Today, our American Expats series takes us to Kyrgyzstan where we meet Brittany, an English teacher living in Kyrgyzstan with her husband and daughter. We talked about living in Central Asia’s only democracy, raising a baby abroad, and the one way Kyrgyzstan is surprisingly similar to Colorado…
My husband and I got married in June 2013 and promptly hightailed it out of the US. Our first stop was South Korea, where we spent two years teaching in a hagwan (after-school language school) and an international school. We loved Korea, but when we got the opportunity to teach at an international school in Kyrgyzstan, we took it. We moved to Bishkek, the capital, in July 2015.
On Kyrgyzstan’s history: Kyrgyzstan has a history of being part of the Silk Road. The ancestral Kyrgyz were nomadic, a culture which is still alive in parts of the country. In the nineteenth century, Kyrgyzstan came under Soviet rule which ended in Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991. Revolutions in 2005 and 2010 ousted sitting presidents in protest of fraud, corruption, and economic hardships. Kyrgyzstan is widely regarded as Central Asia’s only democracy, but it is not without political and human rights issues.
On making friends: Work is a great place to meet people, but Bishkek has such a tight-knit community that soon you meet friends of friends. One of the best things about Bishkek is the concentration of so many different people – we know teachers, volunteers, engineers, chefs, professors, and ambassadors. It’s fun to see such different people in one community. The Bishkek International Women’s Club is a great resource, with women of all ages, backgrounds, and interests.
On the weather: I am from Colorado, and it is uncanny how similar the weather is to Colorado weather, just almost exactly on the other side of the world. There are four distinct seasons, with a beautiful fall (Bishkek is a city full of trees), a cold, snowy winter, a lovely lengthy spring, and a hot, hot summer.
On raising a baby in Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan is very family-friendly. The beautiful mountains and open space are so perfect for children, and there are great schools with extracurriculars and community. However, for us healthcare became a big concern throughout my pregnancy, so we decided to move back to the US for our daughter’s tiny years.
On Kyrgyz food: We are vegetarian so a lot of traditional Kyrgyz foods are off-limits for us. Even things that don’t include meat are often cooked in lard. Pumpkin manti was a favorite – a dumpling stuffed with seasoned pumpkin, and we would often grab a hot manti from a street stall until we realized they weren’t truly vegetarian. Plov is another favorite if we can find it prepared vegetarian – a rice dish with garlic, onions, carrots and (traditionally) lamb. Our staple is lepyoshka, a slightly sweet round bread cooked in a tandyr oven and best steaming-hot right out of the oven.
Vodka is very popular in Kyrgyzstan, in the convention of the Soviets. More traditionally, kumis, or fermented mare’s milk, is served in the spring.
On Kyrgyz breakfasts: Yogurt, porridge, a surprising variety of jams with butter, omelet, and pancakes (blini – more like crepes).
On traveling around Central Asia: Traveling to nearby regions is quite easy. Countries are accessible by air as well as marshrutka (minibus). Travel agencies in Bishkek are helpful in preparing visas with ease; we utilized Kyrgyz Concept for help arranging visas for a trip to Russia. We have also traveled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, by taxi and marshrutka. Kazakhstan doesn’t require pre-application for visas for US travelers, and Almaty, the capital, is only a four- or five-hour trip. There are also so many more places we want to go within Kyrgyzstan!
On local holidays: I was so surprised at how earnestly International Women’s Day is celebrated in Kyrgyzstan. It turns out that the March holiday was adopted by the Soviet Union after women gained suffrage in 1917, and it was later adopted by the UN in 1975. In Bishkek you see marketing for Women’s Day gifts before the holiday. Flowers are given, and at school students took care to give gifts to women and the staff always shared cake and flowers. This was very different from the US where I hadn’t even heard of the holiday.
Our favorite holiday is Nooruz, a spring celebration celebrated throughout the region for 3,000 years as the vernal equinox. Not only was it a long weekend holiday off school, it just felt good to celebrate the ending of a long, cold winter. Our school hosts a celebration with songs and dances incorporating regional celebrations of the holiday. Here’s my husband Ryan dressed up in a kalpak to celebrate Nooruz:
On learning the local language(s): I have learned survival Russian to get by in the markets and chatting with taxi drivers or giving directions. There are a lot of great programs for learning Russian; we used Russian Accelerator to prepare before arriving and I didn’t make it as far as my husband but the early lessons were helpful to give me the basics I needed. Russian is nice in that there are cognates between English and Russian, but I got lost approaching even the basics of Russian grammar.
In school, we teach students mini Kyrgyz lessons so I also picked up some basics in Kyrgyz. Even more than Russian, speaking Kyrgyz phrases to local people really opens up connections and they are always happy to see foreigners trying to speak and understand the local language. Local people are almost always happy to chat in any language, though, using a smattering of English and Russian to connect with us.
On the best way to get around Kyrgyzstan: By horse! Really, there are some amazing horseback-riding trips that stop at yurts through the night that sound amazing, but I haven’t been able to do one yet (we have a dog who is not so on-board with horseback riding). Biking is also becoming another good option for travel. We biked around the city for commuting but it was always a little intimidating in the wild Bishkek streets. Taxis are so easy and affordable to get around town (or even further!) and they are a great option. Namba Taxi is the Uber of Bishkek and made it easy to get a taxi without needing to haggle a price.
On feeling safe: Generally, I feel very safe living in Kyrgyzstan. The things that make me feel less secure are things that, unfortunately, women generally have to worry about living in any large city. Walking alone at night or taking taxis alone always makes me feel uncomfortable, but those things make me feel uncomfortable almost anywhere in the world.
On healthcare: Healthcare is very very affordable. Private clinics often have doctors and nurses who speak English (or translators available). For anything serious, you’ll want to go elsewhere.
On getting a visa: We have employment visas. Our school handled all of the paperwork for our visas and provided instructions for entering the country. We had to apply for a business visa upon arrival and pay a fee (tourist visas are free). To get our full employment visa there were some antiquated steps in the process. Each year to renew we are required to get an HIV test, which involves having blood drawn at one specific clinic in the city. We also are required to have an x-ray for a TB scan each year. Because our school had so many visa applicants, they arranged for a traveling x-ray machine to come to our school site. None of us fully trusted the rickety old machine.
On what she misses most from back home: I miss easy grocery shopping! The markets in Bishkek have the best fresh produce you can get in the country, but going to the market still feels like a tourist outing to me most of the time. It takes energy to grab a taxi to get there, walk around, ask and sometimes haggle the price of what you want, and negotiate a ride back home. Then there’s finding the pieces of what I want to make, which sometimes involves multiple stores. Sometimes I just really want to go to Target.
Since we’re vegetarian, we mostly crave a good veggie burger, but Mexican food is always at the top of our list as well. You can usually find everything you need in Bishkek to make these things, but it’s not quite the same.
On living in Kyrgyzstan long-term: Right now we are in the US since we moved here to give birth to our daughter. I’d love to go back to Bishkek one day, but it’s unlikely we’ll live there long-term. Then again, I’m certainly not where I thought I’d be even a year ago, so you never know!