Tash Rabat – Winter in May

Entry gate to Naryn City
The entry gate to Naryn City.

Before visiting Tash Rabat, in the deep Southern part of Naryn, we were warned two things: It can snow any time of the year and the (possibly haunted) fort itself had an unknown number of rooms as it was impossible to count them accurately.  With that in mind, four of us set off with our former host father to At-Bashy where we stayed the night with another volunteer before our morning ride out to Tash Rabat.  As our SUV drove South of At-Bashy, much farther South than we’d been before, we stopped at the decaying ruins of Koshoy Korgon.  This Korgon (one of the Kyrgyz words for fort) is named after Koshoy Baatyr, one of Manas’ generals, who is thought to have ordered the fort’s construction.  The fort was interesting but really hard to envision what once was.  Also strange that you can just walk all over what in the States would certainly be protected in some way.

Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.
Ancient walls of Koshoi-Korgon
Koshoi-Korgon, a small fort in Naryn thought to have been built by a close friend of Manas.

We continued the drive towards Tash Rabat and as we entered the valley we finally saw yaks!  Yaks are a centuries-old tradition in Kyrgyzstan but was largely lost during the Soviet days.  Now, the government is actively trying to promote the practice and dramatically increase the number of yaks from the approximately 31,000 there are now (here’s a brief Reuters video with a little more info.)  Our driver laughed at our delight in seeing yaks but at least the whole group was entertained.  We pulled up to the yurt camp and unloaded our bags quickly so we could start our hike.

Yak!
We finally saw our first yak, with a baby!

Our first stop was Tash Rabat itself.  Tash Rabat is a 15th century caravanserai restored (poorly?) by the Soviet Union in the 80s.  The origin and use is argued about but it was likely some sort of rest spot, market and occasional prison for travelers/traders on the ancient silk road.  There’s a fee to enter and after a brief negotiation the woman agreed to give us the locals price since we spoke Kyrgyz (she quizzed us.)  Tash Rabat turned out to be surprisingly interesting and much larger than it looked from the outside.

We left Tash Rabat and the road behind as we hiked up the valley.  Soon, the valley filled with shrieks every time we came around a corner.  It didn’t take long to spot the source of the noise, marmots, hundreds of them lived on both sides of the valley.  When we came into view of a new group they would shriek out a warning call and we would get glimpses of the furry animals scurrying down into their holes.  The trail had patches of snow we crossed while walking up a narrow river valley.  The scenery was incredible and after 5 or 6 miles in we decided we had gone far enough, the end of the valley in site but too far to make today.

While resting, we saw our friends who had left much earlier hoping to get a glimpse of Chatyr Kol.  The skies began to darken and as a group we all headed back towards camp.  Along the way, the dogs who had followed our friends on their hike found a dead marmot which the larger one devoured, a bit disconcerting given the story about the teenager who contracted bubonic plague and died after eating a marmot three years ago.  Nearing the camp, rain began to fall and we could see flashes in the sky from lightning in the next valley over.  We were a bit tired and cold but when the rain turned to hail it was motivation enough to hurry up back to the safety of our yurts.  We rested until dinner and had a nice time in the large dining yurt making food and talking with the daughter of the yurt camp owner.  Snow began to fall, ensuring we would indeed experience all four seasons in a day at Tash Rabat.  The next day we woke up to beautiful, fresh snow on the ground.

Want to visit Tash Rabat?  Trips to Tash Rabat can be arranged from the CBTs in Kochkor or Naryn but we stayed at Sabyrbek’s awesome yurt camp.  They can arrange for taxis out to Tash Rabat and beyond as well from either At-Bashy or Naryn.  They can be reached at 0772 221 252, 0773 889 098 or a.tursun29@mail.ru

 

The Halfway Point of my Peace Corps Service (in photos)

I’ve been accused of keeping my blog too positive. This may seem odd but it’s more than fair.  The things I like to write and show photos about are the highlights.  Writing a post about the many times someone just never shows up for a meeting or sitting and waiting hours for vehicles to leave (which seems to take up the bulk of my life) just doesn’t seem that interesting.  A big part of Peace Corps life (at least mine) is boredom and being aggravated by little things that just add up over time.  I haven’t had a single terrible experience but arguing with taxi drivers, convincing drunks I’m not a spy and trying to figure out how to keep my photo students motivated takes a toll (and makes the vacation I’m starting now the thing I really need.

Here, halfway through my service, I thought I’d write a post going through month by month with a few photos and thoughts on what my life was like.

May

Our first full month in country.  The days were spent learning the language, going through many Peace Corps trainings and getting to know the other new volunteers.

June

The second month of training gets very tiresome as the weather heats up.  I get tired of seeing the same faces every day, tired of learning Kyrgyz and I just want to get to my permanent site.  At the end of the month we met a couple people from our new host family.  It was awkward but it was exciting to meet them.  Finally at the end of the month we were sworn in.  It was exciting but also nerve-wracking because we were headed to our sites with colleagues we couldn’t really talk with and felt the pressure to be able to communicate and do work.

 

July

Our first month at site was packed with activities and a lot of time trying to figure out how to learn to live with a family.  We went on hikes, explored Balykchy, tried to get to know our new family and helped at a couple summer camps.  July was both good and bad.  There were some fun times with the family but also a lot of difficult times were we felt like we were doing the wrong thing but had no idea what it was or how to make it better.  The camps were fun but I got really sick and was stuck in one spot way too long.  Work was also difficult because I couldn’t say anything of substance to my main counterpart and we mostly ended up struggling to get to know each other and drinking beer.

August

August was a little more fun than July because I felt like I was getting in a bit of a routine.  We did a couple more hikes and had to go back to our training village for the last part of training.  This was miserable since it was so hot and I think all anyone wanted to do was get settled in at their permanent sites.

 

September

September was a rush of trying to fit in as many outdoor activities as we could before the weather was going to turn.  Work was going ok but a lot of the time was just spent trying to figure out what kind of work we could do together.  Things were a bit awkward with our host family and we struggled to figure out if interactions were just always going to strange or if we were doing something wrong.

 

October

Bike rides, trips to new regions of Kyrgyzstan and a trip to Bishkek to attend a party for our Kyrgyz teacher’s baby.  At AVEP work was going well but it could be a little boring at times when the only thing I could help with was correcting their reports (they’re written in English.)  At Danko work was pretty frustrating because I had no idea how we could work together.  Trying to discuss stuff in Kyrgyz was very difficult and my counterpart didn’t have the patience to sit with me and use Google Translate to figure out things I couldn’t say in Kyrgyz.  We decided to start a photo club which was exciting because it seemed manageable and would be fun.

November

My photo club started and sputtered in November.  Teaching in Kyrgyz was extremely difficult and we had a really hard getting kids to attend.  Also, kids had to bring their own cameras which were usually very bad and limited who could come.  At AVEP I went to several greenhouse openings, these were fun to see but I really didn’t have that much to do with the work.  Things with the host family were deteriorating and we couldn’t find a way to make things work even with my program manager coming to help.  At the end of the month we decided to move after Peace Corps said we could move to an apartment.

 

December

My photo club at Danko was basically dead but after a PC training, my counterpart and I decided to write a grant to buy cameras and give the photo club another go with the experience of one failure under our belts.  We moved into our new apartment and it was exciting but came with its own challenges, electrical fires, water outages and crazy neighbors who thought we were spies.

 

January

The New Year!  The New Year celebrations were fun.  We visited our host family for the first time since moving out.  It went better than expected but the grandma made more of the condescending comments that were part of why we moved out.  We had a really fun day at my counterpart’s house with his family.  We also took a trip to Naryn, the coldest oblast, during the coldest month.  It was beautiful and fun to meet more volunteers’ families.

February

We finally took our first trip out of the country to Dubai, a much-needed break.  We received the great news our photo club grant was approved so we began preparations for that.  I did another hike.  At AVEP we began writing a couple more proposals so the work there was a bit more interesting.  The challenge at AVEP is I feel more like an employee, I can’t really offer much in terms of ‘skills-transfer’ as the organization is already pretty advanced.

 

March

The weather was warming up which was nice but March was a pretty uneventful month.  I think the single biggest problem I’ve had in Peace Corps is boredom and this was one of those months.  Both work sites were status-quo and we were just continuing what we were doing.

April

After one of the slowest months came the busiest.  We received grant money to buy our photo club equipment and the first classes started.  It took a ton of time to translate lessons into Kyrgyz so I could teach.  At AVEP we took a trip around the oblast speaking to local farmers and politicians as part of the KARAGAT project, AVEP’s largest project.  Between all the work, we managed to go on a hike and ride our bikes to a neighboring village to visit another volunteer and her family.

 

May

Another crazy month.  My photo club was going pretty well and we did our first field trip.  We did hikes in Ala-Archa National Park and Tash Rabat.  I tried to start quite a few projects at AVEP that kept me very busy.  Best of all, Taylor’s parents came and we started our vacation.

Half of my Peace Corps service is done.  Looking back through all the photos and my notes from the first year I realize how much has happened even though it seems to be flying by and too unproductive.  Most of the volunteers who are leaving felt like their second year was much better than their first which I hope is true.

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”

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.

Continue reading “My Version of Spring in Balykchy”

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!