Winging it has its advantages.
I was in Krygyzstan for a quick summer getaway, which – uncharacteristically for me – I had barely planned. On this sunny afternoon, I was wandering around the city center of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, on the hunt for a pub recommended in my guide book.
After walking for longer than I was expecting, I starting asking people on the street for directions.
About four tries in, I’d been met mostly with blank looks from people who didn’t speak English, and I was on the verge of giving up in frustration and heading back to my hotel for a solitary evening.
That’s when I saw Bermet, with her close-cropped hair and linen shift dress. I asked her the way to Metro Pub. Not only did she direct me to it in flawless English, but we got to chatting.
Seizing the chance to be able to communicate – something I hadn’t had much luck with since landing in this central Asian country a day earlier – I asked her about some local restaurants I was planning to try. She was on her way to lunch, so we went together to get some authentic Kyrgyz food nearby.
I bombarded her with questions about local culture, politics, and everything in between, as we sat down at low tables in an outdoor courtyard, tucking into delicious plof (the central Asian meat and rice staple) washed down with kumys (fermented mare’s milk – an acquired taste).
I learned that Bermet is from a small Kyrgyz village called Bulan Sogottu in the east of the country, and was working as a consultant with the German Corporation for International Cooperation in Bishkek.
A particularly bright student, she had been scouted for a high school exchange program in 2007, which took her to the USA, and returned there in 2010 as a university exchange student.
Smart, articulate, and aware, Bermet represents the new generation of central Asians who are ready to take their place on the world stage, even as the former Soviet nations grapple with relatively newfound sovereignty. Though ambition and intelligence have taken her to the “big city” and beyond, her career goals are firmly focused on social development, not material success, which I found both inspiring and humbling.
Our conversation flowed easily, but soon she had to go back to work. We made plans to try and meet up later, but I wasn’t sure if I’d see her again.
I made my way to a hostel I was planning to move into next, where I met a young woman called Adriana at the reception – she’d just arrived in Kyrgyzstan that day. We exchanged smiles, hellos, and, as she was also looking for somewhere to go for the evening, soon we were making our way to the pub together.
Adriana is a high-achieving millennial who worked with the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, and had come to Bishkek for a conference that week. Brazilian by birth, she has worked with aid agencies in Lebanon, NGOs in Iraq and Libya, and handled missions for the Syrian crisis.
Just as I did with Bermet, I found Adriana’s intelligence, courage, and overall approach to life immensely inspiring. I had rarely had the opportunity to closely interact with people so dedicated to social good in my (relatively superficial) life as a lifestyle journalist.
It isn’t uncommon to meet new people when you travel alone, but rarely do these fleeting encounters turn into real friendships. Meeting both these women made me seriously think about the impact I was making on the world.
Bermet joined us later in the evening, and it was like we’d known each other all our lives. In many ways, we couldn't have been more different – me, a married professional living in glitzy Dubai; Bermet, just starting out in her career, and recently single; Adriana, a young yet highly qualified social enterprise worker, with a boyfriend. But we felt an instant connection… based perhaps on the fact that, in spite of our diverse backgrounds, we were all open-minded, global women with a shared concern for a better world.
We ended up having a long, fun night of pub-crawling, going from the quirky Metro Pub to Studio 54-esque karaoke joints to ritzy yet empty bars, finally ending up in an unpretentious lounge where a live band and animated locals provided all the atmosphere we needed.
Far from being just another drunken night out, we also had the most stimulating conversations – talking about everything from the socio-political realities of the region and culinary anthropology, to our three very different cultures and backgrounds, dreams, hopes, and goals.
The next day Adriana joined me on a trip to Bel Tam – a charmingly rustic yurt camp on the southern lakeshore of Issyk-kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake. We went horse trekking, swam in the freezing cold lake, and enjoyed the serene, unspoiled surrounds of this magical corner of the world.
We parted ways after a day as I continued on my excursions in the countryside, but on my last night back in Bishkek, we all met up again at the Pinta Pub, a beer garden popular with backpackers.
It isn’t uncommon to meet new people when you travel alone, but rarely do these fleeting encounters turn into real friendships. We’ve stayed in touch, sharing our triumphs and troughs over WhatsApp, and making plans for a reunion. Meeting both these women made me seriously think about the impact I was making on the world. It opened my eyes to how much work there is to be done on this planet, and how each of us can make a difference if we choose to.
Since my trip, I’ve actively sought out work gigs with socially responsible organizations and explored volunteering opportunities. Those things had always been on my “must get down to someday” list, but somehow, my impromptu trip to this beautifully imperfect destination provided just the trigger I needed.
As someone who travels often, I’ve been to a number of fascinating places since, but this holiday left an indelible mark – not least because of the friendships I forged that June afternoon.
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Sudeshna is a travel & lifestyle editor/journalist and content consultant. Passionate about exploring the world and seeking out authentic, cultural experiences, she is a big believer in the mind-expanding powers of travel.
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