First Impressions

June 2015

Crossing  the border from Dostyk in Uzbekistan to Osh in Kyrgyzstan, I was struck with the abrupt change. Usually when crossing a land border, the change is minimal which  is completely is the same peoples, the same culture, the same food that greets one, the border merely a political boundary. And  it is only with greater distance that the differences become more apparent. But here, I had the immediate impression of a different peoples and culture.

The faces of the people, the sound of the language, the manner of dress all combined to give me a sense of deja vu. It  was as if I was back in eastern Mongolia of more than a decade ago or smaller towns in more recent years. The soviet-style hulking buildings in need of repair, the small hole-in-the-wall eateries like the guanzes as well as the partially dug up dirt roads and general air of scruffiness added to the feel. Given that the Kyrgyz peoples are of Mongolian stock probably accounts for the feeling  of likeness.

But the similarity does not extend to the open friendliness of the Mongols. There is a lack of curiosity toward a stranger here. Whereas in neighbouring Uzbekistan I would be nattering away with the locals, be it in a marshrutka or at the bazaar or even while buying an ice cream cone at a stand, here in Kyrgyzstan, rarely does anyone smile or ask questions. Instead of being  cordially invited to tea or their home in Ferghana, here even my  offering a greeting of “salaam” sometimes simply merits an odd look. I wonder about this sense of reserve. Is it truly a part of the Kyrgyz nature or is it a remnant of being Russianized? I  remember the cold unfriendliness of western Russia and there seems a peculiar similarity in behavior here.

But there are those exceptions that make me want to offer the salaam  again and make the first move. The old woman in Bokonbayevo from whom I had bought  tomatoes not only deigned to smile the third day I  stopped in her store,  but she chattered on in rapid Kyrgyz. She did not seem to mind that I hemmed and hawed, understanding only a third of what she said. There were the parents of the young woman I  met at the CBT office who offered  to take me to meet some  real sheperds up in the hills near their village. There was the woman who left  her lunch partially eaten and guided me to the neighbour when the guesthouse owner was out of town. Not to mention the friendliness of the most of the guesthouse owners and staff. Perhaps the Kyrgyz as a people need  time to warm up.

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