We asked some SRAS graduates to share their open and honest evaluations of their experiences on SRAS Study Abroad in Bishkek. SRAS actively seeks out feedback from students on all programs so that we can continually improve our offerings.
Kathryn Watt (Spring, 2019)
For the last four months I have lived and studied in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and taken part in SRAS’ Central Asian Studies program. It’s been a whirlwind of classes, trips and local experiences. Here in this article, I’ll be giving a review of it all – the good, the bad, and the ugly!
The program includes a strong language component focusing on Russian, a lingua franca of the region. Russian lessons at the London School are intensive, one-on-one classes, usually starting at 8:30am and finishing at 2pm. I found the teachers to be attentive and amicable, though of course there were some teachers I clicked with better than others. As I entered the program as a fairly advanced student, for the first three months the classes were general Russian language, and for the last month they were politics, history, and economics courses taught in Russian. The classes in the first half were interactive and taught through a combination of conversation, reading, and writing, so I generally preferred these. Every class (each of which was one hour to one hour and twenty minutes long) was taught by a different teacher, which gave a lot of diversity. On top of this, the teachers changed every month, so I ended up seeing a lot of new faces! This was unsettling in some ways, as every time I received a new teacher, I had to start from square one with explaining my learning style. As for the courses in the last month, I found them quite taxing because of the complicated vocabulary and long articles, but they were handy for picking up useful vocabulary.
Central Asian Studies Courses
I was the only person in the Central Asian studies program for this semester, but I preferred this as it meant I was able to interact with the lecture and felt more comfortable asking questions. The lectures were originally 2 hours long but I asked for them to be decreased to 1 ½ hours, as I felt that much of the time was spent going on tangents (very interesting, but not always useful!). The course consisted of two classes – The New Great Game and Understanding Central Asia. I particularly enjoyed studying the New Great Game, as it was an opportunity to delve into the present day political situation in Central Asia. The Central Asian studies professor amends the course yearly, so it was very up to date.
The accommodation for the first month was very nice, as I was staying with a local family. I had a big room, decent internet, and access to a whole family of Russian speakers I could converse with whenever I liked.
The London School dorms were also decent – fairly basic but perfectly functional. I particularly enjoyed being able to cook for myself again and have the option to roll straight out of bed to classes.
For more information about both housing options, check out this article.
One positive thing about the administration system at Bishkek is that everything is online, from timetable to tests. This meant that I could check any updates and changes from my phone, which I found very useful. However, there are some serious communication issues at the London School. One of the reasons for this is that there is a quick staff turnover, and information doesn’t always get passed on correctly. For example, there were several occasions where trips were planned at times when I had classes, and I ended up double booked. Hopefully this is something that will improve in the future.
The London School and SRAS organized some fantastic trips while I was there, so I had the opportunity to see and do a variety of new things. Within Kyrgyzstan there are not many ancient sites, as the Kyrgyz are historically nomadic, so the trips were mostly nature based. What you will see however, are yurts scattered across the countryside (usually with a herd of horses grazing nearby) and a landscape of mountains standing proudly in the background. My dietary requirements were difficult to manage while on trips at the beginning, but once I sent a detailed form, the London School did their utmost to ensure there were vegan options available on every trip. My favorite trips were to Talas and then hopping over the border to Uzbekistan as part of a broader tour around Central Asia. For more about the trips, click here.
What I Learned
Though classes were long and tiring, I gained so much from them! I can now converse with relative ease and case endings come to my mind a lot quicker than in the past. The Central Asian Studies courses were also fascinating, and gave me an in depth idea of how culture and politics work in Central Asia. All in all, my main takeaways are that language doesn’t have to be a barrier to friendship, and that perseverance is rewarded!
Nick Cappuccino (Spring, 2014)
Well, my time has expired in this part of the world, and with a bittersweet goodbye I part ways with Kyrgyzstan, her land and her people. Such things have happened in the time that I have been here since January with the Central Asian Studies program, and I can’t in good conscience say that I am entirely the same man I am now to the one that I was when I came. Certainly the hair and the beard have me looking something like a caveman, but it is a change that was just as much within me as it was without me. And see, words wouldn’t really be able to fully explain that change, but I sure am going to try.
So few things in my life have sat me down with awe, and maybe I took it as a point of pride in some adolescent machismo attitude in some way, but so much here left me humbled and feeling as small as the day that I was born. It is easy to travel to these parts of the world as a westerner and feel big, but at some point early on I saw myself shrinking in history in the midst of such great things before me. I walked on the streets of Bukhara and Samarkand, two of the world’s oldest cities, with streets that Alexander of Macedonia, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Marco Polo and so many other giants in the book of mankind all passed through. And as humbling as that was and as small at that may have made me feel, even if only for a moment, I felt larger and grander than anything I had ever been before.
After being dwarfed by the timelessness of the land in my travels, I felt myself growing. With all the enormity of that around me, it was the small intimate moments that truly caused my world to turn. Moments shared above all else, and having taken part in something great with others. A beautiful moment is wasted without people to share it with and for that memory to live on in, and I know all of those moments and all the people that took part in them with me will hold onto them the way I will, all the same. I rode horses on the shores of Issyk Kul. I danced in a Turkmen wedding after swimming in a geothermally heated underground lake. I talked politics with bizarre political dissidents in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I saw the true freak-show wonderland that is Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. I walked among the giants of antiquity in southern Uzbekistan, men I admire in the deepest chasm of my being. And not one of those things was done by my lonesome; they were all moments shared.
There may have been trials and tribulations, and I would not trade any of those for a second of my time here. I was told once that iron should pass through fire to become steel, and while I feel that this part of the world may have been a fire in so many ways, it was a fire that nurtured and grew my soul more than tempering it. It may be the brilliant and blazing sun, which grew me over time into the strongest I have ever been, or maybe it was just the warm and intimate bonfire that I sat beside with so many others for a little bit and we all were warmed and nurtured by it in the middle of a vast and expansive steppe driving ever onward.
I step back from that fire now and traverse the steppe on my journey home, and the further I go from Kyrgyzstan the more all of the intimate moments and memories will seem to blend into one kaleidoscopic vignette in time. I really don’t know if I am leaving Central Asia, or going home now, but whatever it is that I do, I do it with a deep and abiding joy coupled to a deep and abiding sorrow. A joy that this all existed at some point in time and I bared witness and took part in it all, and a sorrow that I will now be departing all of that, and how glorious it will be to look back, even if it makes me a pillar of salt. I am going now, and perhaps I will return to these lands one day, though perhaps it was only a memory.