I’ve been in Bishkek for almost 2 weeks now (wow…), and am starting to get a feel for the city. Of course, I find myself comparing everything in Bishkek to what I’ve experienced in Tbilisi. Before coming to Bishkek, I was expecting to find a city that was “Tbilisi 10 years ago” (this is actually from a Kyrgyz friend I met in Tbilisi, though she hadn’t been in Bishkek for almost two years)—one that was rife with corruption, power outages, and a generally poor infrastructure. In Georgia, whenever I mentioned my next destination, I received responses that boiled down to “why would you ever want to go there?”
But I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
True, I would never call Bishkek a beautiful city. It is a relatively new city (nothing much until it was built up by the Soviets) with no “old town” with pretty architecture. But it’s apparent that it was a planned city. Unlike Tbilisi with its winding streets and a city plan that can best be described as illogical or “historic”, Bishkek is blessed with wide perpendicular streets that rarely get clogged with traffic. In the center of town, lush bench-filled parks are interspersed among the various government buildings. Even away from the center, the soviet-era block apartment buildings (like the one I live in) are usually separated from each other by trees and small playgrounds. I was shocked to find that Bishkek is home to a handful of malls, some of which might as well have been transplanted from the West—Tbilisi has a grand total of zero malls. Then there are the nice little touches like having not only water 24/7 (in my district in Tbilisi, water is shut off 12 hours every day), but centrally heated hot water. Even the dreaded marshrutkas (more on that later) are regulated, being more or less all the same model of Mercedes van, unlike Tbilisi’s as-long-as-it-moves-and-can-hold-more-people-than-it-should marshrutkas.
But I’m constantly reminded that I am in a very poor, post-soviet country in Central Asia. Just last Tuesday, while walking the 100 meters to the marshrutka stop from my home, I saw my neighbors slaughtering a sheep, the father deftly removing the fleece while the mother held the sheep still and the children looked on with interest. Or then there are the death-trap marshrutkas, which despite all being the same model, still hold way too many people. Last Friday, I noticed an unusually large number of people waiting for marshrutkas (there are several, each with its own route, which run by my place) at my stop, and after waiting for 20 minutes, realized that something was wrong. Finally, my marshrutka showed up and I barely squeezed on. The driver explained each time he stopped to pick up more (yes, more) people that they better get on his marshrutka since the other drivers were on strike to demand that fares be doubled from 5 to 10 soms (1 som = ~2.8 USA cents). By the time that it came close for me to get off, I counted 40 people on a van that has seats for 11 or 12. Not fun.
Then there are the inconveniences like not having cheap or easy access to internet because one of the main internet providers in Bishkek charges by the kilobyte of traffic, which has made it difficult to find a place to upload my photos. Or the worry of being stopped by the Militsia on the street without my passport on me, and having to make the decision of either taking the easy way out and just pay a bribe or being taken in to be shouted at for half an hour. (Fortunately, I am much less likely to be stopped than my other American friends because I look Central Asian, specifically Uzbek, according to one of my teachers.) Then there’s the fragile political situation, with a very unpopular president (he was never elected; rather, he made himself president), who until he returned to Bishkek two weeks ago, was rumored to be seriously ill or dead after being absent from the public scene for one month, and the brewing dissatisfaction which makes revolution only a question of when (according to my conversation teacher, 20% chance this spring).
I like to think of it as making life more interesting.
Next: My language school and host family