Bishkek: Three month update on life as a Fulbright ETA in Kyrgyzstan

As you can see, I’ve been doing a great job updating this blog every two weeks like I told myself I would before I left — two weeks = three months in Kyrgyzstan apparently.  I can’t believe I’ve already been living here for almost three months, this year is going by far too quickly but it has been incredible.  Now that I’ve settled down into a regular schedule and winter is setting in I hope to actually force myself to sit down and write since I won’t be exploring the city as much on my days off (Holy run-on-sentence Batman!).  This post may be a bit disjointed because it’s covering a few months of activities, but I’ll elaborate on some of the more interesting things in later posts.

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek

Now, let’s do a recap of what has happened during the last three months.  I flew from Chicago to Beijing to visit a friend for a few days, then went to Astana to reunite with some more friends from my time living in Kazakhstan before flying to Bishkek.  After I arrived, I moved right in to my apartment in the city center, had a day to unpack and buy a few necessities.  My first full day in the country was Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, so I made my way to the square and ended up standing right behind the Kyrgyz president and his entourage, which was a bit of a shock when I realized it was him.  There were many song and dance performances going on, and of course a speech from the president.  I attended with the other two Fulbright ETAs and one other friend for the festivities and to plan for our trip to the other side of the country for the World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata.  This event will have at least one blog post of it’s own, but suffice it to say I am extremely glad that I chose to come to Kyrgyzstan early for the event because it was an incredible way to start the year.

Kyrgyz president on Independence Day
Dancers in Ala-Too Square for Independence Day
Independence Day Fireworks over the square

After the World Nomad Games came Fulbright orientation at the US Embassy.  This was my first experience visiting a US embassy in my five years of travel, and it was certainly a unique experience.  It was nice to hear about the programming that the US government supports here in Kyrgyzstan, especially relating to tourism and education.  After our orientation we also were invited to a welcome reception at the acting ambassador’s house, which is something I never would have dreamed of happening in my lifetime.  

Kyrchyn Jailoo at the World Nomad Games

Once finished with the two days of orientation meetings, I finally began working the following week as an English teacher at the International University of Central Asia in Tokmok.  This city is about an hour and a half drive from Bishkek with traffic, and I ride in a shuttle bus with other faculty to and from the university on my workdays.  The shuttle ride provides a nice opportunity to meet my coworkers and have forced listening immersion in Russian.  This semester I am teaching speaking-focused courses to first and third year students in the linguistics department.  My students are (usually) quite motivated and active in classes, and some of my first-year students have even came to Bishkek one weekend for extra English speaking practice.  I only go to the university twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and spend the entire day at the school.  I get picked up at my apartment in Bishkek around 7:30 AM and get home between 6-8:30 PM depending on the day.

“My Bishkek”

My average weekly schedule outside of work tends to make up for the excessive days off.  I have Russian and Kyrgyz lessons twice a week, though I should frankly put even more time and effort into it because I’ve been improving less than I had hoped.  I also volunteer with the American Corners in Bishkek and nearby Kant.  These are US Embassy sponsored places in libraries around the world that provide free access to all sorts of English language materials, games, talking clubs, lessons, and so much more.  In Bishkek they even have a technology lab with 3D printers and robots to get kids interested in science and technology, which I think is incredible.  Here in Bishkek I volunteer with a college preparatory program for high school students interested in going to the US for university, and in Kant I run a talking club once a week with a fellow Fulbright ETA for mostly schoolchildren, with a few adults who come by to practice as well.

Sunset in Ala-Too Square
Art Market in Oak Park

At least once every other week I make my way to Osh Bazaar to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and practice languages with the vendors (usually Kyrgyz), a few of which now recognize me and we have nice conversations whenever I stop by.  I’ve also been hosting Couchsurfers pretty regularly on the weekend, whether offering the spare bedroom in my apartment, showing them around the city, or meeting up at cafes to chat.  I’ve met so many amazing people hosting that I look forward to continuing long after I leave Bishkek. 

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Vendors in Osh Bazaar

On weekends (at least before it started snowing) I also go hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan to some of the gorges outside of Bishkek, which I’ll also be writing about with more photos that I can fit here.  So far I have gone to a glacial lake called Kol Tor, camping in the valley below said lake, and an incredible canyon in Krasnyy Most.  Later in the winter I’ll probably join one of their winter sports trips to learn how to ski or snowboard at one of the many nearby resorts.  I also took a weekend trip to the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, but again, I’ll save that for a later post.  

Hiking to Kol Tor with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan

That’s all for now; I hope to be caught up with the rest of my posts before Christmas break, when I have a fantastic trip set up that I know I will want to write about as soon as I get back, so if you don’t see a new post by next week bother me until it happens! 

Lenin wants you to visit Bishkek!

Dordoi Bazaar – haggling in Central Asia’s largest bazaar

Bishkek, like most urban centers in Central Asia, is a city of many bazaars. While Osh Bazaar is the most famous of them, Dordoi Bazaar is by far the largest.  Located a few kilometers northeast of the city center, this bazaar is built from thousands of old shipping containers.  Dordoi is the largest bazaar in Central Asia, and one of the top ten largest on earth.

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Inside Dordoi Bazaar you can find literally anything you need.  There are dozens of sections for different goods: shoes, clothes, fur hats, military surplus, traditional clothing, toys, and of course a bunch of places to have snacks when you get exhausted from all the shopping.  I spent about 3 hours just in those few sections mentioned, which probably only comprise a third or less of the whole complex.  There are countless other sections of products I never saw because the bazaar is too large to see in a single day.

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Clothes are far cheaper here than in Osh Bazaar or neighboring Kazakhstan, and high quality Chinese fakes can run for a 10th of the original cost.  For example, I bought two Under Armour shirts for hiking for less than $5 a piece, and I couldn’t see any difference from the original thing.  Souvenirs aren’t so prevalent here, unless you want some Russian military attire, in which case you have lots to choose from (the stereotypical fluffy black fur hats will set you back about $10).DSC_0409

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Getting to the bazaar is fairly straightforward, with many buses and marshrutkas going there from the city center (look for Дордой on the signs).  I went by marshrutka with one of the employees at my hostel, who showed me around for a bit before she had to leave.  Be sure to visit in the morning, as everything starts shutting down around 12:30-1 o’clock.  It’s an incredible place to visit, even if just to see the magnitude of the place and  the amount shops clustered together in this huge area.

Osh Bazaar – getting lost in a maze of shops

With its crowded streets and wide array of goods, Osh Bazaar is one of Bishkek’s most popular attractions.  Here you can find an incredible number of spices, dried fruits, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and even an entire aisle of Kurt (a local dried/salted milk snack).  The bazaar doesn’t only include food though; you can get lost in the maze of household goods, Chinese knock off clothing (ranging from bad fakes to identical copies with the original tags), and military gear.

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While many people find this place unappealing, I visited twice and found it fascinating.  The salespeople are quite friendly, and many spoke some English. However, when I started speaking in Kazakh/Kyrgyz, they were always so surprised that someone from the US knew any of the language and wanted to chat even more.  Even crazier when compared to other markets around the world, when I pulled out my camera to take pictures, many vendors asked for their portrait to be taken with their products!  Walking through one aisle of the shoe section I had almost the entire row ask for pictures and then we chatted for almost twenty minutes.  In the fruits section, a woman explained to me in English all of the different products and let me sample them all since I had never tried them before.  Of course many people were friendly for tourists, but even those people who I told I was just looking around the bazaar were very talkative and nice.

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One of the biggest things I read online before going was that there were many “police officers” (both fake and real) who would try to steal things from you if you followed them when asked for your passport.  During both visits (which were quite long), I never saw anything like this nor had anyone I met during my week stay.  While it’s definitely wise to be aware of the scams, they are not as common as they are made out to be in travel guides and online.  This place is a must see for anyone visiting Bishkek!

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A Weekend Hockey Game in Astana – Barys vs Avangard

Last weekend I got a ticket from a friend to watch the local hockey team, Barys, play in the giant arena near the university campus.  She picked me up at a nearby mall and we met another one of her friends at the arena for the game.  The arena is quite nice inside, and it was absolutely packed with people for this game.  The opening ceremonies with the team introduction and the national anthems of Russia and Kazakhstan were really impressive.  The opponent for this game, which I’m pretty sure was the last of the season, was Avangard, the team from Omsk, Russia.  As someone who knows nothing about hockey, it was an interesting experience to see and hear everything going on during the game in Russian (I still don’t quite understand what was happening).  Unfortunately, the local team lost 3-1, but it was a cool experience nonetheless.  I’ll probably end up going back again next season, especially if my Russian is better (maybe I can figure things out!).  Anyway, here are some shots from the game.

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Barys Arena

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Opening Ceremonies

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Opening Ceremonies

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Final score 1-3

A Cold Autumn Day at Burabay National Park

My first trip out of Astana was to the popular nature destination of Borovoe (or Burabai in Kazakh).  Located just a short three hour train ride away, this is a pretty popular weekend getaway for residents of Astana.  There are plenty of resorts and hotels around the lake which are full during the summer months.  I went with two classmates and we headed out on the first train north, which left sometime around 6 AM.  The train cost only about $3 each way and ran fairly regularly all day.  Once we arrived at the train station in the town nearest to Borovoe, we hired a taxi to take us to the end of the hiking route so that we only had to walk into the town instead of doing the same trail there and back.

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Early morning at the Astana Train Station

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Our first view of Borovoe

Now, the thing about Borovoe is that the weather is entirely unpredictable.  Unlike everywhere surrounding it which is endless steppe, Borovoe has mountains and forests that contribute to its erratic climate.  According to most of the forecasts, the weather was supposed to be fine the entire day, and many friends of mine had been there the previous day with beautiful weather.  When we arrived, it was cloudy and much colder than Astana (which isn’t so surprising considering its proximity to the border with Russian Siberia).  Since there was a cafe at the beginning of the route, we stopped for hot drinks before heading out on the walk.

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Stopping for hot drinks before our hike

Unfortunately, during the time we were inside getting warmed up, it started raining outside.  It was only a light rain and we hoped it would stop after we started walking, so we began the trek into a forested area nearby.  The scenery was lovely, and there were tied rags which are used for religious rituals on many of the trees.  After getting turned around in here, we made our way toward the town.  Of course, the rain came down harder and harder during the next 3 hours to the point that everything was pretty well soaked through by the time we arrived in town.

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Replica of the standing stones found across Kazakhstan

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This stone has some attachment to some ancient practice from what I could gather

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Clouds coming over the trees

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Tied rags symbolize many things in local religious contexts

Once we managed to find a restaurant and get food (and have a few incidents along the way) we made the journey back to the train station and to Astana.  The train station for Borovoe is incredibly cold for being indoors, so we ended up drinking a lot of hot chocolate from a vending machine to keep warm with all the wind coming inside and hitting our still pretty wet clothes.  The train back was pretty late in the evening, and we got stuck with very loud and inebriated soccer fans from a city on the other side of the country who were singing their team’s anthem for hours.  Overall though, even with pretty much everything going wrong that could go wrong, it was still a beautiful trip and definitely one I will remember.

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The famous standing stone in the center of the lake

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Cool root systems on these trees near the lake

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Rentable boats near the famous rock

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Grey skies and grey water

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A cyclist who was also stuck in the rain

Winter Wandering in Astana

As you can probably guess from both the title and the time of year, its wintertime in Astana.  And yes, to answer the question I already know is coming next, it is very cold living in what is essentially south Siberia (but without the trees).  Since its usually grey, cloudy, and windy all day in addition to being cold I rarely go outside and explore the city.  However, this was the first day in the month of so since I’ve been back from my holiday in the US that the sky was blue and not smoggy/hazy, so I decided to go exploring again even though it was -5ºF/-20ºC outside.

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I didn’t exactly go anywhere new or exciting that I haven’t written about before, but the city looks pretty different in the snow.  It was interesting to visit places that are packed with people in the summer that are completely dead in winter.  For example, the viewpoint for the Presidential Palace usually has people walking around, especially in the park right before the stairs, but today it was only me and a security guard.  I saw maybe ten people total walking outside in the park between Khan Shatyr and Ak Orda.  I will say that I had to melt ice off of my face a few times, but it really didn’t feel that cold outside when walking in the sun.  Most everywhere is plowed or shoveled down to the cement, though I did have to trudge through knee deep snow near the Pyramid when I was trying to find a good view.  Anyway, here are some pics of Astana in the winter as a brief update before I catch up on writing about my trips to southern Kazakhstan and Turkey.

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I thought these looked stupid in the summer, but I see why they are here after walking by in winter – so much cooler

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Snow plows in clearing the plaza in front of Ak Orda

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The Pyramid looks impressive surrounded by white

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The city skyline in the distance beyond some natural snow drifts near the Pyramid

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Hazret Sultan Mosque is even prettier in the snow

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The street in front of Independence Square contrasts the blue of the sky and surrounding buildings