Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bishkek: First Impressions

I’ve been in Bishkek for almost 2 weeks now (wow…), and am starting to get a feel for the city. Of course, I find myself comparing everything in Bishkek to what I’ve experienced in Tbilisi. Before coming to Bishkek, I was expecting to find a city that was “Tbilisi 10 years ago” (this is actually from a Kyrgyz friend I met in Tbilisi, though she hadn’t been in Bishkek for almost two years)—one that was rife with corruption, power outages, and a generally poor infrastructure. In Georgia, whenever I mentioned my next destination, I received responses that boiled down to “why would you ever want to go there?”

But I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

True, I would never call Bishkek a beautiful city. It is a relatively new city (nothing much until it was built up by the Soviets) with no “old town” with pretty architecture. But it’s apparent that it was a planned city. Unlike Tbilisi with its winding streets and a city plan that can best be described as illogical or “historic”, Bishkek is blessed with wide perpendicular streets that rarely get clogged with traffic. In the center of town, lush bench-filled parks are interspersed among the various government buildings. Even away from the center, the soviet-era block apartment buildings (like the one I live in) are usually separated from each other by trees and small playgrounds. I was shocked to find that Bishkek is home to a handful of malls, some of which might as well have been transplanted from the West—Tbilisi has a grand total of zero malls. Then there are the nice little touches like having not only water 24/7 (in my district in Tbilisi, water is shut off 12 hours every day), but centrally heated hot water. Even the dreaded marshrutkas (more on that later) are regulated, being more or less all the same model of Mercedes van, unlike Tbilisi’s as-long-as-it-moves-and-can-hold-more-people-than-it-should marshrutkas.

But I’m constantly reminded that I am in a very poor, post-soviet country in Central Asia. Just last Tuesday, while walking the 100 meters to the marshrutka stop from my home, I saw my neighbors slaughtering a sheep, the father deftly removing the fleece while the mother held the sheep still and the children looked on with interest. Or then there are the death-trap marshrutkas, which despite all being the same model, still hold way too many people. Last Friday, I noticed an unusually large number of people waiting for marshrutkas (there are several, each with its own route, which run by my place) at my stop, and after waiting for 20 minutes, realized that something was wrong. Finally, my marshrutka showed up and I barely squeezed on. The driver explained each time he stopped to pick up more (yes, more) people that they better get on his marshrutka since the other drivers were on strike to demand that fares be doubled from 5 to 10 soms (1 som = ~2.8 USA cents). By the time that it came close for me to get off, I counted 40 people on a van that has seats for 11 or 12. Not fun.

Then there are the inconveniences like not having cheap or easy access to internet because one of the main internet providers in Bishkek charges by the kilobyte of traffic, which has made it difficult to find a place to upload my photos. Or the worry of being stopped by the Militsia on the street without my passport on me, and having to make the decision of either taking the easy way out and just pay a bribe or being taken in to be shouted at for half an hour. (Fortunately, I am much less likely to be stopped than my other American friends because I look Central Asian, specifically Uzbek, according to one of my teachers.) Then there’s the fragile political situation, with a very unpopular president (he was never elected; rather, he made himself president), who until he returned to Bishkek two weeks ago, was rumored to be seriously ill or dead after being absent from the public scene for one month, and the brewing dissatisfaction which makes revolution only a question of when (according to my conversation teacher, 20% chance this spring).

I like to think of it as making life more interesting.

Next: My language school and host family

Gamarjoba Bishkekidan

For those of you who don't know Georgian, this post is for my Georgian friends who want to know what I'm up to.


ნუ გეშინია, ჩემი მასწავლებლები (3 მასწავლებელი მყავს) ძალიან კარგად მასწავლიან. ყოველდღე სამი საათი გაკვეტილი მაქვს. ჯერ გრამატიკა (ახლა ვსწავლობ „active and passive participles” читаюший მაგალიტად), მერე კითხვა და მოსმენა (ახლა ვკითხულობ Бунин), და ბოლოს ლაპარაკი.

ბიშკეკი ახალი ქალაქია. ბიშკეკი უპრო განვითარებულია თბილისზე იმიტომ, რომ ბევრი რუსი და თურქი მუშაობენ აქ. ახლა, წვიმს, მარა ბოლოს კაი ამინდი იყო. შაბათს მე დავურეკე დუნდასა და თემოს. როცა ველაპარაკებდი იმათან, რუსულად ველაპარაკებდი!! უიიიი.... მეშინია რომ დამავიწყდება ქართული!! მერე, მე და ჩემი მეგობრები ვიპოვეთ ქართული რესტორანი და შევჭამეთ იქ. რა თქმა უნდა, არ იყო გემრიელი როგორც საქართველოში, მარა ანჯაპსანდალი და ლობიო მომეწონა მაინც. მე მინდოდა მელაპარკა მზარეულს (ქართველიაო), მაგრამ მითხრეს სძინავსო!!!

მომიკითხე ყველას.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Guess What...

Guess what: I’m not in Georgia anymore. No, I haven’t returned to the US; I’m in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where I hope to be for the next couple of months.

Since the end of December, I have been taking private Russian lessons in Tbilisi, and while I learned a lot of grammar and continued to improve my reading skills, what I really wanted was to be able to speak Russian. After a total of almost 9 months in Georgia, 6 of which with a non-English speaking host family, my spoken Georgian has become quite good. If I wanted to achieve similar fluency in Russian, I had to be in a similar immersion environment. And while most Georgians know Russian, and the older generation even better Russian, I was handicapped by my Georgian—it’s difficult to force yourself to speak poorly in one language when you know you can express yourself easily in another.

That’s why back in February I began to look into living/studying in another, primarily Russian-speaking, country. I ruled out Russia pretty quickly because of cost of living and the hassle required to get a Russian visa (at one point, it looked like I would have to apply for a Russian visa back in the US). Ukraine looked like a good possibility, but I lacked the crucial personal connection. That’s when Kyrgyzstan presented itself. An American friend of mine in Tbilisi mentioned that a colleague of his had been studying in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan since September—and that he loved it. After just a brief email exchange, I was sold on going to Bishkek. I made plans to come to Bishkek in the beginning of April and study at the London School in Bishkek, a language school that teaches English to Kyrgyz students and Russian or Kyrgyz to foreigners. The London School also agreed to help me find a home stay.

For most of my last month in Georgia, I was in a state of denial of actually leaving this place that I had grown to love so much. It seemed that Georgia herself was reluctant to let me go: during the month of March, I picked up 3 more private students, made a couple more voiceovers (for national parks in Georgia—this time, I was given the drafts a day before the recording session so I could do my best to edit them), and made more good friends. Not to mention that spring arrived so quickly that the bitter cold and dreary days of winter were a distant memory. There were countless times where I seriously considered canceling my Bishkek plans. But I knew that I couldn’t stay in Georgia indefinitely (I do have two years of college left…), and that whether I left now or a couple months later, it would be just as difficult, if not more.

As my last week in Georgia crept up on me, it really began to sink in that it would be a long time before I saw any of these people again (realistically, the earliest I would be back would be after I graduate), and in a mad frenzy, began to say my farewells. In all, I had 4 farewell parties, each a poignant reminder of what I would be leaving behind. I’ll be back.

Getting from Tbilisi to Bishkek was hardly an easy trip. I had two flights, from Batumi (a Georgian city on the Black Sea) to Istanbul, and from Istanbul to Bishkek. To get from Tbilisi to Bishkek, I took a night train. I shared my compartment with a middle-aged couple and an elderly man. After a lecture on Georgian history (something that is almost always brought up in a conversation with a Georgian) and some interesting conversation about American and Georgian politics, we went to bed for the 8-hour trip.

In Batumi, I was met by a brother, Nodar, of a friend of mine from Tbilisi. I had been to nearby Kobuleti last August, but never Batumi. Nodar whisked me in his work van to his family home on a hill top looking over the city where I met his warm mother, hilarious grandmother, and brother (whom I had met in Tbilisi earlier). After a delicious breakfast complete with homegrown tea, it was off to the airport, but not without stopping for one last Georgian meal of Acharuli Khachapuri (a kind of cheese pizza with a runny egg and butter on top). During our meal, Nodar assured me that I would have no problems at the airport as he personally knew an employee at the Turkish Airlines desk. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 9 months in Georgia it’s that knowing the right people can make all the difference. And sure enough, even though my suitcase weighed 30 kg (I was only allowed 20 kg), it was “no problem,” and I was given the best seat in Economy Class.

I intentionally scheduled my flight so that I would have a one-night layover in Istanbul. I paid my $20 visa fee, retrieved my 30 kg suitcase, and headed out for my hostel via public transportation. My hostel, the Istanbul hostel, couldn’t have been a better location. It was less than a quarter mile from both the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. That first afternoon, I wandered through Sultanahmet and stumbled upon the Grand Bazaar, an endless maze of shops hocking everything from cell phones to huge oriental rugs. I noticed that some of the more successful shops had employees whose sole purpose was to lure customers in. Some of them resorted to pretty sly tactics to engage passersby in conversation. One such employee stopped me saying “I’ve been waiting for you!” I told him he must be mistaken, to which he replied, “Well, you must know me then, I’m famous here!” After another minute of talking, he invited me into his shop, saying “There is no pressure for you to buy anything; I just want to show you a few jackets.” I peeked in through the glass windows and saw an unfortunate tourist couple, seated with glasses of tea in their hands, held captive by a colleague of my new friend as they were being shown some expensive wares. No pressure, yeah right. I made some excuse about someone expecting me, and slipped away. The Hagia Sophia was closed that day, but the Blue Mosque wasn’t. See pictures online. [edit: pictures haven't been posted yet... I'm still in the process of finding an internet cafe that will let me upload pictures]

The next morning, I went to the now-open Hagia Sophia. From the outside, it’s clear that the same care and attention paid to the Blue Mosque has not been shown to the Hagia Sophia. The inside of the Hagia Sophia is certainly a sight to behold, if only to experience the huge emptiness within this former cathedral. I could only imagine how beautiful it looked before the sack of Constantinople. I found it interesting that parts of the frescoes (including a mosaic of the Theotokos with Child above the altar) had been “preserved” and were in pristine condition—it seems unlikely that any reminder of Hagia Sophia's Christian roots would have been preserved when converted into a mosque.

Before I knew it, I was back in the airport and on my flight to Bishkek. The 5 hour flight was uneventful and we touched down at around 1:30 am. It took me about an hour and a half to get my visa (unluckily for me, I was the last person in line, and the visa issuer decided to take a break when it came to my turn…). After a 30 minute taxi ride, I arrived in the center of Bishkek at the apartment of my American acquaintance, where after some conversation and a brief call home to let my folks know I had arrived safely, I went to bed to catch up on some much needed sleep.

More to come!!!