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Published: September 17th 2014
Нет Человек, Нет Проблем
No Person, No Problem
Июсеф Джугашвили (Сталин)
Jusef Jugashvili (Stalin)
We followed Latchin's youngest daughter down the rocky road through Arslanbob village. It was late afternoon and the sun was casting a California light on the trees and the airy Uzbek homes. A call to prayer sang out from a small mosque and completed the sensory aesthetic. Fall had come to the Ferghana range and the village was quiet and half empty. At 17 years old, the girl was growing into her father's lean, quick stature. She moved along effortlessly on the loose cobbles of the towns roads, leading us to the home of her uncle, where a hot banya awaited. We strolled along quietly, partially silenced by the perfect beauty of the evening, and partially by the lack of a common language. Many girls here in Arslanbob attend some level of schooling, but few actually learn a language other than their native Uzbek to a conversational level. She understood a few words of Russian, but outside of that, smiles were all we had to share. Her father, our friend and host, is one of the few in the village who would steer things differently. An educated man, fluent in three languages, he would take up the role of gently
correcting our Russian in conversations. But no amount of education can change the course of his daughter's life in a place where time seems to be in many ways moving backwards. Culture is more than education, and thus imbued with exponentially more inertia than any one smart person.
We came to Arslanbob after a six week stint in Bishkek where we studied Russian grammar with a private tutor in an attempt to increase our reading skills and become more formally fluent in a language we had essentially learned on the roads of Siberia. It was not easy being students again after a decade away from formal study, and we found the grammar to be frustratingly complicated and elusive. After a month and a half intensive, we often had the idea that our spoken Russian had somehow gotten worse! This trip into the provinces was a way to test our comprehension, and chat with people about ordinary subjects. We had split up our studies into two sessions, with a short break in between to do a bit of climbing in the Karakol range, and make a visa run to Kazakhstan. As it would turn out, our time in the Karakol
range would turn into an epic for survival as we weathered out many days of snow and zero visability, rationing our seven days of food out to nine. When we finally escaped down to familiar terrain at Altyn Arashan, we were falling all over ourselves in exhaustion, but a funny thing happened. Our Russian had somehow improved! In all of those days of moving loads, waiting out weather, and dreaming of Tahoe, our brains seemed to have internalized the new words and structures. It was similar to how the body feels after a rest day following a long set of training days. When we encountered the first group, a bunch of heavily laden Russians from Krosnoyarsk, new words flowed from our mouths. They complimented our language skills and we slogged on through the mud and the dung with grins on our faces.
Our return to Bishkek was bitter sweet. We were always happy to meet with our tutor, discuss our pages of homework, and barade her with questions. She had been exactly what we were looking for; a smart, experienced teacher with a command of the language. She was able to sort out our needs in the first conversation
and developed a program to fill in the gaps. Classy, international, and culturally fluent, she walked us through a lot in our short time together. Learning to speak Russian for a native English speaker is not about translation as much as it is about thinking from a different perspective and Karina walked us to the platform where we could begin to glimpse this perspective. We may never be totally fluent, but we are humbled by the depth of the language, and what humbles us tends to turn us on. The bitter part of our return was from the flavor of the city itself. In fairness, the Kyrgyz capital is quite livable as far as Central Asian cities go. We found a nice room to rent from an expat couple living in the Gorky district and quickly settled into a daily routine of running, studying, making salads, and drinking coffee. We made the best that two mountain snobs could make of the city life and tried to milk the place for all it was worth. But the two of us are not in love with the urban environment. Horns honk, plastic burns, the streets smell of feces, and the nights have
you watching your back. Doors have to be locked, people do not smile, and the whole situation seems to take itself a bit too seriously. Provincial Kyrgyz will talk of a similar disdain for Bishkek, and we are with them in spirit. In our little piece of paradise at home, it is hard to go to the market without engaging in a long conversation, and walking down the street might just get you invited in for food. In rural Kyrgyzstan it is quite similar, and we were overjoyed to make our escape back to reality, heading directly for Arslanbob with heavy packs full of ramen and mountain gear.
We volunteered in the Uzbek village of Arslanbob two years ago, helping local Community Based Tourism coordinator Hayat Tarikov get his mountain bike program off and running. Quite a few foreigners have travelled to this remote location to help the dynamic community leader organize a myriad of activities and we receive regular emails updating us on the status of his programs. From backcountry skiing to local cooking classes, Hayat is keen to invent ways for his community to capitalize on the visitors it attracts. The truly extraordinary thing is how much
the CBT group has also reached out to the community. The number of children riding mountain bikes around the village, and making turns on the hills above in winter, is a testament to this outreach. Hayat put a new local birding guide in our hands while we were there, a first of its kind in the region. We had a feeling that this guy and his group were up to something special a few years back when we read his articles on Eurasianet and this year's visit really confirmed our initial suspicions. Business is booming at CBT Arslanbob, the bikes are running great, and the number of people employed by the program is constantly increasing. It is a study in success that we have seen replayed in several venues; find a local with a vision and a work ethic, get behind them, push hard, watch the flowers grow.
The flowers were definately growing that night in the Garden of Latchin's brother. Big red roses, along with a rubust row of thai basil, several heavily laden rows of tomatoes, peppers, and cabbage. The family crop of a half hectare of potatoes had just been dug and sat along the barn
in 50 kg bags. He is a builder and, like his brother, a father of four. After we came out of the steamy banya, a weeks worth of trail dust and sweat drained away, the girls entertained Allison at the guest table while the men chatted in the garden. It is a slightly awkward thing for a westerner to get used to, the seperation of the sexes. We are used to a world where coed is the norm and, in some ways, our culture thrives as a result of this. Looking out over the garden that evening, eating fresh plums and talking about the war in Ukraine, it would have been hard to say that their system of life is somehow inferior. Seeing the realities of these people's tidy lives, one cannot help but notice how well the women keep the homes running, as the men build houses, herd animals, and fix cars. It is a system that will eventually accept more global ideas about the potential roles of women in society and the implications of those roles on education and liberty, but those changes will have to come slowly. People in Arslanbob are traditional, and afraid of change. An
NGO that had just formed on our first visit was railroaded out of town when their intentions of stirring up women's issues became clear. In order to convince people to affect change in their lives, especially in a village as insular as Arslanbob, one must point out obvious faults in the system. In the case of this little Uzbek enclave, which has been essentially self-supporting since time immemorial, locals are hard pressed to see the need for change when most tables are covered in food, under strong rooves.
Hayat and his second in command, Latchin, have fought an uphill battle against these traditions as well. Latchin did not ever see his wife before their wedding and his family pressured him into finding a more traditional form of work. That was before CBT became the powerful entity that it is today and now, with four healthy children and a beautiful house at the base of the Ferganas, nobody is pressuring him to find a better job. We were treated with typical Uzbek hospitality on our return. Latchin put us up and his family fed us like fattening pigs. When we took off for the mountains and returned a day later
than planned, Latchin's wife threatened to smite him severely if we did not return healthy. We suspected this might be the case but we were having such a fine time up in the hills we did not want to come down so quickly.
Her concerns were not totally unwarrented though. We had actually encountered quite dangerous conditions high on a north facing route and felt more lucky than tactfull when, after a painfully technical descent, we made it back to our bivy unscathed. As we flaked our rope at the bottom of the last technical pitch, a rock the size of Allison rocketed by, pinballing off the walls of the chute where we had been tediously downclimbing ten minutes before. It was not the only loose rock of the day, but one of the closest and largest. We felt extra alive as we drank from the glacial streams below, and watched the light fade from our camp. The tiny glacier we were camping on groaned and cracked relentlessly through the night, often waking us. Knowing what we know about glaciers, it is always a special pleasure to be on one. The thought that this glacier, and the water it
provides to the valley below, might dissapear in our lifetimes is a solemn one indeed. But the ironies here are implicit. The majority of the people in these high, beautiful places make their livelihood and reinvest their capitol though animal grazing. In both of the alpine environments we have visited on this trip to Kyrgyzstan, overgrazing has been rampant. We had only been in the company of Hayat for a few hours before he was talking about the erosion caused by overgrazing and the associated threat on the sustainability of the adjacent forests which provide a more sustainable means of survival. Setting on a melting glacier, looking at the countless cow tracks across the valley, the picture became clear. The effect of animal rearing on global climate change is still in question but the effect of overgrazing on the mountain environments of the world is clearly evidenced. Imagine hiking through a meadow at 3500 meters that has had all of the vegitation pulled up by the roots, finding broken antibiotic vials all over the place, and questioning the purity of water in places once considered pristine. You can see all of that in Central Asia, and it is certainly not
the only place. The driving factor here seems to be a lack of confidence in local economies. Animals are worth something, even when currencies are not. And so we support people like Hayat and Latchin, who bring other sources of economy to these regions. We cannot say that tourism is the answer, but diversity of economic portfolios might be, and complacency has already been tried.
We had hoped to enjoy the banya on our first night in town, but vodka ensued and soon we were all jabbering away in Russian and feasting at Latchin's house with a client he had taken into the mountains. Vodka is somehow prudent in the learning of Russian and we have enjoyed a few sessions on this trip. It also has a way of convincing people to admit to cultural vices and intricasies that they normally would not. We listened and observed, watching the tragic comedy ensue, knowing that we were learning more than we were supposed to. What we have seen here is a mere portrait of a culture, partially stuck in time, and yet plagued with modernity. Arslanbob is better off than many other places on earth, and yet one cannot help
but fret over the future of people in a growing village with shrinking agricultural production. Lifestyles are shifting, we hear it everywhere. We hear it from old women on our block in Bishkek, we hear it from herders who sell kymys from their yurts, we hear it from English-speaking children on the streets of Arslanbob, and that night, we heard it from Latchin. Change is never easy, especially when you grow attached to the present or, more dangerously, the past. The most encouraging thing we consistently see is the breakdown of language barriers and we are happy to be a part of that process. However, with every new verb conjugation, every new case, every new conversational skill, we can see that it is only the beginning. Language opens the doors to a world of new ideas and perspectives. Being brave enough to see them is something entirely different.
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