"It's a dangerous business, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to." - J.R.R. Tolkien

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Landlady and the Home Remedies

This may come as a surprise to you, dear reader, considering I'm such an intrepid and fearless traveler, but I get sick a lot. I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it's the climate, or the microbe-infested dust that is everywhere, or the fact that I don't get enough sleep and am stressed out most of the time. Whatever the reason, I get sick a lot and have local people fuss about it.

My current illness is less than a week old, though comes less than a month after my last cold. It's probably just a cold, or some sort of virus that just has to work itself out, but it's got the locals panicked. My co-workers are besides themselves with concern. They insist that my apartment must be cold, and that's why I'm sick. [Please keep in mind that it still is in the mid-70s everyday... not exactly cold.] They bustle around and force me to drink black tea, because green tea isn't good for you when you have a cold, and buy copious amounts of milk whose “biotic qualities” (whatever this means) are supposed to cure me. It's all wonderfully thoughtful, but needless to say, I'm still sick.

Yesterday my landlady came over. She has tended to do this more and more lately, calling me up with 15 minutes' notice to inform me that she's in town and is going to spend some time pretending to fix things in my apartment and, hence, will be spending the night. It's annoying, but not the end of the world. My Peace Corps-honed flexibility and patience allow me to shrug off this frequent invasion of privacy and get on with my life. At this point, the problem isn't that my landlady is in my apartment. The problem is that my landlady is in my apartment and knows I'm sick.

To fully understand the dreadful situation this puts me in, you have to understand how much people love home remedies in this country. The minute anyone finds out you're sick they're suggesting you drink vodka with honey (or salt, or pepper, or dill), inject yourself with various medications, buy a very specific kind of herb sold by a certain lady that has a stand on this certain street and if you leave now she'll probably still be there, soak your feet in milk, drink raw eggs (and yes, they have to be raw because they lose their healing properties in the cooking process), go visit a fortuneteller, etc.

And when people here suggest a home remedy, they mean business. Anything less than immediate use of their remedy is unacceptable. None of this “thanks for the idea, I might try it later” crap. I tried that once tonight with my landlady, tried to quietly brush her suggestions aside and get on with my evening. Nice try, American, you will use their home remedy, and you will like it. So here I am, sitting on my bed typing up a training accompanied by a plate of freshly sliced onions and a clove of garlic that's on a string around my neck. The onions are for my sore throat, and the garlic is supposed to “heat up my chest” and stop my cough. All I can say for home remedies is that 2 hours in I feel exactly the same as I did pre-home remedy, but smell quite a bit more foul.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Summer Adventures, PART 4

The Epic Travel Adventures of One Peace Corps Volunteer in the Summer of 2011
(or What I've Been Doing For The Last Month) – PART 4

The next morning we woke up to a chilly morning. Let me tell you, it was rough. I ached from the time spent on horseback the previous day, I was seriously sunburned, and I was cold from the damp morning air. The rest of the camp was already awake, our guide Batyr was saddling our horses, the women were finishing breakfast preparations and the men were preparing for the day. We rolled up the mattresses, sheets and blankets that covered the yurt floor, and pulled the table to the center of the yurt before setting breakfast out. For breakfast there was tea, bread, eggs, fresh butter and apricot jam. We finished breakfast, said goodbye to our hosts, slathered ourselves in sunscreen, and rode off into the hills.

Batyr was less talkative than the previous day, it was much colder than the previous day, and our horses were less pleased us than the previous day. My horse did his task of picking his way through the hillside valiantly, but COBC's horse was in no mood to be carrying someone around. We had to stop frequently while Batyr tried to coax it along, and eventually he and COBC traded horses. The second day's ride was much more difficult than the previous day's. The terrain was rockier and steeper and it was cold. Despite my long underwear, heavy duty fleece jacket and rain coat, I was freezing. The higher we went the windier it got. Slowly we climbed to the Jalgyz Karagai pass – 3300 meters (10,800 feet) – from which we would descent to Song Kol basin. Just as we reached the pass, the sun peaked out from the clouds to shine light on the lake that glittered in the distance.

The break in the weather was short-lived, and in no time at all we found ourselves in the middle of a chilly hailstorm. We soldiered on, and eventually reached the Jaman Echki jailoo, and the dry warmth of yurts and lunch. We didn't eat alone, but instead were joined by some other travelers that had come in with a CBT guide by Land Rover to do some hiking. The other travelers were German. It was two girls working Bishkek with the German volunteer program (similar to Peace Corps), and one of the girl's parents who had come to visit. We exchanged amusing stories about life in Central Asia and went on our way. The ride after lunch was cold but easy, as we were covering fairly level terrain of the lake basin. We passed marmots, steppe eagles, and herds of horses as we made our way to the lakeside yurts off in the distance. By mid-afternoon we had reached the 20 yurts that made up the CBT Song Kol jailoo community.

Song Kol was beautiful, perched among mountains, and it was amazing to be staying with a local family in a yurt in a place so sacred to the Kyrgyz people. We made friends with 3 kids staying in the neighboring yurt who had come from Bishkek for a 10-day kumus treatment. Kumus is the fermented mare's milk that is thought to have healing properties and is quite popular throughout Central Asia. These city kids – Bigzat (age 11), Kanashai (age 5), Begimat (age 3) – came with their aunt every year to Song Kol to be restored by the lake and the kumus they drank every three hours. They were cute and because they were city kids they spoke Russian. We strolled along the lakeshore, played with the kids, and ate a delicious dinner of sauteed cabbage, potatoes, and carrots for dinner before hitting the sack for a last evening in a yurt.

The next morning we ate breakfast, packed up, and waited for our ride back to Kochkor. We spent 4 bumpy hours in the same beat up Lada that had dropped us off 2 days earlier before reaching the town. We arranged to spend the night with the same host family, and dropped our things off before setting off to explore the town. Kochkor is a typical Central Asian town. Town life centers around the main drag which has a bizarre, cafes, and businesses. We walked through a slightly terrifying regional museum that was full of Soviet memorabilia and rotting floors before heading to lunch. We spend the afternoon napping, reading, and planning the next day's trip back to Bishkek. After a final night in central Kyrgyzstan we found a shared taxi back to Bishkek.

Our trip back across the border into Kazakhstan was considerably less interesting and less hectic than the trip into Kyrgyzstan, but the easy crossing was a relief after a tiring trip. Overall, it was a truly amazing trip. When we were first planning the trip, I expected to enjoy the time we would spend in Kyrgyzstan, but I didn't expect to love it. And I did love it. A week was too little time to spend in such a beautiful place. I'm hoping to make it back south of the border before my time in Central Asia ends, maybe to stroll through the walnut forests of the south, or to spend some more time in the mountains.

I guess what I'm trying to say, dear reader, is if you ever find yourself in Central Asia, give Kyrgyzstan a chance. It's a small country, but it has a lot to offer the adventurous traveler. Getting a visa is no problem, crossing the border by land is only slightly terrifying, and the people are warm and welcoming.

COMING SOON! Stay tuned for pictures of my Kyrgyzstan trip. They'll be posted as soon as the internet cooperates.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Landlady and the End of the Dream Apartment

I have sad news to report, dear reader. The era of the dream apartment is coming to a close. For those of you that know, I spent much of the spring looking for the perfect apartment, and thought I had finally found it. I moved in in June, and have loved the freedom of living alone. My landlady, however, stomps all over this freedom every time she stops by. Here is a prime example:

Setting: Thursday evening, 7pm
Place: My humble abode
Characters: Me, The Landlady (LL)

The house phone rings, I run to answer it.
LL: Hi Katie. Um. How are you?
Me: I'm fine, and you?
LL: Good, good. ….. My daughter is coming into town tomorrow with her child and very large bags. She'll have very large bags with her and it will be difficult for her to get home, so she needs to stay in the city. And she will have her child, and very large bags. Lots of luggage. Very large bags.
Me: I understand, she can stay here with me. It's alright.
LL: No, you don't understand... We will stay in the apartment, and you will find somewhere else to stay. I'm sure it won't be a probably. We will arrive at noon tomorrow, so you will have to be gone by then. Oh, and you need to remove all of your personal items from the apartment and put them in the closet. Very good, good bye.
Me: …....

Also, it turns out she lied to me when I moved in and the heating actually doesn't work. This is a problem. Clearly it's time to move out. I will miss the beautiful washing machine, and the lovely pull-out sofa bed, and the luxuriousness of having 2 large rooms completely to myself, but I will not miss her shenanigans.

More on my summer travels soon!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Summer Adventures, PART 3

The Epic Travel Adventures of One Peace Corps Volunteer in the Summer of 2011
(or What I've Been Doing For The Last Month) – PART 3

So before I tell you anymore, take a look at our trek itinerary.

3-Day Jailoo Hopping Trek to Song Kul
Day 1: In the morning transfer to Kyzart pass, where your tour will start. The Kyzart pass offer first shepherd’s yurt where you can stop for lunch. After lunch in Kyzart, head south to the Jumgal mountains range. Follow the horse way cross Kyzyl-Kiya jailoo, an enormous, relatively flat sea of grass. Continue over the Chaar-Archa Pass (3061 m) into the Chaar-Archa Valley, with views of holy 4400 m Baba-Ata Mountain. Sated, ford the river and follow the trail over verdant hills to Kilemche Jailoo. The name means “like a carpet,” and this swathe of grass covers whole mountain ranges, with shadings as subtle as any shyrdak. Dine and sleep in the yurt.

Day 2: After breakfast at Kilemche, spend the morning climbing to Jalgyz Karagai pass (3300 m), over the Song-Kol mountains and into the lake’s basin. The morning climb affords wonderful views of Kilemche jailoo,and the pass itself is rocky and exciting. From the pass, Song-Kol is still distant, but as you traipse down the slopes, it gets larger and larger, the mountains on the other side get higher and higher, until finally the lake fills most of your field of view and the southern mountains tower above it. After lunch at Jaman Echki, follow the lakeshore east for an hour to the CBT yurt at Batai Aral. Upon arrival meet your host family of Kyrgyz shepherds. Spend a day-time at the lakeside. Watching and / or participation in everyday life of shepherds: milking mares; making national milk products like kymyz (a fermented mare’s milk) or airan (a sour dense milk product); tending cattle. Eat a delicious dinner here, stroll along the lakeshore, and hope the legendary Song-Kol weather is kind. Meals and overnight is in a yurt.

Day 3: After a refreshing and well-earned rest at Batai Aral and breakfast, spend the morning at the lake. After a final lunch in the yurt, transfer to Kochkor village, 3 hours. Dinner and overnight stay at CBT home stay.

The next day we got up bright and early morning to a breakfast of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, eggs, homemade bread and apricot jam, and tea. It was delicious, and the perfect start to our trip. We set out with our amused local driver and our silent guide named Batyr (“warrior”) for Kyzart Pass, where we would pick up our horses and begin our trek. It was a 2 hour drive along unpaved roads in a Lada (this is the exact model, though our vehicle was ancient) and we were happy when it was over. We arrived at a large sign next to the road that declared “Kyzart” and a semi-cirlce of what looked like metal gypsy wagons selling gas, water, and snacks. A man and his son were tying three horses up near the sign, and soon came over to fasten our packs to the saddles. Without any introduction to horseback riding, any safety precautions, or any recommendations, we were told to “get on” and began on our way.

The ride was cold and I was glad I had brought long underwear and my fleece. We were pretty high up in the mountains, and with no trees to block the wind it was chilly. We rode in single file across wide grassy pastures as Batyr told us the names of different mountains, pastures and rivers. We were finally amongst the Kyrgyz jailoos, or summer mountain pastures, where the traditionally nomadic people still returned every summer with there flocks. We passed yurts and small summer huts along with horses, cows and sheep all brought to the mountains from nearby villages to graze. The scenery was amazing, there's no better word to describe. We rode for hours without seeing another human, passing meadows of alpine flowers. Despite my lack of any previous horse knowledge, riding wasn't too difficult, though it was every bit uncomfortable as you would imagine. After a 5-ride we reached the Kilemche Jailoo, and the yurts that would house us for the night.

The family that hosted us has worked for CBT for a few years, offering food and yurt space to passing trekkers. We got acquainted through broken Russian and attempts at Kyrgyz with our hosts, a large family from a nearby town. The daughter-in-law Nazgul had recently married into the family and was now taking on the traditional role of the daughter-in-law, that of housekeeper, cook, farm hand, and child minder. We ate delicious freshly baked bread with jam, drank tea, and watched the family members milk the horses. After dinner we played traditional Kyrgyz games akin to Duck Duck Goose and capture the flag (though this version involved a sheep bone and yelling things in Kyrgyz) before falling asleep amongst CBT guides in our yurt.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Summer Adventures, PART 2

There's no excuse this time, dear reader, for the absence of recent blog updates, except for shenanigans on my part. So I'm making a vow to finish the story of my summer travels, update you on the work sitch, and write a bit about my recent adventure in Europe, all this week. I swear! For real! So fasten your seat belt, dear reader, this time I mean business.

The Epic Travel Adventures of One Peace Corps Volunteer in the Summer of 2011
(or What I've Been Doing For The Last Month) – PART 2

So like I said, my traveling companion and I rise bright and early and head to the oasis that is “Fatboys” for some pre-travel sustenance. Now “Fatboys” is a place of pure magic and wonder on the main drag in Bishkek. It was about a 35 minute walk from our hostel, but the 35 minutes were well worth it. Our trusty Lonely Planet travel guide describes it as: “A prime foreigners' hang-out, especially at breakfast with fresh juices, fruit teas, hash browns, bacon, eggs, yogurt, muesli and pancakes. If only the staff weren't so morose.” Morose wait staff or not, American breakfast was a welcome treat after 9 months of the sub-par morning meal that Kazakhstanis throw together. We basked in the glory of iced coffees and cheap hashbrowns and browsed the Lonely Planet for tourist companies offering horse treks to Song-Kul, a sacred lake high in the Tien Shan Mountains. We finished breakfast, and headed the bus station to find transportation to Kochkor.

As luck would have it, just as we arrived at the bus station a marshrutka (mini-bus) with two spots left was departing for the Kochkor region. We shoved our hiking packs into the back, squished into seats among grandmothers toting bags of goods from the bazaar and men in track suits, and set off southwards. After a 4-hour ride through beautiful dusty mountains we arrived in Kochkor, population: not many . We hauled our packs out of the marshrutka, watched it drive away, and looked around, not quite sure what to do next. By this time it had started raining and the streets were quickly emptying as the usual loiterers around the town square headed to their cars or cafes to escape the rain. As we dug around in our bags to try to find our trusty Lonely Planet which would surely lead us to the warm and welcoming arms of the CBT – Community Based Tourism – agency's office. As we struggled with our luggage and the rain, an ancient Kyrgyz man in a tradition felt hat sidled up, eyed our luggage, and hoarsely mumbled “CBT?”. We nodded. Apparently accustomed to dealing with wayward, white travelers, he directed us further down the road, and went on his way. We found our way to the CBT office to discuss trek options with the CBT coordinators and find a place to stay for the night.

We arranged to do a 3-day “Jailoo-Hopping” horse trek (more on this later) that would begin the next day. We shelled out some American dollars, as there was no credit card machine and the nearest ATM was an hour away, and made arrangements to spend the night with a local family. Community Based Tourism is a great organization that works throughout Kyrgyzstan to employ local families in the tourism industry. They find local families to host travelers, supply horses, share their yurts, and act as trek guides. They made all of the arrangements for our trek, and we couldn't have been any more pleased with our choice in travel company.

Map in hand, we trudged along the muddy unpaved roads to our host's house to unload our packs and find some dinner. We were hosted by a wonderfully happy Kyrgyz woman, her mid-20s daughter, and 1-year-old grandson. The daughter spoke minimal Russian, but most of our communication with our host was through gestures and miming. Our room was neat, comfortable, and warm, and at $8 a night it was just perfect. We headed out to find dinner – fried lagman and local beer – before turning in. The driver would be by at 9am the next morning to take us to the mountain pass that would serve as the starting point of our trek.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Epic Travel Adventures of One Peace Corps Volunteer in the Summer of 2011 (or What I've Been Doing For The Last Month)

Dearest reader, thank you for your loyalty and patience. I was traveling without internet access for the last month, and have finally returned to tell you all about it. Just a warning, fitting a month's worth of travels into one blog post has been scientifically proven to be impossible, so I'll be dividing the post up into a few parts. With the cooperation of the internet, I'll post all parts in the next week. Your patience and good humor, as always, are greatly appreciated. And thus, I present to you...

The Epic Travel Adventures of One Peace Corps Volunteer in the Summer of 2011
(or What I've Been Doing For The Last Month)

The travel saga begins over a month ago on June 16 in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. After a rather disappointing spring in the office I had finally packed my backpack and hefted it, much to the amusement of the locals, to the train station, where I boarded a train for Almaty. My mid-service medical examination was scheduled for the next day, and my friend COBC and I had plans to leave for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan the day after that. I'd spent the previous two weeks preparing for the trip. Knowing that I'd be gone a month in various locales, I had a lot to do before I left.

Pre-Departure Checklist:
1. Get my annual leave forms signed and stamped by my director
2. Submit annual leave forms to Peace Corps
3. Inform my landlady that I would be gone for a month, and convince her not to give my place away to another renter
4. Get a 30-day Kyrgyz visa
5. Get over the fact that I paid $115 for a visa for a trip that's only 6 days long
6. Submit summer calendar to Peace Corps regional manager
7. Buy a train ticket to Almaty
8. Pack
9. Pay the bills
10. Consume all of the food in my fridge so there are no moldy surprises in there upon my return
11. Leave my keys with a site mate

By the time I got to the train station, I had checked every single item off of this list, and was well on my way to a month of bliss out of my office and out of the blistering heat of the south.

I arrived in Almaty on the morning of the 17th and spent the morning and afternoon getting my medical and dental exams, finalizing travel permission with Peace Corps, and hunting down a Dungan restaurant for dinner with my travel companion. The morning of the 18th the real excitement began. We left the Peace Corps office early and headed to the bus station where we were hoping to catch a bus to Bishkek.

Marshrutkas (mini-buses) leave the station at least hourly for Bishkek, so we had no trouble finding one. Luckily there were two seats left, and room in the back to cram our hikers packs into. We paid the driver 1200 tenge (~$8) and were on our way. The trip to the border took 4 hours and I was sitting next to a mom and her 2-year-old son who was only minimally annoying, so the time passed quickly.

At the border we pile out, strapp on our packs and headed for the gate. Now, I've never crossed a border on foot, so I don't know whether or not the, ahem, “system” for letting people into the border crossing at this particular border is typical, but I do know it was pure insanity. Picture this, we get off the bus and walk towards a huge crowd of people simply milling about the gate surrounding the border office. We join the crowd, are sort of confused what everyone is waiting for, and before we know it the guards have opened the gate and every single person is making a mad dash to get through the gate to the office beyond. And I mean a maaaaaad dash. Old lady's are clawing their way past young men with huge bags of Kazakhstani goods they'll try to sell over the border, young women made up with enough body glitter and eye shadow to keep a hundred call girls in business for an entire week hold hands as they force their way through the crowd. Now the moment the chaos began COBC charged the gate and made it through to the other side. While she was making her move, my midwestern sensibility was too busy telling me that if everyone would just form a line things would go a lot smoother to kick my butt into gear and get me through the gate. Thirty seconds after the gate was opened, the guards start yelling at everyone to get back. I try to force my way through the gate, but don't make. Just as I'm beginning to silently panic to myself, COBC jogs back to the gate, speaks in purposefully horrible Russian to the guard, saying that I'm her translator and she doesn't know Russian so she can't go without me. Perhaps it was the winning American smiles we both flashed him, perhaps he was was feeling particularly nice that day, whatever it was, he opened the gate just enough to let me through, screaming at the crowd not to move.

Having made it over the first major hurdle, we make our way through the border office, get our passports stamped, change our money, and hop on a bus to the center of Bishkek. Bishkek is a strange but wonderful place. It's smaller than Almaty, less developed, yet holds the title for the Ex-pat Aid Worker Hub of Central Asia. The first person we talked to in the city was a man that approached us as we were studying our Lonely Planet to ask in English “Can I help you?”. He turned out to be a Russian man who lives in Bishkek and works for the UN Development Program. Oh and he went to Columbia Law School. This was only the beginning of our run-ins with ex-pats and aid workers over the next few days. We would later meet a British couple who was simultaneous making first ascents (or climbing as of yet unclimbed mountains) and studying how NGOs factor into stabilization in Central Asia and we would run in the Country Director of Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan at a cafe. In Bishkek we would find a small Lebanese cafe with the world's greatest hummus, a cafe that offers hard cider on tap, and the world's creepiest zoological museum that houses a terrifying number of taxidermied specimens.

After a comfortable first day in Bishkek, and a morning filled with iced coffee and scrambled eggs, we set off for the bus station to make our way to the town of Kochkor which would be our starting part for horse trek through the mountains.

The adventure continues the next time I have internet access, stay tuned!

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Kazakhstani Middleman (and woman)

There's something you should know about Kazakhstan. Everyone here is a middleman of some sort, selling something to someone. Even my 66-year-old, frail, Korean host mother. But we'll get to that later.

Every building has some kind of small general store in it. Every store has exactly the same products and exactly the same prices, so how any of them stay in business, I have no idea. There are at least 7 bazaars in the city, and again all of them carry the exact same products and much of the same prices. The sellers at the bazaar seem to be in league somehow, though I haven't quite worked it out yet. Here is a typical interaction at the bazaar.

American: How much is that dress?
Bazaar Guy: 4,000 tenge (~ $27)
American: But she's selling the dress for 3,800 tenge.
Bazaar Guy: But here it costs 4,000 tenge.
American: Let's make it 3,700 and you'll get my business.
Bazaar Guy: But it costs 4,000.
American: Okay, how about 3,800.
Bazaar Guy: If you want to pay 3,800 go buy it from her. Here it costs 4,000.

How exactly does this make sense?! The Bazaar Haggling Textbook clearly states that you should lower your price to get my business. But instead you send me across the way to your lady friend? This is confusing at best and not sound business strategy. Unless the lady friend is particularly attractive, or a good cook, in which case I give you credit for creativity. But I digress, back to the point at hand.

More than in any country I've ever been to (which, granted, isn't many) everyone in Kazakhstan is trying to sell something. More often than not, it's something they bought with the sole purpose of re-selling, and often they're not doing it terribly successfully.

My host mother comes home from the bazaar every Saturday with 5 kilos of pomegranates (for those of you not on the metric system, that's 11 lbs). Don't get me wrong, I love pomegranates, but who on earth needs 5 kilos?? So I finally asked and she calmly informed me that she sells 4 kilos to her neighbors. Sure she gets a 20 cent markup on those 4 kilos and makes a whole 80 cents in the whole affair (even here that's small change), but is it worth her effort to haul that extra 4 kilos all the way back from the bazaar?

In the office, co-workers resell things that they bought at the bazaar in much the same fashion. This week our accountant brought in a handful of bracelets that she had bought at the bazaar just so she could resell them to us. When she made all the possible sales in our office, she went upstairs to the other offices in our buildings to finish business. Three different women from three different cosmetic companies stopped in to show off their newest items, one boy came by selling kids books, and a woman stopped in to offer to pick up lunch for our office at a nearby cafe, for a small fee of course.

On the 5 minute walk from the bus stop to my office, I pass 14 “stalls” full of random stuff that people are trying to sell to passersby. Some people sell vegetables, one lady sells houseplants and underwear, there's a lady that sells fish at a small table ineffectively shaded by the world's tiniest umbrella, a man that sells fish from the trunk of his car, a man that sells dairy products out of the back of his van, and an ancient babushka that sells hand-knit slippers. Sometimes a husband and wife show up fresh from China (which they're eager to tell everyone within a 100 yard radius) with the back seat and trunk of their ancient Lada (which looks exactly like this) with crates of tomatoes and cucumbers. They sell to the other vegetable stand owners who in turn bump up the price by 15 cents a kilo and resell them. And yet, instead of just buying from the couple selling out of their car, people continue to go to the stands where they pay more. Perhaps it's out of habit, maybe they feel better buying produce from a mass-produced, pre-fab vegetable hut than from the trunk of a 30-year-old Soviet car, or maybe they just haven't really thought about it. It's a mystery.