Danko Photo Club Update

Final group shot

I previously wrote about my new Photo Club I’ve started at Danko and I wanted to talk a little bit more about how it’s been going.  We’ve held 7 classes so far and just did our first field trip.  Attempting to teach a technical topic in a foreign language is incredibly challenging to say the least but my students are patient and some know enough English to help me translate.  The biggest challenge at my last attempt at a photo club was attendance and it’s still a bit of a challenge but I’m averaging 9 students or so out of 12 at each class, having cameras and computers to play with definitely keeps their attention. I’ve been teaching basic concepts like the ‘Rule of 1/3s’ and ‘Leading Lines’ but mostly we walk around Balykchy taking photos while I give them pointers along the way.

Are first field trip (of 4 total) was last Saturday to Bishkek.  The capital city is only 2 hours away yet the students rarely get to visit.  Most go once a year or so and two of my students had never been.  They really enjoyed walking around the city and I was able to show them many things they had no idea existed in their country.  It was also really hot so of course they ate ice cream, lots of it.  Below are some photos from the field trip.  Scroll down for photos from my students.

Here is a gallery of photos by various students.  I’ll leave their names off for now but I’ll share a gallery of their credited work this fall when we prepare for an exhibition.

Ala Archa National Park – (nearly) Climbing Peak Uchitel

We recently took a trip back to Ala Archa, our first time since going last year during PST.  The previous trip was easy to arrange as our host family owned a marshrutka and a group of us just hired them to take us up for the day.  This trip we had to find a taxi on our own which is a pain even when we speak the language.  After too many phone calls and conversations at the bus station, we negotiated a ride, picked up our friends and drove to Ala Archa.  Of course upon arrival the driver showed us an ‘official’ price list that said the price was nearly double what we agreed to and he seemed to forget our previous conversation.  Too bad guy, we’re not falling for that… we gave him the agreed upon fare and headed into the park.

The hike up to the hut was a little less pleasant that our previous trip.  Between the persistent mist that soaked everything and our heavy packs, things were a little less than ideal.  There was also a bit of snow to deal with than our last trip which was at the end of August.  After a few hours of hiking we neared the hut, the clouds parted and we got a glimpse of the towering peaks that make Ala Archa so special.  We set up the tents and settled into one of the kitchen huts (which you have access to if paying for a tent site or spot in the Ratsek Hut) to make dinner.

Continue reading “Ala Archa National Park – (nearly) Climbing Peak Uchitel”

Visiting Talas – Birthplace of Manas

As Taylor and I keep on our mission to explore every part of Kyrgyzstan, we took advantage of some holidays to go visit friends and explore Talas, the home of the biggest hero in Kyrgyzstan, Manas..  We set out with several other volunteers through the high Too-Ashuu pass and 3km long tunnel we went through last year on our way to Toktogul. After a quick stop we turned right past the huge sculpture of Manas and through the gate to Talas.

Talas city turned out to be really nice (my Kyrgyz friends thought it was odd we were going there but they think it’s strange we like to travel around the country at all) with a lot of new buildings in the center of the city.  It’s a small city but very concentrated so the center is fairly bustling as far as Kyrgyz towns go.  They have a real Chinese restaurant and a fantastic (and cheap) coffee shop, major perks you don’t really find outside of Bishkek or Osh. Continue reading “Visiting Talas – Birthplace of Manas”

Hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun

Winter can be a bit rough here.  It’s not that any particular thing is really that terrible but the frequent power outages, boring work days and cold, windy days just get a little… dull. But as we wrote before, spring has arrived in Kyrgyzstan.  This means the fighter jets are again dropping test bombs near our city (oh ya, that happens) and the best part is that hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun!  We went on our first long hike of the season last weekend.  It was our first time hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (www.tuk.kg) which frequently arranges trips all around the country.  Definitely the best way to see the beautiful nature here if you live in or visit Kyrgyzstan.

Our hike was in a place called Ak-Tuz (Ак-Түз), directly North of us and near the border with Kazakhstan.  The name literally means ‘white straight’ but basically translates to White Valley.  One great benefit of hiking with TUK is that they filled us in on a lot of the fascinating history of the place which I later researched more on a local website I found.  The region was established in the late 1930s when large amounts of lead and some other metals were discovered.  As WWII went on, the USSR was in desperate need of the lead and other metals and they quickly established a large mine and processing factory, both of which are still there today but abandoned.  We didn’t have any time to explore it this trip but we now that we know about it we plan on going back this summer to check it out. Continue reading “Hiking season in Kyrgyzstan has begun”

Spring in Balykchy

Spring in Balykchy

Spring has finally come to Kyryzstan!  Until it turned out to be a tease and it snowed again… But the sun came out again and it’s not exactly swimming weather but at least I finally was able to put away the warmest jackets.  Spring means kids playing in the dirt courtyard outside our window (throwing rocks at things usually,) the heat is turned off in our building (so it’s colder than it was last month in here) and I don’t get yelled at for wearing a t-shirt (actually, that still happens.)

The best part of spring is I actually feel busy!  We went on a bike ride to visit another volunteer’s village last weekend and have numerous hikes planned out for the next couple months.  My photo club is in full swing and I met a bunch of people from my home state here at a meeting.  More on both of those but first, a few photos from our trip to Tory-Aiger to visit Janet, who’s working as an English teacher.  Her little village is great and she lives with an awesome family.  Hopefully we’ll get to visit them again later this summer.

As it’s now spring, it means for AVEP* it’s time to get ready for the KARAGAT+ program (focused on improving the Issyk-Kul berry industry) to get into full swing.  This is the last year of the program under the original funding and they are hoping to extend it.  I took a trip around Issyk-Kul with them so they could talk with an apricot farmer and a couple politicians.  All the meetings were in Russian so I just walked around talking to random people and taking photos.  Sometimes these meetings are aggravating because I feel like I’m there as a token American but it’s still better than sitting in an office.  The farm we went into was pretty impressive, a massive apricot farm in the middle of a barren desert.  The farmer had recently drip irrigation too which is a very new technology here.

Continue reading “Spring in Balykchy”

It’s not all play… But the work is pretty good too!

cucumbers

My ‘work’ here hasn’t been that interesting for most of winter so I haven’t really talked much about it but a lot has changed so time to share what I have been up to here.  I’ve been continuing to support AVEP as best I can with their various agriculture-related projects.  Danko has a couple of large projects I’m not that involved with now, an oil cleanup and a new Balykchy museum, but that may change next month and I’ll write more about those then.  The biggest change is that I wrote my own grant which is not something I had planned on doing.

Coming to Peace Corps, we started hearing about grants all the time.  I came to understand this would be a part of our lives here yet I’d never written a grant and really had no clue how the process worked.  After a few Peace Corps trainings and exposure to grant applications from one of my worksites I started to get a handle on all the ways money flows into this country (and nearly all poor countries in the world) through grants.  At AVEP (the larger of my worksites) we’ve been working on a lot of grants for their various projects.  These are fairly large (as much as $500k from a Canadian company) but my role is mostly to support them and act as a consultant.  At my other site, Danko, it’s mostly just the director and myself working so I have a lot more hands-on work to do which is a little more fun.  Danko is primarily a youth organization and my counterpart/director, Alexander, has been great at looking at my interests to see what kind of projects we can do at Danko.  After attending the Peace Corp Project Design Management training (a misnomer as there was almost no training on project design) we decided we’d write a project about starting a Photo Club at Danko that I’d teach.

 

Continue reading “It’s not all play… But the work is pretty good too!”

Issyk-Ata Winter Camping

Close up of the mountain

In keeping up my ruse that I don’t actually work here and only travel and play, here’s some photos from my short backpacking trip to Issyk-Ata with my buddy Andrew.

First vacation… Dubai!

Abu Dhabi mosque

I’m mostly enjoying Kyrgyzstan but it’s not always the easiest country to live in for an American used to certain things (burgers, guacamole and decent wine mostly.)  It’s been 9 months since we’ve been on a plane and we needed to get out to somewhere warm with good food.  Since I’ve recently been convinced to make some time for India, the usual warm vacation spot for KG PCVs, we wanted to pick someplace else.  We found out there are direct flights to Dubai and the weather was forecasted to be near 80… perfect.

Burj Khalifa
It’s hard to get a sense of scale of the Burj Khalifa, it’s just insanely huge.

Another volunteer near the airport was kind enough to host us and after chatting for a bit we settled in for a restful 90 minutes of sleeping before getting up at 2am for our super early flight to Dubai.  The upside was landing early enough to have a full day in Dubai once we arrived and so we grabbed some breakfast at the airport before taking a taxi to meet our couch surfing host.  If on a budget, I recommend checking out couchsurfing.com.  I was amazed how many hosts there were in Dubai and staying for free in Dubai saved us at least $1k over four days.  We met up with him at Starbucks near his apartment, David turned out to be a really interesting guy.  A Malaysian-born, ethnically Chinese doctor now working in Dubai.  One awesome advantage of couch surfing are the people you meet.  Over the four days we had great conversations with David and took some notes on future vacation ideas (we’re now adding Malaysia to our trip home, sorry mom, that’s another week!)  David took us to his apartment which was in the perfect spot with a great view of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.

Sushi
Sushi. This is not Kyrgyzstan.
Dinner
First night’s dinner, Lebanese meze

We were a little tired but we had only four days to see this city so we went for a walk.  Craving sushi we headed to a Japanese restaurant that Google says was about 30 minutes away on foot.  Reminiscent of Las Vegas (and this wouldn’t be the first thing that reminded us of Vegas,) 30 minutes turned into over an hour while we tried to navigate the maze of the Dubai Mall, they definitely avoid any straight routes anywhere.  It was worth the walk, fresh, authentic sushi does not exist in Central Asia.  We walked around a bit more, took a nap, enjoyed the sunshine and ate Lebanese food while watching the fountain at dinner.  Day 1, a success.

 

Burj Khalifa fountain
The fountain outside the Burj Khalifa

Continue reading “First vacation… Dubai!”

Winter Trip to Naryn

Map of Kyrgyzstan

It’s been a bit since our last blog post but we’re still alive and mostly healthy (it’s a bit hard to eat how we’d like to here in winter.)  Continuing our mission to see the entire country, we planned a trip to Naryn, the highest and coldest of all oblasts in Kyrgyzstan.  I asked my counterpart, Nurlan who is from Naryn, when the best time to go would be and he immediately suggest January.  Knowing he wouldn’t steer us wrong we picked a weekend, hopped in a taxi and headed to Naryn city.

Naryn city turned out to be surprisingly close.  The road isn’t great but our driver seemed to not mind pushing his ancient car to its limit, constantly bottoming out when we hit bumps.  Forty-five minutes into the ride and into the first pass, the road is covered in snow (not that it slowed our driver down.)  Once in Naryn City we met up with another PCV, David, set down our bags and took a little tour of Naryn.  We really liked the city and it was nice to walk around and not have all the vendors attempting to talk to us in Russian.  They don’t really get many tourists in Naryn so they don’t have the instinct to switch to Russian when they see white people.  We stopped by the bazaar, ice skating rink(s), saw a hockey game and the normal Lenin statues.

Friendly animals
We quickly noticed how friendly the cows are in At-Bashi, this one wanted to say hi to Taylor

The next day we found a taxi to At-Bashi to visit some other volunteers.  By coincidence we ended up in a taxi with an English teacher who was a little bit confused as to why we chose January for our first visit to Naryn and kept telling us we must come back in summer.  We were enjoying it though, we don’t get any snow where we live so it’s fun to be in the snow for a bit.  After arriving we had some tea with our friend Tamera and her host-mom before taking a tour of At-Bashi.  We walked through the village to the Sunday animal bazaar which was pretty entertaining.  There are hundreds of bazaars in Kyrgyzstan but they all feel a bit different somehow.  At-Bashi is the highest and coldest village that volunteers live I believe and the cold air felt great.  Even the animals seemed well-adapted for the weather, they had the furriest cows I’ve ever seen.

Our last day in At-Bashi we went to the volunteers’ worksites before getting lunch at the new pizza parlor right next to the giant horse-head statue where you can find free wifi sitting in the park (there are so many odd things here.)  We had lunch with another PCV, Jonathan, and talked about some ideas for hiking/climbing trips nearby (he lives in the best place to hike in KG, IMO.) Appetite satiated, we found another taxi, which is always fun here, and headed back to Naryn City.  That evening we met a former PCV who convinced me I need to spend a few weeks in India (sorry mom, I guess I’m pushing my return home back even more!)

Naryn is awesome!  Of course it’s not the best oblast, that would be Issyk-Kul but we loved our trip there and will be back soon!

Our New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan

Fireworks

As previously mentioned, New Year’s is a big deal here.  Thrown in our versions of New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween and you are on the right track.  The festivities more or less last ten days, with many get-togethers to eat and little work (my work is on vacation still for another week.  Taylor and I celebrated Christmas alone, but we did Skype with our families which was really nice.  Our families sent us gifts from home and we put them around our Christmas tree Taylor made from a Sprite bottle before opening them.  Besides staying in pajamas all day, we had bacon with every meal (first time in 8 months!) that we had saved from our last trip to Bishkek.

 

The next day we went with my counterpart to Bishkek for a New Year’s party with my organization.  It turned out to be a large banquet hall where different companies buy several tables and the restaurant puts on a show.  There was a crazy amount of food and free beer (I took advantage.)  The entertainment including comedians, traditional dances and an Elvis impersonator (which the crowd loved.)  After the entertainment was over it was time to dance, they love to sing and dance here.  Unfortunately we had to leave before the last meal but they always save sheep for last so perhaps it was ok to miss it.

 

We came back to Balykchy for actual New Year’s Eve and went to our host family’s house (I don’t think I mentioned yet that we moved, we’ll show photos of our new place soon.) We arrived late, ate and caught up with the family on what was new.  We watched the Kyrgyz President’s 2 minute speech and then went outside to light off a firework.  Nurlan also shot off his shotgun a couple times and asked if I wanted to shoot it to.  Besides my hesitance to add to the random bullets being fired in the air it’s a major PC rule not to shoot a gun so I declined.  It was pretty fun to watch all the fireworks around Balykchy.  There are very few tall buildings so you could fireworks going off all over the place.  The next day we went to my other counterpart’s house to celebrate the New Year.  We ate a ton more food and drank a bottle of scotch (seriously, it’s just a week of eating and drinking.)  A good first New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan!  Next year we’re going to get a hotel in Bishkek to see what goes on in the capitol for New Year’s.