About the skies over Bishkek. And life on the ground.

Welcome to Bishkek!

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Wow (allow me).

First blog entry from Bishkek! Welcome, to you, too, to Kyrgyzstan!

Yes, Silette and I have made it. Not my suitcase, initially, but you have to count your losses in life. No time for counting in Bishkek, though, in any case, as there are too many things going on around you. Indeed there are.

And, no, Silette, I have a feeling we are not in Missouri anymore. Haven’t seen mountain ranges and snow-covered mountain peaks over the past six years living in the Midwest. Beautiful. And a probing look up into the blue skies over Bishkek leaves no doubt about where we are in this world:

So, after the first days of severe culture shock and the inability to convey in writing what I see and encounter, I will give it a shot, though it all might sound like stream of consciousness to you. In the best case. Prepare for ramblings. For gibberish at worst. That’s what it feels like in my head these days. My soundtrack: “This is Not America.” David Bowie&Pat Metheny. iTunes and iPod: repeat one mode. But wait:  I am saying this as I am listening to Train’s “Drive By,” sitting in a coffee shop in Bishkek that looks a lot like that chain that sold me my venti bolds, no room, for the past years stateside.

I will write and post photos in a more organized fashion later on. At least I am regaining my writing voice after Bishkek pretty much shut me up the first three days. So much so that I didn’t know what to respond when people called and e-mailed me with the one big question: “So, how is it?”

Where to start? And how? With the Talking Heads, of course. To borrow from their great song “Once in a Lifetime” (that’s already a good start): “And you might ask yourself: How did I get here?” That I can tell you. That’s the easy part.

It started with the friendly Google Calendar e-mail that I received last Thursday (one week ago), with the subject line: “Reminder: fly to bishkek @ Fri Aug 10, 2012.” I did remember, and I did fly. Until 5:05am on August 11, with the timely arrival of Turkish Airlines flight 348 in Bishkek, from Istanbul. The skies over Bishkek were pitch-dark, to my great disappointment, as I had hoped, after having done so much reading about it, to get a glimpse of the U.S. military base in Bishkek (the official name is Transit Center Manas), which is right at the airport. It is an important transportation hub for the war in Afghanistan, established in 2001. Yes, Bishkek matters, and Kyrgyzstan matters, not only to an American Studies scholar interested in the role of the U.S. in the world, but on the much larger scale of geopolitics. For a brief overview and related articles, this New York Times link might be of interest:

And, for someone who came of age in the 1980s in West Germany and who lived very consciously through that last phase of the Cold War (more about that in a separate post), and who is interested in the Cold War’s contemporary reverberations, this fact (quoted from the NYT introductory paragraph included in the link above) adds to my curiosity, both academic and personal, about this place: “Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world that hosts separate military bases for the United States and Russia.” Alright, here I am, Kyrgyzstan. For you I came.

So much about the facts of my getting here, landing at Manas Airport, and about the airport’s and country’s regional and global significance. But it is hard to put into words, and especially into writing, a place where nothing I hear and see has a cognitive precedent, or reference frame, and where I cannot make sense of anything. Feels like blinking in the sun at every single moment  (and in every sense of the word: it’s sunny and hot here).

So let me share my confusion about Bishkek with you.

First, a preface to all following posts, especially the first ones from here, with me nothing but absorbing, my brain turned off in overload, my whole system rebooting, and me clinging to familiar sights and sounds in a country where I don’t speak the two official languages (Russian and Kyrgyz), and where very few people speak and understand mine (English and German). Kyrgyzstan is hard to understand for me. Things are moving in this country. But depending on whom you talk to (as I know too little about this place, I cannot comment on this issue), it is not clear into what direction things are currently moving.

What I see in and of Bishkek is, as of now, limited to surface readings. And life in the capital Bishkek does not reflect life in the rest of the country. And, I am exploring only a stretch of urban space these days: my neighborhood in the city center. And that reflects the side-by-side of a multitude of contrasting and often conflicting sights (I can only talk about what I see; not about how to interpret it in its complex historical and political context). Severe poverty next to posh, Western-style cafés and restaurants geared toward those who can afford it and expatriates. Bishkek can be very expensive and very cheap. Your generic Stalin-era apartment buildings (“earthquake-safe Stalin-era building”–apartment hunting in Bishkek introduces you to a whole new vocabulary) are next to construction sites going up all over town, showing glossy photos of luxury apartments to come (maybe). Advanced technology (how can there be so many smart phones?) amidst a lacking infrastructure. Old men wearing the traditional kalpak hats next to stylishly dressed women in very high heels. Fashionista catwalk, this city. I cannot wrap my mind around how they manage the sidewalks here in these shoes – while I worry about disappearing without a trace into an uncovered manhole. Yes, sidewalks are tricky, as holes of all kinds and depths are treacherously lurking beneath. So unless you want to risk unwillingly descending into subterranean Bishkek, or getting hurt, keep your eyes on the ground (and your high heels at home), especially at night. Especially when you have just arrived and keep looking around, taking in all the new sights. Same with the traffic. I have no idea how it works, but watch it, as it might not watch you. Especially the marshrutkas (the numbered minivans; the common means of public transportation, aside from buses and taxis). Adrenaline rush every time I cross the street.

What I see is Soviet-style architecture and grid, many monuments, lots of well kept parks (Bishkek is a GREEN city: tree-lined streets everywhere). Women sitting on sidewalks with scales: for five som (around ten cents), you get to know your weight. Are cars indicators for a country’s economy? Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Subaru. A few old Soviet cars and buses next to Lexus and BMW SUVs (a lot), once in a while a Hummer. The occasional UN vehicles. Peasant women selling fruits and vegetables on the sidewalks in front of supermarkets with an endless vodka aisle (proportional to store space, the equivalent to the cereal aisle in the U.S. Remember that great scene in The Hurt Locker? Picture me in Bishkek, in front of the vodka aisle: Susanne, staring left and staring right, like William James in front of the cereal boxes. Hopelessly trying to figure it all out via consumption. Not working). Western hikers with backpacks (’tis the season: the plane was packed with hiking groups) next to people in various ethnic and religious dress. On weekends, white stretch limos for weddings, with interlocked wedding bands mounted on top. Stunningly beautiful handicrafts. A dizzying range of restaurants. Last night, (meatless-really) Ukrainian. Like so many restaurants here, in the summer, with rustic tables/BBQ placed in lush gardens. German beer, Moldovian wine, Russian champagne, Mojito, and every hard drink in between on the menus. Tomorrow night, Chinese food. Complete absence of U.S. corporate chains (Can it be? A country without McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, KFC, Dunkin Donuts? Yes, it can. In Kyrgyzstan, it can. For now.). But needless to say, traces of U.S. popular culture. Above all, music. Blasting in taxis, in cafés, in stores. Make your pick, from Flo Rida to Taylor Swift. Yet always blasting, simultaneously, in perfect cacophony, is Russian/Kyrgyz music. Never seen more Coca-Cola ads in a city anywhere in the world. And what’s playing at the movies?

Familiar figures in an unfamiliar language.

So, just to name a few of the things that I am stumbling over right now (quite literally, I am: watch the ground you walk on in this city). So many things to learn, and to understand. The top two items on my to-do list: to parse the Russian/Kyrgyz relationship and culture. Post-independence nationalism? Postcolonial Kyrgyzstan? And, above all, to understand ethnic relations (especially after the 2010 violent clashes), the role of the many nationalities here, and Islam. So few items, yet such a heavy and challenging to-do list. I asked someone who knows the country well about religion here, as I don’t understand the role of Islam. She quoted a Kyrgyz saying, which loosely translates as follows: “The Kyrgyz people only use as much religion as fits into a saddlebag.” That will have to do for now.

There is another great line in “Once in a Lifetime”: “And you might ask yourself: How do I work this”? Now THAT is the interesting question. And my answer is: I have no idea. But I will keep you posted, as I go along with the flow, Bishkek pace. Baffled, confused, bewildered, fascinated, taken in and aback by what I see, and endlessly curious about what comes next. Funny, I thought I knew how to read and interpret cultures; even entangled and complex ones. And Bishkek totally throws me off. But: I’ll String Along With You, Bishkek.

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