30 December 2006

New Year's countdown (and no Dick Clark)

Bishkek is gearing up for New Year’s, the biggest holiday of the year, which means, among other things, that impromptu fireworks displays have been building for the last week and a half.

Extended families are very important here, so every holiday, including New Year’s, is an event that reinforces that institution. A fellow instructor, a Russian Kyrgyz man who went to graduate school in Mississippi and Arizona, tells me there is very little acceptance for any person living apart from a family. Valery is a divorced father of two adult daughters and a grandfather. He says he approaches every holiday as something that needs to be endured with a smile and claims he can’t wait until they are over.

Most of the people I’ve come to know in Bishkek are, first and foremost, English speakers, either faculty, staff and students from the university or people working for non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Western-based ones push everything from free-market capitalism to human rights to poverty reduction. The U.N. has a big presence and the girlfriend of one of my mates from the university works for U.N. Development Program, which includes a poverty-reduction program that consists largely of interest-free micro loans and technical assistance to very small businesses and agricultural enterprises in rural areas, where poverty is most acute.

I’m ready to get out of Bishkek to see a little more of the countryside. Sometime after the new year, Valery and I are supposed to do a long day’s hike in some arid canyon country—a postcard of the area reminded of the desert Southwest. Valery is a fairly avid hiker and knowledgeable about local plants. During our previous hikes, he continually harvested leaves and berries as ingredients for teas. I also am going with some students to visit Burana Tower, a 45-meter structure at the original site of a town built in the 10th century during the Turkic Karakhanid empire. The site, about 75 kilometers from Bishkek, also supposed to have some impressive rock art.

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