Believe it or not, today marks my first month of living in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It has indeed been a whirlwind, and while I still haven’t been out of Bishkek, fortunately I’ve managed to explore a fair bit of my new city. I hadn’t been to Central Asia outside of Russia prior to moving here but my adventures in Russia have certainly come in handy with regards to understanding how things work and how to get around.
Every day has brought new experiences, big and small, good and bad, which keeps me on my toes. On almost a daily basis, I am asked, “So, do you like Kyrgyzstan?” At this point, I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘like’ because I’m still adjusting. However, I would say that the neurons in my brain are constantly going crazy at all the interesting things I’m learning, intentionally or inadvertently. Though I’d certainly love to write a blog of stories solely from my time on transportation here, I thought it’d be easiest to explain how things are going across the expat-in-the-Kyrgyz Republic landscape.
I’m living in the city center near the main drag of Chui Boulevard that runs east to west through the northern part of the city. People at work are constantly surprised because this is pretty far from the university, but similar to my time in Japan, I really wanted to be where the action is, especially since I’m getting involved in things outside of the university. There are a lot of cafes, restaurants, shops, and sights around and my location is extremely convenient for getting around the city.
The interior of my apartment is very modern and sleek, complete with a comfy couch and large Samsung TV. Here, many apartments come fully furnished and if you need anything else, you can ask the landlord to buy it for you. I requested a few more hangers, drinking glasses, butter knives, extra pillows, towels, and mugs. My landlord brought everything by and through in a large beer mug! I am really digging my large walk-in closet and heated floors. They recently saved me when it was -26 Celsius and the government’s centralized heating system failed! I’m hoping to film a funny video tour of my apartment in the coming weeks…
General Life Stuff
My previous experiences of living abroad have found me in more developed countries – Japan, the UK, and Italy, though to be fair, Japan is still a country that relies on the fax machine way more than it should, and Italy’s process for finding a doctor, booking an appointment, and paying for it, is…antiquated. Every country, including my own US, comes with its own challenges to navigate, and Kyrgyzstan is no different.
I have made a small goal to go some place new at least once a week. One afternoon, I walked over to the Tsum Shopping Center and happened upon the KFC here. Another time I hit up the main Ala-too Square at night to see it all lit up. My first weekend here, I took a free walking tour from the train station up the leafy-in-summer Erkindik Boulevard in a more posh part of town. Even though I try new places, I’ve become a faithful customer of the small supermarket below my apartment building. The staff know I don’t speak Russian so they’ve taken to showing me things around the store in order for me to understand better.
Additionally, I have tried to walk when possible and when it’s not too cold, allowing me to really orient myself within the city. I have come to love this short underground mall of shops selling everyday goods and inevitably buy random stuff I need there, like scotch tape. More recently, I finally joined a gym a few minutes away from my apartment with the help of a discount arranged by the Russian exec I tutor. The sign-up experience was highly entertaining as the manager didn’t really speak English and had to help me understand the membership form. Thank goodness Rustam, a trainer from Kazakhstan, came to my aid. I now seem to be his go-to person for creating English captions for his incessant Instagram posts about his personal trainer activities and classes! I can appreciate his enthusiasm.
There are a handful of types of transportation here. Again, due to my time in Russia, I’d been looking forward to the “most entertaining” aka the most adventurous, and thought of as the most dangerous. This would be the marshrutka, or mini-bus, usually an old, converted 16-person Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. Drivers can often be quite erratic, on their cell phones, honking their horns at traffic, or turning the radio to different stations all while people are telling them where to stop. At times, there may be 25-30 people on a marshrutka with lots of people standing near the front. There are designated marshrutka stops around the city but generally, if you tell the driver where you want to get off, they will stop for you.
As I have explained to new Kyrgyz friends, I have really gotten into what I call, “marshrutka etiquette”. I watch the behavior of other passengers and then emulate them to fit in. For example, when your stop is coming up, you get very close to the front door – ready to get out – with your right foot on the lower step, your left foot propped up on the main floor of the vehicle, and your right hand on the door handle. Also, I’ve never been to a country where people so readily give up their seat for someone who needs it more. I have been told that the main rule is to always give up your seat to someone who appears older than you. I love this but at the same time, I’m always paranoid that I won’t see someone who needs my seat and everyone will stare at me like I’m a terrible person.
I firmly believe that a marshrutka culture exists. I remain fascinated by how each is individually decorated. What trinkets adorn the rearview mirror? Are there decorations on the outside of the marshrutka? Does the vehicle look like it’s going to fall apart (a few of them do)? Ohhh, it has a flat-screen TV behind the driver’s seat? What adverts is it playing for us? I’ve heard Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, and a Russian group called IOWA playing – I never know what to expect. Last Monday was simultaneously my worst marshrutka ride – because it was so crowded – and my favorite – because while standing up squashed against the window, I was able to watch the Eagles win the Super Bowl live thanks to my parents’ SlingBox. Perhaps the biggest reason why I like marshrutkas is that they make me feel like a part of the city, instead of a bystander or visitor.
OK, enough about the marshrutkas. You get that I’m obsessed. We also have trolley-buses that run along the electrical lines, regular buses, and taxis. The buses cost 8 soms (12 cents) per ride while marshrutkas cost 10 soms (15 cents). At first, I was surprised by this because the buses are usually nicer and have more room but I was told it’s because they stop less frequently. I do often take taxis simply because they can get me from point A to point B a lot faster than marshrutkas as they don’t stop.
When I arrived, everyone just told me to take taxis because they are pretty cheap (about $3 for a 30-minute ride) and are deemed safer than marshrutkas. This is true only part of the time as I’ve come away with some fairly interesting taxi experiences. One taxi driver took me on a super random route and then insisted on stopping for gas on a side street even though there were 62736472 Gazprom stations along our main route. On the flip side, there was also the taxi driver who told me about his friend who moved to Cincinnati on a working holiday visa and ended up meeting his now American wife when they both worked at McDonald’s there.
Two apps have literally been my lifesavers here: 2gis and Yandex. 2gis is a Russian app available across several former-USSR countries that features offline maps and transport routes. This is how I’ve managed to figure out a lot of marshrutka routes without getting lost. Yandex is the Russian version of Uber, though you can pay cash and aren’t penalized for canceling a taxi order.
I’m now teaching a series of entrepreneurship courses as well as event management at the American University of Central Asia, widely considered to be the best university in the country and heavily funded by the US Department of State and the Soros Foundation. The School of Entrepreneurship and Business Administration (SEBA) is what the university is known for and is the most competitive program for students. I teach three classes on Mondays and Wednesdays and then an evening MBA class. I particularly like that my students are from a range of countries – Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Russia, France – as this brings a variety of perspectives into the classroom.
Class preparation takes a lot of time but the most time-consuming aspect for me has simply been figuring out how students work and behave here. Very different from the American, Japanese, Saudi, and Filipino students I’ve worked with…some of it is cultural and some of it has to do with the university itself. A new goal of mine is to incorporate more communications skill-building activities and personal responsibility incentives into my classes. The university campus building itself, is state of the art, sustainable, and heated geothermally. I love its multifunctional design! I’ve already gotten hooked on the Korean food at Flask Coffee upstairs, one of the four coffee places we have.
Without a doubt, my favorite part of working at AUCA has been the SEBA organizational culture. My colleagues, foreign and local, have been exceptionally friendly and helpful and everyone is respected and valued. I suppose I appreciate it so much more having experienced the exact opposite a few years back! I am wildly grateful for the sense of autonomy I have, coupled with my colleagues’ trust, and thus, have found it to be an ideal environment for working independently and collaboratively – the best of both worlds!
Because I’m not very good at sitting still, despite a certain foot injury last year, I’ve been itching to dive into the local economic development scene, and yes, plan some events. I’ve been accepted into the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Bishkek hub and am currently working on coordinating an event on intercultural communication in an effort to promote the hub’s chosen mission of educational outreach. I am also working with the Central Asian Free Market Institute on developing financial literacy programs for startup and growing SMEs in the rural Naryn region down south. A trip there at the end of the month is in the works! Still waiting to hear back about the TEDx license application I filed so that I can finally begin working on the event for next spring…
As you might know, I’m very much into checking out the local food scene whenever I travel and well, this move is no different. Some places were so well known, like Burger House, Sierra Coffee, and Chicken Star that I’d need to live under a rock not to know them here. Sierra Coffee is essentially the Kyrgyz version of Starbucks in Bishkek, featuring bottomless coffee, and l happen to live a 10-minute walk from the only 24/7 brand. Burger House serves as the expat pub quiz hangout, which is practically the only thing people would recommend to me when I asked about meeting people.
What about Kyrgyz and Central Asian food? Well, there are loads of fast food options, involving a lot of doner, lamb, and chicken. A nearby cafe has all types of Central Asian cuisine and there I was able to try chak chak, a type of honey dessert, and lagman, a Uyghur noodle dish with meat and veggies. A few nights ago, I went to Faiza, a local chain of cheap cafeteria-style food, with a friend and she helped me try mampar, a stewlike dish, fried dumplings with sour cream, and shashlik. Not the best quality but a good way to check those things out. To welcome me, a few colleagues also took me to Red Cow, where I had a delicious horse steak, something that is eaten on special occasions here.
Bishkek has become known for its cafe culture and I can easily understand why. I’ve starred countless places on Google Maps and am working on venturing to them over the course of the semester. A blog about the best cafes, bars, and restaurants in the city is forthcoming.
I maybe knew about 20-30 Russian words and phrases before arriving in Kyrgyzstan. What helped me more was knowing how to read Cyrillic. As I mentioned in my last blog about 2018 goals, learning conversational Russian is near the top of my list of things to do here.
Fortunately, I found a fantastic Russian and Kyrgyz language school, Lingua Yurt, that is only a few steps from my apartment. Four women teaching at language schools opened this school in the fall and after two weeks of private lessons, I feel like I’ve come a long way already! I’m now up to speed on numbers, personal pronouns, possessive pronouns, shopping dialogues, and queries in Russian. I’m eager to start learning some verbs! The best part is that the side money I’m making by tutoring a Russian executive in English almost covers the cost of my own Russian lessons.
While more people than I expected speak English around the city (probably due to the presence of a lot of aid agencies and universities), I have had a few tricky moments when I’ve had to rely on Google Translate, for better or for worse. Another reason why I want to improve my Russian – the opportunity to live more independently and understand what I’m buying at the grocery store or ordering on a menu. The latter came back to bite me today when I pointed at and ordered the Friday lunch special not realizing it included the buckwheat I despise.
If you’re more curious as to what life in Kyrgyzstan is like, feel free to follow me on Snapchat via @haaggendazs – my feed has become a travelogue of Kyrgyzstan everyday life. I find a lot of simple things new and interesting – from ordering food delivery service to shopping to figuring out banking services. I do my best to show the realities of living here, many of which are totally NOT glamorous but can definitely be amusing and/or frustrating!