Sunday, June 6, 2010

Three Hundred Cups of Tea

I am currently undertaking my official interviews in the At-Bashy range. Through my interviews, I am attempting to gain insight into the ways in which glacier retreat is impacting water security, livelihoods, and environmental quality. This research is some of the first research documenting local knowledge and perceptions of glaciers.

My interviews consist of 24 open ended questions about the importance of the glaciers and mountains to their communities. Additionally subjects are asked about long-term visible changes in land and water of their surroundings and the impacts those changes are having on their lives and communities. I am using a local translator to assist me to ensure I have full comprehension of the conversations. Study participants must be life-long resident of the At-Bashy Range and have a livelihood connected to the natural resource base including semi-nomadic herding, high-elevation farming, hunting, guiding or logging.

In May, I conducted 29 interviews, primarily with herders. Many of the subjects’ families have lived in the area for upwards of 300 years. Answers to questions were varied, but the preliminary overview presents some interesting insight. There was unanimous agreement that mountains and glaciers are important to individuals and communities. When asked about the meaning of mountains and glaciers many people chose symbols of life, wealth and Kyrgyz culture. Numerous people described changes in land, water and glaciers over their life while many other people had not observed any changes.

The interviews are giving me deep insight into rural life and culture in Kyrgyzstan. Most interviews have been fascinating and the generous hospitality of people overwhelming. But a few time, certain interviews have been frustrating with contradictory statements or answers I perceive to be superficial.

Next week, I will be returning to At-Bashy with Dr. Sarah Halvorson, an Associate Professor at The University of Montana in the Department of Geography. I am excited to collaborate with her as I continue my work, drinking endless cups of tea, in dozens of homes and yurts, listening to individuals speak about their lives, views and beliefs.

Rural Life

Life in At-Bashy epitomizes rural Kyrgyzstan. At-Bashy is a village of 10,000 residents located just north of the Chinese border within the Naryn Oblast (Kyrgyzstan is divided into 7 political regions called oblasts). The Naryn Oblast is often considered to be the Kyrgyz cultural heartland. True to this generalization is the only mono-ethnic oblast in the country with an ethnic composition that is 99% Kyrgyz and many residents of the province do not speak any Russian.

Agriculture dominates the economy accounting for 40-60% of the oblast’s production and employing over 60% of the population. Over 80% of the oblast population lives in rural areas, with Naryn (40,000 people) being the only town of substantial size. The Naryn Oblast is the poorest oblast in the country with 42.7% people living in poverty. The average income per capital is just 1,465 soms per month ($37 USD). Due to the poor economic conditions, many rural people maintain self-sufficiency through a combination of agriculture practices and animal husbandry, both of which are climate sensitive sectors.

Group of women making felt in Terek Suu, a small village

A horse stands alone outside the animal market

In At-Bashy, I have found a local family to live with while I conduct interviews in surrounding villages and pastures. The family lives in a typical adobe house. There is no running water, but there is a well in the yard- a luxury compared to walking onto the street to collect water like many other families must. The house has electricity, but in the winter is primarily heated through burning of coal. The family sleeps together in one or two rooms depending on how cold it is. Everynight tushooks, thick mats, are laid out on the floor and then put away in the morning.

The family has five girls ranging in age from 1 to 16. Both the mother, Asyl and the father, Nurbek, are from At-Bashy and have many many relatives in the area. Being incorporated into a Kyrgyz family means sacrificing personal space and personal desires. The area of greatest difficulty for me is the local diet. I enjoy many of the traditional dishes, but suffer from the amount of food that is pressured upon me and a continued lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Most meals consist of either potatoes, rice or pasta with lots of fat and a little bit of meat. Bread is ever present. And it is always washed down with tea.

I celebrated my 23rd birthday in At-Bashy. My family and their extended family suprised me with a traditional feast of an entire boiled sheep laid on top of noodles and potatoes. This gastronomical delight is the Kyrgyz national dish known as besh bemak (translates into “five fingers” because it is eaten by hand). As the guest of honor, I fed the eyeballs, the tongue, many large white hunks of mutton rump fat and other indiscernible body parts. In great timing, as I was devouring the thyroid the grandmother asked me in disgust "In America you eat pigs right?.... could ever eat a pig!" I was the only who saw humor in that situation.

My time in At-Bashy in May was cut short when I developed a persistant high fever, deep fatigue and deep cough that forced my retreat to see doctors in Bishkek who speculated over many things ending in "ocious". Pneumonia was finally named the culprit and recovery is slow but underway. Despite my father's concerns, I am quite sure my respiratory distress is unrelated to my recent gastronomical delights.

Locals taking break from planting potatoes

The At-Bashy Market