Driving the Pamirs

I was sitting in a taxi rolling back into Osh after a two week trip to Tajikistan when I got a text from my grandma – “Update time,” she wrote. And so, an update!

After spending a week tourist-ing around Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, I set out on a 6-day tour of the Pamir mountains. I was joined by another PhD student who studies Central Asia and a mutual friend who works in Bishkek; the three of us are all easygoing, and plans for the trip came together about a week before we made it to the Pamirs.

In the days leading up to the trip, I relied on a handful of travel blogs for ideas about which places to visit/what to see and found this day-by-day itinerary format helpful. In hopes of helping someone else who wants to organize a similar trip — and directing business to Жоомарт/Jomart, aka the best and most charming driver in the biz (you can get in touch with him on WhatsApp at +996 558 977 552) — here’s a broad sketch of the trip:

Dushanbe -> Khorog -> Langar -> Murghab -> Karakul -> Tulpar-Kol -> Osh

map of trip

Day 0: Dushanbe

I had the luxury of enjoying Dushanbe for a week before setting off to the Pamirs, but one of my travel mates flew in from Bishkek the morning before and had a crash-tour of the city. We both applied for e-visas ($70, including the $20 permit for visiting eastern Tajikistan) a few days before our respective flights. After stocking up on snacks for the road (the good kind of instant coffee, crackers, spreadable cheese, cherries, cherry tomatoes, nuts, dried fruit), we made a quick walking tour of the city at dusk before heading to bed early.

Day 1: Dushanbe to Khorog

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We woke up at 5:30 to take a taxi to the bus depot in central Dushanbe in order to catch a shared Jeep to Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan region in eastern Tajikistan. It didn’t take long to find a driver (Gulom was the first person to call out “Taksi”), but it did take a while for the car to fill up and to pack the top of the jeep with everyone’s bags. After checking that the price was fair (350 Tajik somoni is about $40, which seemed high compared to the price of a ride of similar distance in Kyrgyzstan), drinking some tea, and stocking up on water and candy, we hit the road at 7:30 in the morning.

Not long after getting out of the city stopped to buy some watermelon and talk to police officers who flagged the car down. A few of the blogs I read mentioned never having the visa/GBAO permit checked, but this was not our experience at all — on the trip from Dushanbe to Khorog alone, we had to show our passport three times.

This was a long, long ride. We stopped to take pictures of the Nurek Reservoir about an hour outside Dushanbe, stopped again in Kulob for lunch, stopped once more in Kulai-Kum to stretch our legs and buy more snacks, and stopped for the last time at some roadside cafe (I think around Rushan?) for salad and some tea. Finally (FINALLY) around 9:30pm we rolled in to Khorog, where the highway linking Dushanbe and the Pamirs is also the town’s main street. The women at Sheron Homestay were really helpful in navigating Gulom to the gate, and the accommodations were so comfortable after 14 hours on the road.

Day 2: Khorog to Langar

UntitledOur driver Jomart met us at Sheron Homestay in the morning, and we stocked up 5-liter containers of water at the bazaar and pulled out money from Orion Bank. (There’s nowhere else to pull out or exchange money until well after you cross into Kyrgyzstan, so calculate what you need beforehand.)

UntitledAfter lunch in Ishkoshim, we made a pitstop at the Bibi Fatima hotsprings (10 somoni fee to go in, worth every diram and then some). While digging through the trunk to pull out swimsuits, Jomart told us we wouldn’t need those, and in fact, we could be fined if we wore anything at all in the water. This was the only full body water experience of the trip, so even without soap, it was incredibly refreshing. If you go, be sure to ask before you head down to the springs which door is for men/women — they switch the two frequently, apparently, and my travel mates accidentally walked in on a guy toweling off from his dip in the water.

After the hot springs, we drove another hour and a half to Langar. Jomart organized our homestay for us, calling around to the several guest houses in every village to see which had space open. The place where we stayed in Langar (I think it’s here) was a full house, but very comfortable — they had an indoor toilet and a nice shower, and dinner was tasty.

Day 3: Langar to Murghab

UntitledOne of my travel mates was really sick in the morning, with what we thought was food poisoning, but seemed to be altitude sickness (the symptoms can be similar). We had to keep going, and it took another 5 or so hours to get to Murghab. Once in Murghab, we found a really nice pharmacy near the hospital at the far end of the bazaar, which was well-stocked by the Aga Khan Foundation.

We stayed at Fariyma Homestay, which was also packed — a tour group of 15 Russians took up half the house, and another group of North Americans bumped us from the first room where we had set up. Fortunately, the room where we ended up sleeping was the warmest of all. Fariyma was very accommodating of my friend’s stomach situation, the food was tasty, and no one minded that we hung out around the homestay until mid-day before leaving.

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Day 4: Murghab to Karakul

This was the shortest travel day, by far. We left Murghab after lunch in the bazaar and made it to Karakul by mid-afternoon. We stayed at Elrik Homestay, where we slept in the most comfortable beds of the trip and borrowed a deck of cards from some Tajik men who were also renting a room. Electricity at the house was powered by a generator, which they only ran at night.

There is very little to do in Karakul, other than walk to the lake – we went three times in the one day we spent there. A group more ambitious and suffering less from altitude sickness than ours could have walked further around the lake and potentially toward the hills, though Karakul sits close to the Tajikistan-China border fence, so ask around before heading off in any one direction.
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Day 5: Karakul to Tulpar-Kol

The Tajik-Kyrgyz border is not far from Karakul, though it takes a while to get to because of the several mountain passes on the way. This was one of the days I was most grateful to be traveling by car, as the bikers struggling through the 4200 meter pass in between the border posts looked really worn out.

We passed through four checkpoints on the Tajik side (passport check, customs, narcotics, final passport stamp + visa collection) and then drove 13 kilometers to the Kyrgyz post, where we were greeted by an English-speaking border guard. It was another thirty minutes in the car to Sary-Tash, where we ate lunch and bought some refreshments (watermelon, a 2-liter bottle of kymys, and a 1-liter bottle of good ol’ Kyrgyz beer). Driving to Tulpar-Kol was in the opposite direction of Osh and took about an hour, but boy were the views worth it. The lake is near the base camp for Peak Lenin, and there are two yurt camps situated on either side of a hill. We picked a yurt at Peak Lenin Yurt Camp and spent the afternoon wandering the hills, drinking kymys with Jomart, and reading.

Although it’s the peak of summer, it was quite cold at night. Even with a small stove, we were still chilly. Fortunately, we had bought some wool Pamiri socks in Murghab and there were plenty of heavy blankets piled in the corner of the yurt.

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Day 6: Tulpar-Kol to Osh

After breakfast and coffee, we packed up and said goodbye to the yurt camp around 9:30. It was about a five-hour drive to Osh — we traded slow, bumpy roads for fast, zippy turns, which resulted in a bit of motion sickness BUT it was magical to feel the difference in the air as we descended from Tulpar-Kol’s 3500 meters to Osh’s 800 meters of altitude. On the way, we passed some familiar views and then – suddenly – beautiful Suleyman Too appeared on the horizon.

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Did I mention that Jomart is the best driver?

Jomart dropped us off directly at Konok Hostel, which I will forever and always preach as the best hostel in the city. Meergul, the owner, is an absolute queen – she is incredibly well connected, can tell you everything you need to know about Osh (and southern Kyrgyzstan more broadly), and runs a lovely hostel with a range of options (dorms, private rooms, and two apartments. You can find Konok Hostel on any major booking website, but you can also reach out to Meergul (who speaks English well) directly on WhatsApp at +996 558 382 777.

How much did everything cost?

  • Flight, Bishkek –> Dushanbe = $100
  • Visa, including GBAO permit = $70
  • Shared taxi from Dushanbe to Khorog = 350 somoni ($38)
  • My share of our brilliant driver Jomart’s services (remember, message him on WhatsApp at +996 558 977 552) = $200
  • One night at a homestay in Khorog + four nights of homestays in the Pamirs, including breakfast and dinner = $68
  • Bibi Fatima hotsprings = 10 somoni ($1.11)
  • Snacks = 80 somoni ($8.89)
  • Water = 50 somoni ($5.55)
  • Beer = 36 somoni ($4)
  • A pair of Pamiri wool socks = 70 somoni ($7.80)
  • Total: $503

If I were to do it again, I’d…

A lot of the travel blogs I read included some beautiful photos and laid out their itineraries really well, but none described what they would have done differently. I absolutely loved our tour and am really happy with how everything turned out, but now that I’m on the other side of it, I think I might have done a few things differently:

  • get picked up straight from Dushanbe instead of Khorog, and then spend a night in Kulai-Kum to split up the drive
  • bring more medicine along, including Oral Rehydration Salts + ibuprofen + Нош-бпа (Russian version that works like Pepto Bismol)
  • take an extra day or two to explore Khorog (and get a chance to eat at KFC – Khorog Fried Chicken)
  • pack a deck of cards and Bananagrams for passing the time
  • split up the drive between Khorog and Langar, taking a day to stay in Ishkashim and check out the bazaar
  • stay another day in Murghab (partially to get used to the altitude, partially to talk to more people and seek out the museum that’s supposed to be somewhere around town)
  • learn a few Pamiri words (Shugni and Wakhi are the main languages of the Pamirs; many Pamiris speak Russian better than they do Tajik)

Overall, it was an amazing trip and an incredible opportunity to see a corner of the world that few people manage to visit. I’m still trying to stretch out my legs and back after so many hours crossing bumpy roads in a jeep, but I’ll try to get out some posts with more details about who I met and what I saw along the way.

Small Scenes of Central Asia: May 2018

Kettik, let’s go,” the sweetest word you can hear after an hour sitting in a minivan waiting for passengers to come in from the village. I’m not sure whether it’s more satisfying when a driver announces a departure immediately after climbing in to the backseat of a packed Stepwagon, or after having waited in a stuffy marshrutka for seventy minutes on a slow day; I think it’s probably a u-shaped relationship.

togolok moldo river

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Guljamal is the only person in her family who’s fasting for Ramadan (her mother is too, though when I’m visiting, she’s taking a few days off for her time of the month). She’s young, only in fifth grade, and she slips up when I bring out candy from the US. Immediately after popping a Reese’s peanut butter cup into her mouth, she clasps her face – which I read as a sign that she’s allergic, and start to panic. “No, no, Orozo!” she says in English. I put a finger to my lips and tell her I’ll keep it a secret. Later, when Guljamal runs inside at 8:30 to prepare for ooz achuu (Kyrgyz for mouth opening, or breaking fast) with a xeroxed copy of iftar prayers, she tells her mom anyway about the candy incident.

While staying in Togolok Moldo village, I took a day to visit the county capital, Baetovo. After my morning meetings at the school board office, I panicked about finding my taxi back to the village. Baetovo is pretty small, only about 10,000 people, but it’s big enough to take up more than just the one main road – the taxi could be anywhere. I stop in to a bodega and ask the woman behind the counter if she can call the driver and then point me in the right direction. She’s surprised that I made the request in Kyrgyz, which necessitates the full “who are you” conversation, complete with the “And you’re sure you don’t want to marry a Kyrgyz boy from our village?” line of questioning. I buy some juice from her on the way out, because I’m thirsty and she was helpful, and it only takes a minute to find my taxi. We wait in front of the bazaar (on a Wednesday afternoon, only 3 ladies selling vegetables under tents) for another three hours until the car fills up with the same people who came out from Togolok Moldo that morning.

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urmat and jansuu

Spending the weekend in Internatsional’ without internet was a breath of fresh air; I ate so much village bread, took a trip out to saray (“the animal shed,” aka the field where the family’s cows and sheep are taken to graze) to bring food to Urmat’s dad, and watched kids play in puddles. My host family has grown since I saw them last; baby Jansuu was born in January, right after New Year’s. I don’t know why people laugh when I say Jansuu is a copy of her dad, because it’s true – look at them.

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andijan friends

It was easier, but also more expensive, than expected to get a taxis from Naryn to Kazarman to Jalalabad. I booked a seat on a Bishkek-Kazarman taxi, and even though I was only in the car for the last 4 hours of the 10-hour journey, I paid full fare. The driver was chatty; even when I put my headphones in and pretended to sleep, he just called out my name louder to ask whether I’d tried this Kyrgyz food or liked that Kyrgyz song. The Kazarman-Jalalabad trip was easier to arrange, but was logistically more challenging: the 3 men in the backseat, visiting from Andijan, Uzbekistan, delayed departure by 4 hours by calling every 15 minutes to say they’d be right there; a snow storm blocked the road at the top of the pass, leaving us stranded until a van of young men with shovels could arrive to dig out a path; normal stuff.

center of kg

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mountain road

J-1 Visas (…And Grassroots Public Diplomacy) At Risk

In April, Trump signed “Buy American Hire American,” an executive order that targeted the H-1B visa because it supposedly screwed over American workers by driving down wages. Think what you will about the H-1B, which brings foreign workers in specialty occupations (especially tech) to work at US companies by a lottery system.

But now, the White House is reportedly looking to cut J-1 visas, which allow 300,000 foreign visitors to see the U.S., experience our culture, and bring what they’ve seen and learned back to their home country. These are visas given to research scholars and students (like my brilliant friend Asel, who’s getting a Master’s at Columbia through the Fulbright program in order to go back and rock the world of education policy in Kyrgyzstan), au pairs, Work and Travel visitors (like many of my students in Kyrgyzstan, and those featured in this This American Life episode, who come to the US for a summer just to see it), kids on academic exchange programs, trainees participating in structured professional development programs, and — closest to my heart — camp counselors.

If you know me at all, I’m a summer camp person. I’ve spent the majority of my summers since high school at the Concordia Language Villages in northern Minnesota — these camps provide an immersion experience for learning 15 world languages, but they also foster a sense of curiosity about other cultures and responsibility as global citizens. These camps are a magical place, and the diversity of staff who work at the Concordia Language Villages is a huge part of that magic. Each year, around 200 people travel from around the world to Bemidji, Minnesota to offer language and cultural skills and develop genuine international friendships.

I would not be the person I am today without those connections — I think about Valya, who has been working at the Villages for 9 years, who is the best babushka a summer camp could ask for and who has hosted me in her cozy St. Petersburg apartment multiple times; I think about Rahat, who showed me my first glimpse of Kyrgyz culture; I think of Vadim, a literature teacher from a small town in Siberia who is a brilliant thinker and who taught me a foundation of Russian that helped me skip several semesters of coursework; I think of Lida, Yulia, Olga, Anton, Cholponai, Sasha, so many people who have spent their summers teaching kids traditional crafts, music, dance, and language from their home countries.

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Losing this visa means losing these people, and these connections. This visa is so important to public diplomacy at the grassroots level, and taking away this arm of intercultural exchange also blocks a path to a more peaceful, understanding world.

So please take a minute to contact the higher powers that be and ask to protect the J-1 visa. You can send a written message to your representatives via Alliance for International Exchange; if you’re more the phone call type, you can reach the White House Comment Line at (202) 456-1111 or the State Department Operations Center: (202) 647-1512.

Small Scenes of Summer

In the last three months, I’ve: finished up 2 years of Peace Corps service; moved into a new apartment in New York City; wandered through 12 airports on layovers, customs checks, and diverted flights; journeyed by bus, plane, train, car, and even boat to visit old friends and new cities across Russia and New England; settled down long enough to sift through several hundred pictures of these adventures. And it’s not even August yet.

As I make the transition from Peace Corps volunteer 3rd Goal proponent extraordinaire to full-time graduate student, I’m trying to be intentional about how this space will change. In the meantime, I’ve been inspired by the #VantagePoint project (an initiative from the folks at Light.Co who are developing new camera technology) to get back into sharing snaps from my travels.

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From the Kazan River to Casco Bay, my travels this summer have afforded some beautiful sunset views — being so far north, sunset has ranged from 10pm to 1am, giving me plenty of daylight to explore these cities and enjoy the outdoors.

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Gorgeous sunsets in popular tourist spots have meant vying for the prime #VantageSpot with tons of other people — learning to take a step back or swap out of selfie mode on my camera have made for some nice shots (my favorite being the anachronistic French general handling a smart phone, taken in the Alexandrovskyy Garden before a reenactment of a battle from the Napoleonic Wars). Stay tuned for stories from Russia and the end of my time in Kyrgyzstan!

Kyrgyzstani Classics: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

Did you get a chance to read Mark’s guest post about Chyngyz Aitmatov’s novella Jamilia? If not, check it out, and while you’re on his site, check out a few other gems of his — in addition to knowing all about Central Asian pop stars, he’s better than me at blogging about the nuts and bolts of Peace Corps service here.

Kyrgyz people are often confused when I can’t list off the national clothes, national drink, or national food of the United States (though, to be honest, I just always say that hot dish is our national meal). The idea of a national “everything” is very important here, and these symbols of Kyrgyz(stani) culture are fairly fixed: kymyz is the national beverage, kara jorgo the national dance, and besh barmak the national food (though, as a resident of southern Kyrgyzstan, I’d make a case for ash).

When it comes to Kyrgyzstan’s “national writer,” arguments could be made for various poets and authors, but it would be pretty hard to beat Chyngyz Aitmatov. His short stories and novellas have been a joy to read, but nothing so far compares to his 1980 novel The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years.

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The book takes place in the course of a single day: villagers of the Boranly-Burannyi rail station learn of the passing of a respected elder, Kazangap, and go on a journey to bury him. The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years gets its name from the weaving together of several stories: some intense magical realism involving a pair of Soviet and American astronauts who make contact with an alien planet, the fallout of Stalin-era purges on a man and his family, the main character’s relationship with his feisty Bactrian camel, and two Kazakh folk tales (3, if you’re reading the original Russian).

The fate of Central Asian traditions and identity is a focal point of the novel, highlighted by the efforts of Yedigei, an old man who made his home at the rail station, to bury his beloved friend and fellow railworker Kazangap. Yedigei is determined to bury Kazangap in the Ana-Beiit cemetery, but is frustrated with the perceived lack of dedication and care on the part of the other, younger men in the burial party:

“Looking at his young companions on the tractor, Burannyi Yedigei was genuinely distressed and sorry to think that none of them knew a single prayer. How then could they bury one another? With what words, covering the beginning and end of a life, would they sum up the departure of a man into the unknown, into non-existence? ‘Farewell, comrade, we will remember you.’ Or with some other sort of nonsense?” (97)

The Ana-Beiit cemetery is off limits to the villagers, who decide to bury Kazangap in a random patch of the steppe instead. Ana-Beiit, which means “mother’s grave” in Kazakh, appears in the landscape of another fairytale told throughout the novel, that of the “mankurt.” According to Central Asian legend, mankurts were prisoners of war, tortured by roaming Chinese tribes, and turned into zombie slaves with no memory of their former village, family, or identity.

The movie adaptation of The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years focuses solely on this sub-plot, entirely ignoring the more magical threads of the novel’s narrative structure. Shot in 1990 in Turkmenistan, the movie (aptly called Mankurt) follows the fate of a young soldier, Yolaman. Yolaman is captured by Chinese bandits and is tortured with a piece of camel flesh tied around his head; as other captives die of starvation and dehydration, Yolaman slowly loses his mind and all his memories.

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Yolaman, still taken from the 1990 film Mankurt

Yolaman’s mother, Naiman, is waiting impatiently with in the canyons; on a hunch, she decides to head out to the steppe to fine her son and bring him home. Naiman is devastated that her son can’t remember who he is; as she shouts “Dorunbai! Dorunbai!”, the name of Yolaman’s father, a bird picks up the call and repeats the name over and over as the encounter turns tragic.

This same bird circles overhead as Yedigei tries to gain entry to Ana-Beiit, the final resting place of Naiman herself, calling out Dorunbaiiii, dorunbaiiii. Here, the bird doesn’t speak to recall a forgotten father, but instead forgotten traditions. Aitmatov uses the novel to make a statement about this generation of people, fully transformed Homo sovieticus, who are disconnected from the language and cultural staples of their ancestors.

In a eulogy for Aitmatov published in Harper’s, Scott Horton writes, “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.”

It’s fitting, then, that Aitmatov, a Kyrgyz man, wrote this book that takes place on the Kazakh steppe, and a team of Turkmen filmmakers picked up the mankurt tale. The struggle to protect and pass on traditional ways of life persisted in many areas of the Soviet Union, and Chyngyz Aitmatov was able to give voice to the way that played out not only in Kyrgyzstan, but all across Soviet Central Asia.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder at how these works – The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and Mankurt – were produced and distributed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The film portrays the danger of losing grasp on traditional mores, and the book advocates individualism, wariness of state authority, and Islamic rites. Somehow by the grace of glasnost, it made it through, and thank goodness for that.

Kyrgyzstani Classics: Jamilia

Fellow PCV and Central Asian culture enthusiast Mark, who blogs at Monday Bazaar, agreed to do an exchange of posts on the work of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, Chyngyz Aitmatov. His post about the classic novella Jamilia and the fantastic film adaptation is up first. Check out his blog on Facebook and follow on Instagram for more from Mark!

Louis Aragon called it “the most beautiful love story in the world.” He wasn’t talking about Romeo and Juliet; he’s talking about Jamila (also spelled Jamilia in some translations), the first significant work of Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov first published in 1958.

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A postage stamp from 2009 featuring Jamila, Daniyar, and the cart they take to the station each day.

Jamila might best be described as a novelette, since the edition I have is less than 100 pages. But, it’s one of the most beloved pieces of literature in the entire Soviet Union. First published in Russian in 1958, this was the book that put Aitmatov on the map and led to him becoming the most beloved author in Kyrgyzstan and one of the most revered across the USSR.

Jamila tells the story of a family on a collective farm in northern Kyrgyzstan during the Great Patriotic War (for more info, check out my post about Victory Day in the former USSR). The story is that of Jamila, a young woman whose husband is at war, and Daniyar, a young soldier who has returned to the village from the front due to injury. Narrated by Jamila’s younger brother-in-law, Seit, the three of them together each day take loads of flour and grain down to the main town and its railway station to dispatch the food to the soldiers at the front in Europe.

Spending so much time together combined with the spirited nature of the characters drives the plot in a direction that is both expected and unheard-of for the time in which it was written. I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it, but I highly recommend you take time to read the book and watch the movie. It provides such a nuanced look into the family relations and life in a small village during the era immediately after collectivization and forced settlement of the Kyrgyz nomads, exploring themes of family, devotion, true love, and the question of what is true happiness.

Once you’ve finished reading and watching, there’s a fantastic literary analysis of the book and its historical context here that I recommend you check out.

How to read and watch Jamila:

The book (which you MUST read!) is available at Amazon and other bookstores, and is also well worth the read. It’s on my list of my 10 favorite Central Asia books.

You can watch the video dubbed in English or with English subtitles over at Soviet Movies Online, a great website which hosts hundreds of important films from the Soviet era. Since they pay for hosting costs out of their own pockets, I’m not going to embed the movie here, but I hope you all get a chance to take a look at the film. There is also a 1994 version made in Germany, but that version has the character of Daniyar played by a blonde white guy (in the book, the character is clearly said to be Kyrgyz), and I’m not really a supporter of whitewashing in cinema.

For When Internet Jok 9

Although I’m often amazed at how great telecommunications work in this country, there are still stretches of time when internet jok — there’s no internet. In anticipation of those long hours, days, weekends, I like to load up on reading material while at work or cafes. Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.

The Falling of the Lenins: The podcast 99% Invisible recently did an episode about the visuals of de-communization, with a focus on Ukraine, which at one point was the Soviet republic most densely decorated with statues of Lenin. So how does that factor now, 25 years after declaring independence, and while a war over Ukraine’s identity and relationship with Russia rages in the eastern part of the country? “According to the Institute of National Remembrance, the process of decommunization isn’t just about removal — it’s also meant to help Ukrainians learn their own history. Which is why, in many cases, they have suggested that towns revert to the names they had before the Soviets changed them. But whether they choose to revert to old names or pick new ones, Ukrainians do not have the option of keeping the Soviet names.”

Photos of Women Villagers Who Run the Show in Rural Russia: ““[A] village woman is strong. She can do almost everything by herself, she doesn’t really need a man for house work or raising children,” says Ivanova. “She does all the supposedly men’s work: mow, carry heavy logs, chop wood.”

A drinker’s guide to Islam: To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, readers in western countries may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all that way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap.”

Post-Yugoslav ‘Common Language’ Declaration Challenges Nationalism: There’s a lot of…overlap, to put it mildly, between Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin languages. In regions of these former Yugoslavian countries where the local ethnicity does not match the titular nationality, public signs or cigarette boxes comically display their message in multiple languages — but the message is letter for letter, word for word the same (except for Serbian, which is written in Cyrillic). A recent Declaration on the Common Language has caused a stir in the Balkans. ““I don’t believe this is a linguistics issue, but a political one,” she added.” 

In Tblisi: An excerpt from “Trip to Tbilisi” by Victoria Lomasko, a Russian journalist based in Moscow. Lomasko documents her conversations with Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, and Russians she meets in Georgia’s capital, and accompanies their words with lovely portraits. “In Tbilisi, I heard repeatedly from Armenian friends that despite the ongoing conflict between their countries, Armenians and Azerbaijanis understand each other better than they do Georgians. There were no people closer to them, the Azerbaijanis told me, than the Armenians.”

These Passionate Latvian Linguists Refuse to Lose Their Language: Livonian, a Finno-Ugric language (think Finnish, Hungarian) native to the Latvian coast, no longer has any living native speakers — a small group of enthusiasts and academics, about 30 in total, have taken up the responsibility of keeping this language alive. “But Ernštreits is just one of a handful of speakers, and one of only 250 people who identify themselves as Livonian in government surveys. He can write poetry in it, but he can’t buy a loaf of bread.”

A Glimpse Into Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan: “Every year, tens of thousands leave the republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — the poorest countries in Central Asia — to find seasonal employment in Russia’s main cities. Many stay for years; others never return home, but their remittances form an important share of their country’s economy. The World Bank estimates that, in 2014, money sent back home by migrants was comparable to 36.6 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP, and 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s.”  Moscow’s Little Kyrgyzstan, a 25-minute documentary, explores the dynamics of migrant labor in Russia — many of which mirror those of migration patterns in the United States.

Watch the documentary here:

When A Name’s Not Just a Name

Schools in Kyrgyzstan are registered according to a number, but people identify a school by its namesake. A school might be named for famous Russian writers (Pushkin School) or revolutionaries (Lenin School), for respected Kyrgyz leaders (Kalygul Bai uulu School) or ballerinas (Beyshenalieva School).

The ability to name a place – whether it’s a school, a street, a government building, a town, or a whole country – is huge, and one can see what and who is valued by looking at the names of places. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the process of renaming these things has been an important step in shaping national identity. Towns and streets have been Kyrgyz-ified: Sovietskaya Street is now Baitik Baatyr or Abdrahmanov Street, depending on where you are in the capital, which also underwent a name change from Frunze to Bishkek.

Government efforts to rename the public space aren’t always effective, though. Names of streets in Bishkek have been changed, but are locally referred to by their old name, such that cab drivers don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask to go to Abdryzakov, and only respond when you finally demand to be taken to Sovietskaya. My host parents in Cholpon-Ata, whose Russian was quite weak, still referred to Balykchy, a large town on the western tip of lake Issyk-Kul as the Russian Rybachy.

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This (tiny side-) street is officially called Kerimbekov, but graffiti shows that it’s known as Karasuuskaya. Photo cred: my girl Valentina Michelotti

How can we discern how much of this – the renaming of public places, but locally referring to them by their old names – offers some sort of commentary about national and ethnic identity, as opposed to just a force of habit?

Both are surely at play, and after just 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union, questions about what it means to be Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstani still dominate the forefront of public and state dialogue. Kyrgyzstan is a multiethnic country struggling with how (and whether) to celebrate that.

I’ve seen this struggle play out especially in the sphere of public education. In Kyrgyz, the word for education is bilim beruu, which literally translates as “giving knowledge.” Teachers, vessels of the state, feed children knowledge; who controls the knowledge (and how it’s delivered) has huge repercussions.

Sure, there are questions about methodology, but the primary concern about delivering information comes down to language. Russian is Kyrgyzstan’s “official” language, while Kyrgyz is the “national” language – in some parts of the country, it’s common for a Kyrgyzstani person to know basically no Kyrgyz and rely entirely on Russian (or another language, likely Uzbek or Tajik) to get an education, to find a job, to fall in love, to raise their children. In other parts of the country, it seems obvious that a Kyrgyzstani person would only know Kyrgyz.

It’s written into the constitution that minorities have the right to study in their native language. Over 15 ethnic groups call Kyrgyzstan home, but for logistical reasons, schools offer education in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek (plus a tiny handful of Tajik schools in the Batken region). When we say a school is “Russian” or “Kyrgyz,” that doesn’t necessarily reflect who studies there, but rather describes the language that kids learn algebra, history, or chemistry in.

There are practical limitations to which language these classes can be offered in: a shortage of teaching materials, shortage of teachers, or shortage of students.

One of the 2 schools in Cholpon-Ata town, Issyk-Kul region is technically “mixed,” but it’s effectively a Russian school. The school administration is made up of mostly ethnic Russian women who don’t speak Kyrgyz, which has an undeniable effect on the atmosphere among teachers and students who are more comfortable in Kyrgyz.

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Kids in this Cholpon-Ata school’s 7th grade Russian track class. The vast majority of students are ethnic Kyrgyz.

There’s a certain irony that this school is named after Alykul Osmonov, a writer who published almost exclusively in Kyrgyz, even as other famous Soviet-era Kyrgyz writers pushed out work in a combination of Russian and Kyrgyz. Osmonov published over 500 original poems in Kyrgyz, and translated the work of Shakespeare and Pushkin into his native language. Our school is named for this man, whose face is on the 200-som bill, because he wrote the poem “Ata-Jurt, Fatherland” while on holiday in Cholpon-Ata; for that reason, there’s a one-room museum dedicated to him on the 3rd floor of the school. Many of the people who work and study in the school can’t read his work in the original Kyrgyz, but still they are proud of this school and their town.

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A series of posters about Alykul Osmonov’s life, family, and poetry (written all in Russian) greet those who come in through the school’s main entrance.

In Dostuk village, Jalal-Abad region, 3 of the 4 Uzbek schools converted to mixed language schools. Some might say it’s because the national government is forcing Uzbek-language schools to switch to a Kyrgyz-language curriculum, but local villagers told me it was just because there haven’t been enough young Uzbek-speaking children to fill 1st grade classes. Accompanying the switch of curriculum, the government asked these schools to choose a new (and more Kyrgyz) name.

Farhad Agai, my host in Dostuk, poured himself another cup of green tea as he told me proudly that his school, the 1 Uzbek school remaining in his county, pushed back against the requested name change. The school is named after Alisher Navoi, a famous poet and central figure in Uzbek cultural identity; the same way Manas is omnipresent in Kyrgyz infrastructure, Navoi’s name is on main streets, metro stations, libraries, universities, and an international airport in Uzbekistan. It’s amazing that this tiny school, where enrollment has dropped significantly in recent years, has survived as Navoi School. In the main entrance, students and visitors are greeted by a massive portrait of Navoi and two descriptions of his life: one in Kyrgyz, one in Uzbek. How special, that residents of this town – who are simultaneously proud of their country and their ethnicity – can represent both those identities, against the odds of being in a town that experienced interethnic violence in 2010, in a region of the country experiencing heavy pressure from the national government to favor Kyrgyz institutions and Kyrgyz language.

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The gate of Navoi school in Dostuk village.

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An 11th grade class at Navoi school; every student but 1 identified as ethnic Uzbek.

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The entrance of Navoi School — a portrait of Alisher Navoi and a description of his life and legacy in Kyrgyz (left) and Uzbek (right).

Names and nuance matter; it’s never as simple as dividing people or regions into categories like Russian, Kyrgyz, Soviet, or Uzbek. Exactly how those identities, languages, and histories relate isn’t entirely clear, and certainly not stagnant, but it’s worthwhile to critically engage assumptions about how they play out.

Happy New Year!

No, this post is not 3 months late — today really is the beginning of the new year, or at least one interpretation of it. March 21 marks the vernal equinox, on which a 24-hour period is split perfectly between day and night. Persian and Turkic communities across the world celebrate this day as Nooruz, deriving from the Farsi word for “new day.”

Nooruz (I’m sticking with the Kyrgyz transliteration for this post — depending where you are in the world, N’ovruz, Nevruz, Nauryz, Nowruz also work) has deep Zoroastrian and Persian origins, hence the day being best known as “Persian New Year.” The Zoroastrian story of creation is one of light and darkness, and the religion incorporates a lot of fire (both symbolically and literally), so it makes sense that the spring equinox would carry a special significance. Though Nooruz remains a holy day for Zoroastrians, elsewhere it is a secular celebration of light, cleaning, and new opportunity in other areas of the world.

Before 1991, Nooruz was an official holiday in only one country: Iran. The holiday was banned in the Soviet Union for religious purposes, though it was allowed in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan starting in 1967 as an ambiguous springtime festival. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many independent states reclaimed Nooruz as an essential part of local culture that had been suppressed for decades by Moscow. Now, Nooruz is a national holiday in countries across Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Eastern Europe, with informal gatherings in many other cities around the world. The United Nations declared March 21 International Nowruz Day, after the holiday was added to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009.

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A  map (in Russian) showing the countries where Nooruz is a national holiday or traditional celebration. Taken from BBC’s Russian blog.

In many countries, the most important symbol of Nooruz is the “Haft Seen” (7 S’s) — a traditional table setting, in which 7 items, all starting with the letter ‘s,’ are gathered: wheat sprouts, a pudding made from germinated wheat, fruit, garlic, apples, berries, and vinegar all start with ‘s’ in Farsi, and are displayed to welcome spring. The Haft Seen is tailored to local customs across Central Asia, and different countries emphasize particular items or add their own (eggs make the Azerbaijani table, and there’s some conflict over the millions of goldfish that show up on Iranian tables).

From what I’ve seen in Kyrgyzstan, there’s not so much of an emphasis on collecting all the 7 S’s, though it wouldn’t be a holiday celebration in Kyrgyzstan if there weren’t a well-laid out dastorkon. The “sabze” (wheat sprouts) are key, though, since the wheat is grown in the weeks leading up to Nooruz in order to cook the Kyrgyz version of “samanu:” сүмөлөк, sumolok.

The magical origin story of sumolok, a type of wheat pudding, which I learned by watching skits at a summer camp for Kyrgyz exchange students, is a tale of a poor mother and her hungry children. In the leanest days of the year, the late weeks of winter, this distraught mother has no idea how to console her babies, who are crying out from hunger. She has nothing to feed them, and nothing to distract them from the rumbling in their stomachs. She sends her children out to find kindling for a fire, and while her children are gone, she dumps some rocks and water into her kazan. The children, who associate the fire they build with a full dinner, fall asleep dreaming of the warm soup they’ll eat in the morning. Watching her dozing babies, the mother offers a last desperate prayer to god for something to feed her children. When morning came, lo and behold! The family found hot and delicious (not to mention nutritious) sumolok sitting in the kazan, waiting to be eaten. With this food, the family survived the winter and was able to plant their fields and live richly the next year.

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Image from super.kg

Sumolok is not a dish you can decide to make at the last minute. It takes at least a week to prepare, and that’s just the rinsing and soaking of the wheat and sprouts alone; the actual brewing of the pudding takes a labor-intensive 24 hours of close attention and aggressive stirring. It’s a neighborhood affair, and primarily up to women to prepare, from what I observed — people gather at someone’s house and take turns stirring the sumolok with a 4-foot wooden stick. They stand on a stool in order to reach over the massive kazan, a metal pot that could fit several small children, or several hundred servings of sumolok. The bounty – a goopy, rich brown liquid – gets distributed between the neighbors in recycled Coke bottles or empty pickle jars.

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Your girl stirring up the somolok in Kengesh village, Osh region in 2016

Traditionally, the first time you taste sumolok each year, you’re supposed to dip your pinky three times and make a wish. Some prefer to dip bread into their sumolok, and others (like me) would rather just tackle the Coke bottle by the spoonful.

So get out there, blast this special Nooruz playlist, dance in the sun, eat your weight in sumolok, and enjoy the first day of spring. Nevruz Bayramınız Kutlu Olsun! Нооруз Майрамыңыздар менен кут болсун! Nowruz mobarak! Happy Nooruz!

Small Scenes of Central Asia 7

 

I spent the second half of February on an epic roadtrip around Jalal-Abad oblast; the official objective of the trip was to follow up with teachers who participated in my summer methodology camp, but the unofficial objective of the trip was to hang out with the teachers who came to my camp, meet their families, and eat great food.

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After landing at the Osh International Airport and being shuffled into a taxi, the little girl sitting on her mom’s lap held up her hands to pray – her gesture prompted everyone else in the car, myself included, to fold their hands over their face and whisper “oomin” before setting out for Jalal-Abad.

10 months have passed since I last saw my host family in Jalal-Abad, and I was nervous that time had worn away at the goofiness I shared with my siblings or the stories I could share with my host mom. It felt like I had been gone for a few weeks, not a few months, when I stepped through the gate. Nazgul and I talked for hours over pomegranate candies and green tea while Barsbek showed off his new math skills (he can add and subtract, as long as there are plenty of zeros) and Aliya danced around and pointed to her nose on command.

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The drive from Jalal-Abad to Kochkor-Ata was generally familiar to me, and the stretch from Kochkor-Ata to Kerben recalled vague memories from my trip last summer, but from Kerben to Ala-Buka was entirely new terrain for me. I had the front seat of the taxi, which is my favorite place to be on trips to new places, because it affords the best view. I watched as our car hugged the Uzbek border, which wasn’t identifiable as such by a wall or a fence, but by a deep trench and the occasional sign warning that someone (from which side?) will shoot upon crossing.

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When I first got to Kyrgyzstan, I didn’t have the classic “what the heck are these people saying” moment, since my host family spoke Russian and preferred to speak to me in Russian until my Kyrgyz was good enough to say anything of real interest. So it was a very bizarre experience, almost two years in to Peace Corps, to stay with a family that spoke no Kyrgyz and no Russian – only Uzbek. Granted, Kyrgyz and Uzbek are pretty similar (yakhsy v. jakshy for “good”), but most of the time when my host’s kids were talking to me (read: at me) I could decipher maybe only 10% of what they were saying. It felt totally normal to fall asleep next to 8-year old Mahlie while she cut up an apple and laughed at an Uzbek soap opera, though.

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My host in Ala-Buka, Farhad, sat with me for hours drinking cup after cup of green tea. He asked me some of the most thoughtful questions I’ve heard since coming to Kyrgyzstan, and his enthusiasm for teaching, bringing together his community, and public service (he’s one of the rare men in his profession, teaching at a public secondary school, and he works for free as a deputy to his town council) was inspiring.

Also a joy to spend time with was Farhad’s wife, Moxidil, who used to be a teacher but now works at a café in downtown Ala-Buka to make more money. Both days I spent in Ala-Buka, Farhad took me to his wife’s café for some of the tastiest (and cheapest) shashlyk I’ve eaten in Kyrgyzstan.

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A man named Erkin (the fifth Erkin I met in the Ala-Buka area) joined us for lunch one afternoon. Erkin fought in the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s; and though he was injured twice, he had only positive things to say about his experience. He talked at me in Tajik for a few sentences, proud to show what he learned on the battlefield (it wasn’t clear to me whether he picked the Tajik up from his Soviet comrades or the men he was fighting). Erkin serves on the town council with Farhad, and he also had some really beautiful observations about world peace and international friendship. It’s connections like these that make the stress of Peace Corps worth it, really.

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