Life At Point C

Experiencing Life along the Silk Road

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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!


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April Showers Bring May Mud

P1010825I have to admit: I love the rain. I really truly do. I could handle as many days of rain in a row as you can throw at me. In fact, too many sunny days  and I go a little crazy. I love the sound of it, the feel of it, the smell of it, the way it changes the world around me and washes the sky. I love misting rain, torrential downpour, constant drizzle and big puddles. What I don’t like is the need to stay clean inspite of it.

In Kyrgyzstan shoes are a very important part of your ensemble. In almost every home as you walk through the door there is a shoe horn and there is a shoe brush as well as black and brown polish available for a guest to use. You will be taking off your shoes as you walk in the door, since we never ever wear shoes in the house. But, it is of utmost importance that you wear nice shoes (i.e. the kind you can polish, not tennis shoes) and that they look good as you walk in the door and as you walk out the door. This is a problem in a country that is made up of a majority of dirt roads. Because dirt roads turn into mud when it rains. And mud gets everywhere.

If I had my way, I would put up with the mud and wear golashes everywhere I go and not worry about how I look or how my feet look. But, that isn’t ok here. It is far more important that I respect the customs and wear shoes that bring honor to the home that I enter. So, on days when it is really muddy, I wear my hardy boots, carrying my nice shoes in a plastic bag and before I enter a home or an office, I change my shoes and make myself presentable. And I still hope it will rain with a great display of thunder and lightning topped off by a rainbow tomorrow.

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Container Buildings

IMG_3602There are recycled bottles, recycled cardboard, recycled paper. Then there are recycled shipping containers. I always am amazed at the resourcefulness of the Kyrgyz people. I am also amazed at how many shipping containers just end up here. Ones that have probably cris-crossed the ocean, or some far away country on trains or trucks, get parked right here in Karakol to be turned into a store or a hotel or an office building. They are like portable buildings: cut a hole, you have a window. Or leave it as is, and open it wide, hang clothes on the doors and on the walls and you have a store. To close the store? close the container doors. The only minus is they are not the best for big swings in the weather: on cold winter days it is like a meat locker inside. On hot days, it is so stifling you can hardly breath. Convenience rarely means comfort. Nevertheless, I will always have a warm place in my heart for the container stores that make up our bazaars. It is like going on a treasure hunt walking through the labyrinth of containers to find a new skirt, or the right light bulb or brown sugar. I usually leave with a smile on my face and my arms going numb lugging my bags back home.

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The Tushuk

What would we say is the essential piece of furniture in the American culture? The Lay-Z-boy? The couch? Dining room or kitchen table? I realized the incredible disconnect and variety of furniture that we find important may be something that people in a different part of the world have no concept of. This came up in an English lesson I was recently teaching. We were going through the different rooms of the house: kitchen, dining room, living room, bathroom. The lesson was designed to introduce prepositions, but I didn’t expect that this lesson would actually be teaching much more basic aspects of an American culture. The first question that popped up was: what is a living room? This actually stumped me. “well, it is where the American family spends their time doing life together.” Be it watching TV, reading, doing homework, working on the computer. We spend our time together in that room. Hmmm… I could tell that I was already on shaky ground to begin with. The look in their eyes communicated total puzzlement. Life together, what does that look like in a rural Kyrgyz home?

SAMSUNGThe one thing I know is central is the tushuk. These are the center pieces of furnishing in either the nomadic home or the city appartment: they are the couch, the dining room chairs, the bed, the blankets, even the wedding dowry. Some are cheap, factory made with garish fabric, and others are crafted together with a beautiful patchwork design. In small simple living spaces they are easily spread out and gathered up: piled in the corner or hung outside to freshen up. Most mornings, I see women lug piles outside to hang over banisters and clothes lines to allow the fresh air and sunshine to clean their tushuks. There is a lot of life lived on those tushuks!

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Snake Oil

Coming from a medical background, my ears often perk up when I hear about especially odd treatments for diseases with well known, well documented treatments. Unless I am teaching a full on medical class at the time of discovery of said odd treatment, I do not say a thing. Medical advice, when unsolicited, is generally speaking a waste of breath. I think this is why snake oil salesmen of yonder years actually succeeded in their endeavors, because once we buy into a cure, we need a microscope and a miracle before we are willing to abandon our snake oil.

All this build up to tell you about an especially odd cure for Tuberculosis. Friends of ours were complaining a while back that their neighbors have what they call a dog farm. So, needless to say, there is a lot of barking that goes on right next door, and since I don’t know what a dog farm is good for, I asked innocently about this very strange practice. Well, it seems people drop off unwanted dogs who are then euthanized and their parts sold off for various consumptions. The most profitable being the boiling down of dog fat which is used to “very effectively” treat TB. Seriously? Again, my eye brows go up, and I listen, without saying much, since my friend doesn’t prescribe to this treatment, but just knows of its existence. Yes, you put a vial of dog fat in your tea if you have TB and the fat has healing powers. Since I knew we would not get into much of a medical discussion, I dropped the conversation. But, a couple months later I came across a little old lady selling vials of dog fat for that very purpose in the little village we live in.


The best way I can find to fight this odd practice is with truth. So, whenever I find myself in a teaching opportunity at a hospital I take the time to specifically teach about TB treatment. Kyrgyzstan is one of the high burden countries for MDR and XDR TB, which for such a small country on the world scale is a pretty inauspicious badge of honor. In this case, knowledge is the best weapon, but even in a medical teaching environment I still watch the faces and realize often, what the rest of the world thinks is good treatment is still just unsolicited advice.



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Observations from the Chinese Cabin

6823191859_b0e6c93b46_zI have always felt that flying in an airplane is a universally uniform experience. Well, my attitude is being adjusted as I have had some rather unique experiences on some domestic flights in China. I have in a short period of time been on five separate legs of Chinese flights, and have to my amusement found the experience to be enlightening and entertaining. Let me fill you in on a few of the tidbits:

During the safety instructions that were very correctly and modestly demonstrated by adorable Chinese stewardesses, when they got to the part about the life vests and used the term “Ditching the airplane” it just made me giggle. Yeah, I guess we do ditch the plane if we are jumping down slides, but I have never thought of it like that.

Smoking on board: yup, haven’t had that happen for a while, but on one of my flights, it was obviously allowed as for 4 hours we breathed recycling smokers’ air. That brought back some childhood memories.

not quite Beats by Dr DreAnother total reminder of bygone days: way before Dr. Dre came out with his ear buds, we had these. Wow. Never thought I would see these again. I should have taken some and seen what they would have gone for on ebay!

During one flight, I walked down the aisle happily noticing that the lavatory sign showed that it was unoccupied. Sweet! No long wait (people in this part of the world take fooooorever in the bathroom!) As I pushed open the one accordion door I pushed them right in on a man who was thankfully standing at the sink. Oops! Turning around I more cautiously pushed on the other accordion door and low-and-behold that one was occupied as well. I think the Chinese instructions on those doors need to be reworded. Something is lost in translation there!

“Please do not attempt to open the cabin doors. The flight attendants are specially trained to operate the doors. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.” Announced twice during one flight. I think that one speaks for itself.

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Does Anybody Speak English?

“We regret to inform you that the 12:25 scheduled flight CZ 6973 to Pudong/Shanghai will be delayed until 16:20 due to weather at our airport.” If I have heard this announcement once today, then I have heard it a thousand times. In fact, the delays were announced continually in a loop for all flights involved (all flights in the airport) for hours on end. I was very grateful for it, because they were my beacon of sanity in an airport where everything else was in Chinese – a language that I have not learned.

Yes, I find myself deep in the hinterlands of China. This is like Karakol on steroids. It is amazing! I will have to save observations about China for another blog, because just the experiences in air travel are totally worthy of a blog.


Back to the dreaded experience in the airport…because there is nothing like the completely helpless feeling of being stranded with no local money, no cell phone and no understanding of the spoken or written language. When the whole airport got socked in by fog, the board started to flash red and put up estimated departure times hours after the initial times. I sat and thought of the people picking me up in Shanghai trying not to panic. As I watched everyone around me speaking on their cell phones helpfully informing those on the other end of their changed arrival times, I finally worked up the courage to ask the man next to me: “English?” He stared at me blankly. I pantomimed talking on the phone and asking if I can call Shanghai… again just a blank stare. I asked the girl across from me, and again, nothing. At this point I was getting the weird looks – no wonder – I am quite literally the only blonde in the whole terminal (unless it came from a bottle!) Alright, in for a penny, in for a pound. Since I have established a halting relationship with the guy next to me (eye contact and helplessness on my end) I leave my backpack on my seat and walk up to counter.

Yes, I do the unthinkable and leave my stuff, because with several flights delayed at just our gate there is no seating space, and I don’t want to lose my chair. I walk up to the counter, which is staffed, and the sweet looking girl isn’t being haraunged by evil customers (I wonder if their airport police are scarier), and I again go through my English? Phone routine… with no luck. Oh, oh! I am in trouble! I can’t find an English speaker. I return to my seat, defeated. This is the worst feeling ever! After about an hour, realizing that people will be getting into the car to drive over an hour across the city to pick me up, I decide to get desperate and leave my snack on the seat, hoping this will save it, and go a little further afield. I turn one way and see a coffee shop and hope for wifi there, but nope, then turn around and see a huge sign that declares: “internet leisure” and I am hoping that means they have internet or phones!  As I approach their counter I am politely told in Chinese that there are no computers available. No, I can’t understand Chinese, but I could see the computers in use and tell that she was trying to tell me that I was out of luck. I smiled, interrupted her information with “Telephone?” and got redirected to the one man who spoke English and the Hallelujah chorus broke out in my mind as I smiled broadly and got to finally ask for a phone call to Shanghai. Message on the other end received AND having found a means to communicate with them, I relaxed as much as I could and settled in for the long wait. The fog eventually cleared and I cheered when I saw the first flight announce that it was boarding. Not out loud, of course, I was already sticking out way too much among my sober travel companions!