What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and Kyrgyzstanding: In ancient times, Turkish-descended nomads settled in the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia. Their descendents formed the Kyrgyz culture, which existed for centuries until a flood of Russian colonists in the early 1900s disrupted their pastoral nomadic way of life. The Kyrgyz tried to revolt in 1916 but failed. Kyrgyzstan became part of the Soviet Union where it remained until it declared its independence in 1991.
That’s just a little bit of background on your sister nation. Yes, that’s right, Montana and Kyrgyzstan are siblings, joined in the bonds of international unity and cooperation under the auspices of the NATO Partnership for Peace program. At the end of May the program had a major event in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, attended by nearly 20 Montanans.
While Arizona gets to hang out with Kazakhstan and Nevada chills with Turkmenistan, Montana was a natural match for Kyrgyzstan, a nation of nearly 5 million people about the size of Nebraska. Kyrgyzstan is a rugged nation covered in mountains, which faces many of the same emergency management issues as Montana.
“Everything is in the valleys, just like here in western Montana,” says Bill Thomas, a Missoula-based official in the state Disaster and Emergency Services administration who went on the trip. “So they have the same kind of threats that we do, except we have the infrastructure to respond and they have absolutely nothing.”
The infrastructure has gotten slightly better over time, says Chief Warrant Officer Ric Bridwell of the Montana National Guard.
“It’s been a real experience just to see how they progress each time you go over,” says Bridwell, who has been to Kyrgyzstan nine times in the last three years. “The roads are better and the buildings are newer.”
The NATO program was designed to foster military cooperation and the spread of democratic government, Bridwell says. The work between Montana’s National Guard and Kyrgyzstani agencies has focused on demonstrating how military prowess can be used to help civil authorities in the event of emergencies, Bridwell says.
In addition to National Guard representatives and emergency services officials, some other civilians went on the trip, including a Blaine County commissioner and a Red Cross representative. Civilian doctors, nurses, and emergency response professionals routinely go on exchange trips, Bridwell says, and Kyrgyzstanis in similar jobs have come to Montana on a regular basis.
“The people over there are absolutely amazing, they’re very open and receptive and warm and just delightful,” Thomas says. He remembers the last time he was in Kyrgyzstan when he and some other Americans were “ambushed” by a group of friendly Kyrgyzstani legislators at an event.
“They wanted to talk to some Americans,” Thomas says. “We had some vodka toasts to each others’ futures and health and peace and all that business. One of them told us that when he was growing up he was taught to fear Americans and was never sure he wanted to meet any Americans, but we just had such a delightful time there.
There were hugs all around and it was just a marvelous experience.”
Thomas also gives high marks to the cuisine in Kyrgyzstan.
“They have absolutely the best tomatoes in the entire world, I’m convinced,” he says. “They eat a lot of lamb, a lot of salads. And horses, by the way, you eat horsemeat. Of course they have a rich tradition of horsemanship and breeding and so forth, being related to the Mongols and the Cossacks.”
Did Thomas indulge in the horsemeat?
“Everything,” he says. “I tried everything. It was great.”