Sunday, February 6, 2011


My third/fourth/fifth days in Bishkek were the prettiest. A few centimeters of fresh snow fell, covering the patchy snow-soot solution that been on the ground when I arrived. The sky turned blue and the mountains hung clear and sharp above the city. Unfortunately I was inside most of those days, translating recommendations for the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which is to say that I was translating phrases like "create a proposal for the creation of proposals to propose changes to draft law 302.4 on the implementation of the CEDAW convention within the framework of the current proposal, including proposals connected to the organization of processes to ensure the provision of proposals to interested parties mentioned under the current proposal."

I went out running in the afternoons for fresh air, away from the mountains, towards Kazakhstan. By this time the horizon would be going slightly pink. Clouds of smoke from the Bishkek thermo-electric factory hung in the air, and mingled with the cozier puffs rising out of cottage chimneys. I felt like I was jogging in a smoky bar. I coughed up mucus with black specks; I stopped to watch the white herons in the icy creek and wondered how they stayed white.

As I was jogging home one of these days, a pair of ratty terriers jumped out from behind a gate, hurled themselves onto my calves, and bit me. I put on my best schoolteacher face and shouted at them very sternly, which, shockingly, did nothing other than attract a few confused stares. Then I turned and ran as fast as I could. Now I give that gate a wide berth when I run. Dog-human relations- one of VB's favorite topics- is on my mind rather often here. To my hypothetical Western visitor-adversary, dog-human relations here would be a testament to the inhumanity of post-Soviet culture. He would be horrified at the number of street dogs here. (Of course, it wouldn't be clear whether he was horrified by their plight, or horrified that he had to look at them- it never is.) He would have been horrified that D reproached me for not beating my terrier assailants with a stick. But check it out- while it's more or less acceptable to beat a dog here, it's also not uncommon for a hungry pensioner to give a good portion of her scant food supplies to a stray dog. (I say "her" not because women are nicer, but because they stand a better chance of making that far.) I get mad at hypothetical Westerner-adversary at this point. And then I naturally get mad at myself for getting mad about an exchange that, while it may resemble ones I've had, is still imaginary.

The first time I went running, I ended up on a fairly busy part of Jibek-Jolu. I got a few snowballs thrown at me by little boys, and a lot of "aren't you cold?"s. In most cases "aren't you cold" was delivered by a slightly slimy young man, but in one case it was a woman with her child, who stopped and waited until I passed in order to instruct me to wear a hat. I've always felt pretty warmly towards this sort of concern from strangers in this part of the world, but I do find myself asking to what degree the "aren't you cold?" of this woman, the "aren't you cold" of the sleazy guys, and the snowballs are all driven by a similar sentiment: You're upsetting the social order, and I'm not convinced you deserve my respect. (In a sideways way, this fits into the same category as the question of where the line is between the visitor's concern for the street dogs, and his sense that their mere visibility impinges on his quality of life. I say this in earnest; not as a a pathetic attempt to liken my social standing to that of a street dog.)

After those cold, clear days, we had a meltdown where it went up to +18 C. Every day since has been well above or just below freezing. Maybe I'm projecting, but no one seems to be enjoying the unseasonable warmth and the grime it brings with it. (Actually, it's very probable I'm engaging in some serious projection, given that the country's heating grid couldn't handle the cold weather last year and people froze. But that's a minor detail.)

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