Exploring Kyrgyzstan: Naryn

It’s been a while since I last posted, not for lack of internet or interesting updates – rather, it’s proven more difficult than I thought to get back into the swing of things after hopping around Kyrgyzstan for a few weeks. So, what of the last month?

I spent a week-ish in security, culture, and language trainings, learning what to do when an earthquake strikes in the middle of the night (recently, a normal occurrence) and practicing complex Kyrgyz grammatical structures. These trainings and Thanksgiving threw off my work schedule, but I managed to fit a few Thanksgiving-themed lessons and art projects into the mix. My university students made hand turkeys, and I watched a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving with my high school English club. Having deemed my Goal 2 efforts sufficient, it was time to start prepping for the Thanksgiving meal. Volunteers from the southern regions (and even a rogue visitor from way north) descended on Jalal-Abad City, raided the bazaar for turkey and food to feed a crowd, and settled in to rented apartments for two days of relaxing, eating, and (responsible) imbibing.

There was barely enough time to digest the food coma before I was off on another trip – this time to Naryn, Kyrgyzstan’s geographically largest oblast (think state). Naryn City, the oblast capital, is basically due east from Jalal-Abad City; mile-high mountains and poor road conditions mean the journey between J-Bad and Naryn takes a whole day. My trip took me through 5 of Kyrgyzstan’s 7 oblasts; by the time my taxi dropped me off in Naryn City, it had been 11 hours since setting out from home.

The mountains and road conditions mean that there’s not a lot of travel between Jalal-Abad and Naryn. No one in my host family and none of my students has ever been to Naryn. Despite never having been there, most people were happy to share their opinions about the oblast – it’s the most Kyrgyz oblast, it’s always -40 degrees, there are no cafes, there’s no food but koi, mutton. My host mother was very concerned that I wouldn’t be warm enough, that I wouldn’t have enough to eat. Her advice reminded me of that which another volunteer, who lives in Naryn, received before making the trek to Jalal-Abad in October. His school director warned him to be careful, that the south is very different from Naryn and could be dangerous. It’s funny that in a small country the size of North Dakota, people hold these strong opinions about the “other,” and about north and south.

With that said, Naryn was waaaaay different than Jalal-Abad. The most striking difference was definitely the landscape. Mountains take up half the sky; some are snow-capped, some are brown, some are rounded, and I swear some were shaped just like this: ^. I would never call Jalal-Abad a big city, and many people here joke that it’s just a big village. After a weekend in Naryn City, I don’t think I can call Jalal-Abad small ever again. Naryn City may be an oblast capital, but it’s basically one long road lined with apartments and a few impressive-looking buildings sprinkled around.

At the same time, though, there was a lot more going on in the places I visited than I had expected. At-Bashy, a town of about 10,000, was big enough to get lost in; I watched an English club at a learning center paid for by one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest vodka companies and had lunch with a Kyrgyz man who lived in Destin, Florida for a year working at McDonalds. The next day, I made my way to Kochkor, also home to around 10,000 people. This place was hopping; all kinds of shops made from shipping containers were open, tons of kids were riding their bikes and yelling “Hello!” in the park, and crowds of jigits were chatting in front of what used to be a movie theatre-disco club.

In addition to getting a taste of a different part of Kyrgyzstan and its culture, I enjoyed the chance to experience another oblast’s volunteer culture. The 7 of us in Jalal-Abad this year are the first volunteers in the area since 2010, and the embassy has made it a rule that we cannot live without a host family. Naryn is home to the second-biggest group of volunteers, and everyone who lives in the capital has their own apartment. The chance to hang out with hordes of volunteers until the wee hours of the morning in apartments in a city with no posh grocery stores was surreal – in many ways, it felt like a lazy weekend in college.

Each time I take a trip to catch up with volunteers, I ride home on a wave of inspiration and excitement to launch new projects, revamp my club schedule, and spice up my lectures. This trip was no exception, and I’ve got a lot on my plate for the next three weeks – trainings for local teachers, winter holiday parties, a workshop series to prepare students for applying to study abroad programs, and finishing my first semester of teaching will no doubt keep me busy until New Years.

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