17 Dec 2017
Reading time ~8 minutes
That’s right folks. This past week I finally Blue Skidoo’d my way out of Southeast Aisa and dove headfirst into the post-Soviet depths of the central Asia, in all of its cragginess, smoky air, icy paths, and infinite supply of gray and tan low-rise buildings. So far, no regrets. Honest, the massive change in scenery between here and where I just was in the island of Penang, Malaysia has served as the refresher that I was really in need of on my Watson journey. My past week in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, has reignited the magic, mystery, and sense of adventure that pervaded my first couple of Watson months. By the tail end of my time spent in highly urbanized, relatively developed, and English speaking areas of Malaysia such as Kuala Lumpur and Penang, I couldn’t help but feel oddly less present and less excited about my travels on a whole. My waning spirit was also partially due to being overly caught up in job search considerations for my next year in the United States. My move to Central Asia coincided with a decidedly positive mentality shift on my own part to be accepting of whatever is to come for my next year and years to come. Three cheers for contentment. Anyhow, my first week in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t exactly very Watson project heavy - this past week was the first in a long time in which I did not conduct a single interview. For the most part, I saw some basic sights with newly made friends, expanded my network here in Central Asia, and attended a few musical happenings in the city. Of course, my Watson project topic lingers in both my conscious and subconscious minds everywhere I go and whatever I do. All of this is to say that this post will be on the lighter side - mostly an assortment of impressions of the places I went, things I read, and conversations had during my past week in Bishkek.
In nearly every city I’ve been to on my travels thus far, I’ve had to purchase new clothing either to accommodate specific occasions or differences in climate between the countries I’ve visited. Being the ignoramus that I’m often wont to be, the minimal clothing that I packed for my Watson back in August 2017 was fit for either a safari style adventure or a basketball game. Nothing more, nothing less. I’d never been very good and wise at dressing and grooming myself in the past, but the Watson’s made brutally clear to me the extent of my ineptitude in this regard. I’ve had to learn the hard way that wearing a t-shirt to a presentation, formal wear to a bar, and shorts in Central Asia in winter are all massively sub-optimal choices of dress. Having been there and done it all, I now feel relatively confident in my ability to tackle most all events and scenarios that my Watson may fling at me in style, because I now more or less have a single outfit for the the least and most formal of occasions and everything in between. This paragraph has turned out to be an extremely random aside, but my intention behind raising this topic was to say that I went shopping for an entire winter outfit at the awesome Osh Bazaar in Bishkek because I apparently was not aware that I had planned to come to Central Asia while the average temperature here was below freezing.
Aside satisfying my shopping bug for a day, I was given a tour of Bishkek by a couple of locals with whom I’d been connected to through a mutual friend from Kyrgyzstan whom I’d met back in central Java. Yeah, I know, weird. At any rate, I had the chance to see a variety of artwork at the Gapar Aitiev National Fine Arts Museum, The Frunze Memorial House, and the open-air art gallery at Dubovy Park.
Before setting foot in Bishkek, I knew that I wanted to check out local productions of classical music, opera, ballet, and the like. Things thus worked out quite swimmingly when I accidentally entered the Kyrgyz National State Opera and Ballet Theatre in Bishkek, just in time to purchase tickets for a showing of The Nutcracker, which, as always, felt just right during this holiday season.
A couple of days after seeing The Nutcracker, I revisited the Kyrgyz state opera for a concert dedicated to the music of Muslim Magomayev, the “Soviet Sinatra” from Azerbaijan known for making a mark as a baritone operatic pop singer. This show ended up being one of the more disorienting shows I’d ever attended at a concert hall. The event featured a main vocalist who doubled as the emcee for the night. Between singing a couple of songs at a time, the emcee invited other guest artists on stage to do solos, duets with him, or sing in a chorus. I vibed especially so with some of the guest artists who sang Magomayev’s song’s lieder style, i.e. just piano and slightly amplified voice. Things devolved for me when the emcee and other artists began singing with full-fledged amplification to cheesy disco backing tracks. I ended up leaving the concert early when I realized that the emcee and main vocalist for the event was actually lip-syncing some if not most of his songs. Perhaps the event was meant to feature all kinds of genres of music that Magomayev dabbled in. Perhaps the emcee explained this during his introduction to the concert and during his banter between songs, but I was at a loss because the event was entirely in Russian.
Attending open mic nights is a nearly foolproof way of meeting potential informants for my Watson project, so I’ve been keen on doing so whenever I’m in a new locale. Judging from its unassuming name, one would not expect the restaurant/bar Chicken Star to be one of Bishkek’s most happening open mic night venues. My attendance of Chicken Star’s “all night open mic” this past Saturday proved otherwise. I went on stage to sing a classic Bengali number by Kazi Nazrul Islam, followed by a bunch of locals who mostly performed American pop/rock covers in addition to local music in Russian and Kyrgyz. Even though most of the time I’m not out and about to formally interview people, I usually can’t resist but bring religion into my conversations with just about anyone I meet. In broaching the topic with locals here in Bishkek, I had the first Muslim majority country local tell me unapologetically that they were atheist. This confession was followed by statements by others at varying points in time along the following lines, “Actually, no Krygyz people ar Muslim”, “Even though they may say they’re Muslim, they’re actually all closet atheists”, or “My family isn’t really, trully, actually Muslim - like they don’t pray 5 times a day, you know?” Even during conversations with the most liberal, secular, and humanist of Muslims and people in general back in Indonesia and Malaysia, “A word” almost never popped up. Apparently, in Central Asia, especially among Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, commitments to religion are rather flaccid, and it seems that the majority of Muslims are only Muslim nominally or culturally. As one might imagine, decades of Soviet rule during which religion was officially outlawed has a lot to do with the current impasse of Islam in Kyrgyzstan. Despite relatively low levels of religiosity, spiritual activity has been on the rise in Kyrgyzstan and even more so in neighboring Uzbekistan over the past several decades in a similar vein to Islamisation currents in other Muslim majority countries particularly due increasing numbers of students graduating from seminaries in Saudi Arabia or Saudi money finding its way into all sorts of organizations, institutions, and initiatives the world over. Without belaboring the topic much further (CHECK), its fascinating how this region has gone from no Islam and only native tradition and spirituality to a healthy dosage of Islam alongside native traditions to almost no Islam and a abundance of Russian language and culture to a modest Islamic resurgence alongside increasing influence of American culture and lucrativeness of the English language in the current context.
Tasty Treats in Bishkek
This week’s post goes out to all you foodies in this blog’s readership - really 1st class stuff if I may say so myself.