Destination: Bishkek

  • Mission 1: Search Bishkek for the last remaining Vladimir Lenin statues (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 2: Sample the local horse meat delicacy (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 3:  Admire Bishkek’s most prominent Soviet architecture and USSR-era monuments (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 4: Experience the sounds and colours of Kyrgyzstan’s Nowruz cultural festival and street parades (ACCOMPLISHED);
  • Mission 5: Bask in the picturesque Issyk Kul region; a popular holiday resort with the world’s second-largest and extremely deep alpine lake (DEFERRED).
  • Mission 6: (Another Lenin-themed one) – Spot a giant Lenin looking out from the dam at the Kirov Reservoir in Talas (DEFERRED).

Highlight: Joining an impromptu Kyrgyz Jeep club shashlik yard party.

Lowlight: Getting the suspected western spy treatment at Manas International Airport with rigorous passport and security checks.

Feat of Architecture: The Stalinist White House (formerly the Communist Party’s Central Committee HQ) is said to be connected to an underground tunnel network, and was the centre of the riots during both revolutions.

Recce Fact: Bread is sacred in Kyrgyzstan. One must never disregard bread by leaving it turned upside down or placed on the floor. Leftovers should be fed to animals and never thrown away. Respect your loaf!

Why is it among the lesser-known of the Central Asian -stans? Unlike its immediate neighbours, it’s not renowned for having a dictatorship, cosmodrome, peculiar geological features nor dazzling ancient Silk Road cities of splendour. Granted, it is still more publicised than poor old Tajikistan. So would it just turn out to be a less enthralling version of Kazakhstan? I was determined to prove that hypothesis wrong.

At last I would embark on my exploration of the ‘-stans’ (i.e. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), long-since inspired by 2003 BBC docuseries, “Holidays in the Danger Zone: Meet the Stans“. Starting with Kyrgyzstan was an arbitrary choice to some extent. Although my rationale was that it would surely be the least interesting so I should eliminate it first and leave the more exciting until later, while simultaneously working on how to overcome the other visa challenges (it is easier for a llama to pass through the eye of a needle than it is to enter Turkmenistan). As it turns out, Kyrgyzstan will be a very difficult -stan to beat.

Disembarking the aircraft at Manas International Airport, passengers were greeted by a scrutinising no-nonsense type armed guard standing on the jet bridge. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan indeed, i.e. another CIS police state.

The Sounds and Colours of Nowruz – a Kyrgyz Cultural Celebration

Although I’d like to take credit for optimal planning in arriving during Nowruz, it was wonderfully coincidental. After dumping my bags onto my hotel room bed and scoffing the complimentary donut-like borsok on-the-run, I hastily scrambled out the door again to start exploring. I stumbled upon Ala-Too Square only to find hundreds of children gathering to rehearse for the next day’s Nowruz festival. I cannot describe the vibrance of the colours and sounds, but recorded a brief video clip. Over the loudspeaker resounded the distinctive Kyrgyz Jew’s harp (temir komuz), followed by lively ballet music and intermittent interruptions from a female announcer who sounded just like North Korea’s iconic newsreader Ri Chun Hee, and every bit as dramatic.

The Persian celebration, said to have been brought to the region from Tajiks, was banned during Soviet times. Although its revival doesn’t bear much similarity to how it is celebrated in Iran or elsewhere and has instead been adopted as a day of Kyrgyz cultural celebrations. Ethnic Kyrgyz celebrate their nomadic heritage by setting-up yurts (boz-ui) draped in colourful shyrdak fabric. It’s not difficult to understand why Arab tourists are flocking to Central Asian countries these days, who (owed to their Bedouin roots) love to rent boz-uis in the mountains and slaughter a goat or two for a family feast. Speaking of goats, fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t get to witness kok boru; the Central Asian equestrian sport where the objective is score goals with a goat carcass.

Gold and other minerals are key exports for Kyrgyzstan, and textile exports are also important for the economy. I truly adore the motifs and patterns native to Central Asia and admire how they are used in the embellishment of everything from restaurant menus to the gables of buildings, and of course traditional clothing. I wish to learn more about the origins of these patterns, but noted an unmistakable semblance of deers’ antlers. If one thing differentiates Kyrgyz men from their Central Asian neighbours, it is the kalpak; the ornate black and white hat – clearly not just adorned on special occasions, evidenced by the Kygyz pensioners I saw on my flight. Or perhaps an international flight is indeed a special occasion for them.

The only moment that was slightly off-piste for me among all the jolly hustle and bustle on the square was the changing of the guards ceremony. I did snigger at the contrast of the stone-faced, rigid, regimental guards in the background while watching the antics of the little girls dressed up in bumblebee suits just metres away, who paid them zero heed whatsoever. Why do Asian militaries on parade feel it necessary to make the rest of us feel mediocre by kicking so high like robotic ballerinas? When would one require such a skill in combat I do wonder? I don’t appreciate being reminded that I am about as flexible as a brick, thank you very much indeed.

My video of the very ritual.

Whilst not exempt from the inherent flaws of the region (illegal trafficking to bribery, corruption and Islamic extremism in the south), democratic Kyrgyzstan in contrast to its neighbours, enjoys greater individual, press and economic freedoms. However, what they exemplify in my view is very much akin to a police state with stern-looking police or military guards never too far away. One year of military service is still compulsory for eligible citizens despite no obvious nor immediate threats of war.

Off-Roading in Ala-Archa Mountains

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked almost entirely mountainous state without a proper rail network and around 4% of its GDP owed to tourism (in 2018). Kyrgyz people are clearly very proud of their mountainous land. The word “AlaToo” (great mountain) seems to pop up everywhere; from songs to the name of their main square and university.

Equipped with a frugal picnic of semechki (sunflower seeds) and sugary wafers, I joined a few locals who were heading on an outing to Ala-Archa national park in what was the bumpiest ride of my life. The turbulence was owed to a combination of rugged off-road terrain and the over-slack suspension of a classic 90s Jeep Cherokee. After a good 20 minutes of bouncing around in our seats, we arrived at the car park at the foot of the mountain trail where it suddenly began to snow.

Lo and behold, after taking a few essential snaps we headed back to the car as we were (well, I was) ill-equipped for the cold, only to find that it wouldn’t start. Mountain survival; wouldn’t that have been an interesting plot twist in Mission Kyrgyzstan? As traditionally nomadic people, my Kyrgyz friends should have been resourceful at least. I, on the other hand, go into panic mode when my mobile phone battery drops below 70%. I am by no means “Port-Out-Starboard-Home”, but I would sooner smother myself in honey and sacrifice myself to a mountain bear before I would squat in the great outdoors. Thankfully, another vehicle-owner was able to jump-start us. Kyrgyz people may not come across as overly warm and friendly, but they do show camaraderie in a crisis.

Kyrgyz Decor and Motifs

In Kyrgyzstan, Manas is the man…as. Revered as a great warrior, he is the hero of the world’s longest epic poem; an epic that is 20 times longer than The Odyssey. Because of the manner in which the epic was recited and passed on (by word of mouth) over centuries, the original tale may have grown arms and legs, so to speak. As to whether he really existed or not? I am unsure. His accolade was uniting 40 warring tribes that now correspond to the 40 symbolic sun rays on the national flag. He stands high on a podium overlooking Ala-Too Square, and a plethora of landmarks bear his name.

One very intriguing-looking monument is the Fathers of Nations monument (erected in an independent Kyrgyzstan). Life-sized bronze figures of prominent people once stood on the blocks where now only their names remain, most probably stolen in the dead of night and melted down. The poor old chaps are probably living out their lives as door-knockers now.

Kyrgyzstan had their very own 20th Century Hercules; Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul. Standing at 2.3m tall, he is said to have carried his own horse on his shoulders as depicted in his memorial statue outside the Palace of Sports. As I placed my palm into the chiseled outline of his enormous handprint, I could hardly fathom that such a man could exist except in fables, but I must assume that no creative liberties have been taken.

Other national heroes on display were interestingly complemented with their Soviet equivalents and counterparts. For example, famous Kyrgyz poet – Kalik Akiev as well as Maxim Gorky (Bishkek has a Gorky Park too just like in the Scorpions’ song, The Wind of Change) and national war heroes comprising of ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Russians.

Soviet Unapologetics

It is apparent while strolling around Bishkek on foot that there has been no real effort to eliminate traces of a Soviet past. The original hammer & sickle signs can still be found on buildings and monuments, and it is one of the few remaining capital cities outside of Russia where a statue of Lenin still stands. Granted, he was moved to a less prominent location behind the State History Museum to make way for their national hero Manas in Ala-Too Square. I also tracked a forlorn Lenin down in a social housing estate garden, basking under a tree.

Passing by an eyesore-of-a faded display board with the hammer & sickle on it, I quizzed a local as to why they let such monuments remain that were no longer of relevance? He shrugged and simply replied, “Why remove them? For what reason?”. Whilst I didn’t sense any real nostalgia, neither did I detect any bitterness. It seems like the strategy is just an additive one with Kyrgyz symbolism being prominent throughout the city, but any remnants from the USSR have been left in situ. Perhaps there is also a reluctance based on how such a move could be perceived by the mighty bear.

Socialist modernist architecture is still rife in the city, which was formerly named Frunze during the Soviet era (after notable Bolshevik, Mikhail Frunze). The imposing buildings may be classic Stalinist style, but many are embellished with Kyrgyz motifs and plaques. Victory Square is the chosen site of the customary eternal flame. Although it is a Soviet war memorial, the red granite arches form the shape of a boz-ui/yurt.

One architectural detail that I particularly like is the placement of Kyrgyz motifs on building gables/facades. There are plenty of Soviet socialist realist mosaics to be found too. The front of the Ala-Too Cinema features a special combination of both Soviet and Kyrgyz emblems, for example.

I am disappointed not to have managed to snap the Wedding Palace; a very unusual-looking building, but I did pass by the State Circus; something still very popular in Central Asia despite the controversies.

As it turns out, USSR nostalgia isn’t completely absent…

Geopolitics & Friendship in the East

The borders between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan resemble clawing hands that look like they are reaching in to try and snatch territory from their neighbours; a fairly accurate analogy. Owed to Stalin’s handiwork, Kyrgyzstan’s borders encapsulated a significant number of Uzbek and Tajik minorities that fueled disputes over territory and resources. Cunning Stalin gambled that creating and maintaining ethnic tensions would prevent any notions of rising up against him. Although the situation has improved dramatically in recent years, Kyrgyzstan (along with Tajikistan) still rank the lowest of the -stans in terms of human development index (HDI).

The mountainous terrain does not lend itself well to building the necessary infrastructure for a prosperous economy (e.g. railways). Furthermore, the region is still suffering from corruption and an unstable post-independence political status in the form of an internal divide between Bishkek and the south.

There have been two revolutions since the country’s independence (2005 and 2010), with the latter aiming to overthrow US-backed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev who came to power following the the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Through these regime changes, living conditions have substantially improved. As the only real democracy in Central Asia, it continues to grow from strength to strength.

I couldn’t help but notice that the only non-Turkic looking people on the streets (beside myself) were Indian students. It seems Kyrgyzstan is a cheap and attractive choice for medical degrees these days.

As far as international relations go; Turkey, the first country to recognise Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991, merely maintains “bilateral relations” and are usually present at presidential inaugurations and other ceremonial events, but are (perhaps surprisingly) not a major trade partner.

China takes a much more active interest for several reasons. First, it is concerned about the threat/lure of the independent Kyrgyz state of ethnic Turkic Muslims as something their Turkic inhabitants of the Xinjiang province may aspire to in their East Turkestan secessionist movement. Kyrgyzstan’s sentiment regarding Uygur people, however, has not been a warm and fuzzy one, exacerbated by fear-mongering that it could become the next “Uygurstan” if they allowed these people to gain status. Chinese poisoning of the well? Well, who knows. China, while existing as amicable trading partners is keeping a watchful eye on Kyrgyz developments; poised to intervene at any time. In return for agreeing not to empathise with Turkic Muslims within its remit, China continues to invest heavily in Kyrgyzstan (a new oil pipeline, education etc.), conducts joint military exercises and the Chinese language is gaining more relevance.

Kyrgyzstan has been pulled in both directions in the East vs. West tug-o-war. In addition to a Russian base, it once hosted a US military base that was pivotal in NATO’s Afghanistan campaign but, under pressure, did not renew the lease. Russia continue to dangle the succulent carrot of major investment in the country’s energy and resource infrastructure, but much of that promise has yet to materialise (e.g. Kambarata-1 Dam).

Russia reminds me of a growling dog fiercely defending its bone when any other dog is in the vicinity, only to saunter-off and turn its attention back to more important matters like peeing on fenceposts elsewhere as soon as the other dog has gone. Kyrgyzstan (already reliant on Russia as a key trade partner) is not a particularly juicy bone, but a bone that it doesn’t want to share nonetheless.

A Kyrgyz Backyard Party

Kyrgyz are (by my own assessment) an eclectic nation of people. Originally nomads from Siberia, they were subsequently subjects of Turkic, Mongol and Chinese rule before being integrated within the Russian Empire. And indeed I observed many traits that I associate with Slavs – like squatting by roadsides for example.

Throughout the CIS, boys will be boys, and the macho hobby of off-roading in classic 4x4s prevails. Behind a block of flats, a dozen guys had gathered outside one of the small garages, setting alight charcoal with their 4x4s block-parked around the perimeter.

On this day that I was invited to an impromptu Jeep Club garage party, I felt like I really could have been in Russia doing exactly the same thing. Russian language is still #1 in Bishkek. The Kyrgyz language is written in Cyrillic alphabet and may reign overall, but in the capital I didn’t hear it spoken; I only saw it written.

Despite the language barrier, I was offered a stool, a handful of semechki and beer/vodka while we were waiting for the coals to heat up. Although this sounds like a very gopnik thing to do, these guys were from all walks of life. It was a privilege to be the only female present, as none of the WAGs were invited. I got the feeling that they didn’t mind too much though. In exchange for the hosting, I took some decent photos with my camera that they could use for their website. Little did they know, I was more interested in having the photos for my own personal collection! As well as being from all walks of life, I noted that not all of them were ethnic Kyrgyz. A couple of them looked more Caucasian/Russian, but I expect they were born in the country.

All was going wonderfully; I had half-a-bottle of prosecco in me straight from the bottle, the pre-prepared shashlik skewers were smelling divine as they barbecued over the charcoals… until, to my horror, one of the guys proudly set down a cooked whole fish on the makeshift table. As the honoured guest, I was supposed to have first try. Oh… how could I explain to them that I had a fish phobia? I nudged my English-speaking pal and he implied sternly I should give it my best go, lest the host would be offended. In the end he tried to explain on my behalf, but the host couldn’t fathom that I didn’t like fish, and shrugged dejectedly, “Oh well, she probably eats fish very often in Dubai. This probably wouldn’t be up to that standard.” Oh dear…

Kyrgyz Cuisine

Beshbarmak (which should somehow be eaten with hands and literally means five fingers) is Kyrgyzstan’s national dish and consists of either mutton or horse and noodles in onion broth. I had no qualms about eating horse as I don’t really see it as being a characteristically different animal to a cow, but the taste of horse sausage is very strong for my palate. Thankfully, these days this dish is usually served without the animal’s head.

In Osh Bazaar, when entering the horse meat room the scent immediately hangs heavy in the air and the eye is drawn to the gigantic legs hanging on hooks that couldn’t possibly belong to anything other than a horse. The most shocking observation in the market is not that it sells horse meat, but the way patrons touch and prod at the meat at the stalls and touch it with their bare hands, often without even buying! No one bats an eyelid, so this must be something very normal and accepted.

If bread was as venerated by the western world, perhaps we would put as much time and effort into ornately decorating ours too. I brought back my very own large, round токоч from the market that has preserved itself very nicely.

In terms of soups, apart from traditional shurpa, ashlan-fu was presented to me in a bag one morning fresh from the market, much like a prize goldfish won in a fair. This soup encompasses all things I dislike in Asian cuisine; a combination of cold, spicy, sour, garlicky and acrid tastes. I decided the best option was just to eat the plain starchy laghman noodles that came separately bagged and discreetly pour the soup down the sink. Wasting food is a crime but sometimes necessary to avoid offending the host (I wasn’t making that mistake again after the fish incident).

Other notable mentions from the region include samsa (like a samosa), boorsok (savoury fried dough), kuurdak (animal entrails with potatoes and onions), manti (not small like in Turkey, but big ones resembling a Klingon’s forehead), and by default Russian cuisine is also popular (e.g. shashlik).

I had always associated plov with Central Asia (paloo in Kyrgyzstan) and am led to believe that Kyrgyz paloo is prepared differently due to its mountainous terrain. Sweet (shirin) paloo is only eaten when fruits are available in the summer seasons, and paloo is usually spicy; sometimes made with horse meat instead of mutton.

By the roadsides one will surely find stalls selling salty, fermented (and I suspect mildly alcoholic) beverages in plastic barrels such as wheat-based maksim (Шоро) or bozo. Kymyz (native to Kyrgyzstan) is a much-loved fermented horse’s milk drink (not by me, but I was determined to try them all nonetheless).

Despite it originally hailing from Tatarstan, it was in Bishkek that I fell in love with Чак-чак – what I would compare to cornflake cake that we used to get in British school dinners but more sticky and doughy.

My most recent food-discovery unique to Kyrgyzstan was white honey. I don’t mean honey that has crystallised and turned hard and white, but viscous, flowing white honey from special Kyrgyz bees. It boasts a range of health benefits, but at a minimum it is a very nice compliment to Kyrgyz tea, sipped from a bowl. And last but not least, behold, chocolate with salty cheese, found in a Bishkek supermarket.

Sounds of Kyrgyzstan
Chopo choor

What makes for a good night on the tiles in Bishkek? Karaoke and shisha of course. I have grown very fond of Kyrgyz popstars Mirbek Atabekov and Omurbek Zhanyshev. Like the Chinese, Kyrgyz take karaoke very seriously and lack of vocal skills doesn’t deter them in the slightest. After my vodka-fueled rendition of NA-NA’s “Faina”, I attempted the bizarre challenge of singing English songs with the text transliterated in the Cyrillic alphabet. That was fine as I recalled most words from memory, but Michel Telo’s hit in Portuguese became unworkable; “Аи, се еу те пего”. Носса, носса… what a brain frazzle.

Although I never did find out if it was a Kyrgyz or Kazakh chain, Чайхана NAVAT offered a fabulous cultural dining experience with local cuisine and music, including sounds from the komuz instrument (a fretless lute native to the region) and the amusing wonder that is the traditional ‘shoulder dance‘ as I like to call it…

See Reconnaissance Jukebox for all my personal favourite Kygyz songs.

Mission Kyrgyzstan Summary

After an arduous process of passing through the various airport security and immigration checkpoints (just to be able to leave the country), I felt as if someone should really let the border patrol know that the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 – it seems they didn’t get the memo. To be fair my plush toy companion got it much worse, having every orifice probed. And no I’m not too big for stuffed toys; I always bring one with me everywhere I go. On this occasion – a fluffy yellow chicken who was definitely not a drug mule. The airport experience aside, I was grateful to meet real people in Bishkek, whom without I might have believed it was otherwise rather bland. Little did I know, Mission Kazakhstan would turn out to be a nightmare, making Kyrgyzstan seem like Central Asia’s Switzerland in contrast!

Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, please do drop me a message below and tell me your thoughts and feelings about Kyrgyzstan: