As promised, I'll be writing about non-work activities this time. I'm trying to record a lot of first impressions, so please excuse the variety of topics in this post.
Outside of the office I've been able to spend some time with my co-workers. One evening we went to a park for a picnic. The park is near the American Embassy (about 10 minutes from the center of the city) and looks out at the Tian Shan Mountain Range. I've included a few pictures of the Range from another outing. We ate plof, a rice, vegetable, and meat dish cooked in a bowl over a fire. It was delicious. I've ordered it in restaurants this week and it is not the same at all.
The food here is difficult to describe because there is very little "Kyrgyz food." Almost all of it, as far as I can tell, is a mix of Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Asian (Chinese mostly, but not exclusively) cuisines. A dish that is quickly becoming my favorite is lagman, a noodle dish with bell peppers, onions, and meat. The sauce is liquid, slightly oily, a bit spicy, and made with tomato paste. I also ate it fried, which was delicious.
Eating out here is inexpensive compared to eating out in the U.S. So far I've been to 6-7 restaurants and I've paid only $2-5 for a full meal and a drink. Food in stores seems to be about half-price for many goods (cheese, milk, candy), far cheaper for baked goods (5 cents for a loaf of bread, $3 for a medium cake), and about the same as in the U.S. for some items such as cereal and soft drinks. I still need to visit the open markets, where the food is extremely inexpensive but there is a high probability of pick-pocketing.
Back to leisure activities…
One of the drivers/support staff members, Beksultan, has been kind enough to drive me around the past couple of weeks. Many of the restaurants and shops in the city are within walking distance from my apartment, but sometimes I go out at night or I want to go outside of the city. Over the weekend I went to Ata-Beiit, (Cemetery of our Fathers) a monument in the mountains erected in honor of 137+ elites (academics, politicians, highly-educated Kyrgyz) who Stalin killed in 1938 because they were trying to form a government. The monument is a source of great pride because the story demonstrates the strength and independent spirit of the Kyrgyz population. Even though the endeavor was unsuccessful, the men killed are role models for the current government.
More information on the story: http://www.thinkir.co.uk/a-visit-to-ata-beiit-dialogue-with-the-communist-past-closes-in-kyrgyzstan/
Another activity I enjoyed was seeing Godzilla in Russian. I understood little of the dialogue, but the fact that it was Godzilla made it fairly easy to follow. The theater was small but similar to those in the U.S. The biggest difference was probably the prices of tickets and food, which were significantly lower.
My last cultural experience (for this post) was a visit to Bishkek Park, a brand new mall about a block from my apartment. I'd heard about it from my co-workers, and I'd seen it while driving to other locations, but going in was a surreal experience. For context, a block away there is an unpaved alley with sheet metal on either side leading to a dilapidated shack, like a scene from an impoverished village. Walking into the mall (through a metal detector) I was hit by bright lights, shiny white tile floors, and American pop music. It was like stepping into a mall in Seattle or D.C. The stores were almost all new to me, (Puma was one exception) but there were four floors of clothing, shoes, accessories, luggage, jewelry, and electronics, all of which would have fit in to any American mall. The food available was probably the best clue that I was in Central Asia. On the top two floors, there was a food court next to an entertainment center with video games, bumper cars, and small rides. I found a wonderful kebab restaurant and watched children go crazy.
On the top floor is a bowling alley, which I did not visit on this trip. I wanted to see what the prices were like, so I went into an athletic clothing store to buy some flip flops for a weekend trip to a lake I'll be taking Saturday. As I entered the shop, a young woman followed me around until I stopped at the shoe section. She asked me in English if I needed help and proceeded to provide excellent service. Surprisingly, the sandals were all over $50, which I knew was far more than most people in Bishkek could afford. As I looked around the store, I saw that everything was priced similarly, as if the items were being marketed in the U.S. From what I can tell about the local economy, these prices cannot be sustainable. I left the mall wondering how it could possibly meet the needs of the locals.
I did find some reasonably priced food in the mall. This is shashlik, which we would call shish kebab. Kebabs are ground meat while shashlik is just barbequed chunks of meat. Both are delicious.
Next post will be work-related. I've been visiting local organizations to find out what sorts of technology they use to communicate with other countries and other oblasts (regions) in Kyrgyzstan. I give a presentation to the staff on Monday about my findings. Until then!