Of all the things I’ve learned traveling, the most prominent is that we are all more alike than we might think. We all have a longing for the same basic needs – food, water, shelter, and human connection.
I arrived into Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan around 1 pm after ten hours of overnight flying from Europe. The airplanes sitting on the tarmac all had names I hadn’t heard of – Air Astana, Air Nomads, and so on. I was not in Europe anymore. I didn’t sleep much on the flight and was pretty exhausted. I didn’t feel like my brain was sharp enough to venture out safely into an unknown city and culture, so I took it easy and just wandered a few blocks away from my hostel to a park and a local grocery store. It took me no more than five minutes to realize that no one – literally no one – spoke English. The signs were in Russian. The food products were in Russian. The people spoke Russian. I do not speak Russian. Thank god for Google Translate.
Day tour of Bishkek
I had booked a day tour of Bishkek and the surrounding areas and exchanged a few messages with my guide for the next day. He confirmed the pickup time and location and explained briefly that he worked for a US consulting firm, so he didn’t sleep during the night, but was excited to have me on his calendar. I told him I was a quick tourist and promised to give him the afternoon to sleep.
The hostel I am staying at has four steps from the lobby to the rooms, and then another three steps to my actual room. The floors are impeccably clean, so getting out and bouncing my chair down and back up hasn’t been too much of a problem. As I was climbing the four steps into the lobby to meet my guide, a young man approached and said, “Hi, I’m Chip! I’m your guide,” and he had my wheelchair in his hands before I could even turn around to say Hello.
We went to his car where I sat in the front seat and we started chatting as he drove away. I asked him what company he worked for in the US, thinking it must be a corporation like Amazon or the likes, and he quickly said he did design and development, changing the subject immediately afterward. I thought that perhaps he was embarrassed about his job so I didn’t probe further.
We drove about ten minutes to the city center and spent the morning walking around. He showed me many of the political buildings and monuments, and when I asked about dates and timelines, he was always off a few years, saying something like, “Oh, that was around 2008…” and then we’d see a sign and he would correct himself, “Well, that was actually in 2010.” I appreciated that he didn’t have it down to a tee; I can never keep historical dates correct.
In the city center, we saw one of the few remaining Lenin statues. Chip explained to me that the Kyrgyz people don’t believe in what Lenin did, but that the government wanted to have some history in their city, and as such, the statue remains. There were a number of such monuments and memorials that were simply standing ‘to preserve the history,’ despite the fact that the Kyrgyz people don’t believe in the former principles that ruled their country.
On our walk around the center, there were stands on every corner with women selling the local drink of the Kyrgyzstan people. There would be three barrels – one with tea, one with a fermented wheat drink, and a third with a fermented mare’s milk. The wheat drink and the mare’s milk are mixed together to form a thick, sour drink. We stopped to have a cup full, and it tasted much like liquid sourdough bread with a hint of rotten milk. Chip explained to me that this is the most common breakfast drink in Kyrgyzstan and that all of the local people make it in their homes.
I would love to tell you that the Bishkek city center was outstandingly beautiful, but it was pretty underwhelming. We spent most of our time talking about the culture and his life story. Oh, and American politics. Everyone I meet wants to talk about American politics.
We talked about the culture at length. The country is predominately Muslim, although Chip referred to himself as an atheist. The Muslim’s in Central Asia behave very differently than I experienced in the Middle East, taking a much more liberal approach to their religion. While many women still wear a hijab, it was evident that they had more rights and generally were not as strict. I’ve not heard a call to prayer once. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me in understanding Islam and the vast differences that different parts of the world hold for this religion.
When I asked Chip where he learned English (it was very good), he explained that he learned it from English music, TV shows, and YouTube. The government does not teach English in the schools and does not want the people to learn English. Russian and Kyrgyz are the only languages taught.
Disabled people in Kyrgyzstan
We spoke a bit about my disability, and Chip explained to me that disabled people in Kyrgyzstan aren’t legally allowed to work nor does the government provide financial assistance for them. If you are born disabled, you are stuck out of luck. Wow, I am so lucky, I thought. Ironically, he also explained that the ramps in Kyrgyzstan are horrible (and he was right). Recently, the government required the ‘ramp builders’ to try using the ramps before constructing anything new, which caused them to recreate designs that weren’t so steep and unusable. I suppose it’s a step in the right direction for disability rights, but they’ve got a long, long way to go. Interestingly, the government has also not provided any financial support for the pandemic. Nothing for lost income, nothing for hospital care, and no supplements for the vaccine. As such, virtually no one is vaccinated and almost everyone has had COVID, and many died early on.
After lunch, Chip drove me into the Kyrgyzstan mountains. The drive was only about 30 minutes outside of the city and as we drove, he explained that he also has a YouTube channel and creates his own music, where he makes an additional $400 a month. We listened to his productions for the entire drive, which were quite good, if you are into rap music.
The mountains were incredibly peaceful and Chip pushed me up the steep inclines, pausing to relax and enjoy the nature. Much of the activities in Kyrgyzstan revolve around hiking and spending time in the mountains, which is simply not something I can do, so I was grateful that Chip added this to our itinerary and I felt I got to see a part of Kyrgyzstan that was important to experience.
Through all of the meaningful conversation that Chip and I had, the one underlying message that continued to surface from him was, “Just be a good person.” Kyrgyzstan is so far off anyone’s radar, most people never even think of visiting, or even know where it’s at. As Chip suggested, only the experienced traveler visits, after they’ve been everywhere else, but everyone is missing out. It’s a fantastically stunning country.
The morning of my tour with Chip, I was video chatting with a friend back in America. I told her I was feeling pretty exhausted, and perhaps ready for a short break from the travel. I have some intense cultural weeks ahead of me, and know that takes a lot of energy, in a good way but a real way. After my day with Chip and experiencing Kyrgyzstan, I am rejuvenated. I’m ready to go again. I suppose spending the day in Central Asia will do that…