Samuel Maret, Bishkek, entrepreneur, @nomadslandkg
I was born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and a Spanish mother, so I have these two nationalities. I spent my childhood between the orchards of the Rhône valley and the alpine chalet of my Swiss grandparents. I also, with my mother, travel to many countries in Europe, by train, bus and car. Which certainly gave me a taste for travel. At the end of my studies, I bought a house in Switzerland that I rent, and I left for a sabbatical year, which started and ended in Kyrgyzstan. During these 20 years, I created three small companies active in the mountain and sustainable tourism development. Since 2004, I have actively participated in the development of mountain tourism at the national level, including the new law project "Ski Cluster" in Issyk-Kul.
I arrived in Bishkek at the end of October 2000 with my backpack and my snowboard, to spend the six winter months there. My plan was to continue to the Himalayas, a region I knew because I had been there several times.
About first impression
I knew that we only spoke Russian or Kyrgyz, and already before leaving, I had a strong apprehension of arriving in a country that I did not know the language. I arrived at the end of the night, but when I left Manas airport to reach the city, the sun rose over the Kyrgyz Alatoo. I was more than enchanted to see a white chocolate Toblerone over 600km long. On the other hand, when I arrived in town and discovered Soviet architecture and its buildings of blackened concrete or decaying bricks, I was much less more.
The first problem was of course the language, but everything seemed to be organized like in Europe, and not at all on the Asian type that I had already discovered. I immediately took private Russian lessons during these first six months. The other challenge, which was the goal of my trip, was to go to the mountains. I knew there were many ski resorts, but not many people could tell me how to get there. Quite quickly, I was able to meet skiers and the first Kyrgyz snowboarders who took me with them every Sunday.Аbout difference
As I said, I had the impression to see a country in decrepitude, Kyrgyzstan in 2000 was still strongly affected by the fall of the USSR and foreign investments were still rare. But it was seeing the poor development of ski resorts that made me want to change things and help the few surviving skiers.
We cannot really draw a parallel between our cultures, which are completely different, on the other hand the mentality of the men of the mountains are common all over the planet. Unlike people in cities, mountain people pride themselves on their freedom. On the religion side, I was discovering Islam for the first time, and I quickly understood that the philosophy of life was the same as with Christians or Buddhists.
At first, I only saw the good sides of the Kyrgyz people, welcoming, warm, friendly, happy and smiling. But I quickly understood that city life and the attraction of capitalism were gradually destroying the good side of free nomads. But we find this in many mountainous countries.
What I like there
Although an economist, I do not really believe in the capitalist way of life in my country. Everything looks perfect when money finally rules our Western democracies. That is why I love traveling and meeting men who are not yet tainted by our system. Although Switzerland is a free country, we feel even freer here. But what prompted me to stay was that everything still had to be done.
My life has been hectic throughout these 20 years; I certainly have hundreds of anecdotes to tell. I had the chance to be able to guide groups of tourists from the summer of 2001, then to organize the Raid Gauloises in 2003 in Kyrgyzstan; it is the final of the world of adventure races. An event publicized all over the planet. My greatest pride for the Kyrgyz people is to have coached the national snowboard team and to have participated in the World Cups with them in 2013-2014. The epic experience is visiting the prison where the oldest prisoner and the gift I received: a samurai sword made in the prison.
Michael Ko, Bishkek, entrepreneur, @asgardkg
I was born in the Republic of Korea my family immigrated to New York City where I spent most of my formative years. My professional background includes positions in the U.S. Army, Mitsubishi Motors and my current roles as an investor in multiple international businesses. My current projects in Kyrgyzstan are centered in Bishkek as the Founder and CEO of Asgard. It is an all-inclusive club, sports bar and karaoke restaurant. Also I am on the board of directors of VIP Hamam— a Turkish-themed spa, massage, wellness complex.
My wife is a Kyrgyz national and we recently celebrated our son's third birthday. A home is a place that your heart is invested in and that home can be anywhere at any time so as long as you have the means to get where you want to go. For the time being, as our son is still in his formative years, I enjoy the stability that Kyrgyzstan has to offer him.
About first impression
My first impressions of Kyrgyzstan were akin to what the first Western American settlers must have felt when they initially made their way to the Pacific shores of the United States during the 1800s — it truly was the 'Wild West'. Full of the unknown, but a plethora of opportunities for those who had the fortitude to drum up the courage to make the journey and put their dreams into action. My general sanity has been questioned more times than I care to remember as to why I decided to choose Kyrgyzstan as my home and a place to do business, both by foreigners and local citizens.
One of the difficulties I experienced in Kyrgyzstan as a foreigner is being just that — a foreigner. There is a kind of impenetrable barrier that exists between a majority of local people here and foreign visitors, regardless of the welcoming demeanor, hospitality and smiles. I have the advantage of having an East Asian appearance so I can somewhat blend in with the local population. If I remember to keep my mouth shut, but once the first «канча» comes out of my mouth it is game over and the second tier of pricing is presented. It is still something that can leave a foreign national with a bad taste in their mouth when they become aware of the double standard.
In Kyrgyzstan I have come to notice that businesses would rather invest more on some new physical object to 'wow' a customer than invest in their human assets to ensure that a customer is happy, will return and, most importantly, refer you to their circle of influence. I have noticed, more times than not, businesses prefer the 'sports car' over the 'education' and that is probably why a majority of businesses need to reincarnate themselves every few years like a phoenix in order to keep the level of interest up in their location. Businesses who are customer-first oriented have had the luxury of surviving the test of time.
One of the similarities between New York and Bishkek would have to be the rush hour traffic that puts cars at a stand still and the horrible taste in American music heard from these vehicles as they wait. There is absolutely nothing more amusing than watching a 50+ year old «байке» bobbing his head to the sound of Cardi B's 'W.A.P.' at full volume in his Lada with every single bolt in the car straining to hold it together as it rattles like a roof panel in a hurricane. On both sides of the world, we have that «базаржок» mentality and are proud of it.
I have learned over the years that the Kyrgyz way of living depends on many factors that includes, but is not limited to, location and mindset. In highly urbanized areas like Bishkek and Osh, there are obviously visible examples of gentrification, which comes with all the pros and cons. But when I visit my relatives in the Issyk-Kul region life slows down to a much more laid-back and manageable pace where social interaction is done more on a face-to-face basis. It is very interesting and heart-warming to watch the dynamics of seeing both the modernization of Kyrgyz culture and how much they value and cherish their traditions.
What I like there
One of the things I like about Kyrgyzstan is the open-border visa-free regime that allows travelers from most countries to visit without restrictions. It is also fosters an environment where international business meetings, that perhaps could not take place in other countries, could happen here. I think once Kyrgyzstan gets up to par with letting the world know that it is ready to create an environment that is truly conducive to foreign investment, it could be the center of the Silk Road region that it once was centuries ago as the place where travelers and traders met at the crossroads point in their journeys.
The most interesting story that happened to me in Kyrgyzstan was that I found the woman who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with and started a family. What could be more interesting than that?
Stephen Lioy, Bishkek, tourism development consultant, @slioy
I am originally from Louisiana in the US, though have not lived there since I graduated university in 2008. I work primarily as a tourism development consultant, especially dealing with media, and continue to work as a freelance travel writer, most notably for the publisher Lonely Planet. I also work from time to time as a professional photographer http://www.stephenlioy.com and have recently relaunched an old website about hiking in Asia http://www.asia-hikes.com, and I keep renewing the domain name for an old travel blog that I have barely updated in the last four years http://www.monkboughtlunch.com.
I have been based in Kyrgyzstan off and on since around 2014. I first came briefly as a traveler and then returned to study Russian for two months at a school in Bishkek, but liked it so much that I ended up staying. I am now married to a wonderful Kyrgyz woman and we live in Bishkek, so I expect I will be here for quite a long time yet.
About first impression
The first time I arrived to Kyrgyzstan was over the Pamir Highway from Tajikistan, so after the high-altitude desert landscapes of the Tajik Pamir I immediately noticed how much lusher and greener Kyrgyzstan was by contrast. That impression, and fascination with the landscapes of the country, have never really left in the years since even as I have gotten to know the country much better.
Though I had travelled briefly elsewhere in Central Asia before I first settled here, the culture was still quite unfamiliar and I only spoke the tiniest bit of Russian, so both of those took some time to adapt to. Even just six years ago Bishkek was quite a different and in many ways less-international city than it is today, and certainly it was a lifestyle quite different than those I was accustomed to while living in the US or China.
Mostly the distinctly difference lifestyles. I lived in a small city in the US but my first moments in Kyrgyzstan were in quite rural regions and so the lifestyle was very pastoral. Though I spend most of my time in Bishkek now when I am in Kyrgyzstan, I still love to get out and explore the regions both to see the landscapes and to meet the people who live in them.
In the south of the US, where I am from, cultural proprieties and respect for ones' elders are both very ingrained into the traditional culture and I certainly see those reflected in Kyrgyz culture as well.
Family is all-important in a way that has long disappeared from most US cultures. Though it does sometimes get confusing to remember who's married to who and which cousins belong to which side of the family, it is an extremely supportive sort of societal structure and one that much of the West could likely benefit from more of.
What I like there
I certainly never had a chance to photograph ulaktartysh at home. Beyond that though there is still a sense of untamed wilderness in Kyrgyzstan that, while I am sure exists still in the US, was not part of my regular experience when I lived there.
Just a few weeks ago, I was traveling in the far south of Issyk Kol oblast with friends and, rounding the curve of a long-neglected 4x4 road, two snow leopards were level with us on the opposite bank of the river. Having dreamt of seeing wild snow leopards since early in the time I have spent in Kyrgyzstan, it was amazing.