Friday, May 28, 2010

blurred vision

Two Kyrgyz men talking politics
According to my eye doctor I’m legally blind without contacts or glasses. Yet recently my vision has been noticeably impaired even with corrective lenses and I’m pretty sure I know why.

Kyrgyzstan’s government has been turned upside down and my eyes are struggling to adjust. My lack of exposure to such extreme political turmoil has effected how I process the ramifications of this revolution.

Coming from across the pond my perception of political unrest during times of transition is laughable, limited to election-day-snafus, such as the Florida recount fiasco in 2000. So applying events that took place in Bishkek to the United States is difficult.

It is hard to fathom an unruly group of US protesters storming the Capital Building, torching the Department of Justice, trigger happy snipers atop government buildings, looting in downtown D.C., having the president fly to a southern state out of concern for his safety, only to flee the country days later with his family, relinquishing the presidency not with a resignation but by running away.

I pass my lunch breaks in Bishkek by nonchalantly inquiring about the abrupt transition of power in Kyrgyzstan with my co-workers. Their input has granted me a “before and after” glimpse of Bakiyev’s presidency. Aside from a few unfounded conspiracy theories the current consensus seems to be- a step away from the previous government is a step in the right direction.

They do express concern about the intermittent protests recently in the south, Bakiyev’s stronghold. Should the protests continue the concern is for the interim government and its already weak hold on authority. It also seems the people of Kyrgyzstan are growing impatient. They are wondering when the interim government’s actions will start speaking louder than their words.

Whether it’s an western election or eastern coup, being in Bishkek has allowed me to see a common thread that runs the length of the globe; how quickly new governments witness their widespread popularity turn into whispers of puppetry.

Or maybe I’m due for another eye exam.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lenin Lives... sortof.

There’s a statue of Lennon in Havana and a statue of Lenin in Bishkek. Which of the two men do you think has his statue in Seattle? I’ll tell you in a minute…

Trivia questions aside, the other day I paid a visit to Mr. Lenin’s statue in the city center as it has been on my list since I arrived. It seems the longer I spend here the more my fascination grows about this former Soviet Republic’s communist coping strategies.
Ala-Too Square

Ala-Too Square is wide expanse of space and central to downtown. Many of the city’s most important buildings are a stone’s throw from it. Recently this square was the scene of violence and bloodshed during the revolution, as it is only a block away from the Parliament house which was overtaken by an anger mob on April 7th.

I learned that for many decades the centerpiece of Ala-Too Square was a massive Lenin statue. However, befitting of Kyrgyzstan’s “gone but not forgotten” mentality towards its Soviet days, Lenin has been relegated a block away behind the history museum and a statue of freedom and independence took over the spotlight.
Lenin Lives... sortof.

His oversized statue stands in relative anonymity. No commemorative inscription, no name tag, no nothing. I asked a coworker of mine what the youth think of him now. She chuckles and admits half embarrassed, “we don’t know Lenin now, we know Michael Jackson”.

I set out on a sunny afternoon to find him for myself. Knowing I was close my frustration grew when I couldn’t work out what building he was behind. Then, turning a corner I saw Lenin. His right arm outstretched, proudly pointing, I assume, in the direction of his glory days. North, towards Russia. Or was he pointing towards Seattle?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Rocky would be proud

Don’t worry Trav-
my new trainer is a fan of the plank as well.

I am an avid dabbler. And fitness has always been something I dabble in. Whenever I’m in Spokane I head for Travis’ class at the U-district. I attend his core training classes Tuesday/Thursday 6-7AM which go way beyond the blandness of bar-bells and bench presses. For me, those 60 minutes are my perspirational Prozac; without them I feel lost.

So, seeing as Bishkek has no U-district, I brought the U-district to Bishkek. OK, I admit, my jimmy-rigged class might not have the same level of diversity, flare and laughs that you find at Travis’ but it works in a pinch and goes something like this:
6AM: alarm goes off, shoes on and out the door by 6:06, commence running, down seven flights of stairs, exit the insanely heavy steel door on the ground floor, immediately grab a rock and scan the scene for angry junkyard dogs. Cross the street, hand-vault the chest high fence, picture the strange look on the gas station attendant’s face as he watches this most mornings, continue though the railway yards. Up and over the pedestrian overpass, pass the statue that looks a lot like Stalin on horseback, upon reaching the long, wide park/promenade start speed workout, run one block fast, one block slow, to the main square and back.
Start for home, crossing back over the railway overpass, this time slow to a walk, enjoying the view of the massive Tien Shan mountain range.
Hand vault the fence again, this time with noticeably less finesse, run behind the apartment building to the Soviet-era playground, head for the metal bar and do Rocky-in-training-montage pull-ups.
Double-time it up the stairs and finish strong with a collection of girly exercises from a page torn out of a women’s health magazine which I found tapped to the inside of my bedroom door from the previous westerner, presumably female.
Ok- so it’s not exactly the U-district but gimmie-a-break,
I’m in Kyrgyzstan running with goats.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Beyond the Youtube videos

Days into my summer internship and I still couldn’t kick the jet-leg. I decided to trade in the view of my bedroom ceiling fan for some fresh air. I began my walk towards town as dawn crept over the jagged snowcapped peaks of Kyrgyzstan. I took a seat on a bench in downtown Bishkek and quickly realized the humbling reality of recent events.

Initially I noticed the brick sidewalk was stained a dull gray from ash. To my right stood three yurts, though more common as a place of residence and not typically found within city limits, these were erected as representations of Kyrgyz tradition, used to shelter the deceased before burial. To my left sat four elderly men, hands cupped, heads down, quietly reciting a passage from the Koran. A moment later a younger man walked in front of the bench, one hand over the bridge of his nose, pinching tears from his eyes. Not long after a women approached the twisted and charred metal gate, now a makeshift memorial. She stood motionless, then laid a bouquet of flowers next to dozens of framed portraits that lined the fence of the former government.

Now- a month old and far from the front pages- the full repercussions from the revolution are still unknown. Which led me to wonder if these events had adversely impacted Mercy Corps and Kompanion’s microfinance and humanitarian operations. It took only a few hours to witness the resolve and dedication of the staff. Their commitment to provide vital assistance to the people of Kyrgyzstan far exceeds any additional challenges associated with this uprising.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sink or Swim in the former Soviet Union

It’s just before dawn, a 13 hour time change has me lying wide awake, listening to the faint call from a nearby Mosque. Fajr, the first of five daily prayers in the Muslim faith. It is the only one of the five I hear from my apartment. Once daylight arrives, the streets grow into a gentle hum much like any other capital city. However, like a pesky sunburn yet to peel, Bishkek’s look remains much like its former Soviet days, drab and disconnected, unwilling or unable to shed its past. And as it happens- today, May 9th is celebrated as “Victory Day” here in Kyrgyzstan. A national holiday in remembrance of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi German.

My building is the one with the nice mural

Seven stories high in a rather decrypt looking building is the view I will have during my stay in Bishkek. The apartment itself is surprisingly nice compared to the decaying exterior. Not long now and two more interns will join me in this 'guest house', happily abolishing the abundance of solitude that currently consumes this place.

Afternoon sun in the living room

Even with a healthy amount of travel under my belt I am humbled by the sensory over-load I have felt since arriving on Thursday. Although the majority of my co-workers (all of whom are from Kyrgyzstan) at the micro finance company speak English, learning to speak Russian is just one element at play in this experience. Couple all the usual stresses of being thrust into a foreign culture with the daily reminders of the violent overthrow of the government last month, and you start to realize you’re not in Kansas anymore and Toto’s been replaced by some sickly-looking stray dogs. The adventure has definitely begun.

Even doing wash is a strong reminder
I'm a long way from anything I've ever known

Saturday, May 1, 2010

on the brink of Bishkek

On my walk to buy donuts in South Jersey I had a thought. Do they eat donuts in Bishkek?  On the eve of my departure to Central Asia I admit, for all the inquisitive questions I get asked about Kyrgyzstan and its capital city Bishkek, I have very few educated answers.

Beyond a couple of google searches and uncovering some dusty youtube videos I am certain I currently know as much as you do about this 'Switzerland of the 'Stans' (a phrase of endearment due to Kyrgyzstan's all-consuming mountain ranges).  I would go so far as to say that my neighbor, in all his curiosity, has unearthed more information about this far off land than I have.

But let it be known, as I board my Turkish airlines flight bound for Bishkek, I will check to make sure all devoted followers of this travel log are gently tucked away in my carry-on bag.

Let the adventure begin.

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