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Half a world away
Cholpon Alymbekova, right, and Chris Maul-Smith talk about Kyrgyzstan in Maul-Smith's Corvallis Middle School classroom Monday. Alymbekova, a foreign exchange student from Kyrgyzstan going to school at Missoula's Sentinel High School, helped give Corvallis students a presentation on her country along with Maul-Smith, who spent four weeks last summer in Kyrgyzstan on a Fulbright grant.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Teacher, exchange student share knowledge of Kyrgyzstan with Corvallis students

CORVALLIS - Chris Maul-Smith and Cholpon Alymbekova both traveled halfway around the world to discover the same thing:

Montana and Kyrgyzstan have a lot in common.

Maul-Smith, a teacher at Corvallis Middle School, and Alymbekova, a foreign exchange student at Missoula's Sentinel High School, got together Monday to share their knowledge of Kyrgyzstan with Corvallis students.

Maul-Smith spent four weeks last summer in the central Asian country, once a part of the Soviet Union. He was one of a dozen Montana teachers - plus a University of Montana professor and two UM graduate students - who traveled there on a Fulbright grant.

Alymbekova is from Karakol, a city about the same size as Missoula located in the mountainous region of northeast Kyrgyzstan.

"I love it here," she said. "I love the people. It feels very much like my hometown. The mountains, the weather, they are very much alike."

As he showed slides from Kyrgyzstan, Maul-Smith told a class of fifth-graders, "The mountains are a little higher and the valleys a little broader, but it looks a lot like Montana."

Lake Issyk-Kul, near Karakol and surrounded by stunning mountains, is nearly three times the size of Flathead Lake, Maul-Smith said.

Like Montana, Kyrgyzstan rolls out from towering mountains to plains - although it does so in an east-to-west direction.

But Kyrgyzstan - where Marco Polo once traveled the Silk Road - and Montana are half a world apart, too.

Half the size of Montana, the country has a population of 5 million. The average wage is $300 a month. Many people live in tent-like yurts, sometimes at elevations higher than the highest point in Montana. The mountains themselves can approach 22,000 feet. And in the valleys, one of the biggest crops is watermelon.

Alymbekova played a traditional Kyrgyz song on a komuz, a four-stringed instrument similar in length to a guitar but with a sound closer to a ukulele.

Maul-Smith told the students about a popular beverage called koumys.

"It is fermented mare's milk," he explained. "It's fairly sour. People sell it alongside the road everywhere you go. There are no trucks filled with koumys - it's more a case of people washing out pop bottles and plastic jugs, milking their horse and filling them."

Some people add honey or sugar to the drink, Alymbekova said.

The girl is one of two Youth for Understanding exchange students staying with Tim and Judy Sather of Missoula (the other is Veronica Arpi Torres of Ecuador). They are the 17th and 18th foreign students the Sathers have hosted, and Alymbekova say they have truly lucked out.

The Sathers have taken the girls to Southern California, Jackson Hole, Wyo., Hawaii and Las Vegas ("Las Vegas was crazy," Alymbekova said. "We have nothing like it.") And they have trips planned to Utah, Arizona, New York and Washington, D.C.

They've also been skiing at Big Mountain, a first for Alymbekova.

Despite its incredible mountains, few people in Kyrgyzstan ski. "People do it not for joy, only for sport," she said.

The daughter of an agronomist and a pharmacist, Alymbekova plans to study foreign relations at an American university in Kyrgyzstan's capital city of Bishkek. She is fluent in five languages - Kyrgyz and Russian, which she grew up with, and English, German and Turkish, which she learned at school.

Kyrgyz students go through 11 grades, she said, remaining with the same classmates the entire time. School runs from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with no lunch break. After going home to eat, students participate in music or sports programs in the afternoons.

They also attend school on Saturday mornings.

Her year in America has introduced her to many new experiences, but her favorite, by far, is football.

"I love the Grizzlies," she said.

Alymbekova and Maul-Smith spent every period Monday with a different Corvallis Middle School class. The purpose of the Fulbright grant, written by UM geography professors Jeff Gritzner and Sarah Halvorson, is to "share information," Maul-Smith said. "Bring it into the schools, so people can get a better understanding of central Asia. There are a lot of worries in that part of the world right now, and not a lot of understanding about what real people are like there."

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 523-5260 or at

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