Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beat the Heat ... with fountains!

Cooling off in downtown Bishkek

Monday was a holiday (the end of Ramadan), so the kids were home. We were uninspired to play outside because of the heat, and Josh was suffering from terrible allergies, but by evening, I was determined to get out of the house. I popped Sebby in his stroller so Misha and I could power walk all the way down Erkindik boulevard to get to the ploshad (square) in downtown Bishkek. The square is filled with beautiful fountains, so in anticipation, I had told the boys to wear swim trunks instead of shorts.

 A feast of color: Bright red flowers bloom in Erkindik boulevard.

Ice cream stop: Stracciatella for Misha, and chocolate for Sebby

It worked out perfectly. Right before arriving at the ploshad, we stopped for some Italian-style ice cream and finished eating it by the fountains. The plaza was filled with people milling around leisurely or resting on benches, children perched on the ledges of the fountains, and vendors selling everything from candy and toys to rides in battery-operated kid cars. The sun, on its way down, glinted off the buildings to create a cozy glow as the wind-blown sprinkles from the fountains cooled the warm air. The deafening Kyrgyz pop music drowning out the buzz of conversation inspired Misha and Sebby to start dancing and marching among the fountains. Groups of people watched them from afar, smiling at their antics.

The great thing about Bishkek is that no one gives you dirty looks if your children actually go into the fountains. What could be better? They are shallow enough for children, equipped with their own sprinklers, and completely free! The boys dipped their feet, waded, and slid their way along the slippery sidewalks between the fountains. Other children joined them, hiking up dresses or stripping down to boxer shorts. They had a blast. 

Sebby struts along the slick cement as the sun strikes the building.

Another dance move

Misha goes all in

Summer joy!

Other kids join in


The Kyrgyz flag waves over the ploshad

The statue of Manas, the Kyrgyz national hero, also watches over the square.

Home again, home again. Jiggity jog.

Finally, as dusk neared, I cajoled them out of the water and we made our way back home, their suits drying in the night air. Sebby shrieked as Misha pushed his stroller as fast as he could. By the time we got home, it was dark and time for bed. It was one of those evenings where everything turned out perfectly - the kids were content with simple pleasures, and so was their mother.

A Mountain Picnic

This week has been so hot and muggy that it seems to sap all of our energy to do anything. Even nightfall brings no relief from the heat. So on Sunday, we escaped the heat bubble of Bishkek and headed to the nearby mountains, Ala Aarcha National Park. It's nice to have friends with cars! And with Pasha, all you have to is casually mention you were thinking about going on a picnic, and before you say another word, he has bought enough food to feed an army and has gathered up everyone to leave in a matter of minutes. :)

In contrast to the stuffy atmosphere of the city, the mountain air is pleasant, cool, and fresh. We snacked on canned fish, a rotisserie chicken, chips, and watermelon, and the kids played in the puddles, hopped from stone to stone over the river, and ran through the grass.

On to the photos!

Soccer and Snacks

Boys and Puddles


Sebby gets a little help from Daddy

Tam on the rocks

Sebby perches on his rock

Misha the adventurer

More help from Daddy

Daddy and two boys

Daddy and ... four boys!
... plus Marina!

Life is good.
Laughing: Pasha and Josh

Here are a few of those rare shots of Josh and me together. Enjoy!

On our way back to Bishkek, Pasha talked Josh into stopping for a ride in this glider. At $35 for a 10-minute ride, it seemed a better deal than one would get in most countries, so Josh decided to go for it. He enjoyed it, though the mountains still towered above him the whole time.

Ready for lift-off

Sebby and Yarik watch Josh zoom down the runway. Sebby was envious.

In a rather ET like moment, Josh takes to the sky.

The view from Josh's camera

Mountains and valleys: birds' eye view


Sunset in the mountains ... Time to go home.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Heart of Kyrgyzstan

This week we had the chance to see a region of Kyrgyzstan we have never been to, where we stayed in a village, visited Son Kul lake, and even spent one night in a yurt, the traditional Kyrgyz home.

We have long had our hearts set on seeing the Narin region, as it is associated with the heart of Kyrgyzstan, the purest Kyrgyz language, the coldest and highest mountains, the best grazing pastures (jailoo in Kyrgyz), and the tastiest meat. Knowing that August was our best chance to make this trip, we attempted to plan some of it through the internet. Our internet searches turned up very, very little in the way of booking hotels or home-stays. In great contrast to Italy, where we reserved hotels and apartments weeks in advance, we ran into many road blocks in planning anything for Narin. We sought out a travel agency, but were disgusted at the price they quoted us ($1600 for two nights), and decided to buy bus tickets and set out on our own adventure, come what may. We actually did find a phone number on a website, which we called to book a hotel, but again we were thwarted. “So, you're not in Narin yet?” came the response. “Why are you calling? Call us when you get here.”

Luckily, at the last minute before leaving, a local teacher we work with happily arranged for us to meet her uncle, who offers home-stays through CBT-Eco, when we arrived in Kochkor. Considering that our bus would arrive at 1 a.m. in the tiny, dark, and empty main street of the village, it was wonderful knowing that someone was going to come pick us up. Wednesday evening the four of us piled onto the bus, and five hours later, we were shaken awake by fellow passengers letting us know that this was our stop. We groggily exited the muggy bus to be shocked awake by the crisp night air meeting our sweaty skin. We dug around in our bags for our sweatshirts while we waited for the uncle – Kuban – to pick us up. He was extremely nice to us, speaking all in Kyrgyz, which was wonderful. He took us to his house, showed us to our clean, little room, and made sure we knew where the outdoor bathroom was. Then he left us to crash.

Kochkor village by day

Rice kasha for breakfast!

In the morning, the bright sun felt wonderful, complimenting the chill from the air. The kids explored the yard and the beautiful garden. Kuban's daughter, Shoola, served us a nice breakfast of rice kasha, bread with jam and butter, airan (liquid yogurt, or kefir in Russian), and - of course – tea. Then she arranged a taxi driver to take us to Son Kul, a lake high in the mountains about three hours away. Bargaining on the phone, Shoola told the driver, “Alar tourister emes, alar mugalimder” - they're not tourists, they're teachers. And so, we got the non-tourist price for everything!

Passing through Kochkor center, leaving for Son Kul.

Mountain roads

Beautifully creviced mountains

Boys chilling in the car. I like their profiles.

Photo break

Some cows pass by.

These are yaks, though the photo is blurry from the moving car.

The drive to Son Kul was an adventure in itself. Higher and higher we drove on steep dirt roads that wove back and forth up one side of the mountain and down the other. We stopped once for photos, and then several more times – for car trouble. Perhaps because of the demanding roads, our taxi began to choke and lurch, pushed to its maximum capabilities. Eventually it sputtered and died, and our driver Sheshanbek jumped out and busied himself collecting water from the stream and pouring it in various places under the hood. Jumping back in the car, we held our breaths as the it finally started and we drove a few more feet before the taxi heaved its resignation. Out jumped Sheshanbek again, tinkering under the hood, collecting more water, trying to start the car, with little effect. We began to feel pessimistic about actually arriving at Son Kul. We were in the middle of nowhere in the mountains on a deserted road with no phone service. Hmmmm. Luckily, we had some bottled water and beautiful views.

Amazingly, about half an hour later, the car roared to life and charged vigorously up the steep roads. The kids cheered. They were delighted again when we drove through a herd of sheep which covered the road completely. The two shepherd boys on horseback looked to be at most ages 10 and 6. Sheshanbek honked, Sebby squealed “SHEEPS!”, the shepherd boys yelled, and Misha laughed as we parted the sheep on our way through the narrow road.

At long last (all I know is that it was considerably longer than the three-hour drive we were expecting), we could see Son Kul in the distance, and we found ourselves on a huge plateau with mountains rimming the edges all around us. Son Kul has an altitude of 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet), and the mountain pass which leads to the lake is even higher, at 3450 meters. There were no hotels, no stores, nothing but beautiful white yurts scattered on the flat, green jailoo. We passed several yurts, drove through a shallow stream, and eventually came to our site – an encampment of three yurts and a cooking tent, with sheep, cows, sheep, a dog, two kittens, and a donkey. The family living there stays on Son Kul from April to October, returning to Kochkor for the coldest months. Considering how cold I was in August, I would hate to think about how cold it is in October!

Running free

A Kyrgyz cowboy

When they showed us to our yurt, the kids got so excited. “This is OURS? Cool!” Misha exclaimed. He and Sebby ran inside, admiring the beautiful pillows, shirdaks, and tushuks (rugs and cushions) lining the edges, the doors that opened and closed, the ceiling piece in the hole at the top of the yurt. The kyrgyz word for yurt is boz-ui, meaning “grey house.” Made from sheep wool pressed into thick felt, the boz-ui can easily be taken down and set up, as the Kyrgyz people used to do when they were nomadic. There are many similarities between Kyrgyz and Native American traditions, which were even more obvious now that we have stayed in a yurt.

The yurt seems to look bigger inside than one would assume from the outside!

The ceiling piece is called a tunduk, which is featured on the Kyrgyz flag. Ropes hanging down on the outside of the yurt control the flap to let in more light.

Time to explore! 

Wood supports inside the yurt

Triple yurts

A yurt city in the distance was mainly for tourists.

I loved the view out our yurt door.

Misha peeks out. The rolled-up door cover keeps wind out at night.

Peek-a-boo, Sebby.

Two little yurts crouch by the mountains.

As is customary in Kyrgyzstan, food was first on the agenda. They brought us hot potatoes with meat called kurdak, as well as bread, jam, candy, and tea. We ate heartily, then the kids ran outside to explore while Josh and I relaxed, satisfied in knowing that there was nothing that the kids could break or get hurt on outside. Nothing but grass and sunshine!

Kurdak, tea, borsook (fried bread), jam ...

A salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. The little bowl has a type of kasha made from buttermilk and flour called chubugu.

Even during the hottest part of the day, the breeze is very cool, so I often kept my sweatshirt handy. The sun, however, beat down warmly, giving us a sunburn before we even realized it. We walked down to the lake through uneven, clumpy pastures which gave Sebby instant motiviation to maneuvre his way along. At the lake, we skipped rocks and walked along the shore, watching horses graze. 

Sheshabek offered to drive us down to a more beachy spot, so we accepted and sat on the warm sandy, rocky shore. Sheshanbek invited Josh to swim, which Josh agreed to only because he thought it was a joke. Turns out it wasn't a joke, as Sheshanbek peeled off his clothes and waded on in. Josh followed suit, wincing at the cold and barely believing what he was doing. We are told that the lake doesn't even thaw until June. When Sebby saw what Daddy was doing, he immediately decided that he wanted to swim too, so I helped him take off all his clothes and he dashed right into the water up to his waist. Of course, then Misha wanted to join the fun. Off came more clothes and he ran into the water, only to run right back out after the first shock of cold! On his second attempt, he waded in up to his waist. Unfortunately, getting out of the water was even worse than staying in, with the cool breeze blowing on their wet bodies.

Horses come to take a drink.

Josh and Sheshanbek

Sebby is eager to join

Misha ran in - and ran out!

Daddy and sons in Son Kul

Brrrr! Run, run, run.

Sparkling water.

I was plenty cool as it was without swimming!

We headed back to our yurt and enjoyed the remaining sunlight. Eight-year-old Altinai played with Misha and Sebby and talked to us. (Altinai is a very popular Kyrgyz name meaning "Golden Moon.") She spoke only Kyrgyz, which was perfect because practicing a foreign language with children is fun and without pressure. She told us about her family, her animals, milking the cows, and about being careful of the horses because they can kick. We greatly enjoyed how everyone spoke to us only in Kyrgyz, with the exception of Sheshanbek, who talked to us in Russian. In Bishkek, we rarely get a chance to use Kyrgyz outside of our lessons, because Russian is so prevalent and because our Russian is far stronger than our Kyrgyz. It was exciting to actually use our Kyrgyz language skills, and we got a lot of compliments. People are always pleased when foreigners try to learn their language. We taught Misha and Sebby little essentials, such as kel (come), otur (sit), rahmat (thank you), and jakshi (good).

Altinai introduces the kids to a kitten.

Misha, Sebby, and Altinai skipping rocks.

Misha and the kitten became fast friends.

Playing Durak in our yurt.

Altinai gives Sebby a short ride.

As the sun started to set, we watched Altinai and her older sister riding horses to bring the flock of sheep, goats, and calves in from the pasture back to the camp. Misha desperately wanted to pet a sheep, but the sheep steered clear of him.

Altinai in action.

Before the sun had even set completely, about 7 p.m., the heat of the day vanished and a cold wind started to blow. We put on sweatshirts and extra socks. Later, we ended up layering on almost all the clothes we had brought – pajamas, clothes, and sweatshirts! Even so, we didn't really feel warm until we had eaten our evening soup and hot tea. When the darkness set in, they turned on one little light bulb hanging from the yurt's ceiling for us, powered by a generator. We spread out the huge stack of tushuks and blankets to make beds, and snuggled in. Before falling asleep, one woman started a fire for us in the little stove, stocking it with cow chips. Josh was the first one out – thanks to the allergy medicine which is so necessary for him this August. I tucked Sebby in beside him, and climbed in beside Misha, knowing that the kids would get cold if they slept without a parent. Burying ourselves in the many blankets, we fell asleep as the stove warmed the yurt. However, a few hours later, the fire was out the yurt was freezing. Sebby woke me up, whimpering because of the complete absence of light. “Mama, I can't see you! I can't see you!” When he followed my voice, he curled in beside me, his little body cold and his face wet with tears. Kids just can't seem to stay in their blankets! By early morning, Misha was falling out of his blankets on the other side, and I told him to go snuggle in with Daddy. Brrr!

Lighting a fire in the stove.

Fast asleep

Time to get up!

Misha immediately noticed how beautiful the yurt ceiling looked with the morning light sparkling through the little holes. “I see the stars!” he told me, though actually it was the sun. 

Going out to use the outhouse, I was relieved to find it much warmer outside the yurt than inside, and we all got up and sat outside in the sun. After our kasha breakfast, we walked down by the lake again, and a short while later, said thank you to everyone and climbed back in Sheshanbek's taxi.

Sebby and the outhouse.

This time, the drive went smoothly, and we only stopped to take photos of the majestic mountain views. Breathtaking! By late afternoon, we were back in Kochkor, greeted by Shoola and her children. Misha talked with 10-year-old Islam in Russian. We chatted with Shoola in a mix of English and Kyrgyz, then I helped her prepare soup for supper. I loved how she could simply walk into her garden, grab some cabbage, potatoes, green onions, and carrots, and head straight to her kitchen. Their garden was absolutely beautiful. Kuban told me in Kyrgyz that the kids were welcome to pick karagat (black currants) and take them with us, because there was no one to pick them. Sebby was gung ho when I handed him a little bag, and he began picking them, one at a time. Pick one, put in in the bag. Pick another one …. Misha joined him, picking several at a time until he had a handful to add to the bag. Even though none of us really appreciate the taste of currants, picking them was a blast.

Misha, Sebby, Shoola, and her four children in the garden.

Misha and Urguch by the apple tree.

Off to the garden to get some veggies for dinner.

Ready to pick some berries!

Slowly but surely


Someday I'd love to have a garden like this.

We filled our bellies with Shoola's delicious soup, and the kids enjoyed themselves all evening, playing in the yard and across the street in the shady pasture where Shoola's children had hung up ropes to swing on. We spent that night with them in Kochkor, and the next morning walked around the village briefly before packing up. The kids loved the chickens, noisy roosters, baby chicks, and the adorable colt grazing in the pasture. The colt didn't mind being petted by two strange boys.

Mmm, soup!

Shoola's huge kazans for frying meat. A kazan is a bit like a wok.

Kurut dries on the windowsill. Kurut is dried, salted kefir. It tastes a little like cheese.

Shoola, me, and the kids.

Islam and Urguch show Misha and Sebby the swings.

So sweet

Our little walk down the road

Josh with some village boys who really wanted to be in a photo. I bet they'd love to know they were on the internet. :)

The donkey grazing at the edge of the village. Josh innocently calls this photo "The Ass."

Further attempts at petting sheep were also unsuccessful.

But this colt was willing to be stroked!

Coming back to Bishkek turned out to be easy. In Kochkor center, we found another family who was driving to Bishkek, and we simply paid them some gas money to take us. We are so happy that our trip turned out not only so cheap (less than $200 total), but also that we got a glimpse of real Kyrgyz life – a village, a yurt, the language, the land, and such generous people.

*   *   *

A few extra shots:

Misha running off toward the snow. It was farther away than it looked!

Misha and I walking back to the car.

Zoomed in.