Two weekends ago it snowed here in Virginia, and the winter landscape made me nostalgic for Kyrgyzstan. Though I grew up near Chicago with plenty of snow, when the white stuff falls it takes me to Central Asia instead. I think it must be because my experience of winter there was more visceral and the backdrop of my greatest adventure.
Winter was not more visceral, nor my experience more adventurous, because I lived in the mountains that comprise 90ish percent of Kyrgyzstsan. I lived in the Ferghana Valley, in a city called Osh. Winter in Osh was more visceral because it was less resisted than in places like Chicago or Arlington.
For example, Osh had some snow removal—trucks that plowed and spread sand—but smaller roads, sidewalks, and paths could go un-cleared. Last Monday when I went for a walk and hit a patch of slick snow that had evaded the shovels of Arlingtonians, I was taken back to Kyrgyzstan where trying not to wipe out was a seasonal challenge for me. In a country where kids without sleds slid down slippery hills in a squat, I always felt like a klutz on the packed snow and ice. For me, walking required real attention—to the ground, my posture, my steps. It was tense. It was scary. Imagine, for example, trying to navigate slick uneven stairs or trying to keep your feet with people jostling in the bazaar, where only the sun and foot traffic gradually melted the snow that invariably sojourned as ice before its eventual evaporation.
Then there was the cold. It’s not that it was acute, so much as chronic. The indoor spaces I frequented were poorly heated. My host family generously gave me a room of my own, but it had no heat. So at night I pulled my Peace Corps-issued space heater next to my cot and, in pajamas, wool socks, a fleece jacket, and a hat, slid into my sleeping bag and zipped it to the top. Space heaters were also used in the offices and classrooms of the university where I routinely wore tights under jeans, fleece lined boots, two shirts, a sweater, a fleece jacket, and a wool coat all day.
One lesson I learned in Kyrgyzstan is that inconveniences tend to have silver linings, and coping with cold gave me a fuller appreciation for hot showers, tea, and soup. The latter had always been a mere menu choice in the U.S., more about ingredients than temperature. But in Osh, soup was an opportunity to warm your hands on a bowl, lean your face over an arabesque of steam, and feel the warm food heat you from the inside.
In hindsight I also think there must also have been a less resistant attitude toward winter in Osh because, in general, people were less insistent on working and more reverent of relaxation. For example, people of Kyrgyzstan love their holidays, celebrating a few for several days at a time. Three holidays occurring in the first week of May—Constitution Day, May Day, and Victory Day—are usually turned into a nine-day vacation by the government that has the purview to create one-off holidays each year and to move holidays around for maximum time off. A week and a half of holiday seems indulgent in the U.S. where I think a lot of people love a snow day or two but then want to get back to work.
Osh was more open to winter and I was too. Part of it was my lifestyle, but more of it was my overall orientation. I had gone halfway around the world and was trying to thrive in a different culture. Openness was the order of the day if I was going to fit into my host family, learn Russian, eat the food, or bathe (in a banya). Some things came easily, provoked by my surroundings: curiosity, observation, wonder. Other things required more effort: extroversion, flexibility, humility. It was in this mindset, in December, that I moved to Osh after my training and experienced a winter whose snows made the world as boundless and wonder-struck as my outlook.