Monday, October 20, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Trip to Naryn

The helicopter slowly rose to what felt like only a few feet off the ground, and then all of a sudden jolted forward. Nadim and I let out simultaneous high-pitched shrieks. We were on our way to Naryn, a small city hidden in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Naryn is also one of the three locations for the University of Central Asia's (UCA's) undergraduate campuses, to be opened in September 2016. The campus backs onto the Naryn River and is located in a valley just outside the city. The helicopter ride was about an hour, and we flew over hundreds of mountains and saw a few remote villages from above; it was truly breathtaking.

Construction of the Naryn campus has been progressing very quickly, and the foundation and concrete of the campus has already been laid. We had a brief meeting with the Site Manager who showed us designs of the campus, and then went on a tour. Seeing the campus forming and visualizing the final product really puts into perspective the work we have been doing at Academic Affairs. The students who we are working towards recruiting will be studying here in just a few years; the curriculum we are developing will be implemented in this very location. It makes the work feel more 'real' if that makes sense, which is a strong motivator.

As I have mentioned, UCA's vision is to provide world-class education to the mountain societies of Central Asia. The goal is to educate students who can then use their knowledge to promote the social and economic development of the region. Outside of this direct goal however, there are many positive externalities. One of which we saw while at the UCA lookout point, observing the campus from a ledge on one of the surrounding mountains. While we were there, a few cars pulled up to the gazebo that UCA had built and set up a picnic on the benches. We spoke to the family for a bit (those who spoke Russian did, I just stood there) and found out they were celebrating a wedding. They come up to the lookout for family gatherings. We were informed by the Site Manager that this lookout used to be very dangerous, but UCA cleaned it up and built a gazebo, some benches, and a fence so it was more secure. With little effort, UCA was providing a direct benefit to this family, outside the immediate realm of its vision. This impact will be magnified when you compare this small gazebo to a university with world-class facilities. The economic fallout will be enormous, and it's exciting to see what the next few years hold for Naryn.

Random thoughts of the week:

  • Russian low-point: I was locked out of my apartment, and had to have Malika (who speaks Russian) on speakerphone asking my neighbour to let me in the building via the intercom. I was completely useless.
  • Russian high-point: I successfully conducted an extensive negotiation with a cab driver, and got a fare reduced from 200 KGS to 160 KGS. That's a total discount of $0.80 lol...
  • High school students are assigned 'door duty.' At every entranceway at the two high schools we visited, there would be two students who stand there for extended periods of time. Apparently their job was to ring the bell once class was over, although I'm not sure if that's still in practice.
  • Ariff (Dr. Kachra) - Dean of Academic Affairs at UCA gave me some good advice this week. He said to learn how to peg where expectations are set. That way, rather than just meeting expectations, you can always surpass them.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Expat

Expat culture is something else. The community in Bishkek is very small, and it's surprising how quickly people connect. There are so few degrees of separation. For example, while waiting for our travel visas at the Kazakhstan consulate, we met a really nice guy from Nova Scotia who was in Bishkek with his family teaching at one of the international high schools. He was colleagues with one of the American friends we made on our hike in the Kegety Gorge the week prior, and also knew the kids of one of our colleagues at UCA. There was one other individual with us at the consulate, and we had met her while bowling the night prior! I think the language barrier makes meeting locals extremely difficult, and having not only the English familiarity but also shared experiences with expats is a catalyst for camaraderie.
Kyrgyz White House
Ala-Too Square
I know very little about the other areas in Bishkek outside the few blocks encompassing my apartment and the office. It was time to start exploring. Leaving my apartment with some good shoes and a charged camera, I started to wander the city. During my walk, I stumbled upon the massive Ala-Too Square. This square was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic in 1984. Apparently there was a large statue of Lenin in the middle, however in 2003 it was replaced with the current statue, titled "Freedom." This square is the home of the Kyrgyz National Museum, a giant flag pole, and hosts many cultural concerts. Beautiful white marble buildings surround the square, including the Kyrgyz White House. Fountains line the gardens, and there were lots of people sitting on benches having picnics and enjoying the view. The Soviet influence on Kyrgyzstan was once again very striking. This gorgeous square was quite the contrast from the rubble and dirt I had passed by only a few blocks away.

Freedom statue
Fountains at Ala-Too Square
This week was the first time I didn't ask myself if being in Bishkek was really true. Every other week, I always at one point would think, "Wait, what? Where am I?" The day-to-day has started to become routine, and I think that helps. My evenings usually end up as follows: Monday - Russian tutor, Tuesday - Gym, Wednesday - Russian tutor, Thursday - Gym. Friday - Go out, Saturday/Sunday - Excursion/Hang out at Sierra cafe. Mixed into this routine is usually one extremely late night at the office that substitutes the gym, but those are harder to predict.
Late night strategy session
Construction outside the office

Random thoughts of the week:

  • The day before Canadian Thanksgiving, we wanted to have a nice turkey dinner. Chicken would have been okay too. We ended up having Chinese takeout. :P
  • At the gym (called Florida Fitness), a guy named Viktor came up to me and told me out of the blue that I needed to gain 15kg and eat Russian oatmeal and buckwheat every day. He's not wrong. 
  • We had our first snowfall on October 8th!
  • One evening, I came home to see the building door to my apartment ripped completely off. The hinges were totally smashed, and there was broken concrete all over the entrance. I was initially terrified, but found out later that they were in the process of installing a more secure electronic door and forgot to clean up.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Hiking and JK Rowling

A friend of a friend, who was the agent of a local Kyrgyz singer, told us that there was an international writers conference in Bishkek this week. Apparently, JK Rowling was a member of the conference. We heard through this friend that the group may have bought tickets to a Kyrgyz folk concert. As one can imagine, we concluded that this meant we should go to the concert and become great friends with JK Rowling. I even semi-joked about bringing a copy of my manuscript to discuss with her.

Enjoying the music!
Ordo Sakhna
Unfortunately, we didn't meet or see JK Rowling. To be honest, I'm not even sure she was in Central Asia, it might have been a marketing ploy by the agent. Either way, I'm extremely glad we went to the concert. As Kyrgyzstan is a nomadic culture, the music was a blend of Chinese, Mongol, and Russian styles, and combined to make a unique Central Asian sound. I was blown away by its beauty. The performance group was called "Ordo Sakhna" and the eight artists each played multiple instruments for over three hours, both traditional and modern. The Komuz, which is a stringed instrument plucked like a guitar and made from a single piece of wood sounded very unique. At the end of the concert, when the performers were bowing and the MC was thanking the audience, I was surprised to see about 7 or 8 crowd members leave their seats and walk down to the stage, each with a bouquet of flowers. They jumped onto the stage and went to different performers, giving them the flowers. It was a nice show of appreciation, and is apparently common in Kyrgyz culture.

Adam, Shazia, Kim, Fareen and I
At the peak
On the weekend, I went on a day trek in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range. The majority of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous, with the Tien-Shan and Pamir mountain systems covering most of the land. We visited a waterfall in the morning, and for the rest of the day hiked in the Kegety Gorge alongside the Kegety river.

Kegety Gorge
Enjoying the clean air
The view was breathtaking. Snowcapped mountains surrounded us as we walked along a beaten path, listening to the rush of white water flow by. The mountains were untouched by humans and walking amongst the nature was so peaceful. It may sound odd, but I really enjoyed how clean the air felt. Bishkek smells like a combination of oil and dirt mixed with sewage, so the pure air of the mountains was very refreshing. At one point I sat on a rock and let my feet dangle over the water, soaking in the atmosphere. Two words to describe it: pure tranquility.

Our path
White water

Random thoughts of the week:

  • The traffic light at the intersection nearest my apartment stopped working, so I woke up on the weekend to the loud and continuous whistling of the traffic cop. NOT pure tranquility.
  • My Russian tutor's parents live in the same apartment complex as I do. For what it's worth, they really enjoy the neighbourhood.
  • "Menus at these tiny restaurants have at least ten pages and over hundreds of items. Where do they keep all this inventory?!" -Fareen Ahmed
  • We went to an expat bar called "Metro" on the weekend, because they advertised live music. Live music translated to old stereo. We were with good company though, so overall the night was fun.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Apartment Hunting

Apartment hunting in Bishkek was an experience that I will not forget. Never have I felt more like a human pylon. Every apartment, the language barrier was such that the owner would explain something about the apartment in Russian, and one of my colleagues who was helping me would translate what was said. Most of the time I just stood there and tried to look like I knew what was happening. Throughout the week, we viewed seven apartments and I'm really happy with the last apartment, which is where I am now living. It is spacious, clean, and in a great location. The walk to the UCA office is less than 10 minutes, which will be fantastic once winter arrives.

Living room

On the first day in my new home, I heard a knock and opened the fortified door to see an elderly lady holding some groceries. I said "Hello" in Russian, and she responded in kind. Although we spoke for roughly five more minutes, that introduction was basically all I understood from our conversation. At one point, she put down her groceries and walked past me into my apartment. Dumbfounded and utterly confused, I followed her as she went into my bathroom and took off an air vent and reached behind it to fiddle with some of the pipes. After a few seconds she threw up her hands in frustration, put the air vent back in its place, picked up her groceries, said my landlord's name and gestured for him to call her. I said "Okay, thank you, very much, good morning" and closed the door. It was only after a few minutes did I remember that my landlord also only spoke Russian and I would have no idea how to explain to him what just happened! Learning Russian will make life so much easier, and I'm doing as much as I can to get better. I meet with a Russian tutor twice a week, listen to a daily audio Russian language course, and read as much as possible.

Fareen and I trying a local dish
Construction galore

This week at work was even better than the first. I had the opportunity to sit in on lots of meetings and legitimately work and think through strategy and planning for Academic Affairs. This is in addition to the already interesting research and writing I have been assigned. The University of Central Asia releases a quarterly magazine called Q-News that provides updates on the University, and the most recent issue had a great section on the Institute of Public Policy and Administration (IPPA), available here. The first initiative of UCA's Graduate School of Development, IPPA was founded in 2011 and "aims to foster a stimulating, innovative and rigorous inquiry into issues relating to the socio-economic development of Central Asia, particularly its vast mountain regions."

View from the office balcony!
In front of UCA office
On the weekend, I went to a nearby grocery store to get some supplies for my new place. The second floor of the grocery store had small kiosks selling phone cases, electronics, and other miscellaneous goods. I walked past a barber shop and realized it was the same one Nadim, a colleague at UCA and good friend went to, so I decided to give it a shot. I asked for a light trim, and 300kgs ($6) later I walked out completely bald... Sorry Mom!

Nadim, Fareen and I in Issyk-Kul

Random thoughts of the week:

  • I asked my landlord for Wifi in the apartment, and he said "Okay." He then brought a massive ethernet cable that reaches every nook and corner of my apartment, and called it Wifi.
  • We tried a spinach pizza one day for lunch, and hidden underneath the cheese we found hard boiled eggs. Surprise!
  • Some cars have the driver's seat on the left side of the car, and others on the right. Never seen that before!
  • Confession: I walked head first into a money exchange sign while trying to Skype with my sisters on the way to work. Definitely not going to try that one again lol

-Malik Ladhani

PS. I'm totally kidding about being bald. The haircut was actually fantastic, and I'm definitely going there again next month.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: Is this really happening?

Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic is my new home... It's a strange sentiment to think about, and I haven't quite wrapped my mind around it fully. Is this really happening? Even after doing research, I know next to nothing about the region or culture. But that's one of the reasons I'm so thrilled to be here. It's so different!

If asked to sum up my first week in Central Asia in one word, I would say: overwhelming. I arrived at the UCA office where I will be living in temporary accommodations on Monday morning at 4:30am after a roughly two day transit, and was asked to be at the office by 9am. At the time I could barely function, but looking back, powering through the jet lag was definitely beneficial. The work is challenging and so far, involves lots of late nights and long hours. Although it's difficult, one is empowered by the impact of the work we're doing. I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

Late night at the office
Over the next nine months, I will be working as a Research Associate with the Academic Affairs division at the University of Central Asia (UCA). UCA is an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), and its goal is to provide world class, internationally recognized higher education in Central Asia. The University will have three campuses: 1. Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic, 2. Khorog, Tajikistan, and 3. Tekeli, Kazakhstan. In September 2016, the UCA campus in Naryn is scheduled to open for the University's first class of undergraduate students. Below is a good introduction from the UCA website:

"UCA’s mission is to promote the social and economic development of Central Asia, particularly its mountain societies, while at the same time helping the different peoples of the region to preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future."

My new Russian business card
So far, the language barrier has been the biggest shock for me. This is my first exposure to Russian and I understand legitimately none of it. Over the initial few days, I learned how to read the cyrillic alphabet and have been practising some useful phrases, but familiarity is going to take time. I've made it a personal goal to become conversational, but right now I'm 100% clueless. My go to response is "Yes, okay, thank you, very much, good morning" whenever anyone says anything (no matter what they're saying or what time of day it is) or, "I don't understand" in Russian.
Attempting to learn Russian
Although I haven't seen much of the city outside the office, Bishkek is nice! There's a pleasant charm, even if there's an obscene amount of dust and consistent strange smell. The city itself isn't the most picturesque, but the surrounding area outside of Bishkek is gorgeous. The Academic Affairs team at UCA spent the weekend working in Issyk Kul, a beautiful lake and resort area. This was also my first taste of the mountain ranges in Kyrgyzstan, which are sprawling and immense.

I miss my family and friends, and the fact that this move seems permanent is daunting. But it's going to be an experience of a lifetime and I'm excited to share it with you.

Random thoughts of the week:
  • Driving is pure chaos. LOL at me thinking I would need an International Drivers License here
  • Went to an Indian restaurant near the office and saw a giant framed picture of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as decor... Strange
  • A nine minute taxi ride cost a grand total of 100 KGS, roughly equivalent to $2
  • There was a teenage in flip-flops operating and pouring concrete outside the office. FLIP FLOPS!
  • I can watch Sunday Night Football on Monday morning. Pretty neat to eat my instant oatmeal and yogurt for breakfast while watching live sports
-Malik Ladhani

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Malik in Bishkek: What?

From September 2014 to June 2015, I will be working at the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic. Although typically I keep a private journal of my travels, in order to keep family and friends in the loop on my adventure I've decided to give this a shot. Hope you enjoy!

If you're interested in learning about the University of Central Asia and the development of its three campuses in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Kazakstan, take a look at their website. On it, there's an option to subscribe to the UCA mailing list, which is a great way to keep in the loop and learn more about this amazing institution.

-Malik Ladhani