07 December 2006

Approaching Christmas in Bishkek

I went to the busiest shopping center in Bishkek, a compact, four-story affair, last weekend and there was one small shop with Christmas decorations. Actually it was a temporary set-up selling home decorations, wrapping paper and bows, tree ornaments and a few gifts for children. There was little other evidence of the holidays, except for a youthful Santa and a rather fetching Ms. Claus, perhaps Germans, strutting by as I headed home. It’s cold and there is snow on the ground, so that is evocative of the holidays, but there are no piped-in carols, no crowds of shopper, and, with the TV out for more than a week, no retail sales reports. This just might be a great Christmas.

The approaching solstice, however, is impossible to miss. Kyrgyzstan doesn’t observe daylight savings time so the transition into shorter days seemed more gradual. But it doesn’t get light until after 8 a.m. and the day last until 5 p.m. The latitude here is equal to Boston or Syracuse, so the days are about 45 minutes shorter than Albuquerque, plus for the last week and a half gray gloomy skies have whittled a little extra daylight off both ends of the day.

There’s something satisfying about slowing down for the shortest day of the year, pausing, then turning the corner and returning to the light. I’ll miss the annual First Day of Winter memorial service in Albuquerque for people who died homeless over the past years. I’ll also miss luminarias, those little bags of white light, and when I think of homemade tamales, steamy posole and plenty of red chile, my mouth waters.

Christmas is not widely celebrated here because 75-80 percent of the population is Muslim, though most wear their faith lightly, like many American Christians. Orthodox Christians, many of who were Russians, left in huge numbers after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Orthodox Christmas, a less extravagant affair, is celebrated Jan. 6-7.

By all accounts, the biggest holiday celebration of the year is New Years Eve—and that’s without the benefit any college football bowls. Can you believe it? What I have been told to expect is similar to New Year’s in the west: parties, lots of drinking and plenty of fireworks at midnight, which means this old curmudgeon will probably have his sleep interrupted.

I had hoped to fly to somewhere like Istanbul, Delhi or Katmandu for a week or so during the end-of-the-semester break, but my finances put the damper on that, so I will enjoy it here by trying out some new restaurants, a day hike or two, and few shorts trips to some of the nearby sights.

I hope your holidays, however you recognize them, are filled with peace.

P.S. For some interesting observations by a Westerner looking for live jazz in Bishkek during the holidays, you might want to check out http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=23984

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