things I will (and won’t) miss about Kyrgyzstan

November 2, 2013 · 14 comments

in Kyrgyzstan

When I first studied abroad, in Amman, Jordan, I remember our program director showing us a picture of a wavy line, similar to the one below, that cycled through high points and low points. She explained that the curve represented our forthcoming emotional rollercoaster, how we would go through stages of loving and hating Amman, of joyous cultural appreciation and vitriolic rejection. It was all normal.

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As an expat, I’ve seen myself and others go through these stages, and I’ve come up with a theory. I’m convinced that your lasting impression of a place is mostly dependent on when you leave. So, if you depart while you’re riding on a wave of happiness, then you’ll forever miss that place and the perfect image you have of it in your mind. If you leave during a sour spot, then you’ll burn every shred of evidence that you were ever there in the first place.

In my opinion, it’s best to leave right as you’re coming down from a high; you had a good run, but the future looks bleak. Or, at the very least, you recognize that while things won’t be so bad if you stay longer, the future high points won’t reach their previous glory.

I’ve seen both extremes and I knew I wanted to get out of Bishkek before I ended up hating every little thing. I came close, unfortunately. When I left, I’m not even sure if I shed any tears because I was so exhausted of dealing with so many obstacles and I could see that easier times in “easier” countries were so close! I just had to escape this post-Soviet nightmare!

Uhh, anyway. That’s a bit dramatic. With some time, I think I will have more clarity on my feelings for Kyrgyzstan. I don’t think I want to go back… ever. I’ve had my fill of Kyrgyzstan. But, I will admit that there are things I will miss about living there.

And there are things I most certainly will not miss at all.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first. Things I will not miss about Kyrgyzstan:

Expensive clothes. There was always a mark-up on decent, nice clothes; therefore, I never bought any clothing while I lived in Bishkek. I always took a half-empty suitcase to the US and filled up there.

Russian language. Sorry, it’s hard. I became comfortable with it, but nowhere near fluent. The amount of English spoken in Ghent so far has been amazing (although I’m going to start Dutch classes soon).

Being such an obvious foreigner. I stuck out in Bishkek. Even something with my mannerisms or my dress or something would peg me as a foreigner before I opened my mouth and let out some hilariously butchered Russian. I blend in much more easily in Ghent.

Related to that, not once did I ever take a trip to, for example, Issyk Kul, stop at a restaurant along the way and not get harassed by a (usually drunk) Kyrgyz guy who wants to know what we’re doing, where we’re from, if Kyrgyzstan is better than where we’re from, and if Kyrgyzstan is so great then why don’t we speak Kyrgyz? That I will not miss. Or harassment from the police.

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Distance. Kyrgyzstan was far from everything. We had very few visitors come out to see us in Bishkek because it was daunting and expensive to get out there from the US. Additionally, sites in Kyrgyzstan are far from each other and the roads aren’t that great for getting there, like crossing a river to get to Song Kul, or the above-mentioned harassment on the way to Issyk Kul. Europe, in comparison, is so easy (and desirable!) to visit, I’m already overbooked for visitors around the holiday season. I may even have to set up some sort of visitors’ calendar, and a system for organizing said visitors. Wow, this is new for me.

Smoking indoors. Ugh, will not miss that from Kyrgyzstan.

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Winter. I haven’t experienced a Ghent winter yet, but winter in Bishkek was miserable. Let’s be honest. Super, frigidly cold; ice-packed sidewalks that didn’t melt for months; UGH UGH UGH. I never wanted to leave my house, and it just lingered for the longest time. The city still felt so dreary and off-putting even in March (when it was a soppy, muddy mess). I hear the weather is chilly and damp here, so maybe I’ll sing a different tune come March 2014.

Power cuts. Sometimes we had to send our employees home for the day because it was just impossible to get anything done. Power cuts, internet cuts, problems with the phone line or mobile network, water cuts (or worse, just the hot or cold water gets turned off), etc. They were always unpredictable, and I was always unsure if a utilities bill wasn’t processed and maybe it’s just our apartment? Or was somebody digging around in the courtyard and hit an important line? Or is this a scheduled outage? Or is the infrastructure just a mess? (Or, all of the above.) The exception was our giant house, which rarely lost electricity, hot water or heating… because the owner of the house had rigged up all of the utilities illegally (with illegal second electricity sources, etc), we eventually found out.

Cheap Chinese goods. We never had a functional can opener, lightbulbs were prone to exploding (literally bursting into a million tiny shards) when you turn the light switch on (usually about 1-6 months after you bought it), and stuff just broke all of the time. Yes, it was cheap, but yes, I prefer spending the extra money here to buy something that won’t break in a few weeks. In Bishkek, it seemed like that was your only option. And no, the more expensive Turkish goods were still shitty.

Bread. I like lepyoshka just fine, and if it’s fresh then it’s a thing of beauty, but the vast majority of the time they were sad, hard, chewy discs. The bread just never seemed that great. Here in Ghent, I’m happily overwhelmed by how much fresh bread is available, even whole wheat! I never found a good source for grainy, seedy whole grain bread in Bishkek, nor did I ever find whole wheat flour when I was on my bread-baking streak.

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Marshrutkas. Other than my beloved Galactic Marshrutka (which I never actually rode on), I despised these shared vehicles. Cheap, yes, but crowded and jostling and putting this shy gal at risk of having to communicate with a stranger in a language I consistently mangled, and at even bigger risk of getting lost. Did you know Orto-Sai is not just the name of a bazaar, but also the name of a village outside of Bishkek? You don’t want to make that mistake.

But there are the things I will miss:

Issyk Kul. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and a great place for a weekend getaway.

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Tarhun. I was turned on to this bubbly treat late in my stay. It’s super sweet soda that is unique to the post-USSR sphere, usually dyed an unsettlingly artificial green color, with a unique anise/tarragon flavor. Certain brands tasted like cream soda.

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Cheap food. A steamy bowl of lagman for 80 som, less than two dollars? A full meal for less than five dollars per person? And that’s not even the cheapest you can find. I have to completely re-orient my sense of how much things should cost.

Cheap taxis. When we first moved to Bishkek, we would argue with the cab drivers if we thought they were trying to swindle us for an extra 20 som, but we quickly gave that up. Oh, you’d like an extra 40 cents so I can have this entire car to myself, instead of fighting out for a crowded marshrutka (see above)? Yeah, no problem.

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Uniqueness. I’ve had many twentysomething/millenial identity crises concerning this. Living in Bishkek made me a special snowflake! Being an American girl in Kyrgyzstan, photographing and blogging about it, sort of became part of my identity. Is it lame to admit that? I have to find something new to replace that, and I have to let go of my ego and find my new niche here in Ghent.

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My old routine. I’d like to think that I will miss the routine Darwin and I had, the mornings we spent together in our apartment, how we had to stroll around certain streets to avoid the tunnels, the attention Darwin received from adoring babushkas and waitresses, the meals that become staples based on the most easily attainable ingredients. But it’s still early in Ghent, and I imagine that I’ll forget all about it once I set up a new routine here.

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Cameras. I’ve been to several flea markets in Ghent already. The few film cameras that I’ve seen have been uninspiring and/or expensive. Also, there were people in Bishkek who were excited about film cameras, who I could geek out with. I haven’t found evidence of that here yet, although it must exist. It must! At the very least there must be a decent film developer around here somewhere.

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Stalinkas. There is a certain charm to Soviet architecture; they definitely grew on me by the time I left. To the untrained eye they might all look like giant, grey, concrete blocks, but each one had their own unique flourishes and design elements. Plus, discovering which ones still had their Soviet-era murals on them was always a special treat.

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Ala-Too Square. I loved that place. It was an easy meeting point, always an option to go to with Darwin, and always great for people watching and taking photos. Plus, it exploded with people and snacks and photo displays during the holidays.

Trash collection. I remember someone asked me about this in the US once, how do they collect trash over there? There was a neighborhood dumpster that everybody just took their trash to, which was then collected either daily or every few days. The person who asked about this thought it was strange, but now that I’m in Ghent, where there are different, but very specific, bags for different types of trash and recyclables that can only be collected on certain days according to a strict schedule, I’m missing the ease of just depositing all of my garbage in one spot whenever it was convenient for me. (If you’re curious about waste management in Kyrgyzstan [oh golly, of course you are!] then check out this article that was co-written by a close friend who works in that field and is oddly passionate on the subject.)

Heating and utilities. So much cheaper. I don’t even want to think about our first bill compared to the pittance we had to pay each month in Bishkek. And there is something appealing to having the city turn on the heat, full-blast, for you once it gets cold. Our house in Ghent is recently renovated with all sorts of double-glazing and energy-efficient measures, but we’re still trying to be smart about how much we heat the house. Yes yes yes, I’m positive that Bishkek’s heating system is incredibly inefficient (think of all the empty apartments getting full heat throughout the winter), but I’m a wuss about being chilly and dammit, my feet are cold.

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Friends. Duh, this should be obvious. The friends I had in Bishkek made it worthwhile to stay there more than any cheap bowl of lagman could.

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