Wow! Two posts in a single day. I think this is a first for this ‘blog. But I’ve got them written, internet access has been tricky over the past week or so, and will probably become even trickier over the next ten days in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains. So two posts in a day it is. If you’ve not read the previous one, about going to the beach at 1800m above sea level and a Kyrgyz-American rodeo, make sure to check it out!
The title of this post is a bit misleading. While we did spend quite a bit of time in Bishkek waiting around for visa applications to be processed, it was really more pleasant than the term “purgatory” suggests.
This was not because Bishkek is a fascinating place. To tell the truth, it’s not. It’s a bit dull. But it’s a very NICE place. And when you add to this niceness the fact that we had a fabulous couchsurfing host, and some equally fabulous fellow guests, our time in in Bishkek seemed closer to paradise than purgatory. The only reason I called it that was that after two weeks of waiting around (the second of which will be covered in the next entry,) we STILL hadn’t even been able to APPLY for the last of the visas we were hoping to obtain there.
As is often the case when we spend long times in a given place without actually doing all that much, I’ll dispense with the narrative style here, and just make note of some of the things we did and make some general observations about Bishkek.
The national opera house in Bishkek. Soviet architecture may not always have been pretty, but they knew how to do “imposing” pretty well.
We spent most of our time in Bishkek at our couchsurfing host Nick’s place. Nick was (is) an American law student doing a semester of volunteer work for an NGO in Bishkek, though he’d previously travelled through all of the central Asian nations that we planned to visit.
Joining us at Nick’s in our first week were Maurice (German) and Frank and Martje (Dutch), all of whom were on trips across Asia, the key difference being that all of them were doing it on bicycles. In an interesting bit of serendipity, we’d actually met all three of them in China, Maurice in Litang, Sichuan, Frank and Martje in Kashgar. And to top it all off the three of them had themselves met before, in Laos. All of this combined to make Nick’s flat a very homey environment. At the peak there were six of us in the flat, which had one bedroom, a kitchen, a small dining area, a lounge and one bathroom. There were three of us in the lounge (one on the couch, two on the floor) Nick in his bedroom and two sleeping in the cramped environs of the kitchen/eating area. I point this out to illustrate again how ridiculously generous was being in opening his home to so many strangers.
One of Bishkek’s many lovely parks. By day they were the most pleasant places in the city, full of friends and families out enjoying the summer. By night they were places to avoid, as were most of the city streets if you weren’t in a group of three or more. Though the danger at night was at least as great from falling into holes in the sidewalk as it was for anyone doing you ill
Flower boxes on Manas, Bishkek’s main street
A lovely flower garden on the way to the Uzbek embassy that we passed several times
As explained already, our main purpose for spending more than a few days in Bishkek was to obtain visas for our onward travel. Central Asian visas have traditionally been a bit of a nightmare to procure. Somewhat surprisingly, all of our central Asian visa arrangements went swimmingly. The Uzbek visa required a letter of invitation, which as far as I can tell is just a way to ensure that you give some money to a travel agency owned by someone with contacts in the Uzbek foreign ministry. But once that little bit of officially sanctioned graft was done, all we had to do was make a phone call to the embassy (handled in Russian by Nick) and head there the following day. So quick was the process of issuing the visa that our only problem occurred when we realized, as they handed our passports back ten minutes after receiving them, that we hadn’t brought any cash with us to pay with.
The Tajik visa was almost as simple. They’d abolished letters of invitation for most western nations a few months previously, so all we had to do was show up, fill in the forms and return a few days later to pay and pick up the visa. In fact the only reason that this visa wasn’t also issued on the spot was that the consul was on a short vacation.
Though our Iranian visa presented problems, I’m still very thankful that we weren’t headed to Russia… Maurice spent over two weeks trying to arrange a Russian visa for himself before finally giving up in frustration and changing his plans to avoid the country entirely.
We got around mostly on foot, though the Tajik embassy was farther afield and we took an electric trolleybus to get out to it. Memories of Wellington. And of the Toronto of twenty years ago! Though most public transport was handled by Mashrutkas (minibuses with somewhat convoluted routes) and taxis (it seemed every third car on the roads was a taxi. Interestingly pretty much every ride in town cost the same: 100 Som, or about NZ$3.)
Sarah sitting on a Bishkek trolley bus. Most of them (including this one) were pretty ancient, looking as though they’d been manufactured in the ’60s or ’70s. But there were a few brand new ones starting to come into service.
Unsurprisingly, Kyrgyz is the national language of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz is quite similar to Uighur, Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen Azeri and even Turkish, the lot of them forming a continuum of Turkic languages that spans several thousand kilometres across Asia. Interestingly, Turkish is written in Latin script, most of the Central Asian Turkic languages in Cyrillic and Uighur in Arabic script. I’d be curious to know of how many language families have so many different alphabets! The alphabet didn’t present much of a problem. It took a few days to memorize all of the Cyrillic characters, but that done we could quickly read street signs, menus and bus destinations. Somewhat surprisingly this actually proved quite helpful, as Russian words often share common roots with French or English ones. We’d often be sounding out words on a sign… “M-ah-ga-zin… Ah Magasin! It’s a shop!” Speaking was a bit trickier. The main problem was that we could never really figure out what language we ought to speak. We’d generally be addressed in Russian and everyone could understand it, but everyone spoke Kyrgyz amongst themselves. We’d learned a few Uighur words in China, which were useful, but also picked up words by asking people about them. So during our time in Kyrgyzstan we ended up learning a weird bastardized version of Russian, Kyrgyz (and later even some Uzbek) without any clear idea of which words belonged to which language. Eventually I decided that the best bet was to use Kyrgyz if we knew how to say what we wanted in that language. Russian was a useful tool for communication, but using Kyrgyz brought smiles of delight to anyone who heard us use even a single word of it. A taxi driver one night positively beamed and said “you speak Kyrgyz!” when I told him that I was “Otuz-Alta” (thirty six) after he’d asked my age in English.
A major government building at the corner of Kiev and Sovietskya. Obviously from these, most street names in Bishkek were legacies of the Soviet era. Though the street names remained, many other things (e.g. statues of Lenin in central public places) had been removed in the country’s twenty some years of independence
On our way to and from the embassies, as well as in our “spare time” (if that phrase has any meaning in the context of a year+ long odyssey such as ours) we also managed to have a bit of a look around town. Bishkek was a surprising place. There were huge numbers of mature trees; virtually every street was lined with them. And parks. There were parks everywhere, many with sculpture, fountains, benches, playgrounds… Before we arrived in Kyrgyzstan I’d expected the “central Asian nomad” feel of the place to be intense. Like the remnants of the old town of Kashgar, but a whole country and with mountains. As it turned out, it was more like Eastern Europe. Bishkek reminded me a lot more of Warsaw than it did of Kashgar. There was plenty of old ugly concrete (though it was tempered by the greenery) and some very impressive mounmental Soviet architecture as well. This occidental feel extended to food as well. When we went out for dinner, we often ended up eating things like borscht, cabbage rolls and blintzes.
That said, we didn’t go out for meals that often, preferring to take advantage of having a kitchen of “our own” for the first time in ages. All of the merry crew occupying Nick’s place took turns cooking various courses of what seemed to be ever increasingly elaborate “family” dinners. Over the course of our time in Bishkek we enjoyed pizzas, Turkish stuffed peppers, chocolate bread pudding, spaghetti with home made sauce, raspberry cheesecake, all manner of soups and salads… though I’d lost several kilos in northeast Asia, the fabulous meals (coupled with a relative lack of activity) meant that they were rapidly reappearing in central Asia.
Sarah rolling our pizza dough in the kitchen. As Nick had only arrived in Bishkek a few weeks before his kitchen was fairly modest, so we had to do a lot of improvisation in our cooking, which in some ways made it even more fun
Dante certainly never mentioned pizza in Purgatorio (and given that he was Italian you’t think he would have if there was any there.) He also didn’t mention being able to take holidays from purgatory either, but we managed that as well. A couple in fact. The first one was a weekend camping trip organized by the very helpful and pleasant Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union. It seemed that virtually every foreign couchsurfer in town was on this trip, which made for a friendly and linguistically (for us anyway) simple trip.
Our weekend was spent at Kol Tor, in the mountains about ninety minutes east and south of Bishkek. The trip out was a bit of an adventure. After some supplies shopping at a small town market, our minibus driver managed to get a bit lost on the way there. Not that it was entirely his fault. The Trekking Union had apparently given him ambiguous directions, and a portly Kyrgyz-Russian fellow at the front of the bus was insistent that we were going the right way, despite the fact that three others on the bus had made the same wrong turn in attempting to visit the same place the week before. But he insisted that as a local he must know more than the foreigners. And when we (by which I mean the Russian speaking members of the foreign contingent) disagreed further he said that he was a friend of Putin and a former member of the KGB and wasn’t a good person to disagree with.
Eventually it became clear that we were definitely going the wrong way so the driver turned around, went back and drove up the correct valley to the lodge at the roadend.
Stopped for lunch by the side of the trail
All of the foreigners in the group (2x French, 2x German, 2x Dutch, 1x Canadian, 1x Kiwi, 1x Australian) had brought camping gear so could head a bit further into the “wilds” beyond the lodge (in Kyrgyzstan where so much of the land is used for grazing animals, surprisingly little is truly WILD.) From the end of the road we walked about an hour up stock trails to a nice camping spot. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading in the sun, playing volleyball, chattering and eventually building a campfire. In the evening we all sat around the fire, sharing the huge quantities of appetizers (French style handmade Kyrgyz goat’s cheese drizzled with honey anyone? How about some Halva or freshly cooked [earlier that afternoon] strawberry jam?) while we cooked the main course (potatoes, carrots and onions [some of which were found by the trailside instead of brought with us]) wrapped in foil and baked in the coals.
Our meal finished with some Soviet Champagne (The Soviet Union wasn’t particularly concerned about Appellations contrôlées I suppose, and the name stuck, even after its breakup) and glasses of Kyrgyz brandy (surprisingly good) warmed over the fire. After dinner we sat around, attempting to find campfire songs that everyone knew. Given the variety of nationalities present, this proved tricky (impossible in fact) but we took turns singing a few anyway before finally heading off to bed, well after dark.
Sunset down the valley
Simon opening his bottle of Soviet Champagne (must’ve been painful for a Frenchman!)
Sarah and Judith warming themselves by the campfire. Actually it wasn’t all that chilly, probably not going below 10C overnight. But as we’d learned to expect from Kyrgyz mountain weather, it flipped rapidly back and forth between sun and rain several times over the weekend
The next morning the more energetic amongst us set out for a walk up to the Kol (lake) of Kol Tor. The first bit was a bit steep, which was followed by a flatter bit through alpine meadows in bloom before one final steep push to the top. At the top sat a spectacular 600m wide pool of very pale turquoise, jade coloured almost, opaque glacial water. We sat and enjoyed the sun baking on the dark coloured rocks eating lunch. I left a bit before the others, returning via the far side of the lake where I said hi to the horses that had been brought up to graze in the valley above Kol Tor.
Lunch at Kol Tor
Horses and mountains up the valley from Kol Tor. I had to take off my boots and walk across this river to get here, and I can tell you that was some COLD water. Everything from my shins on down was numb for several minutes after I got out
Kol Tor from its south end
Back down at the camp, we rejoined the slackers (not really slackers, as they’d packed up the tents for us in our absence) and headed back down to the roadhead. We waited for a few minutes, enjoying the kind hospitality of the lodge owner who invited us in for cups of tea, but in just a few minutes we were back aboard our minibus (KGB man too) for the return trip to Bishkek.
It had been a great weekend. Though I usually like my trips to the outdoors to have a bit more of a challenging physical component, it was a nice reminder of how much fun it can be just to get out into the countryside with some good friends.
To sum it all up, I suppose you could say that purgatory isn’t really purgatory if you’ve got good company
A “family dinner” back at Nick’s. Clockwise from bottom left: Sarah, me, Zayneb, Martje’s empty seat, Nick, Frank, Helen and Maurice. Seven different nationalities around the dinner table, though we managed even better than that on some other evenings!
Tags: Bishkek, Central Asia Visas, Kol Tor, Kyrgyzstan, Llew Bardecki, Travel