30 July 2006

Issyk Kul

The water level has been rising, and rising quickly, at Issyk Kul for the last 7 years. The general consensus is that the level of the lake had actually dropped quite a bit in the last several hundred years (fueling speculation that [more] drowned cities might be found from other level changes in the last few millennia). But now it has been rising, at a rate of about 12 cm a year, or 5 inches.

Some scientists attribute the rising to global warming and the melting of the glaciers in the mountains above the Tian Shan; others think mining in the area has contributed to it. Either way, if it continues at this rate for many more years, it could have a pretty serious affect on the area. Of course, this could simply be a short term change that won't have a huge impact.

29 July 2006

Meteorite Hunter

I had high hopes for this book, but my, it was boring. I made it over halfway through before quitting.

The premise is good- a scientist travels to various places around Siberia in search of various craters, mostly from meteorites. But the writing isn't great and he spends far too much on the travel (I found it in the science section; I think it's better in the travel section on Siberia). Once you've read about traveling- I mean the physical travel on planes, trains, etc.- around that part of the world a few times, or done it yourself, you really don't need to read about it again.

If he'd stuck more to the craters and the science, I'd have kept reading. But instead it goes into the reject pile.

27 July 2006

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

Finished The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky yesterday. Vitebsky has worked with the native people of Siberia, especially the Even, since 1988. He was one of the few Western scholars to be invited to the USSR to do research there before the breakup and he has a unique perspective. He also has the advantage of working there for nearly 20 years and not just visiting a few times like so many others who write about Siberia.

The book only got better as it went along. I found the first two parts a bit slowgoing, as I was trying to figure out who people were, where they were living, and follow all the details about reindeer herding; but by the time I got to “Interlude: Solitude and Silence,” I was completely entranced.

Vitebsky writes a lot about children and family (his own family goes to Siberia with him in 1996, in chapter 14). He is especially concerned about the Soviet disregard for the family and how family life for the reindeer herders was almost completely destroyed in the last 30 years of the Soviet Union. He writes about the schools the children attended in the villages:

No child’s voice would be heard in the taiga for nine months until the following June. For thousands of miles, from the border of Finland to the border with Japan, there was not a single native child of school age left to experience the migrations and activities of late autumn, winter, spring, or early summer.

During the Soviet years, these were boarding schools where the children almost never saw their parents, even during the summers. After the breakup, the boarding schools were usually closed and the mothers lived in the villages with their children, although by that point almost all of the women had moved to the villages even though their children were still living in the boarding schools:

There were [in 1990] virtually no children left of school age whose mothers still lived out in the taiga. The scope of womanhood there had been greatly reduced. The intimate space that women had controlled around the fire related not only to warmth and cooking, but also to childbirth and motherhood. By now, giving birth in the taiga, being a mother, just being a wife, had become almost impossible.

Vitebsky did spend quite a bit of time with a family who was living together in the taiga. The mother was well-educated, a Sakha veterinarian who had come to work with the reindeer and had married her husband, an Even man, and was happy living in the taiga. Reading about their family at the beginning of chapter 8 was one of the highlights of the book. But when their children were old enough to go to school, she went with them to the village where she lives with them today.

But there are no other choices there if you want to educate your children. And the result is that Even woman have almost no connection to their land. One girl told the author that the characters in a popular Mexican soap opera about the super-rich that was shown all over the former USSR from Siberia to Moscow to Karakalpakstan were “just like us!”

The removal of the women to the villages took a heavy toll on the men who were left to herd the reindeer. It can be very difficult to get married, and even if they could, it’s very unlikely that you’ll see your wife very often. And there are a high number of accidental deaths, murders, and suicides- 1/3 of all deaths across the far north (186,00 people in 30 different ethnic groups) are from these three causes. Alcohol plays a major role in these deaths. One man even portrayed the rampant alcohol use (especially after the breakup) as a form of protest: "Tolya painted a terrifying picture of a generation of young men who could see no scope for taking control of their destinies, and for whom drinking and killing themselves were equivalent. It was as if their drunkenness were already a kind of living suicide."

This thirst for vodka has in contributed to the destruction of the economy and even the reindeer herds in some parts of Russia. In 1995, a liter of vodka was worth 20 kilos of reindeer meat, or a quarter of a whole reindeer. As Vitebsky puts it, “For a few truckloads of this distilled fluid, one could buy out the entire reindeer industry of Russia, half a million years of symbosis. Like the bomblets of biological warfare, these bottles could destroy indigenous humanity on one-tenth of the earth’s surface.”

The Chukchi in the farthest eastern parts of nothern Siberia have suffered the most from vodka. Some reindee herds have been competely decimated in return for groceries and vodka, leaving the people with nothing once the food was gone.

The chapter on his family’s first visit to Siberia was very interesting as he talks about their reactions to the places he loves, his fears about their visit, and their insights into the lives of the Even. In the chapter that comes the closest to a travelogue, “How to summon a helicopter,” he writes of their adventures in getting out of their camp when helicopters couldn’t get through for days.

I had only two minor irritations with the book. First, the author refers to the people as Eveny throughout the book instead of Even. He decided to do this because “even” is also a word in English and it could be confusing to the reader, a reasonable concern. “Eveny” is the Russian plural of the word. I’d have preferred to see Even used, but when this is a book that’s probably going to be read by people who’ve never heard of the Even anyway, it’s understandable.

I also wished that he wrote more about the years between 1995 and today (the book was published in 2005). Throughout the former Soviet Union things were pretty bad for a few years, and then started to improve in many places. I was, and still am, curious to know if that was the case in Siberia also. Those improvements certainly came more quickly in some places than in other places, but quite a few people in Kyrgyzstan said that it was in about 1995 or 1996 that things weren’t so awful.

There really was very little about shamanism in the book despite its title; shamanism has been almost completely destroyed in Siberia, even more so than Islam was dismantled in Central Asia. Still the last part does talk about shamanism and the religious beliefs of the people (chapter 11, “Animal souls and human destiny” was particularly good).

So that’s my very long review of an excellent book. Definitely worth reading and highly recommended.

26 July 2006

All She Thinks About Is Books

I've browsed around Barnes and Noble a few times in the last few weeks and I think I just need to stop that because I always come away annoyed about the almost total lack of anything about any part of Central Asia (unless you count Afghanistan, there's plenty on that topic). They didn't even have anything about trendy Tibet.

I decided that it was time to leave after asking being directed to the Spanish-language section after asking for books on linguistics.

The library has been a lot more satisfying. I picked up Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World today.

Maybe I just should arrange to meet more people who read good books. Julie gave me a copy of King Leopold's Ghost when we met at a museum today. I was thoroughly pleased.

25 July 2006

The Reindeer People

I had no idea The Reindeer People was almost a trendy book. I just found it at the library and saw it was about post-Soviet Siberia (clearly, I am out of the loop after living in KG for a year.)It's won awards and has lots of reviews in notable places. But it doesn't have as many reviews at Amazon as a truly trendy book would. I'm not sold that this book really would appeal to a wide range of people.

Don't get me wrong. I am nearly finished and I LOVE the book. It's one of the most interesting books I've read in a very long time and I think that it should be widely read. It's one of those books that I like to have my husband around when I'm reading so I can tell him interesting tidbits. But the topic is obscure enough that I just don't think it ever will be widely read.

But if you get a chance to read it, do. It's worth it. I'll do a more thorough review later.

22 July 2006

Things That Shouldn't Have Happened

This story about children in Kazakhstan contracting HIV in hospitals sounds like it should have been about 15 years old, and that it should have stopped after the first two cases were discovered in May. But no, it's 2006 and 14 children have been diagnosed with HIV.

I can't imagine that someone would fly all the way to China from the US only to discover that they didn't have a visa to get into the country. But apparently some people do.

It seems that Americans have gotten over their whining about the evacuation from Lebanon. Now, I assure I can imagine what it would be like to be trapped in a country with children and no sure way to get out. It would be awful. But it wouldn't particularly occur to me that the US government was in charge of getting me out unless I was employed by the US government. The State Department has always made it abundantly clear that expats and tourists aren't really high on their list. Businesses, NGOs, and churches should make evacuation plans for their employees and volunteers; tourists really shouldn't be surprised if a country with a travel warning falls apart while they're on vacation.

It was certainly nice of Israel to warn people to get out of southern Lebanon. And since it is so easy to get your family out of a place where the roads have been bombed, when you don't have a car in the first place, I am sure Israel can be absolved for all civilian deaths in Lebanon.

I don't deny that Israel is beset by terrorists and that they've had plenty of problems since the creation of the country, but when the country declared unilaterally by Israel (and implicitly by the US, the UN, and the West in general), well, you can't really be surprised that there are people who are annoyed about the whole thing. Israel was put into a hostile place and there is still a lot of opposition to its existence, and I can't figure out why so many Israel supporters think it's all the fault of the countries surrounding Israel.

There was an interesting discussion on the WTM boards today about whether a family in Taiwan should send their children to the local public schools to learn Chinese. What I found most interesting was that the parents who had actually lived overseas with children almost all were against, and those who had not were for it.

The trouble is that you're going to miss out on a year of regular academics if you do that. Even if a child can converse in a foreign language in a few months, she's probably not going to be able to understand a math or history class that soon. While that wouldn't be a concern for some children, it might be for others, especially if you're only overseas for a year. There probably won't be a lot of chances to use the new language at home again and the year may pretty much get wasted.

Another problem is that public schools overseas, especially in Asia, are pretty different from what we're used to in the US. It's not simply a matter of shipping your children off to school everyday and expecting that things will work out well. I have to say I am pretty much completely unimpressed with the education system in Kyrgyzstan. Fluency in Russian would not have been worth giving up all the other things my children learned this year, especially if we never go back to Kyrgyzstan.

Personally, I think it's a better option to do afterschool types of language immersion things, and include language study in the regular schoolday. Even though the language probably won't be learned as quickly as it would be attending the local schools, you wouldn't have to sacrifice quite so much.

18 July 2006

Books for the Week

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia by Piers Vitebsky- This was a lucky find in the collection of new books at the library. It is so hard to find much written about Central Asia, and Siberia is even worse. The author, an anthropologist, has spent the last 20 years researching the Even people of northern Siberia and so far I am enjoying the book. Since he is not Russian and started his research before the breakup of the Soviet Union, he has a very interesting perspective.

Homesick: My Own Story
by Jean Fritz- First, can I say that Jean Fritz is my favorite children's non-fiction author, and maybe even my favorite children's author (I'm not sure if I like E.L. Konigsburg better)? This book is technically fiction, and certainly different from most of Jean Fritz' other books, but I do like it a lot. She writes about growing up in China and her return to the US when she was 12.

David O. McKay Around the World by Hugh Cannon- I found this books last year and have been looking forward to it for a long time. Like Julie's review points out, there isn't much about the Church in any of the places they visit, but I enjoyed reading about their travels. Now I'd love to read a scholarly history of what the Church was like in these places at that time- number of members, how long missionaries had been there, what other proselytizing churches were doing there, etc.

I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson- Another reread that my sister gave to me when we stopped at the airport in Chicago. I think I'm enjoying more the second time around, especially after being out of the US for a few months. I'm not a huge Bill Bryson fan, but I do like this one quite a bit. And he complains about the lack of walking in the US too.

And I have a whole collection of books on hold at the library. Since I don't know how long we'll be in the US, I have to take every advantage of the library. And the air conditioning works wonderfully there too.

17 July 2006


Well, I suppose I'll write again. We've been back in the US for about 10 days now and the fog of completely switching day and night has left us and we've visited most of our relatives within 50 miles.

My husband has gained five pounds in the last 10 days, the boys have played with cousins almost every day, and I have a library card again. But there are no books in the library right now about Kyrgyzstan.

I watched the new Pride and Prejudice and loved it. I don't know what all those whiners were talking about. I thought that in many ways it was truer to the book despite some of the adaptations.

It's hard being out of the loop about Kyrgyzstan though. You practically have to be there to know what's going on there. There was a tantalizing headline on AKI Press about the AUCA's law department losing its license to teach, but that's all I know about it. It had a small department, and there are several other places in the city that teach law, but it would be sad if the AUCA can't continue to teach law.

They finally came to an agreement about the air base; the US will be paying around $150 million for the base between rent and other types of financial aid. That should be a healthy boost to a lot of politicians in the country. And maybe some of it will even help other people in the country too.

And there was a fascinating new poll released last week about Kyrgyz public opinion.

05 July 2006


Before we came to Kyrgyzstan, we were warned that we'd be bringing home a lot of kalpaks. And it's true. In less than 24 hours we went from zero kalpaks to five.

04 July 2006

"America the Beautiful"

I wrote about this song last year. I think that another reason why I like it so much is that has a little different and broader focus than the "Star-Spangled Banner." While I like the national anthem, "America the Beautiful" is about so much more.

I've always been a lot more interested in the political history of the US than its military history. I am grateful for the sacrifices made by so many who have fought for this country, but it all would have been for naught without the political and legal systems that were set up early on. So I'll sing "America the Beautiful" today and read things like Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the Gettysburg Address, and, of course, the Declaration of Independence.

03 July 2006

Still Here

Apparently the powers that be haven't noticed that it's July, so we still have internet access. Handy. And a good thing to, so we can get our health insurance taken care of and apply for a job. How in the world did we survive without the internet just ten years ago?

We got the good news today that we can really take 70 pounds per bag home instead of 50. But what I wish we really knew was if we'd be able to come back and then we'd leave everything here. And that's what we'd really like to have happen. But for now it will be nice to see our family again.

And now I want some kichree.