Kyrgyzstan is a little-known country in central Asia, which a few people may know from its 2005 Tulip Revolution. For the rest of us, including those who study Russian, we generally lob it in with the other ‘stan’ countries that constitute the central Asian states of the former Soviet Union. The people are exceptionally hospitable, especially those in the village of Alchalu (a small village 40 minutes south of Tokmok, on the Kazakh border) where I spent the majority of my summer last year with a friend.
I ended up in Kyrgyzstan because I wanted to spend my summer speaking Russian, which was made possible by working for the charity Erayim as an English teacher. After getting in contact with them, I was asked to find someone to go with. The natural choice was my good friend Lewis, who needed nothing more than a gentle prod to be corralled into coming along. But it wasn’t until we were being bundled into a car without being told where we were going that we realised how little we knew about what we were doing and where we were.
Yet it wasn’t frightening, so much as it was just part of the adventure. We eventually arrived in Alchalu, a small village about two hours away from Bishkek. We each lived with a local family who treated us as family members from the first moment they saw us. Each morning our respective apas (Kyrgyz for ‘mum’) would be waiting for us with fresh fruit and breakfast to send us on our way. It should be noted that all Kyrgyz people are determined to feed you enormous quantities of food whenever you enter their house. They will not take “No” or a “I’m full” as an answer. So much so that Lewis’ spa would ask us if we wanted tea, only then to bring in a huge platter of plot; delicious, spicy plot, craftily supplied.
Before arriving we were told that all of the kids would speak some Russian and know at least the English alphabet. Yet when we were greeted by the throngs of children waiting for us at our school, it soon became clear that neither of these were true.
Teaching is a difficult skill even when it’s in your native tongue. But when your students speak neither your mother tongue nor second language, things become even more difficult. Teaching a class of 30 under fives in such circumstances, therefore, was daunting. But crucially, never overwhelming. This was mainly thanks to the sheer enthusiasm that was shown by all our students. We quickly overcame the language married by employing our superior charade skills to mimic animals, verbs, and adjectives.
Our classes lasted an hour, covering topics ranging form learning the alphabet, the monarchs of Britain, how to play cricket and songs such as We Will Rock You and Rule Britannia. The absolute essentials. Older students travelled from other villages, determined to take advantage of Erayim’s work and to practice their English with us, often asking insightful questions like why we say businesswoman instead of businesswife.
We were there only a month, but in that month our youngest kids went from not understanding a word of English to being able to introduce themselves and answer a variety of basic questions. The warmth of the people in Alchalu was always visible, especially when we were heckled with shouts of “Hello” whenever we walked through the village or were passed by a car.
When we weren’t teaching, Lewis and I were busing refining skills that every modern man needs, such as cow herding. My apa told me I was a natural herder (which now takes pride of place on my CV, thank you very much). During our free weekends we were able to explore the local area, visiting the Tokmok bazaar, the Burana Tower, the many wonders of Bishkek and Lake Issyk Kul. Issyk Kul in particular was an absolute highlight. The charity organised for us to stay in a Yurt in a small camp on the lake, the absolute epitome of a Kyrgyz summer. Although getting there involved having to push-start the car we were traveling in on a mountain motorway (twice) and bribing the police, the Kyrgyz vodka and shashlik ultimately made it a memorable weekend.
The entire month was surreal, especially whenever I reflect on some of the stories it has provided me. But it never felt false; we were genuinely accepted into the community and our families. Each story that came out of my time there was somewhat bizarre, but the main thing Lewis and I took away from the experience was the sense that we had had a completely unique experience to see all aspects of life in the wonderful Kyrgyzstan.