In the meantime, I just realized that 3 years ago today, I was flying from Boston to JFK to Sheremetyevo ... doing that annoying transfer from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1 ... and waiting until evening to fly via Aeroflot to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The purpose of my trip was to meet my long-time correspondent, Elena Skochilo and her family. I suppose I was crazy to make the trip, but it seemed like a unique opportunity to see a part of the world that I considered rather remote.
It was a hell of a trip. So many unusual details that I still recall - such as the blonde woman behind me in the check-in line at SVO Terminal 1. She was an ethnic Russian who was originally from Bishkek. She and her husband had moved to London some years ago; apparently he was a fencing master. She was absolutely shocked when she saw my passport (she was looking for it as she stood behind me in line). I realized only afterwards that she was trying to guess my nationality while waiting in line. She was really very amused that I was traveling to Bishkek (of all places). She couldn't stop laughing about it (wasn't the last time that a Russian would laugh about my making this trip).
Once in Bishkek, I rented a flat for about two weeks - not too far from downtown. It was an interesting trip: finding myself jumping at the sight of rats crawling over garbage in the apartment building alcove, crammed into marshrutka, enjoying a family meals Russian-style (first course with vodka), walking around downtown on Lenin's birthday (how ironic to have a Coke and a smile on Lenin's birthday), traveling to Tokmok on Easter, tapping eggs with Elena's babushka, drinking lemon-flavored samogon, making a short trip to Burana Tower.
I also had few days at Issyk-Kol lake, which impressed me with its size and absolutely stillness - rather like the world's largest mirror. This deep and remote freshwater lake is supposedly where the former CCCP navy tested their most secret of submarine and torpedo technology. We stayed at the lake-side resort where the Russian national swim team was training. The facility served food in Soviet-style cafeteria setting - you had few choices and the diet and quantities were fine, but spartan.
This trip was also my first exposure to some of the crazy and also interesting ideas that people of the former Soviet Union have regarding the US. For example, I was cornered by a friend of Elena's sister-in-law, and questioned in broken English. She wanted to know if it is true that in the United States, women can work and their husbands don't expect them to necessarily stay at home. This girl was married and apparently quit her university studies at her husband's insistence. As I kept talking to her, she leaned in closer and closer, and I began to suspect she was about to climb into my lap and start kissing me out of gratitude and excitement. Little did I know the seed that I had planted - six months later she left her husband and moved to Ukraine (although I did hear that they got back together after that).
There was also this idea that if a Russian married an American and had children, that the US government would prevent the children from ever returning to Russia, etc. How that topic came up, I'll never know. I had to explain that it was extremely unlikely that the "government" (federal, that is) would ever involve themselves in child custody. The laws for US citizens versus permanent residents would be the same: divorced parents typically can't move more than a certain distance away from each other, without some agreement between them.
Bishkek is a small city, but we visited most of the best that it had to offer. This included restaurants in the downtown, including a cafe known as Fat Boys. Elena thought it was owned and operated by an American, but turns out he was quite Australian (I knew it instantly but she couldn't pick out English accents). I was introduced to the Russian concept of a baked potato as a meal (stictly side dish in the US). Of course, Russians also will drown their baked potatoes in all kinds of cheese and smetana and other things that are somewhat less common here. We also went out to the Old Edgar in downtown and watched some Kyrgyz acoustic band playing Beatles songs (very amusing). It was obvious that they were singing phonetically. I happened to meet a graduate student from Houston (and his wife and daughter) who was in Bishkek studying the Kyrgyz tongue (was his thesis topic, apparently).
I walked around most of the time feeling out of place and like a giant. Unlike in Russia, almost everyone there is rather short - even the ethnic Russians. We pushed and crowded our way through the Osh market - an assembly of empty truck or train canisters. I had a $20 bill stolen while trying to change dollars to soms. I learned the importance of keeping your shoes clean (I've never seen such dusty dirty streets). Kyrgyzes have the same nasty habit as Chinese - they spit everywhere they walk. Apparently they are of the belief that it is good for the health.
It was a great trip, but not something I would recommend to the meek or those who can't handle some discomfort or inconvenience.
I've gotten a good response to this posting, so I'll post a few more photographs below:
Bishkek Kyrgyzstan Issyk Kol Tokmok Samogon Travel