Because Nobody in Bishkek has Money (?)

Or, “How we bought our third car for 65% of the price we paid for our first, and how we almost bought a VIP Mercedes”

We’re now on our third car in Bishkek.  [For the basic process of buying a car, and why we switched from our first to our second, see my 2015 blog “Buying a Car in Bishkek”.] Our last car was Bishkek’s (Kyrgyzstan’s…) only Audi S4.  My husband loved it and put his spare time and pocket money into fixing it up until there wasn’t a rim left to shine.  After two years it became a bit like my mother’s gardens: at every property where we resided while I was growing up, my mother would garden and garden until there was no more yard save paths through the flower beds, and I alwasy joked with her that we were moving to a new house not because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to live in town or country, but because she had literally run out of new places to garden (and new house projects to plan and commence).  Similarily, we might have sold our old car because it was getting a bit old and because my husband wanted a safer and more comfortable (read: we can actually fit the baby’s carseat in without a struggle) car, or because he had fixed everything in the car and had run out of spare parts to order or parts of the engine to fine-tune.  I mean, it was a 12 year old car, and came back from the shop with a certified maintenance rating of 99%.

So, what do we buy?  If you’ve perused my previous post (written when we bought the aforementioned car), you’ll know that it’s not easy to find a decent car in Bishkek.  Since writing that post, however, the car market has rather changed – prices have plummeted and the market has a glut of automobiles.  If you drive by any of the car bazaars, big or small, you can see row upon row of Lexuses and other SUVs.  It’s not like 2013, when my husband purchased his first car in Bishkek – a 2002 Audi A6 – and it was literally the only [relatively] newer Audi in the entire car bazaar. Cars abound in Kyrgyzstan.  And, as noted in the post heading, it seems nobody has cash. A buyer’s (and swapper’s) market it is.

We put or car on, where it sat and sat as the odd offers rolled in.  Swap my car for your car, swap my car for your car plus I’ll give you $2000, swap your car for my piece of land ready to build a house.  Plenty of people wanted out car – but it seemed none of them had the cash to buy it.

This is a theme that’s come up againand again in Kyrgyzstan: with salaries so low, where does money come from?  Everywhere we see new[ish] cars, new apartment buildings, new boutique shops selling overpriced things from the West, a run of copy-cat IKEAs, restaurants and cafes full every evening.  But when it comes down to cash to buy a car, few people seem to have it (unless they take a loan from the bank).  But let’s leave that question aside for the moment, as I’m sure a social economist could write an entire dissertation on the subject.

So, we didn’t initially have much success in selling our car, despite getting a number of offers. This brings me to the rather odd central story of his piece…

The Turkish manager of a concrete company who knows my husband through work connections and heard through the grapevine that we were looking for a new car called us up and told us that he had a 2008 Mercedes S350 in prime condition that the company wanted to sell for $15,000. Now, mind you, this wasn’t his personal car – nor really the company’s.  They had received it from a construction company, as payment for concrete delivered for a project.  For apparently, just as people don’t have cash, neither do companies, at least in the construction industry.  They trade cars as currency.  So someone – it must have been a VIP someone, for the car had not a scratch and bore the license plate number S5000 – gave the construction company this car for full or partial payment for construction, and the construction company gave it in payment of oncrete to the concrete company, and the concrete company would have otherwise given it to the cement company.  It was a nice car – S-line Mercedes are top-tier cars.  The thing even had built-in seat massage.  But 1) my husband hates Mercedes, 2) the construction or cement (honestly, can’t remember which) company valued our car at $5,000, which is far lower than it was worth and 3) have you seen the roads in Bishkek?

[What’s even more absurd (a Turkey sidenote) is that this year of this car goes for 190,000 TL in Turkey (at the time that was over $60,000), an here it’s going for the same price E’s brother paid for his boring family Peugeot.]

So the back-massage-giving Mercedes we did not buy.  But in the process one of my husband’s co-workers (read: someone with a dependable non-local salary) decided he wanted to buy our car, so we did the paperwork and bankwork and signed it off to him before spending a week in taxis. Maybe we didn’t really need a car?  After all, we now live a 5 minute walk away from my husband’s office and Bishkek does have (what seemed like) a bounty of taxis.  But it turns out those taxis don’t always come on time, if at all (that’s you, namba taxi…).  So after several times waiting over an hour for a cab, and thinking about how we spend our weekends, we decided that, yes, it really was worth it to have a car.

Within a week of selling our car, our husband found another Audi (is there a theme here?) – a 2004 A6 in near-perfect condition that had just been imported from Lithuania.  And why was someone selling a car in such good condition?  Because they had lent money to someone else who had then not paid them back.  However, the second person had bought and was importing a car, and when this was discovered, the car was seized upon arrival in Kyrgyzstan and given to the man to whom he owed his debts.  Because, again, it seems like nobody has money in Bishkek.  Or they do, but they…don’t?


Things I Do Miss About Kyrgyzstan

As much as Kyrgyzstan is not my favorite country (and Bishkek far from my favorite city), there are a few things I miss about living there after a month and a half in Ankara.
(There’s plenty I don’t – the rent, the roads, the graft, the inconsistent Bishkek weather, the constant feel of power competition on the streets and in almost every other situation, the [often lethargic] pace of work).  But, focusing on the positive:
  • No bombs! While you might have to watch your step for fear of falling on the uneven sidewalk (all of my high heels have migrated away from Kyrgyzstan…) or being run over by a red-light running car, you don’t have to be wary about bigger dangers, like car bombs and terrorists (or, to do a US comparison, muggings and shootings).  While there are accounts of ultra radical conservative Islamic groups in the south, there’s barely a trace in the city.  Kyrgyzstan is also [to be honest] too small and too poor to really attract refugees or any but internal migrants – and is thus free of  subsequent social insecurities.  (For comparison, Turkey’s Syrian refugee population is half that of the total population of the entire nation of Kyrgyzstan)

Bishkek Trolley Bus

  • Ease of public transportation:  Bishkek is flat and built (more or less) on a grid, with buses and trolleys that trace all over the city.  It’s basically always possible to get from one corner to another without changing buses.  Ankara’s public transportation scheme looks more like a bicycle wheel, with all spokes meeting in Kizilay.  From where I live it’s literally almost impossible to get anywhere on public transportation without transferring in Kizilay.  I do not, however, miss the madly-bouncing marshrutkasDolmuses here seem to undergo regular tuning and never smell like a men’s sauna.
  • The general benefits of living in a small city: we always know where everything is (even if we can’t find half the things we want), there’s an ease of getting around (not a lot of new roads to navigate), and it never takes long to get anywhere (at least in terms of road length…when the traffic lights are out, or everyone’s just come back from summer vacation on Issyk Kul Bishkek traffic can rival that of any metropolis)
  • Half an hour gets us out of the city and to this:FullSizeRender
  • Meat (it’s cheap!). Kyrgyzstan does have some beautiful natural local meat: mountain brook trout (форель), tender juicy lamb, sizzling beef kebabs.  I miss roasting incik kebab at home – steaming slow-cooked packets of tender meat and spice-infused vegetables.  For those of you new to Bishkek, try the shashlik at Barashek (review with photos here) and the incik kebab at Park Cafe (review here).  Meat is a staple of Turkish cuisine, but it usually comes in smaller portions, mixed inside other dishes, and is quite a bit more expensive..
  • The white cheese made by the Meskhetian Turkish woman at our local bazaar.  It’s basically pressed whole milk yogurt – and it’s delicious. I find the white cheese here tends to be a bit fatty.
  • Frozen chocolate milk.  The Chydo-brand chocolate milk sold at Narodnie (41 som) tastes better than ice cream after an hour in the freezer.
  • Moist dark Russian rye bread.  The “grandfather” brand topped with whole roasted cumin is the best, especially when spread with honey and natural butter, or (again, natural) peanut butter and bazaar-bought raspberry jam.
  • Decaf cappuccinos (and having a cappuccino machine). So far I’ve found decaf at Starbucks – which tastes like dirty acidic water. I do miss being able to buy beautiful cappuccinos (oh, the foam!) at Giraffe Coffee or decaf coffee beans from Sierra to grind at home and use to make cardamom-cinnamon cappuccinos.  While cafes here do serve espresso drinks, it’s really hard to find anything but nescafe and Tukish coffee at the market. SubstandardFullSizeRender
  • The green space, trees, and wild space.  While Bishkek can look rather…unkept, I do miss the broader avenues and green permeating the city.  Parts of Ankara feel like a concrete city, with apartment buildings almost stacked on top of each other, and not enough green space or wild space.

SubstandardFullSizeRender (3)

  • Working in cafes. Ankara cafes are for chatting, not working – few people bring their computers and set up to work for hours, while this is quite the norm in Bishkek.

Watching “The Big Short” in Bishkek

I was halfway through college – and in China – when the financial crisis hit.  I think I was too engrossed with studying the changing identities of China’s migrant youth and understanding the entire social-economic structure of the country’s capitol at the time to really probe into the cause of the collapse in America.

I remember walking with my mother through Pine Point Park my senior year of high school (2005-6) and going on a rather long oratory about how most students in my school seemed to believe that if they did just average – put average work into their studies, got average grades, got into an average state school – they would still be able to attain – indeed they were entitled to – the high income levels and materially comfortable (abundant) lifestyles of their parents.  Their was one girl in my Advanced Physics class who declared that, if she could do anything, she would just sit and listen to music on her ipod mini all day.  She did Physics to get the grade and went to some regional state university.  I have no idea what she’s doing now.  But the main point is, few people seemed really curious, or inclined to real intellectual investment in their studies and work. Just enough to get by – and that just enough would land them first-world comforts and security (a side note: I think this mindset still exists, but we hear it so little, because the people who hold it are also less likely to write blogs or travel as much abroad).  I thought this wasn’t realistic and predicted a lot more jobs going overseas.

Needless to say, I wasn’t very surprised when the financial crisis hit two years later. But I never really inquired into/understood the way in which it was related to mortgages and CODs (in fact I’d never heard of a COD).  Yet, watching The Big Short on Monday evening, most of it made perfect sense.  Of course there are more aspects and angles to the story from both economic and sociological perspectives (why did so many people own houses they couldn’t afford? Why were real salaries already dipping? And how buying everything from cappuccinos to condos on credit become so commonplace?).  But basically it made perfect sense: the housing market collapsed because it didn’t have a stable foundation, and people were making further economic decisions based on the assumption that it did, in fact, have a stable foundation.

Back to Kyrgyzstan… Thursday afternoon I was driving a college classmate back to her office after interviewing her on the new university English radio program I’m expected to record (for free) in the three weeks before I leave (err…).  We both arrived in Bishkek in the summer of 2013 and have both noticed the startling acceleration of middle class and luxury consumption in the city.  Two and a half years ago the most common ‘bling car’ was a big ‘ol black Mercedes sedan. Now near half the cars on the road seem to be SUVs and imported Toyota compacts have replaced the old Ladas as family car of choice.  When E moved into our apartment complex four years ago it was one of the only modern and secure complexes in the entire city. Even two years ago it stood pretty much alone.  Now there are perhaps fifty, along with a spat of new private house developments.  But salaries in Bishkek are still relatively low (anywhere from $200/month for shopkeepers to $400/month for mid-level government employees, to $1500-2000/month for experienced tri-lingual experts at some of the iNGOs; salaries above that are fairly rare), and there isn’t enough commerce and trade in the city to account for all of the new houses and cars. My college classmate used to work in an organization that did micro-financing, and now runs an organization that helps startups and young entrepreneurs along with working in the office of a new American company importing foodstuffs. As she could probably give a better answer than I, I asked where, apart from corruption and remittances from workers abroad, all the money to buy these things was coming from.  Because I couldn’t balance out Bishkek’s economy in my head.

Her answer: loans.  In the past few years plenty of banks have popped up offering easy loans to Kyrgyz residents.  And now people are buying ‘luxury’ trappings even when they don’t have cash on hand, because they suddenly seem within reach.  The main problem though is that most people still can’t actually afford these things and ‘are behaving irresponsibly with their loans’ – i.e. not paying them back.  As banks here actually borrow money (with interest) from bigger banks outside the country, interest rates in Kyrgyzstan are also quite high – anywhere from 15-25%.  Which means that, while everything seems fine right now, there could be a huge crash in a few years.

Or not. Who knows?

Our First Bishkek Car “Crash”

My husband has driven in Bishkek for over three years without a single accident – until yesterday.  Looking at how locals drive, a lot of expats (at least those of us from the states) tend to wonder how we don’t see more car accidents.  Because there is that 20% of local drivers who seem to have taken their driving test with a bumper car purloined from one of the soviet-era amusement parks. But probabilities aside, last night saw our first actual car accident.

It happened when we were on our way to dinner at Cyclone.  We had turned off of Chuy onto Logvinenko, which is a one way street.  The car in front of us was stopped waiting for another car to back out of a parking spot and, after we too had been waiting about five seconds we heard a crunch! and felt a little jolt.

For, lo and behold, someone illegally parked between in the few feet the crosswalk and the street, had suddenly started backing out – without seeing us at all.  So yes, we were hit while stopped by a car backing out of a parking spot.

minor crash

We jumped out; the driver of the other vehicle jumped out.  Thankfully he was a rather amiable fellow and not a bear (despite his rather appalling driving habits).  Instead of ensuing in the shouting match that usually follows Kyrgyzstan car crashes we shook hands, introduced ourselves, and called the insurance company. The driver was an older, genial-looking government worker of some rank high enough to justify his glossy black Toyota Land Cruiser and assurance of self exhibited in flaunting traffic laws right across the street from the seat of state (It later turned out he’s a member of parliament…I only hope his colleagues have more hindsight).  Apparently he hadn’t seen us in his mirrors and didn’t have parking sensors?  Anyway, after about 10 minutes of looking at the damage (a mere scratch and barely visible crack on our rear right door, a huge gash in his bumper hanging like a broken arm), the insurance agent arrived, looked at the damage, told the other driver how much he would have to pay, took his info, and told us to send the car the next day. We parked and went on to dinner; the other driver hopped back in his car and sped off…the wrong way down the one way followed by a very illegal left turn onto Chuy…

Lessons to take away:

  • Get insurance (I would recommend the one we have).  Not only does it cover accidents that you cause, it also eliminates the entire hassle of arguing with other drivers about who owes who so much, actually extracting compensation from the other driver, and finding a reliable mechanic. And at around $200 a year (that’s $17 a month) it’s really not going to make a dent in your budget.
  • Don’t buy a Toyota. One would think that the much larger SUV (at 5,815 pounds) would have suffered less damage than out car (a mere 3,825 pounds), but an audi is like a bull and I bet he wished he had our insurance. Just because your car is bigger doesn’t mean it’s less impervious to damage.  I’ll now feel much more secure driving around town.
  • Don’t assume other drivers are actually aware of the cars around them, or actually look before backing up.  This isn’t the first time this has happened – on Wednesday afternoon I was driving through our apartment parking lot when a car almost backed into me coming out of a parking space just as I was driving past.  He didn’t stop until I honked – obviously wasn’t looking or using parking sensors.  Not long ago in the Beta 2 parking lot a girl almost backed into our car three times in a row while maneuvering out of a bad parking spot. Because she too just drove straight backwards without looking. So look around you and always be alert – simply being a good driver won’t shield you from all accidents.

Alas, another saga to add to Driving in Bishkek.


Bishkek Winter Packing List (2015)

I wrote a summer packing list for Kyrgyzstan this past June, but realized I haven’t yet done justice to the country’s fiercest season.  As there are certainly some things you don’t want to forget, here it is:

  • A Warm, Windproof/Waterproof Jacket. It’s not always cold enough to justify a Canada Goose jacket, but you will want something that keeps out the wind as well as the occasional cold winter rain as weather can be quite variable in Bishkek; something that covers your thighs is definitely going to be better.
  • Mukluks, or any other very warm winter boots with grippy soles.  Once it snows the sidewalks are never completely shoveled and can be very, very icy for several months. Mukluks might carry a heavier price tag – but, seriously, they’re made of moosehide.  I’ve had mine for over ten years and maybe experienced cold toes twice.
  • Gloves  Though there are a few specialty sports shops selling ski gloves, normal good-quality winter gloves are hard to come by
  • Insulated Rainboots/Mudboots For those days when it rains and then freezes and then thaws again and the streets and sidewalks are just a mess. Unless, of course, you really like the clunky black rubber “shoe covers” sold in the bazaars.
  • A Kindle, unless you plan on reading books on your computer or in Russian, as the number of English books is limited to the point of almost non-existent.
  • Holiday Food Ingredients Bishkek has most of the standard – nuts, dried fruits, flour, sugar, etc… but certain things are absolutely absent: vanilla extract, star anise, cranberries, pecans, non-whey protein powder, anything gluten free…
  • Long Underwear and Layerable Sweaters, preferably silk long underwear and ulfulta (sp?) or smartwool on top. Because sometimes it is cold, and a lot of the stuff sold in the city is of lower quality synthetic materials.

Things You Can Buy in Bishkek:

  • Waterproofing Spray for boots, at the 7 Day supermarket for about 250 som
  • Really Warm Wool Socks at almost all the bazaars and the Chuy/Sovietskaya underpass for $1-2 a pair; most are from South Korea, China or Turkey and are actually quite good quality – especially considering the price.
  • Because what else could you wear with a suit?

    Shapkas! (Otherwise known as the giant Russian fur hat).  This year hasn’t been so cold, but sometimes it’s definitely frosty.

  • Fun Felt Slippers, in case you don’t happen to have heated floors or your gas sometimes goes out; available at Osh Bazaar, Tsum, and Kyrgyz souvenir shops (Epos, Tumar, etc…)

**This is not a winter necessity list for all Kyrgyzstan.  The Fergana Valley  (Osh, Jalal Abad, Ozgen) is far more temperate in winter.  It’s just the rest of the country that is cold…

International Airspace

I step into the plane to Bishkek and I step into a slice of Kyrgyzstan – a not so pleasant side of Kyrgyzstan aggravated by the stress and pressure of timed travel in a tiny capsule. Another introduction to the city.
The plane is full.  A girl flings her carry-on into an overhead bin in the very front and then proceeds to her seat in the back.  In five minutes *all* the overhead bins are full, of suitcases, coats, and bulbulous bags from Duty Free. Somehow “one carry on plus one personal item” just hasn’t translated. Including myself there are two people in my row. Neither of us have put anything in the overhead bin, and yet it is full – as are all the bins around us – so we resort to stuffing our carry-ones under the seats in front. A few older women haven’t reconciled themselves to the fact that their seat numbers could actually dictate where they have to sit and are busy squabbling with the equally indignant ticket holders who just want to take their own seats. The man in front of me has leaned his seat all the way back. When the flight attendant tells him to return his seat to the upright position he clicks it forward one inch. And another. And another. In total the flight attendant repeats her order three times before he’s (more or less) compliant.
And with all this…sigh… Ankara was so *normal*. A city with problems of its own, to be certain, but comparatively such a normal, predictable, and stress-free place where civilians help each other more often than jostle over resources or few inches of spare space. Amazing, considering that Bishkek’s population is less than 15% of Ankara’s – and yet I feel the stress of its streets even before the wheels leave the ground.
Waking in Bishkek too is a bit of a disappointment. Ankara itself isn’t exotic or even what most might think of as a tourist attraction. But there is a certain joy in stepping out onto freshly rainswept streets with the crisp cool autumn air jostling the remaining leaves, looking out over the rolling city while jogging down the hill, and being able to pick up fresh börek from the cake shop on the corner, hot baked bread from the bakery, farm-brought pasteurized milk from the grocers, ripe oranges and pomegranates and deep green spinach and arugula from the weekly Saturday market, and nod to the neighbor’s you pass that on the way.  Here, we trade that for a lot of dust, unforgiving traffic, and expired chicken from the Harodnie deli. I miss my neighborhood, even if it’s not my own.
So back I am for a bit, trying to figure out a suitable routine for the next two months before I’m on another plane heading back.

Look Both Ways…Or All Four

Being a pedestrian in Bishkek is a perilous sport.

I’ve been almost run over by drivers rushing the red-turning light, almost run over by drivers sped by impatience for that coming flicker of green, almost run over by drivers turning left or right onto the street that I’m crossing, almost run over by drivers humping the shoulders.  But today was the first time I was almost run over by  driver running the middle of the red light (ten seconds from turning red, ten seconds left until green) on a main thoroughfare (Manas/Mira) right between two popular cop-spots (crossing Ayni).

I always wait for the light, I always cross at the crosswalks, even if it means doubling back half a block, simply because I don’t trust that 5% of drivers.

So today around 11:40 am I waited for the green light and was nearly halfway across the street – striding in front of the patient marshrutkas and long line of lunchtime commuters – when I saw a car heading towards me, still some 50 yards off from the opposite side of the street.  They had enough space to stop, and I assumed they would.  The screech and stop is, after all, not an uncommon phenomenon. It wasn’t until they had crossed the pedestrian walk on the other side of Manas/Ayni and were driving across the middle of the street that I realized they were headed straight towards me.  No swerving, no brakes, just heading straight at me with a steady pace, as if they literally could not see me (or the red light, or the cars from Ayni that had swerved out of their way, or the traffic police at the junction ahead). As is we were all invisible. I quickened two steps, just enough to be half a pace away when the car passed and turn around to take a look at the plates.

Two young male Kyrgyz, age 22-25, driving a light tan Toyota Camry, probably 2002-2004 model (newish, but not new enough to have those modern curves), licence plates 2133SK, no visible markings on the car.

Believing that nothing would come out of it, I still called E and asked him to have his secretary (a local fluent in both Kyrgyz and Russian, and accustomed to dealing with government offices) call in and report the car. They might not have hit me, but they will eventually hit someone if they keep blindly running red lights [especially on main streets with heavy traffic and at a juncture flanked by no less than three major universities with students streaming out during the breaks…]. Basically asshole behavior that somebody should curb and reprimand.

But Kyrgyzstan isn’t a transparent democracy, of the people for the people.  The first time G called no one answered.  Government hard at work at their lunch break.  The second time – she found out that it was a car registered to an unidentified government office, and thus no complaint could be lodged, no counter action would the state talk.  Because government cars are covered by complete immunity, even when they’re taken for a joyride by some low official’s son and his friend.  So…another reason to check all four directions again…and again…and again every time you cross the street (sadly, the same applies for one-way streets too).  Or just buy a jet-propelled titanium suit for your interblock adventures.  Because nobody is there to protect you, or hold up your rights be you crossing a street or shopping for a cellphone or (as happened to a dear local friend) watch on CCTV as your co-worker steals your phone off your desk and have your boss refuse to report and the cops refuse to search or arrest…until you give a kickback.

A Tribute to Peter Cat

IMG_2509It’s a sunny and crisp afternoon on what promised to be a damp cold day filled with report-writing, errand-running and foam-topped cappuccinos.
Instead I’m watching a young veterinary student dry soiled cat baskets in the sun as the pale September sky stretches past red-roofed houses.
For around noon today, as I was sitting in our home office finishing up a section of an online outreach handbook (we finally found a PR person for handoff! – I think…) I heard the strangest squeak – like someone had stepped on an inflated balloon in impatience to get all the air out. Nothing for five minutes, and then I heard some thumping against the bedroom floor. I crossed the flat and found our sumptuous street cat Peter lying on the floor with his rib cage rapidly pumping and his little heart thumping in his chest. He cried out when he saw me – Peter, our silent sniffling cat – and then kicked me when I got closer. Peter, who had sat paws folded and eyes closed in contentment in my office doorway just an hour before. He struggled up into his forelegs and dragged himself across the floor, back left leg listless.
So I called E, sent him a video to pass on to his friend and university co-worker at the vet clinic, and within half an hour, just as the cold clouds were breaking, I was coddling a crying cat into another co-worker’s car, E being in a meeting.  The first vet watched the video and told us maybe he had been poisoned, though I’d seen them eat nothing but standard catfood all day.
I carried our yellow-eyed bewildered baby into the clinic and answered the first student-assistant’s questions as he clung to my shoulder and shed hair everywhere. The Turkish vet-professor finally arrived and asked if he hadn’t been outside, or fallen from somewhere. Considering that the tallest thing the cars could fall from in our apartment is the forbidden territory of the kitchen counter, and they last went outside when we brought them to the very-same clinic to spayed last spring, those weren’t really possibilities. But the vet noted all his symptoms were in line with those of a cat that’s been hit by a car or fallen on their back and so damaged their spinal cord. So we moved into the X-Ray room…and discovered that poor Peter had developed a respiratory infection, with this chest full of fluid, cause unknown but concurrent with a virus currently rampaging across the city.
IMG_2513We waited. The vet students cooed around our big-eyed baby, rubbing his chin and fixing him on a soft pallet with a red rubber bottle full of hot water as reached out his paws and hooked them around the table’s steel edge. Three students held him down while a fourth took a razor and shaved off two inches of the kinky black down that’s been plaguing our apartment all summer. The vet came back from Friday afternoon prayers at the mosque, washed his hands, and stuck a needle into the shaved patch in Peter’s chest, pulling out three vials of bloodied infection fluids. As soon as the blood came out the vet’s face fell.
E dropped them off at the vet faculty for analysis, and I went off to a pharmacy in search of medicine (a side note: between the pharmacies and shops in the Chuy/Manas and Chuy/Sovietskaya underpasses, you can find almost anything small that is to be found in Bishkek). Unfortunately, that didn’t include one of the two medicines, so I returned to the clinic where Peter was lying on his side looking around him with reproach and clamping his sharp white teeth down on anything that came close to his head – fingers and cat masks alike.
We stayed for a few hours as he was given vitamin injections and oxygen therapy to fill his tired, gasping lungs, but there was nothing more we or the vets could do until they got back the test results and figured determined the correct anti-bacteria, and there are no overnight or emergency vet clinics in Bishkek.
The vet told us it was impossible for that much infected liquid to accumulate in a day – though just earlier in the morning the cats had both been meowing for food and chasing each other across the apartment, before Peter stopped to lick our little cat from whisker to toe. I thought back on it later and recalled Peter coming and sitting on my computer keyboard a few times over the past week – a behavior I attributed to influence from our other cat; in reflection, he may have been trying to get our attention if he was experiencing internal discomfort.
By the time we left the vet he was wild – biting the cage, kicking and crying out in pain.  We laid him out on a pallet of soft towels in our covered balcony and I squirted some parsley-soaked water into his willing mouth, though he wouldn’t touch food or drink on his own.  We stroked him and soothed him to sleep, hoping that he’d be a bit better by morning and would last long enough for the test results to come out. In retrospect, his calm was probably due to coming home.
Around six-fifty he woke me crying, probably from loneliness more than pain.  I went into the balcony and noticed that he was calm and laying on the floor, but his body was cold and he didn’t seem to have any strength.  I re-arranged him back on the pallet and heated water for a hot water bottle to keep his body warm.  Erdem came in to sit by him and stroke him Every time I closed the door he cried again.  I tucked the hot water bottle around his back, laid my head down on a pillow on the floor, and hoped he’d make it the two hours until our vet visit.  A little after eight, as I was in the kitchen making coffee, he cried out again, a great choking cry. I hurried in an found his head turned to the side as he heaved great breathless breaths, tongue rolled out of his mouth and eyes wide open in fright.  I re-arranged him on his side and he looked up at me, mouth open as if to scream or strain for air. And he died.
We went to the clinic at nine to see if they wanted his body for examination – perhaps they could save another cat if they better understood his disease.  Instead we borrowed a pickaxe and a shovel and buried him underneath three white stones in the meadow behind the new sports complex.  The same cat that E took as a month-old kitten from the cold wintery streets, the same cat that slept by us for a week every time we returned from vacation, the same cat that was always a silent support in the house. Stoic, sleepy, and utterly randomly himself.
So, a tribute to Peter Cat:

Rules of the Road: Bishkek

I biked even owned a moped in three of China’s biggest cities. Biking in China was exhilarating.

Driving in Bishkek is terrifying.  Here’s why:

There are three guiding “Rules of the Road” in Bishkek: 1) All Rules are Relative; 2) He with the Biggest Vehicle/Greatest Audacity has Right of Way; and 3) (as a fellow American co-worker …and legal specialist… put it), Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do.

  1. All Rules are Relative: An exception: most people do stop at traffic lights, usually.  Unless they’re rushing through in the last seconds of marigold orange.  But everything else is a mere suggestion: parking spaces? Why stay in the lines when that requires you to take time out of your day and park with precision? Cars don’t stop at crosswalks, and pedestrians often cross in the middle of the street (even if there’s a crosswalk 20 feet from where they’re standing). Even if you’re on a crosswalk, any car approaching while wildly honking it’s horn will not stop.  Two lanes turn into three, and cars will sometimes even jump over the middle line in an attempt to drive to the front of a back up – facing down cars driving in the opposite direction. While it is rare to see cars driving on the sidewalks as an alternative to street (unlike, for example, Foshan, where I was regularly honked at while driving down the bike lane carved out of the elevated sidewalk), yesterday a number of drivers tired of waiting at a backed up stoplight decided instead to steer their vehicles down the rough patch of dirt between road and railway track.  So – lines, lanes, right of way – eh…
  2. Right of Way Is the Right of the (Wo)Man with the Greatest Audacity and Biggest Vehicle: In practice this often means Marshrutka drivers, which my former students at Manas deplored as “the worst drivers in Bishkek and cause of most of the city’s traffic woes”. While I wouldn’t single out just the marshrutka drivers, they certainly do sometimes push and budge and switch lanes and drive on the wrong side of the road with apparent disregard for any of the other vehicles on the road.  Certain ‘status SUV drivers’ will do the same – just push their way in and expect everyone to move over, or drive headlong down the wrong side of the road and expect everyone who would otherwise smash into them to switch lanes. And most of the time it works, which is why the behavior continues. When challenged, pedestrians and other drivers usually don’t assert themselves.  Last week I was crossing Chuy on Sovietskaya when a red land rover that had tried to jump ahead by driving left of the middle line was faced with oncoming traffic; the driver suddenly started to drive into my lane (meaning I’d either have to switch over the the right lane – occupied by a marshrutka – or slow down and risk being tapped from behind). When I honked at his dangerous driving he turned and started yelling at me. Because apparently I’m the one at fault here for not accompanying his audacious behavior (and sense of self-importance).
  3. Attempting to Stick to The Road Rules is A Terribly Dangerous Thing to Do: Unfortunately the legal-expert expat is pretty accurate with this one.  Due to everything mentioned above, trying to stay in one lane, cross at the crosswalks (or sometimes even stop for pedestrians who would like to use the crosswalks) or follow many of the other myriad road rules quite simply isn’t safe, because it puts you at odds with the general traffic flow.  For while the road might at first (second, third, forty-seventh…) glance seem like utter chaos, there actually is a system to the way people drive.  It just doesn’t fully align with the official traffic regulations that are supposed to define the way people drive.

The two underlying issues – and why I feel less secure behind the wheel of a car in Bishkek than I do perched atop a bike in China – is that there isn’t just anticipation of the law, and there’s very low sense of community commitment.  The de-facto driving culture that does exist is still quite dangerous and inefficient; if more people had sufficient motivation to follow the actual road rules (and assurances that others would also comply), then the situation would be much different.  But where people don’t feel they will be punished for acting like an ass or endangering others on the road, and where drivers don’t expect most other drivers to keep everybody’s interests and safety in mind – the situation isn’t going to get any better.  And unless I have to take the car somewhere, I honestly prefer to take the bus.

Also, interesting note: scanning over the Traffic Regulations of Kyrgyzstan: any official who stops your vehicle and asks to see your documents and licence must comply if you ask to first see their official identification (2.4). I’ve never seen a policeman here show an actual ID before asking for documents.

The Spaces We Live In

Every year since I left the states I’ve lived in a flat, but it’s only in Bishkek that I’ve really desired to open my door step out on solid ground.

Reflecting on the ten spaces I’ve inhabited over the years it seems like there are two aspects determining it’s feeling of wholeness of place: how well integrated it is with it’s surroundings, and whether it faces in or out.

To explain: the apartment we currently live in stretches the entire southern side of our building and has giant sliding windows on the East, South and West giving panoramic views of half the city.  But it’s also on the 10th floor, and the area around our apartment feels like a wasteland – busy crossroads, a construction site with plenty more construction sites in the distance, a few soviet high rises across the road, and very few trees.  In short, we have a sweeping view, but our apartment doesn’t feel anchored to anything in the landscape.  The apartment faces out, but it isn’t actually integrated into it’s surroundings.

Compare this to my second flat in Beijing: the flat was quite small (40 meters or so; entrance room plus large bedroom, balcony, tiny kitchen and bathroom) and on the top floor of an old 6 story apartment block just five minutes from Beijing’s central commercial hub at GuoMao. The little sitting room was faced by a window that took up half the wall and looked over not the commercial high rises, but the pocket of old flats and small streets that ran between YongAnLi and the river.  Similarly the balcony looked over a dozen shops and familiar faces on the street below – the cold salad bar, the morning fruit-cart man, the same old men sitting outside drinking beer and eating shashlik late into the evenings, the same children coming back from the neighborhood school, the same professionals coming back from work. The apartment always felt like it was part of the surrounding landscape, not least because I could hop downstairs and sit outside with friends as darkness closed over the sweltering summer dusk.

My third apartment in Beijing was a nightmare.  Located at Hujialou at the crossroads of the third ring road and Chaoyang, within walking distance of everything from GuoMao to SanLiTun, it would seem to be in an ideal place.  But the apartment (which I moved into without first seeing, coming strait from graduation at university) faced inward, and yet had no space of reprieve.  We had three small windows – the balcony off the masterbedroom which my new flatmate claimed for herself, my small bedroom, and one half blocked by exposed pipes at the end of our narrow kitchen. Our fifth floor view was off the small strip of shops outside the subway station, and the sticky yellow-grey sky (for the pollution was so bad that summer that we didn’t see the sky for an entire month), and the small car park.  If there were any trees, they were sickley and chocked by dust. So it’s not just about proximity to the street.

The same can be attested my my 9th floor jungle-clad flat in Foshan.  Half of our three-bedroom flat faced the industrial-residential sprawl to the south – brand new high rises boxed by shanty towns and old Cantonese villages still clinging on.  During hurricane season we’d watch the sky churn green and the wind whip up a deluge to flood the streets from our kitchenside clothes-hanging balcony.  The other side of our flat faced into the apartment complex which, though it housed some 10,000 souls, had been designed with so many corners and curves that every flat looked out onto a sea of emerald green tropical plants lining weaving walks and tranquil pools.  Most days I sat out on that balcony on the blue and white ceramic stools we bought from a local pottery shop and read a book or studied for the GRE feeling like I was in a park. Again, it didn’t hurt that I could descend from my flat and immediately have a giant garden at my feet, along with a dozen small shops stocked with the same familiar faces.

I’v also stayed in flats in Almaty and Bishkek that faced inward, using windows only for light, but felt completely self-contained, whole spaces unto themselves.  But here our apartment faces outward – because of the flat’s open floor plan there is no room that doesn’t feel like it’s opening onto at least two sides of the city.  And yet we’re close to nothing. Even if we step down from our apartment there aren’t really any places we can go – a small playground crowded with children, a few benches and a strip of grass, 20 minutes walk along a busy and dusty road to the university in one direction, an older neighborhood with cracked sidewalks and actual trees five minutes in another.  But mostly just dust, dust and this feeling like we’re floating.