Monday, October 20, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Trip to Naryn

The helicopter slowly rose to what felt like only a few feet off the ground, and then all of a sudden jolted forward. Nadim and I let out simultaneous high-pitched shrieks. We were on our way to Naryn, a small city hidden in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Naryn is also one of the three locations for the University of Central Asia's (UCA's) undergraduate campuses, to be opened in September 2016. The campus backs onto the Naryn River and is located in a valley just outside the city. The helicopter ride was about an hour, and we flew over hundreds of mountains and saw a few remote villages from above; it was truly breathtaking.

Construction of the Naryn campus has been progressing very quickly, and the foundation and concrete of the campus has already been laid. We had a brief meeting with the Site Manager who showed us designs of the campus, and then went on a tour. Seeing the campus forming and visualizing the final product really puts into perspective the work we have been doing at Academic Affairs. The students who we are working towards recruiting will be studying here in just a few years; the curriculum we are developing will be implemented in this very location. It makes the work feel more 'real' if that makes sense, which is a strong motivator.

As I have mentioned, UCA's vision is to provide world-class education to the mountain societies of Central Asia. The goal is to educate students who can then use their knowledge to promote the social and economic development of the region. Outside of this direct goal however, there are many positive externalities. One of which we saw while at the UCA lookout point, observing the campus from a ledge on one of the surrounding mountains. While we were there, a few cars pulled up to the gazebo that UCA had built and set up a picnic on the benches. We spoke to the family for a bit (those who spoke Russian did, I just stood there) and found out they were celebrating a wedding. They come up to the lookout for family gatherings. We were informed by the Site Manager that this lookout used to be very dangerous, but UCA cleaned it up and built a gazebo, some benches, and a fence so it was more secure. With little effort, UCA was providing a direct benefit to this family, outside the immediate realm of its vision. This impact will be magnified when you compare this small gazebo to a university with world-class facilities. The economic fallout will be enormous, and it's exciting to see what the next few years hold for Naryn.

Random thoughts of the week:

  • Russian low-point: I was locked out of my apartment, and had to have Malika (who speaks Russian) on speakerphone asking my neighbour to let me in the building via the intercom. I was completely useless.
  • Russian high-point: I successfully conducted an extensive negotiation with a cab driver, and got a fare reduced from 200 KGS to 160 KGS. That's a total discount of $0.80 lol...
  • High school students are assigned 'door duty.' At every entranceway at the two high schools we visited, there would be two students who stand there for extended periods of time. Apparently their job was to ring the bell once class was over, although I'm not sure if that's still in practice.
  • Ariff (Dr. Kachra) - Dean of Academic Affairs at UCA gave me some good advice this week. He said to learn how to peg where expectations are set. That way, rather than just meeting expectations, you can always surpass them.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Expat

Expat culture is something else. The community in Bishkek is very small, and it's surprising how quickly people connect. There are so few degrees of separation. For example, while waiting for our travel visas at the Kazakhstan consulate, we met a really nice guy from Nova Scotia who was in Bishkek with his family teaching at one of the international high schools. He was colleagues with one of the American friends we made on our hike in the Kegety Gorge the week prior, and also knew the kids of one of our colleagues at UCA. There was one other individual with us at the consulate, and we had met her while bowling the night prior! I think the language barrier makes meeting locals extremely difficult, and having not only the English familiarity but also shared experiences with expats is a catalyst for camaraderie.
Kyrgyz White House
Ala-Too Square
I know very little about the other areas in Bishkek outside the few blocks encompassing my apartment and the office. It was time to start exploring. Leaving my apartment with some good shoes and a charged camera, I started to wander the city. During my walk, I stumbled upon the massive Ala-Too Square. This square was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1984. Apparently there was a large statue of Lenin in the middle, however in 2003 it was replaced with the current statue, titled "Freedom." This square is the home of the Kyrgyz National Museum, a giant flag pole, and hosts many cultural concerts. Beautiful white marble buildings surround the square, including the Kyrgyz White House. Fountains line the gardens, and there were lots of people sitting on benches having picnics and enjoying the view. The Soviet influence on Kyrgyzstan was once again very striking. This gorgeous square was quite the contrast from the rubble and dirt I had passed by only a few blocks away.

Freedom statue
Fountains at Ala-Too Square
This week was the first time I didn't ask myself if being in Bishkek was really true. Every other week, I always at one point would think, "Wait, what? Where am I?" The day-to-day has started to become routine, and I think that helps. My evenings usually end up as follows: Monday - Russian tutor, Tuesday - Gym, Wednesday - Russian tutor, Thursday - Gym. Friday - Go out, Saturday/Sunday - Excursion/Hang out at Sierra cafe. Mixed into this routine is usually one extremely late night at the office that substitutes the gym, but those are harder to predict.
Late night strategy session
Construction outside the office

Random thoughts of the week:

  • The day before Canadian Thanksgiving, we wanted to have a nice turkey dinner. Chicken would have been okay too. We ended up having Chinese takeout. :P
  • At the gym (called Florida Fitness), a guy named Viktor came up to me and told me out of the blue that I needed to gain 15kg and eat Russian oatmeal and buckwheat every day. He's not wrong. 
  • We had our first snowfall on October 8th!
  • One evening, I came home to see the building door to my apartment ripped completely off. The hinges were totally smashed, and there was broken concrete all over the entrance. I was initially terrified, but found out later that they were in the process of installing a more secure electronic door and forgot to clean up.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Hiking and JK Rowling

A friend of a friend, who was the agent of a local Kyrgyz singer, told us that there was an international writers conference in Bishkek this week. Apparently, JK Rowling was a member of the conference. We heard through this friend that the group may have bought tickets to a Kyrgyz folk concert. As one can imagine, we concluded that this meant we should go to the concert and become great friends with JK Rowling. I even semi-joked about bringing a copy of my manuscript to discuss with her.

Enjoying the music!
Ordo Sakhna
Unfortunately, we didn't meet or see JK Rowling. To be honest, I'm not even sure she was in Central Asia, it might have been a marketing ploy by the agent. Either way, I'm extremely glad we went to the concert. As Kyrgyzstan is a nomadic culture, the music was a blend of Chinese, Mongol, and Russian styles, and combined to make a unique Central Asian sound. I was blown away by its beauty. The performance group was called "Ordo Sakhna" and the eight artists each played multiple instruments for over three hours, both traditional and modern. The Komuz, which is a stringed instrument plucked like a guitar and made from a single piece of wood sounded very unique. At the end of the concert, when the performers were bowing and the MC was thanking the audience, I was surprised to see about 7 or 8 crowd members leave their seats and walk down to the stage, each with a bouquet of flowers. They jumped onto the stage and went to different performers, giving them the flowers. It was a nice show of appreciation, and is apparently common in Kyrgyz culture.

Adam, Shazia, Kim, Fareen and I
At the peak
On the weekend, I went on a day trek in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range. The majority of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, with the Tien-Shan and Pamir mountain systems covering most of the land. We visited a waterfall in the morning, and for the rest of the day hiked in the Kegety Gorge alongside the Kegety river.

Kegety Gorge
Enjoying the clean air
The view was breathtaking. Snowcapped mountains surrounded us as we walked along a beaten path, listening to the rush of white water flow by. The mountains were untouched by humans and walking amongst the nature was so peaceful. It may sound odd, but I really enjoyed how clean the air felt. Bishkek smells like a combination of oil and dirt mixed with sewage, so the pure air of the mountains was very refreshing. At one point I sat on a rock and let my feet dangle over the water, soaking in the atmosphere. Two words to describe it: pure tranquility.

Our path
White water

Random thoughts of the week:

  • The traffic light at the intersection nearest my apartment stopped working, so I woke up on the weekend to the loud and continuous whistling of the traffic cop. NOT pure tranquility.
  • My Russian tutor's parents live in the same apartment complex as I do. For what it's worth, they really enjoy the neighbourhood.
  • "Menus at these tiny restaurants have at least ten pages and over hundreds of items. Where do they keep all this inventory?!" -Fareen Ahmed
  • We went to an expat bar called "Metro" on the weekend, because they advertised live music. Live music translated to old stereo. We were with good company though, so overall the night was fun.