It struck me as we drove southeast towards our hotel in Bishkek, that as Europeans we are spoiled for architectural treats. The Kyrgyz are not. Bishkek may once have had local historical importance but what ‘architecture’ could be seen dated from the late 1870s when Russian peasants were tempted there by tax breaks and the agricultural opportunities afforded by the rich soil of the Chui Valley. What remains of their modest dwellings were the best bits. The rest, when not an imposing government building or fast rising hotel, was made up with rows and rows of forbidding, stained crumbling concrete Soviet blocks. They were depressing. The rusty air-conditioning units vied for space with the threadbare laundry hung out to dry on precarious balconies. In traditional Russian manner the city centre is laid out on the grid system of wide roads. Incongruously it is twinned with Colorado Springs. I wondered how many be-shorted inhabitants of the home of the Arapahoe and Cheyenne had visited.
Buoyed by a shower, caffeine and excitement, those of us awake jumped at Jonny’s suggestion to leave the soulless, fading Ak Keme Hotel, built with Malaysian money some years earlier, and visit the bazaar. As we approached Osh Bazaar, as Bishkek’s biggest bazaar confusingly is called, the hustle and bustle increased. The variety of mankind all travelling in the same direction made London’s crowds look monochrome. Until the end of the 20th century the Kyrgyz only accounted for 12% of Bishkek’s population. Russians, Ukrainians, Tartars and Germans made up the balance. Thanks to Uncle Joe’s compulsion to resettle those whom he felt like there remain some Ukrainians and Volgan Germans. Mix in the Uyghurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Dungans; Koreans and of course Russians. Now although 80% of the population may be Kyrgyz the variety of faces in Osh Bazaar is as diverse as the goods on offer. It is a good place to get a handle on the ethnicity of Kyrgyzstan.
We jumped the concrete irrigation channels, took care not to trip on the randomly lifted paving slabs, made way for a man pushing an old perambulator that was heaped full of bananas and dipped through the underpass selling English textbooks, umbrellas and plastic toys. Then there we were – jostling with purposeful shoppers.
The food area is held in high open sided, metal hangars. Above most of the stalls, sheets were draped loosely from the gantries to protect goods from the pigeons that fluttered above them. The avenues of stalls were arranged largely but not exclusively in types of merchandise. The hardcore of what people had come to sell was augmented by their own surplus. Rows of circular flat bread (kalama), with exquisite patterns pricked in their centres by checkichs , to stop them rising when cooked, faced heaps of biscuits. Sticky sweet pastries; noodles and every conceivable variety and colour of dried fruit and nut was displayed in open boxes five deep and often twelve wide. Those at the back were propped up so that buyers could really appreciate their quality. We were invited to taste. Delicious. Sacks of different-sized round, white, hard cheese balls (kurut) were testament to their popularity and the hours spent making them when grass and milk is plentiful. We sampled but decided we needed more time to acquire the taste. The necks of large polypropylene sacks were neatly rolled back into collars to display rice and pulses in greater variety of shape and colour than we had seen before. Bunches of garlic and herbs had been hung from scaffolding; fruit and vegetables brought in from gardens that morning bloomed freshness. Between each stall, sometimes under a large umbrella presumably as added protection from the pigeons, sitting solidly with feet placed squarely in front of them, mamochkas and babushkas were ready to weigh any quantity of everything they had for sale. Purchases were carried away in plastic bags with the logos of European supermarkets and unknown Italian couture houses.
In the household goods end of things we admired the variety and quality of besom brooms available, one of which Jonny climbed astride as if a witch. The mamochka laughed with us and seemed to understand that we weren’t in the market for one. We saw some brightly decorated wooden chests (juk) and some anchor shaped containers (kookor) for fermented mare’s milk (kumis) and even a type of guitar with three strings (komuz). Outside the main hangar we noticed the stalls selling farriers’ wares. Sets of horseshoes were hung in pairs over the sides of sturdy wooden boxes that contained nails and metal tacks of many gauges and lengths. To weigh them a bashed set of kitchen scales had been adapted using a plastic washing up bowl. There were pincers, clench groovers, tongs and hammers. Rolls of barbed wire were available too although quite how they complemented a farrier’s tool bag we weren’t sure.
Next were the saddlers. There is a saying that a Kyrgyz will lend you a horse but not a saddle – saddles being far more valuable than horses and they last a great deal longer. To us they were objects of particular interest as we would be spending about 60 hours on them during the next fortnight. In Britain most saddles are sold ready to use. There were very few of those on offer and very uncomfortable they looked too. They had large beautifully patterned saucer-shaped seats, often embossed with brass studs. The majority were simple carcasses, similar to those of Russian cavalry saddles. Two strips of wood to go lengthways either side of the horse’s backbone were held together fore and aft by two arched metal hoops to keep the weight off the spine. A strip of webbing went from hoop to hoop and was laced to the planks. Some had dyed or decorated leather adorning the planks or pommel or both. The leather pommels were fashioned into an erect phallic knob – undoubtedly very handy to hang on to when scooping up the remains of a goat or a coin in games of Kok Boru or Tiyin Enmei. Below the saddle display was a heap of thick felt sweat pads to be place between the skeleton saddle and the horse. There were velvet saddle clothes with varying detail of embroidery. Later we discovered that anything from redundant sofa cushions to bedding, to be rolled up after each night’s sleep, was used to bolster the human bottom. It proved a cheap and very comfortable solution. The saddler also sold halters, bridles, stirrups, ropes, bits and assorted widths of webbing.
We drifted into dark alleys of scaffolding draped in black plastic sheeting where track suits and baseball caps were on offer next to surplus Russian army uniform and boots. The men manning the stalls ignored passers-by and were either deep in conversation with each other or worlds away on their smart phones. Moseying into the gloom and wondering just how much more of this Marat and Jonny thought we might need to see, I noticed that the booths further down the aisle were manned by women. They sat on the edges of their pitches, talking animatedly. As we got closer the marvellous colours of Kyrgyzstan’s fabrics hit us, set off to their best advantage next to the dreary military camouflage and the black plastic.
First there were booths selling heavily embroidered long-coats (chapan) of sheepskin, fur and velvet for both men and women. Then there were booths selling garish faux velvet wall hangings (tush kiyiz) in traditional patterns. There were booths selling carpets and shyrdaks, the wall hangings made with thick ewes-wool felt. Yurts are lined with shyrdaks to help keep out the cold and are ever present even in modern Kyrgyz homes. They are patterned with symbols representing abundance; prosperity; freedom, friendship; spring; growth and eternal life and the recurring symbols representing animal horns; kookor and the ever present mountains. Finally there were booths selling patchwork (kurak). Our enthusiasm to buy any of these uniquely Kyrgyz fabrics, that are never seen in England and would be wonderful to have, was tempered by the reality of transporting them on the back of our horses.
By the time we entered the area that gave opportunity for more realistic retail therapy we were primed for spending and bought all sorts of presents to take home. With a flurry of som we bought brightly coloured traditionally patterned felt slippers They were joined by kalpaks and even kamcha in flimsy, recycled carrier bags. Then ladened with handfuls of tylyn and enough goodies to delight ourselves, let alone those guarding our respective homesteads, we agreed it was time to meet the others and quench thirsts and appetites.
We met the rest of the group and walked a few streets from the hotel, past the Grecian effect pillars of the derelict Aeroflot offices to an outdoor restaurant where we did impressive damage to shashlyks – those cubes of meat impaled on skewers and grilled over a flame – the staple diet of the carnivorous Kyrgyz and theoretically the first ‘dish’ ever cooked by mankind. We washed them down with the chilled drinks of our choice.
I looked round the table. We were a varied bunch. Stephen had already been in the mountains for some time as part of his very hands-on involvement with the Snow Leopard Trust; Rupert was in Kyrgyzstan to take photographs for his up-coming book on The Working Horse; Linnet had had flown in from Dubai where she worked for a bank. Marigold, a Chinese banker, had just arrived from Hong-Kong. Iris was a Franco/Scottish merchant banker based in London. Rose, currently riding in Mongolia was to join us at our yurt camp by lake Son Kul in a couple of days. Yet again I was the token Oldie. Sue caught me eyeing up everyone and smiled. Although a bit banker-heavy it looked to be an interestingly disparate group with whom to disappear into the wilds.
More immediately it was time to disappear into Bishkek and as we left the coolth of the restaurant for the dusty streets the afternoon heat hit us. It was over 30 degrees. Did those of us who had worked up a thirst for the locally brewed Steinbrau while in the bazaar, wonder whether we would have looked as perkily ready for a walking tour of the capital as did those who had stuck to bottled water? Nearly all the streets have irrigation channels carrying the snow-melt drained from the Ala-Too mountains, that form a dramatic backdrop to the south of the town. The water irrigates the trees that line so many of Bishkek’s streets and in whose shade we quickly learned to walk. It is often described as the most ‘treed’ town in Central Asia.
Bishkek stands on the site of a Khokand fortress built to protect a spur of the Silk Route and as a base from which the Khokands could extract levies from the Kyrgyz. Imperial Russian forces razed it in 1860 to Kyrgyz delight, and 8 years later a Russian outpost – Pishpek, was established. The origin of its name is debated. It is either from the ancient Sogdian ‘peshagakh’ that means ‘place in the mountains’ or it relates to the paddling tool used for stirring kumis. In 1926 its name was changed to Frunze in honour of a local Bolshevik friend of Lenin’s and in 1991 after the demise of the Soviet Union it became Bishkek.
The main drag that runs east – west through the city is called Chui Prospekt. In its time it has been called Merchant Street and Civil Street; it has been divided and stretches of it named after Lenin and Deng Xiaoping. For a while it was named XXII Partciyezda to commemorate the 22nd Party Congress in 1961. More or less in its middle is Ala-Too Square.
Walking along Chui Prospekt’s northern side from the west we found ourselves in front of high, shiny black iron fencing topped with freshly gilded balls and rosettes. Behind it, set well back, stood The White House, the presidential and government offices, seven storeys of white marble making an uncompromisingly Communist statement. I still haven’t worked out why Communist architecture, makes me think of all things brutal and oppressive whereas Imperial Russian building makes me think of beauty, of Turgenev or Tchaikovsky. Doubtless Okhrana was just as cruel as Cheka. Perhaps it is simply that Rastrelli’s flamboyant Franco/Italian baroque lies easier on the European eye.
Since it was built in 1985 the White House has been the focus of the frequent and violent disaffection with nepotism, corruption, and spiralling prices. During one demonstration Government snipers, positioned on its roof, shot seven protesters one of which reputedly was a little girl. The protesting crowd had walked from Ala-Too Square where they had gathered and there are no trees. There would have been no cover for those within rifle range.
We continued to the 140 ft. high Official State Flagpole erected in 2009. The guard is changed every hour on the hour from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. Then the flag is neatly folded and removed. We watched while three hip-high stepping youths, barely old enough to shave, arrive to change the guard. Wearing Persil white shirts and tight black trousers tucked into full riding boots, they managed to balance their rifles with fixed bayonets, butt-end on the palms of their hands as they pointed their toes to the sky. A pair of them marched up the red-carpeted steps to the kiosks on either side of the flagpole to relieve their fellows. It was their turn to spend an hour in the airless heat of the glass sentry boxes, in order to protect the 33 feet by 50 feet of fluttering sun. The senior youth waited at the bottom of the steps and with much synchronised clicking of heels escorted the perspiring, retiring high-steppers off site.
Ala-Too Square is a generous acreage of grey and pink slabs punctured by fountains and jet d’eaux surrounded by African marigolds and raised beds of geraniums. The traffic of Chui Prospekt rushes through and the whole is surrounded by marble elevations. It is rumoured to cover a vast underground complex connected to the White House by a secret tunnel.
A 33 ft. equestrian statue of Manas looks over it. Previously it was called Lenin Square as he had dominated it from the same vantage point as Manas now does, but Lenin has been demoted to a plinth in ‘Old Square’ behind the State Historical Museum that was also once named after him. We climbed the museum’s steps. Built in 1984 it is a marble cube designed to impress and state gatherings are staged in front of it. From its internal theatrical stairs to its painted ceilings and its faux bronze bas-reliefs and sculptures it was an unashamedly biased tribute to Russian communism and its paternalistic, one could say patronising, approach to its autonomous Kyrgyz dependants. Slavic faces led the way while Kyrgyz faces peered out from behind them. Among its 90,000,000 objects of ‘museum value’ we saw foxed photographs of life in the jailoo at the turn of the 20th Century. There were more recent photographs of Scythian gold objects that were too precious to be displayed and the painted scene of a rampant mammoth next to an excavated mammoth’s tooth. On the top floor a stuffed horse stood passively by a yurt. The Kyrgyz being nomads don’t acquire anything that isn’t essential so the artefacts to illustrate yurt life were thin on the ground. We had seen more nomadic kit with fewer moths in Osh Bazaar. Having spent long enough to be polite we went back out into the heat and wandered through parks. We passed the monument to Labour Glory and the Marx and Engels monument, where they sit together on a bench in cheerful, relaxed pose. Presumably Engels had just agreed to invest another slug in Das Kapital. We passed the Memorial to the Red Guards (the Eternal Flame was unlit), the Russian Drama Theatre and the State Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Then there we were, out of the trees again, in Victory Square. Of the 28 million ‘Russians’ killed in The Great Patriotic War 130,000 were Kyrgyz. The red granite monument completed in 1985, represents a yurt. Underneath is the statue of a Kyrgyz woman waiting in vain beside the eternal flame (lit) for her husband and sons, who never returned. It struck me as ironic that this is where brides like to be photographed with their grooms on their wedding day.
There still are many traditional Kyrgyz weddings. For them the bride wears a full length, white, tightly waisted dress and a tall white Disney Sorcerer’s hat (shokulo) with a veil. The groom wears a white suit and kalpack. The three couples we saw, possibly wanting to appear sophisticated city dwellers, had opted for the western version. The heavily made-up brides wore fulsome gowns that looked like French faux fin de siècle lampshades and waited their turn, each with a photographer in tow. The grooms stood back – bored. They wore dark suits and looked like extras in a Mafia film wondering whether they could get away with lighting cigarettes before the cameras rolled.
 Dungans – Chinese Muslims, many originally from Kashgar who fled across the Tien Shan mountains in the harsh winter of 1877/78.
 Handheld blocks of wood with metal pins on the underside arranged in many patterns.
 The pommel of a saddle is the piece in the front raised to clear the horse’s withers – where the neck meets the back at the shoulders.
 Kok Boru is a mounted team game played throughout Central Asia. Also known as Buzkashi, Kokpar and Ulak Tartysh. Goals are scored using a boned goat’s carcass carried by a horseman.
 Tiyin Enmei a game when coins are picked off the ground from a horse at full gallop.
 Som – There are about 100 KGsom to the UK£ / 104 KGsom to the US$ (August 2017). The notes are made with cotton paper made in France and Britain and are printed in France and Malta.
 Kalpaks – the white felt hats worn by Kyrgyz men everywhere.
 Kamcha – horse whip. It is hung loosely from the wrist until used when it is held like a racquet. The leather shaft has a variety of patterns. There is a lozenge at the end that has a plaited thong – usually the same length as the shaft. It ends in a tail.
 Tylyn – 100 tylyn = 1 som.
 Stephen Sparrow created Snow Leopard Vodka with a main aim to raise US$ 1 million for the Snow Leopard Trust. 15% of Snow Leopard Vodka’s profits go to The Trust that has so far benefited by US$ 250,000.
 Jailoo – mountain summer pasture.
 The Great Patriotic War – WWII