Our Introduction to Kyrgyzstan

Trip Start May 14, 2009
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Trip End Jun 15, 2009


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Where I stayed
Silk Road Lodge Hotel

Flag of Kyrgyzstan  , Bishkek,
Friday, May 29, 2009

Our Introduction to Kyrgyzstan

Quaint or quirky Kyrgyzstan – however you may describe it - this country is certainly a bizarre paradox. With a fašade of normality and all the trappings of modern living, Kyrgyzstan was to blow us away with its contemporary and beautiful capital city of Bishkek, yet third world conditions and widespread practices of bride kidnappings within only kilometers of the city centre. And sadly, like many of the former abandoned Soviet states of Central Asia, this improbable country has had a tumultuous past and today still suffers from an ineffectual government with entrenched corruption and nepotism, high unemployment (and underemployment) and a struggling economy.

Yet, this appealing and picturesque nation does have its pluses. It has some of the most liberal attitudes and the fastest privatisation programs in Central Asia, and it is now investing heavily in a thriving community based tourism industry. And for a country largely lacking in natural resources, tourism may well be the conduit to an enhanced economic prosperity for this tenacious little nation. For its secret is its natural beauty. With stunning mountains, lush green alpine meadows, magnificent mountain lakes and super hospitable people, Kyrgyzstan makes for another fascinating and highly scenic destination.

Even though we were very late arriving at Manas airport, we had an orientation tour of the capital Bishkek. In fact at 8.00 pm we were still looking at blessed endless city monuments. We just wanted a meal and our bed – and some money.

This was our first of many endeavours to change money in Kyrgyzstan. We were assured that it is REALLY easy to exchange money in Kyrgyzstan "Don't WORRY", smiled Vita “You will have NO problems”. This sounded a bit familiar. Vita assured us that the Hyatt Hotel would exchange money. Well, that day it didn’t. Then we reluctantly tried an ATM which told us there was no Visa card service that day either, although thankfully it spat back out our Visa card. We eventually changed some of our precious US dollars at a doubtful looking money change booth in a supermarket. We at least were able to change some money but it was not without the exchange guy barking furiously at Alan to remove his hand from the counter. We reasoned that he had a shit of a job.

With a population of nearly one million, Bishkek (formerly known as Frunze) is situated in the north of Kyrgyzstan on the edge of the Kyrgyz Alatau Mountains, an arm of the mighty Tian Shan range. Massive snowy peaks provide a simply stunning setting for this impressive city. Bishkek is essentially green in colour, boasting extensive, lush tree-scaped parks with ancient oaks, birches, elms and elderberry trees lining the city’s broad streets and the main city square of Ala-Too (formerly Lenin Square). Despite this greenery however, the city centre architecture is truly confronting. Government buildings, universities and concert halls are massive and forbidding, displaying typical brutal Russian architecture. It was more European and even more in your face than the Russian architecture of Tashkent

The city of Bishkek had a somewhat schizophrenic feeling with contradictions in almost every sight we saw.

We were amazed by the expensive cars in Bishkek. Many, if not most were Mercedes, BMWs or Audis, with a splattering of Toyota Land cruisers and Forresters. We wondered how a country of just 5 million people could afford cars like this. Vita later explained that there is a huge market in Kyrgyzstan for overseas second hand vehicles and that in fact these cars were purchased very cheaply by local people. It still did not add up to us.

Young people wearing flesh hugging t-shirts with lycra leggings and highest of heels strolled along the streets or freely embraced along the roadsides or in the parks. Like Tashkent, it was almost as if these young people had just discovered liberation. And it was hard NOT to notice. We were intrigued at the seemingly outrageous dress and behaviour in what we thought would be a very conservative nation.

As Alan so accurately said that night “This city does not feel real. It is like watching a play with the locals acting out the scene. You are afraid to find out too much detail as you might find out something you don’t like”. I could not have agreed more.

If we thought that Bishkek was a strange place, then our Silk Road Lodge felt even stranger. The two storey English guest house style lodge set in pretty rose gardens reminded us of something out of Fawlty Towers. Well, that is except everything actually worked, the staff was efficient and helpful and we had a lovely three roomed apartment style suite to ourselves. And a further bonus was a kitchenette with coffee making facilities (something we had not seen since we departed Sydney - and were not to see again either…) and an ironing board and iron. What bliss for two very crumpled tourists! It just goes to show you how wrong you can be on first impressions.
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