Exploring Kyrgyzstan: Karakol

February involved a lot of travel around Kyrgyzstan, not an easy transition back to work and life after a month of traveling in Thailand and Malaysia. Almost immediately after getting back to Jalal-Abad, I was back in the capital for a week of training for English teaching volunteers and a few days of committee meetings. I got two weeks to settle and plan for the semester before making another long journey to the north, this time to Issyk-Kul (remember, Hot Lake?) for a training on grant-writing and project design.

Since I was already so far from Jalal-Abad, I decided to extend my stay in Issyk-Kul a few extra days. My trusty travel companion Ethan (with whom I’ve logged the most hours on marshrutkas and planes in K-stan) and I made our way to Karakol, Issyk-Kul’s oblast capital and a pretty dense hub of volunteers. It’s always a treat to visit other volunteers on their home turf, to have an opportunity to see their homes, how they spend their time, and with whom.

We wandered the bazaars in search of plastic flowers, kitchen supplies, and a mirror for Steph, a fellow volunteer who just moved into her own apartment; we ate the best pizza I’ve had in Kyrgyzstan; and we sat for hours in the famous Karakol Coffee. It had the vibe of a real American coffee shop, and it was neat to see the rapport the volunteers have built with the place’s owners. Recently, Olga and Vadim bought Karakol Coffee for their 17-year old daughter, Zhenya; Zhenya manages the place, bakes all the brownies and cakes, and works the counter every day after school.

I especially loved the morning we spent around Karakol’s religious spaces. Steph’s apartment is not too far from a Dungan mosque, famous for being built without any nails. There are two large murals in the space by the door that depict beautiful images of rainbows and the solar system; the accompanying text on both murals is in four languages (Arabic, Kyrgyz, Russian, and English). Karakol’s other religious gem is an old Orthodox church; it’s a huge building, at least by Kyrgyz standards, all weathered wood and intricate trim. We couldn’t take any pictures inside, but the change to stare up at the dome painted with constellations made up for the little boy screaming the whole time we were walking around.

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With a mid-afternoon flight from Bishkek on Sunday, I had to leave Karakol on Saturday afternoon. I waited an hour and a half for the marshrutka to Balykchy (Fisherman) to leave, but I made it to the other end of the lake before sundown. I spent the night in Balykchy with two other volunteers, catching up and talking clubs, grants, and summer plans at Smak, the city’s best-known café. The power only went out once and we only had to ask for the check and our change 3 times before calling it a night.

There’s a Russian saying, “В гостях хорошо, а дома лучше,” or in English, “It’s good as a guest, but it’s better at home.” Now that I’m back in Jalal-Abad for good (at least for three weeks before the next Peace Corps training in Bishkek…), I’m excited to dig into work, redevelop a routine, and spend some time with my host family. After spending so many hours at Karakol Coffee, I’ve also got to start networking around Jalal-Abad to find someone who’d be willing and interested to import an espresso machine and lay the groundwork for a real coffee shop…

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statue karakol
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karakol night

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Landscape Dissonance

salam issyk kul 2015

Salam, or hello, Issyk Kul, indeed!

I spent a few days relaxing with fellow southern volunteers at a sanatoriya, health resort, on the north shore of Issyk Kul. We had a few sessions to keep us busy, but for the most part, we were able to breathe all the frustration from a stressful first month at site and breathe in clean lakeside air. I spent a lot of time goofing around and catching up with friends I don’t get to see very often; we had a blast dying our hair dark, laughing at TV shows, walking to the nearest shops for ice cream sundae ingredients.

The grounds of the sanatoriya were gorgeous — long, tree-lined paths; massive dinosaur statues; and boardwalk fit for watching the sun rise. I was feeling introspective one morning and spent a long while on the beach, watching the clouds change and the mountains appear across the lake. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dissonance, though. A lot of this place reminded me of fall in Minnesota and Lake Superior, especially the bright color of the trees and the size of the lake. Every time I settled in to the thought of being back at home, though, a bit of the landscape shocked me into remembering where I was (especially the snow-capped mountains).

After a night enjoying life and the company of half my K-23 cohort, I hopped on a bus with a small group of volunteers and staff who were not staying at the resort for further training. The four-hour drive between Bosteri and Bishkek was surreal; something about the sun and the views had me feeling good about Kyrgyzstan, about work, about Peace Corps, about where I am now. Sorry to get sappy, but come on – these views!
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Exploring Kyrgyzstan: Balykchy

The intensity of our training schedule leaves only a one-day weekend. Many volunteers choose to spend that day in Bishkek, the capital, where we can get food that reminds us of home (burgers, iced coffee, fried chicken, good cocktails) and wander the wide streets of a big city. I joined a small group for an adventure east, in the opposite direction of Bishkek, to visit Issyk Kul – the world’s second largest saline lake and the Pearl of Kyrgyzstan. The name Issyk Kul directly translates as “Hot Lake” in Kyrgyz; it is so named because the lake refuses to freeze over during the cold Kyrgyz winter.

After transferring between two marshrutkas and a very cramped taxi ride (8 people in 5 seats), we finally made it to Balykchy, a mid-sized city on the western tip of the lake. On Saturday afternoon, the wind was strong and it looked like rain – not good odds for a weekend at the beach. Fortunately, the weather opened up for us on Sunday, and we were able to enjoy several hours at the beach, sunbathing, snacking on ice cream, and people-watching. I took responsibility for guarding the bags while the other volunteers went for a swim – I’m glad I didn’t go in, because it took all afternoon for some of them to warm up from the freezing water. Issyk Kul? More like Cool Kul. (Cue laugh track now, please.)

We took the train back from Balykchy, which was a wonderful experience. It took more than twice the amount of time to get back by train, but the landscapes were lovely and we had a lot of room to stretch out, talk, nap, play cards, and eat snacks bought from the Russian women selling homemade pies. Kids in the next compartment over took an interest in us, and we chatted with their parents, as well as the man who sold us our tickets.

It tends to blow peoples’ minds when we speak Kyrgyz, when we say that we come from America, when we say that we will live here for two years. These conversations are often short, but they are definitely heart-warming. One Russian babushka who sold me a fried-dough pastry filled with potato went on and on about how lovely it is to meet an actual American and speak face-to-face. She only sees Americans on TV, where we are portrayed only in a negative light; seeing us smiling and laughing on the train changed her perception of Americans, she said. After all the drama with visas and bureaucracy in the last month, chats like this confirm that I am in the right place.

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