Work throughout the last week has accelerated quite nicely. On Monday I attended a presentation to a USAID representative where the Rule of Law (RoL) component presented its findings on Free Legal Aid Centers (FLACs) established previously under the leadership of other NGOs. Without divulging too much detail, it was interesting to observe some of the intricacies in the relationship between NGOs and donor organizations, especially how NGOs manage the divide between donor organization demands and maintaining a positive working relationship with governmental bodies. Following this meeting, the RoL component then scheduled a meeting with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to further clarify its commitments regarding regulatory matters for each of the pending FLACs.
On Tuesday and early Wednesday afternoon, I attended our weekly staff meeting, then spent most the day reviewing materials, aiding with editing the presentation, and preparing a template press release to use for future FLAC openings. However, with a meeting with the MoJ pending, specific details and times for those openings remained unclear. The RoL component, as well as the Chief of Party, was then scheduled to attend a meeting with the MoJ. As a result, Gary (our Chief of Party) was unable to attend the opening of a Non-Profit Management (NPM) resource center in Talas. Following lunch, our driver Vladimir suggested that I ask Gary and Ruslan (our Deputy Chief of Party) if I could join Ruslan in Gary’s place to travel to Talas for the NPM opening. Thankfully, they agreed that I could join, since a large vehicle to make the five-hour drive had already been ordered. My only obligation was to pay for a hotel room in Talas, which was very affordable. I jumped at the opportunity. We left Wednesday afternoon.
The road to Talas involves a long stretch out of Bishkek, then a roughly four-hour meander through mountainous roads followed by another flat stretch. Then, once entering Talas Oblast (area/state), there is another mountain pass before descending into the valley where Talas sits. The road itself is entirely variable. Some areas look as though they were just constructed, while others show years of wear and tear. Our driver skillfully swerved around potholes and passed traffic on mountain passes hundreds of feet high as we traveled on a road varying from two to four typical lanes wide.
As with most roads in Kyrgyzstan, there is no marking dividing lanes and drivers freely pass one another and drive against traffic in order to avoid obstacles such as potholes, cargo vehicles, road workers, and even herds of animals being brought to the highlands for summer grazing. This last obstacle is what the RoL Program Office Meder jokingly referred to as a “Kyrgyz traffic jam.”
The journey through the mountains itself, though occasionally quite bumpy, is entirely worth it for the almost continuously beautiful views of mountains and valleys. Once we crossed through a tunnel pass near the peak of a mountain top, we began descending into a beautiful green valley. From above, you could see the road hundreds of feet below snaking into the valley, its sides dotted with the occasional yurt. After another hour or so of driving, we entered Talas Oblast and crossed the highest point in the road, which was roughly 3,600 meters (almost 12,000 ft.) high. Peaks of the surrounding mountains reach even higher than this.
At this time of the year, the valleys and mountains are at their greenest. Talas and the surrounding area was alive with fields of grass and large herds of grazing horses, sheep, and cows. Even in residential areas, you should pay attention to the road, because these animals tend to freely roam between houses and across the roadway.
We arrived at our hotel in Talas at 7pm. It was an average-sized home converted into four or five hotel rooms. Beforehand, we had stopped about ten kilometers outside of Talas to have dinner. We ate the local куурдак (kurdak), which is a dish comprised mostly of roasted lamb.
Then next morning, our hostess prepared a breakfast of каша с рисом (kasha s reesam), which is a milk-heavy porridge with rice. This is a very typical breakfast I had also eaten several times in Russia. Afterward, we suited-up and our driver took us to the university for the event.
The event itself, though taking place in a smaller city, was quite lively and was featured in local news coverage. Over forty people were in attendance. First, we stood at the entrance to the university and several people including Ruslan made short speeches regarding the opening, what the NPM Resource Center will provide, and their hopes for it into the future. Then, a student from the university sang a song, followed by another student who performed a traditional form of Kyrgyz dance. Next came the group photo. Nearly everyone in attendance joined. Afterward, they held a ribbon-cutting event for the center itself, which is a conference room style area equipped with USAID-donated equipment, including furniture, computers, projectors, a whiteboard, etc. Everyone then gathered in the room for a formal signing ceremony. Again, different persons/representatives gave speeches. Most of these speeches, however, were in Kyrgyz, so I can only say that they reaffirmed the positive sentiment about the center and its future goals.
Following the event, there was a reception in a conference room upstairs and various Kyrgyz and Russian foods were served. Following the reception, a young man who had spoken in the resource center invited us to visit and inspect the offices of a local youth organization he led. The organization itself has many functions, one of which is to bring together the youth from various areas around the country to discuss solutions and action plans for current issues in the country, including issues like extremism. The office interior was nicely put together and equipment, furniture acquisition, etc. is funded by a German international organization.
Following this visit, we returned to the university and said our goodbyes, then began the return trip to Bishkek. On the way back, we stopped at Manas Ordo, which is a kind of indoor/outdoor museum to celebrate the Kyrgyz epic hero Manas. He is believed to have lived in the middle centuries and locals believe he was a king of great power and influence who united the Kyrgyz people. The museum has a hill upon which it is believed that Manas would sit to oversee the lowlands surrounding what is now Talas. The views from this area are breathtaking.
We arrived back in Bishkek Thursday night. Although it may only be morning back in Williamsburg, the majority of Friday’s workday has already ended for me. I spent some time today preparing materials for language teaching workshops I will be conducting at Kyrgyz National University next week. For the remainder of the day I went with Ruslan to attend a meeting hosted by another organization funded by the European Union, which promotes small public councils throughout the country. We spent our time there listening to presentations and questions from attendees. However, as impartial observers, we were not directly involved.