What I Learned From The Incredible Young Women Of Kyrgyzstan

What I Learned From The Incredible Young Women Of Kyrgyzstan

From my personal journal.

“Today I went bowling with Aidana and Begi. They were both quite bad at it, especially Aidana, whose best single frame came when she faced away from the lane and bowled the ball through her legs. And as it rolled towards the 10 pins below a giant wall of LCD monitors flashing the latest pop music videos from America, I forgot for a second that I was in Kyrgyzstan. And I forgot for another second that these two were the same girls who just a week ago were strangers to me running around in red and white volunteer jackets on the open fields of the World Nomad Games. There were no horses or sheep around now. No falcons or whizzing arrows fired by horseback riders dressed in clothes worn long ago. Now, in this bowling alley, we could have been anywhere in the world. And these girls could very well have been my friends from home. America. Americans. But they are not. They are girls still living and striving to succeed in Kyrgyzstan with all the odds stacked against them. Put them anywhere in the world, and they would be killing it. And that’s the saddest part of being here for me.”

Following the World Nomad Games, I shared my experienced trying to capture Kyrgyzstan through the lens of the games on 35mm film. It was a very fulfilling exercise for me to go back to analog photography while finding the subjects to most aptly represent such a unique event.

I was very happy with the photographs but, ultimately, they Games amounted to a much smaller part of my personal experience in Kyrgyzstan. My real story and the one I’ve been wanting to share for so long begins and ends with the incredibly admirable young women who volunteered at the World Nomad Games and the lessons I learned from them.


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Kyrgyzstan and The Land Of Desert Dwelling Goat Herders

Before heading to the games, I thought of Kyrgyzstan to be a land of desert dwelling nomads still living in the past tending to goats and cows. Much of that perception was owed to the photographs I’d seen from past World Nomad Games, an event that put Kyrgyzstan on the radar for much of the world. From these images, I recall one of a woman shooting a bow and arrow using her legs while balancing in a hand stand position. I also recall the image of a man in woven pants, a fur coat and a funny looking hat, and another still of a man on fire riding on a horse. Nothing in the background of the photographs suggested anything modern. To the uninformed, one could easily believe that the people of Kyrgyzstan look and live this way…today.

Kyrgyzstan Er Ernish Horseback Wrestling

And despite all my travels, I still arrived so misinformed because there really isn’t so much about Kyrgyzstan that is common knowledge around the world. I blame some of that on photographers and writers like myself. I believe those privileged to travel, to observe, and to experience should also have some responsibility to share and to show it all in some unadulterated version.

Would You Like Some Tea?

I arrived into Kyrgyzstan at about 4:50 am in the morning and was immediately pulled out of the line and cleared through customs as a member of the foreign media covering the Games. With this level of efficiency, I exited into the waiting area expecting someone to hold up a sign with my name. To my slight embarrassment, and perhaps because I let my ego jump ahead of itself, no one was waiting for me. Trying not to look the part of the fool, I did another casual scan of all the name people holding the name cards and still found nothing.

When my data kicked in, I reluctantly dialed one of my contacts (I never want to call anyone at 5 am). After a few rings, she picked up and apologetically assured me that one of her colleagues would find me shortly. And surely enough, two girls dressed in red and white jumpsuits appeared like bunny rabbits and enthusiastically introduced themselves to me with names I could not repeat. Along with smiles that were way too big for 5 am, they brought me to another area of the airport and handed me off to another volunteer, whose name I had never heard before, but sounded suspiciously like the other two.

This Aidana (not to be confused with the Aidinas, Aidais, or Aiperis that I would meet later), told me she was going to be my escort to Issyk-kul where the Games would be held. The wear and tear of my 24 hour transit from Los Angeles to Kyrgyzstan immediately faded with the warm smile and enthusiasm of this volunteer. She apologized for her perfectly understandable English and offered me coffee. Having just had two cups before landing, I declined.

I got the sense that she was not quite sure what to do with me yet when she offered me coffee or tea for a second time only a few minutes later. This time I gladly accepted. But no sooner than bringing the cup to my mouth did she tell me that we were ready to leave. I chuckled, put the tea down and followed her. That’s how I met Aidana.

Have You Even Slept?

When I arrived to the hotel complex at Bor-Bor in Issyk-kul, two young woman came to greet me. One introduced herself as Jyldyz, but said it would be easier to just call her ‘star’, since that’s what her name translates to in Kyrgyz (you see, it’s not just me that realizes these Kyrgyz names are hard to remember at first). The other was Alina (finally an easy name). Alina was the person I called at 5 am earlier than morning, so I apologized for waking her up. She laughed and told me it was not a problem since she had been up all night prepping for some of the early arrivals. It was the same for Jyldyz.

“How many hours did you sleep?” would be the first question I’d ask them each morning when they greeted me brightly, but with just a droop in their eyes that hinted at only a couple of hours of sleep. This was ridiculous, but I could imagine the logistic nightmare for these two media organizers to coordinate for the 500 journalists that would descend up the Games over the next week.

Are You On Instagram?

The scene following the Opening Ceremonies reminded me of elementary school when all the kids stood around in the yard waiting to be directed somewhere. Like these kids, all the journalists, athletes, and volunteers sort of moved in their own way, not quite sure where to go or what to do next, but never staying in one place. Imagine trying to find and corral 500 journalists to ensure they get on the right bus back to their hotels safely. Not the easiest job and I could see that some of the volunteers were a little flustered standing in the freezing cold.

When we were finally on a bus back to the hotel, one of the girls asked where I was from and what my job was. When I told her I was a travel photographer, she asked how many countries I had been to. When I said 70, I saw a look on her face of completely disbelief.

“Are you on Instagram?”

For the next 20 minutes, she revealed some of her many dream travel destinations and I told her, with a bit of guilt, that I had been to all those places. She confidently retorted that I had a head start and she was going to catch up to me. This was how I met Begaiym.

I Want To Find A Banana

By now, I had gotten used to some of the names and faces of the volunteers and quite enjoyed seeing them flutter energetically around in pairs and small groups, always with their red jackets on and always eager to help. I had taken an especial fondness to Aidana, who always made sure I knew where I was going and asked if I slept well, even when I could see that she didn’t.

At the Kyrchyn Village venue, I ran into her yet again and she asked if I wanted to see the village closing ceremony. The truth was, by now, I was a little tired of all the horsemanship and shows, but I also didn’t want to show any disrespect either. I hesitantly turned the question back on her and asked if she wanted to see the show. I could see her debating what to say, but to my relief and surprise, she laughed and said no.

“So what do you want to do?”

Once again, to my surprise, she responded with something completely unexpected, but wholly reasonable.

“I want to find a banana.”

And so for the next few hours, we walked around the village searching in vain for banana and talked about everything and nothing. I asked about everything Kyrgyz and of family values, stereotypes and even the types of music she listened. We talked about her plans, what Kyrgyz people did for fun (besides hunting with falcons) and if she wanted to get a tattoo (the answer was yes). And we debated on what is considered ‘normal’ in Kyrgyzstan across a spectrum of topics.

In this span of time, I learned so much more about Kyrgyzstan than anything the World Nomad Games could teach me. My notion of this country was completely challenged and changed because I was having a real conversation with a real person from Kyrgyzstan and not just reading about it and looking at photos of nomadic archers firing arrows from a contorted position. Aidana assured me she could not do this, but she knew the lyrics to Drake’s “In My Feelings”.

‘Kiki, do you love me? Are you riding?’

If You Put These Girls Anywhere Else In The World…

During the week, the story I wanted to write shifted almost completely from the World Nomad Games to  the media volunteers themselves. The more I spoke with these incredible young women, the more impressed I became by them.

Each had a story and I was sad that I simply did not have the time to hear each and everyone’s.

On our last afternoon in Kyrchyn, I joined in on some traditional games with a group of them when they finally had a short break to walk around the village without their official volunteer attire on. In that moment, it was much easier to see that they were just like normal girls I’d encounter anywhere else in the world. Some of them even reminded me of my younger cousins back at home. They were sarcastic, joked with one another, and threw down some impressive dance moves when a country band visiting from the US started playing ‘Jolene’.

The only difference was perhaps that they were even more impressive than many of the people I meet on my travels. Most of them spoke several languages, were studying at the best universities in Kyrgyzstan and volunteered at events like the World Nomad Games on a regular basis to meet people from around the world and to practice their English. Quite a few have even traveled out of Kyrgyzstan, which was not so common in the country.

They were intelligent, ambitious, hardworking, and above all, curious. I got the sense that many of them wanted more than what Kyrgyzstan had to offer and I believed that if these girls had the opportunities more readily offered in other parts of the world, they would undoubtedly find success in their personal and professional lives.

Running On Fumes For A Chance At Hope

Halfway through the week, I began to feel the drain from all the hours traveling to and from Kyrchyn village and walking around in the sun all day. We usually started pretty early in the morning with breakfast somewhere around 7 am and returned in time for dinner anywhere between 7 and 10 pm. There were nights with an additional cultural performance at another venue going even later in the evening. In an effort to have enough energy for the next day, I often skipped some of these later events.

The volunteers themselves stayed at a hotel about 40 minutes away from the media hotels. This meant they woke up, prepared for a whole day away, ate breakfast, got briefed on their assignments, and made the 40 minute journey to us BEFORE our breakfast even started. Their days often started at 5 am.

When our day ended at dinner, some of them would still need to go to the night events and take the journalists back to their hotels before making that same 40 minute ride back to their own hotel. It was not uncommon for them to have dinner between midnight and 2 am, before getting a couple hours of sleep and starting all over again.

And while the World Nomad Games went pretty smoothly, it was not always the case with getting the media to where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go. While I experienced this frustration at times, not knowing exactly when a bus will come or leave, I knew that the volunteers themselves did not have any more information at the time than we did. And yet, they often just stayed calm and accepted the tongue lashing some of the media would direct at them, and responded with profuse apologies for something they had no control over. That level of self-interest and disconnect from some of the journalists left a really bad taste in my mouth.

And even more of this burden fell on Jyldyz and Alina, who at 23 and 24 had all the responsibilities of coordinating 500 journalists and 50 volunteers, and walked around with the presence and experience of two much older women. Whenever I saw Jyldyz, she was being hounded by any number of journalists asking an endless number of questions. I overheard some of their ‘requests’ and couldn’t help but roll my eyes, while she kept a composed smile on her face and would find any ways to accommodate.

Alina, who hardly had a minute to even converse, was constantly on the phone responding to text after text and putting out fires that no one seemed to know about. I’m not sure how many miles she put in over the week, but I found her walking with a limp near the end and hardly able to stand. As it turns out, Alina only slept 10-15 minutes at a time and got a solid 2 hours of sleep only on the last day of the Games.

While, Alina and Jyldyz worked the World, the other girls were all unpaid volunteers. When I asked, incredulously why they signed up for this, they all had similar answers.

It was a really good opportunity in Kyrgyzstan.

And they were right. I’d eventually learn that there are few good opportunities for young people in Kyrgyzstan and any grand ambitions is often dismissed by the people around them, even their own family members. To be selected to represent Kyrgyzstan in front of an international contingent of journalists meant they were, effectively, the best amongst their peers.

And yet, ‘head in the clouds’ is far too common a refrain that they’ve heard, even from those closest to them. Ambition isn’t always encouraged and dreams are often dismissed as reaching beyond their grasp.

When the Games came to an end, I knew the direction of my story in Kyrgyzstan would continue with some of these girls and I’d be willing to delay my personal travels around the country to do find it. It didn’t take any convincing on my end when they asked me to join them on the volunteers bus back to the capital city of Bishkek. They wanted to show me the city, and I wanted to see their real lives.

My Mother Invites You To Have Lunch At Our Home

Between the stories of their lives and dreams, the echos of the obstacles and hardship they face made my heart heavy. But seeing how they confronted adversity with the composure of someone who has lived a much longer life, resonated with me in a deep way.

By the time Begaiym, or Begi as I know her, invited me to have lunch at her home, we had already grown closer as friends. The second oldest of her siblings, she is her best chance and theirs at a better future. After the Games, she was preparing to leave to study in Turkey on a full scholarship.

It was the next step in her plan to eventually get to Europe or the United States of America. And she had been planning this, mostly on her own, since she was 13. Begi’s confidence was what struck me the most when I first met her and I was only just beginning to learn how unwavering her determination was, to achieve her dreams.

The story was not unfamiliar.

Young Kyrgyz Girl Plays With Her Sister

I had heard it before in other parts of the world. Young women finish high school and are encouraged to get married. Their focus would now be to care for the their husband’s household and to be seen as hardworking, useful, and obedient. Anything less could bring shame back to their own family. Begi didn’t care for anything of this, and neither did her mother, who fully supported her in whatever path she wanted to pursue.

I knew before arriving to Begi’s home that she had younger twin sisters, one of whom was afflicted with cerebral palsy, rendering her mostly immobile and without control of most muscle functions. Her care is shared between Begi, her mother and sisters. When I finally met Dariya and saw how much she was loved by Begi, everything else about her drive and focus made sense. She had no other options. Their family had made it this far, but care for her sister would only get harder and more expensive as she grew older. Time was not on their family’s side and she knew that she had to find a future outside of Kyrgyzstan to give them a chance a better future.

While enjoying a delicious home cooked Kyrgyz meal, I listened while Begi embarrassingly translated her mom’s effusive praise for her. I smiled and I told her I understood. She is special and has a lot of good inside her. She is surprisingly mature, yet not too jaded by all the hardship she has faced and knows she will face.

Just after lunch, Begi finally received the email she had been nervously waiting for. The one telling her when she would be flying to Turkey to begin her studies. It would be exactly one week from today. There was so much joy in the room that it felt like I was receiving this good news for myself.

“I Hate People Too”

And still, the more I talked with these girls, the more I grew frustrated. When they touched on topics like bride kidnapping, a still common enough practice called ala kachuu, it was done with an almost too casual tone. I could catch a hint of resignation in their voices, that while a practice like kidnapping a girl and forcing her into marriage that same day is illegal by law, it still happens. Prosecution or punishment is rare, especially in the villages further away from big cities. There, girls who refuse these “marriages”, face shame and dishonor in the eyes of their community, and even their families. The result is often that she submits and stays because she has no options for future marriages.

To someone outside of this type of world, the whole thing seems farcically senseless. And yet it still happens. I could feel their resentment that things are still the way they are.

Over the week, I would pass my time trying out different restaurants and activities with Aidana. We went bowling, to the amusement park, ate at a replica America diner, drove go-carts, and even did some rock climbing. Almost everything we did was a new experience for her, but she took to it like a natural. She was curious about everything and if we had more time, I’m sure she would have said yes to any adventure we came up with.

I could see then that Kyrgyzstan would never be enough for her. She deserved and belonged to the world. How many new flavors are out there to excite her taste buds like trying tom yum soup or a quesadilla for the first time that week? How many adventures would wait for her to overcome like she did on the vertigo inducing ropes course I talked her into doing? How many words in different languages would she try to learn like she did practicing her French with me over some Lagman noodles?

I delighted her in randomness, like when she switches into a comedically Russian accent while speaking in English or the time she told me that “windy” is her favorite type of weather. She never stopped smiling and laughing and it was contagious. And beneath all that effervescence was the soul of a rebel. She was the type of girl that would do what she wants, when she wants.

Even if she didn’t tell me, I would have guessed that the social and cultural restrictions of Kyrgyzstan was something that frustrated her. In a crowd, I half-jokingly told her that I hate people. I smiled when she said she hated people too. And we both knew what the other meant.

She was different. And to be aware of that is hard when most of the people around you are content to be as they are. And more so when family members implore her to try to be more like a “normal” Kyrgyz girl. I could only begin to understand her frustration, even though she hardly let it show.

And yet over time, it did slip out. Sometimes it was anger. Sometimes it was indifference. Sometimes it was resignation. The latter came out on days when she felt like the path to somewhere else, anywhere else, was fraught with obstacles and accompanied by words of discouragement from those around her.

She hasn’t given up yet, but I wonder how much is left in her reserves to push against the pressure of the world around her.

Staying To Fight The Good Fight

If I had it my way, I’d see these girls somewhere else out in the world, not having to face some of the cultural and socioeconomic challenges of Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. But that would be one way of just sweeping the problem under the rug. There are those, like Cholponai, another one of the volunteers I got to know well, who would be content with staying and making things better from the inside. Unlike Begi and Aidana, Cholpa wants to leave, but only to see more of the world for a short while, before returning home.

With Cholpa, we could talk for hours on countless subjects and I often forgot that she was only 22 and not someone my own age. She was extremely intelligent with the best English of anyone I met during this time. She too spoke multiple languages and was just as curious as I was about learning. I bought her a ukulele, and she was already taught herself how to play a few songs by the end of the week. This did not surprise me at all.

I knew better than to challenge her own thoughts on the subject of finding life outside of Kyrgyzstan. After the Nomad Games, Cholpa was applying for jobs and would relay how her interviews went. From my point of view, she was more than qualified to do these jobs, and yet being a woman and not having any work experience yet meant she almost always did not get the offer. It was frustrating for me to hear this, but her hope and optimism remains intact.

She agreed with my frustration on most things we talked about, but she also played devil’s advocate and painted a different picture to broaden my perspective. Where Begaiym and Aidana met some push back from some of their family members, she told me of how progressive her own family was, especially her father, with whom she could talk to about anything. It was this love and support she receives from them that compels her to choose to stay in Kyrgyzstan. This lightened some of the heaviness that I had been feeling.

Cholpa wants to stay in Kyrgyzstan not just for her family, but also because she wants to help the next generation of Kyrgyzstan be better educated. When I last spoke with her, she was applying for a teaching position.

Saying Goodbye To Kyrgyzstan

I carry so many good memories from my time in Kyrgyzstan, but my most treasured experience happened without any plans. I came back to Bishkek early from my travels to say goodbye to Begi before she left for Turkey. Despite having a laundry list of things left to do and not enough time to do it, she still found the time for me on her last day.

When father had to go somewhere leaving her disabled sister alone, she did not hesitate at all to change our plans. Leaving her sister alone was not option for her, so we decided to hang out at her home instead.

When we got to her house, she hugged her sister like she hadn’t seen her for days and changed into her pajamas. There was no need to keep up unnecessary appearances. After she cooked lunch, she carried her sister over to the kitchen table and held her over her lap to feed her. It took the better part of an hour, but she was just smiling, talking and joking with me and her sister the entire time. There was no guard to keep up either and I was humbled that she felt so comfortable around to let me into her life in this way. There was so much love in that small room. It was, in all my travels, one of my favorite experience with a local.

Kyrgyz Girl Sits With Her Disabled Sister

Lessons From Kyrgyzstan

What stuck with me the most was that instead of seeing her sister’s disability as a burden on the family, she sees it as a blessing. Understanding the struggle that her sister faces, and how difficult it is for her to do some of the most basic things, gives their whole family a deeper appreciation and gratitude for what they do have. I believe every word.

Still, despite all the wonderful memories, I walked around during my last week in Kyrgyzstan with a heavy heart. I wondered what I could do for these girls that I now see as friends.

I eventually left Kyrgyzstan after spending a month there, but not before inviting the volunteers out for a farewell dinner. There, I wanted to leave them with a few more words of encouragement. I wanted them to know that they deserved so much more than the lot they were given and I believed that many of them, despite the odds, will find success beyond expectations. I also wanted them to try the amazing Korean fried chicken at my favorite restaurant in Bishkek.

I could see what my words meant to these girls, but it was their turnout in numbers and their response that left me nearly in tears just days before my departure. Much like their coordinated efforts during the World Nomad Games, they were able to put together a photo scrapbook on the fly at the restaurant right under my nose from photos they each had of our time together. It was incredibly touching and thoughtful.

Over the course of a month, it was their openness to share their hopes, dreams, fears, and failures that touched me most. I came away learning so much about a country that I had never really heard of prior. And though I can’t say that I liked much of what I saw from the way things were, I was happy to know that there was a generation of people like these girls that will surely challenge the conventions of Kyrgyzstan and other places like it in this lifetime.

Post Kyrgzystan Updates

Kyrgyzstan affected me more than most other countries I’ve traveled to because I let myself be a part of the lives of the locals I met. Unlike other places where I’ve observed oppression and hardship, Kyrgyzstan had faces that I became attached to facing these challenges. I simply couldn’t just forget about it like I’ve done with other places I’ve seen. To that end, I still keep in touch with some of my Kyrgyz friends.

Jyldyz and Alina have gone on to new jobs and business ventures drawing from their experiences at their previous jobs and the leadership position at the World Nomad Games.

Cholpa is defending her thesis and teaches English to elementary students at a local school.

Aidana is studying and still constantly looking for opportunities to get abroad on her own, ignoring the negativity around her.

Begi is studying in Turkey, and finding every chance to get to a university in Europe or America. She dreams of finding herself surrounded by the lights in Time Square.

I still stories from many of the other volunteers on Instagram and they never cease to amaze with the things they are accomplishing and the experiences they are creating for themselves.

I have no doubt that they will do everything they can to achieve their dreams.

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