How wonderful to return to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to see our friends again after 12 years away. Wes and Karen have lived in Central Asia for almost 15 years. Wes married us a second time when we did our whole wedding all over again in Bishkek for the benefit of my Kyrgyz students, a month after our REAL wedding in Minneapolis, Dec. 24, 1994. Karen played my Yamaha keyboard for the ceremony since she majored in organ at the university. Wes performed the ceremony with Slava as our Russian translator. Seems we have many similarities in interests and personalities though distance and time has kept us apart.
We talked on Wes and Karen’s radio station for an hour about our teaching activities in Ukraine and after that we went to have supper at their home. They are foster parents to five Kyrgyz children who are bereft of their biological parents. The next day we met up at a Chinese restaurant with another couple we knew from way back when, Don and Elisabeth. They have lived as long in Bishkek as Wes and Karen have. Don taught English at the same university I did when it first opened to 40 Kyrgyz students in 1993. So much has changed in the institution over a decade where the university now has over 1,000 students from other countries besides Kyrgyzstan, it is called AUCA, American University of Central Asia. However, much of Bishkek has NOT changed as dramatically as Almaty has. The difference of what money can do. Almaty has it, Bishkek doesn’t.
I was happy that my friend Karen came to AUCA the next day to hear my talk where I taught 13-14 years ago. Not many students showed for the Russian Politics professor’s class due to a warm Friday afternoon, (typical students) but those who did show up had some GREAT comments related to Soviet collectivization. I showed many of my Ukrainian students’ powerpoints they had put together concerning their grandparents interviews which related to Terror Famine of 1932-33, WWII, Forced famine after the war, collectivization, etc.
One Kyrgyz girl right at the beginning of my talk said that she was amazed to hear anything contrary to collectivization. Her grandfather had profited from it and thought the Soviet Union was the greatest thing since sliced kleb (bread in Russian). After an hour and a half the students clapped and shared more from their hearts about what they knew of this difficult era. They happen to be very privileged kids to get a westernized education, which costs about $2,000 a year. That is, if I have figured out the som exchange correctly compared to our American dollar. Let’s see, I think it is our 3 cents to their one som, or rather $1 = 40 something som. After 10 days in Almaty, I think I had just figured out the Kazakh tenge to the U.S. dollar which I think is about 120 tenge = $1. Try to figure out dealing with tenge currency and change it to som!!!
Looking at photos from our trip, it looked like we drove through North Dakota with rolling hills except for the crescent moons on the Muslim graveyards that are dotted along the side of the road. Our driver both ways, Alex, is from Bishkek and did a fine job navigating all the traffic stops he had to make. Seems the police had his license number because he was pulled over three times BESIDES our hour wait in line at customs. (reminded me of leaving San Diego for Tijuana, Mexico but far worse coming back INTO the U.S.)
Back in the old days during Ken and my courtship, we never had to stop for this border crossing at the Shu River. Ken had to sometimes when he was driving his NIVA car but he could talk his way through. We certainly didn’t ever need a visa to go into the next Central Asian country. How things have changed. Fortunately, we met up with an East German fellow at the B&B we stayed at for two nights help share the car fare. It took only about 3 hours to travel whereas years ago it would have taken four hours or more since the roads used to be in such miserable shape. Some things have changed for the better, some for the worse. Anyway, I told Ken that my zeal to get back to Bishkek has been dampened. Bishkek is a nice place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit there again. We had earlier gone to the Kyrgyz consulate and bought a 30 day visa for $45 each and only used 2 days worth, I thought we could go back again within a month but it doesn’t seem to be a multiple entry visa. Oh well, live and learn.
The adventure over the Tian Shan mountains was well worth it just to reconnect with people and places again!