London to Bishkek via Moscow

Bishkek Travel Blog

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The journey to Heathrow was fine, especially as I had discovered a new way of getting there that consisted simply of catching one bus and then another bus. Simplicity itself. But at the check-in desk there was a problem: there was a New Rule that the weight limit for baggage included hand baggage, and since I had used up my entire allowance with my backpack it meant that there would be punitive excess baggage charges. However, I felt really aggrieved and inclined to make a fuss, since I had checked and double-checked the allowances on the Aeroflot website only the day before. I protested loudly, the check-in clerk said that New Rules were still Rules, I protested some more. Then I demanded to see the supervisor, and rather to my surprise she appeared. I promptly launched into a speech in which I said that I had paid for my ticket and it was a clear condition thereof that I was allowed hand baggage plus 20kg of checked-in baggage, and that they had no legal power unilaterally to alter these conditions. For whatever reason this argument seemed to impress her, because she thereupon waved the backpack through without another word. Londonstudent 1, Aeroflot 0.

Thereafter all went smoothly. The flight was in two stages, the first of which was to Moscow Sheremetyevo in a shiny new Airbus 321; I arrived safely at about five in the morning, with the prospect of a five-hour wait for the flight to Bishkek. Sheremetyevo is not a wonderful airport at which to transit, the transit area itself being like a horseshoe-shaped corridor smelling of stale tobacco smoke and with woeful toilets. There are also insufficient seats, and I must have prowled up and down from one end to the other, in a very suspicious manner, at least half-a-dozen times. After a couple of hours things were enlivened a little by the arrival of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed shop-girls to open up the duty-free perfume and liquor stores. It was pleasant to imagine them half-an-hour before, in their high heels and smart black suits, tap-tapping their way out of what without any actual knowledge whatsoever I fantasised as being immense, dull, grey, soulless, concrete, ugly Soviet-era apartments on the outskirts of Moscow.

Then at ten in the morning I began the second leg of the journey in a venerable Tupolev 154, which conjured up the ghosts of Party Officials past, wearing hats and suits with wide lapels, travelling to smoke-filled meetings in which local apparatchiks would be given their orders from the Kremlin and one or two, perhaps, singled out for the especial attention of the KGB. On the first leg English had been spoken, but now I found myself using my minimal Russian (pahzhahlstah and spasseebah) quite liberally, which furthered the sense of actually being a long way from home. After another very welcome airline meal - and I really do enjoy them - we were handed hot flannels, which was a thoughtful touch. I began to like Aeroflot, in spite of the contretemps at check-in.

Finally, at four in the afternoon, we touched down at Bishkek. Although the only international airport in Kyrgyzstan, it is not large, and I negotiated the customs desk in very short order. Then there was the tension-filled wait by the carousel, for I had the suspicion that my backpack might have got 'lost' at Sheremetyevo in revenge for my winning the battle of wills at Heathrow. But there my backpack was, looking a little worse for wear but all in one piece, and I made a mental apology to the Aeroflot staff for harbouring so unworthy a thought. In fact I progressed through to the arrivals hall so quickly that Irina was not yet there and consequently I was surrounded by cab-drivers, jabbering away in Russian, who were trying to grab my backpack-on-wheels by force. I tried  to hold on to it and said, slowly, 'friend-here-soon', but one driver, who spoke a little English, said 'No! She not here! She not coming! Look! You come with us!' and made another grab at my backpack. Not only did I fear being at the centre of a breach of the peace, but I was also beginning to worry that he might actually have a point, especially as I had no local currency and didn't have a clue as to how the telephones worked. Then through the glass door of the arrival hall I spied a running figure, and in a few seconds Irina was there, scattering the cabbies with an imperious wave of her arm and a few well-chosen words of Russian. I was very pleased to see her!

We walked out to the car where I met her brother Andrey, and we thereupon drove twenty miles or so south into Bishkek along what is probably the best road in the country: it is, after all, the VIP route. Irina's parents own a house on the south side of Bishkek, and also a guest apartment nearby where I would be sleeping. We called there first to dump my bags, and then headed for the house, which is only a few yards from Baytik-Baatyra UL, a main road orientated north-south that is still usually referred to by its Soviet-era name of Sovetskaya UL - many geographical and topographical names in Kyrgyzstan were changed after independence. I don't remember too much about the rest of the day, since I had been over thirty hours without sleep! But I do recall that two of the first things that I saw in the house were an absolutely enormous packet of Persil and a collection of Simpsons memorabilia. They don't tell you about that sort of thing in the guide books.

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photo by: londonstudent