Hitchhiking with Sheep and Other Kyrgyz Stories

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

When I applied to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I said I would go anywhere and work in any sector. I remember telling my father (who is a former Peace Corps volunteer) where I had been assigned to go. He told me, “You said you would go anywhere, and you got anywhere.”

I’ll never forget that because I was assigned to go to a place I knew almost nothing about and I likely would have never come to Kyrgyzstan if not for the Peace Corps. I was so intimidated by the idea of living and volunteering abroad for two years, which is exactly why I knew I needed to do it. I needed to leave my comfort zone in order to grow and learn from others that have experienced a different way of life.

I was most excited about experiencing a life different from what I knew and understood. It was scary to think about the idea that I wouldn't be doing the same things I did every day in the States with people I knew, but that was a big part of the appeal—to just say "yes" and go with it. I said goodbye to my family, my friends, and the only life I had ever known, and since then I have truly learned to appreciate the little things.

For example, I appreciate when I have running water or when my electricity doesn’t go out. I have a few favorite transportation memories that are unique to Kyrgyzstan. I remember hitchhiking out of my village one day, and the car that pulled over had a live sheep tied to the roof of their car. I have also been in a marshrutka (a large van) where I sat next to a slaughtered sheep.

Another memory I have is from when I first arrived in Kyrgyzstan. I was walking home from school in the snow when some of my students approached me with a donkey that had a sled tied behind it. I sat on the sled while the donkey did all the work and took me home.

Another day, I went to the mountains with some neighbours from my village and met a family living in a yurt. Naturally, they invited us into their yurt for lunch and fermented horse milk called kymyz.

After we left, we drove further into the mountains until we pulled over to eat more food, which is normal here. My neighbour was fixing his car while his daughters and I were collecting fire wood. Suddenly the car caught on fire and the flames spread to his jacket, so his wife found a bottle of Pepsi to put out the fire.

There was another time when my friend and I had to hitchhike to a nearby village to get groceries and the first car that pulled over was what looked like an old delivery truck. When we got in, the two men in the front bench seat moved to the back. When we looked in the back of the truck, there were 6 men lying on one giant, homemade metal bunk bed that was decorated quite nicely with blankets and pillows.


My friend and I were headed to the town closest to where she lived, so we got in a marshrutka near her village. Within a few minutes, the van broke down. We got out and tried to wave down someone else to take us while the marshrutka driver worked on fixing whatever was wrong. We waited and no one picked us up. Finally, we heard the van start and we had to push it and then jump in while it began to roll faster and faster.

Most recently, I was getting a ride from a village about an hour and a half from my town. The topic the driver was most interested in talking about was American films and famous actors. His favorite movie was Gladiator and his favorite actors included Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves, Mel Gibson, and Brad Pitt. He was excited to hear I also was a fan of the movie Gladiator.

I told my mom recently that I'd learned I don’t need much to be happy. I will always remember how humble and welcoming Kyrgyz people are. They have taught me so much and I have countless memories from my time with the people here.


When I used to live with a Kyrgyz family, in the evenings I would sit outside on the bench next to their family farm with the grandmother and practice my Kyrgyz with her. The young girls I used to live with were my best friends and always included me. We would cook, clean and play together. I even got them to go hiking with me, which was a hard sell because they had never gone before. We lived in a little mountain village nestled in the Tien Shan mountain range so it was just a walk through the village and then right into the mountains.

I will also never forget the wonderful woman, Asel, who I work with in Balykchy, the town where I live now. Without fail, every day after class Asel holds my hand and walks me to where I get a ride home. She is the hardest working person I know. She cooks, cleans and does all the laundry for her three children and her mother. She works two jobs, but she still comes to work every day with a smile on her face and always wants to do more to better herself and her students. She is my inspiration.

My work here with secondary projects through the Peace Corps has been a huge blessing because we have been able to work on projects that are motivated by local community members. Since living here, I've had four major secondary projects, all of which have been really exciting to work on. Two grants included getting whiteboards for my old school and a week long boys' healthy lifestyle summer camp.

My first crowd funding project stemmed from the fact that Kyrgyzstan is very prone to earthquakes, so I provided training around the country to educate students and other locals on how to prepare for and respond to an earthquake.

My most recent crowd-funded project is to renovate the outdoor bathrooms at my school so that they have things like stall doors with locks and hand washing stations. I also really enjoyed participating in a winter sports camp with kids who have never been skiing or snowboarding before. I helped kids learn to snowboard for a week and they were so appreciative and so eager to learn. It was amazing to see the kids grow and learn a new skill in such a short period of time.

My biggest challenges adapting to living here started with leaving everything behind. Leaving Seattle was the first and biggest challenge and it took me a while to adjust to this new place I was going to live and work in.

The second was arriving here and trying to figure out how to make this place home—how to fit in and be a part of the community I lived in. Due to the friendly nature of the Kyrgyz people, from day one it was a simple fact that I was a granddaughter, daughter and sister to my Kyrgyz family.

The third and most recent challenge I'm facing is: how am I going to leave? I've gotten so comfortable here and close with the locals. Have I done enough work here? Will I ever see the Kyrgyz people I have come to care about again? How can I ever thank them for everything they have done for me?

People living in other parts of the world don’t tend to know much about Muslim countries, so I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to live in Kyrgyzstan for two years. Kyrgyz people are just people and they always think of themselves firstly as Kyrgyz, not Muslim. Islam came to this region of the world later than it did elsewhere.

Kyrgyz people used to be nomadic, living in yurts. But now there is an interesting combination of old Kyrgyz traditions, Islamic practices, and post-Soviet influence present in Kyrgyzstan. This is the most interesting place I have ever been. I am privileged to have been able to really get to know this country and its people.

Things that I will miss the most are, of course, the friends and people I work with, like Asel. I will also miss a long list of other people, including my students and locals that I have gotten to know, such as my Kyrgyz family. I will miss the Peace Corps staff who have been nothing but supportive, helpful and kind. I’ll miss going to the bazaar and buying fresh food. I’ll miss seeing men on horseback on the roadside herding their sheep, horses, or cattle. I will miss hearing the call to prayer five times a day. I will miss being able to hike anywhere I like, as there are no trails here and I can wander up any random mountain and possibly run into a grazing camel. I will miss being able to go to the mountains in the summer and sleeping in yurts.

I will miss Kyrgyzstan.