Thursday, 23 June 2011

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Cities are often referred to as green but Bishkek exceeds this by far. Looking out over the city from our 7th floor apartment all that can be seen is trees. Bishkek is a city in a forest. With the trees come other delights such as always hearing the birds singing and shade from the daily increasing heat. Another surprise was that Bishkek didn't feel very Asian. It feels more like being in Eastern Europe and looked a lot wealthier than we'd expected. It doesn't really have any pre-Soviet buildings because it wasn't really a place before the Russians came. The people of Bishkek are a mixture of ethnic Russians, Kygryz and Uzbeks, and for the first time since we had started traveling it wasn't immediately obvious that we were in fact tourists. There are, however, criminal undertones to the city. An large number of 4 by 4s with blacked out windows cruise through town.

We'd come straight from Osh to Bishkek so that James could start his Winston Churchill Fellowship research. The car had broken down 4 times (once in an unlit tunnel) during the drive and we'd nearly had a head on collision. This had stretched the journey out from 10 to 15 hours. Whilst recovering and exploring Bishkek, James recognised someone. It was the Honorary British Consul (Bishkek doesn't have a British Embassy),  Mike, who acts as a point of contact. James also happened to know that Mike recently got a MBE for his work in evacuating Brits, and as it turned out several other nationalities, from Osh during the troubles last year, for which he congratulated him. We got chatting, one thing lead to another and we left with an invite to the Queen's Birthday celebrations at the Hyatt the following week.

Breakdown #2

Breakdown #3

Breakdown #4

There was just one problem with being invited to the Queen's Birthday - we didn't have anything to wear for such an occasion. We needed to do a little clothes shopping but it had to be cheap - really cheap. Heading to the main market in town we searched for something suitable. We had nearly finished and were just looking for a belt so James's new trousers wouldn't fall down when a policeman demanded to see our passports. We produced photocopies (a recommended tactic so that passports can't be taken away and never seen again). However, we didn't have copies of our visas. We were escorted to a police booth in the centre of the market where a farcical 20 min charade ensued as they angled for a bribe. I got cross with them, James got angry with me for getting cross with them, and eventually they realised that we really were not worth the effort and we were released.

To be perfectly honest the Queen's Birthday would have almost certainly passed me by but with the thought of free food and drinks I was perfectly happy to become a staunch royalist for the evening. At the poshest hotel in town we were greeted by various hosts and offered arrival drinks. The British Ambassdor to Kazakhstan (the closest Embassy to Bishkek) gave a short speech in Russian in which he managed to mix up the words for Embassy and Government, instead saying 'we are very much look forward to establishing a new government in Bishkek', cue much hilarity. The canap├ęs were good and the Pimms even better. I attacked the desserts as James was networking franticly. Every British ex-pat in Bishkek had been invited. This ranged from consulate and NGO staff to Brits living in Kyrgyzstan with Kyrgyz partners and who were taking the opportunity to find out about the likelihood of a visa anytime soon. It was a great evening and we escaped before it got too out of hand and James undid all the good work he'd done.

There are not only Brits in Bishkek, one of the biggest contingent of foreigners is Americans. There are two types of Americans. Those that work on the huge American air base just out of town, flying thousands of soldiers in and out of Afghanistan, and the second type are the Peace Corps guys. The two types are quite easy to distinguish. We joined some rather drunk Peace Corps guys one evening smoking a hookah and chatting about there experiences in Kyrgyzstan. They were nearly all there because they hadn't specified a country of preference on their application and readily admitted that they had to look up where they were being sent. One guy had never been on a train before, another’s parents joined us briefly - the mother had never been out of the USA before. They were all passionate about Kyrgyzstan and their Kyrgyz language was impressive.

We were staying in one of the cheapest places in town, the Bishkek Guesthouse. The day to day running of the place had been entrusted to an 18 year old called Kioom. He was a nice lad with a bad World of Warfare addiction. He was helpful but it was a like living with a teenager due to his teenage standards of hygiene around the flat. Occasionally James suggested that he tidied up. Early one evening a huge thunder storm broke. Peering out our 7th floor window it looked as if we were in a car wash. The thunder was deafening and water poured though the window frames. But it became home whilst we were in town and we grew to like coming back to somewhere so familiar.

Bishkek

24 hour cake - this is my kinda town

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek

City in a forest

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