Sometimes it’s still strange to find myself in Kyrgyzstan. After all, like any good Sporcler I earned my ‘Bishkek or Bust’ badge back in the day and while I knew where Kyrgyzstan was, I never thought I would live here.
As far as my study abroad time goes, I can only describe it as ‘adventurous’. Bishkek is not for the faint of heart; it’s a city that is still developing, so things don’t always run smoothly. For example, due to a plumbing mishap, I had cold water in my shower and hot water in my toilet for a couple of weeks. Uncomfortable? A bit. Livable? Quite. A good sense of humor helps too.
Ride the Marshrutkas, They Said
Traffic is crazy. Most people get around on the local vans called Marshrutkas, which are relatively cheap. Though they only have 8-10 seats, these vans usually hold around 20-25 people, so you get nice and chummy with the locals. I’ve been amazed at some of the encounters I’ve had in Marshrutkas; I’ve gotten to experience up close and personal more than a few armpits, ridden down the street with my butt pressed up against the windshield and on more than one occasion I’ve have had people fall right into my lap. Picture the Knight Bus from Harry Potter, and you’ll get a good idea of the of the driving style of Marshrutka drivers.
How Did the American Cross the Road?
Nothing builds courage faster than learning how to cross the street in Bishkek. If you wait for the traffic to stop, you’ll spend the entire day standing on side of the road. It was a moment of growth for me when I finally walked into oncoming traffic for the first time. However, I actually have a stronger faith in Kyrgyz drivers than I do of those in Seattle. Here drivers are always prepared for traffic laws to be disobeyed and plan accordingly. Two lanes? Psh! We can fit six cars side by side! Red light? Nah, bro – I got places to be! You cut me off? I hope you like the sound of my horn for the next two minutes. Another interesting fact: Cars come with steering wheels on both sides. This is a never-ending source of amusement to me. Almost as much as the scented and colored toilet paper sold in the supermarkets here (to make up for the fact that I can’t flush it). Green apple is my current ‘favorite’.
Recently I was invited to dinner at a local Kyrgyz/Kazakh family. After my time here, I believe ardently that Central Asians (in my experience) are the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Your every need will be met as the guest. Just, don’t be picky or stingy with tea. There is no such thing as one cup of tea. This particular evening I got to enjoy the traditional Central Asian meal called Beshbarmak, which translates into “Five Fingers”. Just like its name implies, no utensils necessary cause you eat it with your hands! Our host asked who the oldest of us students were (hint: it was me) – but being a woman I could not sit at the head of the table (the place of honor). Just as well, cause I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to being served a fully cooked sheep’s head. However, this is a delicacy here and is only served to people of high importance, so we were quite honored.
As is customary, my friend was asked to cut off a piece of the head and eat it. He then cut up the rest and we all put some on our plates and ate it with noodles. I can now check off “Eaten sheep’s ear” off of my bucket list (Note: This was not originally on the list). Also, to follow a particular Kazakh tradition, we washed it all down with Camel’s milk, which is the BOMB. I liked it so much I had three cups! And of course, being good hosts – they served us vodka and cognac shots along with an amazing apple custard pie.