Living in a Soviet-Era Kyrgyzstan Apartment

The view

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.)

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Welcome to Kyrgyzstan George & Cindy!

The hardest part of Peace Corps is without a doubt being away from close friends and family.  Skype helps but it’s not the same.  We’ve been counting down the days until Taylor’s parents visited (Taylor literally made a countdown calendar out of rings) and the day finally arrived!  Our previous host father drove us to the airport after midnight to pick them up but Kyrgyzstan seems to have an unusual way of welcoming visitors.  All international flights seem to arrive early and usually after very long trips. Their flight was no different, it was supposed to arrive at 2:40am but it was an hour late as is so often the case.  Everyone was quite tired and not in the mood for the next surprise, 2 of their bags were missing, another Kyrgyzstan airport traditional welcome.

Nurlan drove us home and everyone rested for a bit before we gave them a trial version of the Balykchy Walking Tour (TM.)  I was excited to show family our city, everything from the beautiful beach with massive mountains in the background to the abandoned factories left over from the Soviet days.  I was reminded of our initial weeks in the country and how strange at that time it was to have herds of cows cross your path in the middle of the city or decaying ruins next to brand new construction – these all feel so normal now.

The following day we took Taylor’s parents to Bishkek via marshrutka (of course none of the crazy things happened we often see, it was a perfectly normal ride.)  We toured the city a bit and showed them the Peace Corps office in between calls to Turkish Air to try and locate our missing bags.  The best part about stopping by Bishkek was seeing a lot of the K-21s one last time before they head home.  We had a lot of great friends in this group and it will be sad to not have them around when we return to Kyrgyzstan.  Good luck K-21s!

On our second evening, we headed to the airport.  The trip on to the plane was frustrating but rather than type out a long, frustrating story, I’ll just say two things I will NOT miss from Kyrgyzstan are taxis and standing in lines (lines, ya right.)

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.

My Version of Spring in Balykchy

It wasn’t until the 8 week period of semi-winter (we live in a desert, after all) was over that I realized things I had been working on had slowly and painstakingly fallen apart, just unraveled. Students slowly stopped attending my Health Club (that I put hours of work into planning each week), my Kyrgyz tutor got married suddenly and was too busy with family obligations to keep a regular schedule with me, my GLOW girls  (the ones who attended the Girls Leading Our World summer camp) didn’t come on the day we were scheduled to do yoga together, and the English center where my Health Club took place closed and was repurposed into a pawn shop – not necessarily a bad thing, just a sign of circumstances changing and a family’s need to make some income.

This is why I was shocked when my counterpart rounded up the GLOW girls a couple months later and told them we will do a flashmob about Tuberculosis. When I was 16 years old (as these girls are), I would have said, “What? What does that mean?” These girls nonchalantly said, “okay,” and started looking on the internet for dances we could copy. After 2 weeks of practicing, we ended up performing the dance a total of 5 times – 2 times in front of my worksite, the clinic, and 3 times in the bazaar (creating an obstacle for shoppers to go around in one case J).  And yes, I danced with them. My counterpart thought it was weird that I was practicing the dance too, but for once this was something I could do well at work – there was no need to struggle through a conversation in Kyrgyz, no need to try and understand the cultural nuances of how my counterparts get things done. I could just dance. Oh, and carry a banner around town that said ‘We are against Tuberculosis’ while following a car with a large speaker in the back.

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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.

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


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.


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Our New Year’s in Kyrgyzstan


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.

Halloween, Soviet Propaganda and the Finest Bar in Bishkek

Youngest brother enjoying the ride (not subject to PC helmet rules like us)
Youngest brother enjoying the ride (not subject to PC helmet rules like us)

When Tay and I envisioned our Peace Corps lives, the image was clear.  Living in a small village, hot weather, perhaps on an island but more likely Africa.  We would have little connection to our family back home and long distances to other volunteers would keep us isolated.  As any reader of the blog knows, that’s not exactly our daily life here.  As the cold weather sets in, we’re reminded yet again just how different this Peace Corps journey is turning out to be than we expected.  We usually share stories on here of our more interesting adventures but it’s time for another update post.  With that, some random stories of our daily lives…

What am I doing here?  (Part 3)

Eric's photo students trying to get a good angle
Eric’s photo students trying to get a good angle

None of us really know what we’ll be doing when we get to our posts.  It took a couple months to get into the rhythm of work here.  Being a site volunteer I had to figure out how to balance several different work sites along with the usual adjustments PCVs make.  As my colleagues and  I get to know each other and our skill sets, I’ve begun to take on projects (a project here is code for a grant but I’m using it in the sense as most people back home would understand it.)  The first is a photo club at my primary site, Danko.  I had high hopes for the photo club but it’s really an experiment to see what works here.  Students came with their own cameras which were generally so awful I had to abandon my carefully laid lessons and improvise.  Basically I do a short lesson on a composition technique and then we walk around trying to practice it.  It’s been ok but we are now writing a grant to get a handful of cameras and funds for field trips so I can start a proper photography class in the spring.  Taylor and I are also helping two of my counterparts get traction on a project they’ve worked on for the last two years around helping disabled children.  It has the potential to be a really interesting project, it will be fun to see where that goes in the next couple months.

I made my little brother pose with my sunglasses during our ride, he wasn't loving them
I made my little brother pose with my sunglasses during our ride, he wasn’t loving them

We’ve been getting around Balykchy, our bikes help a lot with this.  I took a trip up towards the mountains however a little incident with the army up there has put a halt to exploration outside of Balykchy until that’s sorted out.  I went on some rides with my brothers and they showed me some spots around Balykchy including this really cool abandoned amusement park (expect more photos from this place soon.)

An abandoned ride
An abandoned ride

We had our first big American holiday in Balykchy last month, Halloween!  Some of the volunteers got together and had parties, American style, but we had to stay around Balykchy due to commitments the next day.  So we made candy apples with our host brothers and had a good night.

Taylor’s GLOW girls and Health Club students also celebrated Halloween, here are some photos she took:

Anara's son dancing and singing for us
Anara’s son dancing and singing for us

Work, meetings with Peace Corps and fun adventures have also taken to the capitol of Bishkek quite a few times.  Bishkek is growing on me, as I learn where the good restaurants are I enjoy my time there more and more.  Getting around is still terrible but as long as you avoid rush hour it can be enjoyable.  One trip to Bishkek was for our language learning group to reunite with our fantastic Kyrgyz teacher, Anara.  Anara was pregnant during our classes and recently gave birth to her third child.  She invited us to the baby’s Beshek Toi which is a celebration for the family to see the baby 40 days after its birth.  It was fun to see a local tradition like this and awesome to see our favorite Kyrgyz teacher again plus meet her family and friends!

Our LCF's baby and stepmother during the Beshek Toi
Our LCF’s baby and stepmother during the Beshek Toi

Work took me to Bishkek on another weekend and I met up with a travel blogging couple ( who by chance happened to be coming to Kyrgyzstan.  We had a blast exploring the fantastically (and intentionally) ironic Putin Pub.  This newly-opened pub has drawn the ire of the Russian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan who has publicly stated his intent to shut it down.  I had to visit while it was still opened and ended up loving it.  Cheap beer, awesome staff and a good crowd.  I’ll be back (until it’s shut down.)

Everything is for sale at Dordoy
Everything is for sale at Dordoy

The next day we went to Dordoy Bazaar, one of the largest markets in the world.  I was expecting it to be packed and hard to navigate but it really wasn’t bad (I had visions of a worse Osh Bazaar but that wasn’t the case.)  It’s unique, all the stall are stacked shipping containers, the store below and storage above.  People in the bazaar were shocking friendly and not pushy like in most bazaars.  We walked around a bit chatting with vendors, ate lunch and headed back to the city.  On the way back we stopped by the State History Museum.  This museum is supposed to be portray the history of Kyrgyzstan and its ties with the former USSR fairly and accurately but without being able to speak Russian or Kyrgyz well you can’t learn too much.  The real treasure to me are the ceiling murals which cover every inch of ceiling on both floors.  Rumored to be painted over in the future, I wanted to see these examples of Soviet propaganda before they disappeared.  From depictions of a ‘last supper’ consisting of past conquered nations, to images of the Soviets rescuing Jews from Nazis. And my personal favorite, a skeleton-mask covered Ronald Reagan riding a nuclear warhead while children hold signs saying ‘No More Hiroshima!’

Just Reagan riding a nuke.  Normal.
Just Reagan riding a nuke. Normal.

More to come soon, we have more stories to tell including our trip to Kazakhstan and proof that winter is indeed coming…

Home Sweet Balykchy Home

Our front door and attached Lincoln Center, an English school
Our front door and attached Lincoln Center, an English school

Some people have asked where we live, what our permanent site actually looks like.  Before I get into that, let me introduce you to a term… ‘Posh Corps.’  Dirt floors, laundry by hand and having to go fetch water from the river to drink are things people think of as the norm for us volunteers. People often think this term is a derogatory term used by people who want the ‘real’ PC experience where you are roughing it towards those volunteers who have some modern conveniences.  As it turns out, our permanent site fits none of those stereotypical images and I’ve since come to realize that ‘Posh Corps’ is a phrase born out of jealousy.  I’ve done laundry by hand here… it sucks.  So here it is, a tour of our fairly posh, Peace Corps home.

The courtyard.  Our the main house on the left.
The courtyard. Our the main house on the left.

As previously mentioned, our home is in Balykchy, a city on the Western edge of Issyk Kul, a huge alpine lake.  Our home is closed by a large fence on all sides like most in Kyrgyzstan, especially common in cities.  Inside the gates there are some differences between most of the homes I’ve been in and ours.  Our property is mostly finished with clean concrete walkways separating grassy areas with fruit-bearing trees (cherry, apple, pear and apricots,) generally homes are surrounded mostly by dirt.  It’s a pretty large plot for a city with a driveway on either side.  The main house is 3 or 4 bedrooms, depending on how you define them, and several living areas. There is a separate apartment attached that goes unused now but a previous volunteer lived there.

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Apple Pie, Mountain Bikes & an Old Fashioned River Float

We’ve been sharing some posts from some fun events we’ve had but haven’t shared much about what our day-to-day life has been like here lately.  For all of August we were stuck back at our training villages for the last part (Phase 3) of Pre-Service Training.  While it was great seeing everyone it was really hot nearly every day (90+ often and the training center does not have AC) and the days seemed to crawl by.  Plus, we were missing the best month to be back in Issyk Kul where every day the weather is perfect and the beach is just a five minute walk away.  Besides being able to see the whole group back together (minus our one fellow volunteer who went home) we had some fun adventures.  We invited 10 other volunteers to Ala Archa (blog post here,) had an amazing weekend in Bishkek, bought mountain bikes, held the first annual Issyk-Ata Regatta, cooked American food, explored an abandoned apartment and perhaps best of all, took the ‘Balykchy Express’ to get back to Krasnaya Rechka.  We’ll write up some info on the world-famous Balykchy Express slow train that runs from Bishkek to Balykchy later but read on for more photos and stories from our other adventures the past month…

The first pizza we made in KG
The first pizza we made in KG

Being back in Krasnaya Rechka was fun even though training wasn’t because the kids are so much fun to play with.  We spent many nights playing Frisbee and surprised them with a Frisbee of their own that Taylor’s mom sent from America (thanks Cindy!)  There’s a big difference between the village kids in Krasnaya Rechka and the city kids in Balykchy.  The village kids all know who we are and scream our names when they see us even if they are on the other side of the school yard.  Much like cities at home, you lose a bit of the ‘neighborhood feel’ in cities here which has its pros and cons. Our language still seems terrible to us but we were able to talk a lot more with our PST family and learn things like how they met, when they moved to their house, where they originated from, etc.  We also tried to cook more American food for them, not only to share American culture but frankly, we’re craving a lot of food from home.  We made pizza and had to resort to using pre-made frozen crusts we found. They tasted as good as a frozen pizza from the grocery store but we had fresh ingredients and the kids loved it.  Taylor also went with some of the other PCV girls and made apple pies.  She said they were delicious but forgot to bring a slice home for Eric so things are a bit rocky between us, тамаша (that means kidding!)


We missed the cows coming home everyday
We missed the cows coming home everyday

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