Overnight, my beautiful Jalal-Abad – a city I thought was immune from winter – transformed from a sunny, warm fortress of good weather to an icy hellscape. As a Midwesterner, I’m no stranger to winter. But winter in Minnesota, where experiencing the elements basically involves running between the house to the car and where one is safe from the cold in a well-insulated and consistently-heated home, is an entirely different ball game than winter in Kyrgyzstan.
There’s a special word in Kyrgyz for the time of year when it’s coldest: чилде/cheelde, which sounds eerily similar to chilly. And it’s coooooold (but could be colder, if I lived higher up in the mountains or further north). I live in a compound, separate from the main house. All I’ve got to heat the place is a little space heater that looks like Wall-E. It was enough to survive November, but I’ve spent a few nights in December huddled in my sleeping bag and under two or three heavy blankets with the wind blowing on my face to keep warm. Today, my host mom told me that the pipes have frozen and we no longer have water in the bathroom, and it’s likely we’ll lose water in the kitchen this week. So long, indoor shower, we had a good run. Walking around the city, I’ve noticed people dump sand or dirt on snow and ice to make it easier to walk on — a lot different from the heavy bags of salt spilled on sidewalks to melt ice. Interacting with cars has been spookier than usual: I take a shared taxi to work every morning, and the drivers seem not to notice that the roads are icy and slippery as they speed toward stoplights; intersections in general are dangerous, but I’m even more freaked out that I’ll trip and fall while crossing the street and a car or marshrutka won’t notice me.
So, winter, ugh, right? Not really – the snow is beautiful, and it’s a treat to watch kids throw snowballs, pull each other on sleds, and slide around on the sidewalk. Plus, winter’s a lot easier to handle when I can daydream of a three-week vacation in Malaysia and Thailand I’m planning for January… In the meantime, I’ll be wrapped up in my trusty poncho and new felt slippers to keep warm.