A week in Bishkek and beyond
Trip Start Aug 08, 2011
77Trip End Ongoing
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A sleepless night crammed into the small vehicle with nine other passengers finished with an early morning arrival in the leafy centre of Bishkek, just as the sun rose over the silent office blocks and department stores of Bishkek's main streets. Feeling the nausea of a sleepless night and the uneven road surface, we took refuge in the 24-hour internet café in which various young 'gamers' were either finishing a night shift at the computer screen or cramming in a quick hour or so before school.
After our failed attempt at gaining a visa to enter China in Tashkent, we bit the bullet, and as soon as their office opened, we marched into a tourist agency and asked them to arrange one for us. The reduced strain of letting an agency deal with the application was more than worth the twenty or thirty dollars commission they took from us for the privilege. Bleary-eyed, we processed our applications and then sat beneath the attractive modernist Statue to the Martyrs of the Revolution until it was time to meet David, our host for the following few days.
David bounded up to us at 11.30am sharp, with an outstretched arm and a friendly handshake. An Australian-Vietnamese English teacher, he had become fascinated by the former Soviet Bloc, and was working his way around ex-Soviet states using his teaching skills as his passport. We sat over steaming bowls of plov and talked about how he, and we, came to be in Bishkek. After a year in a small town in Georgia, he was in much need of a big city and all the mod-cons of city life.
“You get used to not washing for a week, maybe even two,” he explained, reflecting on his time in Georgia
Although clearly missing Georgia dearly, he now relished having a good shower and even a washing machine – a very rare thing, from our experience of Central Asia – in his flat near the centre of the city. The kitchen window overlooked what David explained was “the most expensive sports club in Bishkek”. Its members' Mercedes and BMW cars sat parked alongside the pristine tennis courts, and perfectly-preened club members dashed between the two, sporting an array of high quality gear. Institutions such as this perhaps are a sign of an ambitious city with a wealthy elite driving a westernising idea of progress. Big money is clearly evident in Bishkek, and grand, glass-fronted buildings housing financial and investment bodies are testament to this risky entrepreneurial drive.
Meanwhile, in a bizarre coincidence, Helen had received news that her old friend, Ruth, was visiting people in Bishkek at the same time as we were there. Excitedly, we sped off to a nearby ex-pat bar to meet her. A tight embrace welcomed her to the city, and the near-fluent English-speaking bar staff plied me with glasses of cold Russian drinks as Helen and Ruth caught up on news. The large number of NGOs and charities operating in the relatively small country of Kyrgyzstan have led to a large European ex-pat population in Bishkek, as well as Russian and American organisations having offices here
I reluctantly dragged Helen away, with fond goodbyes to Ruth, as Ruth had to leave and we were due to meet David and his flatmate, Dorian, for dinner at their favourite Kyrgyz restaurant. Dorian was tall and thin, with blond hair flopping around his ears and a light, whispy beard. His parents had worked for the International Red Cross, and had spent his childhood moving around the world. A mild obsession with Japan led him to live there for a year during university, before training to teach English as a foreign language and finding a job at the same school as David.
The restaurant was close to empty when we arrived, and we sat in the courtyard while a handful of locals milled about and eyed us from across the yard as we flicked through the menu. A man in a booth filled with musical equipment began to fiddle with leads and speakers, as our conversation flowed. Suddenly, he began singing bland Kyrgyz pop at an eardrum-popping volume, in a crooning voice strangely reminiscent of a Northern English working men's club singer.
Shortly after, another man singing equally facetious Russian pop assaulted our ears for half an hour or so, before paying the bill became the only possibility of escape. The sultry waitress delivered the bill – with an added fee for the privilege of being forced to listen to the so-called musical entertainment. Despite David protesting to the waitress in his best Russian, we eventually paid the full bill with a grumbling – but strangely amused – sense of acceptance of the peculiar situation that had unfolded.
Bishkek itself is a pleasant, leafy city, constituting of a grid of wide, straight boulevards lined with tall poplar and birch trees that swayed with the warm breeze. Currently only working part-time, the following day David and Dorian took us to some of Bishkek's best parts. A hearty lunch at a café serving Uighur food – the Turkic cousins of the Kyrgyz who populate large parts of far-western China – was followed by a walk through the tree-lined streets to the centre of the city with David. A Russian Orthodox church stood proudly at the corner of two major streets, and we were keen to admire its elongated blue domes more closely, tentatively stepping into this bastion of Russian culture and tradition amidst the bustle of modern Kyrgyz Bishkek.
A man dressed head-to-toe in camouflage combat gear came striding up to us as we walked towards the door, and instructed us that there was no photography permitted in the church. Agreeing, we ventured further, before realising that Helen's head must be covered. We remained outside and took photos in the churchyard instead, before the man in combats bounded up to us again. This time, it was clear that he did not want any photos inside the church grounds at all, and he did so with such a brusque and unpleasant tone that we simply walked out, and instead headed towards the centre of the city. Typically grandiose Soviet-style squares and orderly parks lined the main street that ran east-west along the centre of Bishkek, flanked by modernist statues, a museum, and boxy but impressive administrative buildings.
In Ala-Too square, alongside Central Asia's largest flag, guarded by two stern-looking soldiers, stood a vast statue of the warrior Manas on horseback. Manas is the subject of a pre-Kyrgyz epic tale that has become a symbol of Kyrgyz national pride in post-Soviet times, in much the same way as Amir Timur has been used in Uzbekistan. Until recently, a huge statue of Lenin, right arm outstretched, stood in this spot, before being quietly decamped to a neighbouring park where he now appears to point accusingly at the nearby American University across the road.
Thomas, a friend of David's, had lived in Bishkek and studied at the American University for nearly a year. He came bounding up to us as we sat at Lenin's foot, with a wide smile and baggy jeans, and a pair of traditional Kyrgyz patent leather shoes, their pointed toes peeking out from beneath ragged denim hems
That evening, we scoffed down my best efforts at risotto and plotted our next moves. Unlike Uzbekistan, there are relatively few architectural monuments in Kyrgyzstan, but a short journey outside of Bishkek, close to the Kazakh border, stands a lonely tower in a vast green plain skirted by distant snowy mountains. It was here that we headed the following morning. The Burana Tower is the stump of an 11th Century minaret, the last remaining evidence of Balasagun, a 5th Century Sogdian settlement that became the eastern capital of the later Karakhanid empire. Along with David, we gingerly climbed the steep, narrow stone steps of the minaret, and emerged into the bright sunlight at the top. The flat plain once hid countless archaeological treasures that were quickly spirited away to Mother Russia under the USSR, and it was hard to believe that a large, important city once stood on this deserted spot in the middle of nowhere
From these ancient relics, we returned to the nearby town of Tokmok, a nondescript Soviet-planned place with huge grey tower blocks overlooking an angular concrete town sign. Although the USSR fell more than twenty years ago, a vast hoarding displayed the red flag of the Kyrgyz SSR, alongside a hammer and sickle emblem. Down the road, at the town's periphery, an old MIG jet fighter sat proudly on a concrete plinth. In contrast to the systematic elimination of Soviet imagery and monuments in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has allowed the memory of these difficult, but arguably simpler, times to linger on. Whereas the Uzbek dictatorship of Karimov had created shiny monumental showcases of a new Uzbekistan to cover up its extensive poverty, Kyrgyzstan had simply let the old symbolism decay. As the marshrutka drew out of Tokmok bus station, it felt as if we had been given a potted history lesson of this region – from ancient, bloody empire-building, to oppressive so-called 'communism', to an uncertain post-Soviet present.
The following day would be a purposeful one, involving generous portions of blog-writing, photo-editing, and other computer-based administrative tasks
Returning to Ala-Too square for the last drops of hazy sunlight of the day, the understated yet precise formality of the changing of the guards was taking place. A line of elderly women peddling brightly-coloured plastic toys and sweets sat with ambivalent, glazed eyes, as three stern-faced soldiers marched flamboyantly towards the two guards at the foot of the massive flagpole. The soldiers turned, marched and presented arms in perfect unison until they had relieved the previous shift. The two departing guards marched solemnly along a long, straight side-street, until they were out of sight of the gaggle of families and tourists who were watching them
That evening, a loud banging began on the door to the flat, and a muffled female voice shouted in Russian in the hallway. When David opened the door, a rotund, middle-aged woman glared back at him, and barged into the flat, flailing her arms and shrieking. The building's lift had been broken for some time, and the woman had been hired to collect money for repairs. David and Dorian insisted that it was down to the landlord to pay, not the residents, but she persisted in screaming and gesticulating wildly, while our hosts sought help from the friendly women next door. The flurry of (paid) anger the woman unleashed was intensely startling, and after some negotiation with the landlord, they paid the woman, who promptly stopped yelling and moved on to her next victim. In the midst of the wealth created in Bishkek by and for a certain stratum of the population, dirty tactics still hold sway, it seems, and as our hosts recovered from the shock, it was plain to see stark contrasts between the public image and private reality of life in Bishkek.
Seeking escape from the monotony of the previous day's labour, and any possible recriminations from the fiery babushka debt collector, we headed for the mountains in the Ala-Archa National Park. The steep valley engulfed the sky, with only a jagged blue channel tracing a line above us between the towering hills
As we walked, we came really close to Kyrgyzstan's natural beauty for the first time. A gaggle of horses pranced and galloped at the plateau of a hill, while sheep and cattle grazed on the fertile grassland. We passed a large family group by the riverside who were dismembering an entire sheep for their feast on an open fire. Several cars passed by, most heading for the high peaks in the distance, and some stopping at the small, boxy museum halfway along the valley floor. The driver of one particularly large and expensive-looking car with blacked-out windows decided to honk his horn and give us a friendly wave as he drove past, but all he appeared to wave was his middle finger. (I reciprocated accordingly, presuming it to be a local custom among the nouveau riche playboys in the area)
Despite the kind welcome from this driver, a serene peace washed over us while we walked. We had been confined to cities throughout almost all of our travels since we left Pastoral Vadi in March, and this was precisely the tonic required to quench our thirst for the open air. A quiet picnic by the babbling river was followed by a stroll back to the national park gates to await the marshrutka back to Bishkek. Although not speaking a word of English, and our Russian remaining minimal, the man at the park gates explained that there were no more marshrutkas coming to the park today. In a closing positive moment of this little day trip, he jumped into his car and drove us to the nearest marshrutka stop on his way home.
Buoyed by a pleasant walk in Ala-Archa and generous helpings of David's signature Vietnamese curry the previous night, we began our final day in Bishkek with aplomb. However, the oppressive heat of the sun quickly sapped our energies as we neared the vast Dordoy market on the outskirts of the city. The proximity to China had not yet been laid out so clearly until we arrived at Dordoy and saw the huge numbers of Chinese faces manning stalls and Chinese labels on the produce and packaging. The market itself is constructed by row upon row of metal shipping containers stacked two high and many dozens wide. Out of the doors of these containers, stallholders sold almost literally everything one could ever want – entire streets of containers were dedicated to shoes, sunglasses, power tools or stationery.
A dusty road ran around the bazaar's periphery, choked with marshrutkas, vans and articulated lorries, with people nipping between vehicles like daredevil precision. The dust and noise clattered around our heads, increasingly overheating in the bright sunlight. Diving inside the partially-covered market saw little respite, as the heat and movement of bodies overloaded our senses further, so we retreated to the leafy centre of Bishkek once again.
After seeking out a cold drink, we sat under the canopy of the trees in the central Panfilov Park, littered with blocky stone sculptures, before wandering through the nearby amusement park, which seemed to be an essential element of all Kyrgyz cities. At its entrance sat a man stroking a four-foot crocodile like a kitten, and a fat, yellowy snake sat in a glass case. Families and gaggles of friends came to have their photograph taken with his animals, grinning through gritted teeth as a huge reptile wrapped itself around their torso. Perhaps due to a relative lack of access to technology among the majority, such peculiar open-air photography stands are common in Kyrgyzstan, but these beasts caused ripples of excitement as people passed by his little stand.
Bishkek was undeniably a pleasant place to live and work, but it came with the detritus of post-Soviet 'modernisation' – a stratum of individuals who had become fabulously wealthy out of the ashes of the USSR; the ever-present decaying grandeur of Soviet public art; and ongoing problems of poverty and disengagement. David and Dorian both appeared to be enamoured by the relatively European ambience of the place, but also seemed unsure about exactly why they came or when they will leave.
Our final night was to be a party. Having pledged to try some local tipples, we sought out the cheapest bottle of vodka we could find, and a large container of a Kyrgyz beer named Nashye. There was no certainty about exactly who was coming, but David and Dorian expected at the least many of the same Couch-Surfing people who had joined us all for dinner one evening previously. Fearing a repeat of the wonderful but incredibly late-night student party in Thessaloniki, we were relieved to hear that it would be beginning nice and early for old-timers like us, at around 7pm.
Time passed, and a growing trickle of guests arrived, each bearing food and drink to be crammed onto the small coffee table in the living room. Along with British and Australian hosts came Kyrgyz, Tajik, German and American guests, all mingling in whatever tongue was the most common, usually English but occasionally French or Russian. A room of travellers and linguists became a rather interesting place to be, and questions and discussions flew around the room.
“...Of course I support Obama but I just have no faith in the US electoral system...”
“...and where will you go after Bishkek...?”
“...My brother was working in Dushanbe back then...”
There was certainly a little separation according to Asian and Euro-American nationalities, but this separation was distinctly blurred, and people translated for one another when necessary. Conversation, eating and drinking continued well into the early hours, before all nationalities were too tired to continue, stuffed full with baklava, biscuits, vodka and beer. We were leaving the following morning to forge a path eastwards, towards the massive lake Issyk-Kul, and we were glad to catch a few hours of sleep before an early start.