Monday, December 9, 2013

Back in Bishkek, back to the States

July 31, 2013

My initial plan was to return to Bishkek on Saturday, July 27th. I’d reserved a bed in the Sakura hostel for the 27th-30th way back in June… but, this being Kyrgyzstan, a wrench was (of course) thrown into my carefully laid plans. This particular wrench came in the form of M., an American undergrad student who, fresh off a year in Russia and a month in Tajikistan, was spending a week or so in Kyrgyzstan before returning to the US. His local Kyrgyzstan travel arrangements had been made through The London School. His plans were to spend Thursday night at the Beach Camp and then return to Bishkek on Friday night. Logically and logistically, it made far more sense for me to return to Bishkek with him on Friday night than to have The London School arrange separate travel for the both of us. Of course, the problem was that Sakura was packed. I had a bed reserved for Saturday, but there wasn’t space for me for Friday. We were too late in the planning stages to arrange a homestay through The London School (such as the one where M. was staying), so I ended up spending the night at the home of the director of The London School… where Aliman and Murat from Toguz Bulak happened to be staying as well. (The director is, I believe, the aunt of their mother.)

In the morning, after a nice, late breakfast, I made my way to Sakura. When they’d said the place was packed, I’d had no idea just how packed. There were only two dormitories when I first stayed there back in May. In June, they opened a third dorm. All of the beds in all three dorms were full, as were all of the private rooms. And the floor on the third floor. And the rooftop patio. Considering the solitude in which I’d spent the previous two months, it was all a bit much.

I had four full days to spend in Bishkek, although I admit that I did very little. Most of the Bishkek folks whom I know had left the sweltering heat of the city (and it was boiling – in the upper 90s, sometimes topping 100F – every day I was there) for the cool air and waters of Issyk Kul, and the temperatures made wandering about the city a challenge. On the one hand, after having spent the entire summer being cold, this was quite a welcome change in temperatures. On the other hand... it was bloody hot. I didn’t even carry my DSLR with me most of the time, as it was simply too hot to lug around something of that size. Yeah. Of course, as the hostel was not air conditioned, I spent a good amount of time in “expensive” (by Bishkek standards) restaurants with air conditioning: curry at The Host, rabbit at У Мазая, Khachapuri at Mimino, pizza at VEFA, and a calzone at Cyclone. (Cyclone has the best hot chocolate in the world, but as I was so hot by the time I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to order it; I had one of their milkshakes instead.)

 photo food4_zpsf23ffbea.jpg
Curry at The Host

 photo food1_zpsecf77fcd.jpg
Khachapuri Adjaruli at Mimino

 photo food3_zps860a1175.jpg
'Hunted Rabbit' at 
У Мазая

 photo food2_zpscc80f8c8.jpg
The remains of my calzone at Cyclone

I didn’t just eat my way through four days in Bishkek; I had errands to run, too. I had to return my borrowed laptop to The London School, complete with the audio recordings of myself which I had made for them, tape-scripts, edited texts, and photos of my volunteering experiences. In turn, I finally received my stipend (haha). I then spent most of said stipend mailing home the large box of gifts from host families and students. I also finalized my souvenir/gift buying, and even braved the heat to wander around the city (albeit with my point-n-shoot). I also managed to get a really great haircut at a place not too far from the hostel. And that was it, really.

 photo philharmonic_zps5b95f38e.jpg
As you can see, the weather was gorgeous. But sweltering, absolutely sweltering.

 photo haircut_zpsfcada19d.jpg
A really lovely haircut, by a very nice woman... who I must admit was horrified by how long I'd gone since last dyeing my hair. Bishkek and the villages are really different worlds.

At 1:30am on July 31st, three French tourists (who had been among the masses at Sakura) and I left the hostel and headed for the airport. Checking in at Manas is definitely a lot easier without four cats! I did, however, see an elderly gent traveling with two small dogs – good times. I arrived in Istanbul at 7am local time, and got to sit through a six hour layover. There was actually a later flight out of Bishkek, but I would have had less than an hour to catch my flight to the States. I hadn’t wanted to miss my connection, so I settled for six hours of mind-numbing boredom. M, on the other hand, chose the latter flight. He and I were supposed to be on the same flight from Istanbul to New York, but he didn’t make it in time.

And that’s it, the end of my summer in Kyrgyzstan. I leave you to contemplate a video I made showcasing how - despite New Zealand's attempts to convince us otherwise - Kyrgyzstan is indeed Middle Earth. You have to click here to download it; YouTube won't let me post it as they say it's a copyright infringement.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Religion in Kyrgyzstan

July 23, 2013

Kyrgyzstan is a predominantly Muslim country. As a result, one of the first things that people in the US typically ask me about my life in Kyrgyzstan is, “Do you have to wear a headscarf when you’re there?” Um, no. However, after more than a week without washing my hair, I generally do wear a headscarf; no one wants to see my greasy, unwashed head. Traditionally in Kyrgyz villages, a headscarf is indeed worn by the women. However, the Kyrgyz headscarf is not a hijab. It’s more of a bandanna than anything else. As the more conservative Saudi strain of Islam gains more of a foothold in Kyrgyzstan, hijabs have started to crop up here and there – but for the most part, it’s the Kyrgyz bandanna-scarf or nothing. Foreign women are not at all expected to wear a headscarf – unless, of course, they want to.

 photo scarves1_zpsaf4ece5c.jpg
Women of Toguz Bulak 

 photo scarves2_zps32e95082.jpg
Women of Bar-Bulak

 photo scarves5_zps73c6b92a.jpg
Women of Bar-Bulak

 photo hijab_zps34e42dd8.jpg
One of the few women I saw wearing a hijab

OK. Now that we’ve gotten the scarf issue out of the way, let’s look at the other ways in which religion affects the people of Kyrgyzstan. As I said before, Kyrgyzstan is a majority-Muslim country. Similarly, the US can be considered a majority-Christian country. Now, I’m sure that if you’re an American, you know quite a few folks who self-identify as Christians – and who may even go to Church regularly – but for whom religion has little effect on their lives. Meanwhile, if you’re from (or have spent time in) the American Bible-belt, you’ve probably met the sort of Christian for whom every facet of his/her life revolves around the church, and who will want to talk religion – and conversion, if you’re a non-believer – with you at any possible moment. Like Christianity in the US, Islam in Kyrgyzstan runs the gamut, although in my experience there seem to be far more folks who identify themselves as Muslims, but who don’t think about religion all that much in general, whereas there seem to be only a few on the ultra-serious end of the religion spectrum.

 photo mosque1_zps920e7e83.jpg
The mosque of Toguz-Bulak
 photo mosque3_zps2cd9c04e.jpg
The mosque of Bar-Bulak

Bishkek, the capital, tends to be filled with self-identified Muslims who believe in Allah and Muhammad and the Koran, and who celebrate the major Islamic holidays, but who don’t really think about religion all that much. I’ve met many Bishkekers who self-identify as Muslims, but who smoke, drink alcohol, have pre-marital sex, don’t keep halal, wear short skirts, and don’t cover their hair (the last two applying to women, obviously). Outside of Bishkek (especially the more rural the area), women typically don’t smoke, have pre-marital sex, or wear short skirts, although all but the most strict Muslim women don’t drink alcohol. Most rural women do, however, cover their hair with the Kyrgyz-style headscarf. Some rural Kyrgyz men do abstain from vices on religious grounds, but smoking and drinking in particular are very common.

My host family in Toguz Bulak self-identified as Muslim, but they were not an overly religious bunch. Other than at the forty-days memorial service for Rakhat’s father, I never heard them pray other than a quick ‘omin’ at the end of a meal or before a sheep was slaughtered. They never spoke of religion. The call to prayer would come and go and neither they (nor anyone else I witnessed in Toguz Bulak) responded in any way. My host ‘parents’ did not drink alcohol themselves, although many of their relatives did. Additionally, they operated a private store from which they sold vodka to the locals. And you might remember the great pleasure they seemed to derive from getting me plastered. So, religious, but not overly so.

In contrast, my host ‘father’ in Bar Bulak was the local imam. On our drive from Toguz Bulak to Bar Bulak, he brought up religion, assuming that I was a Christian: “So, what are you – Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant?” Me: “Um… I’m not anything.” Him: “Oh. I guess you just haven’t thought about it yet. You’re young and probably very busy. You’ll think about it more when you’re older.” I thought that was kind of an odd thing for him to say to me, considering that he and I are the same age, but that was it. That was the extent to which the local village imam and I discussed religion.

Now, there were definitely signs that my host family in Bar Bulak were religious (other than Kuban being the local imam): they sent their eight year old son to a month-long Muslim summer camp, Rita and Aidai would don hijabs to pray – not necessarily five times a day, but roughly – although they only wore them for prayer (the rest of the time they wore Kyrgyz headscarves), Kuban and his son wore Islamic skullcaps, they kept halal, they didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and fasting during Ramadan was very important to them. And… that’s really the extent to which I witnessed the practical effects of Islam on their lives.

(As a side note, Kuban’s call to prayer was always very beautiful and moving. He usually did it through the loudspeaker at the village mosque, although he didn’t always make it there. Sometimes the call to prayer went out from our backyard or from the yurt camp by the lake. I really wanted to record him, but somehow that just seemed too intrusive.)

Interestingly, Kuban’s family is not overly religious. Most of his relatives live in the city of Balykchy, which is half an hour or so away from Bar Bulak. As such, I saw many of his relatives quite a few times during my stay. One of his sisters told me, “You know, Kyrgyzstan isn’t that strongly a Muslim country. It’s funny that you came here and got stuck with a fanatic like Kuban.” She said this quite jovially. And it was funny, because he’s a far cry from what I would consider a religious fanatic. I mean, once during dinner we watched an Islamic sermon on TV. When it was over, we watched the last hour of Miss Congeniality. Anyway, when I lost my voice, another one of Kuban’s sisters told me that I should come and stay with her, as what I needed to cure my sore throat was a shot or two of vodka, and I wasn’t going to get that from her brother.

Meanwhile, while Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, there are a large number of Christians who live here as well. Despite the dwindling population of ethnic Russians in Kyrgyzstan, there are still quite a few Russian Orthodox believers in the country, especially in Bishkek and Karakol. There are quite a few Christians of other denominations in Bishkek, although few are ethnic Kyrgyz. Ethnic Russians, ethnic Koreans, and ex-pats make up the bulk of the Christian community throughout the country. Additionally, I have met quite a few local people who, like me, are simply non-religious. I’ve even met a small handful of Kyrgyz folks who are anti-religion in general. As far as I am aware, while there have been inter-ethnic tensions and violence within Kyrgyzstan, there has been little to no inter-religious tension or violence. I believe that it is illegal to come to Kyrgyzstan for the purpose of proselytizing, but if you simply come as a member of any faith – or of no faith – you should not expect this to cause you any problems whatsoever.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Urban Exploration in Rural Kyrgyzstan

July 23, 2013

Life at the Beach Camp is incredibly relaxing. I have to make sure that I am awake at meal times (9am, 1pm, and 6pm) but other than that I have absolutely no responsibilities. And, as I am once again on my own, I no longer need to plan my day around the lives of others. I loved both of my host families, but I definitely prefer being in control of my own life. Of course, there’s not much to do here, especially as my Floridian body has completely ruled out swimming in this frigid lake, and as I am not one for sunbathing. This means I’m mostly left with long walks, long naps, and long sessions with my kindle. I don’t mind; I’ll be returning home in eight days, at which point I will have a lot to accomplish before the start of the fall semester on August 19th; I may as well enjoy doing nothing for as long as I can. Plus it's pretty damn scenic here.

 photo bc3_zps85027960.jpg

 photo bc2_zps73745dcc.jpg

 photo bc4_zps130ed560.jpg

 photo bc6_zps7d91e13c.jpg

 photo bc5_zps8c07446a.jpg

 photo bc19_zps2a331a7b.jpg

 photo bc16_zps4698b7a2.jpg

 photo bc17_zpsd58fc5e7.jpg

 photo bc18_zps94d30996.jpg

This morning I made it my mission to explore the large and seemingly abandoned/unfinished hotel located just behind the hot springs. I love all sorts of derelict and abandoned structures, and this one has fascinated me ever since my first trip down to the shore with Rita and Kuban. From a distance, it was impossible to tell if it was still under construction, if it had been abandoned mid-construction, or if it had been finished and then abandoned. However, determining the nature of the structure seemed likely to entail sneaking past the obviously inhabited home located within the fence surrounding the derelict hotel. I suppose a more normal individual would have simply asked the residents of said home for information about the hotel – as well as for permission to explore. But I’m anything but normal.

This morning was warm and sunny, so after breakfast I grabbed my camera and set out to walk around and behind the hotel. A large area (far larger than the hotel itself) is fenced in, meaning that this was a somewhat lengthy walk. Additionally, I wanted to approach the hotel from the southwest, since the home on-site is located on the northeastern corner of the property. I was worried that there would be no means of entry from the southwest, but luckily for me there was an open gate.

 photo bc14_zps75a5be0b.jpg

There were no back doors into the hotel; however, each of the rooms had a door opening up onto a balcony. (By “door” I mean an empty hole in the concrete; there were no actual doors or windows installed.) I was able to scramble over the balcony’s bars and gain entrance to the hotel that way. From what I could tell, the place had been abandoned mid-construction. Light fixtures and wiring had, at one point, been installed, but no doors or windows, and the walls and floors seemed to have never been more than bare concrete. It looks to have been abandoned for several years. I don’t remember it from five years ago, but apparently it was here; I was told that it’s been abandoned there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 photo bc15_zpsc7e3099a.jpg

 photo bc13_zpsfe57f7ca.jpg

 photo bc12_zps57c2dacb.jpg

 photo bc10_zpsfa505955.jpg

 photo bc11_zpscca30505.jpg

 photo bc9_zpseb244fc0.jpg

Had the hotel ever been finished, it would have been a comfortable, modern facility, with one bathroom (including, from what I could tell, a toilet and shower) for every four rooms. Each room would have had large windows and a balcony, overlooking either Issyk Kul to the north or the mountains to the south. However, in its current state, the place is far from modern or comfortable. The fixtures and wiring had been ripped from the bare concrete walls, cows and sheep had obviously had the run of the ground floor for some time, and there was evidence of the occasional squatter and teenaged partier. While it is probably salvageable, doing so would cost a lot of money. As such, I suspect that it will remain as is for a long time, if not forever.


July 22, 2013

There’s a group of Japanese JIKA volunteers (similar to the US Peace Corps) who had been staying at the Beach Camp as part of their orientation to Kyrgyzstan. I’ve been surprised by the rather large Japanese presence in Kyrgyzstan this time around; I don’t recall a single Japanese person from five years ago. This trip I’ve stayed several times at the Sakkura Hostel, owned by a Kyrgyz woman and her Japanese husband, and each time there have been quite a few Japanese tourists staying there. Additionally, there is something on Sovietskaya in Bishkek called something along the lines of the “Kyrgyzstan-Japan House of Friendship.” Last year there was a Japanese student who stayed with Kuban and Rita, and now there’s a group of nine students here. They apparently all study Kyrgyz in Japan, which is quite fascinating to me. Even my cousin’s Japanese friend whom I met during my brief trip to Fukuoka and Beppu back in 2011 is fascinated by Kyrgyzstan, and visited last year. I can understand why there are so many ethnic Koreans here (thanks to Stalin’s relocating of so many from the area around Vladivostok over into Central Asia, there’s a large percentage of ethnic Koreans who were born here, as well as a quite a few who move here to do business with the local Korean population), but the reason for the Japanese interest eludes me.

The weather this morning was cold and wet. As such, I got up, had breakfast, and went back to bed. I awoke around noon when the Japanese JIKA volunteers returned from their hike, making a good deal of racket. I wandered down to the café in search of lunch, only to discover a large collection of Kyrgyz host families from around the region. The Japanese volunteers were being parceled out to various homestays (where they would be staying for only one week, before returning to Bishkek), and the London School’s director was giving an introductory presentation on how to deal with foreigners, similar to the one she gave on the day that I arrived in Toguz Bulak back in May. Rita and Kuban were there, as they were taking in one of the students. The director of the school in Toguz Bulak was there as well, as she too was taking in a student, although unfortunately Rakhat and Altynbek were not present. I chatted with both the director of the school in Toguz Bulak, as well as with Rita. Rita told me that Jarkynai (the two year old) keeps going into “my” room to look for me, and that Котчик continues to sleep in there. (I’m glad that their Japanese student likes cats, as he will at least have company for the next week; although she is afraid of big dogs. As much as I don’t like to think about poor Buddy on a chain, here’s hoping he’s tied up when she’s around, since we know how he reacts when he senses fear.) Rita also told me that Aidai has been using the classroom materials that I left her to conduct English lessons with her friends. Awesomeness.

Rita and Kuban invited me to come down to their yurt in the evening, around 8:45. I met Rita at their yurt, and then we walked over to a different family’s yurt where a Ramadan evening feast was underway. The yurt was packed with various people from around the village, many of whom I had met before, including several former students. The Japanese volunteer who is staying with Rita and Kuban was there as well, and I sat next to her. She spoke fairly good English, and quite excellent Kyrgyz. As my Kyrgyz remains very basic, and her Russian was essentially nonexistent, so we had to rely on her English skills when we communicated with each other. Apparently Котчик has befriended her already; I told her to be sure to sneak him scraps. I learned that when she returns to Bishkek, she will volunteer there as a social worker for two years.

 photo japanistan_zpsbb68c168.jpg
Two of the Beach Camp's Japanese visitors, down in Rita and Kuban's cafe.

I her asked why so many Japanese people are visiting Kyrgyzstan nowadays. From what I could gather, this is due to the gorgeous scenery of Kyrgyzstan and the fact that the Kyrgyz and Japanese languages follow the same structural patterns, making it fairly easy for Japanese folks to learn to speak Kyrgyz. I know very little about Japanese, but I do know that Japanese and Korean follow the same structural patterns. They also sound very similar, as they use similar sounds (specifically similar vowels) to form their words. Now, if Japanese and Kyrgyz follow the same structural patterns, and Japanese and Korean follow the same structural patterns, one can conclude that Korean and Kyrgyz follow the same structural patterns as well. I’d never noticed the similarities between Korean and Kyrgyz before, although my knowledge of both of those languages is fairly limited. Additionally, they both sound very different, as Kyrgyz vowels are vastly different from Korean vowels. However, once I thought about it, the languages do seem to follow the exact same pattern. And when listening to the Japanese student speak Kyrgyz with a Japanese accent, the structural similarities were quite apparent.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

In which I (briefly) ride a horse, and then move to the Beach Camp

July 20, 2013

I had been petting Buddy and Mocha when I realized that one of them must have rolled in something rotten. Yuck. I made my way out to the street for the purpose of washing my hands in the aryk when I noticed a rather attractive specimen of horse tied to a power pole. Thus distracted, I diverted course from the aryk and wandered over to pet her for a little bit. Shortly thereafter, her owner moseyed up. He was an elderly and slightly less than sober fellow who had been chatting with some other folks down the block. He asked if I wanted to ride her. Having been in Kyrgyzstan for nearly three months without having ridden a single horse (something rather unheard of, surely) I jumped at the chance. Not that I could ride very far, as there’s just the one main street in Bar Bulak, and I was waiting for Kuban to show up and cart me off to the London School’s Beach Camp.

The horse’s owner hoisted me up onto his horse (I really could’ve mounted her myself, but I guess he had no way of knowing that) and gave me the ever so helpful instructions of “Just don’t fall off!” before moseying back over to his friends. I rode the horse up and down the street a few times, weaving her in and out of various obstacles. She was incredibly responsive to my commands – much more so than Honey (my American horse). Of course, as she is used for transportation, she probably wondered if she had landed a drunk driver, as I kept instructing her to do things that did not involve going in a straight line from Point A to Point B. I have to admit that it was amusing to ride past locals (including former students) who had seen me every day for the past month – they all looked quite astonished by the discovery that The American was actually a competent horsewoman. After a couple of turns up and down the street, I dismounted, and the horse’s owner, complete with a freshly opened bottle of beer and a lit cigarette, mounted and rode away.

I washed my hands in the aryk and returned to my room to await Kuban’s return with the car. I had rather a long wait. My “early” arrival at Beach Camp ended up not being all that early. See, the previous day, the engine of Kuban’s old Audi had begun doing its best to emulate that of a Harley. Now, the Harley sound is great… on a Harley. But no car – especially an elderly Audi – is supposed to sound like that. As of this morning, the car had ceased running entirely. Now, getting one’s car fixed rapidly is next to impossible in a big city with plenty of mechanics and auto-parts stores. The fact that Kuban was able to have his car up, running, and purring like a kitten by 5pm in Bar Bulak was pretty miraculous. But, this also meant that despite the fact that I was up, packed, and ready to go by 10am, we didn’t leave for the Beach Camp until shortly after 5pm.

I’ll be staying at the London School’s Beach Camp for a week free of charge as a thank you present for having spent the summer volunteering for them. For someone who has spent the past two months living the life of a rural Kyrgyz villager, the London School’s Beach Camp is a veritable modern paradise. It’s a two story hotel (of sorts) located just up the hill from the yurt camp where Rita and Kuban have their yurt “hotel” and café. The hotel has 16 rooms (mostly singles, some doubles), although only two bathrooms. But get this: THEY HAVE RUNNING WATER! And hot showers! And sit down toilets! At least someone out here has had the initiative to have an electric well installed, although its water pressure seems to vary. (As I hadn’t showered since my visit to the hot springs 13 days previously, one of the first things I did was to avail myself of that luxury. That and the sit-down toilet.)

 photo bc1_zps34e6c949.jpg
The London School's Beach Camp Hotel

 photo bc3_zps382e9a4f.jpg
My room

 photo bc2_zpsaadbb143.jpg
My view :-)

For those of you who have followed my Kyrgyzstan adventures since 2008 (or who have read through my archives), the Beach Camp is located at the spot where A. went swimming in Issyk Kul back in February 2008 when K, A, and I took our first trip to Kara-Koo, and where I rode my first Kyrgyz horse. My room has huge windows and a balcony facing the lake. It’s a lovely place to relax – although as there’s not much to do here, I suspect I will be starting to go stir crazy by the time next Saturday rolls around.

The director and several other London School folks were at the Beach Camp when I arrived, so I took the opportunity to see if they could arrange for me to have a car from here to Bishkek, so I wouldn’t have to take a marshrutka with all of my absurd amounts of baggage. Supposedly I will have a car here at 11am on Saturday to drive me and all of my crap to Bishkek. It will cost $20, which is totally expensive for Kyrgyz travel, but most definitely worth not having to be crammed into a marshrutka with all of said crap. Woohoo!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Not much going on

July 19, 2013

This, too, has been a slow week. There’s really not all that much to do in Bar Bulak, and once you remove sitting around and eating from the agenda (thanks, Ramadan), you’re pretty much left with lounging around with the cat and the kindle. I downloaded something like forty free books from Amazon before I left, and I have now finished all of them. Most were just average, although some were surprisingly good, while others were simply abominable. But hey, they were free. Of course I’ve got roughly 180 books on that glorious device, so now I’m embarking on some quality re-reading. I’m currently working my way through the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse.

Mocha is in heat, and is most definitely trying her hardest to get knocked-up. Buddy, who is at least eight times her size, is totally smitten, although he’s so much bigger than her that he seems to be having a difficult time reaching his goal (if you catch my drift). And, of course, while his girlfriend is in heat, no collar or chain can hold him. Of course, all the other male dogs in the village have been trying to impregnate the poor girl as well, although for the most part they’ve just been getting their asses kicked by Buddy.

I taught my last classes today – and then I realized that I have exactly one month before I have to be ready to go with my next set of classes (several sections of an undergrad course that I’ll be teaching at my university). While I love teaching, it’s always nice to have a break. And, of course, I suspect that my American undergrads won’t be anywhere near as enthusiastic as my Kyrgyz students. Anyway, as today was our last class, quite a few students gave me going away presents. Many of them were hand-made felt souvenirs, although some were store bought. They all looked like they’d been sitting around various homes for a while… but when someone who doesn’t have much to start off with gives you one of their possessions as a present, it means a lot. Of course, between my Toguz Bulak and Bar Bulak presents, I have rather a large box that I’m going to have to ship home. Plus I still plan on doing some souvenir shopping in Bishkek. Oi.

In the interest of cutting down on the amount of crap I have to cart around for the next twelve days (especially since I’ll be taking a marshrutka from Bar Bulak to Bishkek on the 27th) I went through my possessions and got rid of everything (other than gifts) that I won’t absolutely need, either in the remaining 12 days or once I get home. I gave all of my triaged possessions to my host family. Aidai (my Shadow) got all of my teaching-related things, and I gave her my Kyrgyz-English dictionary as well. She was thrilled, and spent the afternoon memorizing texts and teaching her friends how to play my English vocabulary flashcard game.

I was supposed to have one more day remaining here in Bar Bulak main before being shuttled off to the London School’s “beach camp” down by the lake (near the yurt camp where my host family has their yurts and café). Then, this evening, I learned that as per some sort of inexplicable directive from the London School, I will be going to the beach camp tomorrow instead. But, “ours is not to question why” (NPH) and all that jazz. Time to finish packing! As my host family has gifted me with several really lovely scarves, a hand-stitched pillow, and a tea pot, this is going to be a challenge.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Rural Kyrgyzstan’s Water Woes

July 16, 2013

I started thinking about this back when I was in Toguz Bulak, and the thoughts have continued on into Bar Bulak. The round table discussion that we had the other day brought up this topic, and as such, I’ve been thinking about it even more. Both Toguz Bulak (“Nine Springs”) and Bar Bulak (“There are springs”) have no real shortage of water in a literal sense. It kind of pops up out of the ground all over the place. However, despite the fact that there is water about, both places definitely have a water supply problem, and running water exists in neither village.

I’m not too clear on the timeline, but according to the folks in Bar Bulak, roughly 10-15 years ago or so, the UN started a program to provide clean drinking water to the rural areas of the Issyk Kul region (in which both Toguz Bulak and Bar Bulak are located). The project started… and then something happened to the funds. Whether the money was simply mismanaged or blatantly stolen, no one seems to know for sure (although most folks assume the latter). The UN money ran out before the wells were completed, and the UN cancelled the program. Aris, a Kyrgyzstan-based NGO that focuses on development projects stepped up to finish the job. Sort of. They finished installing wells in many villages (including Toguz Bulak), but never made it to many other villages (including Bar Bulak).

 photo aris_zpsd74a2ca8.jpg
This is the Aris logo; you see it on a lot of old development projects
scattered throughout rural Kyrgyzstan.

Let’s examine the results of the UN/Aris project in Toguz Bulak first. Toguz Bulak is hardly a huge village by anyone’s measurement, although it’s several times larger than Bar Bulak population-wise. It’s laid out along a grid, with the houses fairly close together. The UN/Aris program installed one well per block, which in my estimation comes to roughly 24 wells. Fast-forward to the present day. I’d say maybe four of those wells still work as intended. Maybe. Probably about ten work, but poorly. The one on “my” block could only be turned on/off with a wrench. Several other wells throughout the village also had similar methods of being turned on/off. In contrast, several other wells ran constantly, having no shut-off function whatsoever. The rest of the wells in the village simply didn’t work at all.

 photo tbwater3_zps475791c5.jpg
The house in the background is the home in which I lived while in Toguz Bulak. Despite the fact that it is brand new, it has no indoor plumbing. We got our water from the well in the foreground, which had to be turned on and off with a wrench.

 photo tbwater7_zps6e84d376.jpg
Often, when the water pressure was low, buckets would be left in front of wells that were turned on, waiting for the water flow to resume.

The wells were designed to operate without electricity. This is great, since regular, reliable electricity has only recently come to Toguz Bulak. Instead of using an electric pump to bring the water to the surface, the pumps operate on water-pressure. You turn on the spigot, and the pressure forces the water up and out of the well. Great, huh? Well, unfortunately, the underground water supply isn’t that great. Whether it comes from the same source as the nine springs from which Toguz Bulak gets its name, I don’t know. What I do know is that sometimes it runs dry. The fact that there are several wells which run non-stop surely is a contributing factor. Whatever the reason, sometimes the wells are turned on and either nothing – or a tiny little trickle – comes out.

 photo tbwater9_zps4b3c4e59.jpg
This was one of the wells which ran constantly.

 photo tbwater8_zps1fbec514.jpg
As you can see, there's not much left of this well.

We were lucky to have a working well on our block. Many families must cart their buckets several blocks to get water – and keep in mind that this water is used for everything: cooking, cleaning, clothes-washing, bathing, watering livestock, irrigation, etc. That’s a lot of water to haul for several blocks! My host family (and many others) also collected run-off from the gutters of their homes and out-buildings to use for irrigation and watering livestock. Several of the springs were located in a swampy area to the north-west of the village; most people herded their cows and sheep into this area during the day, so that they could graze on the freshly watered grass and drink from the water seeping out of the ground. People made do with the broken wells, although it certainly wasn’t easy.

 photo tbwater2_zps38000316.jpg
One of several water collection containers at my host family's house

 photo tbwater5_zps78a5473d.jpg
One of Toguz Bulak's nine springs

So how did this happen? How did Toguz Bulak go from having one working well per block to the situation in which they find themselves today? Well, this is indeed one of those sustainable development issues. First you must consider that for decades under the Soviet Union all infrastructure changes (for good or ill) were made in either Frunze (now Bishkek) or in Moscow. Locals grew accustomed to making no decisions regarding their local infrastructure; someone from above would always come along and tell them how to do it. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union ­– after decades of being told how from above to manage their villages – rural villages have been rather slow at coming to the realization that they need to take care of things themselves.

A few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union – and while still laboring under the mindset that people from above would solve their infrastructure problems – the locals of Toguz Bulak were suddenly treated to the sort of thing they had come to expect: the UN/Aris well project. The UN and Aris came in from above and donated wells, meaning that the locals no longer had to get their water from the swampy “springs” and melting mountain snows. Unfortunately, all the UN/Aris project did was install the wells. None of the locals were trained in how to properly maintain or repair the wells. No money was provided to the village to cover the cost of maintenance or repairs, and Aris themselves did not provide any maintenance or repair services. Over the years the wells have simply begun to break – and it seems that the locals are still waiting for someone to come from above and solve their water woes.

Now let’s examine the water situation in Bar Bulak. In many ways it is similar to the situation in Toguz Bulak, although there are some key differences. Unlike in Toguz Bulak, the wells in Bar Bulak from the UN/Aris well project were only half installed. If you compare the photos of the wells in Toguz Bulak and their counterparts in Bar Bulak, you can see that they are identical, except for the fact that the ones in Bar Bulak were never fully assembled. Sadly, it seems that at one time, all of the pieces were available, they just needed to be connected; however, this never happened. The wells have never worked, and now most of the parts have either broken or disappeared.

 photo bbwater13_zpscbe18579.jpg
One of the many never-functioning wells in Bar-Bulak

 photo bbwater7_zpsb5cb2b79.jpg
Remains of other wells in Bar-Bulak

 photo bbwater8_zps082bfc1f.jpg
Some wells seem to still have most of their parts.

 photo bbwater9_zpsf8464230.jpg
Others have just become trash-dumps

While Toguz Bulak had its nine “springs” it lacked any central water source. Bar Bulak, in contrast, has a small river running through it, which is both spring-fed and fed from snow-melts. As in many villages (and even Bishkek) the water from this river is routed through the village by a network of ditches, creeks, pipes, and concrete troughs. These miniature waterways (called арык, or aryk) enable the river/spring water to reach every home in the village, where it can be used for any purpose. Yes, many people rely on aryk-water for cooking, in addition to cleaning, irrigation, watering livestock, etc.

 photo bbwater1_zps6e3f213f.jpg
The river, heading for the village

 photo bbwater6_zpsdf1d565b.jpg
One of the many spring-sources for the river

 photo bbwater2_zps77e65cbb.jpg
Yes, there were often fish in the aryks.

 photo bbwater10_zpsb453ca6b.jpg
This was the aryk that flowed past "my" house

 photo bbwater11_zps6823c007.jpg
When residents wanted the aryk water to flow onto their property, some simply dug holes in the side of the aryk, and then blocked them up again when they were finished.

 photo bbwater12_zps86d54c8b.jpg
Other people had built fancy aryk dams that could be opened and closed when needed.

However, not everyone here in Bar Bulak relies on the river/aryk system to provide their water. My host family (as well as several other families in the village) had a hand-pump well installed on their property several years ago. They use the hand-pump well for all water-related purposes except irrigation (for which they use water from the aryk). The water from the hand pump is clean and tasty – they drink from it, so I do as well. (Although given the stomach troubles I’ve had while here, I do wonder about the cleanliness of the water coming from our well.) The nearby neighbors frequently come over to my host family’s property to fill their buckets from the hand-pump, and I would assume the same thing occurs at the other hand-pump-owning properties in the village. It’s quite far from a perfect solution, but it does seem to be rather a step in the right direction.

 photo bbwater14_zps5f448d33.jpg
This is Ryskul, one the neighbor's children,
filling up buckets for her family from my host family's well.

The area where the yurt camp is located down by the lake shore also has several UN/Aris wells, although most do not work at all. Two have been rigged by the locals to produce a slow trickle of water. Locals also believe in the health benefits of drinking the water from the hot springs, so many collect water from the outdoor section of said springs.

 photo ycwater4_zpse0c1da6b.jpg
One of several non-functioning wells at the lake shore.
Lake Issyk Kul has a high salt content, which makes it unpalatable and useless for irrigation.

 photo ycwater3_zpsdb2df7f5.jpg
One of the two wells rigged to produce a slow-drip.

 photo ycwater1_zps9dc4e0d8.jpg
My host sister Aidai (right) after having just filled a bucket of water from the other slow-drip well at the yurt camp.

 photo yc5_zps3760d66b.jpg
The outdoor area of the hot springs, where many people collected water.

I should also mention that the London School’s Beach Camp “hotel” located next to the yurt camp (and where I will be staying next week) has running water, as they have paid to have an electric well installed, although the water pressure varies from excellent to near nonexistent. Such things are available, one just has to be willing to shell out the funds to cover the costs.

I’m not sure what the solution should be for the water woes of villages such as Toguz Bulak and Bar Bulak. Neither village has running water or a reliable supply of clean drinking water available to all residents. Simply donating wells certainly didn’t work. Only a few families in Bar Bulak can afford to have a hand-pump well installed, and the technology for such a thing is inaccessible in Toguz Bulak. In communities where money is scarce, people simply can’t afford to buy well-drilling equipment or pay for its use. The donation of such items/services doesn’t lead to a sustainable solution. So what is the solution? I have no idea, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past two months. What are your thoughts?

(Also, special thanks to my students Ryskul and Alia who helped me locate and photograph the various water sources around Bar Bulak, as well as to Aliman and Murat who showed me the springs of Toguz Bulak.)