By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

As anyone who’s had a brush with Russian will tell you, going somewhere and using the Russian language to describe it is traumatic. It’s a nosy language I feel likes to keep tabs on me and wants to know all kinds of personal details like if I’m walking or running, driving or taking a plane, if I’ll be taking a rucksack or a trolley case, whether I come here often or don’t plan on coming back. I’ve been doing these mental acrobatics for the past month, and although the pleasures of the Russian language should carry a health warning, the more dubious pleasures of the Kyrgyz road really are open to everyone.


You don't know what it took to describe how we got here

I’m going to surprise my MFI colleagues when I say that Kyrgyzstan’s roads and its drivers really aren’t the worst I’ve seen. I’ve seen my friend Paolo overtake miles of traffic jams on Italy’s Amalfi coast by driving at oncoming traffic, I’ve sat in hours of jams in Mumbai and Mexico City, and I’ve been part of the problem riding a scooter in Indonesia. And I’ve learnt that looks can be deceptive, as when my parents’ relief at having a woman drive us to the airport in Guilin, China turned into white-knuckle fear, when we were overtaken by a bus and spent the next 50km avenging her lost honour. After this, whenever we’re sitting in a traffic jam in the rain in Bishkek and I see a Mercedes overtaking us on a grass verge, or we’re labouring along a potholed track in a 4×4 only to be overtaken by an old man in a Lada, I really know that I’m just back my favourite spot in the places where the road is an adventure, i.e. dangerous, and the distractions of the jaw dropping mountainous landscape along the Silk Road could all go badly wrong. And there’s actually something quite endearing about being driven along the road of Kyrgyzstan and passing Ladas with double beds or haystacks strapped to the top. Or wondering if the Russian flag flying upside-down outside the Gazprom petrol station is that way by accident on design. Less endearing is driving in the country at night, where the gentleman’s etiquette of how to deal with oncoming traffic that I’m used to, has become an updated version of the staple of the 19th-century Russian novel, the duel. Although I’ve yet to see anyone at my MFI do this, the rule seems to be that you dip your headlights as soon as you see your opponent coming and then give them a full beam in the face and point blank range. Part of me hopes that they cackle all the way to the other side of the mountains, but just as likely is that they’d be picked up by the sawn-off light sabres of the GAI, the ubiquitous traffic police found all across the CIS, who seem less interested by your real or imagined infringement and much more interested in the contents of your wallet.

Coming the other way

This heading towards you in the night?

Old people's car

The people's car?

One of the most surreal parts of the roads in Kyrgyzstan is what’s driving on it: the roads are full of Mers, the local Russian term for a Mercedes Benz! When I first saw a Kiva borrower from Kyrgyzstan whose dream was to “buy a Mercedes”, it sounded like the pie-in-the-sky kind. Only once you’re in Kyrgyzstan and you see an Audi with a sticker saying KÄRNTEN (Carinthia, a state of Austria) or a Mers with a D bumper sticker (the international code for Germany), do you start to realize that this dream might actually be achievable. What was once a symbol of wealth and prestige, has become the “people’s car”, as my MFI colleagues pointed out to me on my first day. The original bodies mostly come from Germany or Austria and apparently are bought by middlemen in Lithuania, a nation currently more famous in my country for its builders and plumbers rather than mechanics, before being repaired and sold into the Kyrgyzstan market. And when a colleague came back from a conference in Europe, he was often surprised by how small the cars are there.

New people's car

A Mers, the new people's car

Once again, the lesson I’m choosing to take from this is that looks really can be deceiving. I’ve not yet seen a Kiva borrower with a 15-year-old third-hand Mers, but I think the time will come. I’ve written in a few of my blogs on Kyrgyzstan that poverty looks different here from the standard Western conception. Does living in an apartment block with intermittent water and electricity (some “local colour” that also affects me) make you ineligible for a Kiva loan? Or does the fact that a borrower has a fridge mean that they’re “richer” and less deserving? I would say no, because apartments are a fact of life in Kyrgyzstan, or because we don’t know that saving for a fridge has meant saving for 10 years. And the concept behind microfinance is to reach people who don’t have access to any other source of funding.

I’ll leave you with some Flipcam footage of my most recent trip to Balykchy:


Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with Mol Bulak Finance in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Join the Kyrgyzstan lending team. There are borrowers from Kyrgyzstan with Mol Bulak Finance who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

<< Fellows Updates