Bishkek is a city I’d dreamed of visiting for long enough and to set foot in it was inspiring. Even to this day this city still fills me with mystery and intrigue. I met some interesting characters at the guesthouse and during my week there I had the hostel to myself for two nights (a rare treat in the world of the backpacker). I read in the Lonely Planet that I’d need to register my visa. I asked the guesthouse owners to help me out, they phoned at Ministry of Foreign affairs and sure enough I was requested to register. I raced downtown to find the darn offices, no one seemed to want to help me or bother with my request. I was pushed from pillar to post and got lost in the refugee crowd. Eventually I was asked to go to a shady office next door where I was told there was no reason for me to register! I was aghast, all this time and effort…well nothing beats South African Home Affairs so I shouldn’t complain. In this part of the world, confusion reigns supreme.
I spent all week soaking up the street life. I ambled around the city centre loving every stitch of ruskie architecture, visiting antique shops, eating out al fresco in cute cafes in the park and loving every minute of it. Ala-Too Square is where it’s at and Chuy Prospektesi is a pretty awesome main road to walk down. The centrum is well kept and spotless with dancing fountains, flower beds and impressive monuments of freedom. Also the State Historical Museum and “White House” are in the vicinity. The museum is amazing, old babushkas skulk about carrying keys to locked etages and make sure you don’t touch anything or take photos. I loved the nostalgia of the Soviet display, old uniforms, WW2 memorabilia and pictures of Lenin and Stalin adorn the walls. It felt pretty much like a shrine to the glory days of the Soviet daze, given the emphasis the museum has placed on this specific era in the Kyrgyz history. Bishkek is probably the most rustified city in Central Asia I visited. It felt like going back in time with old trams and busses transporting people in tangled cyrillic. There’s an interesting melange of Russian and Kyrgyz people who make up the Bishkek populace and Russian is mostly spoken in the streets. I was aware that Bishkek has a seedy nightlife and the mail order bride business is booming, but I chose not to look for it. Blinkers and rose tinted glasses on, I really enjoyed my time there.
It was exciting milling about the presidential “White House”, yes the president’s office and government building is a wanna-be White House. There were all sorts mucking about outside the gates with banners and placards as well as a TV crew ready to catch the action of the feeble protest. I decided to detach myself from the mob not wanting to get caught up in that and watched from a safe distance. Amid the confusion, an array of guards pulled up in a black car and dispersed the crowd. I was reprimanded for having my camera out, I didn’t take any photos but was told pretty much to bugger off. Eish, the political situation in this country is pretty unsettled at peaceful times. With the Osh and Jalabad riots still fresh, I was a little concerned at this display and hot footed it to the sanctuary of the Dubovy and Panfilov Parks. The Panfilov park was a huge treat. This is where I decided to ride my FIRST EVER FERRIS WHEEL. Yes, I’d never ridden on one before and I’m proud to say my first ever ferris fiasco was in Bishkek. It was pretty terrifying, the darn thing was rusty and rickety and on its last legs. But hey cheap thrills right?
It’s pretty romantic lulling about these parks in autumn, I loved basking in the sunlight under the oak and willow trees drunk the feel of Bishkek. I had lunch with Lenin, a habit I picked up from Ulaanbaatar. If I happened to come across a Lenin statue at around lunch time, I decided to join him for lunch. Weird I know, but hell when you’re alone sometimes a statue of Lenin is pretty good company.
I seem to associate a place with a specific feel I experience in it. I liked the feel of Bishkekm, it was the exotic central asia I was after. I spent most of my time in the city getting lost, visiting bazaars and discovering chai houses and restaurants. The Osh bazaar is just incredible, it’s a beautiful and important node on the Silk Road. It epitomizes what central asia is all about, from the food to the flowers. It’s huge, crowded and extensive. One can easily spend the entire day exploring it, fending off fortune tellers and gypsies, getting lost and never being able to find the way out.
I also had to make the pilgrimage to the Bishkek airport and sneak a peek at the US airbase and transit centre at Manas. I read a story about a Kyrgyz fuel truck driver delivering fuel to the base who was shot and killed on 6th December 2006 by a security forces airman. For some reason, this heart breaking story stuck with me. I had to go and see the very ground where it happened and pay my respects to Alexander Ivanov who was killed at age 42 by a US solider named Zachary Hatfield. Finger pointing aside, a life was lost. Here are some links for those who care to investigate further:
I got a marsh out to the airport, which I quite enjoyed. I love airports, so I decided to explore this one and see where I ended up before I looked too suspicious. Turns out Manas is a taxi ride away from the airport but I found a willing friend to help me out. Bless him, he offered to take me to the base and see how close we could get. He had worked at Manas previously and quite after the appalling conditions he had to endure. We drove around the base, eyeing out the creepy mannequins standing guard in the watch towers. We lingered outside the gate where Alexander Ivanov was killed and had a moment of silence. Until duh duh duh a solider shouted out to us and told us to beat it! No one puts moi in the corner, and I will not be spoken to in such a tone. So I plucked up the courage, stormed out of the car and walked up to the two heavily armed guards. I asked if they’d let us see more and she told us to go and that we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I then asked about Alexander Ivanov and there was no reply, just s”cram and get the hell out please”. I later met an American girl who was working in the Peace Corps and got some scoop on what happens inside the mysterious Manas. Her experiences of being in the base were told to me in confidence, so I won’t blog about it. All I can say is close up shop already, no one wants the damned base there.
I met some cool Israelis in the guesthouse who’d trekked every inch of the surrounding mountains. I spent my first ראש השנה Rosh Hashanah in the small synagogue in Bishkek and we feasted at a Lebanese restaurant for the festivities. David, who’d just come from Tajikistan was a great help in preparing me for what I was about to face down the road. He was shocked and concerned that I’d be travelling Tajikistan alone! He really painted a grim picture of the harsh reality that I would have to endure whilst travelling in Tajikistan.
I also met lovely Jakov who was heading in the same direction as me. We decided to spontaneously head to Lake Issy-kol and Karakol all the way up the mountains of Altyn Arashan!