I finally arrived in Kyrgyzstan! Completely rushed and badly prepared, I booked a place at random from the airport in Incheon for Bishkek, choosing three days to give me time to rest up from the absolutely frenetic (and truly restless) pace of travel in Korea and Hong Kong. But what a coincidence! The place I stayed in is the home of one Bakytbek Tokubek Uulu (I was the only guest aside from two French volunteers), who was one of two people in charge of IREX. IREX was the exchange program that connected Ponz/Oak Hall with Kyrgyzstan/Nurgul in the first place! Now defunct due to lack of funding, it was part of the “hearts and minds” campaigns of the United States in Central Asia. It seems to have been replaced by the American Corners, FLEX program, University of Central Asia and other such initiatives. Bakytbek not only knows Nurgul, but was also her student in Karakol. He put me in contact with the other IREX head, Tynchtyk, who runs a Yurt camp in Karakol, and with whom I will likely stay.
Kyrgyzstan has been completely different (OK, not completely) from my expectations. I expected something rather like Uzbekistan, but the culture is very different. The people are very lightly Muslim (akin to how many people are nominally Christian in the United States), with hejabs being the exception rather than the norm, and women walking alone on the streets and talking with men (this sounds normal, but is quite different from much of Uzbekistan, Morocco, and Qatar, my previous experiences with highly Muslim countries). It’s rather more like Turkey. The streets and amenities are extremely clean, even the pit toilets! Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, my initial thought is that Kyrgyzstan feels like Central Asia done right. Or perhaps Post-Soviet Republic done right. The people have been extremely friendly and genuine, and not a single person has yelled “Japan”, “Jackie Chan”, or even “Hashish” at me!
I arrived late the first day and avoided the touts/taxi drivers at the airport, taking the hilariously cheap marshrutka into town instead. It’s very nice to be able to speak Russian. I then took a random marshrutka from downtown after confirming that it went North, then alit after I felt it was far enough (one can’t see out from a crowded marshrutka, as the windows are all well below eye level). I took an easy night and Bakytbek showed me his wonderful art collection housed in purpose built niches all around his beautiful house. I also played a bit with his young children.
My only full day in Bishkek was very productive. Despite my initial misgivings, I went to the central bazaar, wary it would be like Marrakesh. It couldn’t have been more different. I talked with eight or nine people there, sampling random snacks or just chatting about food and silly things. They would refuse getting their photos taken, but happily engaged in conversation. I even got my bag mended for a mere 100 som (about $1.42)! Later in the city, I stumbled upon a Chinese book store (I definitely did a double take), 新華書店, right by the main plaza. I had to go in, of course, and happily spoke in Mandarin to see if they had 三體。 And they did! But only in simplified, so I decided I might come back, as my command of simplified is pretty awful. I drew the main plaza, the statue of Manas, and the beautiful, very Ottoman styled main mosque. Inside, a few men prayed, but strangely, some also watched youtube (with no headphones) or spoke on their phones. It was a very odd experience in a religious space, as I am used to the sacredness of silence.
I returned in time to learn how to make Манты (Manti) from Baktybek’s wife, which was quite fun to watch and do. They were naturally delicious.
The next day, I felt a bit sick (a portend of things to come), so I stayed in, sleeping nearly all day in my luxurious room. We had dinner with a Japanese NGO volunteer finishing her dissertation on Nomad traditions within Islam who Bakytbek invited through CouchSurfing, and I gave some tips to the French volunteers.