This week, the guest post series takes us for an offbeat journey, to a destination far off the tourist radar: Kyrgyzstan. Our guide around this Central Asian country is Carl of Two Stops Past Siberia, who is on a two-year Peace Corps mission in Naryn, the main city of Kyrgyzstan’s largest province.
DEEP IN KYRGYZSTAN
A few years ago I met a thirty-something Israeli named Dotan in a hostel on the island of Flores in Guatemala. He was telling me how getting stuck for a month in Varanasi had led to the greatest travel experience of his career. “You see,” he said, “when you’re traveling, there is this constant push and pull, this balancing act between deepening your experience and seeing more.”
Now, welcome to two years in the city of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan. As Bradt’s Kyrgyzstan guidebook says, “Although there are few who can be bothered to write about the town, it still tends to get bad press.” Especially in the winter, this is the epitome of “deepening your experience.”
Kyrgyzstan itself is the smallest and one of the poorest of the Central Asian “stans.” Naryn city, at 40,000 people and 2040m above sea level, is the capital of Naryn oblast, the largest and poorest province in the country. The climate here is cold temperate, with pleasant summers and brutal winters, said to reach -40°. The rest of the country is considerably warmer and more prosperous, making Naryn, already in a fringe country, one of the last places a person would chose to spend two years of their life. But in this way, Naryn city allows itself to become amongst the most desirable places for a traveler to learn how to “deepen their experience.”
Hoarfrost, the thick white icing that occurs on trees and fences shows up here only a few times a year. It leaves the city under a spell of wonderland, the white clarity displacing the abandoned cement factories and the trash. School children trap each other under branches, and make it snow on their friends. This magic, with its ephemeral beauty, doesn’t last past lunch.
Naryn is a rough and tumble kind of place. It was prosperous under the Soviets, who organized wheat fields and bread factories, Merino sheep and ecologically sound grazing schedules, and both frequent and cheap transportation. The fall of the Union has lead to disintegration of these systems, unemployment and drunkenness.
“She says she’s impressed you speak Kyrgyz.” It was the taxi driver talking, translating from Russian for the middle-aged Kyrgyz woman sitting next to me. As a permanent resident in this last vestige of pure Kyrgyz culture, we don’t learn Russian but Kyrgyz, a tongue of less than 5 million speakers, much to the amusement of the locals. This lady was especially hospitable, tickled, if you will, at my choice of study. She was gently rubbing my cheek with the back of her fingers. “I have to,” I said smiling abashed, “we’re in Naryn.” And she glowed. “No one learns Kyrgyz! She’s says she’s very proud of you”, translated the taxi driver again.
Kyrgyz people have a strange quirk of talking to white folks in Russian, regardless of what language you start out with, even when they’re overwhelming you with flattery for learning their mother tongue. The driver, too, seemed to appreciate not only my choice of vernacular but also the novelty of the situation, and gave me a free ride.
Kyrgyzstan, like many other countries, sports a naming practice of words that mean things. People tend to get pretty hippy-dippy, with given names like Peace, Spring Flower, and Happy. Town names range from the similarly free-love-inspiring Friendship, to the natural Thousand Springs, to the communist ones, like Red October, Field of Labor, or The New Requirements. And then there are the historical names, like Togolok Moldo, a famous teller of the Kyrgyz epic poem, The Manas. The meaning behind Naryn, however, remains a mystery.
One story says it was a kind of soup, made by a distressed traveler here some years ago, out of his horse. (He’d later finish the last of his steed, its head, in what would become the nearby market town of Horse Head.) Others say it comes from the Chinese word for ‘narrow,’ reflecting the long skinny design of this place, crushed between two lines of mountains and the mighty Naryn river. Still others point to a Mongolian word meaning ‘sunny’. This explanation is by far my favorite. The cold gray winters lend it irony but the soft, pleasant summers meet with the disposition of the populace to make Sunny a perfect translation.
Unfortunately, this is a meaning generally lost on those just passing through. Like the guidebooks say, Naryn amounts to little more than a necessary evil for getting to further destinations with more sex appeal, like the magnificent Torugart pass to China. But like Dotan, I have found myself “stuck” here; Peace Corps tells you where to live, and barring “early termination” of service, won’t let you move until your stint is up, two years later. And with that requirement, the subtlety of life is beginning to set in.
Unlike the locals, I always have the opportunity to leave, and in two years, most assuredly will. This makes any deign that I am not a tourist presumptuous. However, as a long-term tourist, I’m learning how much more there is to see, and how incredibly much we miss when we’re plowing across the asphalt, burning rubber so desperately trying to just see more.