By Miranda Phua, KF15 – Bai Tushum & Partners, Kyrgyzstan

“Sorry, you’re moving to Fishcake?”

To my family and friends (and possibly many of you) Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is a mystery. Actually, until a couple of months ago, it was to me, too.

Despite its noticeably disproportionate consonant to vowel ratio, Kyrgyzstan has never really been a lead actor on the world stage. My knowledge was limited to discerning that the country was a former Soviet state perched somewhere near China and Afghanistan.

So, when Kiva advised that I would be calling Kyrgyzstan my home for the next four months, I started my research by heading to the Australian Government’s travel website.

“Kyrgyzstan – Reconsider Your Need To Travel.”

Fantastic! Kyrgyzstan had been ordained with a four out of five star danger rating – on par with only 18 other countries in the world. Were I to believe what I was reading, riots and covert terrorist operations would be part of daily proceedings, with the smell of revolution and escalating ethnic tensions permeating the air.

So mustering every ounce of courage I could find, I prepared for this intrepid part of the world, armed with nothing but a noble cause.

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Having been in the country for three weeks, unfortunately, I must fess up – I am not nearly as brave as you might think. I’ve not had to don gas masks or weave my way through riot police – in fact, I’ve not been called upon to bumble my way through a single heroic antic.

Wondering why Australia’s Cross of Valour won’t be coming my way any time soon? Let me share a few of Bishkek’s serendipitous delights and home truths. 

#5: The Dogs Are Talking

Bishkek lies docilely before me. Amongst the proud open concrete spaces that litter this Soviet-styled city, there is a modicum of elegance that the demure tree-lined streets beget.

I walk to work every morning, a 30 minute stroll through a smattering of uneventful traffic that pays deference to traffic lights. To challenge myself, I attempt to read the Cyrillic street signs on my way.

In a country with 99.2% literacy, thanks largely to the former Soviet education system, I am one of the few people who neither read nor write one or both of the national languages, Russian and Kyrgyz. Whilst I aim to develop some fluency whilst here, the locals do view Kyrgyz-speaking foreigners with some bemusement. As my housemate pointed out, “It’s like watching your dog talk.”

The weight placed on a university education here remains strong, but Kyrgyzstan’s 8.2% unemployment rate belies the level of under-employment.

Healthier job prospects in Kazakhstan and Russia are a double-edged sword, a delicate balance between a reliance on overseas remittances that underpin the economy (US$1.25bn in 2010 – more than a quarter of GDP) versus the seemingly inevitable brain drain.

At my peril, it took me three days to discover these signs represented the phonetic translation of a familiar English word – STOP

#4: Dear Mrs. President

My daily meanderings often take me through the heart of the city, passing the last of the obvious remnants of April 2010’s political upheaval that saw the over-throwing of the former President. It is a lonesome burnt-out building that I’ve been told was once the Prosecutor’s office.

The Kyrgyz people have cheekily enjoyed taking credit for the catalytic effect their revolutionary activities have apparently had on the Middle East.

Whether or not the events of April 2010 were a precursor for subsequent popular uprisings, democracy is more than just the flavour of the month in this most progressive of Central Asian countries.

The turning tide has seen the power flow back to the proletariat, who are far from afraid of vocalising their discontent at, well… everything!

Rather than rabble-rousing in the street, the latest ground-swell movement has seen voters head straight to the top, addressing letters of complaint about court decisions, corrupt policemen and even loan interest rates, directly to the President.

#3: Silencing the Lambs

At times, my lack of dexterity has seen me struggle to clamber over Bishkek’s slightly cumbersome pavements. However, I attribute the rapid onset of my shortened breath to the city’s elevation (being 800m above sea level), rather than to the quantum of meat I’ve eaten.

In a society with a protein-focused diet, I appear to have consumed the equivalent of eight lambs in three weeks – at least that’s what the scales are telling me. With food prices rising 27% over the past year, I have been decidedly lucky.

Coupled with the political events of the past year, the IMF announced this month that poverty levels in Kyrgyzstan have been pushed higher in the past 12 months, from 31% to 33% of the population.

(Poverty, it has been said, drove last year’s political discontent, particularly following the decline in remittances during the global financial crisis that the government subsequently compounded with the doubling of electricity prices.)

In order to redress my personal weight imbalance, I have splurged on a month-long gym membership. I’ve also decided to stop measuring my meat consumption, fearing that continuously keeping track of sheep may awaken the narcoleptic in me.

My real incentive to head to the gym, however, is hot water. As is common amongst some former Soviet countries, for one month each year, hot water is switched off across the city to conduct maintenance.

Fortunately for my housemates, the gym’s water heater has minimised the number of Ned Flanders-like yelps that otherwise emanate from our bathroom on colder mornings.

The gym’s aging treadmills offer self-esteem boosting speed readings. Their use of a distance system that possibly predates both the imperial and metric systems ensures my unrestrained joy when I realise that I am bounding along at 16 ancient units an hour, whatever they are...

#2: Money, Money, Money

Last weekend, I ventured to one of the city’s many open-air markets. In fact, Bishkek is home to the largest open air market in Central Asia, Dordoy Bazaar, a labyrinth of some 7000+ shipping containers used as store-fronts to sell everything from kitchenware to traditional felt handicrafts.

Once upon a time, there was a camel searching for water. It ventured so far from home that it wandered into a rainbow. The result, it appears, was immortalised on my new pair of felt slippers.

Entrepreneurship is alive and well in this country. In fact, Kyrgyzstan has been one of Central Asia’s most receptive countries to capitalism, having joined the WTO in 1998.

However, the political instability and subsequent ethnic clashes in Kyrgyzstan’s south in June 2010 devastated an already weakened economy. Damage to infrastructure and the collapse of the largest commercial bank in Kyrgyzstan, Asia Universal Bank (which was closely affiliated with the ousted President’s son, Maxim Bakiev) saw Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrink by 1.4% last year.

It is hoped that microcredit will be one small way of helping many of these market traders rebuild, consolidate and expand their businesses to help revitalise the country’s primary-industry driven economy.

Unfortunately, the central bank’s use of contractionary monetary policy (a reduction in the quantity of local currency) to control inflation (2010: 7.8%; 2011 (forecast): 18.8%) has triggered a rise in funding costs for Kyrgyz microfinance institutions.

A prolonged period of inflation may indeed see these costs passed onto borrowers, however Kiva is playing a small part in this market by mobilising risk-tolerant 0% interest funding (i.e. funds from Lenders like you!) to support microfinance institutions to achieve their social missions.

Inspired or foolish? Debate runs deep amongst visitors to Kyrgyzstan regarding the 3 Som coin (approx. USD 0.07). The odd denomination slots neatly between the 1 and 5 Som coins, though is at odds with the more traditional 20 and 200 som notes. Ingeniously, the 8 Som one-way Marshrutka trip (a public mini-bus) requires only two coins, though my editor noted that the invention of an 8 Som coin would require only one coin.

#1: The Orange Mile

Easy Pay Touch Screen Terminals accept payments for your electricity, utility and internet bills. You can even recharge your prepaid mobile phone across the breadth of carriers. Located at major supermarkets and convenience stores around Bishkek, they’re quick, convenient and bright orange.

With technological innovations key to reducing Last Mile lending costs (and therefore interest rates), will self-service microcredit repayment terminals in Kyrgyzstan be next…?

Kyrgyz Easy Pay Terminal

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There is much to admire about Kyrgyzstan, in all its complexities. Watching a country embark on a quest for democracy whilst harmonising its many ethnicities, is all the more interesting in an economy where microfinance has flourished.

Whilst living in Fishcake conjures images of perilous landscapes abandoned by law, perhaps, in Bishkek, the requirement to possess the fortitude of a lion might well be illusory.

Miranda Phua is a Kiva Fellow (KF15) at Bai Tushum & Partners in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Learn more about Bai Tushum & Partners here, and support Bai Tushum & Partners’ activities by lending to one of its borrowers here or joining its Lending Team here.


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