Lazing in Bishkek

We left Karakol early in the morning, hoping to get to Cholpon Ata for a festival of traditional horse games. We waited over an hour for our minibus to fill up, and as luck would have it, we had the slowest minibus in Kyrgyzstan. Not only was our driver slow as hell, he also picked up everyone who waved him down, no matter how full we already were and how small a distance his new passenger was travelling. I decided I would strangle the driver but Yann had me boxed in against the window. In the back of the minibus two rowdy elderly ladies were swigging vodka out of a 40 oz bottle (it was 8 a.m.) and I should have joined them. We got to the games almost two hours late, were charged full admission fee, even though there was only one act left. Thankfully it was kok-boru, also known as goat carcass polo. We arrived in Bishkek and checked into a budget guesthouse on the outskirts of the city centre. We were happy to find a crowd of travellers, many whom we had already met, many who had been lazing around for days. We thought we would take beds in the 12-bed dorms for the night and try to find something closer to the city centre for the rest of our stay, instead we stayed there for almost two weeks. Most nights were late ones, with lots of cheap beer and vodka being consumed (it's about 1$ for a 20 oz bottle). Travellers exchanged stories about some not-so-hospitable Kyrgyz, including a few more serious incidents and crooked police officers demanding passport checks and bag searches. We laughed about the impossible visa applications in Central Asia and joined the laziness while attempting to organize our own visa applications.

Apparently Uzbekistan isn't really all that interested in having any visitors, or it might seem that way by its embassy in Bishkek. Here's how it works
1-Call to make an APPOINTMENT to apply for your visa (need a Russian speaker to do this, we called on Monday morning before the visa office opens and were granted a meeting for Wednesday)
2-Show up at the embassy and wait OUTSIDE, the security guards have a small piece of paper with the names of the people with appointments, Yann and I were known as Canada 1 & 2 thankfully German 1 (who shared a bunk with me), spoke Russian.
3-The security guard assigns a waiting order, unrelated to what time you arrived at the embassy, maybe it has to do with the time you made your appointment, but I doubt that it's that fair.
4-Each applicant is called in one at a time to face the Visa Lady, a fat, unfriendly, foreigner hating, obviously disgruntled, Uzbek visa officer.
5-Foreigners are greeted with the following sign : "Foreigners, if you do not speak Russian then get a translator" (this, despite the fact that all the foreigner has to do is hand over the visa application and get a date of passport pickup)
6-If you haven't filled out your application ahead of time (by downloading a form from the internet), then you can pick one up inside the office, but Visa Lady might not let you fill it out inside, and she might even make you come back the next day to hand it in (we had filled ours out prior to our appointment, as had our friend German 1, she accepted ours, but she made him fill out a new one?!?)
7-Once Visa Lady has scrutinized your application long enough, she will give you a date to come back, usually 7 days later (in Russian of course), on that day, you have to wait outside on the sidewalk again until you're allowed into the office, you then hand in your passport and can pick it up in the late afternoon of the same day (after having waited outside on the sidewalk for a while). Oh, but before you get the pickup date, you have an 'interview' where another officer asks you the exact same questions that are on your visa application form (but in Russian this time)
8-A 30 day tourist visa costs 72 USD.
9-You have to make sure your 72 US dollars are nice and crisp, ours were rejected because they had creases, yes that's right, creases, the bills came straight from the BANK MACHINE, about 10 minutes before we went to pick up our visas.

Actually, we were lucky in some ways, we didn't have to wait a week and return with our passports, ours were taken that very same day and we picked them up in the afternoon. Why were we so lucky? Well, Canadians can't even apply for an Uzbek visa without a letter of invitation issued by a registered company within Uzbekistan. We had already applied for the letter via the internet, more than two weeks earlier, they cost us 35USD each, but, they guaranteed us one day visa processing time. So our interactions with the Uzbek embassy were brief and we were happy about that. It gave us time to get our Kazakh visa applications in order and delivered to the chaotic embassy.

For tourists, Bishkek doesn't exactly warrant an eleven day stay, but there are still a few gems that we took the time to visit.

State Historical Museum:
Probably the most bizarre of Bishkek's main attractions is the State Historical Museum, with an entire floor dedicated to Lenin and the revolution. The Kyrgyz don't identify to this monumental shrine too much, and apparently it is set to be relegated to the basement vaults. The ceiling frescos are fantastic, complete with shackled workers, the angel of communism destroying the fascist nazi devil and best of all the skeleton faced American riding a nuclear missile. Best of all, a special display was being prepared for important international visitors, it was off limits to us, but we did get a glimpse at a large Stalin carpet. State Museum of Fine Arts:
An impressively large collection of Kyrgyz art. The most interesting are the caretakers, tiny little old ladies so eager to share their knowledge (unfortunately in Russian) to the few visitors they get.
Ala-Too Square:
A big central square in downtown Bishkek. Formerly called Lenin Square, its big, its made of concrete but the Kyrgyz come to cool down in the fountains or watch the changing of the guards. Panfilov Park:
A few old rusty rides, arcade games and lots of snack food. We rode the awesome ferris wheel and got some nice views of Ala-Too Square and the city of Bishkek.
The White House:
Home of the Kyrgyz parliament, it's surrounded by gates, but you can sneak a glimpse of it and pose for a picture with the guards. Big Lenin Statue:
A big Lenin Statue, after independance they didn't take him down, they just moved him to the back of Ala-Too square, a slightly less high profile location. Victory Square:
A big park with a big statue that's supposed to look like a yurt, it does.
Dordoy Bazaar:
It's listed as a flea market, most of the stuff for sale is new though. Alot of granny clothes, Russian bootleg DVDs and not too much tourist stuff, but fun for that reason.

There are some pretty good cheap eats in Bishkek, the best being cheese stuffed samosas and ice cream dipped in nuts and chocolate sauce. Yann pretty much survived on an all-vodka-and-cheese-samosa diet and I survived on an all-pepsi-and-icecream diet. The streets of Bishkek are apparently not too safe at night, Phillipe, a Montrealer at our guest house woke up in a hospital after being jumped outside a bar in Osh, and we heard of a French guy who had been so badly beaten in Karakol that his insurance company repatriated him back to France to repair his broken jaw. The one night we stayed our late, I noticed that a popular nighttime activity is testing your punching strength on a type of portable arcade game, Phillipe sporting remnants of a black eye and a permanent scar on his cheek didn't find it very amusing. Drinking and punching, pretty much sums up the Kyrgyz nightlife.

Crooked Cops:
We managed to escape any encounters with the Bishkek Police force, mainly because we crossed the street any time we saw them. Most backpackers in our guesthouse weren't so lucky, but all managed to escape after asking to make a phone call to their consulate. Their usual ploy is to get you to a secluded place and tell you something's wrong with your passport, or that they have to search your bag etc etc, then they ask for money. On our last day at the guesthouse, we had a visit from two policemen who had been nosing around trying to figure out why there were so many foreigners around the East Bus Station. I'm not sure why the owner let them in, but I suppose that's how it's done in Kyrgyzstan, I'm also not sure how much she had to pay to get them to leave, but the words 'corruption' were heard coming from the kitchen. Their pretext for visiting was to give the tourists 'security tips', do those include 'How to escape from crooked cops'? It's pretty frustrating to be stopped on the street and asked for your passport, but it's even more violating having crooked police rummaging around your guesthouse.

It was actually quite difficult to leave Bishkek (although we got two extra days there courtesy of the Kazakh visa officials), we had become accustomed to our routine of waking up late, having a long breakfast with all the other travellers, taking a mini bus downtown, hanging around all day before returning for a long night of more talking at the guesthouse. We also realised that the hot shower, running water, short skirts and internet connections wouldn't be awaiting us in Tajikistan.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the detailed information about Bishkek! We're heading there later this week. After all the meat we've had recently, we're really looking forward to cheese somsas!

Look forward to hearing about your adventures in Tajikistan!


Anonymous said...

Hi Yann and Emilie. Just to let you know that I'm still reading your blog, albeit occasionally, and mostly when I've read everything interesting on BoingBoing and still need some good procrastination material.

Anyway, I'm enjoying my sporadic vicarious trip through central asia.


paradiso(angry) said...

Bonjour Em et Yann,
J'écris pas souvent mais je lis toujours. Vos réçits ont amélioré tellement depuis le début. Ils étaient bons mais votre sens d'humour et de détail amusant ou incisif rendent votre blog un "vaut le voyage" dans le sens des guides Michelin :trois étoiles.J'ai hâte de vous rejoindre et marcher quelques pas avec vous dans cette grande aventure.


mom said...

The washroom looks like the one in Dad's and my first apartment.

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