(Promoted to the front page by Susanhbu.)

I was at my gf’s apt last night.  TV-news on in the background while dinner is being prepared – I have just logged on to Booman’s.  A next-door neighbor, a woman in her early 60s drops in.  The news is pretty much wall-to-wall Terri Schiavo and we all express outrage at the bizarre legal maneuverings of the parents, Congress and the Bush-brothers.  Anyway, given that that story pretty much pre-empts everything else I ask my gf and the neighbor if they were aware of the Kyrgyz situation.  No and no.  So I explain to the best of my ability, and … MORE below [ed. by Susanbhu]
since I am there with the laptop open on the Tribune, I show them Susanhbu’s picture diary and soj’s last two diaries on Kyrgyzstan.  I also add a bit to the story since I visited Kyrgyzstan back in 1993 (more on that below) and they both appreciate the update.  Nothing on the TV-news though that we observed, which was quite disappointing.

But I also noticed that Susan’s and soj’s diaries received a surprisingly low number of comments.  Given Booman’s focus on “World Diaries” I would have expected that the Tribune-membership had many users with the extra interest for such stories.  So I was wondering why the response was so comparatively low.  Is it because Kyrgyzstan is simply too remote to us?  Or do we know so little about the issues there that we hesitate to comment?  Should we at least recognize the effort made by the diarist with a one-liner of appreciation or a reco?  I’d like to know your opinions on this.

Now to my own experience.  My only visit – so far – was in October of 1993, not yet 2 years after independence.  Part of the central mountainous regions were struck by a severe earthquake in August 1992.  Luckily, the region is sparsely populated, but infrastructure such as public buildings and schools were leveled.  The schools did not close, as the kids had schooling in military-type tents during the subsequent winter.  The winters in the valleys of the Tien Shah (a side arm of the Himalayas) are severe, with consequent health issues for the pupils.  The international community took some interest and a contribution from the Governments of Norway, some add-on funds from Denmark as well as some UN-funding materialized in the spring of 1993 and translated into a project to rebuild two schools in a community in the Toktogul region (capacity for total of 300 pupils in 1st -7th grade).  I had just started in a new post when this project landed on my desk.  As project manager, I had to do the required contracting to actually deliver the schools – according to quake-resistant specifications.  Completion before the new snow of the coming winter (usually mid/late-October).

Fast-forward about 6 months – it’s around 10 October, and my occation to go to Kyrgyzstan is the inauguration of the schools.  International involvement was quite limited and the UNDP Res Rep had made it into a big story.  At the time there were only a handful of embassies that had opened in Bishkek (I recall Turkey, Germany, Russia, USA and China).  The Turkish ambassador had a heart condition and could not go, as the transportation from Bishkek to Toktogul were old USSR military helicopters, non-pressurized and we were flying over the Tien Shah range at close to 20,000 feet. The entourage also included the minister of education and other education officials.  A total of some 40 persons boarded the two rotary-wings.

Two hours flight later, we have flown over the Tien Shah – absolutely spectacular views of the sharp peaks and the deep valleys. Barely a sight of human intervention or even existence.  We are now over a much wider central mountain valley and soon approach the community where the two schools were built.  Again, we are treated to an unusual view.  Down from the surrounding hillsides we see hundreds of people on horseback approaching the village where there are already a huge crowd lined up around a field in front of the two schools.

We circle the village once for another view of this spectacle before landing just a mile off from where everyone is congregated.  Russian-built limos take us there, where the Governor of Toktogul and the local mayor receive us in front of a very friendly, though somewhat undisciplined crowd which by now must count 3-4,000 of which at least a thousand on horseback.  Plaques are uncovered, a quick tour of the facilities (the contractor had done a fantastic job).

Then the local authorities hosted a cultural show in the field in front of the schools.  Song and dance numbers, wrestling – including wrestling from/on horseback, tug-of-war – all considered national sports.

The backdrop could not have been more dramatic; crisp, clear mountain air in October, deep blue skies and a few miles away – the 16,000 feet peaks covered in snow.  But the fun was not over; a banquet lunch was next on the Governor’s agenda.  To take place in several yurts at a different field a few miles away.  A total of 10 yurts, each holding 14-15 persons.  But there is a new development.

It turns out that the Speaker of the Parliament, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Deputy Minister of Defence have arrived unannounced to the village during the show.  They were on an unrelated trip to inspect reconstruction efforts in the region.

The Governor quickly grasps this opportunity.  The new arrivals are promptly invited for the lunch.  There is symbiosis in this – since Kyrgyz TV is actually covering our event the invitation is immediately accepted.  Politicians all over the world crave to be associated with a happy story like these schools.

Off we go in limos again.  The yurts are arranged by rank (level of VIP-ness).  I discreetly stay in the background, but one of the hosts grabs me by the elbow and gently insists that I go to the VIP’est yurt.  He had caught on to the fact that I had been the PM for the project, and this, apparently, accorded me sufficient status.

The yurts look unassuming from the outside, but can be richly decorated on the inside.  Layers of colorful rugs cover the ground as well as the lower walls.  The tablecloths were also colorful, but barely visible due to the countless serving trays full of local foods; horse meat and mutton in many varieties, local fish and fowl.  Fruits and pistachios.  Lots of local and regional wines and ‘champagne’ (all of reasonable or good quality, we were probably getting the very best).  The aperitif was a large mug of fermented mare’s milk, not as bad as many may think and probably what saved us from acute alcohol poisoning as the lunch proceeded.  A series of musicians would come, perform and leave as we stuffed ourselves on this incredible buffet.  We were 14 guests in the yurt – I was clearly the junior in age as well as rank, the others being the senior government and UN officials and the Ambassadors mentioned above.  All male (as am I).

As per tradition, there had to be toasts.  In locally destilled vodka (of great quality).  Not chilled.  Shotglass to be emptied.  Starting at the head of the table, the ‘seniors’ all congratulate each other in their respective speeches – all of them have apparently been absolutely essential for the success of the project’s realization.  Well, well.

We’re 2 hours and 10 toasts into a 3-hour lunch by now.  It’s getting frighteningly close to the end of the table, where I am seated.  The gent next to me – the Dep Minister of Defence (who barely speaks English, me zero Russian) – discreetly, but convincingly makes me aware that tradition demand that all of us at the table must give at least one toast.  Courage my friend – 10 shots down and 3 to go before your turn (my inner voice being very persuasive).  My turn and the hell with it; I get up and proceed to praise the contractor’s team that came in to supervise and the local laborers whether skilled or not, that they hired.  How they had worked long hours during hot July and August and pushed on through September to finish a week ahead of contractual schedule in early October.  I noticed a slight embarassment initially-no one had yet mentioned anyone that had actually done the work.  But the awkwardness soon disappeared and I got a good round of applause at the conclusion.

A few more toasts by the seniors then all – a bit unsteady now – back to the helicopters.

Fast forward to late 1994.  The UNDP Res Rep in Bishkek contacts me back in Copenhagen (where I was based at the time).  He had been back at the schools for a one-year anniversary celebration.  The schools looked as when first opened – no scratches, no grafitti, nothing.  Looked unused.  The RR inquires what is going on.  He is told that the community and the students are extremely proud of the facilities.  Schools of such standard do not exist elsewhere in the country.  Not only are they in full use.  The actually have two full “shifts” of kids (8-1 and 1-6), hence a total of 600 kids benefited including kids from neighboring villages.  The RR was so impressed with the care and motivation in this community that he requested help to find funding for A/V equipment, computers and various educational video programming to further improve these schools.  I was in the fortunate position to be able to secure such funding and a few weeks later, the school had a small LAN installed as well as A/V facilities.

These remote village schools were now better equipped IT-wise than the university in Bishkek (another project was soon to improve the IT-facilities at the university, but that’s a different story).

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