An Outreach Trip to Batken

Last month, just as winter break began, one of the other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants, Amanda, and I went to Batken, a province about the same size in area as Connecticut. With a smaller population than any US state, is located in the far southwest corner of the Kyrgyz Republic. Closed off to Peace Corps volunteers and most of the US Embassy staff, few Americans travel to this region, which is unfortunate because of the beauty and hospitality we enjoyed.

Since the drive from Bishkek to Batken is more than 24 hours and dangerous in the colder months, we flew to Batken city. Tez Jet, a Kyrgyz company that owns exactly one plane and only flies to Osh and Batken, lands in Batken city two days a week and as far as I know, is the only regular flight to the region. I am an anxious air traveler, so stepping on a plane that is the same model and flies a similar route as the tragic flight taken by the Brazilian soccer team en route to the South American club championship was a little unsettling, but there were no issues and we arrived on time and in one piece.

On our first day, we met with students and staff from Batken State University. As mentioned, Batken is a sparsely populated region and thus, the university is quite small. There are only a few thousand students and many of them come from small villages. We gave a presentation on Christmas in the United States and had a discussion on education in Kyrgyzstan and the United States.

Our mini bus trip to Isfana was uneventful but long. The roads between the cities are very rural and due to a lack of funds, there are no snow plows or salt for the roads. At times the driver drove only 15 mph an hour, lengthening the trip from two hours to three and a half. The views along the way, however, were stunning.

Isfana is strangely reminiscent to West Virginia. The town is built on top of a mountain and has winding roads and homes built on rolling hills. While we were in Isfana, we met with more students and teachers at a state boarding school. The majority of students at this school were Uzbek, and many were from villages seven or eight hours away. Since we met with younger kids, we decided to play games with the students instead. Including one where one student is blindfolded and the others have to tell him how to get through the obstacles.

Being far from Bishkek and closer to Uzbekistan has made the region more conservative than where I live. Although the school is coed, none of the boarding students are female because families are not willing to send their daughters. This, of course, has a negative effect on women’s education and autonomy. We also met a woman who had been bride kidnapped while she was in college and was not able to finish her degree. Instead, she has a certificate that allows her to teach English in a high school. She greatly regrets not being able to complete her degree and she actively encourages her students (especially her female students) to complete a university degree before getting married.

Despite the 4-5 inches of snow that fell while we were in Isfana, we were able to return to Batken and catch our flight to Bishkek. Our trip to the region was among the most interesting trips I have had since I arrived in Kyrgyzstan and very rewarding. The students were very eager to speak with us and I am still in touch with some through social media. Amanda and I hope to return in spring and help with other educational outreach programs.

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