A Walk in Bishkek

Bishkek Travel Blog

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Buying bread for breakfast at the hole in the wall in Isy Akhunbayeva Ul
My first intimation of a new day was when, at about six in the morning, a car drove slowly down the road outside the apartment sounding its horn in five-second bursts at five-second intervals. This was to be a regular reveille for most of my stay, because it was the milkman announcing his presence. However, I was pleased to be awoken so early, as I believe that the best way to combat jet-lag is to get into the new rhythm of life as soon as possible, and I was looking forward to being given a conducted tour of central Bishkek by Irina.

I was particularly excited, also, by the shower, because Bishkek apartments and flats have their hot water pumped from a plant on the outskirts of the city.
Irina in the Alley of Heroes, or Rose Alley
I love this idea - that even in the depths of winter there under the pavements are insulated water pipes conveying people's hot bath-water for miles and miles - and my pleasure was only slightly modified by the circumstance that the water was not actually hot, due to a malfunction at the plant. However, it was hot in principle, and it is principles that matter.

Soon Irina arrived to escort me back to the house for breakfast. On Sovetskaya Ul (an abbreviation for 'ulitsa', which means 'street')  it was the rush-hour, with office workers in shirtsleeves or flimsy blouses congregating around bus-stops as they waited for the ubiquitous marshrutki, or minibuses, that are the best way of getting around Bishkek. Every couple of hundred yards there would be a cluster of thirsty commuters at a roadside refreshment stall, for there are three proprietry drinks that are sold by the cup in this way all over the city, and they are very popular - more on this anon.
Manas on his faithful horse Akkula, watched by a manaschi, in the plaza of the Philharmonic Hall
We bought fresh bread at what was literally a hole in the wall on Isy Akunbayeva Ul, and breakfast, like most of our meals, was taken out of doors in the small garden at the rear of the house: Bishkek in June is hot, although not as hot as it is a month or two later, and even at this hour of the morning the temperature seemed to be around 25 degrees Centigrade.

Then it was time for my first expedition into Bishkek, a city with a population of about 800,000 and which was laid out by Russian planners in the nineteenth century on a more-or-less rectangular grid. We caught a marshrutka for a couple of miles and finished up outside the National University of Kyrgyzstan, from which we walked up the Alley of Heroes, also - appropriately and punningly, at least in English - called Rose Alley; it was something of a surprise to espy here an eatery called The Thames.
The Presidential White House, scene of revolutionary conflict shortly before I arrived
At the top of Rose Alley is the grand Philharmonic Hall, in front of which is a large plaza with fountains. Water features are a particular characteristic of Bishkek, for water is never in short supply in spite of the heat: mountains which even in summer remain capped with snow can be seen from many parts of the city, and the snow-melt ensures that there is a perpetual supply of fresh water always close at hand. Also in the plaza is a famous statue of Manas, the legendary Kyrgyz hero of a thousand years ago, and his faithful horse Akkula. Manas is the subject of one of the world's greatest epics which was passed down by manaschi, or bards, in an oral tradition extending over hundreds of years. Today there are special manaschi schools where pupils who have such a calling are trained, in addition to following the standard curriculum.
The National Historical Museum, showing the Official Flagpole, with hot ceremonial guards beneath, and to the right the Erkindik, or Freedom, Monument
Behind the statue of Manas is one of just such a bard, watching over his hero.

This brought us to Chuy Prospekt, the main east-west boulevard and busy enough to have a pedestrian underpass, which is itself a small market with tiny shops and stalls on both sides of the walkways - pickpockets abound. When I started to read about Bishkek I was astonished to find that the address of the British Consul in Chuy Prospekt was Fatboys Cafe, and had wondered whether it could possibly be true, but it is; that is indeed the residence of the British Consul, and he maintains a small collection of English books in the Cafe for expats desperate for something to read. Why the place is called Fatboys, I didn't get around to asking. There we had a very welcome lunch of plov, which is basically rice with stuff stirred into it - don't ask me what; comfort food of the best kind!

After lunch we wandered down Chuy Prospekt and came first to the White House, where the President has his offices, and which was the centre of much violence during the revolution a few weeks earlier.
Lenin, demoted to the back of the National Historical Museum, faces the Parliament Building
It is a massive but by no means disagreeable building, apparently unscathed, and in the bright sunshine it was so brilliantly white that it almost hurt the eyes to look at it. Next was the State Historical Museum, which is the focus for much of Kyrgyzstan's nationalist feeling. In the picture you can see at the base of the Official Flagpole two soldiers on ceremonial guard duty, in full uniform, wilting in the 35 degree heat; they are changed every hour. Beyond that is the Erkindik, or Freedom, Monument: the woman is holding a ring (not quite in the picture) which represents the smoke-hole in the top of a traditional Kyrgyz yurt, or tent. If you think that the statue looks out of keeping with its pedestal, that is because the Erkindik Monument replaced a statue of Lenin which, in 2003, was relegated to land behind the Museum, from where he now gestures rather less publicly towards the parliament building.
The pleasant and pastoral Dubovny Park, with a random statue and a real person
The rededication of the statue in its new and inferior position was the occasion for a nostalgic public pro-Soviet display, with much waving of red flags and hammers and sickles.

So as to pay our respects to Lenin we turned left into Orozbekova Ul, passing down the east side of the Museum, and shortly afterwards turned right into Abdumomunova Ul, home of the American University of Central Asia, where Irina taught and which I was very intrigued to see. I am used to vast British universities such as London, Oxford and Cambridge, and the AUCA struck me as appealingly compact, being the size of a large school, with about 1500 students. This gave it a homely and friendly air, everyone seemed to know everyone else, and I was to visit it several times.

Then we crossed Abdumomunova Ul again to head north, where I found my stalkers Marx and Engels in Dubovy (Oak) Park; they seemed to have followed me from Berlin.
The Warrior Queen, Kurmanjan Datka
This park was a big surprise. I had imagined that Bishkek, given its freezing winters, boiling hot summers and landlocked situation, would be a dry and arid place; but now I realised that not only are there multifarious water features but also the city itself is leafy and green. Here there were trees aplenty and grassy acres where one could stroll or sit in the shade, admire or execrate the statuary, buy refreshments and generally idle away an afternoon; and the trees themselves were not parched and stunted but were large and healthy specimens that would grace any English landscape. All this was achieved by an irrigation system that diverted the snow-melt through several channels that ran through the Park.

Nearby was an imposing monument to Kurmanjan Datka, the Southern Queen of Kyrgyzstan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who as a woman General was responsible for freeing the fertile Fergana Valley, in the west of Kyrgyzstan, from the Kokand khanate.
The 'Big Ben of Bishkek' and Kyrgyz Telecom building
From here we emerged again into the busy noisy world of Chuy Prospekt, at the intersection with Sovetskaya Ul. On the south-eastern corner is a large plaza containing the General Post Office, and also the headquarters of Kyrgyz Telecom, whose building boasts a clock tower nicknamed, by Irina at least, the Big Ben of Kyrgyzstan.

Our feet were killing us, and as marshrutki run down Sovetskaya about every twenty seconds we wasted no time in catching one back home. Shower! Pot of Tea! Sit-down! Bliss.




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Buying bread for breakfast at the …
Buying bread for breakfast at the…
Irina in the Alley of Heroes, or R…
Irina in the Alley of Heroes, or …
Manas on his faithful horse Akkula…
Manas on his faithful horse Akkul…
The Presidential White House, scen…
The Presidential White House, sce…
The National Historical Museum, sh…
The National Historical Museum, s…
Lenin, demoted to the back of the …
Lenin, demoted to the back of the…
The pleasant and pastoral Dubovny …
The pleasant and pastoral Dubovny…
The Warrior Queen, Kurmanjan Datka
The Warrior Queen, Kurmanjan Datka
The Big Ben of Bishkek and Kyrgy…
The 'Big Ben of Bishkek' and Kyrg…
The Philharmonic Hall
The Philharmonic Hall
More water features outside a gove…
More water features outside a gov…
The American University of Central…
The American University of Centra…
Marx, Engels and me in Dubovy Park
Marx, Engels and me in Dubovy Park
Bishkek Restaurants, Cafes & Food review
This is a very well-situated cafe on Chuy Prospekt which happens to be run by the Honorary British Consul, Michael Atsopathis. There are tables on t… read entire review
Bishkek
photo by: londonstudent