Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Days 3 & 4 - Song Kul Lake

Here is Azamat, holding up a wild onion. We ate them in sandwiches on the third day.

This was our first glance of Song Kul, which means 'Comfortable Lake'. Legend has it that when Genghis Khan saw this lake he slaughtered nearby villagers out of anger, for hiding such a beautiful lake from him. It is only accessible between June and September, and there are no facilities here except for the yurts and food that the local shepherds provide through CBT.

The lake is surrounded by plains such as the one below, on which Azamat is trying to teach me how to gallop. I never quite got to a gallop, though I dearly wished to. 

We stayed in the yurt on the far left, and were fed like royalty on excellent cream, butter, yoghurt, jams, flatbread, plov, kasha, borsok. These nomads eat a dairy- and carbohydrate-rich diet, but they need it for the extreme conditions under which they tend their animals, particularly in winter. We asked if we could have fresh fish for breakfast, and sure enough, it was waiting for us, fried and delicious! I ate three of the things.

The lake was beautiful: untouched and still. I spent some hours walking and reading and just sitting by it. I finished Marilynne Robinson's 'Home' by the shore. (That's not me, that's Nazgul).

Eventually, it was time to go, so Azamat rounded up the horses and proceeded to gallop all the way back to Koch Kor, leading the horses on ropes, while his brother Nurdin drove us home to Bishkek (about 6 hours) in his rattling, overheated car. The two brothers took as much kumis home as they could carry!
Three notable events occurred on the way home: we stopped at a 4000 foot pass and drank from a glacier waterfall: we came across a herd of yaks: and we were stopped by patrolling policemen who were searching for illegal guns.
Thus ended the Adventure. (Well, not really: arrived back in Bishkek at midnight on Sunday, lugged my bags up seven floors, and realised that I was locked out and that my phone had 4% power left on it, and that I was starting class early on Monday morning. But that's another story for another time). 

I have a couple of free days at the end of July, and I'm thinking of doing a similar trip in Naryn through Shofar Group, which was started by a couple from my own organisation: their aim is to eventually hand over the whole business to local guides. If you're looking for a unique and locally sourced holiday, Kyrgyzstan is the perfect place - so long as you're free between June and September!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 2 - The Jailoo

The second day opened with a delicious breakfast of kasha (a sweet semolina-like dish) and fruit preserves. Along with chai and coffee, we were also offered one of the great Kyrgyz delicacies - kumis! Kumis is fermented mare's milk and it is highly prized: it's sometimes referred to as a 'pipe-cleaner' for its alleged benefit to your innards. Azamat drank it like water; I bravely accepted a cup, tasted, and decided the only way I was going to get through it was to scull it down, which I did, to the acclaim of all. Thus, I add the fermented milk of a horse to a growing list entitled, 'Interesting Foodstuffs I Have Ingested (Intentionally or Otherwise).'

A little way out of Koch Kor, we met our horses - near this tomb to a great Kyrgyz ruler of the eighteenth century.
Also nearby was one of the random Soviet relics that I am growing to appreciate:
 Kyrgyz horses are famous for their breeding and their training. They are small horses, but sturdy, and extremely responsive to their riders. Genghis Khan himself thought highly of them. The horses are usually named for their colour, so I found myself riding 'Mud-Brown'. We got on extremely well. He navigated the rocky climbs and narrow paths with ease, and cantered when I asked him to. We climbed very quickly to about 4000 feet, and the view from horseback was exhilarating; I could easily imagine myself as a conqueror, and understood better the reason why possession of this region has been disputed through the centuries. You can't tire of the gorgeous sweeping mountains, or the flat steppes at the base of them.

We stopped for lunch by a glacier river, eating fresh lapyoshka, salami, smoked cheese and dried apricots. Here are Azamat and Nazgul, our delightful guides and friends:

 We reluctantly left the valley and continued riding for several hours. Finally, as the sun began to set, we reached an isolated yurt on the jailoo (the high summer pastures) which was part of the CBT program. We were immediately settled inside the yurt and fed fresh borsok and yoghurt.

I made friends with two of the children and we went and played in the hills for a time. They made me posies of flowers and brought me wild onions to eat: I used my three words of Kyrgyz to great effect, and they showed off their magic tricks and animal sounds.
Then, as dusk began to set in, the jailoo took on new hues and beauty:
 After an excellent dinner and a good sleep under piles of tushuks, the dawn was bright and warm. The daily milking of the mare was an interesting beginning to the day. (Can you spot the snow?)
 But then, that's Day 3, and I'm exhausted after many hours of Russian. I learned fruits and vegetables today: also, I can count to 10,000, no mean feat when you consider that this time last week I could only count to 10. These Russian teachers are old-school and they don't mess around. If I don't do my homework, they will make me feel like a naughty child.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Day 1 - Koch Kor

I recently got back from the most delicious adventure, and I must write about it immediately. The obstacle is that I have four hours of Russian language classes every day for the next month, which I started today, and pretty well all my brain cells are rushing to the sight of this endeavor. So, I've decided to break the adventure down into itty-bitty pieces.

Kyrgyzstan has a fledgling tourist trade: 'industry' is not quite the word for it, yet. This country has extraordinary landscapes, hospitable people, unique cuisine, but it lacks the means to advertise itself to the world. For my part, and the part of the other foreigners who are fortunate enough to have tumbled into it, this is a pleasing circumstance. I and my friends, C & E, arranged our trip through CBT (Community Based Tourism), a splendid organisation which facilitates yurt stays and hikes and treks and allows people to enjoy the hospitality of Kyrgyz families, while also providing such families with some much needed income. Our guide was Azamat, a young man who works night shifts, studies linguistics, and happens to have outstanding horsemanship. He also brought along his girlfriend Nazgul (yes, Tolkien lifted that name from Central Asia). They picked us up in Bishkek on a sizzling hot day, so naturally there was a traffic jam on the way out; but once in the countryside, the air cooled considerably. Our first overnight stop was in Koch Kor, a sizeable town where Azamat's parents live and provide CBT hospitality. Our very first sight was this donkey! Donkeys are so cute, but I restrain myself from obvious expressions of delight because the donkey is the equivalent of a pick-up truck, and to go all gooey over such a creature would incur quizzical looks. There were also the obligatory relics from an earlier age.

 We enjoyed Azamat's family very much. Indeed, it's rather a beautiful thing to see a traditional Kyrgyz family in action. Three generations living under one roof, including a fat-cheeked baby called Adiz who was the apple of everyone's eye. We were served endless cups of chai around a low table, along with fresh borsok (fried dough), fresh cream and butter from the family cow, homemade preserves and a big potato and mutton stew. Following this, Azamat's mother showed us some of her crafts, including a rather astonishing tapestry-like creation of Lenin's head: (Lenin was, and still is, a very important figure to the older generation).

We walked around Koch Kor for a bit and were struck by the children playing in decrepit old Soviet-era playgrounds and schoolyards. They were very happy to play and have their pictures taken, and were pleased to be spoken to in the few words of Kyrgyz that we knew.

I'll stop there, because I have to do my homework (homework!) which includes, but is not limited to, a list of 40 vocabulary words. Part 2 tomorrow, then: folk heroes, Kyrgyz saddles, and some of the loveliest scenery you ever saw.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Song Kul

I'm headed here for a couple of days on a horseriding trek. Apart from an encounter with a pony when I was five, I've never ridden, so imagine my excitement and trepidation! It's a mixture of 'squeeee!' and 'eeep!' I'll be sure to write all about it when I return.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Farther Along" - Josh Garrels

I'm adding Josh Garrels to my Bishkek music collection. Please,  go to and download his new album for free. Listen these lyrics - gorgeous.

Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
So, cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by

Tempted and tried, I wondered why
The good man died, the bad man thrives
And Jesus cries because he loves 'em both
We're all cast-aways in need of rope
Hangin' on by the last threads of our hope
In a house of mirrors full of smoke
Confusing illusions I've seen

Where did I go wrong, I sang along
To every chorus of the song
That the devil wrote like a piper at the gates
Leading mice and men down to their fates
But some will courageously escape
The seductive voice with a heart of faith
While walkin' that line back home

So much more to life than we've been told
It's full of beauty that will unfold
And shine like you struck gold my wayward son
That deadweight burden weighs a ton
Go down into the river and let it run
Wash away all the things you've done
Forgiveness alright

Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
So, cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by

Still I get hard pressed on every side
Between the rock and a compromise
Like the truth and pack of lies fightin' for my soul
And I've got no place left go
'Cause I got changed by what I've been shown
More glory than the world has known
Keeps me ramblin' on

Skipping like a calf loosed from its stall
I'm free to love once and for all
And even when I fall I'll get back up
For the joy that overflows my cup
Heaven filled me with more than enough
Broke down my levees and my bluffs
Let the flood wash me

And one day when the sky rolls back on us
Some rejoice and the others fuss
'Cause every knee must bow and tongue confess
That the Son of God is forever blessed
His is the kingdom, we're the guests
So put your voice up to the test
Sing Lord, come soon 

Farther along we'll know all about it
Farther along we'll understand why
So, cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
We'll understand this, all by and by 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Holidays Commence (with a Potato Gun Hold-Up)

While my Melbourne friends are shivering through a glum, wet winter that is unenlivened by snowfalls, I am racking my brain for ways to keep cool. The sun is beginning to bake the city, and I've already got a patchwork of lobster-red bits from where I've forgotten to put on sunscreen. (Having a quintessentially English/Irish complexion doesn't usually bother me, but there's a limit: we delicate white-skinned types were not made for blazing summers in steppe regions). There's a lull in berry production right now, too. I'm given to understand that the raspberries will be out shortly, but the plums are still too sour for eating. 

My recent posts are a bit dismal, aren't they? This place needs brightening up, so I would write more along jolly summer lines - but I had another frightening encounter this morning!  I went out to buy some lapyoshka (Russian flat bread) for breakfast. On the way back, I rounded a corner and was confronted by the sight of a teenage boy pointing a black handgun at another boy pressed against a fence. For half a petrified second that felt like much longer, I contemplated my options, which pretty much consisted of backing around the corner. Before I could move, he pulled the trigger, and the gun made a sound like the old potato pellet guns my brother used to have: they were playing. Big teenage boys playing with toy guns. When my heart started beating again, I walked on by with as much casualness as I could muster.

I leave that little morning snapshot with you. No comment.

I began watching Lord of the Rings last night. Half an hour in, I was overwhelmed with the desire to read the trilogy again - it's been a couple of years since my last foray - so my other errand this morning was to go into the school library and borrow them out. I also borrowed out the Narnia books and some Sonya Hartnett, thus regressing many years into my reading history. I imagine I shall spend the rest of the day reading compulsively. This is what being on holidays should look like - good books and movies and intermittent adventures. Now if only my friends were within walking distance!

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Resumption of Daily Life

Upon reaching into my backpack to pay a taxi driver last night, I discovered that my sunscreen tube had popped open and smeared white goop over everything. I don't know if you've ever tried to clean sunscreen off a leather camera case or a felted purse, but it's one of life's mundane tasks. My trusty Macpac will never be the same again.

Taxi drivers in Bishkek, by the way, are expert fleecers. Even if you negotiate a price beforehand, they will often try to extort you. For instance, on Saturday night, a driver tried to charge us an extra 100 som for our luggage, even though he hadn't helped us get it in or out of the car. He also argued (semi-convincingly) that because at one point he'd had to drive down a road that had turned into something like a river, we should pay him still more. However, I had a Swiss German speaker with me, and if you haven't heard the law laid down to a taxi driver by a Swiss German speaker, you've missed out on a deeply satisfying experience.

I'm in my new apartment now, and besides a leaking pipe in the bathroom (which may explain the irate man from downstairs who thumped tenaciously on the door yesterday) it's very comfortable indeed. I'm a bit further out from the centre of the city now, in a region called Восток пять (pronounced Vostok Pyat), or East Five. There's a nice feel about it; there's a communal basketball court (never mind the weeds, cracked concrete and rusty hoops), little magazins scattered about (a magazin is kind of like a corner shop), kids everywhere. Hopefully I can find a decent bazaar close by - will go exploring once I've finished my unpacking. 

My mail still goes to the school address. In case you were wondering. Also in case you were wondering, I'm doing fine. Last week's horrid encounter seems like an age ago, and I had some helpful chats with people while I was away at the lake. However, though I haven't yet processed this, I think perhaps a longer lasting effect of it will be my attitude to Kyrgyz men, which is something that I will need to think carefully about since there are still twelve months ahead in which I will need to relate to them a fair bit.

I have a swathe of emails to cut through. I love getting emails, and I love writing replies, but I'm not feeling particularly efficient or articulate right now, so it may be a while before I get to the other side of them.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


All's Well

I got back from Issyk-Kul last night and found a bunch of emails and comments awaiting, for which I send my heartfelt thanks into the ether. I'm in a new apartment in a different area of Bishkek, which has a Fort Knox-ish air about it. I'm very well, and have just had an encouraging week with lots of like-minded people and some good books. I will write more when less tired, but just wanted to say - you are God's blessing to me, friends!

Friday, June 10, 2011

It's Not All Rose-Coloured Glasses

Over the course of writing about Bishkek, I've focused on the beautiful and the weird aspects of life and culture. Snow, springtime, strawberries and so on. And in the process, I convinced myself that life here could be pink and fluffy if only you searched hard for the good stuff. Well, today I've been rudely shaken out of my blithe perspectives on Kyrgyz life and culture, particularly the menfolk. And I'm still shaken, despite having been plied with beer and vegemite toast in the intervening hours. Here's what happened.

This coming Sunday, I'm moving out of my apartment and into a newer one which I'll be sharing with an American colleague. I spent most of today making piles of things and throwing out junk.  (It's amazing how much one person can accumulate in five short months)! Anyway, at about 5 pm my landlord came by. This in itself was unusual, since most of my dealings have been with his wife, and he's been the surly one. Still, he seemed friendly enough, and wanted to say goodbye, so I invited him in and we had a chat. After a couple of minutes, he invited me to have dinner: I asked if he meant with his wife, and he seemed to concur. Despite the slightly out-of-character invitation, it seemed like a good chance to get to know them better, so I acquiesced and we left the building. A couple of steps out of the apartment, however, and I realised my mistake. He'd meant dinner in a restaurant, with just him; worse, he was clearly drunk, and very grabby. He kept touching my arm and asking whether I had any men friends. Furious with myself for not realising his drunken intentions, but wary of his reaction if I were to cry off, we started walking down the street while I racked my brains for a way out. He ducked into a magazin for some cigarettes, at which I pulled out my phone and called a friend, babbling frantically about the situation. Before she could give me advice, he came back out, so we continued to walk for a bit. Unbeknownest to me, however, a Nigerian man (strange enough in itself!) had overheard my rushed phone conversation, and he followed us for a time. After a block or so, he pushed himself aggressively between us, and started to tell me to be careful. He was pretty drunk himself, and my landlord pushed him away: he pushed back, and they began to shout and push violently at each other in earnest. Even for Bishkek, it was a bizarre sight, this massive African and my Kyrgyz landlord with his gold teeth! It drew quite a crowd. I interjected, loudly, that I was going to leave now, and I did, fast. My landlord protested, but was now too embroiled in the fight to stop me.

After I'd walked a couple of blocks, however, and called the same friend to blurt it all out, my landlord came running after me with drunken lurches, and again I mentally kicked myself for not taking a different route home. This time, it was different: he made some suggestive gestures, stroking my arm, and even took hold of it, trying to steer me towards a taxi: if he'd really tried, he could have pulled me into it. I firmly declined, and planted my feet, and eventually he seemed to believe that I was scared of the African and that's why I was refusing. After about five minutes of aggressively negotiating, he let me walk away, shouting that he was going to run back and fight that 'nigger'. (Same word in Russian, apparently). Shaking with relief, I went to the apartment of a male colleague who lives close by. He gave me beer and sympathy, and we concocted a plan whereby he would accompany me back to my apartment, I would pack an overnight bag, and we would take a taxi together to another friend's place, who could put me up on a couch. So that's what we did, and that's where I am.

I'm one of those people who walks around after dark, unable to believe that anyone would want to hurt me. And yet, if it hadn't been for the good Nigerian giant, I could be in a dreadfully serious situation right now, and one which I walked right in to. Am I careless? Do I walk around in a bubble? That Kyrgyz man, I'm almost certain, went home and took it all out on his wife, and that could have been avoided if I'd been more cautious in the beginning. Kyrgyz men are given to drink, be violent, and to exercise authority over women. I knew that before, but still assumed the best. All I can do is thank God for the intervention, and pray for discernment in the future. It doesn't do to assume the best in this country, or anywhere; for all men, everywhere, fall short of the glory of God. Perhaps assuming the worst isn't an unrealistic position - perhaps it's the position of a person, sans rose-coloured glasses, who sees the world as it truly is.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Inkling Suspicion

Someone observed recently that my writing has evolved since I've been in Kyrgyzstan: apparently it's taken on new 'humanity and warmth'. I like that. (Although perhaps it means that my writing was robotic and icy before, which is worrying). It's certainly true that the daily exposure to other peoples' privations and sufferings is changing me. It's changing my priorities and the way I think about the future. It's changing my place in the world and my relationship with the maker of the universe.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Now, I was (and still sort of am) a refined inner-city Melbournite in possession of a good job that provides a reasonably disposable income; I was able (and will doubtless be able again) to indulge my penchants for good coffee, independent designers, organic markets, The Sunday Age crossword, arthouse cinemas - oh, you know the type. It's a beautiful life in many ways. I wrote about it here. But if I'm honest with myself, it wasn't particularly fulfilling; I always had this inkling suspicion that I should be elsewhere, doing otherwise. Yet because I was so very comfortable and surrounded by pleasant things, I ignored the inkling, merely appeasing it from time to time by tithing and making gifts of money to worthy projects. And I certainly didn't compromise on daily coffee or good shows or new books in order to be more generous with my time and money.

In the last couple of months, I've had the opportunity to examine that inkling suspicion from different angles, and it's taken on the proportions of a giant realisation, which is this: I don't think I can return to that pleasant, selfish life. (And when I call it selfish, I'm only describing what I made it to be. I'm not judging the many inner-city people I know who live with integrity and generosity. I just know that I didn't live that way). I'm not about to make a big announcement: I'm not about to tell you that I'm devoting my life to orphans or the homeless. All I'm saying is - it's possible. I want to have God's heart for justice and mercy, now that he has shown me so clearly what is good. And indeed, my heart is different; it is more malleable, softer, quicker to act. God, in his goodness, is delivering me from certain of my vices.

How these new inclinations will be manifested, I don't exactly know. But I do know this: if, in a couple of years, you find me drinking lattes and navel gazing in my renovated Yarraville home, making plans for the theatre - you would do me a kindness by opening up the book of Micah and directing my attention to this blog post.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Chickenskin Couple

I feel like a Great White Western Whale sometimes. (I think I just cleverly conglomerated the names of a shark, a whale and a wall in Jerusalem). As an Australian of above-average height, unruly hair and fairly substantial mass, I tend to stand out around here. Kyrgyz women are uniformly slender and petite with good hair and the ability to daintily navigate uneven footpaths while wearing high heels. Me, I trip and scuff my Birkenstocks on the cracks and generally blunder my way around the city, acutely aware of my big limbs and bad posture. I have to crane my neck at unnatural angles on marshrutkas. Even at the school where I work, the chairs and desks are built for people smaller than I, so that my knees have a permanent technicolour array of bruises.

This awareness is heightened when I spend time with the families of the Korean students I teach. Last night, high school students, teachers, the graduating class of 2011 and their families, all gathered at a Korean restaurant to celebrate. Over half of our students are Korean, so it was an appropriate venue. The food was delicious, the speeches touching, the company superb. However, it did bring out the GWWW in me. First of all, as a GWWW, it is difficult to sit on the floor around a table gracefully. One is forever checking that one's jeans are not showing unbecoming bits of one; one is knocking the knees of one's neighbours every time one awkwardly changes position; and one is subject to cramp at inconvenient times. Secondly, as a GWWW who prides oneself on one's use of chopsticks (as GWWWs, in their self-satisfied way, often tend to do), one is put to shame by the effortless ability of one's neighbours to clean every grain of rice from their plates, even as one's own chopsticks are scrabbling round the plate for ten minutes after that last elusive mouthful. Finally, the GWWW is put to shame by her grubby Shrek-like feet, because she forgot that one takes off one's sandals at these things and had spent the entire day walking.

Anyway, I exaggerate for comic effect; it was really a lovely night. I was reminded anew of God's intricate and perfect plan, and the way that he lavishes his blessings on this school. Many people spoke, including some of the Korean parents. There were a couple of phrases in their speeches that were uniquely Korean, including a "chickenskin couple": this refers to a couple who are so attuned to each other and to God that they cause goosebumps, or 'chickenskin', in the people around them. I thought this was a beautiful phrase, and a distinctly Asian one. There was something so delicate in the way it was used. (Although it was translated initially as "chicken" which was perplexing for a time). The Korean couple being referred to are gorgeous people: despite having an eighteen year old son, the wife has dimples and the complexion of a child, while the husband has an irrepressibly cheeky look. They've served here for fifteen years, raising a family and working hard in the community. The wife gave an amazing testimony of thanks and praise to God for bringing her family to this harsh country, and indeed she and her husband and children are a vibrant testimony to grace. I cried a little as she spoke (I've been crying a lot these last few weeks, with so many goodbyes), and gave quiet thanks for this chickenskin couple and their beautiful children. Those two kids, by the way, are going to change the world, with their soft hearts and passion for suffering people. You heard it here first.

My friend Katya was dunked today, in a shallow blue wading pool. I took her and another friend, Tonya, out for lunch afterwards. We went to Bishkek's one and only Mexican restaurant (this city is full of surprises) and ate the Kyrgyz version of fajitas. She's graduating from local university next Saturday, and I'm going to that ceremony too. I'm glad to have fallen into friendship with these two girls - it just sort of happened. Both new believers, both hungry to learn and eager to teach me about culture and language. Initially, the idea was that I would do a study with them and be a mentor, but it turns out that I'm learning more from them, as is so often the case. (Even GWWWs, who often think they know more than the daintier fish in the sea, need to be humbled from time to time).

In the spirit of barnyard fowl analogies - you know how chickens can sometimes run around after being beheaded? That's kind of what I just did. There's a week of school left and I haven't got two brain cells to rub together - but somehow, through a freakish combination of sensory memory and ingrained habit, I just constructed a blog post out of reasonably coherent sentences. Of course, I may have just ruined their impact through a poorly chosen metaphor.