Sunday, November 21, 2010

Tattoos in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A week ago I was talking with a friend of mine about tattoos. She told me that she was interested in getting a small one but that she didn’t know how to go about doing it in Kyrgyzstan or whether to do it here at all. Bishkek, for obvious reasons, doesn’t particularly stand out as the safest place to get a tattoo. I found this subject, because I have tattoos, incredibly interesting and I set out to look into the Bishkek tattoo scene.

I started asking around to see if there were any tattoo parlors in the city. Everyone I talked with told me that there were places somewhere in the city, but no one knew exactly where they were. Eventually, it was suggested that I look on the Diesel Forum for information. Because very few businesses in Kyrgyzstan actually have their own websites, they post their services and locations on the forum. I had looked on the website a while ago when I started looking for places and information about skydiving but I had some serious trouble searching because I hadn’t yet learned to type in Russian. This time it was much easier.

I quickly came across an artist named Nikita who was answering questions, offering advice and posting his artwork for those that were interested. Typically, Russians are the ones that get tattoos here. There are very few Kyrgyz people that do. The ones that do usually get cosmetic tattoos like lips or eyebrows. It seemed like that was his specialty but he had a good portfolio of body tattoos as well. I looked up his contact information and called him.

We agreed to meet on Wednesday at a hair salon called “Vash Stil” (Your Style). When we met I talked to him about how he handled body substance isolation and he explained to me the use of new needles, gloves and clean hands. The precautions had been included in the tattoo certification course he took a few years ago (Although he started tattooing when he was 16). When I asked about his studio he told me that he rented out salons like the one we were meeting in or came to his client’s houses. I called my friend and we decided to have Nikita over to our apartment on Saturday to tattoo her up.

On Saturday we attempted to skydive again but it was cancelled due to a bit of snow in the morning. Everyone relaxed most of the day and Nikita came over around 5:30 pm to start his work. He set up in my room because it had good open space with a large bed. He showed her the design she had asked for and applied it to her leg. He then drew over a few areas with a pen and got his kit ready. I turned on some music and a few minutes later his needle was buzzing away and my friend was getting her ankle tatted.

The whole process from set up to closing up shop lasted about two and a half hours but when the tattoo was finished it looked amazing. It seems that most tattoos here are done in this manner. There are very few actual tattoo artists here but most of them seem to be freelancers like Nikita. So, if you’re a foreigner in Bishkek and you’re looking for a tattoo, Nik’s your guy.

Artistic Tattoo and Permanent Makeup
Tel.: 0-555-674-108

Художественное тату и перманентный макияж (татуаж)
сот.: 0-555-674-108 Nikita.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Here I am, Kyrgyzstan.

Bishkek is a small city, but it is a capital city. That has more than one meaning for the people who choose to set up shop here for any period of time, be it a few days or an entire life. For the citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek is a city of possibilities. They come from all around the country to work, to go to school, to visit family, to protest, to party, and to just live their lives. For expats, it holds a lot of the same meaning as it does for citizens. Students, contractors, miners, military, volunteers, NGO workers, tourists, and any number of different types of people come here from all around the world to make fortunes, to try and save lives, and to try and learn something about themselves.

I came here to learn Russian. A reason like that sounds pretty boring, and it kind of is. On Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday I sit in a classroom from 8:30 in the morning until around 14:30 (2:30pm) in the afternoon. I didn’t come here for humanitarian reasons, or to examine political and ethnic tensions, I didn’t come here to make big money. I came here with the hope that I’ll be able learn what I need to do those things in the future.

When class ends, my brain is usually pretty shot. I walk home down one of the main roads and pick up a samsi or two from my favorite roadside stand. Samsi are fantastic little meat pastries they sell everywhere here. I make it home, relax, and study whatever it is that I should probably already know about Russian.

The payoff of making scratch marks on paper for a few hours a day is really quite amazing. There are few things like being able to walk into a room and completely understand what everyone is saying to you in a foreign language, and then respond. I get asked a lot of questions about where I’m from, how I learned Russian, and what I’m doing in Bishkek.

Since winter will be setting in soon I figure it’s time to recap some of the things I’ve seen here. Life here is different from where I hang my hat in the states, quite different. The strangest thing I’ve found is that it feels like home here, even with the differences. Before I came, I saw nothing on the news about Kyrgyzstan other than pieces about death, war, destruction, and revolution.

Headlines read similar to: “Fledgling Central Asian Democracy Plunges into Bloody Revolution, with Ethnic Tensions Roiling into War in the South.”

The problem with that was not that the news wasn’t true. Quite a few stories probably accurately portrayed the pain and problems that came before and after April 7th. The real issue is that all of the media that only talked about war, death, and destruction, obscured the whole story of Kyrgyzstan.

So what is the true story behind Kyrgyzstan? It’s a long intricate story of many people with many interests. It’s one I am not qualified to tell. I can, however, talk about the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve been told. These are a few of my observations. Other people may have encountered different situations and opinions.

People here are identified much more clearly by their nationality than in the U.S. While all of them are citizens of Kyrgyzstan, they will call themselves Kyrgyz, Uzbek, or Russian. Many Kyrgyz people I have talked to have an intense sense of national identity. Many of them believe that because Kyrgyzstan has the word “Kyrgyz” in it, it belongs to them and them alone. Some will say that they want to kick all of the Uzbeks out because it is not their land. This statement ignores the fact that in some regions people of Uzbek descent have been living there for generations regardless of the name of the republic. There are also many Kyrgyz people who are simply horrified by the deaths that have occurred on either side of the ethnic divide.

When I travelled to the south, mind you it was only for a few days, I was able to chat with some Uzbeks. Many of these people seemed to simply want to keep their homes and land that their families had been living in for generations. In Osh many people are still looking for loved ones that most likely passed away and were buried in large graves.

Since I’ve been here I have been treated with the utmost hospitality by Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Russians. People here bend over backwards to take care of guests and friends. The Russians here seem to have less reliance on traditional values and are much more independent in many ways, than their Kyrgyz and Uzbek brethren. I’ve asked several of them if they feel a draw to Russia and most of them would like to visit but they have a strong sense of Kyrgyzstan as their “Rodina” or homeland.

In the three months I’ve been here, I’ve had an incredible amount of experiences. Some of those were good and some have been not so good. There is much more to Kyrgyzstan than meets the eye.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

What is a successful weekend?

Opportunities are plentiful here for those that choose to take a few risks. This weekend I jumped out of a plane at around 8,500 feet (2,500 meters). There were three people jumping with static lines in front of me. Once they went out the door around 2,500 feet (800 meters) the pilots hit the gas and we started going up. A few minutes later I was standing in front of my instructor who had a firm grip of my parachute straps. He was standing with his back to the small exit door. A light to my left turned green and made a loud buzz. He tucked his head down and leaned back with a little hop out the door. I went with him.

We flipped around a little but he kept a hold of my straps. We fell for what he later told me was around 20 or 25 seconds. I don’t remember the whole thing. I can’t recall it like a film, but there are a few moments that stand out. The first one is the image of someone pulling me out of a plane. The second is after we settled into a regular falling pattern and I had a chance to look around. The mountains here are already covered in snow and, because it was a clear day, I had a full view of them. That moment seemed to hold for a long time. The next snapshot I have is of him nodding his head and pulling my parachute open.

Last time I jumped out of a plane I only fell for something around four or five seconds. This jump, I had plenty of time and space to accelerate. When my parachute opened, it opened hard. It certainly pulled me out of the peaceful reverie I was in during the fall. The parachute I had this time was not the standard army issue one I had last time. Although it was still a parachute (not a canopy style one) it had a lot more forward glide to it than the last one. I turned against the wind thinking that I would drop down fairly normally but instead I landed on soft muddy farmland about a kilometer away from the drop zone on a farm.

One of the jumpers with a canopy landed near me to show me the way back. We were surrounded by young Kyrgyz boys who crowded around us to see the odd guys who dropped out of the sky onto their land. The Russian who landed near me was named Sasha. He started chatting with them in Kyrgyz, but it was nothing I understood.

I only know a few words in Kyrgyz so I just kept saying “Jak-she” which I’m told means “Good.” They enjoyed that and waved to us as we exited their farm onto the path back to the drop zone. We made it back and the instructors laughed at me. You can’t really do much more than laugh at yourself when you have a bunch of skydiving pros, instructors and a Kyrgyz Army lieutenant laughing at your parachuting skills.

The next time our group goes to jump I’m told that we will be able to pull our own cords. This weekend was a success.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I haven't been punched in the face... Yet.

I have been interested in boxing for a long time. Since a young age I’ve been regaled with stories of Muhammad Ali’s skill, Mike Tyson’s tumultuous personal life, and the missing piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear. By no means am I a connoisseur of boxing technique, strategy, or fighters. I can, however, like many people, enjoy watching a good fight.

When I first began college in 2004 I tried my hand at the sport and loved it. I never actually tried seriously to break into it, but I did just enough to get more bloody noses than I cared for. So, I continued with the workouts but not with the getting hit part.

Fast forward to present day 2010.

A few weeks ago I was walking down Sovietskaya (one of the main drags in Bishkek) headed home. It was around eight and the sun had long set so the only light I had was that of a few street lamps and the buildings which lined the street. I had just walked under an overpass when, I noticed light coming from a building to my left I hadn’t really paid much attention to before.

I looked into the windows as I passed and I noticed that there were about 40 young Kyrgyz men skipping rope, hitting bags, and sparring with each other. I immediately did a beeline for the door but found it was locked. I tried the one next to it but it was locked as well. I was more eager to make it home than to search around the building for an open door so I made a mental note and continued to my apartment.

A week ago I was talking with some friends of mine who told me they had recently started getting boxing coaching from the same place I had seen. I asked them how much it cost and if I could jump on with them during their Wednesday morning training session. They were cool with it and I was locked in.

This morning I woke up around 8:30, drank some coffee and packed my gym bag. I made sure I had everything and headed out for my 9:30 appointment with Damir, the Kyrgyz trainer, at the gym. I was the first to arrive out of our group of three and Damir was incredibly welcoming, I was thankful for that. A gym, for many people, is like a second home. It’s someone’s territory. So when someone new comes in, they can sometimes be very warm or very stand-offish.

Damir had me run laps around gym to warm up. As I did this the young Kyrgyz boys stopped and stared at the strange foreigner who had just come into their world. Logan and Tom came shortly thereafter and joined in the fun. That’s when the real warm up kicked off. Damir was all about us going non-stop for 30 minutes of intense punching, jumping, and slipping. By the time we were done warming up we were already covered in sweat and my shoulder muscles were burning from the inside. This was good. Then he had us work on throwing combinations for another 45 minutes or so.

The entire thing lasted about an hour and a half and it wasn’t complicated. We worked simply on the fundamentals, things I missed the first time six years ago. This is really something I can get into.

The Bishkek boxing and martial arts scene is quite a bit larger than I expected. Damir told us about a competition on Friday which will showcase fighters from all over Kyrgyzstan and I hope we will be able to check it out.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My mountain weekend or How I didn't die

Part I

After my Russian classes on Friday, I spent the rest of the day searching Bishkek for the equipment I needed to take on Peak Uchityel (Uchityel translates to Teacher). The mountain is in the Ala Archa National Park, which is about an hours’ drive outside of the city. There is a short drive to the trailheads from the main entrance of park. The mountains loom on either side of trekkers who come to enjoy their weekends next to the valley streams.

There are a handful of shops in the city which sell gear for “Alpinizm.” I went to three different shops to get everything I needed. I bought a sleeping bag that can keep me from freezing up to negative 27 degrees Celsius, a set of “Palochki” (climbing poles), warm hiking socks, hiking pants and gloves. I packed up that night and set my bag aside. The next morning I woke up around 8 and had some cereal and coffee. My roommate Aaro came downstairs with his gear and we ordered a taxi.

We headed to the London School to meet up with some of our friends who were going with us to Ala Archa. We picked them up and started on our way to the mountains just outside of the city.

After we arrived, Aaro and I parted ways with our friends as we were taking a different path to the mountain hut where we would be camping for the night. The trip was about five hours, eight kilometers and a gain of about 1600 meters (5200 feet) in altitude. There was a distinct change in scenery the further we went up. At the bottom of the park there was a river running through a forest full of pines and long grass, towards the snow line there was mostly moss and dirt. When we got up to about 3300 meters (10800 feet) the ground was almost all rocks and snow.

By the time we reached the base camp, I was feeling slow and sluggish from the high altitude. There we met a Kyrgyz man named Telek, who lived there two weeks out of every month. His job was to tend to trekkers and rent out sleeping spaces. We carried our own tent to the camp so we set it up and laid our sleeping pads and sleeping bags inside. We boiled some pasta on our camping stove and threw a bouillon cube in to make soup. As night set in, the temperature dropped rapidly. As we started to clean up our dinner mess, Telek invited us inside the hut to have chai.

He told us that he hadn’t talked to anyone for over a week, other than a few porters who stopped in just long enough to drop off food and equipment. He started a fire and told us a little about Kyrgyz history. He told us that the Kyrgyz were originally in Russia but travelled south and later established themselves in and around the mountains of Central Asia. The room was lit by the firelight of the stove and the heat coming from it warmed our freezing fingers and toes as we drank the strong tea.

It was incredibly cold when we finally climbed into our sleeping bags and began sleeping. I had to wake up twice to relieve myself. Each time, I winced at the cold as I opened my sleeping bag and the freezing air snapped me into full consciousness. The wind pushed our tent around the entire night but Aaro and I were able to get a few winks in before our long trip to the top of Uchityel the next day.

Part II

We woke up around 7:30, put our clothes on in our sleeping bags, and began to cook some oatmeal. Although there were some sugar cubes melting into it, the porridge tasted like newspaper. We melted some snow and filled up our water bottles while we wolfed the food down. We took water, some snacks, and all of our warm weather gear and packed it into my rucksack to take with us to the summit.

I felt more comfortable with walking than I did the day before and I didn’t feel too bad after an hour of marching up the first steep incline of loose rocks. My strength, however, started to fade the further up we went. Since the camp was located at about 3300 meters (10800) feet, we had around 1300 meters (4260 feet) to the top of the peak. On top of beginning to feel slow and sluggish, my boots were failing me at every turn. I thought I had fantastic boots when I bought them, but they were more like skis and I was slipping left and right.

The higher we climbed, the more snow there was. I had to dig my climbing poles into the snow to get traction, but we continued to make progress. We took two small breaks to drink some warm tea from earlier and eat some nuts and dried fruit. I was tired during the first stop, exhausted at the second, and a zombie by the time we reached the summit.

The sky opened up and the wind calmed for a minute when we finally arrived at the top. The view was incredible. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. The sky was slightly cloudy but we could see Bishkek, miles away. Aaro reached out his hand and I shook it while he said “Congratulations!” This was his sixth time to reach the top of Uchityel, 4600 meters (15000 feet) above sea level.

We looked around for a few more moments and then started on our way down. Aaro was much lighter on his feet than I was, and my boots were giving me more trouble on the way down, so he managed to get quite far ahead of me.

As he dipped out of sight I continued to follow his footsteps. Most of the time they followed the path we had taken up but sometimes they meandered off through areas which were easier to step down. Usually, the easier areas were snowy which meant that I could hop down considerably faster. As I descended I came across an area where his footsteps veered off quite sharply to the right from the old path. I decided to take the newer path, which was thick with snow (or so I thought).

The new path curved to the right around a huge rock outcropping that was sided on the left by a small path and a short drop onto rocks, so I was happy to try the newer path which looked safer. Walking around the outcropping I noticed that the new path was on the edge of a snow face that was insanely high.

I wasn’t particularly worried when I started to walk in Aaro’s footsteps because he had made it without any problems. I’m not sure whether it was because I’m about 30 pounds heavier than him without a rucksack on, or because of my boots, or because I’m just not experienced enough to know how to walk properly in those conditions, but I slipped.

It wasn’t much at first, and it didn’t really seem like a problem, but I couldn’t stand back up without slipping. It was about two o’clock and the sun had been beating down on the snow face for several hours so the snow was soft and powdery, not icy and firm. There was ice, however, about three quarters of a foot under the snow. Suddenly, I was acutely aware that I was sitting on a 1000 meter (3200 foot) ice slide which was tilting downwards in front of me.

I began to worry.

I was to the middle left of the snow face so I was about 15 meters (50 feet) from the rocks that I needed to stand up and continue my downward trip. I started to push myself to the left using my poles, but every time I did I slid further down. The further I slid, the steeper the wall became. Later, Aaro would tell me that usually there is much more snow which makes it a lot easier to walk on without slipping.

I started digging my sticks in as deep as I could and pushing to the left. One of the water bottles we brought fell out of the side of my rucksack and tumbled down the slope until it eventually stuck into the snow somewhere and I couldn’t see it. I heaved myself to the left and slid about 20 feet further down until I jammed the stick between my legs so the weight of my body pushing on it stopped my downward movement.

I wanted to shout to Aaro, but I was afraid of any unnecessary movement. I considered taking off my rucksack and letting it tumble down the side of the mountain but getting it out from behind me would have caused me to lose my position and slide further. I continued to push to the left, this time using all my force to keep the sticks staked in. I inched slowly to the left and eventually hit a rock. I almost shouted with relief and continued to inch to the left. Eventually I reached a patch of rocks I could stand up on as Aaro was coming back up the mountain, calling my name. He had climbed back up a considerable distance to find me and I was incredibly relieved to see him. I didn’t look back at the snow wall until I was at the bottom. I almost lost my balance when I did.

We arrived back at our camp around sunset, packed up and decided to go home. On the way back down we managed to get lost in the dark, but we made it (A story for another time). Our roommate convinced a taxi driver to drive out of the city to pick us up at 11 o’clock at night. The lights of the city flickered by as we drove home.

Dedicated to Mills Bigham, 4/8/1986-10/19/2009, a best friend and brother.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What’s in the sack? There’s blood everywhere!

I have been here for almost two months and I am still surprised fairly often by all of the new things I have had a chance to participate in. I have been going to a sweet underground gym. Even here in Kyrgyzstan, Lil John and DMX are blared to motivate patrons. It’s hard not to be energized when you hear “HYEAH” and “HWAAAT” consecutively.

Today was Election Day here in Kyrgyzstan. The streets were fairly quiet and I hope that they remain that way. I have asked a lot of people what they think is going to happen when the results come in. Most people have told me that they really have no idea whether things here will be peaceful or not. Many people have told me that they don’t want to vote because “it will not change anything.” Many of them have said that people here will sell their seats to the highest bidder if they win. Many have said that, whatever party comes into power will do the same things and make the same mistakes as the last guy (Bakiyev). Time will tell, and this week will certainly be interesting.

Due to weather we were not able to make our climbing trip this weekend so I took full advantage of my down time on Sunday to sleep in. The night before had not been an incredibly late night but I was in need of a solid eight hour block of rest. Around 11 this morning, I woke up to someone knocking on the door. One of my roommates was already up, and he opened the door. Our friend Dave was standing there with a big white canvas bag wiggling in his hand, and a grin on his face.
(That is actually my roommate Aaro in the photo)

“I got two live turkeys for 600 Som each from the animal bazaar,” was his response to the look on my face. I had forgotten that Monday is Canadian Thanksgiving and we had decided to make turkey, from step one. He came in and placed the bag on the floor and the two turkeys kicked around a little bit. Although I have killed chickens before, killing a turkey was a new experience as they are quite feisty.

We were discussing how fast American Thanksgiving was approaching a few days ago, when the Canadian contingent of our group told us that their Thanksgiving was on Monday. Promises were made about the use of our kitchen and about helping prepare live turkeys. I made a mental note, but it apparently didn’t stick in my head.

As zero hour approached the cutlery was taken out, sharpened and inspected. We readied a bucket of hot water to soak the turkeys in after we were done, to help de-feather them. Dave and I pulled up our sleeves and slipped some rubber gloves on. We walked outside with a crew of six, carrying the bucket, the knives and the bag of Thanksgiving.

Dave untied the bag and pulled out the first one to go. He gently set it down and I firmly grabbed its head.

Our Kyrgyz neighbors watched and waved from the third floor as we were doing all of this.

Shortly thereafter, Ceci, our friend from Sardinia, decided she wanted to have a go. Dave pulled out the next one, I passed the knife and gloves to her, and she marvelously performed everything that I did not mention earlier.

After we bled them, we let them sit in the water for a minute or two and then started plucking the feathers out. In the backyard of our apartment complex it looked as though there had been a pillow fight that had gone terribly wrong. Once the feathers had been removed we dumped the water, collected the feathers for the trash, and went inside.

As we started to clean the turkeys we noticed something odd about their chests. When we opened them up, we found an incredible amount of seeds. Somehow the person who sold Dave the turkeys had managed to over feed them. We had been duped. Eventually they were all cleaned up and we set aside some of the organs to make gravy out of. Tomorrow, we are going to have an amazing Canadian Thanksgiving (Really just a dry run for the REAL ONE in November).

Pictures courtesy of Aaro Ylitalo

Sunday, October 3, 2010

New Apartment, New Possibilities

The week started out well and ended even better.

Last Sunday I packed up all of my clothes and cleaned my room at my old apartment. I had been searching with three other friends to find a new apartment that was comfortable enough for the four of us. We eventually came upon one which had four bedrooms a large living room and two floors. For the states this may sound relatively easy, but in Bishkek it is quite a bit more complicated as most families live in one or two bedroom apartments. Once we signed the contract, we all moved our things into our new rooms.

It was quite easy to get comfortable in our new home and the freedom that comes with living away from the school campus is quite nice. With that newfound freedom I was even able to go on a date! The week went by quickly and on Saturday we were able to have an incredible “Novoselya” (housewarming) party. Despite a few broken glasses, the party was a success and quite a few people showed up to wish us well.

We are all bracing for the elections coming up. Most of the people I have talked to are expecting some sort of unrest but think it is unlikely to be anywhere near that of April 7th. There are several parties here vying for power. There seem to be three fairly popular groups out of the 29 or so that are running. According to the teachers and taxi drivers that I get the majority of my information from they are: Ata Meken, Ata Zhurt, and SDPK.

Although the elections are going to be happening, I am planning a trip to climb a mountain in the Ala Archa national park called Peak Uchityel which translates to “Teacher.” The mountain is known as a good place for novice mountaineers to get their feet wet.

I have also been learning to play guitar and can now proudly play about 2.5 songs half decently.