Last spring, I finally got to travel in Kyrgyzstan. On the weekends in April, colleagues and I taught writing workshops for teachers at universities in the different provinces. The itinerary for April: Talas, Karakol, Osh, and Jalal-Abad. At last, out of Bishkek to see Kyrgyzstan! The real Kyrgyzstan, I was being told.
The first destination: Talas.
Talas is a small and remote town in northwestern Kyrgyzstan with a population of less than 35,000. The Talas valley is one of the country’s agricultural centers, famous for its apples and beans. Its historic trade relations with the nearby city of Taraz in Kazakhstan have greatly suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the establishment of new national trade barriers. The Talas region is also significant for Kyrgyzstan’s self-definition and invention as a nation and for its cultural and political history: it is said to be the birthplace of Manas, Kyrgyzstan’s epic figure and laboriously constructed national hero. Chinghiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous and beloved literary figure, was born in Sheker, a village in the Talas valley. And it was in Talas, where the 2010 Revolution started.
The city of Talas is cut off from the rest of the country by massive mountain ranges reaching up to 3, 350 meters. During the winter, the mountain pass is closed, so then the only other (and shorter) route between Bishkek and Talas is through Kazakhstan, which requires transit visas for foreigners. But now it’s April, and the taxi to Talas is waiting for the trip over the Kyrgyz mountains that should take six to eight hours from Bishkek.
On the Road (to Talas)
My colleague and I climb into the back of the old Mercedes Benz with the cracked windshield and a red heart and stuffed animal dangling from the rearview mirror. Cracked glass and red and white plush: for the next nearly eight hours, this perspective will frame my vision of Kyrgyzstan. Curious what comes to mind as I feel the first of many fear-induced adrenaline surges that day: isn’t there a song with the title “Love Will Keep Us Alive”? Dangle on, little red heart.
I search in vain for the seat belt. Laughter all around. What was I thinking: a seat belt in the back of an old car in Kyrgyzstan. Taking taxis almost daily, I should know by now. In rare cases do drivers wear their seat belts; they usually put them on, or pretend to do so, when they see the police doing roadside checks; an everyday occurrence in Bishkek and known to be the pretext for the common practice of bribery. People in Kyrgyzstan despise policemen for the ruthless, everyday extortion and made-up charges in plain sight. Passengers almost never wear seatbelts. I guess I won’t either, in the taxi to Talas. Count on the Eagles for reassuring wisdom in moments of distress: “Sometimes you have just got to let it ride.”
It takes almost two hours before we start climbing the mountains. During the first hour and a half of the trip, before we hit country roads leading up to the mountains, we drive through small towns lined with shopping stalls and bazaars. The Kyrgyz equivalent to the American strip mall. It’s busy shopping, on a Friday afternoon. Every town we pass seems to have a (no, the) Lenin statue in the central square, often painted silver. Lining the main road are villages with traditional Russian architecture: small, old, one-story houses with brightly painted wooden windows, shutters, and decorative carvings. And we pass a lot of bus stations that originate in Soviet times: plain cement structures with the most fabulous and outrageous designs and colors, from the shape of a Kalpak (the traditional Kyrgyz felt hat for men) to modernist straight lines and geometrical patterns, to elaborate yet fading mosaics, to Kyrgyz nationalist and Soviet socialist themes. An aesthetic and cultural treasure trove across Kyrgyzstan: this, I swoon, would be a fantastic photography/book project. The problem with this ingenious plan is that I would risk my life and that of a driver stopping on these dangerous roads to snap pictures. What strikes me most is that every town and even village that we pass -this I observe in all regions of the country that I travel to- has a new mosque; at least one. Even in the remote mountains, in the vast expanse of land, newly built, modest mosques with metal sheet used for the domes are a common sight:
Driving in Kyrgyzstan is dangerous. Even taking taxis in Bishkek is stressful, every single time. I had heard about the frightening highway accident statistics and related fatalities, and it doesn’t take long for me to realize what infrastructure and car conditions and motorist behaviors cause them. I cannot suppress my audible gasps for air and my wincing in light of the mere inches that separate our car from others in front, behind, and next to us on narrow and largely unmarked mountain roads and from the steep decline that the window on my right exposes. No route for the faint of heart.
Blurry memories of objects way too close, passing by way too fast.
A resigned “niet!” when the driver embarks on yet another passing maneuver that I fear might be the last. My colleague tries to calm me: “Trust the driver from Talas. He knows the mountains.” With this, I give up and give in. In fact, hearing stories of Mashrutkas (minibuses) inching their way up and down these mountains in snowstorms during Soviet times make me almost appreciate this ride on a clear early spring day in April. Almost. The higher we get, the more cars and trucks get stranded left and right on the side of the road, which has no sides to speak of. Who helps them out, I ask, in these dangerous spots, unsecured, especially in the dark, and in the obvious absence of a Kyrgyz equivalent to AAA or ADAC roadside assistance? They call friends, I am being told, or taxis deliver parts from Bishkek. And, they are very savvy, fixing their cars. Nearing the peak of the mountain, somewhere right between Bishkek and Talas, I am trying very hard to control my mind and not to picture us standing next to our broken down old Mercedes in the dusk. My catastrophic imagination goes wild, up here. And the power of persuasion only goes so far, winding up the Kyrgyz serpentines in an old car.
The higher we get, the more snow is piling up near the narrow road. I am torn between awestruck admiration and plain fear: between the magnificent views of nature that open up below us -snow-covered mountain ranges wrapped in clouds- and the frightening traffic. All elements of the sublime converge here.
We drive through a three kilometer-long and poorly-lit tunnel; no place to reflect on the failing Kyrgyz infrastructure; the result of too many years of neglect and decay following the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the way back, we will be trailing -way too close- behind a painfully slow truck. As I am trying to think of escape routes in case a vehicle in front of us breaks down, counting every single meter left behind us, and searching for the faintest rays of light that must appear any second in the dark distance but don’t, I feel the agony of three kilometers. Suddenly, fond memories of the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston.
The landscape is changing dramatically during the drive. We pass ski areas, wild streams and pastures in shades of early April’s mix of brown and green, random trailers and shacks in vast snowfields out nowhere, shepherds on horseback, scattered stores and food stands, mosques, and stunningly beautiful nature scenes. My favorite: white cotton mountains, in the absence of a term that adequately fits the beauty and serenity that is surrounding us. Dreamy.
As if taken from a promotional Kyrgyz tourist brochure: horses galloping along the stream. Picture perfect Kyrgyzstan.
As we descend into the Talas valley, we get caught up in frequent cattle and sheep traffic.
I am hoping the driver would just stop the car and let them pass at their slow speed. He goes slalom, smack in and through the middle of the herds. I close my eyes in tense anticipation of the blunt thumping sound of the car hitting animal bodies. Amazingly enough, it doesn’t touch a cow or sheep. We wonder: is it the driver’s art of driving or the animals’ intelligence and instincts that prevent a Tarantino scenario? Flashback to my first memory of Kyrgyzstan, having just arrived at Manas airport early in the morning: seeing a cow here and there slowly walking right along the road that leads from the airport outside of Bishkek to the city center, past billboards and little stores. The image conjures the dissonance that characterizes many sights in Kyrgyzstan, a country in transition. Direction: unclear.
Gamburgers, Jam, and a Revolution
We arrive in Talas as it’s getting dark. Our colleague has arranged for a home stay (there is also one hotel in Talas); the house is located right next to the now deserted bazaar; the container stalls are closed at this time of day.
I am glad to hear that the house has got an inside toilet; a privilege not to be taken for granted. We are both struck by the look and feel of the town. Desolate and depressed are the words that come to my mind. My colleague is shocked: the Talas that she remembers from Soviet times used to look different. I hear this a lot in my conversations with Kyrgyz people: how clean cities used to be; how neat people kept apartment buildings and shared, public spaces. About collective cleaning days. About accountability and individual as well as collective responsibility. This was before social services stopped from one day to the next; before the state failed its citizens. Before people were left on their own and had to fend for themselves.
We stroll through town to get some dinner; past the many hamburger (niet: gamburger!) places that are so popular in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s not impossible to be a vegetarian in Bishkek (unless one is dogmatic about it), but it’s impossible for most Kyrgyz people to understand the reasons for not eating meat. Neither animal welfare nor environmental protection is high on the list of priorities in daily Kyrgyz life. My students, having grown up in a culture where meat is the staple food, reacted with a mix of disbelief and fascination; as some told me, they had never met a vegetarian before. The challenge in restaurants usually consists of arguing that chicken counts as meat. Fish: beyond discussion. In Talas: utter shock in the face of the waitress as my colleague tries to find out what the meatless dinner options for me are. This weekend and the next, traveling in the provinces, the meatless fare, with slight regional variations and creative culinary imaginations, consists of a mixed plate with plain rice, noodles, and buckwheat, at times decorated with tomato ketchup. And salad, which is delicious.
The next morning, breakfast in the cozy kitchen of the couple that is hosting us: Nescafe and black tea, eggs sunny-side up, cookies, bread, and divine raspberry and apricot jams. The fruits of Talas, of course. We talk about the skyrocketing prices of staple foods and utilities after the collapse of the Soviet Union. About how hard it was to get by. Over the next weekends, listening to people across the country telling about their lives during those years of radical transition (or rather, the lack of a transition), the stories vary little. They are about how difficult it was to feed one’s family. About despair. About university teachers -who make so little in Kyrgyzstan- who had to pick beans and drive taxis to survive. About corruption at all levels. I realize late this past April, after all these months in Kyrgyzstan, after so many conversations, something significant and important, and something that I didn’t see through the thickness of the academic discourse of nostalgia. It might be the most profound insight that I have gained during my stay here: there is no nostalgia for better days during Soviet times in people’s stories about their lives following 1991. There is trauma. Raw, damaging, and corrosive.
It’s a significant day today, April 6, for the people of Talas. It was here, in this small town, where the 2010 Revolution, which led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, started exactly three years ago, and from where it spread throughout the country. Public events commemorating the revolution take place here today; many people, all dressed up, are out and about on the streets early in the morning. And lots of stories are being told, this weekend. Of the extreme economic hardship that people endured; of persistent electricity outages; of skyrocketing utility costs; of the bitter knowledge of being cheated and abandoned by the corrupt government; of tensions rising in light of the increased visibility of government forces that had poured into the city in anticipation of an uprising. Of the breaking point, when people would not, could not, take it any longer. Of violence.
A memorial in the central square reminds of the events of April 2010:
The Spatial Dimensions of Cultural Diplomacy : Of Houses and Corners
At Talas State University, where we are conducting the workshop, we meet in a room that strikes me as unexpectedly familiar. A little library with American books and magazines, DVDs, new computers, and posters that present students’ research about American history and culture and show photos of a Halloween party and of the students at work as volunteers engaged in community service. I have found that students at Kyrgyz universities do a lot of great volunteer work and fundraising for social causes. This room serves as one of the five “American Corners” in Kyrgyzstan; the others are located in Jalal-Abad, Batken, Kant, and Karakol. The “American Corners” made their debut in Kyrgyzstan in 2003; founded and funded by the U.S. Embassy Bishkek, they are “information resource centers” that organize language programs and cultural and social events. Cultural diplomacy, post-USIA, in action. To the students here, they offer educational resources, communication with the wider world (internet access), and a personal connection with the U.S. It is here where they meet Americans for the first time, including American Peace Corps volunteers who do remarkable work in Kyrgyz communities and who are much appreciated for their engagement. The “American Corner” is a small-scale, one-room version of what I remember from Germany as the “Amerika Haus” in major cities. The “Amerika Häuser” in Germany, products of the early Cold War, became landmark institutions with substantial libraries and cultural programs and significant sites of U.S.-German relations. Their prominence and disappearance are also manifestations of the shifting geopolitics of the past decades: as the “Amerika Häuser” were closed in Germany starting in the mid/late 1990s (the ones in Berlin and Frankfurt were closed in 2006), the “American Corners” in Kyrgyzstan were about to be, or had just been, established. Houses in Germany and Corners in Kyrgyzstan: an institutional study of the different effects of the fall of the Soviet Union, the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and of an adjusting U.S. foreign policy.
Meeting Barack Obama in Kyrgyzstan
In a remote corner of Central Asia, tugged between mighty mountain ranges, an encounter with America. And with Barack Obama, his image glued on a sheet of paper painted with stars and stripes. Below, a map of the U.S. with cyrillic letters. “Great Land” in sparkly letters, neatly cut out.
In this room in Talas, Almazbek Atambayev and Barack Obama exist side by side. International relations are neatly aligned, disrupted only by one stopped clock.
This is my second encounter with Barack Obama in Kyrgyzstan. The first, similarly unexpected, occurred last year, on a hot August day in Bishkek, during one of my first walking excursions of the city. I was aimlessly wandering around, map in hand, trying to match the street signs with the lines on paper and to get used to this new world of cyrillic letters that I had become part of. Cognition in slow motion: reading simple signs took forever. Then, turning a street corner, a curious sensation for the American Studies scholar who had just left the U.S. for unfamiliar terrain and for a different alphabet: OBAMA (Bar and Grill). Blue and white, under the skies over Bishkek:
The occasion called for a “vodka smash” with twisted straws (Bishkek’s favorite accessory for all drinks, from coffee to beer), salad, and lentil soup, with “Take My Breath Away” playing in the background, true to Bishkek’s fascination with 80s music (the best and worst of it). For sure: the amount of hard liquor in mixed drinks in Bishkek takes your breath away.
Lentil soup and salad are not the main attractions on a menu that draws (expat) customers with American-style food (as most attempts at Western foods in Bishkek, with modifications and variations). Should one not prefer the Kyrgyz Lakhman dish, one can eat burgers and steaks at the posh “Obama” in Bishkek, under Obama photographs and flatscreen televisions and a huge, Shepard Fairey-inspired red, white, and blue portrait. One can even shake hands with an Obama cardboard cutout. The branding of a political and cultural icon that resonates globally in a way few before him have, packaged in food, decor, and the claim to authenticity. Yes, you can, too, in Bishkek, 6,530 miles away from Washington, DC.:
[Since I am back in Germany, here is a recent addition to the collection of "finding Obama in unexpected places": Obama on the menu of a Falafel place in the university town of Tuebingen, squeezed between eggplant and avocado]:
But Talas is far away from Bishkek. And from Tuebingen. Here, no fancy Western-style restaurant named after the U.S. president. Here, Gamburgers and Coca-Cola instead of Falafel with mango chutney and Bionade. Here, on a wall in a university building, ideas about and perceptions of a powerful country thousands of miles away, creatively assembled in collages. Picturing America in Talas.
Of Teaching and Learning
The questions that I am curious about, teaching American Studies in Kyrgyzstan, are the same here in Talas than they are at the university I teach at in Bishkek: What does “America” mean to you? How does the U.S. -its foreign policy, its culture- affect your lives? Academic writing is on the agenda, but there is much more that we discuss here and at every other university where we meet with teachers: the lack of new textbooks (many schools and universities still teach with books from the Soviet era) and innovative teaching tools , the need for a pedagogy that inspires and engages students and motivates teachers, rigid and inflexible bureaucratic curriculum requirements that choke the great ideas of teachers on the ground and that lack the imagination that is crucial to education, the problem of plagiarism, which is so engrained in the academic culture here. Enormous challenges. The conversations with the teachers that day and over the next three weekends remind me more than any teaching seminar and certificate program that I ever took at universities invested in and committed to teaching excellence, more than any invigorating lecture by an inspiring educator that I listened to, of why a good teacher education matters and what it can mean to students and teachers alike - what life-transforming, enabling, and empowering effects it can have on individuals, communities, and societies. And of the challenges of achieving it. Sometimes basic insights take long journeys.
The teachers-in-training we meet are locals and mostly women: they come from villages and small towns in the Talas region; from the kinds of places where they will teach in the future. Their dream: to move to Bishkek. The dream of my students in Bishkek, at the American University of Central Asia: to go abroad. Dreams of mobility, of better lives, of a better education; of the world outside one’s own, whether it’s a village, a city, a country, or a region.
I learn a lot this month -in Talas, Karakol, Osh, and Jalal-Abad- about Kyrgyzstan: about women’s lives, family structure, the difference between urban and rural living, the higher education system, the economy, recent history, and about cultural traditions and social norms. And, of course, I have learned a lot in Bishkek, where I teach, over the past months. Some of the stories that stick, long after I leave Kyrgyzstan: that of at student teacher who walks from her village to the city, that long way, whenever she can’t catch a ride, to help out at the university when help is needed. Determined to teach. And that of a teacher whose first attempt at studying at the university was interrupted when she was bride-kidnapped. By far no unusual story in Kyrgyzstan.
Bride kidnapping, although ruled illegal in the newly independent republic in 1994, is a widespread practice in Kyrgyzstan, affecting thousands of women every year, especially in rural areas, despite President Atambayev’s recent approval (January 2013) of an amendment to the Criminal Code that increased the punishment (a prison sentence of up to ten years instead of three) for abducting women and forcing them into marriage. A crime, perpetuated and justified as “tradition,” which is in and of itself a contested claim. The public debate about bride kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan is contentious. At the heart of this very debate itself, it seems, is the struggle over the meaning of Kyrgyz identity, of gender roles and relations, and of what constitutes the social fabric of society in a rapidly and drastically changing and unstable -politically, socially, and economically- post-Socialist country. Social activists, women’s rights and support groups (including the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, a human rights group committed to end oppression, discrimination, and inequality in Kyrgyzstan), and NGOs have worked hard to increase awareness in Kyrgyzstan of the scope and the effects on women and families of bride kidnapping. Their work is even more important in the absence of any effective protection of young women. More about the recent change in legislation by UN Women:
Taxi to Bishkek
We are leaving Talas late in the afternoon, anxious to pass the highest mountains in daylight. It’s a quiet and somber ride; we are exhausted from teaching the whole day and processing what we have seen and heard. There is a lot. We are searching for answers to daunting questions: How can we best help these young teachers? Which is more important: education or sanitation? Which one must come first? I cannot remember: was there heating in the classrooms with the nice computers? We parachuted in yesterday, we are darting out today: what’s left for the teachers? As we drive into the sunset, I realize that I learned more in Talas than I could teach.
We get back to Bishkek late on Saturday night. As we approach the outskirts of the city, we are passing the construction sites of luxury homes. Everybody knows that these houses are not being built with money earned from picking beans with your bare hands.
As we get closer to the center, the lights get more and brighter. For the big dance clubs that we pass, music blasting, the night is only beginning. Coming from Talas, Bishkek –the city that always seems so provincial to me- all of a sudden appears as overwhelming as Times Square.
The driver rides the city streets the same way he rides the mountains: with speed, boldness, and confidence. But here, feeling the security of being back on my home turf, finally, after almost eight hours of tension and anxiety that comes with passing the mountains, I can lean back into the worn back seat of that old Mercedes and relax, even enjoy the flickering lights of Bishkek at night passing by. Familiar sights. The streets underneath me are even and I am used to the flow of insane city driving. I feel the beautiful feeling of coming home.
By the time we approach my apartment building, weighing myself in the near certainty of arriving in Bishkek unharmed, and feeling a sweet wave of relief and happiness, I compliment the driver on his mastery of the tricky mountain roads and the reckless Kyrgyz traffic. He does not bask in my compliment. He just laughs it off. Tomorrow morning he will drive back home. In his taxi to Talas.