This is my last missive from my trip to the Stans. This evening we flew from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where we had a short but wonderful time in that land of nomads. We saw a sporting event yesterday whereby very skilled horsemen, divided into two teams, rode around the field trying to pick up a dead sheep, galloped down the field, and threw it into a big receptacle while the other team of horsemen tried to prevent them. It’s like a cross between American football and polo, but much rougher.
The city of Bishkek is surrounded by spectacular, high snowcapped mountains, the Tian Sian range, some 20,000 feet tall. However, the mountains are shrouded most of the time by clouds and smog. When they come into view periodically, it is breathtaking.
One of the things we learned about in Kyrgyzstan in more detail was the devastating consequences of the breakup of the former Soviet Union on that small country. Apparently three countries–Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine–got together and decided to break up the Soviet Union. The Central Asian countries (“the Stans”) were not consulted, but just handed the decision as a fait accompli. The factories closed almost immediately (due to diminished demand), and the economy plummeted almost overnight. A large proportion of the Russians who had held prominent positions in the government and society left and returned to Russia. Both Russia and Belorussia invited them back, and some who remained feared discrimination and even retribution. Many skilled Kyrgyz people also left to find jobs elsewhere, mostly to Russia. There was hyperinflation combined with high unemployment. The poor suffered the most as is almost always the case.
Privatization of real estate happened quickly. If you had inhabited an apartment or house for a certain amount of time, it became yours if you filed the paperwork properly. Around Bishkek, which is in general a lovely city, you see many dilapidated apartment houses, which seem out of place in the rapidly developing city with some attractive new buildings. These older buildings are apparently the buildings where people got free apartments. Now there is little money or good cooperative governance in place to fix up the buildings, which have been slowly deteriorating over the past 30 years. I haven’t got a handle on how the collective farms were privatized, but the government ownership of land also was ended in rural areas.
While there were negative consequences, and apparently many older people are nostalgic about former Soviet times, the youthful population is happier about the changes; and there is overall an optimistic spirit. Still, many youth have to go abroad, usually to Russia, to earn a living so it’s a mixed bag.
I think the Russians have the right idea about immigration. While the circumstances and economies are different, Russia and the US both have a shortage of unskilled labor. Yet they encourage Central Asians to migrate to Russia for work and give them work permits easily along with a path to citizenship. They are allowed to go back and forth to their home countries as they like. We, on the other hand, force hardworking immigrants to come illegally to do the jobs that Americans don’t want for low pay and keep them in the shadows so that they have no legal status and cannot return home to see their families. It is an unnecessary and cruel system (or non-system).
But as challenging as life is here in the Stans, many people remain hopeful and most have greeted us with warmth and hospitality. Here is how I have communicated with the wonderful people I have met along the way. To greet anyone, I just say “A-salamu Aleicum” which is “Peace be with you” in Arabic, but works in any Muslim country as a polite greeting. For “thank you” I learned “Rachman” (I have no idea if I am spelling it correctly), but “Spaciba” which is Russian (perhaps also misspelled) also always works. To emphasize respect or thanks, they have a lovely gesture, which is to hold your right hand over your heart. With these, and a good translator at close hand, I have had no problems.
I will close my missives with this story: Yesterday we took a trip to the countryside and stopped by a farm for lunch and to see how they make their beautiful felt rugs. Each rug involves many hours of tedious work. The rugs originally were used to decorate their yurts (no longer used much). I had been working on a piece of needlepoint as we rode along, and our guide encouraged me to show my needlework to the ladies of the farm. This caused a big excitement. I showed them how I did the stitching, and one of them immediately began to work on it! (I am sorry I didn’t take along some needlepoint to give them.)
That’s it for my missives from the Stans. Now back to the U.S. This is a fascinating part of the world with a rich history dating back thousands of years, yet rarely visited by Americans. It seems to get lost, nestled as it is between two giants, Russia and China, and still suffering from many years of Czarist and Soviet domination, lack of natural resources, population loss, regional instability (Afghanistan and Iran), and environmental degradation. However, a strong spirit of determination and regional pride remain, and the gems of stunning landscapes, charming ancient buildings, beautiful crafts and artwork are worth a visit by any adventuresome tourist. However, it is not for the faint of heart. I told Joe he made the right call to miss this one.