One year ago, during my final semester at Oberlin College, I took a class called "History of Central Asia" with two of my good friends, Michael Long and Joseph Campbell.
In this class, the professor would be sure to ask the above question "Is this ______ Orientalist?" about any reading selection, picture, video clip, or basically any tool or piece of information. Basically, everything was analyzed against Eduard Said and his critics.
This Orientalism meme inspired Joseph Campbell and I to take a journey to Central Asia together... considering we would be both (relatively) close.
Chelyabinsk, as I have mentioned, is very close to the border of Kazakhstan. The original plan was to visit Kazakhstan; it seemed like the most obvious choice. Unfortunately, there is no Kazakh consulate nearby to get a visa.
Joseph, who lives and works in Beijing, has the advantage of living in a capital city with access to every consulate. I would have had to make special trips to Moscow for an Uzbek, Kazakh, or Tajik visa (Turkmenistan is bureaucratically out of a the question), but lucky enough, a Kyrgyz consulate is conveniently located in nearby Ekaterinburg.
So we made our journey to Kyrgyzstan.
I hate to use such a superficial, candy-coated touristy adjective, but Kyrgyzstan is in very many ways, adorable. This adorable-ness began on the plane to Bishkek.
Our general plans and marshrut were very laid-back and low key. We spent three days in Bishkek, then three days in Osh (on a half-hour, forty-dollar flight on the infamous Kyrgyz Airlines) then the final day in Bishkek.
Oh wait...sorry... This is Kyrgyzstan:
Bishkek, in the north, is the capital. Osh is toward the south, right on the border with Uzbekistan. The whole puzzle-looking region where Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan come together in an awkward swirl is called the Fergana Valley. This region has been a hot commodity since the Silk Road days, and as you can imagine, the boundaries of where the Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks live have not exactly been clean and consistent.
Two years ago, there were riots in Osh as part of the revolution to overthrow the Bakiev government. This is not to be confused with the Tulip Revolution, where President Akayev was overthrown.
The Kyrgyz tend to kick out who they don't like rather quickly.
In Osh, we passed be some buildings that were completely burnt out from the inside, with bullet holes and clear remnants from the 2010 riots.
Now... back to why Kyrgyzstan is "adorable":
EVERYONE in Kyrgyzstan wears beautiful fur hats of various designs and colors. EVERYONE. Not just for special occasions, not just as part of traditional wear... no, everyday wear consists of an elaborate fur hat and a coat to match.
This includes Kyrgyz children. Every round-faced Kyrgyz child was bundled up from head to toe in puffy winter clothes and of course, a beautiful furry hat. Even Joseph Campbell couldn't resist to point out "Adorable furry little kids!!!" I kind of wanted to take one home with me.
On the other end of the hat spectrum was..... what we like to call... Epic Hat Man.
Epic Hat Man earned his hat. He didn't just go and buy it. We figured he was a tribal elder or something, or at least had some kind of status. He sat on the flight from Osh to Bishkek, and the entire time did not take off his enormous hat. The top was a black velvet-like Islamic cap, and underneath it about a foot length of some kind of fur, with longer hairs sticking out around it in all directions. Some people take off their hats on the plane, but he did not. He actually didn't budge. His body and facial expression matched his hat.
Unfortunately, there was no way we could take a picture without being unforgivably awkward. I did manage to touch it, though. I pretended to have to go to the bathroom and lose my balance due to turbulance, and "accidentally" touch his hat.
When we arrived in Bishkek, we went to get our baggage.. but Epic Hat Man did not have any baggage. We figured, he put whatever he brought with him in his hat. He then walks alone toward a mysterious door in the back, opens it, changes his mind, walks back, and then decides to weigh himself. He weighs 110 kilograms. I image 10 might be from the hat... but he was actually quite large (although not as large as the Chechen on the table from the week before).
Kyrgyz people, in general, are very beautiful and very elegant. They are clearly Asian looking, except much bigger and taller.
That was another thing that charmed us about Kyrgyzstan... the people, and their general attitude...comparatively much more laid-back.We stayed in hostels run by people about our age, who were very laid back and trusting when it came to payment, documents, times, whatever. People tended to just go with the flow. There was one time where we were asked for our documents by a police in a bazaar in Bishkek, but it seemed as if he was just bored and though "OOOHHH COOL! FOREIGNERS! I wanna look at their passports!"
Bazaars. Yes. Yet another great thing about Kyrgyzstan. Everything is so CHEAP. Granted, there is generally much lower infrastructure and as a destination it is not for you if you always expect Western comfort... but everything from accommodation to food to souvenirs is very inexpensive. The Kyrgyz som is worth less than a ruble (a Russian ruble is about 30 or 31 to a dollar, the Kyrgyz som is 46 to a dollar). The hostel cost 250 som per night, a good meal costs 80 som, a taxi ride to the airport costs 400 som, and a beautiful dress I bought cost 500 som. You do the math.
In the bazaars, you may barter (in fact, you are expected to). Joseph is much more relentless than I am. I often think "oh, it's so cheap anyway, and they need the money, so I won't argue", while Joseph would say "No, 200 som for that hat is too expensive, I will buy it for 120 and no more!"
I bought four Kyrgyz hats. Joseph bought fourteen.
One problem we had: language. In Bishkek it was not so much of a problem because everyone there spoke Russian pretty well. I could translate for Joseph and/or do most of the talking, but he understands a great deal of Russian (in addition to Chinese and Japanese and every East Asian language he knows). In Osh, however, a lot of people didn't speak Russian very well, or spoke with an unintelligible accent.
In the hostel in Osh, we shared a room with a Japanese backpacker named Ska (and yes, she does like that kind of music). She was 27 years old and was working toward a PhD in Central Asian studies. She spoke decent Russian, and she had just come by herself from Uzbekistan. She did not speak English very well, so we kind of had a three-way language situation: Joseph and I spoke English to each other, Joseph and Ska spoke Japanese, and Ska and I spoke Russian.
Eventually Russian became our main language. Joseph could manage enough of it.
From Bishkek, we took a marshrutka to Sukuluk and Alexandrovka, a nearby city that Joseph wanted to visit, because of the local Chinese Muslim (Dungan) population. Surely enough, we found some people that spoke Chinese, and Joseph impressed them as an American is Kyrgyzstan who spoke not just Mandarin but their own dialect.
The only negative part of this whole trip were the roads in Osh. I didn't want to check any baggage from Bishkek, so I just brought a backpack and could not bring any extra shoes. Unfortunately, I chose leather boots with heels. The roads in Osh are the most God-awful terrain you can imagine... uneven, muddy, and slushy. I ended up buying a cheap pair of boots just to use for the days there, and they broke after one day.
I didn't plan it this way... but the whole month trip turned out to be a tour of Post-Soviet Islam. From the North Caucasus to Central Asia to Tatarstan (that will be Part III), I certainly noticed a lot of difference in how religion is practiced in the different regions. In Kyrgyzstan, Osh was definitely the more religious and conservative of the two cities we saw. We spent one morning climbing Solomon's Mountain, a small mountain in the center of the city right behind the main mosque. Inside the mountain there was a museum of traditional clothing and jewelry, and then we climbed upward to the summit. It was actually difficult, because everything was so icy and slippery. Many of the locals believe that the Prophet Muhammad had once prayed there (I didn't think that historically, Muhammad had ever made it as far east as Kyrgyzstan...? Even so, this place has obvious significance). On the top, we wanted to have our picture taken, but the only other person was a peaceful looking Uzbek man walking around and praying, and we decided not to disturb him.
Most people did not eat pork, but they certainly drink alcohol. Joseph was poured a shot of vodka by a woman in hejab. I bought for myself and my Fulbright comrades a bottle of "Kyrgyzstan Cognac"... a hard liquor from an Islamic country. I was only hesitant to try it because it was so cheap (about 3 US Dollars... usually you don't want to mess with alcohol that cheap) but when we tried it, it was actually kind of good... strong, but with an aftertaste of cinnamon.
Joseph and I ended up having a great time, although I left a day before he did and was coming down with a cold on my flight to Moscow. The next day, he set off for Uzbekistan. I can't wait to hear about his adventures in Tashkent and Khiva... jealous.
Back in Russia, I am certainly missing the chaikhanas (tea houses) of Osh, where you can get a full breakfast for about a dollar.
Kyrgyzstan is certainly the most "exotic" and non-Western place I have been to. To really appreciate the time there, you have to have the right mentality, and not expect high infrastructure and not let Soviet legacies faze you. I think I have long since gotten to that point. It may be difficult to see everything and get to every place you want to go, but since we were in for a low-key week of going with the flow (but still in for adventure), it was definitely an Epic Win.