In the same way that many of Kyrgyzstan’s cities and towns feel like large villages, Bishkek seems more like a laid-back provisional town than a capital city. It’s a mix of low-rise Soviet-era housing and large 1960s modernist concrete municipal buildings, very much from the
same school of design as the pre-renovation London South Bank Centre. These could have felt a little drab if it weren’t for the abundance of parks, large public squares, and wide leafy roads, all of which seemed popular and well used. The permanently snow capped Ala-Too mountains visible from the city centre provide a magnificent backdrop.
Most people, us included, visit Kyrgyzstan for the amazing natural beauty of the landscape not the cities and whilst there are few “must see” attractions Bishkek was a pleasant place to spend a few days while we waited for visas. One of our highlights was the afternoon we spent relaxing in the luxurious Russian banya – still evidently a popular feature of daily life. Essentially a large bathhouse with
sauna and an ice cold splash pool, we joined locals as they sweated it out, scrubbed their skin to within a inch of its life and beat themselves with bundles of oak leaves, all stark naked except in some cases for, bizarrely, a traditional Kyrgyz tall white felt hat. We also feasted on the first international cuisine we’d found since Nepal and enjoyed the few swanky bars and restaurants frequented by expats
and NGO workers and made the most of some draft cider we found.
However, despite being the most cosmopolitan city we’ve visited for some time there’s still evident poverty, with careworn buildings, unpaved roads, open drains, and people collecting water from standpipes and suffering the effects of years of hard vodka drinking. There are few shops in the capital and most food and clothes shopping still seems to take place in the bazaar, with those corner shops we found poorly stocked, except for a vast array of alcohol. GDP too is still very low, at just $941 per year per capita, the equivalent of around £1,600 given lower local prices. Corruption, both large and small scale, is also reportedly a real issue, although thankfully we didn’t experience any.
From Bishkek we travelled to Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city which is located in the south of the country. The Ala-Too mountains effectively divide the northern and the southern parts of the country, especially in winter when snow closes the mountain passes, with the South generally poorer, more Islamic and ethnically mixed than the more Russified North.
The journey from north to south was visually stunning: the road wound up and down several mountain passes above 3,500m before opening out to pasture land with yurts set up for summer grazing and vast herds of animals that seemed to enjoy wandering over the road at regular intervals. We travelled by shared taxi, as we have throughout Kyrgyzstan. Much faster than buses and minibuses, shared taxis run set
routes between cities, charge by the seat and generally drive without stopping making them an exceptionally convenient and fast – although occasionally hair-raising – method of transport. “Highlights” on this journey included the handbrake failing on a steep hill when the driver got out to pour more water into the overheated engine and his continual overtaking on blind corners while simultaneously smoking and texting!
Osh is only 5km away from the Uzbekistan border, is partly surrounded by Uzbek territory, and has a large (40%) Uzbek population. Ethnic tension between Uzbeks (who tend to be wealthier) and Kyrgyz in Osh has been a frequent cause of strife, most recently in June 2010 when riots broke out and an estimated 200 to 2000 people were killed. Even now we were repeatedly warned by locals not to go out at dark as the threat of violence was still high. During the day however we felt no obvious tension. On the Sunday we spent there the parks were filled with families and mixed Uzbek and Kyrgyz groups enjoying the sunshine and the people we spoke to were keen to stress the friendship between the two.