No nostalgia

By Rob Packer

You know something is badly wrong when a country that most people I speak to have never heard of spends most of the day at the top of the BBC news website. Today the country with this dubious honour was Kyrgyzstan, a country I spent nearly three months living in at the end of 2009.

The front page of the BBC News website today.

As news slowly trickled out of Kyrgyzstan over the day here in Colombia, which I’m guessing has a lot to do with the restricted access to the internet that most news organizations have mentioned, I found myself recognising parts of central Bishkek in a completely different context: I’d last seen Ala-Too Square (Bishkek’s main square) decked out with a New Year’s tree and families taking photos and it came as a shock to recognise the buildings around it as a backdrop to protesters with machine guns or seeing photos of bloodstained police and protesters on Chuy, one of Bishkek’s main roads.

The events are scarily similar to a fast-forwarded version of the Tulip Revolution five years ago where protests began in a provincial city where demonstrators occupied government buildings and spread to the capital, except that it has taken a day rather than four for protests to spread to the capital, and that the violence has been far, far worse with at least 40 dead and at least 400 wounded: statistics that a blogger at NewEurasia.net calls “remarkably low” in view of the “explosive violence”.

When I left Kyrgyzstan in December, the rises in utility prices had recently been announced that would increase the price of heating, water and electricity by up to five times. Utility prices in Kyrgyzstan were already expensive at what colleagues said was around US$50 a month: given the poverty that I saw while I was working there with Kiva, I couldn’t see how a lot of people would be able to make ends meet, and there was a lot of resentment of this. Meanwhile, the president—who had campaigned to fight corruption—was busy installing members of his family in positions of power, most notoriously his son Maksim who became the head of the development agency in late 2009 and was widely considered as being groomed as the president’s crown prince, following in the footsteps of Azerbaijan—and similar to what some are saying about post-Karimov Uzbekistan. At the same time, he was widely considered to have rigged the presidential elections of 2009 running against a seemingly invisible opposition, and journalists were turning up dead with an unsettling frequency.

In a country with a people who seem to regard it as free—very much a relative term in Central Asia—the scenes in Bishkek today seemed anything but that. It reminded me most of Karimov’s signature massacre at Andijon in Uzbekistan where the death toll estimates lie over an absurdly wide range between 200 and 1,500 people. It remains to see what will happen in Kyrgyzstan, now that the president appears to have fled to the mostly quiet south or to have let the country. I hope for the sake of Kyrgyzstan, that this means a freer and more democratic country; unfortunately it remains to be seen how a poor, mountainous republic surrounded by larger, more totalitarian states can hold on to that democracy.

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Wrapping up Central Asia

By Rob Packer

My time in Kyrgyzstan has come to an end. I’m sitting on a plane to Colombia flying over Venezuela’s Andes Mountains, so there feels like there’s no better moment of closure to my Central Asian experiences than this. This is my second blog about my Central Asian experiences: the first was about my experiences with Kiva, this is more about my personal experiences.

Central Bishkek. It really is pretty in some places.

Legenda, a convenience store on a backstreet of Bishkek. The name means Legend.

People Search

At first I found being in Bishkek to be a very sobering experience: I usually don’t find it that difficult to meet people, but I ended up doing a whole lot of reading in my first few weeks in Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek in winter is a dark and forbidding city with few streetlamps and drainage ditches ready to be fallen into. There are few options apart from being the weird guy in the bar who starts conversations: a hit-and-miss strategy that can lead to a night of vodka drinking with cycle tourists or to just meeting duds. A chance introduction to a friend of a friend was the more sure-fire option; when that happened after about a month, my progress through War and Peace slowed to a crawl. Although I didn’t leave Bishkek with a large group of friends, I felt that in my last week I was getting tantalizingly close to having an active social life. You know who you are: thank you!

How I Learnt To Love The Marshrutka

Between marshrutkas, deserted dark streets, sometimes dangerous taxis from the street and the fear of having to book one over the phone in Russian, getting around Bishkek is not that easy.

The marshrutka is a staple of Central Asian transport, but also one of the hardest to use. These are second-hand Mercedes minivans with half the seats ripped out that ply the streets of cities in Central Asia packed to the rafters. Each one runs a set route with a board at the front with the landmarks it passes. The problem is that the board is so small that you can’t read it until the marshrutka’s at point-blank range; even then some of the landmarks can be pretty obscure to an out-of-towner who knows street names, but not where the Government Registry is. There’s a lot of asking passers-by and trial-and-error. But once you’ve got used to the fact that you might pick the only marshrutka not going to Osh Bazaar, it’s strangely addictive. It turns out there’s something special about it being so crowded that you have your face buried in someone’s coat and the only way to stay in one place is to wedge your head against the ceiling.

Philharmonia Square in Bishkek. Important: when a marshrutka goes past here, it does not say Ploshchad (Square) - that's somewhere else.

Relearning Russian

I spent the seven years between my Russian diploma at Cambridge and arriving in Kyrgyzstan mostly neglecting the language. Before I headed off to Kyrgyzstan I had a look through a Russian textbook and thought I remembered it; when I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I could barely speak and understand even less, and spent two weeks feeling like a fraud before it came back. For all my struggles, it’s an incredibly rich and nuanced language, and every time a full, comprehensible sentence comes out, it feels like a mini triumph. By the end of the trip I was training people in Russian, telling anecdotes with colleagues after lunch, and then a shopkeeper in Bukhara asked if I’d been born in the Soviet Union. I enjoyed getting it back, but now the struggle’s going to be not losing it again.

For all its usefulness in Central Asia, however, Russian is definitely on the decline after eighteen years of independence and a resurgence in national languages. Bishkek is still resolutely Russian-speaking, but the story is different in rural Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where more than one person bemoaned the declining standard of Russian among the younger generation. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with that view, but for more than the egotistical reason that I speak Russian. None of the Central Asian republics are particularly ethnically homogeneous (Turkmenistan is the most where the Turkmen population is around 80%); Russian provides and has provided a useful lingua franca between ethnic groups and between countries. At the same time, I feel that Central Asia will only be a strong region without the in-fighting that includes shutting off gas and electricity to neighbours and a visa regime in most countries that seems to actively discourage the tourism most countries are trying to promote. Could its loss alienate part of the population and make the region weaker as much as nation-build?

Bishkek's Opera House. The only time I went was to see Rigoletto. In Russian.

Coming Back?

I’ve been drawn to Central Asia for a long time. Shortly after Central Asian independence, when I obsessed about visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, I was always fascinated by the intricate shapes of the countries. Central Asia has some of the world’s most bizarre borders, especially around the Fergana Valley, where Tajikistan surges up to grab the mouth of the valley, meanwhile Uzbekistan floods over the mountains from into the valley’s lowlands, and Kyrgyzstan stays in the mountains around the edges. The situation is complicated even more by two teardrops of Uzbekistan and one of Tajikistan lie completely surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. It’s said that this cartographer’s dream comes from an almost slavish adherence to ethnic boundaries by Stalin when the boundaries of the Soviet Socialist Republics were being drawn up. Even then the results didn’t please everyone: the ancient cities of Bukhara and Samarkand were historically Tajik-speaking, but I’ve heard that Tajiks had to register as Uzbeks on their Soviet-era passports or be sent to live in Tajikistan. And there are still people in Tajikistan who want Samarkand “returned” to them.

The roads and railways complicate things even more, because in such a mountainous region these must follow topographical realities rather than whims: the main road to Batken, a Kyrgyz provincial capital, actually bisects two Uzbek enclaves. Meanwhile, countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were left with fragmented rail networks that dip in and out of those countries without joining up: a theoretical train journey from Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan to Jalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan would take in five border crossings and four countries, so it’s no wonder people prefer to fly or drive over the mountain passes.

Central Asia continues to fascinate me: far from being a homogeneous region, it is surprisingly diverse ethnically, geographically and culturally. Although autumn and winter are not the best seasons to enjoy Central Asia, it hasn’t been all that cold. During my time there, I’ve had some amazing cold weather days: snow in Chong Kemin and Samarkand, and the cold of Bukhara. I have a long list of things to do next time, such as yurt stays, a trip to Almaty, hiking and visiting Tajikistan. As I wrote it another blog, if you love Central Asia in the winter, it’s true love and I’m sure I’ll be back.

The road from Osh to Bishkek.

A more snowy part of the Osh-Bishkek road.

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.

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".

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.

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