Water & power often failing, sparks shooting out of your circuit breakers and hearing the walls crumble at night are just a few of the joys we get living in a Soviet-era apartment. Balykchy is filled with dozens of nearly identical 5-story block apartments put together like puzzles from concrete panels, many of which were made right here in Balykchy decades ago. Since last December we’ve had the pleasure of learning the ins and outs of living in one of these poorly up kept units and thought we’d share a little bit for friends at home, future volunteers here and those who are just curious.
The apartments can look depressing at first, drab brutalist architecture has never actually been inspiring, but it starts to grow on you. There are a few trees in the courtyard to break up the gray of concrete and rocks. There is a brand new playground thanks to a political party hoping to make up some ground with the local populace in the upcoming election. After some time you get past the look of the apartments and just notice the families walking about and the children playing – it really feels a lot like a neighborhood anywhere. There are some things that never feel normal though. The garbage is never picked up early enough so it’s burned in the metal collection bins every few days and you never can get used to the acrid smell. There’s also the vendors that periodically up into the middle of the courtyard with a megaphone letting everyone know they have products to sell (anything from vegetables to cheese.)
Our apartment itself is on the third floor. High enough to not be bothered by drunks at night and offer a bit of a view but low enough we have decent water pressure and don’t need to take too many stairs to get in or out. The apartment has two rooms, one we use as our bedroom and the second as a ‘guesting’ room which means a living room since we don’t do traditional Kyrgyz guesting. The bed is two small beds pushed together meaning the sheets don’t really fit and we have a nice 4” gap running down the middle (hey, no arguing about who’s hogging the bed right?) The living room came with a couch and a matching chair, both with little enough padding you can feel the springs when you sit. The bathroom is what really makes apartment living different than most volunteers’ living arrangements. We have a washing machine and a shower with hot water (assuming the water and power are both working.) For volunteers in Kyrgyzstan, a shower is a very big deal.
Our kitchen is also a major departure from traditional Kyrgyz life. Depending on how rural of an area you live in, your kitchen is likely to be increasing rustic with the majority of meals being prepared in a basic, large, metal pot. We’re fortunate enough now to have a full-size electric oven AND a backup gas range for when the power goes out. The most recent addition is a modern fridge with a separate freezer section – ice cubes are a serious luxury when you’re a Peace Corps volunteer.
There are other intricacies of living in an apartment we didn’t think about until living here but they’re different enough from life in America to be notable. Paying bills is always a good time. We pay rent after the landlord calls 4 or 5 times to come collect it (he starts asking if we have money about 10-12 days before rent is due usually.) The electric bill has to be paid at the post office which means fending off the old ladies who try to cut in front of me. The other bills we pay when someone comes around to collect, usually at dinner time. Then there’s also the screaming above us that is a nightly occurrence. It’s hard to makes sense of any of the muffled shouts but something certainly ticks the old lady off every night. But all the hassles are more than worth it, if nothing else for the ability to cook American meals…