I realize it has been forever since I’ve blogged. I have no real excuses besides the eternal one of my blog being blocked here…I can get around it with a little ingenuity, but I’ve just gotten overwhelmed at the thought of introducing you all to an entirely new country, atmosphere, job, and cast of supporting characters. I know though, it needs to happen. Today’s post will be a quick rundown of the country and city in which I live, including some interesting (to me) political background and some photos to keep you from snoozing through the history lessons! Expect much more about what I’m actually doing — and maybe a couple of horrendously belated flashbacks into my transition here — to be addressed in future posts. My new year’s resolution is to return to the blogosphere!
Upon learning that I decided to come here after my Peace Corps service in Kazakhstan, my mom bemoaned my choice of progressively more and more difficult-to-pronounce countries. Kyrgyzstan, besides being a great Scrabble country (if you’re playing Proper Nouns:), is Kazakhstan’s small, mountainous southern neighbor.
Some similarities between Kazakhstan (KZ) and Kyrgyzstan (KG):
- Beshbarmak is still the national dish (large, hand-made sheet noodles topped with horse meat, oil and onions). They argue over who really first came up with this caloric, nomadic delicacy. Foods in both countries – including the ever-popular ethnic minority dishes of the Uzbeks, Uighurs and Koreans – are essentially the same. And by the way, these ethnic minorities and others (Tajiks, Tatars, Russians to name a few more) also inhabit both countries.
- Russian is still a recognized state language and widely utilized for business, with the national language dominating government use. Kyrgyz and Kazakh are very similar (Turkic languages) and mutually understandable, with some vowel and consonant morphations.
- Post-Soviet but Muslim. Both countries have the same strange collision of Lenin statues and calls to prayer.
[The pointing Lenin statue in Osh, Kyrgyz Republic]
- Both countries have a bit of a north-south cultural divide, though I would say this is played out more strongly in Kyrgyzstan (ironically, since Kazakhstan is dominated in the north by Russia and ethnic Russians).
- Kyrgyzstan is 94% mountains. This geography affects every element of society, as the country has many more impoverished and inaccessible areas. My organization, which I’ll get to in a future post, happens to work specifically with these often isolated mountain communities.
- Kyrgyzstan is the poorest of the 4 post-Soviet ‘stans’ while Kazakhstan is the richest (Kazakhstan – 129,757 mil USD; Uzbekistan – 37,724 mil USD; Tajikistan – 5,578 mil USD; Kyrgyzstan – 4,444 mil USD).
- Kyrgyzstan has had a history of revolutions and changes in power (the Tulip Revolution in 2005, followed by the most recent revolution in 2010), whereas Kazakhstan has had only one President since independence. People will certainly debate which model is better — Kyrgyzstan is often lifted by the West as a bastion of democracy, whereas by the other Central Asian states it is often looked upon as the rogue and unstable regional sore spot.
- Kyrgyzstan has a history of widespread ethnic violence. Though Kazakhstan has now proved itself capable of state-led violence in recent days, this is different than the citizen-on-citizen ethnic fighting that happened recently in Southern Kyrgyzstan, where I now live. Which brings me to…
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the northern hub where most expats conglomerate (and only 3 hours driving distance from Almaty, the southern hub of Kazakhstan, where expats conglomerate:P). As you may have guessed, as I did not live in Almaty while in KZ, I also do not live in Bishkek. 🙂 I’ve stuck to my affinity of southern “criminal towns” (by local reputation!) and currently reside in Osh, the southern hub of Kyrgyzstan, which is significantly different in culture and history. First of all, Osh is in the Ferghana Valley, a nonsensical cluster with various countries jutting into one another that has remained a hotbed of violence. The crazy borders you see below are a remnant of purposefully problematic border delineations during the Stalinist era that were meant to diffuse revolt from any one ethnicity against Moscow…and the conflicts continue to this day.
In June of 2010, following an April revolution that ousted former President Bakiev and put a provisional government in its place (led by the first woman to become President of a Central Asian country…Rosa Otunbaeva), an outbreak of ethnic violence broke out in Osh between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. 400+ people died and 400,000+ more were rendered homeless refugees as houses were burned down throughout the city. For anyone who wishes to read a full account of what is now known simply as “the June events,” the first place to go is the Kyrgyzstan International Commission report and subsequent response by the Kyrgyz Government. Both sides do a lot of finger-pointing at each other but reading both gives you an idea of the sensitive debate and interpretation of what has happened through different lenses. Western accounts emphasize that pogroms were conducted against Uzbeks and that they have been disproportionately prosecuted in the judiciary aftermath of the violence. The city’s rebuilding of destroyed homes has also been greatly criticized, as many of those homes formerly belonging to Uzbeks are being redistributed to Kyrgyz. However, the government (along with several ethnic Kyrgyz I have spoken to here) often claims that these accounts do not sufficiently take into account the victims on both sides, entrenching rifts and ignoring intermarried couples or the people who risked their lives to save and protect members of other ethnicities.
[burnt down stalls at the Osh bazaar are back in operation]
[an artistic depiction at a gallery opening in Osh. the words “Uzbek,” “Kyrgyz” and “SOS” are written amidst the flames]
As a place to live, Osh is definitely deeply affected by the tragedy of the June events. First of all, people are very paranoid and few people really venture out at night. I certainly do not feel that safe here even though the people who really perpetrated the violence last year have in all likelihood fled (along with many of the families they victimized). I have heard ethnic stereotypes that certainly show more fear than the ones I would hear in KZ. Infrastructure is rather poor and the street lights are constantly flickering in and out, roads are dangerously icy and filled with gaping, uncovered potholes, and various parts of town will periodically not have heat/water/electricity/gas at any given time. A relatively large expat community lives here though, due to the international presence after the violence. I see people from a host of acronyms both in and out of work: the UNDP/UNHCR/UNICEF/UNWomen, USAID (whose Office of Transitional Initiatives is run through IRG, a private contractor), ACTED (French NGO), ICRC (Intl Committee of the Red Cross), DRC (Danish Refugee Council), International Alert (conflict resolution), EFCA (Eurasia Foundation of Central Asia), Aga Khan MSDSP KG (that’s us), and a couple microfinance outfits. The most reliable places to run into people are the expat grocery store with imported cheeses, or the two or three restaurants that serve edible food for the exorbitant price of $7 an entree (I happen to live right next to one such joint). At the risk of sounding too StuffExpatAidWorkersLike, I spend most days cooking myself or for a couple friends using local produce at our wonderfully chaotic bazaar. I still love my weekly basketball game with a bunch of local guys, and am trying to start volunteering Saturdays at an English center doing youth development work, though my travel schedule makes locking down times quite difficult. Also one of the more bizarre communities I have come across is the Chinese diaspora here in Osh, who trade at Kara-Suu, supposedly the largest market of Chinese goods in Central Asia. Going there is like entering a wormhole and coming out at a magical place of shrimp, mushrooms, huo guo and KTV karaoke! 🙂 I now know where to get my fix of authentic Chinese spices, which is a very appreciated perk.
Overall, I really enjoy Osh. It is definitely a recovering city but its heart is still there, and I think will reveal itself more and more as the weather thaws. But for now, even the treacherous ice is beautiful sometimes.
[Osh through summer, fall and winter]