A galaxy far apart

Bishkek is freezing – midday highs of minus 20 degrees Celsius. Kyrgyzstan also hasn’t been producing enough energy to meet its own electricity and gas needs, nor has it been paying its neighbors on time for imports — meaning that there have been rolling blackouts, gas shut-offs (KG didn’t pay Kazakhstan for gas, so KZ turned off the supply – what a mess), and even the water was shut off in some neighborhoods (I think many of the city’s pipes froze). My neighborhood had gas (but no electricity) throughout, so we managed to stay relatively warm. But in the poorer neighborhoods both gas and electricity were cut and quite a few people died from the cold. Of course in the city center – where the wealthy businesses and individuals are – electricity and gas was untouched.

Crews repairing downed electricity lines in Bishkek.

Crews repairing downed electricity lines in Bishkek.

On a lighter note, I recently learned about a famous national game: “girl chase.” The rules: a girl rides a horse as fast as she can, a guy chases her. If he catches her, she has to let him kiss her cheek. If he doesn’t catch her, they turn around, she chases him, and if she catches him she whips him with a serious, no-joking horse-whip. (To me, this seems like a bad set-up for the guy. But I also kind of like the way they think).

I LOVE this photo, found at the site linked at the end of this post. The guy lost the 1st round of the chase and is running for his hide.

I LOVE this photo, found at the site linked at the end of this post. It looks to me like the man lost the 1st round and is now trying to escape from a whipping by the woman.

My language teacher explained that in the old days, if a guy failed not only did he get whipped – he also couldn’t marry until he won another round. Since the game was only played at major feasts, this might mean years off the marriage market … which I imagine this must have been like a death sentence for young men at that time. My teacher hypothesized that the game was (1) a way for people to learn how to ride and (2) a way for relatively poor couples to mess with the parental approval requirement for marrying [guys had to pay a bride-price and parents would often reject poor suitors. But once a girl was kissed – even if only on the cheek – her value went down. So a girl and a guy could agree on playing, she would let him win, and then it would be harder for the parents to reject him.] Of course I feel like this game may be *slightly* connected to bride-kidnapping, but I didn’t bring this up.

Another intriguing conversation with this teacher: the Kyrgyz phrase for the Milky Way – Саманчынын Жолу (samanchynyn jolu) –  translates to “the Reed Path.” The term arises from the summer harvest, when people pile wheat reeds high into carts. Some of the reeds fall from the carts onto the bumpy dirt roads, are stomped on by the cattle and carts, and ultimately leave behind a trail of white chaff that’s reminiscent of the galaxy in the night sky. I wonder what makes some metaphors stick in a society’s imagination … why do we see the galaxy as milk, and they as wheat?

The sort of cart that wheat falls from, recalling the galaxy.

The sort of cart that wheat falls from, recalling the galaxy.

On a less whimsical, more current note: one of the big news stories here was a prisoners’ hunger strike – they were striking against pre-trial detention conditions (most hadn’t even been told what they’re accused of, much less been found guilty). Some of their demands: socks, underwear, competent defense lawyers. In KG, family members are often expected to provide prisoners with clothing, food, medicine, etc. – if your family is too poor, too far away, or nonexistent, that’s just too bad for you. Local papers reported on the strike about a month ago, but I haven’t been able to find any info on the outcome. I’m tempted to get on a bus and go out to the city where this is happening to find out more, but the roads are for the most part snowed in.

For a bit more info, an article on the end of the prisoners’ protest: http://www.rferl.org/content/kyrgyzstan_hunger_strike_protest_jail_conditions/24465906.html

The source of the Kyz Kuumai (girl chase) photo: http://www.metenkov.narod.ru/gallery/Kyrgyzstan/Pirogov_08.htm

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