Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

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A Way I’d Like to Live

Growing up my family had a big field and we grew watermelon, cantaloupe, and squash. My summers as a kid were spent waking up early to weed our field. Oh how I hated waking up early to work in the field, but after I went to college I somewhat missed it. Living in my university city I found myself wishing that my then-non-existent children would have the same type of experience (definitely looking through rose-colored glasses at that time). It was hard work and I always thought that it had to be hard work.

Yet, one thing I’ve learned from living in Karakol is that it doesn’t have to be such hard work to grow your own food…and I love that. Many homes have a vegetable garden, a few fruit trees, and maybe a few berry bushes. People take what they need and either sell or give away the rest. The bazaars have many people selling the fruit of their labors: fresh and canned fruits, vegetables, and spices. The best time of the year is when the older babooshkas (grandmothers) come out and sell their small, yet very delicious strawberries and raspberries. They are unlike anything I have tasted back home. Driving through villages outside the city, people line the road selling apples and apricots from their gardens.

I feel like I make it more complicated than it really is. Here, it’s just a way of life. It makes sense, right? There is a time where lots of work is needed but getting to take part in the harvest is so worth the effort. Looking around and seeing how, on some level, people are self-sufficient is encouraging and challenging. In a country that doesn’t have a lot of conveniences from a Western viewpoint, it has taught me the value of earning my food through work. For example, last fall I embarked on my first experience with canning. It was several days work for spaghetti sauce, apple butter, apple sauce, apricot butter, and canned apricots but each time I open one of those cans I’m so thankful for that process. This newfound appreciation for “hard” work is something I hope will change the way I live back home.

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A Day at the Circus


My view of the circus "theater" clowns

My view of the circus “theater” clowns

I recently experienced my first circus in Kyrgyzstan. My husband and I took our kids and went with some of our friends. Two of our friends had already purchased their tickets but the rest of us needed to purchase tickets “at the door”. Interestingly, kids 5 and under entered for free so only the adults needed tickets. We arrived a bit later than we wanted to; the circus was minutes from starting and there was a huge mob of people at the ticket window. We decided to let the children go on in with our two friends who had tickets and the remaining 4 of us waited to buy our tickets. It seemed we would miss this particular show altogether because the line didn’t appear to be moving at all. The ticket window would be open for a few minutes and then the attendant would close it. It appeared the majority of those waiting were buying tickets for later shows so they weren’t as concerned about the wait. About 30 minutes into the show we finally had our tickets and were allowed inside. We made our way to the back of the theater. Yes, theater. I had never been to a circus in a theater before. I immediately figured that this circus probably didn’t include animals, and I was right.


the Russian acrobats

For our first few minutes there were clowns doing goofy tricks and getting kids from the audience to participate. Initially it was cute but then I tired of it and started to wonder what else I could have spent my money on. However, the acts really started to improve as the belly dancer/snake charmer, acrobats, and strong man took the stage. The goofy clowns would come out for some light entertainment between the main acts. The male Russian acrobats were really impressive as one of the guys balanced the other guy on his head! By the end of the show I was glad that I had spent my money on this experience. While it was different from any other circus I’ve seen (namely because of the absence of animals!), it is worth repeating.

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Weather Can Be Strange

Winter was a very mild one for us this year. We knew and heard that winters in Karakol are not as cold as in Bishkek. We were looking forward to this since we have had a few very cold winters in the past. This winter, though, was abnormally warm and all our local friends said that it was very unusual. Spring came early to Karakol and the roads were fairly dry compared to early March the year before. We had a couple weeks of great warming-up-but-still-cool weather, but one day we woke up and there had been a light dusting of snow. This was not unusual since I know that Colorado gets the same thing every year. By mid-morning there was no sign that snow was even around. The day warmed up, birds were chirping, and the sun was shining bright. It seemed as though the snow had actually refreshed the greenery because all the trees looked so bright and green. The next week the same thing happened. Derrick and Ryan got up and there was more snow on the ground than the week before. “Snow!” was Ryan’s chant as he raced back into the room to tell me of his luck. Sadly all our winter gear had either been thrown away, packed, or given away. Poor kid wouldn’t be playing in the snow as far as non-snow shoes were concerned. As with the week before, by afternoon all was warm and cozy. The next morning Ryan crawled out of bed and ran to our kitchen window. He enthusiastically cried out, “Snow!” and with a sleep-filled voice I corrected him saying that the snow was all gone. I pulled myself out of bed, looked outside, and there was snow! It was heavier than the day before and blanketed everything with fluffy white. I stood there thinking hard about how many layers I would have to put on in order to stay warm at the university. Did I put my boots away already? Where were they? I hadn’t worn them for weeks. It was amazing to me that only once, maybe twice, in the whole winter had it snowed like it just had in the middle of spring. Well, in the end the sun came out, warmed the land, and proved to be snow’s kryptonite once again. The only thing that was a reminder of the snow that morning was the steam billowing up from the streets as the sun warmed the blacktop.

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An Apache in Central Asia

Recently, my wife and I visited a former student friend from Bishkek. She lives about 35 minutes away from Karakol. She invited us over for lunch. But first, she wanted us to visit the school where she is teaching. She was conducting a performance with her middle school students. She really wanted us to see the rehearsal on this particular Saturday. We arrived in the village of Kyzul-Soo and found the school where our friend and her students were rehearsing. She greeted us at the entrance of the school and promptly lead us to the concert hall. We heard the roar of preteens echoing through the halls. We arrived at the concert hall where there were at least 40 kids. Screaming, running, laughing, giggling, whining kids were everywhere. She yelled at all the students to get in line for the rehearsal to start. After about 3 minutes of getting the students in place, the presentation started. A couple girls started the formal greeting and explained what the presentation was about. It was difficult to hear their little voices without a microphone. They introduced the first skit and then a squad of kids came out to the stage. They were dressed as American Indians and Pilgrims.

The pilgrims were surrounded by the savage Indians. The little Kyrgyz boys dressed as Native Indians howled and pranced in circles around the Kyrgyz dressed pilgrims. They poked and prodded them with their sticks and bows and arrows. I thought to myself, “Everybody, all over the world, thinks of me this way.” I looked at my wife and we were both amused. Even my little Apache son, Ryan, was amused by the Indian and Pilgrim skit. The Indians put the pilgrims on their knees and one particular pilgrim stood up. It was Christopher Columbus. It was difficult to hear the dialogue. From what we could see, Columbus made peace amends with the American Indians and then everyone was happy and no one was killed. I looked at my wife and just smiled. The teacher came to me after the skit and asked if I could add anything to the play. Since I am a “real Apache”, her students thought I might add some good input to the skit. I smiled and said, “I am not from the east coast, but it looks like you guys are doing fine.” Afterwards, the kids asked a ton of questions about being an American Indian. I could have told lies: we still live in Tipi’s, we dress in leather skirts and head dresses, we eat only what we hunt, and we still fight the “white man.” But I really shouldn’t corrupt such young minds. Overall, it was a great morning and I had a few laughs over how this country views Native Americans.


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Banya or Shower?

Recently for a homework assignment we needed to ask at least five people a simple question that we had thought up. My question was, “If you had your own house, what would you prefer an inside shower or a banya?” A banya is basically a sauna and is the main form of bathing in Kyrgyzstan. Most houses, especially in the village, do not have indoor plumbing so a bathing house is built next to the main house. It is usually two rooms, with one being the readying room and the other where the bathing happens. It takes some time to get the banya ready due to needing to warm up the room and getting the rocks hot enough to make steam.

I asked some people this question, thinking that at least half might prefer doing things as usual versus needing to install indoor plumbing. The answers took me a bit by surprise. Most answered that they would prefer an inside shower to a banya. “It’s more comfortable,” they answered. “You don’t have to go outside in the winter to bathe and it won’t take a long time to have to heat,” others answered. One girl said with a laugh, “With a banya maybe only once a week a person will bathe because it takes a lot of work, but with a shower you could take one every day.”
Then they asked me what I would prefer. I told them I love going to saunas but explained to them that in America going to a sauna is expensive and that sometimes a person would need to become a member of a club to be able to go. I said that living in Kyrgyzstan is great because going to a sauna is normal here. It isn’t expensive, is very easily accessible, and everyone has a sauna house. How so very lucky! Only the rich in America have their own personal sauna houses, but I would love to have a banya in my house. I said that it could just be that for me it is exotic and new, since I grew up with boring showers. They laughed at me and said that if I ever get to build my own home I can build it with a banya and be happy.

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Eating in Central Asia, Part 3

I have a friend, Jengish, who pestered me a long time about eating a genuine local dish. He would talk about how much I was accustomed to Kyrgyzstan but I would not be complete without this one dining experience. So I said yes. Better yet, we got a bunch of other people involved also. It was a meal that I would never forget.

It happened during a local spring holiday. There are plenty of spring holidays in Kyrgyzstan, especially in May. We invited a bunch of local friends as well as a few other Americans. We sat crowded in our American friend’s living room as we waited for Jengish, the cook for the evening. The late afternoon was full of laughter and tea. We visited patiently for dinner to start. Jengish came into the living room, boisterous, with a sheep head. “Are you guys ready for sheep head dinner?!” he exclaimed to the crowd. We all hyped ourselves up and cheered for dinner. Jengish took the head into the kitchen where the girls gasped and yelped. Cooking dinner was ready to begin. He took the head, which was already skinned and cleaned, and put it into a pot of boiling water. No salt, vegetables, or any other spices were added. Just the pure essence of sheep in the pot.

The rest of the group in the living room chatted and others watched a comedy film. Each room in the apartment was filled with conversation and laughter. There was hardly room for people to walk by each other. After an hour, we were all getting hungry. We had tea and cookies to keep our hunger at bay. For some, tea and cookies became dinner. As for the rest of us, we eagerly awaited for dinner to be served. Then, the head came out on a large plate with some noodles sprinkled around it. The living room was set up Kyrgyz dinner style. There was a large tablecloth on the floor with pillows surrounding. The head was placed in the center and soon after we were served. I had the pleasure of getting the best part, the cheek. Others took different parts of the head, getting whatever meat they could. I tried the tongue, offered to me by one of the local girls I sat near. Then, Jengish gave me a very special part of the head dish. He gave me a small bit of sheep brain. I had never eaten brain until that night. It had the texture of tuna, but with a strong taste of sheep. It was like sheep tuna. It was gross, yet interesting. We ate every bit of that head that night. The evening came to a close around 9:00 p.m. After most of our friends left, Jengish looked at me and asked if I liked it. I told him it was okay. Then he told me, “At least you’ll be smarter now…because you ate brains.”

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Ashlan–Fu:The Karakol Experience

DSC_3771There are certain dishes that are specific to a very small location. One of those would be Ashlan-Fu. I am not much of a food critic, so I might leave the discussion of this tasty, cold, soupy salad to someone who will extol the virtue of Ashlan-Fu much better than I can. But, one thing is common knowledge around here: Karakol is the home of Ashlan-fu. It is the place that people come to have it. It is available in every fancy restaurant (granted there really aren’t many of those) and in every hole in the wall, or at the central food court for either bazaar. The other day we had some guests and ventured out to our food court. Now this is an experience. You sit on long stone benches or on a saw horse and a woman at the end of the table makes your Ashlan-Fu and fry bread right before your eyes. Where you sit determines who your cook will be. Most likely that woman made everything from scratch: the rice noodles, the egg noodles, cut up the veggies and stirred it all together for this delectable cheap lunch. I am now a believer that every foreigner who comes to Karakol has to make a stop in the food court of the central bazaar and experience the atmosphere of the metal building, the stone table covered with cheap plastic, the small bowls of local goodness and tasty hot fry bread. Come and join us next time you are in town!