Silk Road Bazaar

Posted: 15/04/2014 in Uncategorized

This blog, a compilation of my life in the far rural regions of Kyrgyzstan now serves as a beautiful piece for me to reflect on and to remember those tranquil times. I remember trying to connect to the internet in the most difficult situations to get in that monthly blog update and how frustrating it sometimes was but now I am proud that I have these writings to look back on.

Moving forward this blog will assume a different air. While it still will be a personal collection of experiences and opinion it will also serve to talk about the different activities Silk Road Bazaar is involved in Kyrgyzstan. However, in that I feel that a personal collection of stories may be more interesting I will try to keep it more personal in nature…

And of course, this is all in preparation for my upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan in the month of May – where I will drowned in sheep’s fat, potatoes, and noodles! But in all honesty, I am very excited to connect with everybody over on that side of the world. Bringing it back home.

Things are peaceful, quiet, and simple in the little village of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. Tourists have started coming into the city to go hiking and to explore the nature of Kyrgyzstan. They arrive in their big buses, with their North Face backpacks and hiking boots. They stand out so much. They are so much bigger than the local people. I probably stick out just as much as they do, but I do not realize it. They walk around with their big maps and automatically draw attention from people on the streets wherever they go. The tourists do not realize that the people of Karakol have been waiting for them (and their money) for 10 long months. Last year in September I remember hear people talking on the streets how they are excited for next year’s tourist season and the economic help it will bring.

Even though we do not sell our products locally the women of Shai-Kesh are also for some reason excited for these tourists. It is as if the coming of tourists means that their country has reached a state of stability and development that Europeans, Asians, and Americans feel safe to come. It’s funny, even though the women at Shai-Kesh know we will not be selling locally this year they still sometimes women talk about how they are excited to sell our products to the tourists…

The women who work at Shai-Kesh are all really great, and getting to know about them and their lives during the past 2 months has been fascinating. Each of the women who work with us has a past full of hardship and perseverance. Some of the women have left their families and life in the villages to come to the city to find employment, some are living in 1-room apartments with four or five other people in order to save money, and some have escaped bride kidnapping in order not to face a bleak future milking cows and taking care of the chickens. We have grown together, developed new products new together, and are really trying to build a company in the rural reaches of Kyrgyzstan.

Luckily we do have some real talent in our company and with this talent we have designed a new line of summer scarves reflecting images found in Lake Issyk-Kul, Shyrdaks, and Turtle Toys. Shyrdaks, are essentially Kyrgyz carpets. They are made out of felt, thick, and really act as great insulators. They are found in almost every Kyrgyz household. However the colors and quality which are found locally would not really be accepted by the international community. Based on this we are setting out to create ‘Avant-Garde Shyrdaks’ – beautiful modern renditions of the traditional shyrdak. Our local partner The Union of Artists is giving us a ton of advice on design and material quality. We hope to start producing shyrdaks in July or August. Whoever though that a NYU – Stern Business Scholl Undergraduate would be researching how to produce shyrdaks in Kyrygyzstan…It’s an extremely fun process though – driving to different factories, examining the quality of felt, sitting with the local people discussing economics and business, hearing the Russians still call Kyrygzstan ‘Kirgizia’ – It’s all part of the experience.

Yes, folks – BIG NEWS, BIG NEWS!

Shai-Kesh Kyrgyzstan will be changing to Shai-Kesh Washington as it displays its fine products and work on The Mall (in Washington DC) from June 30 to July 11.

Now how did this great opportunity come to be? Through the talented staff of Peace Corps of course! A very well written grant has secured Kyrgyzstan a place in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival from June 30 to July 11 in Washington DC this summer. We will be the only Central Asian country represented at the festival and we are all anticipating and are very excited to go to Washington.

This will be Eylina’s first time to America, so we are expecting a big culture. She will have to overcome that culture shock though because she will be holding demonstrating the processes of how we so elegantly make our Silk Wool Pressed Scarves and Silk-Treated Merino Wool Pressed Bags. This will all be done inside what we expect to be a yurt next to a basket weaving artisan community from Kenya. Sounds pretty crazy, uh?

In addition to our display section where we will be showing how we make our products there will be a marketplace which will be selling our:
- Silk Wool Pressed Scarves
- Silk -Treated Merino Wool Pressed Bags,
- Animal Toys

There will also be an ‘International Kitchen’ where Kyrgyz, Kenyan, Filipino and all of those other countries whose foods you know you have never tried will be available to eat and snack on. It will be a great opportunity to expand even the most experienced of palates.

It’s going to be an exciting event that will bring people from all different nationalities together to embrace diversity and culture. I am honored to have been chosen to be a part of this event and I hope to see all of you there cheering on the team from Peace Corps Kyrgyz Republic!

2 Weeks in America

Posted: 02/04/2011 in Uncategorized

I’m just sitting here in the Moscow Airport, only 8 more hours until my flight leaves to Bishkek~~

The airport in Moscow is quite depressing and (extremely expensive)…$11 for coffee…Mom, thanks for giving me those almonds to take from the house.

It was so nice to see so many relatives and friends. It really prepared for another 15 months in Kyrgyzstan.

However, I am excited to go back to Kyrgyzstan. That is where my work is, that is where local Kyrgyz people are expecting me to return, that is where I promised my time for the 27 months that I will be in the Peace Corps.

When I was home, what really surprised me the most was the wide range of choices we have in America.

In Kyrgyzstan you can have 2 types of tea, Green or Black. There is 2 ways of ordering food, Spicy or Not Spicy. One or two different types of potatoes. 20-30 different majors which one can choose to study at university.

The specialization, the specificity which is so prominent in America is so non-existent in Kyrgyzstan. And the simplicity of not having everything so specialized is actually pleasant.

Who needs 35 different flavors of tea? Who needs 15 different types of ‘spicy?’ Or 17 distinct sorts of potatoes?

How is a master’s degree in ‘International Development focus on Kazakhstani Environmental Policy between the years 1991-1994′ more beneficial than a major in simply ‘International Development?’

When I was in America I constantly thought, ‘how much more specialized can everything become before we see reverse trends leading to things becoming more simple?’

Anyway, it gave me so much energy to spend two weeks in America but I am ready to go back to the land of basics – where things are just a little more simple~~

Due to your purchases and support Shai-Kesh has enough business and work to move into the center of Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. This move has been long awaited, especially by our director and designer Eylina.

I met Eylina through my host mom Gulmira Apa sometime in July 2010. At the time Eylina was unemployed. She was living in a 4-room house with eight other family members. Four of them slept in one room, three slept in the other. Grandpa would sleep on the couch. It was extremely crowded and uncomfortable. Eylina had 3 degrees, a degree in English, Real Estate, and Economics. However, like many, many people in Kyrgyzstan she was unsuccessful at finding employment.

Now when I came to Kyrgyzstan I knew that I wanted to develop help business here. Volunteer, Carl Beien, who arrived a year before me had posted on his blog http://www.kyrgycarl.com photos of laptop sleeves, slippers, and other products that he had developed with groups of women in his community. In February 2010 before I came to Kyrgyzstan I stumbled across his blog and found myself fascinated with the products he was producing. The felt, wool, and silk products made in this country truly are beautiful. However they are still far from Western eyes, thus making a great opportunity for a young American who can learn language quickly and establish connections between both cultures.

In September 2010 I gave Eylina my first order, an order for 5 felt pencil cases. It was quite obvious that these would not be successful upon the perpetual lukewarm feedback received. However, it was way too early to give up. At that point we decided to make scarves. Commissioned by Color & Design Studios for their 2010 Holiday Party, Eylina in her 4-room, 8 people house produced the first Shai-Kesh products. 55 Silk-Wool Scarves.

Through proceeds from Color & Design we were able to purchase a sewing machine and begin to expand our product line into: Laptop Sleeves, Wool Carrier Bags, and most recently Felt Slippers. After receiving a few more orders Eylina had finally saved up enough money to leave her house and rent an apartment in Karakol. We were still working out of her apartment, but at least it was hers and she had all of the space she needed to grow her creativity and talent. In this new space Eylina thrived. Her scarves and other work became notably more creative and sophisticated. Various business trips to Bishkek, where we met developed artists like Aidai, Meerim, and Gulya furthered Eylina’s desire to perfect Shai-Kesh products.

Through our classy website www.shaikesh.com, designed by my best friend Ben Legman we have received publicity and connections to further develop our business. Through the orders received through our website and another opportunity (which will be made public in the near future) we have been able to develop a business stable and profitable enough to employ an additional 3 artists. We have also been able to move into an industrial space, right across the street from our partner organization ‘The Artists Union of Karakol.’ Things look good. This is development right here. Providing jobs, bringing cultures together – creating what did not exist.

Along with Shai-Kesh I have also moved, out of the village and into the bigger village! Well Karakol is technically a city…Yes, I have moved out of the village to the big city on the lake.

It became apparent to me last summer that a good portion of people in my village were leading their daily lives in a state of blurriness. People would squint to recognize me on the street; teachers could not decipher the text in their textbooks. Investigating into why people were not using glasses I found out that more than being a financial problem it was a problem of priorities (aka Kyrgyz-Cha).

Glasses are sold in Karakol, a one hour drive from (my village) Taldy-Suu. In Karkaol a pair of reliable glasses and a check-up costs $6. A roundtrip taxi between Taldy-Suu and Karakol costs an additional $3. This puts the total price of glasses and a check-up at $9, a price affordable for most village residents. A pair of prescription glasses cost as much as a birthday cake. Cake however is more highly valued because cake has the power to cause the dreaded offense. Locally known as Obidilsya, (Обидилься).

Obidilsya and Obidilyas, (Offense in English) is a feared word in this part of the world. The more potential offense that something can cause, the higher priority it is given in Kyrgyzstan. For example, if somebody invites a local Kyrgyz to a party and they are not able to go for some reason this will be a reason for great anxiety and fret for them. They will worry incessantly, lose sleep, and fear that their inability to go to their party will cause offense the person who invited them. Or if they need to give a gift to somebody and they do not have the money they will take out loans or find other ways of borrowing money (selling one’s kidney is not out of the question) in order to not cause offense. If you do not give cake to someone on their birthday they will be offended, however your state of blindness does not cause offense to anybody. Therefore unfortunate as it is, due to its low priority poor vision often goes untreated in Kyrgyzstan.

Set on trying to fix this problem, I went about the town in an attempt to raise consciousness of the importance of good vision. Most people I talked to realized that they needed glasses, and moreover wanted glasses however due to the low-priority and associated effort that was required to get glasses they were deterred. I proceed to work out negotiations with an eye doctor in Karakol. We agreed that if I could gather payment from ten people his team would come to Taldy-Suu and issue glasses on the spot. We worked out that each customer would only pay $6, a third of the price of the price that it would cost them if they were to go to Karakol.

I gathered payment from ten of the teachers at the school, called the doctor and we set a date for him to come to Taldy-Suu. Our ‘Youth Development Committee’ then designed simple advertisements and placed them around major commercial points (hospital, stores, municipal building). Yesterday, February 12th the Doctor came to Taldy-Suu. More than 40 people came out to have their eyes checked and if deemed necessary, receive glasses.

We were able to distribute glasses to 27 village residents, some who were classified with ±4.0 vision.
We also officially diagnosed glaucoma, cataracts, and other eye related disorders for 12 other residents.

Unfortunately, we were not able to assist 2 illiterate five year-old children because we lacked the proper technology. This was a completely local project, with no involvement of Western aid. Local doctors provided local residents with the restoration of their vision for a fee of $6. Upon finishing, one of the teachers asked me, ‘Andrei, when are you going to bring a dentist to clean our teeth?’ However, with her mouth full of gold, I am not too sure what she wants a dentist for :)

Artist, Eylina Uruakueva, demonstrating ‘The Dancing Shaman’

http://www.shaikesh.com