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.

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.

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.

Bishkek Bazaar

By Rob Packer

I stand in awe of bazaars in Bishkek. When I told my colleagues I sometimes go to Osh Bazaar at the weekend, their reaction was best described at horrified: they think of it as one of those “dangerous places” where bad things happen (mainly theft) and really not a place foreigners like me should be venturing. Which is odd, because I think of Osh Bazaar as one of the most chilled markets I’ve been to in a long time: I used to be a lot more wary in the markets of Mong Kok, Hong Kong where there was also the nightmare scenario of being doused with acid, as well as the usual missing-wallet market antics and coming back very much empty-handed after once again finding nothing to buy, or even worse, with bags of stuff you’ll want to throw out within a couple of hours.

By comparison, Osh Bazaar actually has some things you might want to buy. On my most recent trip, I went for the souvenir section, which is full of the felt slippers, felt carpets, felt hats, little felt yurts and felt camels that everyone will be getting for Christmas. Weirdly, the souvenir section blends seamlessly with the army surplus section if you need any Red Army boots, coats or hats, and round the back of that are a few stalls of old sewing machines. Other parts of the market include the Uzbek fruit section, spices and row upon row dried fruit. The salad section also has kimchi-inspired products (see Sunday’s post). You can get pretty much everything you’ll need for day-to-day life in Bishkek, especially if what you need for day-to-day life is a Kyrgyz hat.

In the fabric section at Osh Bazaar

Taking a rest in the fabric section.

Felt slippers. One of the things that people are getting for Christmas.

Kalpaki, or Kyrgyz felt hats. Who wants a kalpak for Christmas?

Felt camels.

Counting the money after I bought yet another hat.

Traditional Kyrgyz chests.

Spending time with the sewing machine man.

Boxy sewing machines.

Curvy sewing machines.

Osh Bazaar Spices

More spices

The salad section.

Dried fruit.

Fresh fruit from Uzbekistan.

Dordoi Bazaar, Osh’s bigger, scarier cousin, is another matter and can only be called chilled in terms of temperature. It really has to be seen to be believed: it’s the largest markets in the CIS, and one of the largest in the world; from what I can tell it’s second or third largest in Asia after Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and (maybe) Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. The place is huge and entirely made up of a labyrinth of shipping containers; it’s easily the largest collection of shipping containers I’ve ever seen this far from the sea. The bazaar sprang up after the fall of the USSR as other markets in Uzbekistan went out of style as it became harder to visit and do business in Tashkent. There’s something incredibly unplanned about the whole place with power lines bisecting it at some points and trees growing through some of the containers – I have no idea how that happened. But this isn’t a tourist or produce market. The name of the game here is wholesale, so its customers include stallholders from all over Central Asia, including Osh Bazaar. You could spend hours navigating this container city with its vague claims of “organization”, i.e. vague grid system; first-timers are probably most likely to give up after sifting through haystacks of low-quality merchandise for the proverbial needle. Going with a colleague meant that many days of sorting were condensed into a few hours with his help. But I fear the day I have to go there on my own.

Dordoi Bazaar. Container City.

More containers. The top level is used for storage, the lower levels are the shops.

One of the reasons why Dordoi feels very ad hoc. Pylons coming through.

A Flat with a View

By Rob Packer

One of the best things about living on the 9th floor of a Bishkek apartment block is the view of the mountains I get from my living room. The mountains by Bishkek are enormous at around 4,500m and barely half an hour away from the city. Today was yet another fantastic sunrise, so I thought I’d share the photos.

This morning's view out the window.

Face on. Also this morning.

Looking west this morning.

And again, earlier this month.

From the window again. Autumnal colours this time.

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!

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.

IMG_2944

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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