Photo: Fabio Nodari/Shutterstock

How to Move to Kyrgyzstan and Start a Business

by Kirstin Schrier May 29, 2012

I WAS TWENTY-ONE AND WORKING IN BAGHDAD when the idea to move to Kyrgyzstan first came to me. I was working at the US Embassy as a media analyst with my boyfriend, Farrell, a guy I met in Arabic class at university, who somehow convinced me (and my parents) that it would be a good idea to follow him to a warzone.

I thought of it as the ultimate one-up passport stamp and the perfect solution to pay off more than $60,000 in student loans. I imagined that my time in Baghdad would be totally badass, and I would move back to Washington DC as an expert on Arab media with tons of stories to tell.

The reality was eight months living in a shipping container on a beige-colored compound, working what was essentially an entry-level office job. Neither Farrell nor I was satisfied with our career trajectories. Farrell, craving independence from the huge, faceless defense contractor we worked for, had begun throwing around the idea of starting a business and was in daily discussions with co-workers, brainstorming ideas for businesses they could start in Iraq. It was hard to keep up with them from day to day, as conversations jumped from importing sugar to installing solar energy panels to opening a fast food restaurant in the Baghdad airport, or — the one that gained the most traction — building a factory to process tomatoes into tomato paste.

In the end, none of the ideas developed into anything concrete, but Farrell had caught the entrepreneurial spirit. I, meanwhile, with my youthful restlessness and millennial desire to be special, just wanted to hone my expertise in something. For me, Iraq was a constant reminder that I was young and inexperienced; everybody I worked with already had several years’ (or even decades’) worth of language skills and work experience, while I had mostly gotten lucky enough to land my position one month out of college.

I felt that I needed to go somewhere more under-the-radar to figure out how to be independent and gain some sort of knowledge and experience. Exactly what sort of knowledge, I wasn’t sure. As media analysts, Farrell imagined that we could start our own media research company, giving us the freedom to take on the sort of projects we were interested in rather than those we got handed to us by our bosses.

Moving away from the Middle East, which is packed with gigantic, multi-million (and billion) dollar companies, meant we might have a better chance to accomplish something with less competition.

I needed to go somewhere more under-the-radar to figure out how to be independent and gain some sort of knowledge and experience. Exactly what sort of knowledge, I wasn’t sure.

By the time I left Baghdad, Farrell and I were engaged and committed to moving to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We planned on staying for a year to learn Russian and start our business.

My family and friends didn’t really understand where or what Bishkek was and didn’t make many attempts to press for clarification when I said I was moving to a place that was once part of the Soviet Union in order to start a company whose function I wasn’t really sure of yet. I mostly pretended like I knew what I was doing, or that, at the very least, I’d figure it out once I got there.

I knew we hadn’t prepared well enough for the move to Kyrgyzstan well before we left. A summer of living in DC, planning our rock and roll wedding, visiting farmers’ markets and hanging out with friends on rooftop bars had apparently left little time to teach myself basic Russian or give too much thought to what I was actually going to do in Bishkek. At one point, I even tried to convince Farrell to call it off. The reality of moving half-way around the world for a purpose I wasn’t quite sure of had started to weigh on me.

But despite my misgivings, I still believed that if we were going to take this chance and move abroad, Bishkek was the ideal place for us for several reasons. Central Asia seemed like a region that most people knew relatively little about, but was poised to become a much bigger deal in the near future due to its strategic location between China, Russia, and Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan seemed like an easy choice from there, considering its neighbors; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are tightly controlled authoritarian states that didn’t seem like friendly locations for two Americans wanting to conduct research. Tajikistan seemed a bit too rough, Kazakhstan a bit too expensive.

Kyrgyzstan was celebrated as the most liberal and democratic Central Asian country and received relatively high marks from the World Bank in terms of starting a business. I made the decision about Bishkek after a solid hour of Wikipedia research, despite having never traveled there before and having no frame of reference for what it would be like.

Then, I mostly put Bishkek out of my head. A fleeting thought about it would be quashed with baseless but optimistic reassurances that everything would be fine, I’d figure it all out with time. I busied myself instead with learning how to use my new camera and making up for eight months of being unable to cook or bake in Iraq.

It wasn’t until three days before our scheduled departure that we realized that maybe we should figure out what the visa process was. The official website for the Kyrgyz Embassy said one thing, the scowling official at the embassy said another (she would only refer to Kyrgyzstan as “my country”: “Why do you want to go to my country? You need a letter of invitation to get into my country”). Users on travel forums argued about the most up-to-date policies and offered no consensus. We decided that the scenario that worked best for us — that we could get a visa on arrival — was definitely the right one.

Luckily, it was. Our visa was handed over in the airport without issue. Our luggage survived the journey through Moscow and arrived at the same time we did. Our taxi driver overcharged us, but he drove us through the lifting mist of my first sunrise in Bishkek and dropped us off at our guesthouse without trouble.

After three flights and ten timezones, we settled into our room for a quick nap, an attempt to re-energize before setting out to officially explore Bishkek for the first time.

“Everything will be fine,” I told myself.

Oxus International is born

Before moving to Kyrgyzstan, all we knew about doing business here was that it ranked highest out of the five Central Asian countries on the World Bank’s “Doing Business” list (although Kyrgyzstan has since moved behind Kazakhstan). Officially we learned that, yes, the laws in place in Kyrgyzstan make it fairly easy to start and run a business.

The reality is different. Or maybe it’s not, but I didn’t know any better as all documents I needed to fill out and everybody I needed to interact with only spoke Russian.

Farrell and I braved a trip to the Ministry of Labor soon after arriving to attempt to start the business registration process on our own. We stood in a cramped hallway outside of several busy offices for a few minutes. I tried to convince Farrell we should go home, but he insisted we stay, his eyes scanning posters of instructions for any speck of English. One official stepped out into the hallways and spoke to the clearly clueless foreigners, allowing me to practice the one phrase of Russian I had learned before coming to Kyrgyzstan, “я не говорю по-русски.” I don’t speak Russian.

She had basic English skills and a seemingly endless supply of patience. She provided us with a list (in Russian) of forms to obtain and submit to different offices. I left the ministry with the blind optimism that led me to move to Bishkek slightly deflated. Farrell took a brighter approach. “This is good!” he declared cheerfully as we exited the ministry and retreated back to our apartment. “We’re making progress.”

Through a local university, where we had signed up for classes to help transition more smoothly into a routine and establish a community, we gained access to a free law clinic and were introduced to Constantine, a senior law student, to help us navigate the murky waters of Kyrgyz bureaucracy.

Constantine was an ethnic Russian, had blond hair, planned to move to Germany after graduating and answered all of our questions with an apathetic tsk and an eye roll. We’d meet to sign papers at a coffee shop near the Ministry of Justice, where Constantine would feed himself a steady diet of cigarettes while we tried to fill in the blanks with legible Cyrillic.

Constantine generally knew what he was doing; he had volunteered at the law clinic several times already and previously registered other foreign companies in Kyrgyzstan.

“Setting it up is easy, but don’t ask me for help closing your business,” he pleaded. “It’s better to just leave Kyrgyzstan than to go through the government to close it.”

The Ministry of Justice provided the next hurdle. At the ministry’s offices, an official and Constantine discussed something; the official looked apologetic and Constantine looked annoyed. Constantine explained to us that while the Kyrgyz Parliament had passed some sort of legislation specifically designed to make it easier for Americans to open companies in Kyrgyzstan, nobody had informed the Ministry how exactly to execute it. Constantine continued to press the official for a solution that wouldn’t take weeks of shuttling around to each ministry and tax office in Bishkek. As they spoke to each other, I heard the name “Hillary Clinton” thrown around a few times. Assuming that Madame Secretary would be busy with more pressing matters, I accepted that the business wouldn’t come together for a few more months.

Thus, after starting the process in October 2010, Oxus International was finally officially registered on February 14, 2011.

What does your company do?

The name of our company comes from the Oxus River, the ancient name for the Amu Darya that flows through the region. Farrell came up with it while doing some initial research. Alexander the Great, conquering his way across Asia, was first met with real trouble when he reached the Oxus. He couldn’t make sense of the region surrounding it, its people and its cultures, and was bogged down and defeated. Farrell considered it a metaphor for what we could potentially accomplish in Central Asia: how we could succeed in understanding the region where Alexander the Great had failed.

Others, it seemed, had the same idea. Before we even registered the company, we’d tell people the name and they’d nod and say, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen your office.”

“No you haven’t,” I’d respond. “It doesn’t exist yet.” They’d be referring to a well-known international microfinance company, or a gold company that once did work in western Kyrgyzstan, or a number of other financial and consulting companies with the word “Oxus” in their names. When I finally met someone working for the microfinance company, it was validating to hear that they were constantly mistaken for our company as well.

“People say, ‘Oh yeah, I know your company, it’s owned by two Americans and you do research stuff, right?’” he said, “It’s great to finally meet the people behind ‘the other Oxus.’”

It’s always difficult to try and explain the purpose of the company, whether to ministry officials or curious expats. It’s like playing a word game; I’m constantly auditioning new explanations to see which one is most easily understood, elicits the best reactions, or leaves the person believing it’s all an elaborate cover story for my real identity as a spy.

The short answer is that Oxus International is a research company. The bulk of our contracts relate to social research. (More times than I can count, I have said this and the person shakes their head and says, “You know, I just can’t keep up with things like Twitter.”) Mostly this means we conduct studies that involve designing and implementing surveys, questionnaires, focus groups and structured interviews, collecting all of the data, analyzing it and turning it into a fancy report filled with charts and graphs. The projects we’ve completed have spanned several different topics, including youths’ perceptions on peace and reconciliation programs and how gold mines affect rural communities.

It took some time for the company to get to this point, and figuring out Oxus International’s purpose came about more from the work we were actually able to find and complete than from the original idea we had in mind.

Initially, with no professional experience in Kyrgyzstan and only a general idea of the kinds of projects we thought we could accomplish, we set out on a self-funded project intended to demonstrate what the company could theoretically do.

Our idea was to produce a document that would serve as a comprehensive guide to Kyrgyzstan’s media atmosphere. The most ambitious vision of it included focus groups, a test survey, and interviews with any journalists, journalism professors, and media experts that would agree to speak with us.

In February 2011 we took a flight to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, to interview people for a southern perspective on how the media was affected by several tumultuous events in 2010 (a popular uprising in April and ethnic riots in June).

February is the worst time of year to visit Osh, which I’ve been told — by people with better sense to visit in the summer — is actually a beautiful, lush city with excellent food and produce. In February, Kyrgyzstan is still several weeks away from shaking off a long winter, but it warms up enough to turn most of the country into a sopping, muddy mess without taking the chill out of the air. It’s bearable in Bishkek, but Osh has less reliable electricity and heating.

Unfamiliar with the city, Farrell and I met with interviewees in a café recommended by a friend for having private rooms, which were in fact pieces of plywood placed together tightly around a table, creating cramped, bare, unheated spaces that were, technically, private. The café blasted gangsta rap (favoring Snoop Dogg and Eminem) from the moment it opened at 9am. It was difficult to hear the translator tell us how the Uzbek journalist sitting next to me felt abandoned by the international community during the June riots while “Gin and Juice” blared at a painfully loud volume.

It was difficult to hear the translator tell us how the Uzbek journalist sitting next to me felt abandoned by the international community during the June riots while “Gin and Juice” blared at painfully loud volume.

Out of six interviews planned for that trip, only three actually came through. The other three interviewees demonstrated a tactic that would soon become familiar to me in Kyrgyzstan; they each agreed to participate and seemed enthusiastic, set up a time and confirmed the day before, but when they did not show up to the interview at the scheduled time, their phone was turned off and we never heard from them again. The ones that did show up got to listen to a nervous, first-draft explanation of who we were and what we were planning to do in Kyrgyzstan.

We gave away business cards to each interviewee and promised to send them our final product, although more than a year later, it is still unfinished.

Luckily, some organizations did take our word and offer us projects without any past performance. Our first real contract was landed almost by accident, but happened to serendipitously display the importance of being on the ground.

The client had only asked us for a reference for a translator who could monitor the Kyrgyz-language version of Google News for certain topics; the problem was that there is no Kyrgyz Google News. Instead, we ended up with a contract to track and analyze Kyrgyz-language newspapers, meaning that someone had to walk around to news kiosks every day to pick up the latest editions of the physical print copies, flip through them, and read for specific topics.

The task had a nostalgic, hands-on feel to it and jumpstarted the business into something that felt more legitimate. It didn’t last long; we were still too new to the region and didn’t have the network or the experience necessary to perform more complex projects, and six weeks later work with that client ended.

That first contract gave us both the confidence to invest more effort in the business and the self-consciousness of not quite coming off as professionals. We hired our first employees to do translation. Looking back, I’m astonished that anybody managed to take us seriously. We met potential candidates in coffee shops, we had only a vague idea of what our brand-new company was about, and without a company bank account, we had to pay the translators in stacks of Kyrgyz som.

We soon realized that even though we had the initial paperwork sorted out for the company, the logistics of keeping it running according to Kyrgyzstan’s laws necessitated a full-time employee. More than a year after the fact, I can’t even remember how we advertised for the position, but we received two resumes in total.

One was from Aibek, a recent college grad who labeled himself an entrepreneur on his resume and said he planned to open a Mexican fast food stand in Bishkek. The second was Jyldyz, a small-statured, 25-year old woman currently working at the university. Looking back, neither one really had the skills we needed, but we hired Jyldyz, leaving Aibek untethered to run what would be the city’s second Mexican restaurant. We offered $400 a month, which is a moderate salary by Bishkek’s standards (to compare, the average monthly salary in Kyrgyzstan is about $140).

Next, we needed an office where we wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring potential clients or employees, and the dingy studio apartment we were renting at the time was not going to work. It was centrally located, cost $250 per month and consisted of one small room and a kitchen coated in glittery mint-green wallpaper. The furniture was brown, the carpet was brown, and the refrigerator (which sat next to the entrance, as it didn’t fit in the kitchen) was a drab olive green. The lumpy white paint on the walls was hidden by several large brown tapestries that our landlord insisted were in line with traditional Kyrgyz home décor.

Our landlord, Victor, was a beloved administrator at the university and a faithful Christian; he once told us that in case we had any problems, we should talk to our neighbor. “She’s a good woman,” he said. “She speaks to her Bible.” The day before we moved out, this neighbor stopped to chat with me for the first time in six months. She knew very little English and I knew very little Russian, and the chat focused on her repeatedly asking my shoe size and whether I like new shoes. Trying to exit the conversation, I said things like, “I must, there!” while making a hand gesture I hoped would portray movement.

We didn’t move far. Our best friends were a Belgian couple that moved to Bishkek a month before us to also start their own business (in their case, renewable energy consulting). Their apartment, located in the same courtyard as ours, was spacious and had a clean design that they were currently splitting as their home and office space. No longer happy with sharing their personal space, they were moving into another apartment and they offered us the other half as office space.

By March 2011, we had our first permanent employee and a real work space.

Which Altynai are you?

I think the biggest point that is lost when I tell people, “I run my own company in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan” is the fact that very little of what the company achieves is achieved through me alone. A large part of the reason why my husband and I have remained in Bishkek for almost two years is because we’ve been able to connect with so many intelligent and capable people who, for reasons beyond our understanding, are willing to work with a couple of foreigners who don’t always know what they’re doing.

Every few weeks, Farrell and I invite our employees out to lunch in an attempt to form more casual, easygoing relationships. As a 24-year-old, I’m extra sensitive to the fact that I’m a boss to people who are usually older and more educated than I am, so these lunches are a good opportunity, as cheesy as it sounds, to break down some of the cultural barriers that exist between us.

Farrell, as a 34-year-old, is more sensitive to the fact that these lunches usually consist of him surrounded by three or four young women. That has been one of the unanticipated consequences of performing social research in Kyrgyzstan; we only work with women. Out of the nearly 70 resumes Oxus International has received, only three have been from men.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in a society where a lasting stereotype of a heroic Kyrgyz woman is one who has nine children, I love that I can support a few intelligent, independent women with their career choices. But, feminism aside, it can still be a bit uncomfortable for Farrell when he’s out in public surrounded by several young, attractive Central Asian women.

One time in particular, our inability to hire anybody except young women who could easily be mistaken for models almost got us into trouble. We had been hired to conduct a survey of people’s perceptions of gold mining operations in a rural region of Western Kyrgyzstan.

“For this project,” Farrell said, “we should definitely try to hire some guys.”

“For this project,” Farrell said, “we should definitely try to hire some guys.”

He meant no offense to our other employees, but the area was known for its aggressive nationalism. Several months prior, a group of young men on horseback had ransacked the camp of a gold mining company in that region, burning it to the ground.

Our employees at the time, two petite, gorgeous women in their early 20s, from Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, nodded their heads, rolled their eyes and told Farrell they would hire all of the fieldworkers for the project. A week later, the team was assembled; six young women, one of whom was pregnant. Half of them chose to wear stilettos to conduct surveys in a remote village.

The women completed the project successfully, save for one small incident. Zara and Seilya, two college students and the youngest pair of surveyors, arrived at a house knowing that for sampling purposes, they had to interview a woman. A man answered.

“Is your wife home?” Zara asked. The man turned around and walked back inside his house,

“Come in, she’s in this room,” he said. The girls walked through his house and couldn’t find anybody else.

“Where is your wife?” Seilya asked.

“Wife?” the man replied, “I don’t have a wife.” He laughed like he was the only one in on the joke and winked at the girls.

“Please, sit down!” he continued, “Would you like some juice?”

Zara was careful not to let the man see her worried expression, but she had to figure out a way for the two of them to quickly exit his house. Her thoughts turned to Seilya’s shoes, a complicated array of buckles and snaps that, as is customary when entering someone’s home, were now sitting by the front door. In Russian, which she knew the man did not speak, Zara whispered to Seilya, “Don’t bother putting on your shoes, just grab them and let’s get out of here!” Switching back to Kyrgyz, the girls made up a hasty excuse and ran out the door, barefoot and heels in hand, just as the man began pouring drinks.

Having an office full of Kyrgyz women also means keeping track of common Kyrgyz women’s names. There are a select handful of Kyrgyz words that are rearranged to make up the vast majority of Kyrgyz women’s names, like “ai” (“moon”), “gul” (“flower”), “altyn” (“gold”), “nur” (“light”). I’ve long since lost count of how many women I’ve met named Aigul, Ainura, Ainara, Gulnara, and Gulnura. It’s a somewhat common occurrence in the office to hear phone conversations that start out, “Hello, Altynai? This is Altynai,” followed by a chorus of giggles as she tries to explain just which Altynai she is.

As confusing as it can get, it’s a point of pride for me that “Altynai from Oxus International” has become a recognizable title for her.

If not for the cat

Even with an official work space, a real employee and a steady batch of contracts to keep Oxus International busy, my role in the company steadily decreased over the next several months.

I had begun teaching a photography class at the university, anticipating that there wouldn’t be enough work for me at the company, but I somehow lost myself in the position and spent the entire week preparing for two 50-minute classes. I can’t help you write a proposal, I need to work on my lecture on white balance. I haven’t even looked over that report you sent me, I have to grade my students’ photo essays. I made excuses to my husband, to people I met, and to myself.

“You know,” I’d tell myself, “the company was Farrell’s idea anyway. I wanted to move here to learn Russian, to learn about Central Asia, and I wanted to work on my photography. I’ll help him out if I have time.”

Unexpected trips would take me out of Kyrgyzstan for weeks at a time, whether I was back in the States filming an episode of House Hunters International, or spending a month in Dubai studying fashion photography under the direction of the exiled son of an Indian arms manufacturer. When I did manage to make it into the office, it was usually just to put in some face time (after all, I am the deputy director), sign some paperwork, or bother Farrell to go out to lunch with me.

I hardly had any idea what projects the company was working on or what Farrell and the other employees did on a day-to-day basis. Farrell and I left Bishkek together exactly one year after arriving to visit family in the States. By then, I felt out-of-touch with the company and unsure of how much longer I wanted to live in Kyrgyzstan.

Being back in America was a bittersweet experience. I visited friends and family all over the country, went to shopping malls, saw movies that weren’t dubbed in Russian, and stuffed myself with all my favorite foods I couldn’t find in Kyrgyzstan. I somehow ended up touring several preschools in Denver and I ached to put down roots in America. Farrell nearly had to drag me back to Bishkek.

“But, don’t you remember what Constantine said?” I asked Farrell. “We could just stay here and abandon the business.”

Had it not been for my cat in Bishkek, I might not have gone back.

Staying power

It was then September 2011 and I had officially lived in Bishkek for over a year. This was the point Farrell and I had previously agreed would be the make-or-break date. It could have gone either way, but there seemed to be enough potential for the company’s success that we decided to keep going.

Personally, I also had my own make-or-break moment. If we were going to stay in Kyrgyzstan for two, three, or five more years, then I needed to refocus my priorities and really throw my efforts into the company.

Suddenly I was at the office every morning, working the typical 40-hour work week. I ended up managing and coordinating a market research project that resulted in a 200-page report, which necessitated hiring a second full-time employee.

Finally, I felt confident explaining to people the company and my role in it.

We’ve now been living in Bishkek for nearly two years. The company celebrated its first anniversary in February 2012, and it’s a bit surreal to consider how much it has changed since we first started it. Its trajectory seems to point upward.

Recently, a representative from a large international organization met with Farrell and slipped into their conversation, “Ok, so we’re just going to sole-source this contract to your company…”

Recounting the meeting, he said he had a hard time keeping his composure. “Are you kidding me? You’re just giving us this contract?” he said, incredulous that we seemed to have gained the legitimacy as professionals to be given a contract like that.

To mark another change of our lives in Bishkek (and to demonstrate the somewhat volatile nature of doing business here) soon after celebrating the company’s first anniversary, we had to suddenly move out of our beloved first office space after our landlady decided, simply, that she was tired of dealing with foreigners. Since she also owned the apartment we lived in, Farrell and I had two weeks to find a new apartment for ourselves and new office space for both Oxus International and the Belgian company we had been sharing the office with.

It was the Belgians who proposed an unconventional idea of combining our resources and finding a big house to rent that could fit all of us and the two businesses. A week after receiving notice to leave, we signed a new lease agreement and handed over six months’ worth of rent for a three-story house in the center of Bishkek.

“Six months! This is Kyrgyzstan, you don’t know what will happen next week!”

Rahima was appalled at our decision to sign a six-month lease and hand over all of the rent upfront. “Six months! This is Kyrgyzstan, you don’t know what will happen next week!” Rahima is my Russian teacher and an ethnic Uyghur, a point she frequently refers to in class when we talk about the state of Kyrgyzstan.

She’s been attempting to teach me Russian for over a year and will still ask at least once a month what my company does, what I do, and how it relates to what I did in Iraq. She thinks she’s sly when she asks me if I’m actually a spy, with a tone that implies, come on, you can trust me with the truth, but I tell her if that were the case, I would speak fluent Russian already.

She asks how much I pay my employees, why we came to Kyrgyzstan, and when I’ll start having kids (now that my roommate is pregnant, she asks once a week, reminding me that her own son, an only child, has never forgiven her for not giving him brothers and sisters). She tells me about her family, the 12 children her mother had, her brother who was murdered in St. Petersburg, her Malagasy first husband, her Turkish second husband, and the Bangladeshi man from London who recently began chatting with her on Skype.

She tells me that every dish I think is Kyrgyz is actually Uyghur, except for besh barmak, a dish made of bland noodles and boiled mutton. She does not think highly of Kyrgyz people and talks about how Uyghurs once had an empire in Central Asia; the term Uyghur comes from a word that means “wisdom.”

Rahima still frequently asks me how long I’m planning to stay in Bishkek and I give her the same response each time.

“I don’t know, maybe a few more years. We’ll stay as long as there’s work for the company.” Then, I shrug.

My family and friends ask me the same thing. The original plan was to stay for a year. The current plan, with an undefined end-date, makes it difficult for me to think too much about my life in Bishkek so far. There’s a clear beginning, and at some point there was a transition from beginning to middle, but how will I be able to tell when it’s time to leave?

After nearly two years, the excitement of being in Kyrgyzstan and working in Kyrgyzstan and accomplishing things in Kyrgyzstan has long since worn off. My initial assumptions about what it would mean to commit to a long-term stay in a different country were that I would face the constant challenge of interacting with a different culture, which I could embrace, learn from and use to grow into some sort of superhuman of cultural understanding.

Lately, it has occurred to me that very little of how I go about my daily life in Kyrgyzstan has much to do with Kyrgyzstan itself. Most of the time, there’s no sense of place to my routine; I wouldn’t be able to grab a snapshot at any random moment and be able to say, “Yes, this is definitely Kyrgyzstan.”

Or maybe I’ve just been around too long to be able to recognize the unique signals of a life in Kyrgyzstan, like the decision to walk down a certain side street to avoid the tunnels at Manas and Chuy Avenues, a hotspot for police waiting to stop and bribe unsuspecting foreigners, or the joy in seeing Shoro umbrellas pop up on every street corner, indicating beverage stands selling maksim, chalap, and other Kyrgyz beverages that mark a clear sign of impending warm weather. I haven’t yet developed a taste for the salty, fermented, wheat-based drinks, but I relish them as a signal that a long winter is finally over.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely settled in Bishkek. I am constantly asking myself: what exactly am I doing here? What am I accomplishing? How long am I going to stay? What am I doing all of this for?

I can’t answer any of that. I tell people that I like being an expat more than being a traveler because I like the feeling of being settled in one place. I can’t handle new sites and cities every day; I need time to soak it all in and put down roots. I can say that I’m comfortable and that I’ve hit my stride with my professional and personal life. The company appears to achieving some level of success, I can get around the city fairly easily, and I feel very much like a veteran of Bishkek’s relatively small expat scene. But how long will I keep it up?

Others, it seems, are asking themselves the same thing. While doing some online research for a report on internet and media in Central Asia, I came across a report called the Media Sustainability Index. There was a small section about organizations that performed media research. This could be useful, I thought, as I skimmed through the paragraphs.

It’s good to keep up with competition. Overall it mentioned the general lack of decent research companies, summing up the section, to my surprise, with a mention of a new company in Bishkek, Oxus International.

Bluntly, the passage concluded, “but whether [Oxus International] will be accepted or have staying power remains to be seen.” [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]

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