By Natasha Netzorg
Kyrgyzstan is a small but mountainous country, which makes traveling across the country difficult, and all the more impressive that nomads once regularly made this journey. Today, that means to travel from Bishkek to the small town of Batken, I had to hop on a 35-minute flight to Osh and then take a taxi for another 4.5 hours to get to my destination. Once there, I was immersed in a truly Kyrgyz town. Established in 1999, the once-village never encountered Soviet influence, allowing the people to speak only Kyrgyz (with the occasional exception who knew some Russian). Bordering Tajikistan, and close to the Uzbekistan border, Batken has heavy Islamic influences, which meant the call to worship from the mosques calmly woke you in the morning.
Due to the remoteness of the town, American visitors are few and far between, so once there, people were excited to meet an American- there were lots of photos, compliments, and excited faces- I now know how it feels to be a celebrity.
During my short but fulfilling time in Batken, I was given a tour of their history museum and had the privilege to sit down with the rector of Batken State University (right) and discuss studying the English Language and their plans for the university. He expressed his excitement for their new partnerships with the US Embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic, such as the internship which allowed me to visit Batken. The following day we spoke with students studying at the university about our own universities and what it was like to study in the U.S. We also discussed our home states and life in the U.S. for us. After our presentations, we got to chat more with the students (pictured below) and took many group photos and selfies! Following lunch and returning to the university, we ran into a group of students preparing for the celebration of the Kyrgyz Language, who were excited to talk and take (even more) photos with us (below).
We later spoke to students attending the Gimnaziya school and answered their many questions about the U.S. and gave advice for the students who would soon be studying in the United States through the FLEX program. Later we visited the Batken bazaar to purchase their famous dried apricots and even indulged in some fresh dates, which also made an excellent dessert back in the hotel. We enjoyed a dinner of some of the best shashlik I’ve had and experienced a beautiful walk back to the hotel (below), although no picture will ever do it justice. We returned to Bishkek from Osh on Saturday, and although we were leaving Batken, Batken would never leave us.
Most importantly, what struck me the most during my time in Batken was the desire to learn more or to travel to the United States, but the lack of access. Many post-Soviet states have programs that help students access English language courses (Access program) or to study in the US (FLEX program) however, they are not all encompassing and can be difficult for the majority to partake in. Central Asia is one of the most forgotten regions in the post-Soviet sphere. Their history dates far back to the nomadic Kyrgyz people but all that history was only passed down orally from generation to generation. When the Soviets arrived in Kyrgyzstan, they created an infrastructure that big cities such as Bishkek still enjoy, however today, states such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are working to revitalize their own cultures through their Soviet-entwined histories. And while they may not be the Alps, the Tian-Shan Mountains are unforgettable. Every Kyrgyz meal is the type of meal mom made when you were growing up or coming home. The steppes, plains, canyons, rock formations, foothills, lakes, and wild horses spread throughout the country only reminds you to slow down and admire the beauty that’s left in the world.
Tourism is on the rise in Central Asia, especially in places like Kazakhstan, and it’s something I couldn’t be more excited for. Europe has its place and by all means- go see it. But make sure to take the time to learn how to pronounce привет (privyet) and спасибо (spacibo) and go explore Kyrgyzstan too. Share your culture while you’re there and when you go home, tell everyone about Kyrgyzstan and help create awareness, curiosity, and help facilitate a relationship that is long overdue. At the very least, if you’re reading this, go and look at pictures of Kyrgyzstan or read a Wikipedia page on it. If living in Central Asia for only a month has taught me anything, it’s that engaging and diving-in can make a massive impact—so let’s make that happen on our terms instead of waiting for someone else to decide. And if you do make it to Kyrgyzstan, try and take the trip to Batken and say hello to some of the friendliest, most upbeat people you’ll ever meet.
Natasha Netzorg is a senior Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies major. She is spending the fall semester in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.