I recently made a brief trip to check on our programs in Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek has long been one of our highest-rated locations among students. However, its popularity has increased recently because some funding programs offered by the US government now exclude Russia. Thus, many students on Project Go (through the US Army) or on Boren scholarships, for instance, who would have otherwise chosen locations in Russia are now forced to look for alternatives. Many are choosing Bishkek. Thus, the primary purpose for my travel was to see how our programs are holding up under steadily increasing numbers.
I also timed my trip so that I could join our Central Asian Studies students on the first part of their tour through Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This trip is obviously an important part of our Central Asian Studies program, which strives to give students a good overview of life in the highly diverse Central Asian region. I wanted to see personally how well the trip was being run.
Lastly, with the falling ruble dragging down nearly all currencies in the region, travel in Eurasia has not been so cheap in more than a decade. I felt that this opportunity to travel at what could be a critical time for one of our most successful programs couldn’t be passed up.
Kyrgyzstan is gaining popularity among our students for several reasons.
First, although you will hear and see considerable Kyrgyz on the streets of Kyrgyzstan, the vast majority of Bishkek’s citizens speak fluent Russian. Many will proudly boast that they speak better Russian than some people in Russia, with little to no discernible accent. Russian is also readily heard and seen publicly.
I was also impressed by the teachers at London School, our partners in Bishkek, who utilize a lively and deliberate methodology that kept classes moving at a comfortable speed, involving all students in the small class, and utilizing multiple brain sectors. In a single advanced class session, for instance, students read aloud, discussed vocabulary, independently formulated ideas, and even debated each other – all without leaving the target language of Russian.
Bishkek also has a shockingly low cost of living. Most things cost well under half of Moscow prices and considerably less than in any of Russia’s major cities. Of course, this is because Kyrgyzstan is a relatively poor country with few accessible natural resources. Bishkek is thus something of a no-frills city. Sidewalks and roads are cracked and poorly maintained, public transport is cramped, and much of the city, while generally green and pleasant, feels either a bit rundown or has the appearance of being developed haphazardly; in a style that one would expect of a city looking for whatever investment it can get.
This is another fascinating and useful reason to study in Bishkek – learning how a small, resource-poor country survives. Although we typically read in the media about smaller countries moving closer to the orbits of larger countries (with the implications that the larger will eventually swallow the smaller), smaller countries typically try to keep themselves dynamically positioned between larger powers to gain the maximum benefit. Rarely does it happen that pledging full fealty to a larger state is the most profitable option for a smaller country. Thus, in Kyrgyzstan, you readily feel the presence of the cultures of all powers attempting to influence Central Asia. This includes not only Russia, China, and the US, but also smaller powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Korea. For those on our Central Asian Studies program, this will be clear not only from the coursework, but also from the various brands visible, the prevalence of restaurants and pubs with ethnic themes, local news and conversations, and songs played on local radio stations.
Perhaps because Kyrgyzstan is a fairly specific and exotic location, it seemed to me that the students we have there came well prepared for what they encountered. Most had settled in well and many, in fact, were actively pursuing individual interests such as running marathons, participating in ballroom dancing clubs, and making plans to take advantage hiking and swimming opportunities in Kyrgyzstan’s rugged and beautiful mountains that stand majestically in the background of Bishkek. Many students had also been inspired to study basic Kyrgyz in addition to advancing their Russian skills.
I am very thankful that I found the time to spend a full week in Central Asia visiting several countries with our students. Although I had researched and wrote of the region for several years, my plans to actually visit the region had generally fallen through. However, I don’t think there is any other way to truly appreciate how diverse the region is without actually setting foot there.
Kyrgyzstan is a very poor country – one of the poorest in Central Asia and, although it often cited as the region’s most democratic society, it has also been plagued by political instability. All of this can be felt on the ground – in the crumbling pavement, the open, friendly people, and the array of opinions you can hear openly expressed.
Kazakhstan is much like Kyrgyzstan, but with much more money. The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are closely related ethnic groups and physical differences between them are impossible to discern. Kazakhstan, however, has considerable natural resources and, with the help of the revenue they generate, many new buildings have been constructed, old structures are better maintained, and modern roads abound (we actually drove from Bishkek to Almaty, so we saw a fair number of roads). The revenue has also enabled the construction of a strong, centralized government and nearly Putin-like support for the leader among the population. Almost everyone we met spoke in heartfelt glowing terms about the president’s achievements during his long reign in office. However, it was also common to hear these patriots openly admit faults in their current governing and economic structures and argue that all sources of financing and knowledge should be courted, including those from Russia, the West, and the East, in order to ensure their country’s future success. In other words, although Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s dominant country in size and economy, it also, like Kyrgyzstan, still applies to the small-country norm of playing all diplomatic opportunities to their optimal level.
Turkmenistan was a completely different beast. We flew from Almaty to Ashgabat over miles and miles of what can be safely termed “barren wasteland.” Most of Turkmenistan is covered in desert – a particularly severe desert that has the look of ancient, sun-beaten skin. Then, suddenly, as we neared Ashgabat, and the landscape was instantly broken into vibrantly green farms, rows of greenhouses, and perfectly ordered blocks of buildings and infrastructure. Ashgabat reminded me of the game SimCity – an idealized metropolis that could only be possible when one person controls everything and has a nearly inexhaustible stream of cash and resources. Turkmenistan is sparsely populated, and dominated by uninhabitable desert, but saturated in natural gas. The government dominates the economy, using the natural resource wealth to build, demolish, and rebuild government buildings at an astonishing pace. Many residential areas are still very post-Soviet in appearance, similar to what can be seen in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. However, the central streets are filled with new apartment buildings (built in large part as subsidized housing for government workers). There also gleaming new shops, hospitals, and, most strikingly, government ministries and monuments. The people as well are very different from those in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – not only in appearance, but also in how they react to strangers – with much more surprise and reserve. The country doesn’t get many visitors – but it is an amazing sight to see.
At each stop, we had central point of contact and an English-speaking guide to lead us on tours. Most stops included home stays (except in Turkmenistan, where home stays were possible). Most of the days had full itineraries in the morning and afternoons – with the evenings generally free. The result was an informative but not rushed experience that still allowed for some free time and independent exploration.
Unfortunately, I had business (and my young children) in Moscow and had to leave the trip at this point. The students headed off to a last stop for guided tours in Uzbekistan before returning to their studies in Kyrgyzstan. The next time I check up on our programs in Bishkek – which may be soon at the rate they are growing – perhaps I’ll start with arrival in Uzbekistan and continue to Bishkek.
Although I’d studied the region for many years – actually being on the ground and seeing what people see in those countries everyday gives much greater insight to how these countries actually operate – what the mood on the ground is, how the people live, what challenges are actually faced, how severe those challenges are, and what solutions are being attempted to solve them.
Bishkek is definitely an excellent destination for learning Russian, but also an excellent base for studying the wider region of Central Asia, an important but also often overlooked part of the geopolitical puzzle. Our partners at London School are working well with the increased numbers and continue to run dynamic and effective programs. Having been to Central Asia and London School once, you’ll want to return to learn and experience more.