Beginning in Bishkek, Checking Out Cholpon-Ata, and an Exciting Election

I arrived in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 6, a little more than a month ago now. To say that I procrastinated updating my blog would be an understatement. Let’s pretend that I purposely waited a month to pass with the intention of being able to reflect on the entirety of my first month as a Fulbright ETA in Kyrgyzstan.

The first few days in Bishkek were a blur of orientation workshops and information sessions sheltered by U.S. Embassy staff, chauffeured vans, and a four-star hotel. As a result, it did not truly sink in that I had moved to live by myself in Kyrgyzstan for ten months until the orientation proceedings concluded.

This part is going to be very brief, but I don’t want to sugar-coat anything – the first couple weeks were difficult. Culture shock and homesickness are very real, and I know these feelings will come and go throughout my time here. I overestimated my ability to seamlessly adapt to new environments due to my childhood in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and my moving away from my hometown of Hong Kong to pursue college in the U.S. It is an entirely different experience living in a community where you do not fluently speak the majority language, where cultural norms can be so different, and where you do not have family around to rely on. These are huge factors that differentiated my past experiences relocating to new environments from living in Kyrgyzstan now. However, I did not dwell on these feelings for too long. With some encouraging words from various people, some self-reflection, and planning and committing to a regular routine, I began to settle comfortably to my new life here in Bishkek!

Within the first week living on my own, I had already embarked on a weekend trip outside of Bishkek to the Issyk-Kul town of Cholpon-Ata with my fellow Kyrgyzstan Fulbrighters. Issyk-Kul (“warm lake” in Kyrgyz) is a large lake (the tenth largest lake in the world!) in eastern Kyrgyzstan, with many towns and villages surrounding it that make for popular destinations during summertime. Even though September meant colder temperatures would soon be sneaking in, the weather was more than agreeable, with sunny skies and cool breezes throughout the weekend. I spent time enjoying the beautiful scenery of the lake surrounded by mountains while some of my braver friends took on paragliding above the lake, something which I decided I would consider revisiting in the future after I built up some tougher skin.

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Jake and Toby, two fellow Fulbrighters in Kyrgyzstan, paragliding over Issyk-Kul Lake.
The first night brought us to a roadside food stall for a shashlik dinner. We ordered two sampler platters of shashlik consisting of a variety of different meats – chicken, beef, lamb, and potentially horse. The sky turned dark above us as we feasted, with no real way of knowing which kind of meat we were eating but savoring it all the same. I had eaten my fill of shashlik when two massive plates of grilled vegetables were brought to us – eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, and then some. I ate as much as I could, not wanting to miss out on eating vegetables that also tasted delicious at the same time. This was possibly the highlight of my weekend in Cholpon-Ata, and there hasn’t been another meal I’ve had so far that has topped that one.
Me enjoying the amazing scenery in Cholpon-Ata.
A beautiful view of Issyk-Kul lake and mountains in the distance from Cholpon-Ata.
After spending time around the beach on the second day, we ventured outside Cholpon-Ata to a nearby village, where there was a possibility of finding old petroglyphs. We trekked towards the mountains, but as the sun began to set we concluded it was time to turn back and hopefully search for the petroglyphs another time in a future visit.
Although we didn’t find any petroglyphs, the trek was a peaceful moment away from the touristy activities we had taken part in during the day and allowed us a great view of dusk on the mountains.

Since that weekend trip, I’ve settled into a regular schedule of lesson planning, teaching, indulging in the guilty pleasure of Netflix when some comfort of familiarity is needed, and studying for an upcoming exam in the first week of November. Here comes my explanation for the delay in updating my blog: I am still a current student in my home university, and am working towards completing a Master’s degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). The exam I will take in November will determine whether I complete the degree or not, and as a result, I have been spending a vast amount of time these first few months here studying for this exam. Fulbright was accommodating enough to understand the extra responsibilities I had and how I would need to balance my time between teaching and studying until I finish this exam. While I have not had much time to explore Bishkek and more of Kyrgyzstan yet, I have visited some of the most popular spots in the city center, including the Philharmonia and Ala-Too Square, which I’ve included some pictures of.

The Philharmonia is a popular spot in the city, with beautiful flowers outside, a giant fountain, and a symbolic statue of the country’s mythical hero, Manas. It hosts a variety of performances including operas and concerts.
Ala-Too Square in the daytime, a central spot and meeting point in the city which often holds events celebrating the country’s culture and history.
At night, a Kyrgyz flag made up of string lights is lit up above the square, which comes alive with music and lights.

Before ending this post, I wanted to highlight today’s significance for Kyrgyzstan – the day of the fourth Kyrgyz presidential election. I am not going to elaborate too much on this topic because I am by no means an expert in Kyrgyz politics, but it is definitely an exciting time to be in this country. This election marks the first peaceful transition of power since Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991, with two revolutions having occurred in 2005 and 2010. The two main contenders are a former prime minister and the choice of the outgoing president, and a charismatic businessman who promises more economic opportunities for the country. This article from The Guardian describes in more detail the significance of this election, and here is an interesting Time article of an interview with the outgoing president, Almazbek Atambayev, about the challenges facing Kyrgyzstan and how the country has thrived as a relatively new democracy. I’m truly excited to be starting a new chapter of my life in a country that will soon also be turning to a new chapter in its future.


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