31 December 2005

Faiza's and Beta Stores

Everyone recommends that you eat at Faiza's in Bishkek. We happened to go there a few weeks after we got here, and have eaten food from there several more times. And we weren't impressed.

But then my husband's students recommended the laghman there. I like laghman, but, well, it's never knocked me over with flavor. But since we were in the area, we decided to try it one more time.

Faiza's makes great laghman. We'll be going back. :)

We also stopped at Beta Stores today. It just reopened last week after being completely looted during the revolution in March. It's a huge western-style supermarket. There are several western-style grocery stores in town, but they're not in walking distance, so I've never bothered going to any of them. But Beta Stores is only 1.5 miles round trip (on the SE corner of Chuy and Isanov, I think it's already marked on the map, Mother). They had plastic bowls and cups and microwave popcorn. Sadly, the pancake mix we were after was gone. I don't know how we'd have cooked pancakes in a pot anyway.

30 December 2005

Funding Schools and Baby Houses

I was talking to a woman at the baby house yesterday who has been trying to adopt one of the babies for the last four months. They've run into more trouble than the other two families we know who have adopted from there.

She told me that one of the major roadblocks has been the administration of the baby house. Their funding is based on the number of children in the baby house so they don't want to let too many babies go. Or at least they prefer to have them adopted when they're older.

I've never been very impressed with this type of funding because it often leads to conflicts of interest. The same issue comes up with homeschoolers and US public schools. The schools don't want to lose children to homeschooling because their funding is based on the number of children at the school.

The trouble is that both the schools and the baby house are given more money per child than is actually spent on that child. It would obviously be far better for the individual child and the overall system to have the babies adopted. It often is better for a child to be homeschooled and certainly cheaper for the overall system. But the local administration has a financial interest in keeping that child in the school or the baby house and that often becomes the most important issue.

29 December 2005

Jane Eyre and Tales of a Female Nomad

I finished Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman yesterday. I’ve read Jane Eyre many times and it was the first time I’ve read ToaFN. As always, I loved Jane Eyre and I’m sure I’ll love it again in the future.

I enjoyed ToaFN, but there were some things in it that bothered me. I would have liked to hear more about the places and the people and less about her personal reflections and about why she was doing what she was doing. Or at least not have them repeated quite so often.

She also seemed to think that her clothes made a huge difference in her being accepted by the community she was in. While I agree to an extent, there are so many other things that can make a difference in whether a person is accepted. I will change what I wear to an certain extent when I travel, usually for modesty’s sake, but not simply to wear clothes that look like everyone else’s. I’ll always be different no matter what I wear or how long I live in a place.

It was also interesting to see when she would take (I can’t remember exactly what she called it) the foreigner’s exemption where, because she was a foreigner, she could do things differently. I couldn’t quite understand why there was a different between using this exemption and judging cultures. For example, she was uncomfortable throwing her trash on the ground, but she didn’t want to look like she was criticizing others for throwing their trash on the ground. Personally, I thought she could have easily and discreetly thrown her own trash away without making it look critical in any way.

I liked the section about Indonesia quite a bit because she stayed in one place for a long time and became part of a community. I generally like travel books, but too often they move through places much too quickly to really become part of anything. This book doesn’t have that problem quite as much, although some chapters were much too quick for me.

The chapter on Israel about drove me nuts- going to a Druze village to see the diversity of Israel? Certainly the Druze are interesting, but that is only a tiny corner of Israel. It sounded like the Jews she spent time with were Haredi Jews and she was really quite negative about them. Her statistics also weren't correct. She said 20 percent of Israel is orthodox. It would be more accurate to say that 20 percent are somewhat observant- there is wide variety within Judaism. Very, very few are Haredi, or what we often call ultra-orthodox, and they are usually the ones who take the religious exemption from joining the Israeli military.

She also didn’t seem to spend any time with any Arabs in Israel. In fact, there is little written about Muslims even though she has spent a lot of time in Muslim countries.

I have to admit I was disappointed in how little she did to learn about the places she visited before she went there, especially since she studied anthropology.

Anyway, this is all pretty negative. I did enjoy the book overall. I’m still looking for a travel book where I can say, yes, this is what I’ve been looking for. I don’t think I’ll find it though. Everyone’s experiences while traveling are just too different.

28 December 2005

Kyrgyzstan Referendum

I haven’t seen much mention around the Central Asia blogs of the suggested referendum in Kyrgyzstan on the structure of the government. Bakiev has suggested that a referendum be held sometime next year where the people of Kyrgyzstan could vote on the basic system of government in Kyrgyzstan. The current thinking is that it would choose among a presidential, presidential-parliamentary, or parliamentary system; whether immunity should be removed for members of the government; and judicial reform.

There are some in the Kenesh who support the referendum and some who don’t. We’ve been told by several people that Beknazarov (he was elected to Parliament after being fired as the general prosecutor- don't miss this article about Kyrgyz election politics) is promoting an early date for the referendum- as early as February 26th. However, the Kenesh wouldn’t set the date, Bakiev would; and he prefers a late summer or autumn referendum. Detractors say (not unreasonably) the government would effectively control the referendum and it would be worthless.

The current set of constitutional reforms that I wrote about earlier have pretty much died. Bakiev is now saying the current constitution (dating from 2003) needs more time to be tested and that reforms shouldn’t take place till 2009. The 2003 amendments generally made the president stronger by weakening the Kenesh.

I do have concerns about a referendum if one is actually held. I have heard far too many people in Kyrgyzstan promote a strong presidential system- Putin is generally admired here, and we’ve even heard Pinochet- Pinochet!- touted as an excellent example of a good super-presidential regime. Certainly Central Asia is afflicted with super-presidential systems. At least most people I talk to think Turkmenistan’s Niyazov (he recently ordered the entire government to become fluent in English within 6 months) and Uzbekistan’s Karimov aren’t good leaders.

But there is definitely envy of Kazakhstan. While Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev can’t be considered a democratic leader (depending on how you define democracy, but that’s another post) since he ignored the constitution to run for re-election, he is far less severe than Niyazov. Turkmenistan also has a lot of natural resources but the Turkmen government’s policies have made economic growth practically impossible. But it’s hard to say that democracy is important for economic development when the rest of Central Asia looks at Kazakhstan and doesn’t see the correlation.
A referendum on judicial reform would be interesting. I’ve not been able to pin down exactly what that means. The judicial system has very little power here and I don’t know that any reforms would make much of a difference.

More and more people are clearly becoming disillusioned with Bakiev and his government. The revolution has been very difficult for many people. The economy of Kyrgyzstan is struggling. There was real hope for change a few months ago, but it looks more and more like Bakiev will just return to the same old system.

If that happens, I wonder if the people of Kyrgyzstan would be interested in another revolution.

27 December 2005

Food Storage

Homemade canned goods are very common here. Even more common than in Utah. We've been given jars and jars of berry jam and apricot jam. One jar of apricot jam was particularly good. It had dried apricots mixed in and a layer of almonds on top. I never would have thought of that combination, but it was delicious.

We've also had apricot compote (seen here in a gallon jar) and lots of canned vegetables. My favorite has been the tomato relish that is often served. It's a bit like salsa, but not really.

But it ruins it a bit when the newspaper runs stories on botulism.

26 December 2005

Emergency Shelter

A year ago I wrote about sandbag shelters and the efforts their developer, Nader Khalili, has gone to to promote their use. He still hasn't been very successful in getting them use widely, but certainly hasn't given up the idea. He submitted proposals to New Orleans and to Pakistan in the last year.

Some progress does seem to be going forward in Pakistan even though these shelters aren't available to many of the earthquake survivors. I hope that this could be the beginning of a wider acceptance of these sandbag homes.

The biggest concern seems to be that officials worry that people won't want to live in these houses. I can understand the concern, but often the only other option is a tent. I don't think many people who have lost their homes are excited about a tent either.

Khalili's homes aren't the only practical ideas out there for decent emergency shelter, but almost all of those ideas have had trouble getting any attention. But we've seen over and over that our current resources annd solutions aren't enough.

25 December 2005


The two most deadly earthquakes in 2003 and 2004 were both on December 26th. I'll be remembering Bam and the Indian Ocean region tomorrow. And the suffering still going on in Pakistan, just a few mountain ranges away. Nearly 400,000 people were killed in these three earthquakes alone. All in Asia.

24 December 2005

Merry Christmas!


I spent an hour looking through the English books at a pub here in Bishkek. There are five bookcases full of books there- 2 of fiction, 3 of non-fiction. I was hoping for a good history of Central Asia, but there wasn't one. I did find Tales of a Female Nomad which Melissa had handily just recommended, so I picked that one up. I hope I enjoy it as much as she did.

They really did have an amazing collection of books. I would have had many of the same books there if I had been the one stocking the shelves. I think I have found the place where I'll be spending my money from the blessing dresses. Makes all that crocheting worth it.

23 December 2005

Jiayuguan and the Great Wall

Of course you couldn't go to China without seeing the Great Wall. Most people who visit China see one of the sections of the Wall near Beijing. But the section I want to see is near Jiayuguan, the westernmost part of the Great Wall.

There are two interesting things here. First, the Jiayuguan Pass with two gates. Most people think of the Great Wall as one long wall strung out across China, but it's also gates in passes and crumbling sections. There's also the Overhanging Great Wall which provides at least as nice a site as any of the areas near Beijing.

But the Jiayuguan airport is only open from April to October. The nearest year-round airport is a 7-hour bus ride away. Since we're planning this trip with two little children, I'm not particularly interested in a 7-hour bus ride.

So we'll be seeing the Wall near Beijing. But I'll be thinking about Jiayuguan while we're there.

22 December 2005

Karez, Qanats, Canals...

The first time I read about qanats, underground water canals that are used in many parts of the world for irrigation,was in connection with their destruction by the Mongols. But there is so much more to them than their destruction and (sometimes) eventual rebuilding.

The basic idea of a qanat system is to use groundwater for irrigation, but sometimes the water is or was used in urban areas too. Underground tunnels are used to carry groundwater to dry areas. Vertical tunnels are dug every so often for maintenance. Building and maintaining the qanats obviously is a major task. The link above has some diagrams and explains the principles behind the qanat system. They are an amazing system that requires a lot of community cooperation and engineering skill. But since Central Asian history isn't studied in the US, most people don't ever get to hear about these qanat systems.

There are many places where the qanat systems are still in use, including Iran, China, Yemen, and the Sahara. They were in use in Palestine until 1948 when the Palestinians lost most of their land. They are called qanats in Persian, kanerjing in Chinese, galerias in Spain, and more. The most common assumption is that the idea developed in Iran and spread with the Muslims and through trade to much of the world (including Mexico).

Karez is the word that is used in this part of the world. The western Chinese city of Turpan still has an extensive karez system and I hope to be able to see it in a few weeks. Many organizations are promoting the use of these traditional water systems. There are even international conferences on the qanats- the last one was just a week ago in Saudi.

21 December 2005

I always find it very interesting to see how different people can go to or live in the very same places but come away with very different views or feelings about that place no matter where it is in the world.

Lots of foreigners in Central Asia like to vacation to Turkey. But their Turkey is very different from what I'd care to do in Turkey. Our China isn't going to be the same many people's trips to China. Our Bishkek is certainly different from most ex-pats.

And that's what's nice about it. Everyone can go to or live in a place and choose what they want to do. The cities we're planning on visiting in China usually aren't the most popular cities to visit. So I'll be writing a bit about some of the other interesting places to see in China.
Have I ever mentioned this Silk Road video series? It's at lots of libraries.

20 December 2005


Just checking in quickly. I ate something that didn't please my stomach and have spent most of the last two days lying around.

I've got some "real" versions of some of the recipes and food I've been talking about for the last few months. Here's one for laghman:


Lagman is a very tasty noodle dish, somewhat like spaghetti.


1/2 kg meat (beef, or mutton)
1/2 cup of vegetable oil
1 marinated pepper
2 big onions
2 medium carrots
2 cloves of garlic
3 big green radishes
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
2-3 tomatoes (or 3 tablespoons of tomato paste)

Chop the meat into very small pieces and saute with butter and the red pepper in a kazan or heavy-bottomed pot. After about 5-7 minutes add 1/3 cup of cold water. Bring it to a boil and then add the onions, carrots, garlic, green radishes, and tomatoes. Steam in low heat for 30 minutes. Turn up the heat and stir for about 5 minutes. Add cold water (depending on the number of people you are cooking for, approximately 1.5 to 2 cups per person) and bring to a boil again. Lower the heat and keep for 30 minutes more. In a separate pot prepare spaghetti or linguini noodles. Put the pasta in bowls and cover with the sauce. (Too make the dish more interesting feel free to add other vegetables such as eggplant. You can also use homemade noodles or egg noodles.)

18 December 2005

Diaper Update

I just wanted to thank those of you who have sent money for diapers. I've been able to take about 900 diapers so far and it's certainly a lot more pleasant to hold a diapered baby. :) Bolshoy spaciba!

17 December 2005

Books! In English!

Ha! I finally found some English-language books! We'd been told that a little western-style cafe called Fat Boys had English books, but my husband had been there a few times and hadn't seen anything beyond a little book exchange (and book exchanges here are pretty heavy on crime and romance fiction).

But then we found out where the books really are- except I can't remember the name of the place. It's a pub on the south side of Chuy about a block west of Manas in a rather imposing building through a rather imposing door. Anyway, it had about 6 bookcases filled with interesting books. Everything there is the list price plus $2.50, which seems quite reasonable in Bishkek.

Even though it was tiny and in the middle of a pub, it was delightful to be surrounded by so many interesting books that I could actually read. And it's right on the way to the law school. I think I know where they money I've made from selling blessing dresses is going.

16 December 2005

China Travel

While there are many places in the world that I'd love to visit, China and Uzbekistan are two countries that I've wanted to go to for a very long time. And handily, Kyrgzstan is right in between the two.

It's even better because I want to go to western China. Every time I find out someone has been to China, I always ask how far west they went. Xi'an, where the terra cotta soldiers are, is about the farthest west anyone I know has gone.

But that's as far east as I want to go. I've always wanted to go to western China, to see the cities along the Silk Road and the Great Wall of China. Sure, you can see the Great Wall near Beijing, but that's where everyone goes. I'd like to go to some of the other sections that are further west. They're not like some of the eastern sections that you usually see pictures of, but there is no typical section of the Great Wall.

Here's our current plan for a trip to China: Bishkek-Xi'an-Jiayuguan-Dunhuang-Turpan-Urumqi-Bishkek. Now we just need visas and plane tickets. We'll do Kashgar on a shorter trip another time.

I would love to cruise through the Three Gorges though. They sounded amazing since I first read about them, and they'll be drowned in a few years by a new dam that is being built. And, of course, I'd love to see geysers in Tibet.

15 December 2005

Kyrgyz jam is really, really good.

14 December 2005

Geography Lesson

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about whether Kyrgyzstan is in Europe or Asia. I never know if I should go to the Europe section or the Asia section of a website. Obviously this is a leftover from the old Soviet Union, but even then, most of the USSR was in Asia, not in Europe.

Kyrgyzstan is clearly not a European country. The national drink is fermented mare's milk; the most-favored meat is horse meat. Is there a country in Europe that can claim that? There are lots in Asia. A country that borders China cannot be in Europe. The technical division between Europe and Asia are the Urals, and we're a long way from them.

The trouble seems to be that people often don't realize how huge and diverse Asia is. When we refer to an "Asian," we're often talking about someone from Japan, China, Korea, or maybe SE Asia. Rarely would we be referring to someone from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Siberia, or Uzbekistan. But they're all Asian too.

13 December 2005

Right to a Healthy Child

It seems that as medical advancements improve, more and more people expect that medicine can cure everything and that it is possible to ensure a healthy child. The trouble is that we’re still a long way from being able to make sure every child is born healthy in every way- so what do we do with the ones who aren’t?

Wrongful birth lawsuits have become more common- just search for them and you’ll find plenty of attorneys willing to represent you. Some of the suits involve obvious medical mistakes, often during birth, that result in various disabilities. But other suits are brought when a doctor does not diagnose a certain problem prenatally. The right to abort an imperfect child is argued to have been lost, because apparently most of us aren't quite advanced enough to actively euthanize a disabled infant.

But there are so many problems that can turn up later that are missed by an ultrasound. Not all can be caught by amniocentesis. It's all part of the risk when you get pregnant- you really have no idea what you're going to get. You have expectations and reasonable guesses, but no promises. I can’t see that there can be any right to a healthy child when there are so many unknowns.

This new right has always bothered me, but after spending so much time in the baby house with quite a few disabled children, this idea is awful to me. Some of my babies were abandoned because they weren’t perfect. It’s clear they’re not perfect. I can understand why they were abandoned- life is difficult here. But I’d hate to have had any of them aborted or have them not have the option of being adopted because parents only want healthy children.

It also concerns me that international adoption has become so popular recently as a way to get a white baby quickly. Well, you know what? Almost every child adopted from an orphanage is likely to have some kind of special need. That’s often why they were in the orphanage in the first place, and even if they were "normal" before, orphanage life is far from a normal childhood. Children from any country in the former Soviet Union are very likely to have been exposed to alcohol before they were born- yes, even in the Muslim countries. Children from China are often have trouble with attachment because of the often less-than-stellar care in the orphanages there. Almost all orphanages are underfunded and it is practically impossible for any child in a large group to get the love and attention she needs.

Sure, there are plenty of children that do marvelously after they are adopted from overseas. But so many have difficulties. But I’d hate for international adoption to get a reputation of being "special needs." These children need to get out of the orphanages and if people are scared and determined to have a healthy child, international adoption could become much less common. The best way to avoid both problems is to make sure that adoptive parents are well-educated about adoption.

Even if we were medically advanced enough, I’d hate this right. God doesn’t eliminate all imperfections, and I guess I have a little too much faith in God to believe that we should eliminate everyone who isn’t perfect.

12 December 2005

Happy Endings

There have been several posts and discussions recently on several book blogs I read about literary fiction having unhappy endings. I think Return of the Native makes an interesting point about this though, since it has a happy ending tacked on to a rather unhappy story.

The trouble is that ending doesn't fit with the rest of the book. It doesn't make it into a happy book, and I don't think it's particularly realistic. I certainly don't like the book better because of the happy ending.

I've said before that fiction is an escape and that's why I like to read it, but that's not quite right. Fiction with a happy ending is an escape. Fiction with a sad ending is a lot more likely to make me think, and that's really why I like to read. That's why non-fiction is often so good. Of course, there's plenty of entertaining non-fiction though, like Bill Bryson. His books are an escape.

So I guess the difference for me is that there are books that make me think, and books that I simply enjoy. And I like to read both. Sometimes even at the same time.

The Portrait of a Lady

I'm nearly finished with The Portrait of a Lady and it has been an excellent read. I brought along a few classics that I had had trouble getting into because I knew my options would be limited here. I had started PoaL a year ago but never got very far. But this time it was very easy to get into it- I don't know what my problem was before. It's a long book, but definitely worth reading.

It's been interesting to read PoaL and Return of the Native and House of Mirth one after another. All are about women who marry (or want to marry) for the wrong reasons. They all think that what they are striving for will make them happy. And, obviously, it doesn't. Of course, things do work out reasonably nicely in RotN, but none of the books are exactly cheery.

I think the unabridged Les Mis is next. I've never tackled that one, at least unabridged. I think I'll be ready for something a little more upbeat after that. I could borrow my friend's LDS romance collection...


I've been surprised at how many foreigners have been critical of our homeschooling here. I try to avoid bringing it up with Kyrgyz and Russians; I know that very few have ever even heard of homeschooling, much less consider it to be a good option.

But foreigners from all over the world ask us where are children are going to school, and when they hear we are homeschooling, they list off all our other options as if we didn't even look into them. There are basically three options here. The International School is the most popular choice, especially with diplomatic families since their government will pay for the tuition. We could technically afford it, but it would take every cent from our grant. Even if someone else paid for the entire tuition, I'm still not comfortable in many ways with such an expensive education.

The second choice is a Christian school run by volunteers. Most of the students are from missionary families. It costs about half as much as the International School, but I have to admit I'm a little leary of Christian schools for a variety of reasons. I prefer a more diverse education (some would laugh at that though, since they see homeschooling as the least diverse method of education possible- obviously I don't).

And the last choice is homeschooling. I knew lots of families living overseas homeschooled, and I think it's a really good choice. Sometimes it's the only choice. But there are still people who encourage us to fork out the money for the private schools, or even to put our children into the local Russian schools.

Can I tell you how unimpressed I am with the Russian school system? I can think of few situations where I would ever consider putting my children into a Russian school. My children are learning how to read right now. I want them to learn to read English well right now, not worry about reading Russian. Children are routinely given shots in school. I've spent a lot of time talking to the products of the Russian school system, and I really don't think homeschooling is a poor option.

But after homeschooling for several years now, I know that school isn't about the education for most people. Even one year of homeschooling (most people don't know that we homeschooled in the US too) is too much for many people, even in Kyrgyzstan.

10 December 2005

Star Gazing

Even though Bishkek is a capital city and has a million people, it doesn't have much light pollution. That makes it nice to see the stars. I've been trying to find about traditional Kyrgyz constellations for my sister, but I haven't had much luck. I need to ask non-Bishkekers.

My sister has been collecting information about constellations in other cultures for a long time. She's told me interesting things here and there, but she's never told me everything she has found. I've found a few things (that she's probably seen) about the Great Bear, Asian constellations, and Lepus.

I'm still planning to be in Astana, Kazakhstan on March 29th for the total solar eclipse. Wouldn't you love to see a total solar eclipse?

08 December 2005


The willingness of border guards to accept bribes does little to improve the inviolability of borders.

When the Soviet Union broke up, many expected that the borders would remain open and easy to cross, especially since many living near the borders have friends and families in neighboring countries or want to cross often to trade or for other business opportunities. Some villages are on certain borders; obviously, open borders and friendly relations would be vital for them:

In one instance in the town of Krasnyi Vodopad- divided by a river that forms the frontier [between Kazakstan and Uzbekistan]- the Uzbek authorities blew up the connecting bridge to prevent illegal border crossings [at the time, visas weren’t required for Kazakh or Uzbek nationals]. That left the village school on one side of the river, with the health clinic on the other. Families were split apart, and people with jobs on the other side found had to commute several kilometres to a patrolled border post instead of simply crossing the bridge.

Uzbekistan uses difficult tactics often, such as blowing up bridges and unilaterally mining borders. Uzbekistan was also the first to require visas from citizens of neighboring because of concerns over terrorism:

But its [Uzbekistan’s] response to understandable security concerns has been inappropriate and probably ineffective or even counterproductive. Uzbekistan has unilaterally laid mines along borders that have yet to be demarcated (often expanding its territory in the process), and also made occasional bombing raids against alleged IMU targets in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. While Tajikistan is too weak and too often divided to stand up to Uzbekistan, resentment over these heavy-handed policies in regard to border issues and treatment of the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan is readily apparent. Kyrgyzstan has made concessions to Tashkent in the past over borders but with increased public attention to the issue, there is little chance that President Askar Akaev can continue to accommodate his larger neighbor without paying a heavy political price.

Obviously this is out of date now, but it will be interesting to see how Bakiev handles border issues with Uzbekistan. It has also been very interesting to live in a country that is the underdog to nearly all its neighbors. It was a similar feeling in Palestine, although very different too.

Currently Uzbekistan is not at all accomodating towards Kyrgyz citizens traveling to Uzbekistan. A visa is always required. On the other hand, Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens can cross each other’s border freely. The visas for Uzbekistan are especially troublesome because the only place to obtain a visa is at the Uzbek Embassy in Bishkek. When you live in Osh and want to cross the border to visit someone who lives a few miles away, but have to go to Bishkek first to get a visa, well, you’re probably not going to go to Uzbekistan very often.

But the first line from this post states clearly how ineffective these regulations often are. What is the point of trying to tighten up the borders if the guards are willing to accept bribes? Uzbekistan is concerned mainly about terrorism, but also about the flow of drugs from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Border guards are often poorly trained and not well paid (although I will never stop arguing that increasing their pay would not effectively stop corruption). It would be much more effective to improve the quality of the border guards than to stop everyone who wants to visit their grandmother living in another country.

I’ve mentioned before how negative the law students often are about Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan. Certainly not all feel this way, but there is a general sense that many aren’t very happy with the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan:

In the long term, the increased division of peoples of the Ferghana Valley is reinforcing negative stereotypes and hardening national identities. These new borders in the minds of people in the valley threaten the cooperation and trade that is vital to all three countries of the region. They also feed into existing inter-ethnic strains in the region between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. There is little crossborder cooperation or interaction between local governments, and many attempts by international organizations to establish such programs have been blocked by inter-state rivalry. In particular, Uzbekistan’s antipathy to valley-wide programs has made such activities difficult...

Unless these territorial issues are dealt with effectively, they risk directly fueling nationalist and irredentist sentiments. Indeed, the sharp political divisions within Kyrgyzstan about territorial concessions offer stark testament to the potentially destabilizing impact of border issues if they are not dealt with transparently and strictly according to law. Ignoring political opposition and overruling legitimate protests by local residents risks undermining any border agreements that are reached. Illegitimate agreements only store up trouble for the future.

Quotes from 2002 report of ICG.

07 December 2005

Chatting Again

I was able to meet with the English professors again today for the first time in a long time (since they overhauled the schedule). We had an interesting discussion about religion, especially religion in America. It is refreshing to talk to many Kyrgyz because they are so open to freedom of religion. One teacher said that two of the main reasons people started becoming religious after independence was because of fear of God and because of hope that their chosen religion (Muslim or Christian) would help them financially. They asked many questions about different Protestant beliefs (they had originally said there were only Catholic and Orthdox Christians).

I also talked to the law students. We started off by talking about ala kachuu. I was glad they brought it up since I had tried to before and they thought I was talking about arranged marriages. They had interesting things to say.

The girl who first brought up kidnapping said that her father had kidnapped her mother and that it was relatively common in her family. One of her cousins, however, wished he hadn’t kidnapped his wife because she isn’t quite pretty enough now.

Another girl said that she knew of a person who was engaged to a man that her parents didn’t approve of, so they arranged for her to be kidnapped by a another man. She was forced to marry him.

The girls knew many couples who had taken part in consensual kidnappings; again, while elopements can bring their own set of problems, they are not the concern here. Most of the non-consensual kidnappings that they told me about were ones they had heard of, not ones that had happened to a close friend or relative.

I asked the girls what they would do if they were kidnapped. All said that they would refuse to marry the man. I asked how easy that would be, and if their parents would support them in refusing him. They seemed a little more vague on that point. I encouraged them to talk to their parents about it and make it clear that they wouldn’t want to be forced to marry anyone.

Forced marriages are forbidden in Islam and some imans have start to condemn non-consensual ala kachuu. Ala kachuu is also against the law in Kyrgyzstan, but like so many laws here, it is not enforced. Young women do worry that they will be kidnapped. It is not as big a risk in Bishkek, but it could happen to any young, unmarried Kyrgyz woman.

06 December 2005

The New Kyrgyz Constitution

The Kyrgyz government is working on some changes to the Kyrgyz Constitution. My husband, a con law professor, managed to find a copy in English of the current constitution and the proposed changes.

One interesting point about languages though- Kyrgyz is the official language of Kyrgyzstan, but my husband and the people he works with (lawyers and professors, almost all Kyrgyz) have not been able to find a copy of the constitution in Kyrgyz.

There aren’t major changes proposed to the structure of the government, but there are a few important changes. One is that the death penalty would be abolished. The arguments for and against this are similar to the arguments in the US, except that prison conditions in Kyrgyzstan are much worse than they are in the US (not that they’re great in the US). Some prisoners say they’d prefer the death penalty to living out their lives in a Kyrgyz prison.

The ex-president would lose his or her immunity, obviously, a direct reference to Akaev. The ex-president’s family also would not be supported by the state once he is out of office. The clause about term limits- 2 five-year terms for the president- has been more forcefully declared. This clause is particularly telling: "No change or amendment to this Constitution may be cause for reelection or extending the mandate of the incumbent President of the Kyrgyz Republic."

Term limits are always interesting though. Plenty of countries have term limits written into their constitutions, but they are all too often ignored. Kazakhstan is an excellent example of this since the president was just reelected for another term.

The system for electing members of Parliament would also change. Before the Constitution was amended in 2003, a party system was in place. After 2003, it was changed to a system more like the United States’ where the members of Parliament came from various areas of the country. The current proposal would go to a mix of the two systems; some one-mandate, others party. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems and I think it would be interesting to see the two combined here.

Another proposed change is the abolishment of the Constitutional Court. Again, there are arguments for and against this. It is unquestionable that this court is not particularly well-used in Kyrgyzstan, and when it is, it often is simply a rubber-stamp for the president. For example, I mentioned the difficulties in delimiting the border with China. An agreement that gave up Kyrgyz territory to China was reached in 2000, but there were serious questions as to whether it was constitutionally done. The Parliament had almost no time to look over the agreement and many felt that Parliament was not part of the process as it should have been. In 2002, the Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement was constitutional.

There have been reports that the CC only hears two or three cases a year. I can understand the arguments in favor of abolishing it. It’s hardly useful in its current form. But I think abolishing it would be a mistake. It can’t be reformed or strengthened if it’s not even there.

There are many other small changes. One would require that anyone who is arrested or detained has the right to appear before a judge without delay to get a ruling about the legitimacy of the arrest. Another would require that the public have access to "documents and materials immediately affecting one’s rights and freedoms if not specified otherwise in the law." Homes would not be allowed to be searched without a court decision (however, language speficially protecting privacy would be removed). Impeachment of the president by the Parliament would require a 3/4 majority instead of the current 4/5. However, the Supreme Court would have first rule whether an attempt to remove the president was legal. The procedure for impeaching a judge would also be changed to require a simply majority of the Parliament instead of a 2/3 vote.

Many of these proposals are good- but if there is no enforcement of them, they will end up being a lot of nice words, as so many constitutions in the world are.

Comments are currently being accepted until December 15th, either by email or calling a telephone number. Final revisions may be made, and then a referendum is supposed to take place. We’ll see what really happens.

Central Asian Leases

A second thorny border issue in Central Asia is the leasing of other countries’ land. This swapping of territory has been going on for a long time (again, the quotes are from the 2002 report from the International Crisis Group):

Some examples of these territorial exchanges make clear how complex the issue is. In September 1929, the Khujand District of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Uzbekistan was handed over to Tajikistan and its name changed to Leninabad Province. A decade later, Uzbekistan was given a portion of that area back when a large canal was constructed in the Ferghana Valley. Tajikistan was not the only republic to exchange territory with Uzbekistan. The remote territory of Karakalpakstan began life in 1924 as part of Kazakhstan but by 1938 had been absorbed into the Uzbek Republic.
The full catalogue of land exchanges between the Soviet Central Asian republics is extensive, but territorial claims were further muddied by the frequent leasing of facilities or areas with natural resources from one republic to another. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan leased land from each other in 1946, and these leases were still in force when the USSR collapsed. Uzbekistan refused to give back its leased land when the lease expired in 1992, leaving the inhabitants of this area in a legal limbo between two states. In frustration, one village in the region, Bagys, declared independence from both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in the beginning of 2002. Other countries had similar leasing arrangements. Uzbekistan leased gas fields in southern Kyrgyzstan, and Kyrgyzstan in exchange leased pasture lands suitable for cattle raising. Again, the status of these territories has been a source of discord. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan alone managed to agree an amicable resolution of their leases. In 1993 the prime ministers of the two countries signed an agreement on returning all leased lands to their sovereign states by 1996.
Bagys’ situation, mentioned above, makes for particularly interesting reading:
The village of Bagys, some seven kilometers north of Tashkent, has been of particular concern. The area is part of lands given to Uzbekistan in a lease arrangement from Kazakhstan, which have remained in legal limbo following independence. Most inhabitants are ethnic Kazakhs and prefer being part of Kazakhstan, yet their salaries are often paid and taxed by Uzbekistan. Uzbek police patrol the area.

Under an agreement signed in 1991, part of the rented land did go back to Kazakhstan, but not Bagys. The village is next door to Turkestanets, which had been a military state farm for the Central Asian Military District during the Soviet period and remains this for Uzbekistan’s armed forces. Following independence the residents of both settlements hoped they would become part of Kazakhstan. Almost all the residents of Bagys are ethnic Kazakhs, as are 80 per cent Turkestanets. Nonetheless, Tashkent has been reluctant to cede the lands, and Astana did not press because it did not want to strain relations. The result has been an uncertain status for the residents. About half hold Kazakh passports and citizenship, while the other half have Uzbek passports but not citizenship. Those who work on the state farm are paid in Uzbek soms, while in the school and other structures are paid in Kazakh tenge.

In a gesture indicating their deep frustration, residents staged a rally on 30 December 2001 during which they proclaimed the Independent Kazakh Republic of Bagys and elected a president and a legislature. Subsequently, Uzbek police swept down on the village and arrested 30 individuals. Further arrests of independence activists took place on 20 January 2002, and seven leading agitators were forced into hiding.
This article from the Jamestown Foundation gives the most current update of the situation that I could find. Apparently Bagys has gone to Kazakhstan and Turkestanets to Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has demolished homes on the border .

I first learned about these leases when we met someone from a Sary Moghul, a village in southern Kyrgyzstan lives on land leased by Tajikistan. The residents have Tajik visas but are citizens of Kyrgyzstan. Since they have Tajik visas, they are not allowed to live in any other part of Kyrgyzstan; they can travel around though. Tajikistan is supposed to provide basic city services, but they have no reason to, and neither does Kyrgyzstan. It makes Sary Moghul a difficult town to live in.

Uzbekistan also leases oil and gas fields in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan allowed Uzbekistan to continue to manage the fields after independence because Kyrgyzstan simply didn’t have the resources to manage them. However, Kyrgyzstan wants them back now, but Uzbekistan refuses to discuss the issue. In 2001, Kyrgyzstan accused Uzbekistan of being $180 million behind on lease payments. Kyrgyzstan has refused to give up some of its leases in Uzbekistan, but it’s not much incentive since the land is used for grazing livestock.

I didn't have much luck finding more recent information about these leases. I'm surprised there wasn't more about them because they are a major issue here. Many people's lives are greatly affected by these leases and enclaves.

05 December 2005

Enclaves in Central Asia

I’ve been promising to write about borders in Central Asia (and I’m sure you’ve been waiting impatiently) and I’ve finally gotten some things put together. Since there are border disputes all around the world, I’m going to focus on some issues that are a little more specific to Central Asia, enclaves, leases, and visas. Today I’ll write about enclaves. A lot of this information comes from a 2002 report from the International Crisis Group. All the long quoted sections are from this report.

When the Soviet Union was still in existence, the borders between the republics weren’t particularly important, although there certainly were issues over them. After the breakup of the USSR, all the individual countries agreed to accept the old Soviet borders. The problem is that quite often the borders had never been clearly delimited. Even the old international borders between the Soviet Union and other countries hadn’t been worked out; borders with China and Afghanistan in particular have been troublesome.

Another significant problem are the enclaves, little pieces of one country that are entirely surrounded by another. These aren’t unique to Central Asia, but they are more common here. Kyrgyzstan has 7 enclaves within its borders; two are Tajik and 5 are Uzbek. The larger Tajik enclave is Vorukh and the largest Uzbek enclave is Sokh. Vorukh has a river running through it that both the residents of the enclave and the residents of the surrounding area in Kyrgyzstan threaten to cut off periodically when things get rough.

The enclave that tops them all those is Sokh. It is Uzbek territory in Kyrgyzstan, but almost all the inhabitants of the enclave are Tajik. About 6 years ago the Uzbeks were concerned that the Tajik residents of the area were harboring terrorists, so they mined the enclave (Uzbekistan likes to unilaterally mine disputed borders). This obviously caused major problems because the border isn’t agreed on and innocent people were often killed by the mines. Most of the mines were removed after the IMU (Uzbek’s greatest terrorist fear) was almost completely destroyed in Afghanistan in 2002. However, there are still mines in the area and people and livestock are too often still killed there.

These enclaves create plenty of other difficulties though. Sokh in particular is troublesome because the main road through that part of Kyrgyzstan goes through it. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have tried to work out some solutions. Here is an example from a report from the International Crisis Group:

In a February 2001 meeting between Uzbek Prime Minister, Utkir Sultanov, and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Kurmanbek Bakiev, [Bakiev is now the president of Kyrgyzstan] a memorandum was signed which would have given Uzbekistan a land corridor running the 40 kilometres along the Sokh River to the enclave. This would have risked effectively making Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province an enclave in Uzbekistan since there is almost no transport infrastructure south of Sokh. Given that Uzbekistan has instituted a visa regime with Kyrgyzstan and continues to implement tight inspections for those wishing to transit through the Sokh enclave, granting it further choke points would isolate the area and give Tashkent even more military influence.

In exchange for the corridor to Sokh, Kyrgyzstan was to receive a smaller corridor to its enclave in Uzbekistan, Barak [see here and here for articles about this enclave's troubles]. Residents there have struggled with their status, particularly after Uzbekistan instituted more stringent border controls. The 627 households of the enclave have had problems sending children out to high school since the enclave is too small to have its own, as well as problems visiting clinics and hospitals. Although the corridor would have united the enclave with Kyrgyzstan and alleviated those difficulties, after visiting the lands proposed for the swap, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Bakiev stated they were unsatisfactory compensation.

Complicating matters, the document signed by the two prime ministers was leaked to the press in April 2001 and greeted with outrage in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament and by many citizens. Bakiev defended signing the memorandum, which, he insisted, was merely a starting point for further talks. Similarly, the president’s administration maintained that the memorandum was not an agreement since it would have had to be ratified by the parliament and signed by the president before it could come into force. Publication of the memorandum, combined with the repeated incidents where Uzbekistan appeared to disregard Kyrgyzstan’s border, soured relations.

In the end, all of the enclaves are becoming more isolated, both from the country surrounding it and the country it is actually part of. Uzbekistan in particular is suspicious of any Uzbek who is not actually an Uzbek citizen.

At the time of independence, around 1.2 million ethnic Uzbeks lived in Tajikistan, mostly in the north. During the Tajik civil war many fled to Uzbekistan. They were viewed with wariness by Tashkent as having been influenced by Islamist parties in Tajikistan and were not offered any state support. As a result, as many as 70 percent reportedly made their way back to Tajikistan.

Issyk Kul

I don't know if the text and pictures will line up, but it should be fairly obvious which picture I'm talking about. I hope it doesn't look too terrible. This is a Russian Orthodox church in Karakol (check the map). It was restored after independence.

This is the small town of Bokonbaeva on the south side of Issyk-Kul.

The mountains near Karakol. You can see one of the trees I mentioned earlier with strips of fabric tied on.

These pictures are from inside the Dungan Mosque in Karakol. The Arabic says, from right to left, Allah, There is no God but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God, and Muhummad. The lower picture is the mihrab and minabar. I love to see how mosques in different cultures.

03 December 2005

Rights and the Economy

In my discussions with the law students, it's come up several times that human rights have to be repressed right now in Kyrgyzstan because it is more important to focus on economic growth right now. I know this is a common misperception in many countries, but it's been interesting to see it firsthand.

When I asked the students why they thought repressing human rights would help the economy, they say that the people of Kyrgyzstan lack discipline and are not ready for a full list of human rights.

I worry for Kyrgyzstan. The students tell me that the best thing they can do is be patient and patriotic and in 15 years, things will be better. I don't see any reason to think the people will be much better off financially in 15 years unless there are some significant changes. Certainly the last 15 years haven't gone very well, and I don't see Bakiev doing anything to change the course now despite all the promises.

There are lots of problems. Corruption is a contributor, but the students, and others I've asked here, tell me that corruption cannot be changed until the economy improves. From my perspective, corruption contributes a great deal to the poor economy and fighting it would only help. And I do not agree that corruption is a sign of a poor economy. Plenty of wealthy people in Kyrgyzstan accept bribes; in fact they usually get the best bribes.

There is far too much government regulation (which contributes to the corruption). It can be very difficult to get the necessary approval to start a new business or get a loan. Loans have horrendous interest rates; most would say it is a great risk to lend money here, but there have been examples of banks being very successful giving loans with smaller interest rates.

Almost all the people begging on the streets are old. They almost never ask for money; they just sit or stand quietly and wait. They always thank you. These pensioners have been waiting for 15 years already for things to improve and they cannot wait another 15 years. I'm no economist (nor would I care to be), but Kyrgyzstan's course cannot be the right one.

02 December 2005


Kyrgyzstan is an fascinating mix of nomadic and sedentary lifestyles, of first-world and third-world stereotypes, of cultures, of a country moving forward and looking back.

Even though foods from many cultures are eaten here, traditional nomadic foods are still the most popular. The most prized meat here is horse meat. If your family is well off, you’ll have a horse for your wedding. One horse costs $500-$750. Kymys, fermented mare’s milk, is the national drink. It’s not so easy to find in Bishkek, but anytime people travel outside Bishkek, they’ll stop at one of the many places along the road that sell kymys.

Salaries are more like developing countries. A schoolteacher in the rural areas starts at $11 a month. But street sweepers in Bishkek, also government employees, reportedly get paid $125 month. The women who work at the orphanage get around $30 month. Policemen might get $35-$50 dollars a month (not including bribes). University professors are happy to get $95 a month.

I have met very few mothers of young children who work even though nearly all have at least the equivalent of a bachelors degree. In fact, many women don’t work. I know women trained as architects, pediatricians, lawyers, and professors for whom it’s simply not worth it to work. Kyrgyzstan is more like a developed country because of the highly educated population.

Rent for a small, inexpensive apartment is anywhere from $50-$90 a month. Obviously this would present a problem for most families, but a majority own their own homes- a leftover from the Soviet Union. Certainly there is homelessness though, especially in the south, but for many families, that house makes all the difference.

There are many people living here who are descendants of Stalin’s deportees- many were sent to Central Asia instead of Siberia. Many left Kyrgyzstan after independence and returned to Russia, Ukraine, and Germany, but some have stayed because Kyrgyzstan is their home now.

This really is a very interesting place to live. We loved the Middle East, but somehow, Central Asia is even more interesting. Too bad almost no one knows it.

01 December 2005

One of the little boys at the baby house is hopefully going to be adopted soon- the one that I wrote about on Conversation. I am so pleased. That really was the only option for him.

But there are other children there that need to be adopted, especially the other two who are older than one and not able to crawl yet, Isin and Arsin.

I really am getting testy about people who are absolutely opposed to international adoption. There is no other way to help these children. And it is not a great cultural experience to be raised as a disabled child in an orphanage.

Some say that instead of a adopting, people should donate the money to a charity that works with orphanages. More money would help, especially in rural areas, but once you have enough clothes, food, and a warm place to live, the only other basic necessity is love. And there is no way that even a very efficient charity can give each child the love they need.

Certainly international adoption shouldn’t be the first option. It’s not the best option in many cases. But there are times when it is a good option, and other times when it is literally the only option.