Saved: December 29th 2012July 14th 2012
I’d never flown on an EU banned airline before. But Avia Air Traffic was a Kyrgyz airline that the majority of Europe would not allow in their airspace due to concerns over its safety and supposed poor maintenance. When the call to board came to board, we all trooped out to the knackered-looking jet and I took my seat next to a couple of overweight babushkas.
From the inside, the plane looked relatively clean but when I looked in the seat pouch I found the safety card ripped into pieces. The stewardess was gorgeous though, with the faintly Chinese features that most ethnic Kyrgyz possessed. Soon we were off, rattling into the blue skies of Dushanbe while I grasped my rabbit foot tightly.
Less than an hour later we came in to land at Manas International Airport. I couldn’t see anything outside because of the babushkas hogging the window but I did feel the sudden lurch as we dropped with a sickening heave. Some people screamed and lots strained to see outside. So this was it, I reckoned. The grim reaper had come knocking and I’d let him in. Grimly I fixed my gaze on the seat ahead as
we dropped through the sky. A second later we stabilised and an eerie calm settled over the cabin. And then we touched down on the runway with a bump.
From the moment I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I knew I was going to like it. It had a striking red flag, which pleased me, and it had a set of bright and colourful banknotes that featured strange men with beards. But better than all that of all, Kyrgyzstan offered the simplest visa on arrival service possible in the ‘Stans. After ten minutes I had one in my passport and was on my way. What a refreshing change after the misery of Tajikistan.
Heading into the city centre, I immediately noticed how different Kyrgyzstan was from Tajikistan. The roads were in better condition, the buildings looked more modern too. And the people were different too. Gone were the Muslim veils of Tajikistan. They had been replaced by hot pants and crop tops. Modern cars sped past my taxi and the sun shone down on this, the most mountainous of the Central Asian republics.
The next morning was another hot one with temperatures pushing the high-thirties. I found the Russian
Orthodox Church on a tree-lined avenue just north of my hotel. A set of ladies toiled over a second-hand clothes stall just inside the grounds and a few others were setting out large pieces of bread on a long table. It was busy because it was Sunday, and the women were obviously gearing up for a productive day. I entered through the large iron gates and looked up at the church, and in particular, its sky blue onion domes. I’d read that the Soviets had intended to use the church as a theatre but had eventually given up that idea. Instead they had erected a set of walls around the church to isolate it from the rest of the city. But at least they had left it alone.
It was exciting to be out an about in a brand new city, and one I had no preconceptions about. In fact I hadn’t even been aware that Bishkek was called Frunze prior to 1991, thanks to a high-ranking communist called Mikhail Frunze who had been born in the city. If anything, I’d expected Bishkek to be a down at heel city, but it wasn’t, it was clean and looked affluent,
certainly equal to some places in Eastern Europe. I crossed a road and found myself in a small amusement park full of bumper cars, shoot the duck stalls and bouncy castles. I quickly passed through it just in time to see some goose-stepping soldiers. By chance, my arrival had coincided with the changing of the guard. Three young soldiers marched past the State Museum with impeccable timing and high kicks. Around the back of the Museum was a massive statue of Lenin. It used to be in a more prominent position around the front. It was easily the largest one I’d seen.
Where he had once stood was Ala-Too Square, formerly known as Lenin Square. It was a wide expanse dominated by a huge flagpole and a few golden domed buildings. The Soviets had built the square in the mid-eighties and they had done a good job because it looked great - one of the best squares I’d seen on my travels. In the distance I could see the snow-capped peaks of the Alatau Mountain Range, a jagged but majestic backdrop to the city, but my attention was drawn to the two guards standing to attention inside a glass
booth beneath the flag. Both looked barely old enough to have left school.
Just along from them was a huge monument sat on top of a huge brown plinth. I stared at the man sat on a horse in confusion. The picture in my guidebook showed a winged woman. But unless she had dropped the wings, acquired a horse and had grown a beard, it was not her. I consulted my map to see if I was in the right place but I was. It was all very mysterious. At that moment, a man’s voice caught my attention because he was addressing me. He was in his fifties and looked like a local gent. He continued speaking and pointing at the statue but I couldn’t understand a single word. I asked him if he spoke English and he nodded. “Of course.”
The man turned out to be a local lecturer and had seen me staring at the map and then up at the statue and had guessed at my confusion. “This statue is new,” he told me. “It replaced the Erkindik Monument last year because during the 2010 revolution some people tried to bulldoze the woman down. It
had been a controversial statue.”
This was interesting. I asked why they would want to bulldoze it down because to me, the old statue looked far better. A young woman holding a torch of some kind did not compare to a man on a horse.
“There are a few possible reasons. One was that the woman was dressed inappropriately. She was wearing a loose robe. Another reason is that the lady resembled the ousted President’s wife. But the main reason was because she was holding a tunduk, According to tradition, women should never touch the tunduk, and many people began to think she was bringing bad luck to the nation. In the end, the government dismantled it and replaced it with Manas, the man you see here. He is a local Kyrgyz hero.”
After thanking the man, I found a bench to find out what a tunduk was. It turned out to be an integral part of a yurt that allowed sunlight to enter. As such, it became an important symbol of the country, and indeed a tunduk featured in the middle of the Kyrgyzstan flag. As for Manas, he was not a real person
at all, but a hero of Kyrgyz legend. An epic, 16th
century poem with half a million lines described his many deeds. His usual companions were a tiger, a lion and a giant black bird, and with them he battled ugly ogres and nasty dragons. When he was annoyed, his eyes turned red (the same as mine in the visa section of Dushanbe airport a few days previously) and he also liked to drink human blood. Today, the Manas poems form an important part of Kyrgyz literature with specialists who can recount parts of it in high demand. I looked again at the monument and conceded it was a good replacement.
I headed east towards one of Bishkek’s big league attractions, Victory Park. With a name like that it was no surprise it dated from Soviet times. The main thrust of the park was the WWII monument, an eternal flame with a sombre looking woman holding a bowl. Above her were three giant granite ribs representing a Kyrgyz yurt. The lady symbolised the millions of women who had waited in vain for their husbands and sons to return from fighting the Germans in the Great Patriotic War. Despite the
sad context, the park was apparently popular with wedding parties.
Speaking of marriage, I was astonished to learn that bride kidnapping was still prevalent across Central Asia, and in particular Kyrgyzstan. According to one researcher, about half of all marriages in rural Kyrgyzstan were because of kidnap! But here’s the thing, if any woman rejected a marriage proposal after being kidnapped it was considered culturally unacceptable. During Soviets times, the authorities tried to keep a lid on the practice, but after independence, it became rampant again, especially with the cost of a traditional wedding. For a Kyrgyz man, snatching a bride was easier than courtship, and could potentially save his family $800 plus the price of a cow.
Here’s how it works. A young man, often accompanied by his male relatives will scour the local area searching out suitable young women. In the old days, they did this on horseback but nowadays it’s by car. Once spotted, they kidnap party will watch the girl for a few days to establish her movements, and then they will grab her, kicking and screaming. At top speed, they will drive to the young man’s family home. There, the future mother-in-law will
try to persuade the girl that her son is a decent, law-abiding man (apart from being partial to kidnap) who will provide for her throughout her life, perhaps even shelling out for a set of golden gnashers if she so desires. If she declines this kind offer, the kidnappers might return her home, but more often than not, they hold the poor girl hostage in an attempt to break her resolve.
Frequently they will threaten the poor girl with a curse, which in a country deeply beset by superstition is no laughing matter. And so about half of the girls agree to the proposal before the day is out, but the rest stay the night, often not eating and drinking, refusing to even entertain the idea. The problem with this though, it that by staying in a suitor’s home overnight, is it puts doubt upon her virginity. This will bring shame to the girl’s family.
Although illegal, the police largely ignore bride kidnap and see it as an accepted Kyrgyz tradition. Besides, many marriages forged in this way turn out to be successful, producing may children and happy lives for the ladies in question. It is often quoted
that if a Kyrgyz wedding starts with tears, it is a good omen for a happy marriage.
My final stop of the day was the Statue to the Martyrs of the Revolution, a name that only Communists could have cooked up. It was another gigantic monument with a proud and valiant lady on top of a ridiculously high plinth. She had her arms wide apart in a seeping gesture of heroism. Her name was Urkuya Salieva.
Urkuya was born in 1910 in a village in southern Kyrgyzstan. When the Soviets came knocking, she actually joined the Communist party and rose up through its ranks, becoming leader of her village aged just eighteen. But then Urkuya began to piss off the local menfolk by promoting feminist issues whilst they toiled in their peasant fields pulling turnips from the ground. In particular, they didn’t like talk of women being equal to men, and that husbands should contribute to the peeling and cooking of the unfriendly root vegetable in the yurt kitchenette. So they gathered their pitchforks and turnip pulling apparel and murdered Urkuya. And thus the Soviets regarded her as a hero and constructed the fabulous monument in her memory.
The next day, after passing a Russian Mig sitting on a plinth in the middle of a street, I headed east towards Osh Bazaar. After a hefty walk, I arrived at the arched entrance, and followed a man pushing a wooden cart filled with water melons. As I stared at the red Cyrillic lettering spelling out the name of the market, I did not know that two policemen had already spotted me.
The bazaar was a hive of activity with endless arrays of fruit and vegetables. Bunches of delicious looking grapes dangled from some stalls and then I spotted what I was looking for - a stand peddling kumis, fermented mare’s milk. Peering into the large urn, I mimed to the lady in charge that I’d like a cup of Kyrgyzstan’s national drink. After the usual confusion, she produced a bowl and ladled the white liquid in for me. I handed over thirty som and took my brew to the side where I could sample it unhindered.
After swirling it around for a few seconds, I deemed it lump free and raised the bowl to my lips and took a large sip. The taste hit me immediately,
a horrible vomit flavour mixed with curdled cheese. In the resulting convulsions, I spilt some down my shirt. I put the bowl down and fled, furiously gulping down water to get rid of the terrible taste.
And then they pounced. Two blue-uniformed policemen with massive black and red caps were in front of me. Both were young, unsmiling and barring my way. “Passport,” the older of the two stated bluntly. He had a wispy black moustache which I reckoned he could quiver at will for sinister effect.
This was just my luck. The only day I’d left my passport at the hotel was the day someone actually wanted to see it. I told them this and they conferred for a moment. Mr Moustache shook his head. “We need to see. Otherwise problem.”
Fortunately, I had a photocopy of it in my wallet and so fished it out while a group of young boys hovered nearby, watching me suffer with barely disguised glee. I handed the piece of paper over, hoping it would suffice.
“Eeengliz?” said Moustache man after staring at the photocopy. I nodded and smiled. I didn’t want to piss them off in away way.
Both men studied it further for a few moments and then conferred. People around me were giving us a wide berth, all except the boys who still lurked nearby. “Visa?” Mr Moustache said eventually.
I had expected this request but had hoped it wouldn’t be needed. Without my passport, there was no way I could show them my visa. But they already knew this. “Without visa, problem.” said Mr Moustache. “Come with us.” He pointed through the market, obviously towards the place they wanted me to go. I pretended I didn’t understand and pointed in the opposite direction and grinned an inane grin hoping the men would think I was a simpleton and let me go. They didn’t. Mr Moustache touched my shoulder in an attempt to get me moving with them. What choice did I have? I could hardly flee though the market with some mare’s milk sloshing about in my innards. They would capture me in seconds, possible frothing at the mouth. Besides, they were the police! People like me didn’t run away from the law.
I acquiesced and allowed them to lead me away. As we walked through the market, we passed the stall where
I’d bought the mare’s milk. My bowl had gone, I noticed, and Mr Moustache’s mimed someone drinking and then grimacing. Then he pointed at me and laughed. I wondered where they had been watching me from. The boys were still trailing us and shouting and laughing, causing some people to stare. Mr Moustache turned around and yelled. They swiftly scarpered.
Policeman number two then began chatting to me in broken English. “Kyrgyzstan good? Yah?”
I nodded enthusiastically and the man smiled. He seemed the friendlier of the two. He also decided to mime me drinking the kumis and laughed uproariously at his own impersonation. I laughed too because the situation was utterly absurd. It got even worse when he followed it up with a curiously accurate impression of a horse neighing. He then mimed someone milking it, presumably educating me about where the kumis had come from.
We continued our walk through Osh Bazaar and Mr Friendly asked me something else but I couldn’t understand him. He resorted to mime and swung his arms in a swimming-like motion. I nodded earnestly and smiled. Yes I like swimming! I like it very much, especially in a
vat of mare’s milk. Now please let me go you bastards!
We rounded a bend and came to a dark little part of the Bazaar. Fewer people were here and it crossed my mind that I might be about to receive a beating. I considered making a dash for it, but for all I knew, there could be security cameras everywhere making escape impossible. Shaking my head resignedly, I followed the policemen into a cramped and stuffy little windowless room with a few desks and other policemen doing nothing in particular. All of them looked up when I entered. I was suddenly the centre of attention. A quick conversation erupted but I didn’t understand any of it. A fly buzzed up by the low ceiling and Mr Moustache directed me to a chair on one side of a spare desk. I sat down, awaiting my fate.
Mr Moustache sat down opposite me while Mr Friendly stood by his side. Bad cop, god cop. They spoke to me in thick Russian and I shrugged. I can’t understand you. Suddenly one of the policemen sat a table behind me piped up. “He want to know why you in
Does he indeed, I thought miserably. “Please tell him I’m a tourist from England.”
The policeman gave this information causing Mr Moustache to waggle his facial hair at me. “Where stay?” he asked. I pulled out a card the hotel had given me when I’d checked in. It clearly stated I was a guest there. I handed it over. Both men studied it and then put it on the table between us. Next they gestured to my bag and Mr Moustache decided to join in with the mime game. He acted out a strange scenario that looked like he was injecting himself with something. His sidekick nodded like a galoot. They wanted to know whether I had any drugs.
“No,” I stated.
They got me to empty my bag and remove everything from my pockets. Mr Moustache picked up my wallet and began leafing through the Kyrgyz som and US dollars I had, but Mr Friendly was more interested in my camera. He picked it up and tried to turn it on. After failing to do so, he handed it to me to do the job for him. I powered it up and started flicking
through all the photos and videos I’d taken that day: the man carrying a horse, the Mig fighter Jet and me drinking the kumis. He seemed particularly interested in that one and asked me to play the video. Within seconds he was laughing furiously, pointing at the camera and then at me. He showed it to Mr Moustache who smiled but continued to poke about inside my wallet. After watching the clip a third time, the strange policeman did his horse neighing impression again, closely followed by the weird swimming arm motions. Maybe he was insane, I thought.
Mr Moustache finally placed the wallet with the rest of my stuff on the table and gestured that I could pack it all away. I did this while his pal still fiddled with my camera. In another moment of unreality, he asked me to pose for a photograph. I did so, and he handed it back to me. When I’d finished packing, I looked at Mr Moustache, wondering whether he’d helped himself to some of my cash in the confusion. “Finish,” he said. He stood up and offered his hand, which I shook involuntarily. The other man did the same and
I left the room, sweating and wondering what the hell had just happened. Outside, I counted my money but it was all there. Then I looked at the photo the policeman had just taken. It was rather good.
To settle my nerves I left the bazaar and jumped in a taxi. I then drove a few kilometres south of Bishkek to a place called Manas Village, a place the guidebook generously described as a weedy park full of concrete monuments. I was the only person there apart from the woman in the booth selling tickets.
It resembled an abandoned children’s playground after someone had removed all the rides. Like the guidebook had said, there were weeds everywhere, poking out from between every block of concrete. The once colourful paint scheme on some of the steps was now cracked and peeling. I headed to a large tower because apparently, the view from the top was great but found it padlocked shut. I stared about the place pondering what to do. I climbed to another vantage point and surveyed the scene. There was nothing but gaudily painted bits of concrete. But just then I spotted some colourful onion domes that
reminded me of St Basil’s in Moscow. I rushed down the steps and headed to where they were but a tall iron fence blocked my way. I gave up on Manas Village and returned to the taxi.
Back in Ala-Too Square, I sat on a bench and wondered what to do. I’d seen most the sights on offer and so studied my map and spotted something I’d missed: Bishkek Mosque, almost hidden away on the edge. I set off and a young woman soon joined me.
Her name was Ainura, a 23-year-old university student. She had guessed I was a tourist and gambled that I’d be able to speak English. When she found out I was actually from England, she grew excited. “I have never before spoken to anyone from England! This is amazing for me to practice my speaking! My friends will be so jealous!”
I couldn’t help but like her straightaway. Like most other Kyrgyz women she looked vaguely Chinese, with shoulder length black hair and a slender figure. The obesity epidemic of the West had not yet reached Central Asia I had noticed. Beaming, she produced a piece of paper from her handbag and
proudly showed it to me. “This is my exam result for English! I only do it this morning. I got 66 points and the pass mark was 60! It is my favourite language to learn and I much prefer it to German. Where are you going?”
After I’d told her of my plans to visit the Mosque she asked if she could walk with me a while to practice speaking. I could hardly refuse, and to be honest, talking to someone friendly was a refreshing change after my experiences with the policemen at Osh Bazaar. We set off and she jabbered away wanting to know whether she was pronouncing things correctly and whether her grammar was correct. It all sounded fine to me and I told her so. She grinned and I wondered then whether I should kidnap her. But then I remembered I was already married. At the next block she bid me farewell and we shook hands.
I arrived at the Mosque just as people were leaving from their afternoon prayers. It was an interesting design, featuring a big silver dome and a tall minaret with blue edging. It was actually one of Bishkek’s oldest buildings
and a fitting end to my tour of the city. I’d started at a Church and finished at a Mosque. I headed back to the hotel to pack my bags.
-Some great sights in the centre
-Ease of getting as visa
-A beautiful mountainous backdrop
-Cheap and safe (by day)
-Adriatico Restaurant: nice food and friendly waiters
-Policemen at Osh Bazaar
There are more photos below