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Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Day One
Sunday, May 11

I’m sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Pinara, a normalization-era hotel in the center of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on the first day of my visit. I’m here to give a presentation on open source software and how it can benefit media organizations. Specifically, I’m here to promote the free (as in free speech and as in free beer) software that we produce under the Campware initiative.

The nine-hour flight from London was boring, which is the best thing I can ask for from air travel at this point. Having been in the air on Sept. 11, I’m always grateful for an uneventful flight.

When the plane disembarked at Manas Airport, I was greeted by a Asian-looking soldier holding a sign that read “Doyglas.” He quickly whisked me through to the airport’s VIP section, which made me feel like a rock star. I half-expected a groupie to come up to me and say “I’ve got all your files…”

Umm, no. But I did get through customs OK. I was met by Jyldyz (pronounced Jill-dis), a young, energetic and very friendly Kyrgyz woman, and Timur, who made the 35 km trip from Manas Airport go quickly. We compared notes on our university experiences, and when she heard that I went to UC Santa Barbara, she started laughing. “I know Santa Barbara, California because of the soap opera,” she said. An unexpected cultural ambassador.

At the hotel, I met Tatiana Repkova, the Director of Research and Information Management for the World Association of Newspapers. She’s Slovak, so we quickly started speaking Czech/Slovak together, but then switched back to English. Then, because Jyldyz’ English isn’t so good, we switched to Russian, with Tatiana translating for me.

Djika suggested a traditional Kyrgyz lunch, so we went to one of her favorite spots. Kyrgyz food is – owing to the location – an interesting mix of Asian and Russian food. I had galmar (sp?), a tasty, spicy mutton stew served with spaghetti-like noodles and fresh cilantro. Then we had grilled meat, which is always a winner in my book.

We had discussed telecoms tariffs, and how the $7 USD per minute to call internationally was pretty egregious, so Jyldyz suggested we buy SIM prepaid cards for the GSM operator, MobiCard. To do so, we went to a department store that looked more like a trade fair, each with a vendor selling their wares. The section we wanted was the mobile and computer section, and was full of what at first sight looked like shifty guys milling around. But as they weren’t shifty guys milling around. They were telecoms experts. And, as I’m starting to learn in my time in Kyrgyzstan, people are incredibly friendly and eager to help.

Tatiana and Djika started explaining what we were looking for, and then one asked me a question in Russian. When he noticed that I didn’t speak Russian, he switched to flawless English. “Where are you from? Are you here with Unicef?” I tried to explain, then realized that even in English my situation’s a bit hard to explain.

We were able to get our mobiles fixed up pretty nicely. Tatiana even bought a new cover for her Nokia. I was going to get one, but the process would have taken too long. So now I have my SIM card as one of my souvenirs of the trip.

Technological leapfrogging is taking place at full speed in Bishkek. Mobile phones are prevalent and (relatively) affordable, Internet cafes are everywhere, and satellite TV is pervasive. The bar has a Turkish music video channel blasting. Connectivity here in the hotel is DSL speed, btw.

I’m going to try to take more pictures, but my DV camera is a dead giveaway for “foreign tourist,” so I’m reluctant to whip it out. I’ll do what I can, though.

Video 1: Bishkek scenes (30 sec, ~400K)
Video 2: SIM cards (30 sec, ~400K)

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