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.
Arriving at Manas Airport can be a bit overwhelming
4am and 30 hours of travel, but George & Cindy are happy to be in KG!
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.
George & Cindy got to meet Taylor’s colleagues
We took the Middleton’s to meet our Balykchy host family
The Middletons in front of Karalaev’s statue
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!
We took Taylor’s parents on part of our usual walk, through the abandoned factory
You can’t bring parents to Kyrgyzstan without showing them Issyk Kul
Showing G&C part of the abandoned Balykchy amusement park
Eric explaining Kyrgyz geography to George & Cindy
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.)
The Middletons back together in front of the Bishkek Philharmonia
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.
Chocolate chip pancakes, potatoes and bacon, just like home.
Presents from home and Taylor’s tree
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.
Our chicken we’d eat later, it reminded me of ET
Taylor holding a portrait a young man made of her by cutting out a card
A girl performs as a butterfly
Yep, Elvis was there
A breakdance show set to Kyrgyz hip-hop
Two Kyrgyz youth perform a traditional dance during a New Year’s party
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.
Our host father celebrates the New Year by shooting a couple shots into the air
If you’re reading this, you’re surely familiar with Christmas and Santa Clause. You likely believed Santa resided in the North Pole, but you’re mistaken. You see, Santa resides here, right smack-dab in the middle of Kyrgyzstan. The people know it, the government acknowledges it and according to a Swedish firm’s research in 2007 there’s just no other logical place for Santa to reside but this predominantly Muslim country most Americans have never heard of.
But first, a little background (bear with me while this blog gets a bit more historical than usual.) Kyrgyzstan didn’t always celebrate Santa Claus. Before ‘Urken’ (means exodus in English,) the various tribes of what makes up modern-day Kyrgyzstan lived a nomadic life and adhered to more traditionally Muslim practices. During this large revolt against Russian forces, perhaps as many as 100,000 Kyrgyz/Kazakhs died during the massacre (today, Russia admits that perhaps 3,000 died) setting the stage for Russia to officially move into the region 3 years later and create an oblast encompassing the region. The USSR had only just begun to adopt Christmas traditions thanks to some friendly Germans who taught the Ruskies how to decorate a tree (the Soviets opted to replace the traditional star with their much-preferred red, 5-pointed star.)
The love of Christmas trees was short-lived, during the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin (the most loved of all Soviet leaders in Kyrgyzstan) outlawed Christmas trees and for the following two decades these iconic emblems of happiness and joy were missing from Soviet homes. Christmas trees were not dead in the USSR, a new champion of trees soon arose. During Stalin’s regime, he realized the incredible of importance of these trees and he not only removed the ban but they became an officially recognized holiday symbol. In a fairly genius maneuver, Stalin appeased the Bolsheviks by stripping any religious meaning behind the Christmas trees and moved the date the trees were a symbol of from Christmas to New Year’s (a move not unlike previous world leaders such as Constantine made.) This move permitted the people to keep the winter party they now loved but removing the issue the revolution was based on. In the subsequent decades, Christmas trees became increasingly important but not as part of Christmas (which is celebrated January 7th by Orthodox Christians) as Stalin’s initiative to strip religion from the trees proved successful.
During the time of the Russian takeover of Central Asia and the following decades, the region became increasingly integrated with the USSR and as cities were established in the area, more ethnic Russians moved here, bringing their traditions and celebrations with them. The Kyrgyz took to New Year as an important day and holidays in Kyrgyzstan became more closely aligned with the Soviet Union even though most Kyrgyz still identified as Muslim.
In 1991, Kyrgyzstan became independent but New Year remained the biggest holiday despite having little to do with any Islamic tradition. In 2007, a Swedish engineering firm determined that Kyrgyzstan is the most logical place for Santa to reside. Kyrgyzstan jumped on the idea giving an unnamed peak in the middle of the country the new name of Santa Peak. And it worked, Santa made the move and the people celebrated with a large Santa party on December 30th (Father Frost and Grandpa Frost showed up too.)
So Tay and I set out to take some photos of the decorations around the city. In addition to the variations on Santa Claus and Father Frost, there were quite a few people dressed as sheep (2015 is the year of the sheep in China.)
A large inflatable Santa sits under the eye of Manas
A family takes a portrait with Father Frost and Maiden Frost
Manas, normally the tallest thing in the square, has to look up to the New Year tree for a couple weeks.
In winter, the canals of Bishkek freeze over. It hides the trash, which is nice.
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)
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.
Photo club students looking for good shots
During Soviet times, Balykchy had an active ship-building industry. This is what is left.
Eric trying to summon the Kyrgyz to make his point
Eric’s photo students trying to get a good angle
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.)
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:
Taylor’s student showing off his spider ring collection
Taylor’s GLOW girls facepaint
The kids jack-o-lanterns
Taylor’s GLOW girls version of Halloween: choreographed dance
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!
Work took me to Bishkek on another weekend and I met up with a travel blogging couple (yomadic.com) 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.)
The entrance to Putin Pub
Putin Pub’s awesome 1L mugs
It was Karaoke night at Putin Pub, it seems that means live band
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!’
This guy was selling old lenses near a bazaar, I bought one
Random dance party for old people in Bishkek
The less-visited section of Dordoy
Guns, skulls and baby doll – normal artwork on the ceiling
Many statues like this in the History Museum
The Last Supper of captured former states
Just Reagan riding a nuke. Normal.
The centerpiece of the museum
One of my favorite Lenin statues
More to come soon, we have more stories to tell including our trip to Kazakhstan and proof that winter is indeed coming…
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…
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!)
Since the first part of Pre-Service Training (PST) we’ve been planning a trip to Ala Archa National Park. Ala Archa is an alpine National Park, just South of Bishkek. Phase three of PST has miserably hot most days and a trip to the cool weather in the mountains was coming at a great time. Early last Sunday, 12 of us plus our brother and sister piled into the family marshrutka early in the morning and our host dad drove us up to the park.
Ala Archa has two main trails. The first is relatively flat and follows the main river up the valley. We opted for the trail to the left which climbs a steep valley, past a waterfall and ends at a climbing hut where several glaciers meet. The hike started up a steep hill and as soon as we reached the top the views were awesome. To the North-East, 15 miles of the Ala-Archa river valley could be seen and in front of us the large waterfall and beyond that, the valley where Racek hut, our destination, was visible.
After traversing the side of the valley for about a mile and a half we stopped for lunch before tackling a steep section that took us past the waterfall. Here, the trail winds through the Juniper Trees that give the park its name and is incredibly scenic. Across the valley we could see a herd of ibex(s?) scaling the steep slope. I’d seen many statues of ibex across the country and it was pretty awesome seeing them in person. Even though they were several hundred meters away, it was easy to make out their huge antlers.
PST hasn’t been all about language learning and technical skills training. We’re also trying to integrate with our families and communities, which basically means have fun with them! Here are a few things we’ve been doing the past week or so:
Our host mom was telling us about this concert that was going to be on TV by her favorite musician, Thomas Anders (self-proclaimed “Gentleman of Music”). She was super excited and made sure we knew we were going to be watching it and maybe drinking a bit. It turned into a pretty hilarious dance party in the dining room. The music was fairly terrible, but I guess they love him here. Thankfully, no vodka shots tonight.
One evening, during one of our village walks, we passed by our host sister and some of her friends who were hula hooping. When we returned home, the hula hoop had made it into our backyard. Taylor went out to take part in the fun, only to find our host mom taking a try at it. It was pretty amusing as the hula hoop was passed around and each person showed what they were made of. We’ve really come to appreciate some of the small things that don’t require much language proficiency – this was definitely one of them.
Just a quick update to let people know we met our permanent host family and they are awesome! All 54 trainees and our LCFs piled into a couple buses and drove to a hotel in Bishkek. After a little wait we walked in and found a person from our host family that came to meet us. We were greeted by our grandma Buken (Букен) and little brother Daniel. We knew a little about our family before we met them because a volunteer named Jason (who’s site Eric is taking over) has lived with them and told us a few things. They speak a little English and apparently have a really nice house. Next Thursday is the day we leave our PST host family and move to Balykchy, it’s going to be great!
We had a fun morning with the family taking some family portraits. They love photos and ask to look at ours all the time, but we noticed they didn’t have any of the whole family. We were planning on heading into Bishkek for a few hours the following day and wanted to print a lot of photos from our time here. We wanted them to have some they could keep as well, so we got out the tripod to get a few photos of all of us. It was pretty funny – we made them take photos ‘Kyrgyz-style’ (no smiling) and then ‘American-style.’ After the family portraits we took some photos in the new Marshrutka.
After photo time, we met up with other volunteers and some of the trainers living in our village for a little picnic along the river. It was a relaxing afternoon at one of the prettiest places in Krasnaya Rechka, even though we couldn’t see the mountains that day.
While we’ve been trying to keep the blog updated with the big events, so many little things have happened that we wanted to mention, so we’re combining a bunch of things here. Hopefully this tells you a little about our daily lives here.
Last Monday our LCF (Kyrgyz language/culture teacher) invited us to a concert in Bishkek. Her husband works for the Swiss embassy and there was a party for the 20th anniversary of Swiss/Kyrgyz cooperation. It was a blast! First, we got to get out of language classes early so we could make it to Bishkek on time. Plus, any excuse to get to Bishkek during PST is great. The event itself was awesome; there were great presentations on the many projects they are working on around the country, several musical performances, and speeches by the Swiss ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, the Vice Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan and more. Here’s a clip of my favorite musical piece, anyone recognize it?