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. For more information, check out this article.
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.
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.
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!