29 February 2012

My Real Post Report about Bishkek

I noticed the other day that a new RPR had been posted for Bishkek, after more than 5 years.  I thought it was pretty good, but I still thought I'd do my own here. 

How long have you lived there?  18 months this time, 11 months in 2005/06, both times in education

Is this your first expat experience?  No.

How long is the flight?  We flew from the western US both times.  Turkish Air took us from Frankfurt to Istanbul to Bishkek the first time, and we went on Aeroflot from LAX to Moscow to Bishkek this time.  It's at least 20 hours of flying time from the west coast if you have to fly over the Atlantic.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country? I'm not sure there is anything in particular that's amazing about Bishkek, although I really like it here.  I especially like the food and the people, but you can find good food and good people everywhere.  I suppose it's a pretty cheap place to live.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country? Learning about Central Asian culture and religion.

What is the air quality like?  I know some people think it's really bad, and it can be in Bishkek on the streets, but overall it's not bad at all especially in comparison to many major Asian cities.  Even in the towns in the winter, it's not too bad even though there's some coal smoke.

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?  It's always reminded me a lot of the intermountain western US.  Hot, dry summers and cold snowy winters with spring and summer lasting a couple of months each.

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?  Flies, mosquitoes, and ants are the only annoyances.

Are there any special security concerns?  We've never had a problem or concern beyond your usual precautions living in a city.

Housing types, locations, commute time?  This is more an embassy type question, but there is a huge range of housing here from apartments to huge houses with yards.  It's easy to find a good apartment in the city if you want that, or a house by the embassy, or whatever.

International schools:  The two major international schools are QSI Bishkek and Hope Academy.  If we weren't homeschooling and could afford it, I'd definitely choose QSIB over Hope for academics.  Both are willing to work with homeschoolers who want to do some electives there.  The people at both schools are very nice.  There are several other international schools here that are good too, but I don't think very many western expats use them.

Preschool/daycare available:  There are lots of options from kindergartens to nannies and everything else.  200 som/hour for many services is fairly typical.

What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?  Not much, although we know people who've been hired recently to help with this at the international schools.  We also have friends whose kids have SN and they choose to homeschool because the international schools can't help much.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?  I'm not really up on what too many expats think, but in general I think most people are reasonably happy here.

From what you have heard, is it a good city for gay or lesbian expats?  Not particularly, although I suspect it might be better here than in many Muslim-majority countries.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?  There is currently a move toward Kyrgyz nationalism, which is unfortunate since about a third of the population isn't ethnically Kyrgyz.  Bishkek still has a large Russian population, and it's a very diverse city.  Expats rarely have any kind of trouble in Bishkek, except for African-Americans, but even they mostly just deal with pointing and laughing from kids.  Certainly there are gender issues here, but they aren't as obvious as in many places (except for the ever-publicized bride kidnapping).

What difficulties would someone with physical disabilities have living in this city?  This country doesn't accommodate physical disabilities very well.  While we have known physically-disabled people who live here comfortably, it's not always easy.

Interesting/fun things to do in the area:  There are many outdoor options, especially if you have a car.  We especially enjoy doing CBT stays.  Lots of hiking, climbing, and horseback riding.

Are gyms or workout facilities available?  Yes, quite a few, although most aren't in downtown Bishkek.

Are sports programs available for kids? There are a reasonable number of options through the schools and the gyms in the area.  Our kids have been happy with what we've been able to work out.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?  There are no Western chains here, not even KFC.  But there are many, many great restaurants in town with international and local cuisine.  There's also a lot of good street food.  Just find a stand where lots of people are buying.  Eating is cheap here, except in a few Western-style places that don't have great food anyway.

What is the availability (and the relative cost) of groceries and household supplies?  You can't get very many familiar-to-a-USian brands here, so if you want the right kind of salad dressing, you're not going to be happy here.  But there are a wide range of groceries available and I've rarely felt limited here.  Everything is cheap if you stick with local products and I don't think that's a problem.

What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc? Well, none, if you want things labeled neatly.  But the produce is all local (well, in the winter some of it isn't, but you can tell what isn't) and often you're buying from the person who grew the produce themselves, so you can ask them about it.  Gluten-free and allergy-free food is definitely not here, and it's not too easy to be vegetarian here, although we successfully eat very little meat.  Tofu is easy to find at least.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?  There are plenty of ATMs around and we've never had a problem.  Hardly anyone takes credit cards here, or at least the kinds of stores I frequent don't.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?  We ride the marshrutkas all the time if it's too far to walk.  They're cheap and safe, although crowded and minor pickpocketing might go on, although it's never happened to me.  There are plenty of taxis; you can call one, or get one on the street.  We always just get one on the street when we need one.

How do you get and send your letters and package mail?  That's tricky since we're on our own.  We have all our mail sent to the university we're associated with because we've found that to be the most reliable system.  We didn't have trouble last time with our post office box, but it didn't work out very well this time.  I don't send mail and packages because it's a hassle and unreliable.

Items you would ship to this post if you could do it again?  Well, I've never had the fun of shipping anything overseas, but if I could, I'd ship some ingredients that I can't find here like coconut milk, fish sauce, and tamarind.  I think that's about it though.

Availability and cost of domestic help: I think this is easy to find and not expensive, although I don't know.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living? The more Russian you know in Bishkek, the happier you'll be.  Very few people speak English, and even fewer speak it well.  You'd at least need enough Russian to do some shopping, and it's worth getting comfortable with the alphabet.  But I've also known expats who don't learn any Russian at all and do fine.

English-language religious services available? Denominations?  This is a little dicey right now.  Several of the churches are being extremely careful right now, although it's probably not necessary.  There is an international church and a Catholic church, both in English, I believe, and plenty of in-home meetings.

Is high-speed internet access available? Cost?  It costs about $50/month for a reasonably high-speed connection.  It's not blazing fast, but we've been satisfied with it.

What unique local items can you spend it on?  Shyrdaks and other textiles

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?  Of course :)

28 February 2012

Leering, or Is It Staring?

There are a lot of things I like about the Middle East, but the staring/leering (at best) isn't one of them.  While you might get leered at in the US too, it's nothing like the places I've been in the Middle East. 

It's not like that at all in Kyrgyzstan.  I have never, ever been in a place where I felt that I wasn't ever getting stared at (except if someone thinks I'm not dressed warmly enough, but that's totally different).  It's not just me; I spend a lot of time on the streets and I've noticed that even women who are dressed to be looked at (and would be leered at by some men in the US), simply aren't. 

You see a huge range of clothing on women here, pretty much everything you can think of (although completely veiled is extremely rare).  No one gets stared at.

Refreshing.  There's got to be a post about modesty in there somewhere.

I have heard it's not this way in Tajikistan, but unfortulatnly, despite my interest in Central Asia, I've only been in northern Kyrgyzstan, so I don't know if this is the case elsewhere.  I'd be especially interested in hearing what it's like in Uzbekistan.

Onion Soup

It's a long story, but we've been eating this onion soup a lot recently.  It's not at all a Central Asian recipe, but that's okay.

Butter (you can use just a little if you want, or up to 1/4 cup)
4 large onions, more or less, chopped or sliced
2 tablespoons flour, whole wheat if you can
1 liter water
2 tsp salt, or to taste
1 tsp cayenne or black pepper, or to taste
Slice of bread, stale or fresh, or a handful or two of breadcrumbs
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vinegar

Melt the butter in a pot (qazans are best, but you can use any old pot you want) and then add the onions and cook on medium for about 15 minutes till they're very soft but not brown.  Add the flour and stir-fry for 2 more minutes, then add the water and salt and pepper and bring to a boil.  Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or a little more if you need to.  Add the bread or crumbs about 10 minutes before serving.  Whisk the egg yolk and vinegar together, then just before serving, remove the pot from the stove.  Add a little of the hot soup to the egg and stir it in, then add the egg to the soup and mix well.

27 February 2012

Heavy Food

We took a Kyrgyz couple out to dinner last week to the Mexican restaurant in town.  They've never had Mexican food and shared a burrito and an enchilada, both of which they thought were good but that the beans were too heavy. 

We traveled a bit with the husband when we were here before and I'll never forget sitting on top of Tash Rabat, eating lunch.  He had slabs of plain, boiled sheep's fat that he offered to share with us, but we declined.  I suppose I'd have called that heavy too.

So we'll eat our beans and he can eat his fat and we'll all be happy. I do hear Americans describe the food here as being heavy or cholesterol- or carb-laden.  Some of it is (like a lot of American food I could list), but there is so much here that is light, fresh, healthy, and delicious.  Our Kyrgyz friend's mother made me the first Rainbow Salad I've ever had.


I can't help looking forward to spring every year even though I know it means that hot weather is coming afterwards.  But by the end of February, I'm tired of cold sogginess, especially in Kyrgyzstan.  I shouldn't complain at all in the US because sidewalks are far more likely to get shoveled and, unless I'm living in a really snowy place, it's easier to walk around in the US than it is here.  But last winter at this time and again now I'm really ready for something a little warmer.

But I still dread the hot weather.  Last summer was far more awful than any winter could be, although I suspect most people in Kyrgyzstan wouldn't agree with me.

Black Water Rising

I read this a couple of weeks ago and generally liked it, although I didn't think the plot was amazing.  But it did bring up some interesting issues about race in particular and other topics without hitting you over the head with them.

21 February 2012

Downtown or Tiny Town?

There's really not all that much to write about during February in Bishkek.  Some days it's snowy and some days it's slushy and some days it's cloudy and mostly it's not too cold, but it's generally soggy and sloppy outside.  So I've been thinking about where we're going next.

Now, staying here is a good possibility and there are some good reasons to do that.  But there's not much to think about with that, because I know exactly where I'd want to live and how things would be because we'd be doing a job we'd done before and I know Bishkek. 

But another good possibility is to move back to the US, to an eastern state.  I'm a western US person, and when I've lived in the US, it's nearly always been in the West.  So thinking about moving to the East Coast is already different than, say, moving to Seattle was, or anywhere in Idaho.

The biggest thing I'm thinking about is whether we want to live in a tiny (way tiny) town, or a small city.  Usually living near work is a major priority for us, but the potential work site isn't close to anything interesting, and my husband is happier commuting to work than I am driving everywhere else.  So since living near work wouldn't likely be an option, I want to live where I can walk to at least the grocery store, library, and some activities for the boys. 

The small city would be perfect for this because there's a ice rink for the boys, a library, a grocery store, and all other kinds of interesting things within a very small area, and a free trolley that runs to another part of town with an ethnic grocery store and a major university.  Hockey, good food, and books.  I think that's about all we need.  Not surprisingly though, it's not cheap to rent in that part of town, and it might quite literally mean that all we do is eat, read, play hockey.  Two other things about that location- it's about 20 minutes from work and the church building, and the ward we'd be in has very few kids my older boys' ages.

The tiny (way tiny) town has a grocery store and a library which would obvious be within walking distance, because it's tiny.  We could also rent a bigger house with a yard for a lot less money.  I'm not sure though how much there'd be for the boys to do.  They weren't too happy in Tokmok, and I fear it would be a little like that.  It's about 30 minutes from work and the church building, but that ward has a lot more teenagers.  I also know I'd get out in the car a lot more there because, while I don't much like driving in cities, even small ones, I love driving in rural areas, and there is so much history in that part of the country that I'd want to see.

There is, of course, a suburban option, but that's not my style.  The rent is cheaper than downtown, yes, but it's completely unwalkable from what I can find, and we'd have a hard time with just one car which is pretty much unnegotiable, but you don't have to hear my reasons for that.

So, if you made it this far, what would you choose?  Do you like rural areas, urban, what?

17 February 2012

The Canaanite Women

We got some good news today on something we've been working on for more than a year, although in many ways we've been working on and worrying about it for more than 6 years.  It's amazing that it finally worked out after so long.

Nothing to do with a job, which is coming along nicely, or the family, which likes living here (finally), or the dissertation, which is right on schedule.  But it's something that should be able to make a difference in the lives of some people we know, and us too.

15 February 2012

Factory Girls

I read this for a book group and enjoyed it.  It's nearly as much about the author's family's emigrating from China as much as it is about the migrations of the factory girls she writes about.  Both parts were good, but I'd have liked to have heard more about the individual lives of more of the women and girls in Donggan.  Still, just hearing about the three women the author knew best is valuable, and any family's history is worth telling.  Worth reading, even if it wasn't gripping.

The Book of Mormon Girl

I really enjoyed this and wish I had someone in real life to talk about it with.

While I don't agree with some other reviews I've seen that wished for more about Brooks' being-away part, I did think it wasn't really balanced since the majority was spent on her childhood.  I felt, in some ways, as if she were trying to explain why she's here, but I wasn't entirely convinced by her reasons.

Anyway, great book.  And such a good title.

09 February 2012

Bride Kidnapping, Again

I think this article, like so many about bride kidnapping, is well-intentioned but misses the point.  And so does the law that was voted down.

Mullahs already aren't supposed to be performing the nikaah without proof of a state marriage; doing so can result in a fine.  This was largely put into place to protect women's property rights since a state marriage is necessary to legally protect her.  This is very important.

But in practice, that law doesn't seem to have made much of a difference.  It's easy to simply have the groom or a family member pay a fee to the mullah that's equal to the fine, in case there is a problem for the mullah.  It's also not always practical to get a state marriage because in rural areas, the state offices aren't open often, or couples may have to travel a long distance to get the marriage done.  Since the nikaah is a community-sanctioned form of marriage, then why should we expect couples to bother with the state marriage just because of a fine? 

The article quotes Munara Beknazarova saying:

Munara Beknazarova of Open Line, a Bishkek-based NGO that offers support to bride-kidnapping victims, said many village mullahs are aware that abducting a bride is “against Islamic principles,” but still bless marriages if the bride says she has consented to the union. “By the time the mullah arrives, [the bride] has often been physically intimidated, occasionally raped, and threatened with social exclusion,” said Beknazarova. “Of course she consents.”

Yes. But honestly, how would this law solve that problem? It's not like getting a state marriage means that the marriage was completely consensual.  It just means they took a little more time to get the paperwork done.  Kidnappings by their very nature are hasty affairs, whether they're consensual or not.  Having the nikaah done first does not necessarily mean the marriage shouldn't have happened.

The law would help solve this problem though (although, as I mentioned above, it's easy to get around):

Beknazarova maintained that an unregistered union denies a woman, and, ultimately, her children, of her civil rights because she has no legal right to alimony or protection if she leaves an unofficial marriage. This helps cement the practice of bride kidnapping as normal in rural Kyrgyzstan.

I do think it's not unreasonable that more laws are passed trying to curtail bride kidnapping, but NGOs should be aware they are probably going to be largely symbolic.  I think laws can contribute to the solution, but that's not where the major changes in bride kidnapping is going to happen.  

07 February 2012

Pinch of Turmeric, Squeeze of Lime

Looking forward to this.

Reasons to Like Winter

Or, possibly, keeping a stiff upper lip.  But it's nowhere near as stiff as I have to keep it in the summer.

1. No flies

2. No mosquitoes

3. If it's too hot in the apartment, I can fix it by opening a window

4. No smells.  Bishkek really doesn't smell bad, especially in comparison to Middle Eastern cities I've been in, but there are a few places where you don't mind not being able to smell anything.

5. Soup and other hot foods.  It's so nice to enjoy them.

6. No dust

7. I don't have to drive in the snow

Honestly, the first three make up for everything that's not so nice about winter.

03 February 2012

Sometimes I Miss Living in Tokmok

I liked being outside so much there in our own private space.  And I had to be outside a lot, to get water, or to go to the kitchen.  Yesterday I had a lot of windows open (there's usually 2 open, but yesterday I needed 4) and it smelled like Tokmok.  I'm not sure if it's a good thing that coal smoke makes me nostalgic, but that's okay.

I also liked being able to walk in the road instead of on the sidewalks.  Since yesterday was a 4-window day, the sidewalks melted a little.  Today is not a four-window day and now the sidewalks are sheets of ice in many places instead of packed snow.  Packed snow is much easier to walk on.  I haven't fallen yet today, but I don't expect I can make it through the entire day without a fall. 

Also, it was always easy to find jusay in the bazaar.  Couldn't find any today in Bishkek.

01 February 2012

The Eating's a Lot Better This Time

I didn't do that great of a job with cooking when we lived here before.  There were lots of contributing reasons, but the main reason was that I had a four-year-old and a six-year-old.  That meant that, in addition to carrying all our food home, I also had to get said four- and six-year-old to the store and back.  Every single time.  So I didn't range very far in my shopping.  I went to the little bazaar down the street which was pretty sparce in the winter (just cabbage, potatoes, radishes, and carrots), and to the Narodniy a few blocks away because it was simple, although limited.

But it's so different this time around being able to get out and buy more things.  I still don't choose to run all over town trying to find certain American (or at least uncommon in Kyrgyzstan) ingredients, but I have a much wider variety of ingredients available to work with.  It also helps that we're nearly two years out from the last revolution instead of a few months; it also seems that stores came back much more quickly in 2010 than 2005 anyway.

The picky eater child isn't necessarily any happier than last time (although he's no more annoyed than he would be in the US), but the rest of us are a lot happier with dinner now.