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

November 2, 2013 · 10 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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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Megan November 3, 2013 at 5:11 am

I could’ve written a lot of the same post when I left the Arctic (right down to some of the same pros and cons). I’d always told myself that the only way I’d be able to leave and stay away was to leave when I was miserable and hated it. The town had an odd way of bringing people back once they’d left and I didn’t want to be a “lifer” (my brother moved back and forth 4 times I think before he finally left for good).
Four years on and I’m definitely looking at my 6½ years there with a lot more fondness and I’m starting to miss it a little more than I used to.

I hope you enjoy your ‘getting to know you’ time in Ghent and that when the low happens it’s not too extreme :-)
(also hi, I seem to be commenting a lot lately lol)

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2 Kirstin November 10, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Hi to you! I appreciate your comments :) I like feeling like I’m meeting new people through this silly blog. I’m so curious about your time in the Arctic, I’m going to have to take a day and binge-read your Arctic blog.

I think I will miss life in Bishkek, and at one point I did think I could live there forever (that was a short-lived idea) but I’m pretty positive that I wouldn’t want to go back. But I know people who really miss it and seem to always look for a way back. Did you ever think that you could live in the Arctic forever? I’ve had a lot of thoughts about being an expat and actually settling in a foreign land for good, forever, and how it seems the vast vast majority of expats in Kyrgyzstan are there for a year at most, maybe a few years, or only a few months for some people, and it seems like such a strange concept to really emigrate for good. But now I’m in a country where (I think) people do that, settle here for 10, 15, 20+ years or never go back to their home country. Deep thoughts for another post, I suppose.

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3 Megan November 11, 2013 at 3:46 am

There were definitely times I thought I could live there forever. There were also times I was worried I’d live there forever lol.
Most people move up for a year or two contract then leave, others (like my brother) move away & back a few times, and then the people that are there for over 5 years generally stay. I think though in general if you live ANYWHERE for more than 5 years moving away gets more and more difficult.
There were many, many, things I loved about living up there but there were a lot of things that made me miserable. The small town politics really drove me crazy as did not having access to things like an optometrist, or decent groceries. I’m also a huge introvert so I didn’t often go to town events (unless it was work related) because I felt very self-conscious so I’m sure that really cut down on my enjoyment of life up there.
I think if I would’ve stayed in Canada we might’ve moved to Whitehorse or somewhere in the Yukon. And even if for some reason we moved back to Canada (not likely to happen) that might be where we would think of going since I can’t think of many other places I’d want to live (the thriving arts community in the Yukon would be a major draw).

Feel free to ask any Arctic related questions if/when you think of them :-)

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4 Corinne November 3, 2013 at 7:38 am

I started studying Russian language in Irkutsk, Russia—Siberia, and I have to say that I’ve always appreciated how you describe the hardships of being a foreigner in a strange land. I have tried repeatedly to explain the desire you get to fit in…and that even more overwhelming feeling of wanting to speak. There is thrill and excitement to travel, but once you have a daily life somewhere, it gets intense. I could fit in if I didn’t speak in Russian…but I’ll be in Bishkek for four months starting in January, and I’ve been feeling pretty nervous. My Russian is better now though!

Anyway, good luck in Ghent! I’ll keep reading on :D Dutch is interesting—it sounds like English sometimes. I wonder how it will be to learn?

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5 Kirstin November 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Cool that you’re visiting Bishkek! Although, wow, brave that you’re going in January! If it’s possible, you should try to stay longer or go back again, Kyrgyzstan in summer is so wonderful compared to how dreary it can feel in the winter.

But yeah, it is strange, this desire to fit in and not be so immediately pegged as a foreigner. In Bishkek, duh, everybody could see that I was foreign and it was very apparent once I opened my mouth, but people also expected it (if that makes sense). Here, I don’t know if it’s comparable to how I was when I first moved to Bishkek and didn’t know any Russian, but I’m so cautious about my interactions and I try to avoid speaking. And most people speak excellent English here! It’s just that they don’t expect me to not speak Dutch, so it always seems awkward and I have to apologize and reveal myself as an American who doesn’t speak any Dutch yet. Dutch does sound like English sometimes and I toured a house a few months ago where the owner only spoke Dutch and I mostly understood what he was saying. The general idea, at least. I do have a feeling it will still be pretty hard to learn. Inshallah easier than Russian though!

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6 Polly November 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Funny, a lot of these could be applied right to Russia too. Guess that’s the Soviet influence coming in. I have to say though, I hope (for my sake) that your theory isn’t true because I’ve been in Russia faaaar too long and I don’t see another upswing happening, though I would like to leave with a few fond memories.

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7 Kirstin November 10, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Yeah, I’ve heard from a lot of people that Bishkek is very similar to living in a Russian city. If that’s the case, I would bet that by the end of winter, sunshine and (relatively) warmer weather could be considered an upswing. That’s definitely how I felt about Bishkek.

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8 Bryony Smith January 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Hi Kirstin,

I’ve just read your blog with interest – I’m moving to Bishkek on Sunday for 6 months, and it’s been really interesting to see what life out there is like for a 20 something Westerner. I’m really excited but pretty nervous, and reading your experiences has made me realise how much there is to see and make the most of. I’ll be teaching English, and it has been good to see your photos which make the city look beautiful- even the Soviet concrete. Thanks for the insights into the city and what kinds of things I should be preparing myself for! Keep up the excellent writing! Bryony

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9 Hraban January 20, 2014 at 8:37 am

We (my wife, me and our two small children) live in Bishkek now for nearly seven months and like it a lot, with all its hardships. When we left Germany, we promised to us, we won’t visit Europe for the two years of my wife’s contract. And we have a lot of guests – maybe Kyrgyzstan is not so far from Europe as from the US ;-)

When we before left Switzerland after 10 years, I was glad to leave it behind, as nice as it looked there and how comfortable my flat was.

But it’s also clear that we won’t stay forever in Kyrgyzstan (min. 2 , max. 3 years) – if you don’t get paid from abroad, it must be really hard to make a living.

But in our comfortable (financial) situation, I like our ramshackle Russian house and I like even cramped Marshrutkas (we say “Schrutti”); with a child or two you normally even get a seat.

Of course I’m sometimes homesick, but since there is no home to go back to, it’s not so different from my places in Germany and Switzerland.

My Russian is still too bad (and since I’m hard hearing, I got no big hopes); my wife feels her fluent Russian is too bad for work; we’re starting learning Kyrgyz now.

Anyway – enjoy Ghent! (Never been there, but I know a bit of the Netherlands and Belgium.)

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10 Hraban January 20, 2014 at 8:39 am

I forgot: This winter is really nice – we have a lot of sunny days.
But yes, if the sun doesn’t come out for several days, it’s dull and sucking.

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