After spending almost a month and a half in Kyrgyzstan so far, I am starting to find my way. Despite my best efforts at learning Russian through my online Rosetta Stone program, I’m still completely reliant on my excellent miming skills in order to get through my day. I know the words for dog, cat, rice, apple and water, but strangely enough this doesn’t get me very far. Today I saw what I can only guess was a “beware of the dog” sign, and I was so excited to see a word I recognized that I yelled out “DOG!” at the top of my lungs and almost sent my driver off the road. Thankfully, many of the locals are equally fluent in sherades, so I’m coping. At some point though, I’m hoping my Russian will start to kick in… I almost mimed “toilet” the other day in a restaurant when I was looking for the bathroom, which would have had disastrous consequences!
I’m now located down in Osh in the South, where I’ll be located for the duration of my assignment in the country. I wasn’t sure what to expect before I arrived. Whenever I mentioned to someone from the expat crowd in Bishkek that I was going to be moving to Osh, they would invariably wrinkle their nose, twist their mouth, and then tilt their head in sympathy, saying “oh, I’m sorry.” Osh was portrayed to me as a hardship – religiously conservative, rundown, even a bit dangerous and with limited entertainment options. Hmmm.
It is true that Osh is a non-family duty posting for international organizations, meaning that it is on par with Afghanistan, DRC, Sudan, and other hardship duty stations. However, having experienced a year in Kabul, this place feels like Disneyland (albeit slight more Islamified and with less popcorn). Whereas Bishkek is concerned to be quite a European city by Central Asian standards, Osh is certainly more ‘authentic’. But that’s why I prefer it to Bishkek. If I wanted to go to Europe, I wouldn’t be here now, would I?
Osh is known as the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan, dating back to at least the 5th century BC. There are many different stories about who founded the city, ranging from Alexander the Great to Adam from the Bible to King Solomon (Suleyman). The history of Osh is as colourful as the city is today. Osh is known as the oldest city in Kyrgyzstan, dating back to at least the 5th century BC. There are many different stories about who founded the city, ranging from Alexander the Great to Adam from the Bible to King Solomon (Suleyman). The history of Osh is as colourful as the city is today. It served as an important trading hub on the Silk Road where camel caravans would bring silk from China, lazurite from Tajikistan, sweets from India and silver from Iran.
Located just 5 km from the border of Uzbekistan, Osh has a very large ethnic Uzbek population, who relate culturally, linguistically and politically much more to Uzbekistan and the rest of the Fergana valley than to the rest of the Kyrgyz Republic to the north (thank Joseph Stalin for drawing up non-sensical Soviet-era borders).
Throughout Kyrgyzstan, there are even several enclaves belonging to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The largest is the autonomous district of Sokh belonging to Uzbekistan… but is actually 99% Tajik. Go figure. When I drove down to Batken city this week in the South-East, we had to plan our route in order to avoid the pockets of Uzbekistan engulfed in Batken Oblast.
The city is divided into ethnically homogeneous Uzbek mahallas and Kyrgyz neighbourhoods, separated by corridors of multi-ethnic communities. Personally, I can’t tell the difference between the different ethnic groups yet, save for one obvious marker: the different hats. A growing sense of nationalism over the past few years has contributed to the rising popularity amongst ethnic Kyrgyz for the national hat (called the kalpak), which is the tall white hat you see in the photo below. The ethnic Uzbeks, on the other hand, wear a smaller form-fitting hat.
Little by little, I’m discovering the quirks of Southern Kyrgyzstan. Take my local grocery store, for example. It is the anti-Price Club, Costco, or any other supersized ‘American’ type of store. Instead of buying items in bulk, you can get pieces of gum in singles. Cereal boxes are broken up into small ziploc bags to allow people to buy by the bowl instead. And eggs can be bought individually, instead of by the dozen or half-dozen.
Southern Kyrgyzstan is a religiously Muslim area and considered by the international community to be conservative, but from my post-Afghan perspective, it appears to be much more liberal than I was anticipating (at least in the cities). It is not unusual to see women in tight clothes, skirts above the knee, and ‘western’ attire. And some nights when I’ve been running up and down Suleyman-Too mountain, I’ve exchanged cheeky grins with some of the local Kyrgyz women doing hill repeats in track suits. Alcohol is readily available, including about 192 different varieties of vodka, and proudly on display in stores.
Other ‘quirks’ are not so positive. Take, for example, the practice of bride kidnapping, which is widespread throughout the country and still considered in many areas to be a valuable tradition. As described in an article by UN Women, “According to these ‘traditions’, when a Kyrgyz man wants to get married, he picks a bride and starts to arrange her kidnapping… Women often experience physical violence and rape.” (www.unwomen.org/2013/02/new-law-in-kyrgyzstan-toughens-penalties-for-bride-kidnapping). According to a local NGO, there are at least 11,800 cases of forced abduction of women and girls every year in the country. In many cases, the abducted female is forced to spend a night at the male’s house, during which time she is effectively raped. After this point, the stigma of leaving the male is too high so the female almost always ends up staying. While the law imposes a penalty of 10 years for bride kidnapping (which was recently raised from 3 years to ALMOST equal the penalty of 11 years for stealing cattle), it is almost never implemented in practice.
Domestic violence is also entirely commonplace. High unemployment rates have also contributed to depression and alcohol/drug abuse amongst the male heads of households, which has exacerbated the problem. What is worse, is that it isn’t really seen as a criminal issue or even something that needs to be addressed (“it isn’t domestic violence if he only hits her once or twice, right?”) The idea is that these ‘family scandals’ should be kept private, hidden from view, and out of the reach of the criminal justice system because otherwise the male’s life (aka the perpetrator’s life) would be ruined.
Dealing with all of these issues during the week leaves me rather depleted on Friday evenings. So what better way to shake off the stresses of the week than to get out into the hills? A few weeks ago when I was still based in the north of the country, I headed out with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan to Issyk-Ata (‘Father Heat’), which is a real Soviet-style sanatorium, and then the next weekend to Lake Kol-Tor in Kegety Gorge.
Kegety was really the highlight of my time in Bishkek. After running along dirt paths, over gigantic cow patties, across streams and through some wispy green meadows, the trail headed straight upwards for a few hundred metres before leading to a single-track path through an alpine forest. I really couldn’t believe how well-maintained the trail was as it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere. Sure, it wasn’t always clear what was the official ‘trail’ and what was a well-traveled cow path, but it didn’t really matter. If it was good enough for the cows, it was good enough for me. I was having fun exploring the open spaces and quiet forest mazes. I knew as long as I kept heading upwards, I would get to where I needed to go. A few hours into my run, I began a slow and steady climb up a scrubby rock-face until I finally reached Lake Kol-Tor. I needn’t describe how beautiful it was in detail because I’m sure you’ll be able to get everything you need from the photos below.
I’m constantly shocked by Kyrgyzstan’s natural beauty. Why aren’t people flocking to this country??? (Short answer: no tourist development, difficult to navigate without fluent Russian, most people have heard of Kyrgyzstan, often mistaken for Kazakhstan…). I stopped for only 15 minutes to put my feet up on a hillside overlooking the lake before beginning my downhill training, but those 15 minutes did me a world of good. There is something truly magical about experiencing a place, particularly one as awe-inspiring as Lake Koltor, that can only be reached by foot. Off the tourist track, off the mainstream radar, even off the Lonely Planet. Now THAT is something worth celebrating.
I’ve started to scope out the trekking options outside of Osh in the South of the country and I can say that logistics are a problem. The international community in Osh is quite small by comparison to Bishkek (probably due to the ‘non-family duty’ label), and there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much of a trekking culture. However, just because there isn’t a trekking union to organize group trips, it doesn’t mean that hikes aren’t possible. Last weekend I headed out with an eclectic UN crew to a gorge about 2.5 hours outside of Osh called Kyrgyz-Ata.
I won’t go into too many details about this hike, but I can say that it did involve immersing myself in glacier water up to my waist while clinging to a log for dear life, scrambling up rocky mountainsides past the tree-line in hopes of seeing an elusive snow leopard, sliding down snowy slopes on my rear-end for longer than I (and my backside) would have liked, and having a hillside dance party to Eminem at about hour 5 of the run (aka runner’s high time).
The trekking down south is definitely more ‘indy’ style – difficult, exciting, scary at times, but ultimately rewarding because it is so off the beaten track you can’t even find your way there with a GPS. At one point when I was scrambling up the hillside on all fours, navigating my way over rocks and crevices, and digging my hands into snow while the sun burned the skin on the back of my neck, I really felt like it was a (wo)man vs wild situation. I wasn’t sure who was winning, but I was loving the competition.
Looking forward to my upcoming battles with nature over the next few weeks…. This country is becoming increasingly fascinating by the day@