Tales from Bishkek: Far from the madding crowd

Fleeing the turmoil and nonsensicality of recent events in Europe (the UK’s utterly shambolic and farcical Brexit referendum, the ensuing political meltdown and the tragic terror attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, through which my wife and I had transited, not 2 days earlier) and wanting to go off-line for a while, what better than a trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that intriguing little country in central Asia, situated along the Silk Road, south of Kazakhstan.

Respecting a standing arrangement, to visit the in-laws every second year, this particular visit also coincided with the birth of my stepdaughter’s 3rd child, initially planned for 2-3 days after our arrival in Bishkek (one week later and much to the daughter ‘s consternation, there was still no sign of the baby).
The other reason for going to Bishkek this year was that my wife and daughter had recently acquired some real estate. Paperwork needed doing, the newly acquired real estate needed renovating and builders needed persuading, this was my job, that work time doesn’t rhyme with vodka time, even if the conveniently placed corner shop lady was more than happy with the workers’ patronage, because, well that’s what “Convenience” means in Bishkek.

Convenience, as in…

Popular some 50 or 60 years ago in Western Europe, before the arrival of the mega supermarkets, little street corner “Convenience stores”, that flourish in Kyrgyzstan, are now something of an anachronism in most western urban or suburban areas – if you’re curious, I’ve written at length about these Convenience stores in my book “Destination Bishkek – especially when the said “Convenience store” is often nothing more than a circa 70 cbm shipping container courtesy of the “China Shipping” conglomerate, with a facade and air conditioning, parked on some street corner. And if you’re wondering at the “unusualness” of such installations just remember that the Kyrgyz are a traditionally nomadic and pragmatic people so let’s say the containers are just replacing the traditional “Yurt”. Actually, there are so many shipping containers in Bishkek – just go to Bishkek’s Dordoi bazaar to get an idea – it’s a wonder the Chinese, themselves, aren’t wondering where all their shipping containers have gone. And if you still can’t imagine a shipping container being used for something other than its primary function read up on the East London container city complex.

For me as a westerner, going shopping in Bishkek, whether at a convenience store or at one of the bigger “Narodny” stores, is like a kid in a sweet shop. I love discovering the local and regional products (i.e. from neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and China). Sure, you can find universally familiar brand names, American sodas, French shampoos, Swiss chocolate bars, German brand coffees, Turkish beers, etc. but what’s more interesting is trying the local products*, sausages, smoked fish, pastry goods, salads, cheeses, dairy products, cakes and drinks and because the exchange rate is so favourable for westerners, shopping is (still) very cheap. It’s a standard of living related issue and what may shock a western visitor is that while there are obvious signs of social distress Kyrgyzstan has its 1%ers who are doing extremely well. In fact, in some ways, it’s a bit like the US, without Walmart.
* NB. while I tend to steer clear of the clothes, basically because, made in China, the quality is lower compared to clothes in Europe, I do recommend carpets, tableware, household articles and most of all the crystal, China porcelain tea and coffee sets and sundry metal dishes and bowls.

The taste

Discovering local food products is fun but comes with a caveat. The quality isn’t always up to expectations; origins are vague and contents approximate. For all the bickering going on in Europe, and specifically in the EU, and even more specifically in the UK, regulating the origin, descriptive and content of products has gone a long way to ensuring that sausages actually contain a guaranteed quantity of sausage meat and that when a cheese is labeled “Dutch” it really does come from the Netherlands and not from some factory somewhere in Russia or Kazakhstan.

Originating from Kyrgyzstan, it affects my wife, each time she goes back to Bishkek, to see the quality of the foodstuffs changing so. As an example take the German style breakfast Schinkenwurst sausage sold in Bishkek. The sausage used to contain large chunks of real ham in with the processed meat. Now there is less and less “real” ham and more and more “processed” meat. The aforementioned Dutch cheese doesn’t come from Holland and the industrially produced, 10 cm long, Hovis style Russian bread – always a symbol, always a barometer – is such that I personally prefer the local Kyrgyz bread.

I suppose if you eat such foods each and every day, it’s a matter of taste but even though food is still cheap in Kyrgyzstan it does make you wonder what the foodstuffs would be like if EU-style regulations dictated their production. Would food be more expensive? Certainly. Would food be healthier? Perhaps. Explaining to people, earning very basic wages with minimum social protection that it’s for their benefit might take time and be difficult, very difficult. It took the EU decades and a lot of coaxing to eventually align member states to the same standards and if I research further I’m sure I could find examples of where the EU has exerted influence over non-member countries, eager to trade with the EU, to adopt certain of its standards, e.g. health, safety, education, or forego access to the EU’s trade market.

Good local cooking

One of my other favourite pastimes in Bishkek is eating in the local,  i.e. frequented by the locals, canteen style, no frills, honest worker food restaurants serving generous portions of regional dishes, though not necessarily of Kyrgyz origin, such as Lagman, Pilaff, Ganfin, or Bortsch washed down with a natural homemade fruit juice called Compot and/or tea and all that for 5 USD for 2!
(NB. Don’t look for bottled water or sodas either in such canteens… you’re more likely to something called Kvas, the Russian equivalent of a Coke, made from plants, with a slight taste of liquorice or Schoro, a fermenting (no spelling mistake) cereal drink but that’s it).

And just why would I prefer such a non-descript canteen to a more upper market downtown eatery? Because, for having worked a long time in the hotel and catering trade, and for having had my own restaurant, it’s frustrating to be treated like a tourist, to be fleeced, overpriced, short-changed and badly served in a downtown restaurant.

It’s tempting to make generalities about the Kyrgyz people and the local Russian people in Kyrgyzstan but as a rule and although apt at trading, they, generally, have no feel for the finer points of, let’s say, customer satisfaction. You are there to leave your money or get parted of it (I’ll explain this in a bit). One good example of this is the flourishing local used car business. The locals love trading big powerful cars, mainly Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and SUVs of any brand (“bought” in Germany and/or the Baltic countries, e.g. Lithuania) and I suppose this replaces horse trading but go into any shop and the notion of service with a smile is an alien one, especially when for lack of customers you interrupt the shop assistant while they’re watching a local/Russian soap opera or chatting on the Russian Facebook.

The expression “A fool and his money are soon parted” has never made more sense to me than in Kyrgyzstan, except that here fool rhymes with foreigner. A hard thing to say? Perhaps. In any case, when in Kyrgyzstan I try not to look like a pigeon but a +100kg/1,86m white, albeit tanned, male Caucasian Gaijin does rather tend to stand out in a group of locals. Whether you’re asking for Aspirin at the local pharmacy, or ordering a beer in a shopping mall bar there’s a chance you will get short-changed. So one word of advice, be streetwise, be on your guard and if you don’t speak the language, go with someone who does and you’ll enjoy the experience all the more.

To finish on this particular subject, when in Bishkek my all-time favourite occupation is taking a Marshrutka to one of the local bazaars, of which Bishkek has many: Osh, Ortezai, Madina and of course: Dordoi. It’s a real journey into what Bishkek is really like, rather like the North African souks. Along time ago my wife used to have a stall – a container – in the Dordoi bazaar and she often tells me stories about the people and their techniques for selling. I also notice that she keeps a particularly tight grip on her handbag and is forever telling me to pay attention. She will even occasionally tell me to come and stand next to her using a tone that urges immediate compliance.

As a side note. When in Bishkek I strip my wallet of everything unnecessary: driver’s license, fidelity cards, photos and the such like but when visiting a bazaar everything else is removed as well, leaving just some cash for shopping so that if the wallet does get lifted then tough on me. I’m out-of-pocket but not by much and everything of value is safe elsewhere. No, the real pleasure in visiting these bazaars is in the experience. It’s not quite Moscow rules but there is always someone watching you and if you don’t pay attention well, then say goodbye to some personal belongings. In such a closed environment with all the hustle and bustle, you will get bumped into any number of times and any one of those encounters is potentially an attempt to test you and maybe rifle your pockets or shopping bags.
Finally, I like to think I’m a physiognomist and I like observing people and situations and have subsequently seen or have been able to negotiate situations that had I not have been paying attention could have gone differently. You can’t avoid or avert each and every situation but I like to think it’s a good way of putting into practice what I’ve learnt at one of those on-the-job “E.I.”, “Empathy” and “Situation Management” training courses most of us go on during the course of our working lives.

Post scriptum. And if you’ve got this far and are wondering whatever happened to the baby we came to Bishkek for (and bless you for asking) I can say yes, my step-daughter gave birth to a blue-eyed, 3 kilos something, 50 cm baby girl in the early hours of the day we were to fly back home from Bishkek. What a magical finish to our stay in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.


Footnote: for readability sake, all Russian names have been typed phonetically.


About nickrichards38

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