Kyrgyzstan, Here We Come


One perk academics enjoy is travel. Friends in the economics department at the University of Illinois, for instance, roam the globe for a half-dozen conferences each year with other economists. They go to places such as Paris, Stockholm, Berlin and Jerusalem.

So, this May, I’ll get to do the same thing, only my trip is to Kyrgyzstan.

Yes, Kyrgyzstan, a country I had barely heard of until a couple months ago. Even then, I thought it was the place that Sacha Baron Cohen had parodied in “Borat.” (That was neighboring Kazakhstan, it turned out.)

Another faculty member and I will take a group of eight undergrads to this former Soviet republic for about 10 days. We’ll rove about, looking for yurts and such that the students can photograph for an ongoing multi-year project documenting global poverty. One student will supply the words, reporting while the photographers capture the images. At the end, we’ll put this into a magazine that we’ll produce.

It’s a fascinating undertaking, actually. It turns out that Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s more beautiful spots, with stunning alpine vistas. It’s also a good example of how the Soviets sought to impose their values on an ancient people with very mixed results — some modernization, but sterility in architecture and, it seems, rigidity in thought. Nineteen years after the Soviets were encouraged to leave (as they mostly did) the place in many ways is now reverting to old ways, perhaps including such bizarre practices as bride-kidnapping.

The country is also one of the poorest in the world. This won’t make our visit a posh affair, but should make it exciting and interesting. If journalism were only about Paris, the work of scribes would be mighty boring and unimportant, no? Indeed, if by our work we wind up influencing in some small way public knowledge of the place, we will have done a good job.

We all are likely in coming years to hear more about Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek, the country’s capital and largest city, is home to a U.S. air base that is a chief launching point for our forces in Afghanistan. The base has been controversial, since the Russians aren’t enamored of the U.S. having such an important post in one of their former reaches. But it’s also central to the war effort, which means more U.S. resources are likely to flow into the country over time. This will be worth paying attention to.

I’m very psyched about this trip. The students and my colleague, Bruce Thorson, and I will learn a great deal about the country in coming weeks. We’ll be mapping out our strategy for telling its story. We’ll educate ourselves about its customs, history, geography and current challenges.

Already, we are reaching out to contacts. We just met a delightful exchange student from there who is living in Nebraska, for instance. Over pizza the other night, we talked about the best places for us to go and the customs we should take note of (the women students should not cover their hair to try to fit into the Muslim culture, our new friend said, because that will create false expectations about their religion. And, even though the place is fairly safe, we should all get pepper-spray and avoid roaming about after midnight.)

I expect this trip will broaden our view of the world. In some small way, we will also make a difference in how people here see a place most people don’t know. Paris will just have to wait.

JW

2 Replies to “Kyrgyzstan, Here We Come”

  1. A friend, BW Latin America chief Geri Smith, writes:
    I just wanted to let you know about a book you (and your students) must read before your trip to Kyrgyzstan. You may have heard of it already–It's called A Woman in all the Wrong Places, and it was written by a former journalist, now a prof of journalism at the U of Anchorage, about her year as a Fulbright fellow teaching in the "stans". Fascinating read…you should have an interesting trip! All the best, Geri

  2. Geri,
    Thanks much. Sounds like a good read and something we should make part of our pre-visit studies.
    JW

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