Monday, April 17, 2006

3 Years Ago Today

So, I've been lazy the last few days. I had my son and daughter for the weekend and we had softball practice and a lacrosse game on Saturday, and then Easter Sunday. I have a group of half-finished articles that I need to finish and post, I just haven't been focused on completing them.

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.

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:

Me on the north shore of Issyk-kol, view to the north. Over those mountains is Kazakhstan and the city of Almaty.

Lake Issyk-Kol. It is about 30 miles (50 km) across and a little more to the mountains on the opposite shore. Scarcely a wave or a ripple in sight.

Shashlyk at Andrei's humble abode. I got VERY drunk this night, it was one of my last in Bishkek.

The walk (and view) from Kyrgyz Seashore at Issyk-Kol to the nearby village.

Burana Tower, just outside of Tokmok.

Lemon-flavored vodka on the sandy shores of Issyk-Kol.

In Tokmok with Elena's step-grandfather (her grandmother had outlived two other husbands). He said "I look like a good Russian boy". He might need glasses.

Tea with Turkish cookies (or at least the store was Turkish).

At Fatboys, probably waiting for a potato!


andrei said...

Bishkek is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. Issyk-Kul is incredible. Kirgyz people - probably, the most friendly, simple and naive people in the whole of the former Soviet Union. I was told that after "tulip" revolution things became nastier but still I'm looking forward to visit this place again.

Anonymous said...

Wally, did anyone tell you that you look like Dilbert. I mean the tie.

W. Shedd said...

You may want to check out that recent "before" and "after" photos, as regards the state of the city 1 year later.

The mountains in Kyrgyzstan are certainly beautiful, as are the steppes leading up to the foothills of the mountains. I really enjoyed the trip, but I was also struck with how little many of the people have. It is worse outside of the city, which is a large part of what the looting was about last year during the "revolution". People came from the south, marched on the white house, and left the next day after a night of looting with furniture and belongings strapped to their cars.

Issyk-Kol was rather amazing when I was there - the size and stillness gave you a false sense of the distances involved. It really was a giant crystal clear mirror.

I think Almaty would be rather interesting to visit also.

Nope, I hadn't got the Dilbert treatment yet, but given that I am an engineer, it is appropriate. In the past I've been compared to Kenneth Branaugh. I actually do subscribe to an emailed Dilbert cartoon, so I read it almost every day.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this :)

Elena (aka Morrire)

Tim Newman said...

Kygyzstan was for a short while described as the Switzerland of Central Asia. I would love to go there, especially Bishkek and Issyk-Kul. The girls are beautiful as well. :)