In the last minutes of my 42-hour journey from Montana, I was drifting in and out of sleep and aggressively squinting because the lights were turned on when we started descending. After deboarding the plane at 5:40 am, all the passengers squished onto a bus that took us to the main airport building. Per SRAS’s very clear and helpful instructions, I presented my passport, E-visa copy, and London School invitation letter to an unsmiling guard who gave me a stamp and didn’t even as much wave me forward.
If anyone knows Nicole who works for Alaska Airlines in Seattle, please give her my utmost thanks and admiration. I had a horrible feeling that the universe was going to play a sick joke on me by my luggage potentially facing complications on the extended route I sent them through, but when I saw that both suitcases were on the conveyor belt, my heart soared.
I received an email the previous day from a London School coordinator in which contact information of the representative meeting me at the airport was shared. Sure enough, Syimyk was holding a very nice sign that displayed my full name and organizational affiliation. He wrangled my heavy bags despite my repeated offers to take one on myself and snapped a picture of my passport entry stamp to (I assume) confirm with someone in charge. He hailed a taxi for us and we were off.
I was nervous about arriving so early in the morning but I stepped into crisp and cool morning air while it was still becoming light. Tall trees lined the highway but there were a few breaks through which you could see enormous mountains looming directly ahead. In the violet gray morning light, I hardly could distinguish the mountains from the clouds. The taxi driver turned up a song founded on a horrible synth beat and repetition of the words “Batshit Crazy”; it cut to a commercial after 3 torturous minutes and I was struck by what I heard. I studied abroad in Austria a few years ago and knew zero German when I touched down. I remember my host dad telling me that even though the radio ads we heard on the drive from the airport meant nothing to me at the moment, I would be able to completely understand by the time I left. He turned out to be right, and I would like to see it through again with the Russian language.
I checked out the gift bag that Syimyk gave me that morning, courtesy of the London School. Inside was a local phone (a Nokia!), cookies, a water bottle, and a roll of toilet paper (which still hasn’t been explained further). The program coordinator, Kunduz, was waiting for us in the London School lobby. I received my semester class schedule the day prior, so knew what to expect for class and break times. She showed me the school canteen, library and computer lab, as well as the outside of the dorms. We did a quick city tour as well, just down the street from the school is the Vefa center mall where one can add money to a local phone. We went to a currency exchange and a safe ATM near the school as well.
We had orientation the Wednesday of our first week of class. It was mostly about cultural differences and what to expect from living with host families. Academic expectations were also explained, such as when our tests are assigned and what percentages of our final grades are based on, etc. The London School coordinators and manager did this section, and then SRAS student coordinator Molly Wise gave us a presentation about what’s going on in the city and shared resources with us for finding and using services.
We received our special class schedules a day after we arrived. The schedule is for each day for the entire semester, so I could see when our excursions and trips are planned as well. In the Central Asian studies program, students take intensive Russian, which is split into three class sections that are 80 minutes each Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays: reading, grammar, and communication. Additionally, we take Understanding Central Asia and the New Great Game, both taught in English three afternoons out of the week.
Wednesdays we don’t have classes, but there are often lectures, cooking or crafting lessons, and peer tutoring scheduled. Fridays, we start later and only have one Russian class (communication) and then an end-of-the-week test we complete online. Typically, one lesson is completed each day in Russian classes and there are homework quizzes that correspond to the lessons that should be completed each night.
We all were given an online placement test that was taken a few weeks before we arrived in Bishkek. Based on my own experience and after talking to the other students, it was concluded that nobody did well on the exam because it was timed (10 minutes!) and the questions and answers were incredibly arbitrary. On our first day of classes, however, we did an oral exam that made a difference in our placement and many of us were actually moved up a level on the second day because the online placement test scores reflected our Russian abilities quite poorly.
Russian classes are one-on-one, which is a little nerve-wracking. I’m often put on the spot and the instruction is based online, so there isn’t much writing, which is how I’m accustomed to learning Russian from my university classes at home. It’s very conversational, which is obviously really helpful because that’s where my Russian skills lack. But it’s a little uncomfortable because my brain is working so hard to do everything verbally without taking the time to copy new words down to refer back to when they come up again. I think it will take time getting used to, but luckily students have online access to the same lesson pages we use in class, so I’ve been looking ahead to identify unknown words and constructions to write down and familiarize myself with before class.
Last weekend, the school organized a trip for the SRAS students to visit Lake Issyk Kul. We went horseback riding, saw an eagle show, went on a few hikes, and swam in the lake. It was a ton of fun, and now we’re finishing our second week of classes and settling in well.