Bishkek. What could Bishkek be? See if you can stitch some threads together out of what I remember of our arrival.
Stepping out of the plane at Manas International Airport, a modest and friendly affair, what I was struck by most was the density of rural smells: animals, vegetal matter, whatever was being blown about in the trees. It was like inhaling the country (with a small c), and just as invigorating.
A very large very cheerful chap was there to meet us and collect our luggage putting it into a very comfortable transit vehicle with a very good audio system. Playlist: Taylor Swift, Joe Jackson, Lady Gaga, Astor Piazzolla, Eurythmics, Cuban jazz. Could have been supplied to order, but they were his favourites. He spoke perfectly serviceable English and was fun.
We were driving through avenues of trees, with pasture, densely planted crops and occasional clumps of houses either side. Goats, sheep, cattle — the very picture of rural fecundity.
For five or so minutes, I didn’t even notice the mountains, but there they were: the Ala-Too range, a northern extension of the Tian Shan with peaks almost 5000m high.
But Bishkek is on the flat. We were driving through long avenues of mature trees: oaks, ash, poplars, cedars, conifers, plane trees. Completely unexpected and heart-lifting. This planting we later found out was begun in 1890 by Alexei Fetisov, a Russian botanist. So some of these trees are as old as the city itself, a matter to which we will return. Not everything on the Silk Roads is 4000 years old.
We were staying at the Rich Hotel on Frunze Street. Bishkek was called ‘Frunze’ from 1926 until 1991 after a notable son of the city, Mikhail Frunze. He was a hero of the Russian Revolution who became a senior member of the Politburo and whose death was probably orchestrated by Stalin, a consequence of being too successful.The Rich Hotel: three glowing stars. A wonderful place to stay made so as usual by the staff who were more like interested mates than hotel employees, to me an important distinction. We didn’t come across any servants in Kyrgyzstan. The reception area and the terrace outside was a social hub which drew a small crowd of chatty smokers, and cats. Both groups appeared to be unattached to the hotel except by familiarity.
Our room, our suite actually, consisted of a large entry space which included a bathroom which had a shower with a fibre glass arrangement not unlike an astronaut’s seat. A small dressing (?) room off. Perhaps. You could decide for yourself. Down a short passage past a second smaller and more functional bathroom to get to the bedroom which was huge with the only small window opening on to a wall. Embossed wall paper throughout in a range of patterns. Unmatched furniture, a door lock that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. No room service. Home made art work, home made repairs. A garden that needed some attention with a 10 metre pool. A really good shop that sold proper things (nuts, outstanding biscuits — a Kyrgyz speciality, you didn’t think that did you? no — and first rate yoghurt among them). Simple but copious breakfast. They do your washing. Just lovely the lot of it. Perfect.
We walked downtown. You may remember that we had got up at 3.30 Beijing time, spent several hours being searched and, after quite a while, had arrived in Bishkek a bit spaced out at the identical time the plane had taken off in Urumqi, 7.30am.
From Frunze Street, we turned right at the university for the coffee shops. Mmmm these odd bits of neo-classicism, they were all over the shop. Peer through some trees and there would be another one, not to mention six more statues. It truly is the home of public statuary. Statues, of variable quality, everywhere. I think someone must have theorised this as a fundamental principle of making a town a capital, and then made it happen. As it happens you can learn a great deal about Bishkek from its statues. With guidance, they offer a potted history of the last 100 years.Below Marx and Engels, life-size, chatting. V. I. Lenin was reaching out to the masses nearby.We couldn’t find the coffee shop which according to my researches was the best and wandered without much aim coming to rest by default in a newish shopping mall, ‘Bishkek Park’ (in Latin letters, everything else in Cyrillic; Russian the lingua franca) which looked like most shopping malls: four floors with a big hole in the middle. The thin crowd suggested Bishkekers hadn’t become completely seduced by the American shopping experience. Verging on ravenous, we found the food court. Four or five pizza shops, a couple of culturally-adapted hamburger shops, a juice bar. We did several circuits saying, that one? Maybe not. How about that one? No. Simultaneously getting hungrier and nuttier. (We’d been up a long time.)
We settled on a cafe that seemed to have an inclusive range of offerings. The waitress rushed out the back to find someone who could speak English. This happened many times. The English-speaker was the capable 40 year-old woman of our dreams and, well … she was just so nice. I had The Businessman’s Lunch: soup, bread, salad. Modest servings, but delicious. I had another one. With coffee and Myrna’s meal that cost A$6.80. I was no longer hungry: just embarrassed.
We tripped over a lot of other things that day. Ala-Too Square which would be better at night full of people with the lights on and the fountains playing:The National History Museum, disappointingly closed and under renovation (for more than two years; there is no surfeit of public money in the Kyrgyz Republic):The Big Specs, and another one of those bits of neo-classicism:Attention to the topiary, and something dacha-like through the trees:The changing of the guard at the closed Museum. Look carefully for the carefully balanced guns. Great. Yes exotic, but don’t let it colour your thinking. On the pedestal is Manas, the hero of the national epic.And what can be read here?It’s an odd image to swamp me so strongly with memories. The sky getting ready to dump the late afternoon rain after a hot day — a mountain thing. The fine aspirations of the architecture a bit scuffed by maintenance problems. Great pavement, reflective of a river bed, chewed up this side by time and mortar that wasn’t mixed carefully enough. I love the reindeer corralled between the bike racks, and the fact that the soil in the beds could be so publicly unemployed. In the background there’s the statue of Кожомкул, my favourite, which I will keep for later.
To the left past him is the interesting way to walk home down Abdumomunov Street with the dance studio in the slightly derelict building with an exterior curved concrete staircase shooting out over the footpath and threatening to collapse at any moment, and the massive new luxury flats under construction.
Just to the right there is what I thought was a big, somewhat derelict gutter with holes in it. And yes that is right, but these gutters are not derelict. A vegetal lifeline, they are for distributing water as well as collecting it. Bishkek sits in a detailed maze of irrigation. That’s why it’s so green.
Further to the right over the road is the restaurant Arzu (‘desire’, ‘passion’) where we ate twice. Once was the first night, the end of this expansive day. We went with Freya, a tour companion who we had met while getting our passports confiscated in Urumqi.
Flavour? Well, it was Ramadan and after sundown so the crowds had come out, feasting. You didn’t have to eat, you could just consume the scene. Rich people, Bishkek’s upper and middle class, lots of jewellery and glitter, men talking to each other or to their phones, women and children down the other end of the groaning boards. Gangsters? Not really, but you get the idea. Colourful identities. Sculpted facial hair. And most glamorous women observing Ramadan. Some had headscarves, others didn’t. You could make some wobbly inferences about the type of Islam that applies, in Kyrgyz cities at least, from that — mostly Sunni but perhaps cultural rather than formidably religious.
We were tucked out of the way that first night, and we did eat. You can imagine the following as the consequence of a) hunger b) fatigue c) being three of us with different food preferences d) unfamiliarity with the menu, and e) just going for it. A huge basket of assorted bread, one lentil soup, two large salads, a celebration of the tomato (and for five weeks we ate tomatoes as the gods imagine them to be), a serve of plov (Kyrgyz pilaf, a national dish), six huge dumplings (manty, ditto), and the biggest lamb shank you have ever seen (and Kyrgyz sheep can be enormous). All superbly cooked. We didn’t make complete pigs of ourselves, but we did make a hole in it. My journal says: What a feed. 2500 som, today a total of A$48.43.
I also wrote: Courageous, cheery, poor, the very definition of Second World — but just so full of a fluid type of vitality. A vitality that is exposed and accessible, willingly shared. It is a city, back a bit and frequently cobbled together, but no less attractive for that.
I love this photo. (‘What on earth are those people doing?’ OR ‘Come on Dad! You’ve been ages.’)
‘Comfy and stylish’. That could well be Bishkek.
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In 1876 the population of Bishkek was 182.
The Kyrgyz Republic (as it is known in the Kyrgyz Republic and wishes to be known rather than Kyrgyzstan) is not a heavily populated country. It has only two cities which are bigger than Geelong — Bishkek and Osh, and there is a huge gap between rural and urban life: wealth, food, culture, religious observance and language (Kyrgyz in the country, Russian in the cities). The population as a whole is a bit less than 6 million, 75 percent of whom are Kyrgyz. Uzbeks are the next largest group.
Unlike the settled and urban Uzbeks, the Kyrgyz have always been nomads. Kyrgyz means We are forty, a reference to the forty regional nomadic clans Manas, a legendary hero, is said to have united against the predations of the Uyghurs 1000 years ago.
The 40-ray sun on the flag is also a reference to these tribes. The symbol in the sun’s centre is a tunduk, the distinctive wooden crown and engineering keystone of a Kyrgyz yurt, a nomadic people’s accommodation.
Bishkek seems to have begun life as a Sogdian or Scythian caravansaray (stopover for food, accommodation, stabling) on the Roads, the Chuy River being a good watering point and the flat land a relief after or before the mountains. For a long time the Sogdians who spread themselves across Central Asia but whose home could be said to be in modern Kazhastan were the enablers of the Silk Roads — the brokers, the dealers, the horse traders. The Scythians once had an imperial influence extending from here well into modern Poland — and then disappeared.
In times past very few people travelled the length of the Roads. Caravansarays (at left what’s left of Tash Rabat, which we didn’t see) were often separated by 30 or 40 kilometres, a day’s travel, and you might travel to one or two further on, do your business and then return to where you came from.
The Khanate (‘kingdom’) of Kokand, a city at the eastern end of Uzbekistan, built a fort (‘Pishpek’) here in 1825 which was overrun and razed by Russians in 1860. In 1877 it became a development site for the Russians and was populated by resettled peasant farmers. (Just giving some idea of the reach of the Russian empire, Moscow is 3750 km. away, about the same distance as Perth to Sydney.) Bishkek (‘Frunze’ at the time) became the capital when Kyrgyzstan officially became a Soviet in 1924. Before independence (1991, the very first time it was ever a nation state), the majority of Bishkek’s population was ethnic Russians. That figure is now about 8 percent.
Waitresses at the very smart Bellagio cafe in Bishkek.
In terms of the country as a whole, ethnic Russians made up more than 30 percent of the Kyrgyzstan’s population in 1959. That proportion has now dropped dramatically, but it would help to explain why in the late ’80s, the time of glasnost and the breakup of the USSR, 88.7% of the voters in a national referendum approved a proposal to retain the Soviet Union as a ‘renewed federation’. They did NOT want to leave the USSR. But Kyrgyzexiteers, as well as the implosion of the Motherland further west, won the day.
Before 1990, 98% of Kyrgyz exports went to other parts of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Union almost destroyed its economy. This situation has improved recently, but money sent home by the 800,000 Kyrgyz migrants working in Russia still represents 40 percent of the Kyrgyz Republic’s GDP. Other income comes from minerals (especially gold) and agricultural products.
In terms of commerce there are two large markets in Bishkek. The Osh market sells perishable and household goods. The massive Dordoy Bazaar is the central agency for the distribution of Chinese goods to Central Asia.
The bus stop outside the Dordoy market
Among other things, we had a swim in the Dolphin Pool with a squad of 10-14 year old boys surging in an uncontrolled fashion up and down the pool. We needed to rent special flip-flops/ jandals/ thongs to enter and had to wait for some unspecified reason, but with the kids’ mums we were able to watch UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) mayhem on the TV in reception.
We went to the Osh market and paid only modest attention to the handcrafts and produce of Asia. Yes it was colourful and yes they did have horsemeat salami and kumis (see some distance below), but I didn’t think I was there for that reason. We sat and had a cake and cup of tea in a no-nonsense restaurant on its fringe and looked at the pictures of horses.Because in terms of ‘Cities’ of the Silk Roads, when it comes to the Kyrgyz Republic I should be talking about villages and tracks. That’s where we were headed.
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