Posts tagged Bishkek

More skating in Astana, Kazakhstan

four countriesI suppose many people are watching the Winter Olympics in Korea, some amazing talent there!  Not sure who took this photo of four nations represented but we were skating on a frozen solid river in Astana, Kazakhstan.  On the left is a former Kazakh student, then Wilma from Netherlands, a guy from U.K. who liked to travel everywhere and me.  Seven years ago I was teaching and living in Astana, the coldest capital in the world, second to Ulan Baatar in Mongolia.  Yes, when the winds swept through the northern plains to Kazakhstan you wondered what the weather was like north of us, in Russia.

Didn’t matter the temp or the wind chill, an expat friend of mine from U.K. would cross country ski every day along the river in Astana.  I thought she might have been crazy or part Norwegian but this was her usual thing to do while her husband had some kind of government job.  Wonderful couple, I wonder where they are or if Wilma is back in Holland.  I keep up with most of my former students from NAU through FB.

I’m amazed that I had so many visitors to this blog yesterday, must have been something I wrote or the pictures I put up.  I used to have over a 100 a day when I was actually living in Kazakhstan and talking about the culture and people.  Now I just put up occasional pictures of my life back in Minnesota.  The following is something I see a LOT of on our northern plains.

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Life may be cold here, as it is in Astana, but the hearts are warm and we have memories to go on.  I doubt that I’ll ever get back to Central Asia after having lived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for 1 1/2 years and Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan for 2 1/2 years, over four years.

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People are Passing Away, Towns are Passing Away

Facebook reported the passing away of an American teaching colleague that I worked with in Almaty and Astana. I am sorry that I don’t know more information about this sad event. I was told by another colleague over FB that he died in his sleep. I’m sure there is more to this story than that. He did smoke and so it could have been some complication related to bad choices he made. He was in his late 60s I think.  Anyway, where I live, people keep passing away.  I am in an old established town where all of us in high school were encouraged to get out of town, do better by going to the big cities.

I did better than that, I went to the BIG cities elsewhere like in Harbin, China or Kyiv, Ukraine or finally Almaty and Astana, Kazakhstan.  I should not forget the year and a half I spent teaching in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  I would not count Bishkek as a big city, however. It had not changed much from the time I was there in 1993-1995 to when I went to visit again in 2007 or 2008.   It is holding its own even after the startling spring revolution that happened about five years ago now.  Ukraine had its Orange revolution, I think Kyrgyzstan’s was dubbed the tulip revolution. I can’t recall.  I’m sure I have it on this blog if I went back to look at the exact date and name of the event.

Yes, people are passing away but also small town American is passing away.  They have statistics that show that by a certain date in the future, many more people will be living in the cities than in the countryside.  Why is that?  I would think that if people can live away from the metropolis, if they can sustain themselves through the winter with the right kind of heat and food, they would not have to move INTO the city.  I think it is safer and more peaceful out in the rural areas.  I would think the trend would be to move away from all the people and crime and violence and live in solitude in a small town.

However, what was true over 100 years ago where people were pushing west and getting land parcels for a very good price, now people don’t want to do the country thing. Small towns that were thriving with the railroad as their connection to the rest of the world are withering away.  If they have not created some good industry to keep up employment, then one by one, the store fronts look empty for the businesses downtown.

My hometown has a strong image from the past, we have many old brick buildings that remain. Some elegant ones have been torn down due to lack of money to keep the roof shingled, thus the decay from the inside has made the brick work that looked regal and stable become a liability.  People my age have the memory of what our downtown used to look like, bustling with people and business.  Now, the move has been away from downtown and to one of our city of 8,000 people.  We have businessmen and women who are struggling to have any kind of business downtown since the amazing old high school was torn down and moved to the one end of the city.

The people in charge, those on the city council, the city administrator, mayor and others have to make tough decisions about what to maintain due to our tax base not being as flush with money as it used to be when families had 6-10 children.  Many of those children have left for better jobs elsewhere, leaving the older parents behind in the dying town.  So we have the melancholy problem of people passing away in the towns that are passing away.  Sometimes I do yearn for the big cities where the action is…for right now though, I am happy to be in a small town that minds its own business and doesn’t have great fanfare about much of anything.  I can write that because I am teaching 85 freshmen students how to write. There is adventure and challenge enough in doing that.  LOVE it when the lights go on in their heads about what I am trying to get across to them.  I have GREAT kids, most of them want to learn.

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Twenty-seven Questions and First Impressions of Kyrgyzstan (Part III)

My last part of a letter I wrote to Tanya, dated May 8, 1994. She was a teaching colleague and friend at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota where we taught ITAs (International Teaching Assistants) together.
20) How are you surviving in terms of food, heat, housing and friends?
The food has little fiber or what there is might be peeled off because of uncertainty in the pesticides used. I am back to eating the apple skins if they are good apples. Many people eat sunflower seeds everywhere. There is LOTS of meat here so for all vegetarians who plan to come to this part of the world, think again. Many of the Peace Corps volunteers that I trained last summer had to succumb to the lifestyle here or they were forever in a heat about all the meat that was served. It is simply part of this culture, the nomadic tribesmen herding their sheep around.
In fact, yesterday I was at the market wanting to buy some sheep for the manti [steamed meat dumpling] party I was to have with my Kyrgyz students that evening but there was only beef. On my way home I was walking on the sidewalk of the main drag when I saw a sheep running at full tilt down the main street in the oncoming traffic lane. He was being chased by three-four men. I thought to myself, “that was the sheep I need for my party.” The sheep kept getting away from the men and probably was hit by a car. It is unusual to see a live sheep in the middle of an urban setting, they are EVERYWHERE out in the country. Food is plentiful and the vegetables are seasonal. The winter months there were no cucumbers or tomatoes but now that is ALL that you will see for salads at restaurants for the next six months.
As far as heat, I had a cold apartment but that is because the windows are not insulated well. This is because of poor workmanship. However, the winter months here are mild compared to Minnesota winters. I didn’t suffer too badly from my cold apartment since I had an electric heater and blanket. I love the place where I live, seven stories up with a view of the mountains from the east AND west sides. I pay $130 a month for a four room “flat.”
You asked about friends…I have my teacher friends and I have friends that I made through Peace Corps, the sauna, and also the church that I attend. There are plenty of people here I can go to plus I have e-mail so that I can keep up with old friends back in the States!
21) Have you had to deal with any shortages?
No, not like when I lived in China (1986-88) where they didn’t have sugar for a time or butter at other times. But yes, because they don’t have peanut butter or brown sugar or Stateside items like that, I just bring it with me when I have a chance to go home. We do not have massive shortages that I am aware of like I experienced in China or that they have in Mongolia, for instance. Also, I have money that can buy me more things whereas the local people on their subsistence living could probably tell you about shortages.
22) Have you had many opportunities to get to know any of the faculty there?
Yes, my dean, of course we are becoming friends in a professional sense. Others that I teach pronunciation to, I have had them over for a manti party. I don’t feel particularly close to any of my Kyrgyz teaching colleagues since they often have more than one job to supplement their income. They are busy with family too.
23) Have you been able to make many friends with the locals? As I mentioned before, I have my sauna friends and my landlady is my friend, as is my Russian teacher. I have not invested a lot of time in getting to know their culture by going to their homes and participating in their traditions. It would be a Russified form and not a true picture of the real Kyrgyz.
24) How would you typify the culture? It is a sort of hybrid of Russian and Kyrgyz, more heavily influenced by the Russian communist way of thinking. Perhaps there is some Asian way of thinking but compared to the Chinese I know and living in China, the Kyrgyz are more westernized. By the way, they have a strong dislike for anything Chinese! Carryover of Russia’s prejudice against their formidable border foe.
25) Would you say that it is heavily influenced by Russian culture, Turkish culture, Mongolian or what?
As mentioned already, the Russians have heavily influenced the capital city and the Turkish language has had a heavy influence in the Kyrgyz language. Perhaps if you went out to the countryside, the Mongolian presence would be strong, but I don’t know.
26) Do you feel it is easy to get to know people or do you find the people to be somewhat reserved?
They are fairly easy to get to know and rather “too” straightforward about their opinion sometimes. (Russian influence) They are not reserved like the Chinese I know. In fact, most of the Kyrgyz students I have are quite extroverted and outgoing. Their speaking skills are very good for never having had a native speaker talk to them before this year.
27) How are you looked upon being a single woman?
It is much easier to be single here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan than it was in China. There they thought something was wrong with you if you weren’t married by age 25. Here, for foreigners, they made allowances up to 30. But here in Bishkek they seem to have a more westernized view of life and again this is my views from the people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps in the countryside they would think that I should be married with seven kids by now.
Tanya, that is all for now. Hopefully I have shed some light on the little bit that I know about this Kyrgyz culture. I remember a year ago I had these same questions. So answering them now to the best of my abilities made me think that I have actually learned something about this culture and am happy to share it with you.
By the way, Tanya, your name is very popular here. One of my best friend’s name is Tatyana, she is living in Almaty, Kazakhstan and her friends call her Tanya for short. I hope this has helped you and that you apply for a Fulbright here because they would love to have your expertise…

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Twenty-seven questions and first impressions of Kyrgyzstan (Part II)

This blog continues from the other day where I was asked 27 questions in May of 1994 and I only got up to eight questions with their subsequent answers. My Mom was going through old letters and she had printed out my e-mail that I had sent so it is fun to see what my first impressions were after having lived in Central Asia for almost a year. I had done a Peace Corps training stint in Almaty, Kazakhstan the summer before and was on a Fulbright grant the following academic year in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I was teaching at KAF (Kyrgyzstan Academic Faculty) which turned into another name that exists today.

Here are the following questions in bold asked by my friend Tanya with answers that may still be relevant today:

9) What kind of folk arts can you find? There are LOTS of wall hangings with the peculiar traditional designs of nature woven into them. They are sometimes done on felt or other brightly colored cloth. The carpets are almost always red while the wall hangings will be green and red or gold. The designs of nature are a kind of abstract leaf or bulls horns, mountains, etc.

10) Is there any carpet making or weaving? Yes, I have a carpet that has ALL the colors you can imagine in it and it has the leaf and horns motif throughout. This may be done with weaving felt together. I have also seen other handmade wool carpets but I have not seen much weaving that would be done on looms. These are a nomadic people who worked on carpets or wallhangings for their yurts (collapsable tents).

11) Do you see much needlework in Bishkek? Not the kind of needlework you are probably thinking about that the Hmong do. It is a different kind of needlework which is obviously hand done but it is more like threads of gold brocade on top of different patterns or designs of felt material underneath.

12) Can you tell me more about the courses you’re teaching? Last semester I taught Phonetics which I enjoyed thoroughly and Business English which the students seemed to enjoy thoroughly. They liked what I had to say in phonetics since it was all new to them, old to me since I used a lot of stuff from teaching ITAs [International Teaching Assistants back at the U of M, Minneapolis campus]. The students seem to be geared on business since they know that is their ticket to getting to the States and ultimately helping their country get ahead. Right now I am teaching Reading Lab which is a LOT of work for me and the students seem to be working hard at it too. Reading my home assignments and then answering comprehension questions when they come to class. I also give them periodic vocabulary quizzes based on the vocabulary words I have pulled from their readings. They also are doing extra credit reading by reading Longman classics and then writing reports on that.

13) How much English background do your students have? Near zero to university level. That is what makes my reading lab so difficult is that I have four different levels that I’m preparing for with about two or three different levels in each of the four classes. Arghh! Their background is from the privileged class of Kyrgyzstan so many have been abroad before with exposure to different languages and have been taught at the specialized English schools. We have a wide range with the 38 students we are teaching.

14) How many hours a week do you teach? Ten hours but that means an hour and 20 minutes of contact time but it is counted as two “academic” hours. I have five lesson preps because I teach the secretaries and teachers pronunciation for two of the other that I teach besides the four Reading Lab classes.

15) How much time do you need to prepare your classes? If I told you the number of hours that it took to read the different books, photocopy the ones that are appropriate for the different levels, cut out the extra to consolidate on less paper, photocopy for each class, come up with comprehension qustions, read through again for vocabulary words that might trip up the students, think of vocabulary quizzes, grade the comprehension questions, read the extra credit reading reports…it would prove that I didn’t love my job.  I have NO idea how many hours I spend in front of my computer thinking up exercises but since I enjoy stimulating the students to work, I count it as a joy.

16) Is the level of the university there comparable to an American university?  It is supposed to be, because at the end of their four years they are supposed to get a diploma from the University of Nebraska. However, about half of our students are not cutting it and it is more like teaching at the Minnesota English Center.  It is pre-university and maybe only about 15 of our students would be able to handle the course load of a real university in the States.

17) Do any of the faculty there have a background in EFL or Linguistics? Yes, one of the American teachers has an MA from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The other American teacher is from Brattleboro with an MA from there. The other American teachers have undergraduate degrees with some experience in ESL. No, noone here has a strong background in linguistics which is sorely needed and wanted.  We can always rely on our Kyrgyz teaching counterparts to teach grammar which all of us Americans have a general dispassion for where they have a certain euphoria in drilling the students in grammar. Must be because Russian is so grammar-bound that they have such a zeal.

18) Or do they come from a literature background?  Not sure how to answer that. The Russian influence has brought a certain highbrow attitutde toward scholarly works especially by great Russians. Our school’s approach to learning has been of the humanities where our students are learning Latin their first year. Strange for a business school but we have a real mixed bag of things going on at our school which is a result of changing administrations, etc.

19) Is there any sort of speciality they might be looking for in future Fulbright candidates?  YES, EMPHASIS IN EFL/ESL WITH LINGUISTICS!!!

(to be continued)

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Twenty-seven questions and first impressions of Kyrgyzstan

I had written an update from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on May 8, 1994 to my colleagues and friends who were teachers back at the University of Minnesota English Center in Minneapolis. I will type out the questions asked by my American friend Tanya in bold and my answer follows:
1) Does virtually everyone speak Russian? Yes, everyone in the capital
2) Or do some people only speak Kyrgyz? People in the outlying areas perhaps ONLY speak Kyrgyz. We met a gentleman who spoke Russian poorly because of a strong Kyrgyz accent, this was only about a half hour outside of Bishkek [the capital of Kyrgyzstan]. My experience revolves around the capital so I may not be able to answer exactly.
3) What language do the people use in the markets, banks, schools, etc? They use Russian as the language of trade but the banks are trying to upgrade to English and the schools are teahcing both English and Kyrgyz. The markets is where you hear Russian and it is funny that some of the older vendors will sell things for “one rouble” they have not been able to change to mouthing the words for the new currency of “som.” There have been many changes and the issue of languages keeps the people in a constant staet of flux.
4) Does the younger generation speak any Kyrgyz? Yes, it is in vogue now to know Kyrgyz and very helpful if there is a grandmotehr at home who speaks it around the house. It is to these students’ advantage to be Kyrgyz in the first place and to have a working knowledge of it. The Russian students have a disadvantage now and have to work extra hard to learn it in order to be politically correct.

5) Or have they let go of past traditions?  If you mean other than language, then I think the “traditions” you mean is their faith, their dances, their songs, etc.  Many of the people in Bishkek who are ethnically Kyrgyz will say they are Muslim but do not practice any of the traditions known to be Muslim. They may have funerals or weddings in that tradition but a watered down version.

6) Do people listen to a lot of European and American music?  Yes, I have recognized quite a few American songs here.  Whitney Houston is a big name as are others but since I am not up on who is who in the music world, they seem to be better informed of the latest stars and hits.  As far as European music I know even less but my guess is that they like American music.

7) Or is the local ethnic folk music still appreciated?  I have a Canadian friend who has made it his life ambition to study the three strong instrument named Kosmus (?). He has been studying under ofe of Kyrgyzstan’s better known musicians, and his repertoire is up to three songs now.  He travels in the folk music circles and can tell you a lot more about how well it is appreciated.  I think it is by the older generation. As mentioned before the students I have, seem to liek English songs but then I work with some of the most privileged students in Krygyzstan who have money to buy the latest.

8 ) Can you still find folk dancing?  Yes, I have been to several concerts at their concert hall that shows very vibrant, colorful costumes and beautiful dancing.  A lot of what they show is the glamorized version of country life, riding horses, harvesting, courting practices, etc. One concert that I attended the dancers must have changed into 20 different costumes.  It was wonderful with the Kyrgyz instruments playing the background.  It is not an unpleasant sound like what you find in China with Peking Opera where the clanging and gonging is still ringing in your ears hours later.

(to be continued)

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My Fall of 1994 Reflections in Bishkek

I wrote this letter on October 12, 1994 to my loved ones back in the U.S.  I was writing from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and had my head full of wedding plans back in the Minneapolis area but also when I returned to Bishkek, I wanted to do the wedding all over again.  I forgot how provoked I was with Tatyana, my Kazakhstani friend, who didn’t believe I was willing to fly her and a Kyrgyz girl on my own expense. Back at that time it cost about $3,000 to fly both of them to Moscow, then New York and then Chicago where they took a bus from there to Minneapolis.  Once Ken and I went on our honeymoon, they stayed on for another week or so traveling back together to New York and then home to Central Asia.  As late as October, things were NOT moving on Tatyana’s end of things. Not due to her busy-ness but due to her doubt.

“…I want my Kazakhstani friend, Tatyana, who lives in Almaty, to be one of my bridesmaids.  She simply can’t believe that I would fly her to the States to be a part of our wedding.  It means getting a letter of invitation, a visa, her passport in order, plus the plane fare arranged.  I told her in June to make the necessary preparations by writing friends of hers in the States so she could stay with them after the wedding. I hasn’t happened because of her unbelief and the time for buying airfare tickets is NOW! Because she thinks something could go wrong with her Kazakhstan government not granting an exit visa, she doesn’t want to get her hopes up.  Inertia was winning!!!

People from the Soviet past are steeped in their old way of thinking.  They have been programmed to think negatively. Thinking it will not work…it will not happen.  This fall semester with 60 first year students while there were 40 new students last year, I still have hope for Kyrgyzstan!   I can say that because of reading my students’ journals and homework assignments.  I can look into their hearts and respond to each one with encouragement.  One of my students, named Marat, is proselytizing his Muslim faith to me. (;-)

The downside of being the only American English teacher after all the other ones left from the first year is that I have a very heavy teaching load.  It is like giving an essay test to 60 students and returning their results to them each week.  Each student’s assignment takes about 10-15 minutes to grade.  The decision was made by me to give up my Fulbright grant at the end of January instead of the end of May of 1995.  After returning from my Minneapolis wedding, I will get married again in Bishkek for the benefit of my expat, Kyrgyz and Russian friends.  I’m mostly doing the wedding again for my students.  I will move to Almaty where Ken’s job is and we are expecting great things together!!!

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My Spring of 1994 Reflections of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

Eighteen years ago I was hitting my stride as an English teacher and Fulbright Scholar at a university in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.  I had made foreign friends and also friends with the native Kyrgyz people and those who were Russian but born in Kyrgyzstan.  The following is what I wrote on March 27, 1994 to family and friends back in the U.S.

“Yesterday was a good day at the sauna.  I usually go every Saturday morning from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. with Olga, Lena, Natasha and other Russian women.  We sit and sweat, then jump into a cold pool, then sip on tea and repeat the cycle about five times in two hours.  My friend Olga and her husband Andrey have two daughters under the age of four.  As I was leaving the sauna I thought of my 50 minute walk back home and was favoring my one foot because I had developed a blister on the way TO the sauna.  There was Olga with her husband, in their car and since I live close by, they offered me a ride home…

Yesterday afternoon I went to a meeting with other westerners who gather monthly.  There was a Russian guest speaker who talked for an hour and a half about working with the Kyrgyz people and how the Bible was translated into Kyrgyz. He said that the Muslims became aware this was going on so they got someone to translate the Koran for them. Somehow the man who was working on the Koran got interested in doing the Old Testament and eventually became a hunted man.

When educated Kyrgyz would make comparisons with the Bible and the Koran, they valued the words in the Bible. The remarkable stories of the perseverance of the saints and God’s faithfulness to the people who were hunted down as early Christians must have encouraged this translator.” [Later in my stay, I received from a Kyrgyz friend of mine a translated copy of the Koran into Russian. I had always thought that it was sacrilege to have that book in any other language than in Arabic. They must have bent the rules on that for Central Asia. Not that I could read this translation any better than it was in the original text.]

The following is what I wrote on May 5, 1994:

I just celebrated Easter AGAIN in Almaty with my friend Tatyana [Kazanina].  The Russian Orthodox church has a different religious calendar which they follow. The main reason I went to Almaty was to visit with my other friend Ken. I went with him and another friend of his [he drove his Mercedes] to Kazakhstan’s “Grand Canyon.” It WAS beautiful but cold so we turned around and came back.  Before this trip to Almaty on the public bus (it took 4 ½ hours) I took another “trip.” Let me explain.

I walk everywhere in Bishkek since it a much smaller city than Almaty. But you really have to look where you are going because the sidewalks and streets are laden with potholes, cracks or other such traps.  When I saw the bus for Almaty pulling out of the bus station, I didn’t want to wait for another hour for the next one.  As a result, I sped up my pace and took my eyes off the sidewalk.  There was an inch pipe running from one little garden plot to the next.  That is what grabbed my right foot and propelled me to the pavement with a 30 pound backpack on my back.  I was in pain for the whole trip after that and that night while I stayed at my friend Tatyana’s place. It wasn’t until I got to Ken’s place the next morning where he had plenty of ice packs, that the pain eased.  My knee is better now, a week later, but it has ALL colors of the color chart throughout my leg…”

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