Sunday, September 9, 2012

How to spend a week in Bishkek

1. Leave Bishkek 

Tokmok - Animal Bazaar and old stuff

When I first came to Bishkek, I hadn't made any contact yet with any locals, so I went back to CouchSurfing and found Stephen and Maki, an American/Japanese couple who have been living in town for a couple of months. They'd been spending most of their time exploring the city and learning Russian, but hadn't seen the surrounding sights yet. They offered to let me tag along on their trip to Tokmok (60km away), and I readily agreed.
Big ass sheep (Literally. The butt is pure fat. Delicious.)

 Tokmok is known for two things: an animal bazaar and a restored old minaret in an ancient ruined town nearby. The animal bazaar was exactly what it sounds like. Animals, people selling them, and it's a little bizarre. Sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, cows, horses and who knows what else of all shapes and sizes were up for grabs and were being traded in Kyrgyz, Russian, and frantic gestures. It turns out you can buy a decent horse for 60,000 som (~$1,250)

Eeyore says hi
The ancient town was interesting in an entirely different way. Very little of the town remains, only a long, square mound of dirt from where the walls used to be, a very new-looking renovated tower, and these gravestones:
I wonder if the carved faces are meant to look like the deceased?
I forget exactly when they had dated these stones, but it was in the thousands of years. Each one had a likeness carved into it, ranging from a face alone to an entire torso. If arms were ever depicted, they were always holding a cup of some sort. I wish I knew why.

It was interesting to then compare that cemetery to the more modern version down the street. Here, traditional kyrgyz burial mounds have been combined with traditional Russian headstones and photographs to create a distinct style:

Here the identity of the likenesses are a little more explicit
After a few hours in Tokmok, it was about time to return to Bishkek and...

2. Make some friends

Bishkek connections (plov, school, dinners, mt. Rainier, etc.)

When I was preparing for this trip in Seattle, I sent a list of all of my destinations out to my friends and asked if anyone knew anybody who lived in or was from or knew people in any of the places I was going. Approximately 80% of the responses were connections in Bishkek. Unfortunately, I didn't plan well and it took me several days to actually get in touch with any of these people. Then, I only took photos of a few of them. They were all friends of friends of friends of friends, but that was enough to justify a phone call or email and a random meeting on a streetcorner or in a bar.

My friend Evan's coworker Dawn used to work in Bishkek with Yulia, who was busy this week, but knows Madina who gave me a tour around town.

Madina works with Yulia at Quality Schools International Bishkek, an international school here in town, and they gave me a tour the next day. I sat through the afternoon with the Science teacher to see what a biology class might look like out here. It had 8 students, and that was his biggest class of the day. He has 5 preps (different subjects that he teaches in one day), but fewer than 30 students. The general attitude of the teachers there was quite relaxed and happy, despite a few gripes about Central Asian medical services and expat tax/social security issues.

My friend John went to high school with Azeem at Andover. Azeem now works in Bishkek and took me out to dinner one night and promised to find me a place to stay.

Couchsurfers Stephen and Maki knew all of the London School of Bishkek's English teachers and we went to one of their parties:
Belting the Beatles in Bishkek
My girlfriend, Anna, works with Kaitlyn, who's brother was best friends with Rashid, who grew up in Uzbekistan, went to school in Spokane, WA, lived in Seattle for a couple years, and now is studying international relations-type stuff in Bishkek. Most of what I know about Central Asian politics is from Rashid and his equally globally-minded friends.

I first just met him for drinks with a couple of friends from Turkmenistan. I met him again for drinks with two of his friends from when he worked at the UN in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who were visiting. The next day he showed us all how to make plov:
Rashid explaining the importance of the bone marrow in plov
Multi-national dinner party, from left to right: Rashid's roommate - Turkmenistan, Val - Kyrgyzstan, Vojtech - Czech Republic, Mario - Switzerland, Rashid - Uzbekistan, Inna - Turkmenistan

plov. plov plov plov.

After dinner. Addition of Bernt - Austria (left)
Despite having all of these friends and connections, sometimes you're left alone to just...

3. Wander and observe

...and stand in line at embassies

Here is a collection of some things that I saw while wandering around Bishkek trying to sort out my Tajik, Uzbek and Kazakh visas:

Another taste of home: Mt. Rainier must be the most common "mountain" photo in the world.
Yes, I believe he does.
Changing of the guard
Restaurant plov (not as good as homemade)
Campaign season for Bishkek expats? Nope, just restaurant marketing.

You have to be careful when wandering, though, because you might...

4. Meet some "police officers"

in Osh Bazaar

No photo for this one. While walking to Osh Bazaar a man in street clothes tapped me on the shoulder, showed me a badge and asked for my passport. I had heard about fake or simply corrupt police officers doing this to make a little extra money on the side. I had also heard that they had no right to do this, so I said, "Nyet." and turned to walk away.
Then he grabbed my sleeve, pulled me back, and repeated, "Passport."
"Da. Passport."
"No, let me call my embassy." I pulled out my phone and started to push buttons
"Embassy? Passport."
"Embassy. Consulate."
"Oh! Consul! No problem! I'm sorry, no problem!"
"Yeah, whatever..."

I learned later that "embassy" in Russian is "pahsolstvah." I'll keep that in mind in the future. Fortunately

I should probably also actually figure out what the embassy's phone number is...

5. Leave Bishkek again

Vacation to Issyk-Kul

Once I finally had all of my visa applications into their respective embassies, I decided it was time to clear out of Bishkek and check out the legendary Issyk-Kul. Conveniently, the CouchSurfer I met in Osh, Roma (not the Roma I hitched north with), was coming through Bishkek and headed that way the next day. We decided to team up.

Step one was to get to Tokmok, where I saw this lovely relic of the Soviet era:
sometimes the under-street walkway drain clogs and you don't want to fix it.
and ate this delicious example of traditional cuisine from Roma's hometown of Novosibersk:
Siberian traditional dumpling soup. Mine has ketchup in it, Roma's has mayonnaise. It tastes about like it sounds.
Our ride from Tokmok was quite friendly, but the road was less so:
Paying our hitchhiking dues
But in the end, we made it to the lake and to Roma's favorite spot. Novosibersk isn't far from Kazakhstan, so he first came to this lake when he was 16. Since then he has traveled or lived near here countless times, and was a great companion to have when you want to avoid tourists in the biggest tourist attraction in the country. We got in late the first night and set up camp in his first secret spot:
drizzly camp

Roma the fire builder
 Then spent the next day exploring the surrounding area. Well, I was exploring. Roma clearly knew where everything was.

Issyk-Kul shoreline
 Including the fields of wild cannabis. He was dismayed that they had been overharvested recently. He blamed the German guy he'd last told about this spot.
Wild cannabis. Roma was quite proud of this.
Then we tried to find ice cream, but could only find stale biscuits, canned fish and fizzy milk drink at the local store.
Relaxing by a village store with locals
But the sunset was beautiful
Sunset over the cemetery
 And the next morning was spectacular
Morning on the beach
 So spectacular, in fact, that Roma decided to stay for another day (his stockpile of local hashish may have also played a role in his decision). I, on the other hand, had to get back to Bishkek, so it was back to hitching, and its accompanying adventures.

Round one: Three middle aged Kyrgyz women in a sedan. The woman in the back was clearly wasted (10am), as evidenced by the bottle of vodka in her hand and her slurred Russian. About the time she started to say "I love you", passed to bottle to the driver and tried to feed me by hand, I asked in my best Russian, "ahstanavitye pazhalstah. Zdyes. Spasibah. Da. Zdyes. Pazhalstah. Zdyes. Yekhat i vodka nyet. Ahstanavitye zdyes. Bolshoy spasibah! Ocheen priyatnah!" (rough translation of rough Russian: "stop please. here. thank you. yes. here. please. here. driving and vodka no. stop here. big thanks! very nice to meet you!")

Rounds two through four: fairly tame. Short, local rides followed by a grumpy bus driver.

Round five: young family heading to Bishkek via Tokmok. They invited me for tea
Tea with my hitchiking ride...
 which became dinner
...turned into a full meal
 and my third visit to Tokmok was complete. I finally arrived back in Bishkek around dusk, in time to check into the same guesthouse that apparently every cycle tourist in Central Asia is staying at:
biker hostel
Why am I back in Bishkek? A repeat of all of the above, plus, to...

 6. Learn Russian

Here's to another week

Classes start tomorrow. Hopefully I'll get some grammar to back up the choppy vocabulary I've pieced together.


  1. thanks for posting all this! I remember when Bishkek was just an idea for us to include, and now it is very memorable and concrete for you:) great pics too!

  2. Dude, I was googling the Tokmok Bazaar and just stumbled across this. Hope your travels are going well!

    1. Ha, I didn't even realize this was Google-able! Travels were great, just got back to the states a couple weeks ago and I'm straight back into working life. Next chapter.