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.”