Meet the 'Stans From Central Asia

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Woden Teachout From Kyrgyzstan

17 July 2014 – Photos from Kyrgyzstan

Street in Karakol

Street in Karakol

Scenes from Karakol Kyrgyzstn

Scenes from Karakol Kyrgyzstn

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17 September 2014 – Introduction 

Hello to everyone in the “Meet the Stans” Course! My name is Woden Teachout and I’m a professor on a Fulbright in Krygystan, at a regional university in Karakol in Issyk Kul oblast. My family and I have been in the country for about a month, and we’re happy to be the boots on the ground for your class: a perspective to complement the big picture that I know you’re getting as you look at the region as a whole. My favorite book so far is called Chasing the Sea; it’s by a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan who dropped out, and came back to write about the country. It does a beautiful and vivid job of capturing aspects of the region as a whole. When we first got off the plane in Bishkek, the airport was about the size of the Burlington one. There was a lot of concrete and not many people (it was early morning) and it was not always clear where to go. We made our way out toward the exit and I asked where the taxi stand was. The guard took a look at us — two adults and six children, with 6 backpacks and 7 large bags — and held up his finger for us to wait. Five minutes later he was back, with another bigger security guard. They took us out to the parking lot, where a Honda Odyssey was waiting, and managed to get everyone and all the luggage in tight. Then the bigger security guard got in, still in uniform, and proceeded to drive us to Bishkek on his shift. Ted Levin had mentioned that many people in Central Asia will be doing one job and take another on at the same time; I guess this was a classic example of that! A herd of cattle came surging across the highway and the guard expertly dodged them and took us into Bishkek. My primary memory from that morning is the men squatting in the shade by the side of the road — it was 105 degrees that day — and everywhere, everywhere the green and yellow striped ovals of watermelon. Carts of them, stands of them, truckloads of them, single ones tucked under an arm. Here’s a photo; it’s not mine, but it gives you a sense .watermelon picture

watermelon picture

 

23 September 2014 – First Day of School 

The first of September is Knowledge Day: “Bilim” in Kyrgyz. It’s the first day of school, and children gather for a ceremony and then a token class. All the children wear black and white, usually a white blouse and pleated black skirt for the girls and a white button down shirt and black trousers for the boys. The older girls wear something that I can only compare to a French maid’s uniform.

Most of the younger boys wear baseball caps or the Kyrgyz equivalent, which is a similar shape but felted. We made an emergency trip to the department store the afternoon before, and came home outfitted for four children for roughly $70. I gather that this is half again what it would cost in the bazaar. The department store, TSUM, is quite different than what I expected, given the title ‘department store.’ It’s a big three story building with a number of shops selling phones and electronics, souvenirs, dry goods, and clothing. The top floor has bikes, including a really nice one for around $150. My eleven year old has been begging me for it since.

The ceremony started late (as with most things in Kyrgyzstan) and while we were waiting, the Kyrgyz kids got very interested in us and started crowding around asking questions. My kids showed them how to thumb wrestle, so we spent about a half hour doing that: There were probably forty kids thumb wrestling, and they kept coming up to us and wanting to do it with the real Americans. Since I’m having trouble with my photo upload, I’m afraid you’ll have to imagine that. But many brought flowers, as in the photo below.

The Bilim Ceremony was long, with all the kids standing in the sun, and the principal making a speech exhorting the students to work hard and succeed in life. It reminded me of more than a few graduations I’ve been to. One girl with a great big poufy hair bow filmed it with her iPad. It ended with a couple of the older students lip synching songs that sounded like Russian pop but were apparently odes to mothers. Then one of the older boys led a tiny girl around, holding a big bell, followed by an older girl and a tiny boy. Rahat, our interpreter, said that symbolized the First Bell. The kids all disappeared into the school, including my 9 year old daughter, who had gone to stand with her class. It was a little alarming trying to find her between three floors, two staircases, and dozens of classrooms, but we did.

I'm having trouble with my photo upload so you'll miss the thumbwrestling photos, but here's a good representation of the older children bringing the younger ones around

kids lined up

kids with flowers

first bell

 

04 October 2014 – The Human Landscape in Karakol

There are many foreigners in Karakol in the summer and early fall, since it’s the center of the country’s hiking and trekking economy. Most of them are Polish, Czech, Dutch, French, and German. We’ve only met one other American outside of the Peace Corps volunteers, but people seem generally quite happy to meet Americans and equally, if not more, happy about Russia. On several occasions, we’ve met some tipsy men in the magasins (little stores on every corner) who have a lot to say about their fondness for both cultures. They’re always very friendly and give me a chance to practice my language.

There are strong cultural connections with Turkey, for obvious reasons; there are Turkish universities here and many Kyrgyz go to Turkey to work (though I gather many come home a bit disappointed). There are also strong cultural connections with Germany, for reasons that I don’t understand so well but on which you might be able to enlighten me. After Kyrgyz and Russian, which are often spoken interchangeably and in the same sentence (my colleague refers to it as “Krussian”), the next most common language is English and then German. Many people in Karakol speak a few words of English and children will often grin at us and say loudly, “Hello! What is your name!” But outside the university it doesn’t usually extend much beyond that, and as my Russian and Kyrgyz are at about the same level, we do a lot of pantomiming.

There’s a clear division between the Kyrgyz population and the Russian population, culturally and ethnically. Almost everyone is either clearly Kyrgyz or Russian, and I have not seen a single interracial family. As an American, that really surprised me; when I mentioned it to our translator Rahat, an internationally minded young woman who has studied in Germany and plans to live abroad, she said, “Our Muslim religion forbids it.” It was the first time I’d heard her identify as Muslim.

There is a growing population of Muslims who look to the Middle East rather than the traditional Kyrgyz version of Islam: the woman are fully covered and the men grow their beards and wear 3/4 length tunics. There are new mosques in almost every town. Our friends from the university are wary of these people, and think they bode trouble. We ended up having tea with one, while looking at a house to rent, and he asked me (through our translator), “Do you see many Muslims in America who let their beards grow?” I said that there were many American Muslims but not necessarily where I lived, and he responded, “I know there are more and more. I read it on the internet.”

There is some religious extremism in the south of the country, and I had a moment of concern before we came in August. I asked Ted Levin about it in an email and he fired back – in possibly my favorite one-liner – “the only kind of extremism in Karakol right now is extreme sunbathing.”

 

22 October 2014 – Photos from Around Karakol

 

 

 

 

 

 

A woman selling kumys (fermented mare's milk) near the central square

A woman selling kumys (fermented mare’s milk) near the central square

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Fruits and vegetable vendors in the small bazaar

Fruits and vegetable vendors in the small bazaar

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The park in the center

The park in the center

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04 November 2014 – Daily Life in A Rural Household

Samat, our landlord and neighbor, teaching my daughter to plow the potato field

Samat, our landlord and neighbor, teaching my daughter to plow the potato field

Gula, Samat's mother, serving bread, apricot jam, and tomato salad in our kitchen

Gula, Samat’s mother, serving bread, apricot jam, and tomato salad in our kitchen

Kyrgyz mattresses

Kyrgyz mattresses

Irisgul, Samat's sister, teaching my daughter to milk

Irisgul, Samat’s sister, teaching my daughter to milk

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