Published: June 19th 2011May 4th 2011
I am no stranger to poverty, coming from a place where it is breathed in the air and served daily. Slums and cramped spaces; poor wages; dirty and chaotic city streets; local farmers, fishermen, and laborers toiling to feed their families at least once a day; diaspora of people to other countries; and poor, if not lack of access to health care and education.
These are but some of the palpable realities faced by many back home.
As such, I often need to reconcile what I see here in Kyrgyzstan countryside with their own realities. The greeneries, spacious white-washed houses, orderly villages, well-dressed residents, and sprawling jailoos
are somehow tricking my mind into believing that people here live very easily.
However, behind the beautiful façade are communities and people who are also very much struggling to live and make ends meet.
The country is still slowly inching its way to development two decades after the collapse of USSR and declaring independence. Just the prospect of better life drives many to leave their families behind for neighboring Russia.
Parallelism (and flight of ideas), in order
It has always been a mystery to me how
a beautiful country teeming with natural resources and with similarly wonderful and hardworking people can have it so hard.
How is it that some places with far less to offer fare better?
Countless conversations on this matter have yielded nothing. Like asking for the "meaning of life,"
all answers are as murky as floodwaters. Is it the government?
Or, is the universe just having a good time playing a mean joke?
Are the countless poverty-alleviating measures done by well-meaning developmental organizations and governments making a dent on this old problem? Can it really be solved?
I do not know why I even bother asking. Curiosity killed the cat, right
? Oh, I forgot, it is panda blood that is running through my arteries and veins, not feline's.
Hope springs eternal, or so they say. Perhaps the answers to these questions are not really important.
Perhaps what really matters is the step that each of us is taking to educate and assist the disadvantaged help themselves, be it small or not, as long as this is fueled by a desire to make living in this world
"Are you looking at moo?"
teenage cows in Jeti-Oghuz, Kyrgyzstan
pleasant and a tad fair for everyone.
I am tightly crossing my fingers that poverty gets eradicated during our lifetime -- or at least before a gigantic comet hits the Earth or the Sun turns into a blackhole and suck everything around it -- for the benefit of millions of people mired in it.
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
- John Lennon
A glimpse into the life of shepherds
Glistening stream, endless greenish-brown hills, and horses and sheep frolicking under the sun saturated my eyes on the way to the yurt
of a family at the jailoo in Sarala-Saz.
Upon commencement of Soviet rule, Kyrgyz nomads have been forced to settle into villages. Despite this, vestiges of their nomadic traditions remain. This is evident in towns outside the city, where most families in various villages have their own cows, horses and sheep, which they herd for months up in the jailoos,
or high summer pastures.
As I got off the car, a beaming man and his dog welcomed and led me to their yurt
, a traditional portable abode that is covered with felt made from wool. He is the shepherd whose family is currently living in the jailoo. They are
among those who are still leading a semi-nomadic way of life. They stay there for 7 months, beginning April until October, then return to the nearby village of Shamsy by mid-fall.
Life in the jailoo is very simple, with the days mostly spent around herding animals, getting milk, and cooking food. All other cares float away with the wind into the nearby mountains.
Time just seems to stand still.
However, it is not at all easy. There is no electricity. There is no running water. Only a limited amount is stored for use in cooking, tea, and washing. They need to travel to the nearest village for at least an hour for all other needs. Money is hard to get by, especially if they are unable to sell any of their animals -- much more so if the roaming wolves get to kill their sheep during the night.
Despite this, happiness remains and hospitality is still warmly served.
With nothing else to do, I volunteered to help the two women of the household cook. In between peeling and cutting up vegetables and making kalama
(tortilla-like bread), I learned that Chyldyz, the shepherd's wife of 2
typical collapsible, portable nomadic dwelling commonly used by nomads in Central Asia. It is covered by felt made from wool. An opening at the center allows natural light in.
years, is only 24. The lines on her face though, drawn by hard life and harsh sun, portray someone who is 10 years older.
It is common, if not expected, for girls in the villages to settle down at a young age, with fixed marriages still being a norm. Girls often do not have similar educational opportunities as boys since they are also expected to just stay at home and take care of their families.
The high hopes that Chyldyz and her husband have for their son Turan is very apparent from the way they look at him, as he run around the trailer and yurt. Would he also choose a similar life when grows up? Would they prefer him to continue such lifestyle and traditions despite knowing the difficulties?
Language limited my chance to get to know them more. I wish my Russian is better.
Culture watch: 1. Food:
Crusty unleavened flatbread is an important part of the diet of people in Central Asia. In Kyrgyzstan, it is referred to as nan
. Often, the women of the households bake their own bread. The host breaks it into several pieces and distributes it
first to the guests.
Often, guests are served airan,
or home-made yoghurt that can be mixed with jam or a little sugar. Other typical food served are lagman
(noodle soup with pieces of meat), tomato and cucumber salat
/salad, manty (steamed meat dumplings), and plov
(actually an Uzbek dish). 2. Sleeping:
Sleeping areas are made by stacking several layers of thin mattresses on the floor and finishing it with warm duvet.
Backpacker Notes: Going around Lake Issyk-Kul
At the northeastern part of the country lies lake Issyk-Kul, the 2nd largest mountain lake in the world. It never freezes during winter. The towns in the northern part of the lake contrastingly differ from those on the southern side. Spending some time in the alpine-like north and the semi-arid south leaves one with very different experiences. Kochkor can be found on its southern side. Where to sleep and what to do:
For a socially-responsible travel, one can hire the services of local initiatives like the Community Based Tourism (CBT). It is composed of a network of service providers (host families, driver, guides, etc.) in the rural communities of Kygryzstan. They arrange homestays outside the city,
Issyk-Kul, the lake that never freezes
Lying at 1,608 m, it is the 2nd largest mountain lake in the world: 182km long, 62km wide, and 702 m deep.
yurt stays, treks and transportation for a fee, 86% of which goes to the actual service provider. By patronizing such local efforts, one can help give poor families in the countryside a source of regular income.
CBT started out as a technical aid project of a Swiss organization 10 years ago. They are currently operating independently for 4 years now. The staff members are very helpful and will not try to sell their services.
If on a tight budget, one can also just ask around villages for a place to stay in. Often, households are willing to take travelers in for a small fee.
There are more photos below