Hola, Kiva en Colombia! Do svidaniya, Kiva v Kyrgyzstane!

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog.

My fellowship in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end and now I’m writing this in London before starting as one of pair of Kiva Fellows in Colombia: a first for Kiva. During training, I heard on the Kiva rumour mill that Kiva would be starting in Colombia a few months after training and thought it would be an amazing placement. Three months later with flights booked for Colombia in the New Year, I can feel the excitement building up as years of Colombia Dreaming finally come true.

Even though Kyrgyzstan is not a country I chose and Central Asia is not a region I chose, I’m already missing the marshrutkas (minibuses) and mountain views of Bishkek. The reason I ended up in Kyrgyzstan is because I speak Russian; Kiva looks for “Language proficiency in […] Russian” and speaking Russian is a sure-fire way to be offered a Russian-speaking placement. I decided that the post-Soviet stories would be fodder for dinner parties for years and that I’d have a large selection of Central Asian hats. Rather than the detachment of funny stories and the materialism of hats (although I have both), I have come to love the region. And if you can love Central Asia in the winter without yurt stays, much horse-riding or hiking and no beach life on Issyk-Kul, it must be true love. (more…)

Mol Bulak staff at my (semi) surprise send-off.

Snow in London

By Rob Packer

This is getting ridiculous. I’ve seen the year’s first snow all over Central Asia (in Bishkek, Chong Kemin and Samarkand) but have always said that snow in London is rare. It still is compared to most places in the CIS, but on my first day in Central London for a few months after a tea afternoon with an ex-colleague and her enchanting 18-month son, it started snowing and I was treated to the rare sight of London and Tower Bridge in the snow. And I think I might even see snow in Colombia, and yes, the meteorological variety: a friend has suggested a trip to the Sierra Nevada, i.e. the Snowy Mountains.

Snow on Shad Thames

Tower Bridge

The City shrouded in cloud. Almost unrecognizable: Tower 42 (still the NatWest Tower for me) and the Gherkin.

City Hall

Tower Bridge with Snowman

HMS Belfast

Lights on HMS Belfast

The corporate life in More London

Online in Kyrgyzstan

By Rob Packer

Simply put, it’s different in Kyrgyzstan.

I was told I’d have internet in my apartment. When I arrived I found an Ethernet cable, and once I’d worked out that didn’t work I followed the cable to the modem to see what I could do there. Instead of going to a modem, the cable went through the wall and then out the window to the roof. The engineer came to fix it and still I wasn’t shown any modems and could only imagine the mess of cables on the roof. I could get online so I just put it down to another difference of life in Kyrgyzstan.

Getting online in Kyrgyzstan. First, plug in the Ethernet cable.

Out the window. Follow the cable. Where it stops, nobody knows.

And then to the roof.

And then my internet password suddenly stopped working. When I asked at work they told me I’d probably run out of money. Suddenly I realized that I was on pay-as-you-go internet, and I think no-one had explained it to me because they’d assumed that was the way it always is. I was taken down to the supermarket to something that looked like an ATM where I could load up cash onto my account (or do the same with my phone or gas bill), so I was now unstoppable. I’d naively assumed that I was on a time-based package, but actually my charges were entirely volume-based. When you’ve got used to limitless internet, this is a real adjustment: does anyone really know how many megabytes you get through? I started to cut down on Skype video calls and YouTube, but in two months in Kyrgyzstan, I could never work out how to tell how much credit I had left. The warning you’re running out of credit is that it just stops working, so I lived in fear of the midnight stroll.

Top up at the Tochka. This photo is slightly unfair because a lot are in a lot more salubrious places than this underpass in central Bishkek.

Scariest word of the trip: Coffee House

By Rob Packer

Uzbek is a language in transition. Like most Central Asian languages, it’s been through a lot during its Soviet experience of the 20th century, especially in the political games played in the way it’s written. Like most languages in the region, it was written with the Arab-Persian script for centuries, and still is by Uzbeks in China, until the Soviet Union introduced a Latin alphabet in 1928 as part literacy drive, part forced distancing from the Islamic world. Within a few years in 1940, possibly due to fears of pan-Turkicism, the Latinization policy was replaced by a Cyrillicization drive. For a Russian speaker, the Uzbek Cyrillic alphabet has some of exotic letters, specially commissioned for the language like Ғ or Қ, although I personally feel that Kazakh wins in terms of weird and wonderful letters. Once independence came, however, Tashkent started to reorient itself away from Moscow and towards parts of the world that had been neglected for decades, such as fellow-Turkic Turkey and Europe beyond; this needed a rethink of language policy and a new Latin alphabet was decided on. The process of Latinization has been a gradual process and taken a decade, to now be considered reasonably complete, although there is still plenty of Cyrillic around. The result is a combination of rarely used letters in English, a lot of apostrophes and a strange liking for the letter O, ending up with words like Islom (Islam), homom (hammam), choy (tea), Qozog’iston (Kazakhstan) and O’zbekiston (Uzbekistan). But the scariest-looking word I saw was at the train station in Bukhara: the sign was orange, glowing and said QAHVAXONA.

And this is why a coffee house in Uzbekistan is scary.

Word of the Trip: Hairdresser

By Rob Packer

Today’s my last day in Bishkek. Over my time here, I’ve realized that the words for hairdresser in Bishkek are fantastic. The Kyrgyz word is chach-tarach and is one of the coolest sounding words I’ve seen in a long time. Meanwhile, the Russian word is parikmakherskaya: it’s actually the German word Perückenmacher in disguise, which means wig-maker.

Down at Mirage, a chach-tarach, or parikmakherskaya in Russian. I'm pretty sure the two people in the photo are Kyrgyz pop stars: this is pretty common in Kyrgyzstan, and I'm really not sure Shakira and Penelope Cruz know they're advertising a chach-tarach on Chuy.

As well as mens', women's, children's, party and wedding haircuts, this chach-tarach offers things like "eyebrow correction". Mysteriously, they also have "All types of services".

Reflections on Uzbekistan

By Rob Packer

Uzbekistan has a reputation for corruption and totalitarianism. I have deliberately not referred to these issues in my posts on my trip to Uzbekistan for a number of reasons. I don’t aim to have a political view in my travel blogs and I have a long-standing personal curiosity to visit the country. The Uzbeks who I met were some of the most engaging people and were strangely worldly for a country that is so closed, yet they live in an environment of outstanding cultural, religious and architectural achievements. At the same time, perceptions of the way that country is governed come from experiencing and talking to people over time, unless you have a major brush against the political system of a country. I consider myself lucky not to have had many serious dealings with the Uzbek authorities during my trip; as soon as I got back to Kyrgyzstan, I started being told stories of problems at the border, confiscated cameras and the like that fill guidebooks to Central Asia.

Uzbekistan is undoubtedly a country with extreme levels of corruption. It consistently comes at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index: for 2009, it sits at 174 out of 180 countries and only comes higher than countries like Chad, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia. Whatever the criticisms of TI’s index and the difficulties of finding an absolute measure of corruption, the trend in the country is clear. Most people’s primary interaction with institutionalized corruption is with the police force. For all that people tell you about the police presence in Uzbekistan, nothing can prepare you for the sheer mass of police in the country: I’ve written before that I felt I saw around 200 policemen in a day in Tashkent, but the rest of the country is similar especially at all-too-common road blocks. The police also have keys to places, which is what happens at tourist sites where a guide might suggest going on the wall or climbing a minaret for an “extra fee”. It also means that a ‘friendly’ cop might try to offer to change money with you on the sly; this was a conversation I decided not to continue for long enough to find out whether this was a serious offer or entrapment. But for all their infamous reputation, the body language of the interaction between police and civilians didn’t seem to be a relationship of fear: people seemed to be engaged in friendly conversations or were having dinner together.

Uzbek police outside a mosque in Bukhara.

Neither is Uzbekistan known for its political freedoms, and is best known for the Andijon Incident of 2005 where between 200 and 1,500 civilians were shot in a square while protesting poor living conditions, in an incident with shades of the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City or the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. The history of Andijon means that of the few tourists I met, most said that people in Uzbekistan were wary about political conversation. Some people I met seemed to open up to me after asking about Kyrgyz politics, which is probably due to my position as a partial insider and Kyrgyzstan’s reputation as the most politically liberal Central Asian republic. For all that I repeated a standard Bishkek expat view that things are not getting freer in Kyrgyzstan, the general reaction was that some kind of choice is better than none. And as this blog from NewEurasia.net shows, some in Uzbekistan seem indifferent to the elections taking place in the country on 27 December and don’t seem afraid to say it anonymously in public. Alongside the dejected pessimism that I saw on one side, I also heard optimism for the future and approval for Karimov’s, mainly economic, policies: some praised the fact that Uzbekistan is still a rich and more developed republic, while others thought that existing controls on credit had saved Uzbekistan from the credit crunch that they see happening in Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistan seems a temporal paradox: a dazzling ancient civilization and an incredible country to visit, but with modern difficulties that put it near the bottom of most league tables of freedom or corruption. In a week’s visit, I don’t pretend to understand the country or the issues that I briefly looked at in this post. Corruption is often said to be a hindrance to business, which is something I didn’t properly understand until I started to wonder about two new Uzbek friends are new businesses that they’re starting: how many backhanders will they have to pay? The lack of political freedom may have been temporarily resolved by a Beijing-style palm-greasing on a national scale, where the political class gives economic growth but withholds the freedom of choice, but it remains to be seen how that holds with Uzbekistan’s historic resistance to foreign investment.

Either way, Uzbekistan’s reputation in Kyrgyzstan seems to be at rock bottom: after I came back from Osh, I was talking to someone from Osh about the roads in the south and we started talking about Batken, the most remote of Kyrgyzstan’s provincial capitals, which lies 200km and 7 hours beyond Osh. The most direct road passes through two Uzbek and one Tajik enclaves although it’s possible to use bad roads and stay in Kyrgyzstan: the message was clear that this southerner would rather drive off-road than go “through their territory”.

Chalk and Cheese: The Art of Going Local

By Rob Packer

In English, if you want to emphasize how different two things are, you say they’re like chalk and cheese. In Central Asia, they have kurut. Kurut is the “final stage in the milk cycle” according to the Lonely Planet. It’s a ball of dried kefir, a drinking version of sour cream, and is just like a chalky ball of cheese.

Kurut traditionally comes with beer in Central Asia and this is where I first came across it. When it was first handed to me, I tried to take a bite; when that turned out to be impossible, I stuck the whole thing in my mouth. What happened next is best described as a taste explosion: after a hard crunch, my mouth was filled with a chalky substance that tasted vaguely of sour cream and for all I tried to chew, it wouldn’t go away until I washed it down with beer. I thought it was disgusting and vowed never to have it again.

But Central Asia gets to you. I had it again on a breakfastless journey over a mountain pass in Uzbekistan. And I don’t know what made me to go into a kiosk earlier today, look at the jar of kurut and say “I’ll have ten, please”.  Is this a sign to leave or stay?

Kurut. It's like chalk and cheese.

The Central Asian Tea Line

By Rob Packer

I’ve had a strange hot drink experience in Central Asia. It’s been the first time in almost ten years that I’ve gone more than one or two days without coffee: I now have been coffee-free for eleven weeks, apart from one afternoon cup of Nescafe in Balykchy that ended in a sleepless night. The reason is that good coffee is hard to find and normally means instant, and by the time I worked out that there was coffee in the kitchen at work, I’d gone so far that any of the acute headaches I normally got from not having coffee had been lost in a fog of jetlag. It could also have been the tea.

This is a land of tea and in each republic it makes a strong case for being the national drink. If only because, it’s really the only drink; apart from the blunder with a cup of coffee and a small bottle of the water at the beginning of the week, it was the only liquid I drank. There was one day at work when all the tea had been used up and there was no bread (another Central Asian necessity): I thought we were about to see a fight or a tantrum. The tea addiction in Central Asia is so strong that in Samarkand, a Bangladeshi tourist and I started to wonder if people didn’t end up with liver or kidney problems from not drinking water.

Central Asia is also split by a food dividing line, like the point where grits become acceptable in the US or the Röstigraben of Switzerland. In Central Asia, the general rule is that on the north of the Tian Shan people drink black tea, to the south tea is green. The divide is surprisingly strong and I’ve seen people in Bishkek refuse green tea and someone in Balykchy order a pot of green tea like it was contraband. I’m much less loyal in my tea habits and will drink black or green depending on my mood, hunger levels and the weather. In Uzbekistan, where the Tea Line runs between Tashkent and Samarkand, my fickle ways were considered so strange in Samarkand that, although I was asked “green or black?” each time I was offered a pot at the excellent Antica near Guri Emir Mausoleum, I was given green without fail: my first pot had been green, so I was a green tea drinker. Why complain when the cultural experience is much more interesting?

I’m probably taking some Central Asian tea habits away with me. I love how tea in Central Asia is served in a small bowl, and I’ve already written about how I’m a big fan of adding jam to any kind of tea (apricot and raspberry are favourites). One habit I’m not sure that people in Europe will react all that well to is the reuse of teabags. I think this is related to samovar culture where strong tea from a pot is mixed with warm water from the samovar and the way that teabags are dipped into hot water, rather than hot water being poured onto the teabag. It was a shock to walk into the kitchen at work the first time and see a plate of used teabags in the middle, but the simple answer is that it’s just not used up after one dip.

Although I’ve fully embraced Central Asian tea culture, despite my fickle ways, I’m not sure how my Central Asian habits will work out in Colombia: famous for its coffee, less for its tea.

Bukhara to the Border with 35,000 so’m

By Rob Packer

When I left Bukhara, I had 35,000 so’m in my pocket. I went over the maths carefully in my mind to work out whether this would be enough and checked with my Bukhara guesthouse owner, Abdu, and yes, we decided it would be enough. In the end it wasn’t, but as I sit in Osh, Kyrgyzstan after 1,000km of Uzbek rail and road over the course of the last 24 hours, it seems time to reflect on my journey. Read more of this post

A homom in Bukhara

By Rob Packer

I decided to spend my last afternoon in one of Bukhara’s hamams (homom in Uzbek). It was easiest the warmest place in Bukhara, so was an easy escape from the cold that stalks the city in the late afternoon.

I had my first hamam trip for about ten years in Marrakesh earlier this year and my first four thoughts were exactly the same. Firstly, the architecture of them is stunning, and this Bukhari hamam was a classic multi-domed brick structure with marble slabs everywhere. Secondly, wow, isn’t it hot! Thirdly, for all that the mystique that is written about them in guidebooks and elsewhere, it really is just a bunch of old guys having a wash. And fourthly, I wonder how many times this place has had a deep clean in the last five hundred years, especially the one I went to in Morocco, which was just a simple mosque hamam where all cleaning and massaging was done on the floor, not like the more tourist-friendly one in Bukhara, which had posh marble benches in wall niches.

Forhod, the masseur, was a busy man, so I was told to go to one of the wall niches to lie on my back, then stomach (easy) and then to go to a much hotter room and stand up in one of the niches (ok for ten minutes, but otherwise impossible). Once I was suitably warmed up, I was scrubbed, helpfully called peeling in Russian. This is really not my favourite part of the homom massage process: why do they have to do it while I can see what’s coming off? Can I request a blindfold next time? And then it was time to lie down for the massage: I normally have trouble working out which way I should turn my head when being massaged on a marble surface, but Bukhara adds an extra little something. I first chose to turn to the right where I had a view into another room and could see an old Bukhari shaving his bits. With the image indelibly seared onto my retinas, I turned my head the other way and Forhod started demonstrating that some of those yoga moves really are possible. Pretty soon, another old man started doing the same thing on that side too! Luckily by that point, it was all too painful so I closed my eyes and hoped it’d be over soon. My bones had been cracked who knows how many times and then Forhod took his final revenge by smearing powdered ginger over me, telling me to sit in one of the side rooms for 10 minutes and then wash it off. If you had spread chilli paste on sunburn and then sat in the sun, you’d probably feel something similar. Needless to say, I had to wash it off pretty quickly, but it carried on burning for hours after.

Hamams hurt, and although I’m never sure how clean I really am after one, I feel like I’ll keep going back for more and am already thinking about a send-off from Bishkek with birch twigs at the banya.

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