Laura’s text launches a new series of guest posts which we are going to publish on our website to present to you interesting people from all over the world and their stories. A different approach to travelling…
My name is Laura and I’ve been living in Osh – the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan – for almost half a year. I chose this place to be my abode quite spontaneously and without much knowledge… I moved into the blue. Before I went there permanently I had some insight into the character of that country and its inhabitants. What’s more, my head was big from listening to stories told by people who’ve travelled there or by self-proclaimed experts who have never visited any of the “states”. I wasn’t bothered by questions such as: “Will I be able to communicate with the people?”, “Will I find interesting places to sightsee” or “Will I like the Kyrgyz cuisine?” I was rather wondering whether I would be able to wear t-shirts with miniskirts, find nice party clubs or spend my time in an interesting way. Forgive me, I know that real globetrotters wouldn’t bother about such things, but I’m no traveler to have lofty anxieties. In the end, I chose Osh for my home. I didn’t know yet what was ahead of me. I wasn’t aware that my initial fears will disappear soon after my arrival only to be replaced by other everyday problems.
Life in Kyrgyzstan
So what life in Kyrgyzstan is like? For me – easy and usually pleasant. It’s a paradise for those who prefer the beauty of nature over the lures of cities, who don’t rush anywhere, whose time isn’t at a premium. It’s also perfect for people who value natural and local products found at bazaars, bread from family-run bakeries and fresh milk sold round the corner. I sometimes feel like the time has stopped here and that’s how my parent’s childhood in Poland might have looked like. Sometimes.
The city is an explosive mixture. When you look closer, you can see kids using new iPhones, wearing Adidas sweatshirts and calpacs (traditional Kirghiz headwear). You can also notice young people with fake gold teeth – gold only due to tradition as it’s no problem to insert teeth in their natural colour. You may observe the elders haggling on markets, playing chess in the open air or just relaxing on the river bank. After some time you’ll be able to differentiate between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz who live here mixed 50/50. Women covered by hijabs, traditional scarves, or girls in fashionable tracksuits and short dresses. Men dipping naswar (nicotine drug one puts between a gum and a lower lip) or squatting when there are no available benches. It’s a totally different world which I had a chance to face, understand and fall in love with.
Kyrgyzstan is undeniably a country of mountains, nature, yurts and koumis. Every spring Kyrgyz families take the most important things with them and move for a few months to the mountains to grass their animals and live surrounded by nature. That’s when the national beverage of the Kirghiz is made, namely fermented mare’s milk (koumis) tasting a bit like a combination of soured milk and alcohol, and kurut, which is a sort of snack in the form of tough balls made of cow’s cheese. The settlements inhabited by the families are usually located among scenic views and the people live in a very traditional manner, doing without unnecessary things and attending to their sheep, cows and horses. They lead a very simple and peaceful life which for me is… too hard. Every time I returned from the countryside or yurt I thanked God for toilet, shower, vegetables, electricity and milk in cartons
Osh, my city
Osh is a totally different subject. There are no real yurts in the city, people inviting each other for a cup of koumis or thousands of sheep (although one can sometimes see a few farmed animals on the outskirts of Osh and somebody keeps chickens next to my block of flats, which is situated in the centre of the city). Yet in the city you can find night clubs, sushi restaurants, crowded streets and superstores –two, to be precise. Despite my fears, I am not killed by boredom here. Apart from work, I occupy myself with teaching Polish to foreigners. Yes, Polish turned out to be a language much in demand and I am the only Pole in the city. My students include people who have already been to Poland in the course of various types of exchanges, worked there or wish to emigrate there, or people with Polish roots. I also often “hit the town” – I climb the mountain situated in the centre of the city, go to the river, to a pub serving craft beer or to clubs without age limits (it means that many times I’ve seen children or even infants in the club, or people over 50; the locals usually book tables in clubs for important events, while the rest of the space is open for others).
Shadows of life in Kyrgyzstan
When I try to remember what surprised me negatively about life in Kyrgyzstan, vegetables, or more precisely their lack in many local dishes, is what first comes to my mind. In summer or winter, people usually eat bread with meat and fat, or pasta with meat and fat, or soup made mostly of meat and just one potato. Market stalls bend from the weight of fresh and very cheap vegetables, yet the local milk bars called czaykhana won’t offer you the colourful peppers, eggplants and squashes sprinkled with freshly chopped coriander. Vegetables are eaten mostly in the form of salads but not as a side dish served with the main course. Another less pleasant aspect of living here is that the locals do not comprehend the meaning of the word “rest” just like me and they prolong their work to the limit. Oh yes, work here is long and ineffective, and holidays are a more theoretical than real thing. On the one hand, it’s understandable, since the average monthly earnings amount to several hundred PLN. On the other hand, however, after some time one notices that many thing could be done here faster and better in a shorter period of time, and the rest of the day could be spend on relaxation. At first I couldn’t understand how people can be surprised that I prefer to do my job fast and get it right the first time thus saving enough time for a weekend in the mountains. Now I just treat this as a cultural difference and I no longer waste time on explaining –I just go.
Kyrgyz family and traditions
Tradition, which is very important to me, was also a source of surprises. The first revelation that comes to my mind is the significance of family, neighbors and friends in the life of the locals. People stick together here. They address people older than themselves “edje”and “bajke” what respectively means “sister” and “brother”. From time to time a neighbor rings my doorbell to offer me a plate of food and in the countryside you may be absolutely sure of an invitation to somebody’s house. People organize parties all the time where they prepare plov, drink tea and invite all their friends. Weddings are organized in enormous halls capable of housing 500 people or more. I find it beautiful also that most Kyrgyz really care about tradition. They know the local songs, know how to cook typical dishes, many children learn to play the local instrument – komuz, and the locals using Russian are often admonished to use the Kyrgyz language instead. The Kyrgyz culture is still alive, that much is clear.
The move to Osh has changed my life. Now, instead of accepting a price, I always thing about a margin to haggle down, what I treat with tongue in cheek. Instead of commuting by bike or tram, I get a marshrutka by standing on the roadside and waving my hand. I also use teacups without handles, I tear bread instead of cutting it into slices, and I am learning to speak Kyrgyz. I try to become a part of that incredible culture as hard as I can. I know that there are many more unusual things for me to discover and I can’t wait to experience them all.
At the end I wanted to share with you a handful of interesting facts which I noticed during the few months I’ve spent in Kyrgyzstan:
– I yurt, when the floor is
covered with a tablecloth, it’s totally forbidden to go through it or even step
– At weddings guests give money to the parents of the young couple as it’s them who pay for the party. –The male Kyrgyz very often carry handbags, a sort of male shoulder bags. In Poland – unheard of.
– Alcohol is not as cheap here as it is frequently written on blogs. Well, vodka is cheap but beer and wine are even more expensive than in Poland.
– Bread is a very important ingredient of all meals. In a bar you’ll be offered bread to go with: soup, salad, spaghetti Bolognese or dumplings.
– Since it’s not such an easy thing to leave Kyrgyzstan and go to Europe or the USA, the young Kyrgyz are masters of finding various projects allowing them to study or work abroad.
–As far as the local flavours are concerned: horse meat tastes like exclusive beef, and if I were to choose between eating sheep’s lungs or brain, I would choose brain – it’s much tastier