of a “refreshing soft drink” and the ingredients say it’s been fermented. The closest thing I could find on Wikipedia was a Middle-Eastern drink called tahn, which forwarded me to ayran. I know ayran from regular trips to my local Turkish restaurants when I lived in Dalston, London; this is not ayran. I opened the bottle and found the smell was a mixture of yoghurt, kefir and Parmesan. It’s probably one of the strongest tasting things I’ve ever drunk: very sour, very salty, very chalky with a very watery consistency. It was a liquid version of the dried yoghurt cubes that people here eat while drinking. And it was not good. And after the tan, I now realise it was difficult to taste other things.

Tan

Tan, oh dear!

A glass of tan

This is not milk

My third drink is sometimes called limonad in Russian, but I’m going to call it by its brand name, Dyushes. It is not like lemonade. I’d first seen this being carried round by groups of teenagers in Bishkek swigging out of the bottle. When you first have a look at a bottle of this, it looks like iced tea, and it has pictures of pears on the label. In terms of taste, it doesn’t have much in common with either, and has the very sweet and slightly sharp taste of Irn-Bru.

Dyushes

Dyushes, definitely not lemonade

Dyushes in a glass

Sticky and sweet

You can start to see a pattern when yet another fermented drink (from bread this time) Bio-Kvas is up next, and smells of a wooden cupboard that’s been locked for a long time. I always think of bio-kvas and real kvas‘ poorer cousins, but this one was mixed with honey and wasn’t as bad as other bio-kvas that I’ve had. The honey took away from its almost overpowering breadiness and made it actually kind of drinkable.

IMG_2940

Bio-Kvas. The bio part is very important: it means it won't be as good as Kvas.

Bio-Kvas in a glass

A glass of bio-kvas

Best of the bunch was standard, commercial kvas. It has some of the breadiness of bio-kvas mixed with what to me tastes like Doctor Pepper. It’s probably full of sugar and bad for you, but it’s what I’ve been brought up to expect from soft drinks. I like salty lassis or sour lemon drinks, but I’m quickly finding out that I don’t like overpowering salty and overpowering milky sour at the same time.

The winner

My winner for the evening: Russian kvas

Glass of kvas

For all its greatness, this is not the best kind of kvas. That's called monastyrsky kvas and I've only been able to find it sold from barrels on the street.

My curiosity is more than satisfied. I’m glad I tried them, and I’ll be going back to kvas, but probably not to the others quite so quickly. And I can politely decline tan next time if it’s ever offered.

That morning call

By Rob Packer

When you’re slightly late for work, running out of your apartment, then the lift doors open and there’s nothing but a lift-shaped black box, what do you do? Do you get in or do you sprint down the nine flights of stairs?

Welcome to Bishkek, or “welcome to the army”, as someone at work said today. My call was to get in, press 1 and take out my phone to give me some sort of light. On the way back I got in again, but minus phone light. Since I’ve moved to Bishkek, I’ve had to learn to live without things that I used to take for granted, and I don’t mean my iPod, my laptop or the internet. Those all work perfectly, although there’ll be more on the internet another time. I mean gas, water (cold and hot), electricity and heating. As I’m writing this, all of these work, although the hot water is the wrong colour. By Sod’s law, one of these will not work tomorrow.

Lights out

Lights out! Part one of my journey to work.

Going round the table at lunch, I started to realise how lucky I am, when I heard the number of people saying that on Monday night they had no water, or no gas, or no electricity at home. Getting home to find something not working is a fact of life in Kyrgyzstan and a fact of daily life everywhere outside of Bishkek where austerity measures mean that electricity stops at midnight. Once you know this, going to work in a blacked out lift is really nothing, and it reminds me that today’s another lucky day. I know that one day I’ll get home and find there’s no electricity; I’ll take out my phone and will be guy climbing those nine stories who I heard huffing and puffing through two walls a few weeks ago. There’s a what-if scenario here that I’m choosing not to think about.

The other joy of the lift that takes a bit of getting used to is that the lift is built to a design that must’ve once existed in the West, but has now been outmoded. This lift has the memory of a goldfish. Once you press that button, that’s where the lift’s going; and if you’re going to the fourth floor and some foreigner presses 8 first, then you’re going a long way in the wrong direction. The only way to stop and go back is to press another disabled lift function. Yes, the stop button, a neat trick I’d only ever seen in films until now.

And once I’d realised all of this, it was child’s play that the lift only goes to the eighth floor and I have to walk the last flight of stairs to the floor with my apartment and the lift pulleys.

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The lift panel. The red button means Stop, and the button for 9 is a red herring. I don't know why there's a cigarette burn where 5 should be

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