Published: May 12th 2011April 27th 2011 "Life here is difficult,"
a lot of stores sell mouth-watering baked goods. and these are cheap!
said the young, good-looking driver. "Not many jobs here. Many go to other places." "Well, the situation is similar in the Philippines. People also go to other countries for better opportunities,"
I replied, as we cruised down the picturesque tree-lined road from the airport to my couchsurfing host's house.
Made it at last to Kyrgyzstan. If there is one word that can describe the country, it is GREEN. Trees, steppes, rolling hills, and pasturelands are in all directions -- laced by very tall snow-capped mountain ranges at par with the Himalayas. The verdant landscape is just occasionally broken by white to beige houses. All worries brought by not planning disappeared as soon as I stepped into the country. "Are you Russian or Kyrgyz?" "Do I look Russian? They look so yellow to me."
he said, as if insulted by my question. "I asked because I have not seen any Kyrgyz before,"
I said to relieve the tension.
Kyrgyzstan is a former member of the Soviet state before the latter's dissolution in 1991. Landlocked by China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, its people comes from different races -- Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek. Mostly
Muslims, the very few remaining Russian Orthodox churches in capital Bishkek are reminders of its Soviet past. "Is it safe to go to Osh? The girl beside me in the plane said that it is not, and that it is much more unsafe for Kyrgyz." "Yes, safe. But many Uzbeks. I don't like them. Did you hear about it on news?"
I did read about it but I chose to feign ignorance. Last year, a bloody ethnic war between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks transpired, most prominently in the southwestern portion of the country, Osh. There are different versions of the story depending on whom you speak with. If on Kyrgyz side, then it is them not being safe from Uzbeks and vice versa -- all of it due to economic jealousy. Businesses, houses, and schools got burned down. In the end, many innocent lives got lost, primarily Uzbeks. Presently, the situation has returned to normal, at the outset at least. However, it is during conversations with locals that you get a feeling that there is still animosity between them. World peace, anyone? "Sorry for my English. My little sister teach me." "It's not that bad,"
the trance I was into. "The houses here are very big, yet you say living here is hard, "
I remarked, as the structures unfold out of the greeneries -- as if
having a big house immunes one to life's challenges. I know, stupid comment.
The houses outside the city all looked the same: single storey, box-type, plain, barely with any color, and surrounded by large orchards. Apparently, designing their own houses was forbidden during Soviet times. "Yes, big houses. Someday, I want to have one, get married, and have children,"
he dreamily said.
Looking out the window, with the chilly spring breeze easing its way into the barely open car window, I once more fell into a kind of enchantment. Set against the backdrop of Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, Bishkek served as a Silk Road trading post in the olden times. Although small and pretty much laid-back, the city exudes a certain charm and spunk that can make anyone fall in love with it -- like a sailor hearing a captivating siren's song. And I nearly missed this. Twice.
No thanks to China Southern Airlines ground staff. (Sorry, I don't believe in fate.)
After almost a week, I found myself back again in Bishkek. I must have looked silly -- walking down the roads, smiling. I can already read Cyrillic -- road signs, store labels, bus and marshrutka
routes. It is still pointless most of the time though because I still cannot understand them but, it is a start
. More useful phrases have also been added to my chut-chut
Ruski. Picking up another language is more fun when you know that not going hungry or getting lost lies on knowing even a bit of it.
Learning the art of tea-drinking the Kyrgyz/Russian style
As a kid, I used to see cartoons and movies depicting Russian tea parties. The sophistication of their appearance and how they do it has always fascinated me. Up until this trip, my fondness for chai
is limited to sweet cold beverages sold in groceries. Being a coffee-drinker, I did not expect to like having warm tea. No, thank you, but grasses and dried leaves for a drink is just not my cup of tea. Pun intended.
Again, according to my crooked mindset, it is entirely different from bottled teas. But I did like it.
tea party, anyone?
Chai, home-made jams, bread, walnuts.
It is not about the drink itself. It is the experience and how it is done here, which is in style.
Elena, my gracious host, first introduced me to this art. Instead of water or juice, each meal is started and punctuated by warm tea. This is to be taken alone or mixed with sugar, homemade jams, homemade cream, or really fresh milk. And the best part is, it is always served not only with biscuits, cookies, chocolate, their round flatbread, or dried fruits and nuts, but also with stories and wonderful conversations.
The expected unexpected
Getting lost even with map and finding the way back. Pointing at anything on Cyrillic menu hoping it is something edible. Running into wonderful individuals and becoming good friends with them. These are some of the stuffs that make for good travel.
"We want to start a medical school that is based on honesty,"
”Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." ~Albert Einstein
said John Clark, one of the head administrators of the International University of Central Asia, a very small and new university in Tokmok City. The size of their entire school population is just equivalent to that of my two classes.
by the situation, the school's leadership is trying to defy and redefine the existing higher education system of the country. Rigged with corruption and dishonesty, many students pay their way to graduation and, in medical school, even getting licensed. Hearing about it, I definitely do not want to get sick here. "But do they want it?"
I asked. Desire is important to ensure successful intake of any intervention
. "We cannot just stand here and then just tell them what needs to be done. It will not be done. We have to do it ourselves."
They are the same people who successfully established the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek. It is going to be a huge undertaking but they are unfazed. With their kind of ideals and devotion for learning, attaining their goal is not going to be impossible.
And I am fortunate that I got to meet these inspiring academicians. Indeed.
• Russian is widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan, together with the local Kyrgyz language. Learning the Russian/Cyrillic alphabet at the very least helps a lot in riding public transportation and in navigating the streets and stores. Yes, one can survive without knowing how to speak the language but it sure is better to know the basic pleasantries, numbers, and how to tell the driver to stop at your destination.
• Means of transportation in Bishkek are primarily the trolley buses, octobus, minibus or marshrutka, and shared taxis. Any car can serve as taxi here but those with reliable rates are the ones with checkered labels on that yellow "taxi" sign. For the other taxis, haggle with the driver on price before boarding.
• It is a cash-based country. Credit cards are not of much use unless purchasing your plane tickets online.
• For citizen of countries where there is no Kyrgyz embassy or consulate, visa can be acquired upon arrival at the airport for USD70.
• Ensure that your US dollar bill is unmarked and crisp. Otherwise, the money changers will not take it and the banks will get a 10% commission. Yes, that much commission.
There are more photos below