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№15 February 2011
Your monthly guide to what’s happening in and around Bishkek

Restaurant Guide Tourist Map What’s On
. .
Love Plov
and other stories you’ve never heard of.....
This Month
Out & About

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Restaurants, Bars, Clubs
All the best bars and clubs in town.
City Map
Don’t get lost.
What’s On
The pick of the entertainment listings.
The Guide
Love & Plov in Arslanbob
In this month’s main feature Elise Laker
journeys to the predominantly Uzbek
village of Arslanbob to witness a wedding
packed with plov, music and homespun
News and Views
What’s in a name? Quite a lot it seems,
particularly if you’re an uulu or a kyzy. In
other news, Kazakhstan’s perma-President
Nazarbaev shocks the world by reveal-
ing he is running in the next election and
Kyrgz MPs debate Islamic issues.
TheSpektator Magazineis availableat locations throughout Bishkek, including: (Travel Agencies) Adventure Seller, Ak-Sai Travel, Carlson Wagonlit, Celestial Mountains, Ecotour, Glavtour,Kyrgyz Concept,
Kyrgyz Travel, Muza, NoviNomad (Bars & Restaurants) Cowboy, Hollywood, Metro, New York Pizza, No1, 2x2, Boulevard, Coffeehouse, Doka, Fatboy’s, Four Seasons, Live Bar, Lounge Bar,
Meri, Navigator, Stary Edgar’s Veranda, Adriatico, Cyclone, Dolce Vita, Santa Maria, Golden Bull (Casinos) Europa, Golden Dragon, XO (Hotels) Dostuk, Hyatt, Golden Dragon, Holiday, Alpi-
nist (Embassies and Organisations) The UN building, The American base, The German Embassy, The Dutch Consulate, CAMP Ala-too, NCCR, The Bishkek Opera & Ballet Society.
ON THE COVER: A tipsy three-man band sound the start
of a wedding in Arslanbob (Dan Pousette)
Komuz and Creation
What gives a komuz its unique timbre?
Instrument maker Turat Akunov spills the
beans to Dennis Keen.
The Spektator Magazine
Founder: Tom Wellings
Managing Editor: Chris Rickleton
Staff writers: Robert Marks (rmarks@, Dennis Keen
Holly Myers, Evan Harris,
Patrick Barrow, Pavel Kropotkin
Anthony Butts (anthonybutts@, Sergey Vysotsky
Guest Contributor: Elise Laker
Design: Aleka Claire
Advertising Manager: Irina Kasymova
Want to contribute as a freelance
writer? Please contact:
New Year in Valentin’s Valley
Valentin Derevyanko last appeared in our
sixth issue. On the eve of 2011 we found
him in rude health and still building baths.
The Hunter with a Paintbrush
In Kyrgyzstan, incidents that appear to be
separate are always inter-connected, and
every path leads unfailingly back to the
nation’s enigmatic hero and father, the
ancestor to end all ancestors, Manas.
Book Review: Akmatov’s Arhat
Holly Myers reviews Kazat Akmatov’s
best-selling, ego-bashing fantasy Arhat.
February 2011 The Spektator
4 This Month
BISHKEK, January 19 (
Like most former Soviet republics, Kyrgyzstan
spent its post-independence years hunting for a
national identity separate from the one forced on
it by Moscow, and that search included the resur-
gence of some very un-Slavic-sounding names.
But today, with hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz
depending on ties with Russia as their key source
of income, bread-and-butter worries are trump-
ing ideology. So it’s out with the “uulus” and in
with the “-ovs.”
After independence in 1991, many Kyrgyz be-
gan dropping Russian suffixes like “-ov/-ova” from
their last names. Under then-President Askar
Akayev, nationalists saw the Kyrgyz suffixes “kyzy”
and “uulu” (“daughter of” and “son of”) as impor-
tant identity markers and began urging people
to add them to a father’s first name, altogether
dropping last names in the Western sense. At
times, hospital staff did not give parents a choice,
writing the new, aggrandized patronymics onto
birth certificates.
Now, in a sign of Kyrgyzstan’s enduring de-
pendence on its former imperial overlord, the
trend is in reverse. Many Kyrgyz are succumbing
to widespread rumor that they will face trouble
with the names when they travel abroad, espe-
cially to Russia; they are re-adding the Russian
suffixes for themselves and their children. For ex-
ample, Ayana Bazarkulova, 15, was, until recently,
Ayana Gumon kyzy.
“We changed our daughter’s name from hav-
ing a kyzy ending to Bazarkulova, because I have
heard that some problems might occur when
she leaves the country,” Ayana’s mother Zahida
tells “Also, I never really liked that
kyzy and uulu thing because when my daughter
was born in 1995 nobody asked when they were
giving out birth certificates. When I received her
certificate, she already had a kyzy name on it. No-
body had asked me.”
Today, fervent pro-Kyrgyz sentiment persists
in local politics, with the most vocally nationalist
of the country’s parties scoring the most seats in
last fall’s parliamentary election. But Russia, with
its regional economic-powerhouse status, is no
longer the butt of bad feeling. That mantle has
passed to other “others,” from Uzbeks and Ameri-
cans to independent-minded Muslims. And with
so many Kyrgyz dependent on migration to Rus-
sia for work, a “Kyrgyz” last name, consisting of
two words with the second always in lowercase,
is seen as a bureaucratic liability.
“I changed my name from Begayim Kubany-
chbek kyzy to Begayim Kubanychbekova about
two years ago. My relatives told me that I would
have problems with my name abroad. I changed
my kyzy name to avoid potential problems in
the future,” Kubanychbekova, 19, says. “For me it
doesn’t make a difference. For me it’s just a name.”
The change is registered at a local passport
office, where officials confirm the trend is sparked
by fear of Russian authorities. Officials estimate
that in Bishkek alone approximately 1,000 people
-- half men and half women -- are changing their
names back to the Russian form each year.
Kyrgyzstan’s Name Game: Love Thy Neighbor, Ivan the Rich
“Lately, many people do it for Russia, because
they have problems with kyzy and uulu names
there. Russian authorities demand it [the change]
to register in schools and universities and more,”
Abulmajin Akmashaev, head of Kyrgyzstan’s De-
partment of Citizenship and Passport Control,
Ainura Busurmankulova, head of the pass-
port control office of Pervomaisky District in
Bishkek, stresses that the choice is voluntary.
“Nobody makes our citizens change their last
names from uulu or kyzy to the -ov/-ova endings,”
she says. “In the 1990’s people were told to take
new uulu and kyzy names, but now people are
changing their names voluntarily because many
parents are afraid to send their kids to school or
to work in Russia.”
Busurmankulova says that if Russian offi-
cials are practicing such discrimination, they are
breaking their own laws, but admits the migrants
from Kyrgyzstan have little recourse. “They don’t
have the right to reject our names. Here we ac-
cept all kinds of names – Chinese and others.
These are our traditional names. I don’t know why
they wouldn’t accept them,” she says.
Despite the fear of problems abroad, for
some, the traditional names are a badge of pride.
“I have heard about the trend, but I decided
not to change my name. The kyzy suffix means
more than just a name. For me it means sup-
porting and carrying my national and cultural
heritage. I wouldn’t want to change my name to
something Russian sounding,” 20-year-old Jibek
Nurdin kyzy told
Nurdin kyzy believes corrupt officials at
home may be encouraging the rumors about
trouble abroad simply to seek profit: “I have been
abroad and I have never had problems with my
name. But when I was getting my passport, they
asked whether I would like to change my name to
the old style. So many people are changing their
names now. But I think for them [the passport of-
ficials] it is just another way of making money. It’s
profitable to spread this kind of rumor.”
Protesters demand release of
ex-president’s nephew
National Bank of Kyrgyzstan
to tighten legislation
HR activists praise parliament
tour plans
Kyrgyz Hockey stars skate to
fake gold
Kyrgyzstan in brief
BISHKEK, February 4 ( – The National
Bank of Kyrgyzstan intends to tighten banking
legislation due to problems at AsiaUniversal-
Bank, the chairperson of the board of directors
for the National Bank, Baktygul Zheenbaeva,
told journalists at a press-conference.
According to Zheenbaeva, the situation sur-
rounding AsiaUniversalBank revealed mistakes
in the work of the system and major problems
regarding legislation. “We’ve been working since
autumn on legislation and regulatory legal acts
revision. In 2011 we will demand additional rigid
requirements from commercial bank owners, as
they are responsible to their clients. They will
work transparently and honestly,” said Zheen-
ASTANA, February 4 ( – Kyrgyzstan’s
national ice hockey team claimed an ‘honorary
gold’ medal at the Asian Winter Games in Kaza-
khstan, after topping their round robin with a
game to spare. The tournament was divided into
a Premier League and an ‘honorary’ First Division,
with the Kyrgyz side competing in the latter.
Their gold will not count towards the final stand-
ings at the tournament held in Astana and Al-
maty, but the team return home proudly after
some bruising victories against sides such as
Mongolia, Bahrain and Kuwait. The highlight of
their tour was a 23-2 pummelling of Malaysia,
the second favourites in the honorary group.
JALAL-ABAD, February 2 (RFE/RL) - Some 30
people in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad
are demanding the immediate release of Sanjar
Bakiev, the jailed nephew of ousted President
Kurmanbek Bakiev, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service re-
ports. The protesters gathered in the city’s Erkin
Too (Free Mountains) Square to protest the Feb-
ruary 1 court rejection of Sanjar Bakiev’s appeal
against the 10-year sentence given to him in
connection with deadly unrest in southern Kyr-
gyzstan last year.
Sanjar Bakiev pleaded guilty to involvement in
riots in Jalal-Abad in May. He was sentenced on
November 2 to 10 years in jail but appealed the
BISHKEK, February 4 (centralasianewswire) –
Kyrgyz Parliament Speaker Akhmatbek Keldibe-
kov’s plan to let university undergraduates and
schoolchildren tour parliament on Saturdays has
earned praise from the Council of Human Rights
Defenders of Kyrgyzstan (SPK). Tours of parlia-
ment will attract youth to the cause of establish-
ing and developing democracy and provide for
a transparent, responsible parliament, the SPK
said in a statement on February 3. Kyrgyz univer-
sities and schools already operate simulated par-
liaments to help students and children to learn
more about governance, the body noted.
February 2011 The Spektator
6 This Month
BISHKEK, February 2 (
A seemingly innocuous suggestion to allocate time
and space for Kyrgyz MPs to observe Islam’s tradi-
tional Friday prayers has produced a furor with im-
plications for mosque-state separation. Opponents
say the measure threatens to erode the concept of
secularism enshrined in Kyrgyzstan’s constitution.
The origin of the debate goes back to a late De-
cember parliamentary session, when Vice Speaker
Asylbek Jeenbekov of the governing Social Demo-
cratic Party called the need to address prayer in par-
liament “long overdue.”Support for the initiative cut
across party lines. In addition to Jeenbekov, several
prominent members of the opposition Ar-Namys
Party spoke in favor of providing an extended break
for worship on Friday, not only for deputies, but for
all state employees. Some also expressed a desire to
set up a prayer room in the parliament building.
A recent series of events that security officials
characterize as acts of terror has helped sharpen the
discourse about faith and state. And while some MPs
have been quick to endorse the new administra-
tion’s combative rhetoric vis-à-vis “militants,” others,
activists complain, are trying to curry favor among
disaffected Muslims.
Dmitri Kabak, head of Open Viewpoint, a hu-
man rights organization that monitors constitu-
tional compliance, is one of many activists who have
been critical of a perceived opportunism among
some parliamentarians. “We consider that this piety
is an example of politicians using religious feelings
among the population to improve their own image
-- it’s an exercise in PR,”Kabak told
“Our position is that religion is a personal free-
dom that all have a right to exercise,” Kabak added.
“The state, however, serves the interests of society,
and must remain neutral before all religions. This
is a status that is imposed by the constitution and
should not be ignored.”
Worship is a “private matter” and should stay
that way, argued Gulnara Aitbaeva, head of the
Bishkek Women’s Center, an organization that moni-
tors a broad range of citizens’ rights. “Some people
in the country want to change that. But I don’t think
the people, or even the majority of [MPs] support
this initiative.”
Others point with some concern to Islam’s in-
creasingly public role in society. Irina Karamushkina,
an MP from the Social Democratic faction who op-
poses the idea of a state-sanctioned break for Friday
prayers, likes to quote a statistic that alarms secular-
ists: The number of mosques in the country (roughly
2,000) is close to approaching the number of schools
Amid this rapid expansion of public places of
worship, many analysts fear that a mishandling of
the government’s relationship with Islam could have
negative implications for society. Kadyr Malikov,
head of the prominent, Bishkek-based think-tank,
Religion, Law and Politics, which tracks issues re-
lated to faith and extremism, argues that the prayer
debate has the potential to exacerbate divisions in
“What we are seeing here is two groups talking
past each other,”he told “More often
than not, discussion of these issues takes the form of
accusation-trading. The sides have little understand-
Prayer Row Pits Civil Society against Parliament
ing of each other’s positions.”
“When debates like these become polarized,
there are consequences for society,” Malikov con-
tinued. “Of course, our state is secular. But our poli-
ticians have to understand that secularism doesn’t
mean control of religious feeling. … Considering
recent events, it is essential that religion and gov-
ernment enter into a more mature dialogue with a
better understanding of each other’s common and
separate concerns. Unfortunately, we don’t appear
ready for this.”
Aitbaeva of the Bishkek Women’s Center claims
that collective patience with the new parliament is
already wearing thin. She contended that that the
debate over parliamentary prayer has fostered an
impression that MPs have already lost touch with the
day-to-day concerns of their constituents.
“When these MPs were out campaigning they
spoke of completely different things: lowering pov-
erty, improving quality of life and so on. Now they are
in the parliament we see that they are mainly con-
cerned with using public money to create places for
their own personal salvation. Once again, the country
lives one life, and parliament lives another,”she said.
Early Kazakh Election Set For April Amid Opposition Criticism
Kyrgyzstan Amends Laws To Prevent Hajj Corruption
ALMATY, February 4 (RFE/RL) - Kazakh President
Nursultan Nazarbaev has called an early presiden-
tial election for April 3, in a decision criticized by
some opposition parties, RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service
The announcement came in the state-run
media, which carried Nazarbaev’s decree on the
election date. The decree was made public after
Nazarbaev this week rejected a proposed referen-
dum that might have extended his rule until 2020
and instead called for early elections, nearly two
years before his current term ends.
That move was welcomed by the United
States and the Organization for Security and Co-
operation in Europe. But in a joint statement on
February 4, the Communist Party and nonregis-
tered opposition Algha (Forward) party criticized
the decision to hold the election so soon.
At the same time, the two parties also called
on the opposition Azat (Free) National Social
Democratic party and a number of nongovern-
mental organizations to agree on a joint opposi-
tion presidential candidate. “Although it is abso-
lutely clear that there will be no possibility for any
candidate other than Nursultan Nazarbaev to win
in the early elections since no opposition candi-
date is able to get prepared for the elections in
just two months,” a single opposition candidate
“might become a political figure around whom
the most thinking and active part of society could
get consolidated,” the statement says.
The statement also says that if the opposition
does not agree on a single candidate, the early elec-
tions should be fully ignored and boycotted by the
entire opposition and its supporters. Despite the
BISHKEK, February 5 (RFE/RL) - The Kyrgyz par-
liament has adopted amendments to its law on
religions that prevent government officials from
being involved in the preparations for the annual
hajj in Saudi Arabia after reports of corruption,
RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reports.
Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a parliament deputy
who initiated the amendments, said in parliament
on February 4 that the changes would “stop cor-
ruption in Kyrgyzstan surrounding the hajj pilgrim-
age.” Last month, the chairman of the Congress
of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, Bakyt
Nurdinov, accused the Kyrgyz government of
call for a joint candidate, several opposition groups
said they will put forward their own candidates for
the election. The co-chairman of Azat, Bulat Abilov,
told RFE/RL that his party on February 3 decided to
nominate him, with a final decision due to be made
at the party’s congress scheduled for February 11.
Another opposition politician, Zhasaral
Quanyshalin, today confirmed to RFE/RL he
would run in the upcoming vote. But Quanysha-
lin, a former parliament deputy and longtime crit-
ic of Nazarbaev, added that he might face some
legal obstacles, in the form of two pending libel
cases against him over an article he wrote more
than four years ago that was critical of Nazarbaev.
He described the cases as politically motivated,
saying they were filed immediately after he an-
nounced in November his intention to run in the
presidential election initially scheduled for 2012.
Another figure who announced his candida-
cy today is Khasen Qozhakhmet, a Soviet-era dis-
sident and one of the leaders of the Zheltoqsan
(December) movement, named for the December
1986 uprising in then Soviet Kazakhstan.
Qozhakhmet told RFE/RL that if the elections
are truly fair, Nazarbaev will get at most 25 percent
of the vote. Presidential adviser Ermukhamed
Ertisbaev said on February 4 that opposition
groups in the country have no chance to win in
the April vote. The Chairman of the Central Elec-
tion Commission (OSK), Quandyq Turghanqulov,
announced that candidates’ registration would
begin February 5 and run through February 20.
Nazarbaev, 70, has ruled Kazakhstan since
before it gained independence from the Soviet
Union in 1991.
“illegal involvement in the selection of pilgrims
among Kyrgyz Muslims and the organization of
their trip to Mecca.”
Nurdinov said corruption in the hajj organiza-
tion was used by some officials for “making illegal
Government officials received a quota of hajj
invitations from Saudi Arabia that they were to
distribute to Muslims wanting to make the pil-
grimage to Mecca.
Kyrgyz officials have been accused of selling
the invitations for large sums of money or giving
them to friends and relatives.
February 2011 The Spektator
HE YEAR INCOMING, by the Chinese
understanding, would be the Year of
the Rabbit, and all around us hare tracks
pocked the virgin snow in premature
anticipation. Their reign, a traveller re-
minded us, would not be announced until later on
in February. For the rest of us though, a ragtag band
of Karakol locals, visitors from Bishkek, Ural Russians
and Japanese volunteers, the eve of 2011 had ar-
rived, and it had brought us to Altyn Arashan, 2,700
metres above sea level and a six-hour walk from the
administrative capital of the Issyk-Kul region.
We had been lucky enough to do two-thirds
of the climb in wily old Yak Tours owner Valentin
Derevyanko’s 1980 UAZ Soviet jeep, its tyres rigged
with metal chains for traction. Driver Nikolai, who
bore more than a passing resemblance to an extra
from Doctor Zhivago, gripped the wheel through
the sleeves of his trench coat and talked strategy
with Valentin over mounds and frozen rivulets.
“Right, get out now,” Derevyanko announced
suddenly. “It is too dangerous - we’ve got too much
weight.” We piled out the car. In his company for a
couple of hours at most, we had already grown ac-
customed to our host’s penchant for the unexpect-
ed. On the drive out of Karakol, he had announced
his need for a “camouflage” as we approached a
police checkpoint on the fringes of town. Promptly
stripping down to his t-shirt and leggings, Valentin
proceeded to pull on a bright red Ded Maroz kaf-
tan, complete with a voluminous fake white beard.
Then, as we got within range of the police post, he
encouraged Nikolai to stamp down hard on the ac-
celerator while he waved madly out of the window
from the passenger’s seat at a confounded com-
We made several stops, for bread and for hon-
ey, at ramshackle cottages that might have been
plucked from a book of Russian fairy tales. Here and
there Valentine would chain smoke and fraternize
with the locals, wishing them ‘s nastupayishim’, the
standard Russian greeting before a holiday. Return-
ing from one household, Valentin shook his head
in dismay. This goat-rearing family’s son, Talant, had
gone missing. Talant, who had no legs and made his
After our traditional January no-show,
the Spektator is back on Kyrgyzstan’s well-
beaten and less well-beaten tracks to give
you all the places to go and things to do in
2011. Starting with a jaunt to Valentin Der-
evyanko’s madhouse in Altyn Arashan, this
issue sees us travel to a wedding in Arslan-
bob, visit the workshop of a master komuz-
maker and engage in a discussion about
the meaning of Manas’ moustache. It only
gets stranger, folks...
Out & About
way around the village using a custom-built sleigh,
had begun New Year celebrations early the night
before. After a drunken argument with his brother,
Mirbek, his sleigh had skidded off into the distance,
not to be seen since. He was probably asleep under
a bush somewhere, Valentin surmised.
As we crawled over the final pass separating
us from Altyn Arashan, one of Kyrgyzstan’s famous
postcard images greeted us. The valley we were
entering sloped steeply down towards a series of
huts on the margins of a boiling river. Its walls were
thick with dark firs as far as the eye could see, and
the evening sun blasted a strip of light across its
southern ridge. The scenery in this part of the world
had given Issyk Kul oblast’s largest town, formerly
known as Prezhvalsk, its post-Soviet name. Karakol:
‘the black hand’; the black valley.
At the hut we were met by a pack of moun-
tain dogs, in whose direction we threw some stale
bread. “Don’t give them that, they’ll never eat the
snow,” joked Valentin. Food was not in abundance,
he explained, but we would have enough to eat. “I
tell my guests that we don’t run a five star service,
we run a five million star service,” he continued. “At
night, you’ll see what I mean!”
The six ‘o’ clock borsch was certainly basic, and
wanting for one or two of its traditional ingredients
(like, say, beetroot), but after a two hour hike it
tasted delicious all the same. Tea was poured with a
drop of Arashan, a fiery regional spirit which served
to warm up the soul in sub-zero temperatures.
The delegation from Yekaterinburg meanwhile,
marvelled at the novelty of drinking from a bowl.
“How Eastern!” they exclaimed in delight. The Ka-
rakol Russians, scrawnier and long-accustomed to
the hardships of living at the outer limits of the Old
Empire, nodded meekly. It was a phrase that we
were to hear several times over the course of the
After a few hours of warming through, toast-
ing chestnuts over Valentin’s fire, the games be-
gan. With the help of a few bottles of Kyrgyzstan
cognac we played the sticker challenge, whereby
each contestant has a famous identity attached to
their forehead, whose name they must guess us-
Year February 2011 The Spektator
Above Images from Altyn Arashan including
Valentin and Galina’s ‘bath of love’ and an-
other bath built into a rock face. For more info
on how to visit Valentin (left), call him up on
0777119251 or email (all
photos H. Firouzeh)
Out & About
ing questions that demand either a “Da” or “Nyet”
response. “Was I dead?” – “Da,” they replied excit-
edly. “Was I a woman” – “Da!”“Was I from Europe?”
– “Da!” “France?”- “Da!” squeaked the assembled
in crescendo. “Coco Chanel then, “ I said, putting
the sticker down on the table in a blasé gesture
of confidence. I had won my first ever game of
sticker challenge in a foreign language. Everyone
applauded in muted disappointment, for the prize
was a much sought after foot-long salami.
We proceeded to knock back toasts in that nox-
ious, never-ending Russian sequence, while one
of the Yekaterinburg lot tried and failed to guess
the identity on his head. “Am I Kyrgyz?” – “Yes!” we
chorused. “Then how am I supposed to know?” he
fumed indignantly. “Don’t you watch the news? You
caused a revolution!” prompted a Karakol local. “I’d
heard something,”he replied.
They had flown down to snowboard at Central
Asia’s premier ski base near Karakol –“In Yekater-
inburg we’ve got snow to eternity, but no moun-
tains” - and didn’t have much of an image of the
country they had arrived in. For this new, younger
generation of Russians, the Soviet Union was a
dead concept. The knowledge that the former re-
publics once had of each other had dissolved, and
stereotypes were the only residue that remained.
“Do you drink champagne out of bowls too?” one
asked curiously.
At dusk we availed ourselves of the thermal
baths that have made Valentin’s favourite spot in
the world a haven for visitors over the last fifteen
years. Different mineral-rich baths had different
qualities, Valentin explained. One treated eczema,
another, female infertility. Really?
“Once a woman that came here brought along
another, who couldn’t conceive. A few months lat-
er, the woman’s friend got pregnant,”Valentin said.
“Of course it is not official, and it won’t be until we
get more positive results, but it is a rather exciting
The hills around us were already studded with
legend. Buddhist stones had been found in the vi-
cinity, carved with Sanskrit verse and images sup-
posedly condemning the practice of the Karma
Sutra. They were housed in a small museum adjoin-
ing the complex of bath houses. Now Valentin was
working his own way into local mythology. Further
along the river’s course he had constructed a series
of open air stone baths, one of which, shaped like
a heart, he had dedicated to his wife, Galina: “The
Bath of Love”. Did she appreciate the gesture? “She
loves her yaks more than she loves me,” he replied
sombrely. These unwieldy domestic pets had ar-
rived their way via one of the early writers of the
Lonely Planet guides, who had fallen in love with
one and bought it from a shepherd. Now they had
eighteen of the horned creatures and caring for
them took up much of the couple’s time and mon-
ey. “My wife’s crazy,” he concluded, “but she loves
animals, so what can you do?”
Hot spring dipping proved the perfect way
to heat up ahead of the countdown to 2011. Al-
though the Japanese contingent lost all sense of
time, spending five hours in the baths and arriving
back to the hut two hours after midnight, the rest
of the crew was happy to hit up the New Year in a
state of relative cleanliness with a spoonful of Ol-
ivier salad (the former Soviet Union’s festive favour-
ite), some cold fat jelly stuff and the consistently
undrinkable Sovietskoye champagne – from a bowl.
The immersion in radon, iron and sulphur had left
an aura of warmth around our skin, and when this
latent heat eventually dissipated there was always
more cognac.
Russian tradition requires that you “see off”the
old year before you “meet” the new. This involves
saying a few words about it, but not cursing it, as
that would bring a cloud over the next one.
After clinking bowls at the decisive moment,
we went out into the midnight snow to set off fire-
works. Valentin was as good as his word - the sky
was alight with countless balls of burning gas - we
saw the Plough and Orion’s Belt constellations in
at least five separate places. But we had overdone
the toasts, and although we were fit enough to see
in the Yekaterinburg New Year (one hour after Kyr-
gyzstan’s New Year) and almost the Moscow New
Year (two hours after Yekaterinburg’s), alcotude
levels got the better of us during a dash up to the
bedroom to feast on our foot-long salami. Still,
Ded Maroz Valentin and his band of helpers had
brought the curtain down admirably on a year one
of them referred to euphemistically as “eventful”.
Eventful it was: S’NOVIM GODOM!
‘The hills around us were al-
ready studded with legend. Bud-
dhist stones had been found in
the vicinity, carved with Sanskrit
verse and images supposedly
condemning the practice of the
Karma Sutra’
Altyn Arashan
February 2011 The Spektator
10 Out & About
T’S ONLY EIGHT ‘O’ CLOCK and already the
cook has prepared twenty-five kilograms of
Urgench’s finest plov, the most popular dish in
Central Asia. It is made from carrot, (yellow or
orange depending on sweetness preference),
mutton, onion, a gallon of oil, plus salt and pepper
to taste. The cook tells me you can add raisins to
your plov too, and duly points to the succulent little
black dots enmeshed in the rice. Quite refreshing to
hear, I may add, if you’ve been living up till now on
a diet of boiled mutton, fat and the occasional bowl
of greasy, tasteless plov. Carried away in my excite-
ment, I ask if you can add red peppers too. But he
looks concerned. I recall my Kyrgyz teacher, a young,
modern woman, who told me how she once tried to
experiment with her plov by lacing it with peppers.
She related that it was quite tasty, but that the friend
for whom she was making it didn’t take kindly to her
meddling in the old traditional ways. “The ingredi-
ents are rice, carrot, onion and oil,” she said, pound-
ing her fist on the table in mock imitation.
“I’m preparing this plov for hademe, over there’s
some soup simmering,” the cook, Hashim, nodded
his head in the direction of another stove. I glanced
over, observing the oily pot, wondering nervously
how many bowls of the broth I would have to drink
out of sheer politeness over the course of the day.
The hademe or opening ceremony usually be-
gins at nine o’ clock, and features plenty of wise-
looking Uzbek men, sporting dopurs (Uzbek scull
caps), who enter the premises of the groom’s par-
ents’ house to meet and greet his relatives. The pur-
pose of this tradition is to bless the house where
he and his bride will take up residence after their
marriage. Following several plates of plov, which I’m
ensured is of the finest quality, the Morning Prayer is
said and the house is blessed by wafting the smoke
‘Koshkelibsiz mexmonla,’ (‘welcome guests’
in Uzbek) to Almaz and Gulsever’s wed-
ding day in Arslanbob, Jalal-Abad province.
Unable to refuse such a unique invitation,
Elise Laker made the long-haul road trip to
Kyrgyzstan’s rural south, encountering wa-
terfalls, walnuts, a people inseparable from
their traditions and belief-stretching quan-
tities of the region’s favourite oily rice and
meat staple, plov.
from a burning branch of a special tree called arch-
er. I was to discover later why the plov was so fine,
when a man proclaimed that “a sure sign of good
plov is that as you eat it the oil drips down your
wrist.” He grinned manically and indicated an oily
left arm as he proclaimed this.
The men queued to wash their hands before
leaving and some women arrived, bearing gifts
wrapped in the traditional Uzbek atlas-patterned
fabrics. They were the groom’s mother’s friends.
They placed scarves on her head and shook her
hand in jubilation before entering the house for
women. I’m told that for the occasion of a traditional
Islamic wedding, the men and the women are sepa-
rated, and that different rooms and even houses are
provided for the two sexes. I ask eagerly where the
bride-to-be is, but I’m told she is at her house, where
she will wait for the big moment when Almaz the
groom arrives to take her. So I headed over there
where I found a similar scene to that at the groom’s
house, but this time with the friends of the bride’s
family offering their blessings.
The wedding musicians were chattering away
and I was intrigued by a long wooden horn at-
tached to one of them. “It’s called a karnei,”a striking
man in a big fur hat said to me, “I’ll start playing it to
sound the arrival of the groom, and they’ll play the
drums,”he added, looking to his two colleagues. “It’s
our tradition because everyone in the village must
know that there is a wedding party.”A distinct smell
of vodka had entered the air, and yet this wedding,
I reminded myself, was an Islamic wedding. Ban-
ishing the very notion, I requested some tea from
a slightly chipped teapot, and it revealed itself as
containing not tea, but rather the vodka I had previ-
ously smelt. “It’s true that at an Uzbek wedding, one
should not drink alcohol but see how we conceal it!
Above The bride may seem a tad distraught,
but she’s loving it all really (all photos Daniel
Opposite A solemn Almaz (centre) sits at the
ceremonial table with his equally solemn
companions. The carpet behind them reads
‘welcome dear guests’
Far Right These young girls are left guessing
as to goings-on outside - males and females
are separated at traditional Uzbek weddings
Next Page Weddings provide photogenic
elders with an excellent opportunity to have
a natter and plan future weddings
Arslanbob February 2011 The Spektator
11 Out & About
It’s ok if no one finds out, as long as we keep it out
of sight,”one of the drummers cannily reassures me.
My arm twisted, I drink to a toast. They proceed to
talk about their wedding days and how it was differ-
ent ‘back then.’‘Back then,’ I learn, refers to the Soviet
time, when Central Asia was just a strange appendix
to the USSR, and when people knew of a greater
freedom, unburdened by the weight of centuries-
old tradition. This was the dubious age when vodka
and beer were introduced to Central Asian society,
something they have been trying to recover from
ever since as alcoholism retains an insidious grip
over the villages across the area. “My wedding
was definitely different.
I remember all the men
were drunk, people even
fought one another!”
the same drummer ex-
claimed, “but it’s better
when people don’t drink,
it’s respectful to our re-
ligion, people don’t act
wild,” he continued, half-
happy, half-remorseful and of course, half-cut.
Around midday, one of the musicians sounded
the very horn we had been speaking about ear-
lier and the groom and his entourage appeared,
marching gallantly to a room inside the house of
the bride’s family, where a feast awaited them. The
room was adorned with the bride’s presents, con-
sisting of garishly bright flowery dresses and head
scarves which had been hung up on the walls. There
was an entire cooked sheep in the centre of the
room, strategically surrounded by breads and deli-
cious jams, which the groom and his close friends
ate before the bride arrived to be blessed. Such a
feast is known in Uzbek as kiarnakavor. When the
horn sounded for the second time, the entourage
departed just as dramatically as they had arrived,
now with their bellies full.
The bride, I’m notified, is soon to make her first
appearance. She’ll be covered by a long veil and
taken to the house where her husband-to-be has
just finished stuffing himself. To the unknowing
onlooker it might appear that the bride is in some
distress, for her crying is quite intense. A young girl,
who has decided to be my friend for the day, takes
my arm and tells me that it is the tradition for the girl
to look upset: “She is sad, because it is the end of her
childhood innocence, but happy because Almaz is
a good man. If she cries
it means her marriage
will be a happy one,”
she says, smiling an in-
nocent smile.
As the bride en-
tered the room, you
wouldn’t have realised
there had just been
a feast fit for a king.
Everything had been swiftly cleared away to make
space for her. A coin was tossed to symbolise wealth
and luck, and a prayer was uttered as the girl contin-
ued to weep, her sister dutifully fanning her veil in
order to comfort her.
As if the importance of plov in traditional Uzbek
culture hadn’t already been underlined by the prep-
aration for hademe and the greasy-armed man, the
meal once again took centre stage as part of a time-
less wedding tradition called yhlandi. In order to en-
sure the bride always has enough food to feed her
family, a ritual is carried out with three basic kitchen
ingredients: flour, butter and the ubiquitous plov.
In this ritual, the groom and bride’s relatives
‘I’m told that for the occasion of a
traditional Islamic wedding, the men
and the women are separated, and
that different rooms and even hous-
es are provided for the two sexes’
February 2011 The Spektator
12 Out & About
are obligated to rub these things into the hands of
the bride. As they do so, the male relatives make
wishes for the bride and pile spoonfuls of the plov
onto her palms, whilst the women ensure these
wishes will come true by pouring more plov and oil
onto her hands minutes later. After that, the cap-
tive audience must once more summon the ap-
petite to eat from the communal bowl. Although
I’m sure yhlandi is what broke my plov endurance
and wracked me with stomach cramps during the
night, I like to think that the newlyweds will have
full cupboards as a result of the exercise. Once the
ritual reaches its conclusion, the bride is escorted
back to her room where she will wait; contemplat-
ing her fate for another few hours until partner-
for-life Almaz comes bounding in to collect her. At
this particular wedding, the bride will not sit at the
table with her husband during the evening cele-
brations, because both families are very traditional
and believe the bride should not be seen at all.
Whilst we waited, a soup was served followed
by plov, and perhaps predictably, more plov. The
dulcet tones of the wedding singer made for an
apt soundtrack to the setting of the sun, and eve-
ryone waited patiently for the finale to the day.
Hashim, the cook who drew a line at peppers,
had apparently now generated over a hundred
kilograms of rice, and a quietly spoken man called
Toktopulat decided to tell me over the latest batch
of plov and a bowl of tea about a Ukrainian woman
he had loved and lost ‘back then’, during the So-
viet period. They were from different cultures, he
admitted sadly, it could never have worked out be-
tween them. I asked him about Almaz’s marriage,
and he replied that the situation was different. “Al-
maz’s parents have arranged this wedding. There
is no love now, but maybe in the future,” he mulled
pensively, sipping his tea.
Suddenly some wonderfully loud and fast mu-
sic started with an array of key changes and the
groom came to seize his bride. Her hand in his, Al-
maz lead the young woman through the crowd to
yet another room where they had their photo tak-
en, before abruptly leaving her in wait once more.
He and his two best men took to their seats at the
special wedding table, marked by a large carpet,
erected on the wall, with the words ‘welcome dear
guests’ printed on its front. The pastel-coloured
gates were flung open, and the party opened up
to everyone in the village. Friends of Almaz and
Gulsever, mainly men and children, made speech-
es to wish the couple happiness and prosperity
before embarking on a dance involving a lot of os-
tentatious movements and flamboyant shakes of
the hands and wrists. During the dance routines,
people gave money, which was exchanged with
the groom and his best men for five som notes,
subsequently thrown onto the table. Women gave
belts called charsi (made from brightly coloured
scarves) to men who tied them round their waists
to symbolise strength. Women, should they ven-
ture to dance, were reinforced with even more
head scarves. Almaz and his friends looked on,
awaiting more money to exchange, far from ju-
bilant, remaining serious-looking throughout the
The ultimate dances were the preserve of this
small group, and they stayed straight-faced even
whilst moving furiously to the music. I couldn’t
help but remember Toktopulat’s words and I ques-
tioned if Almaz was actually happy with his par-
ents’ choice. So I asked him: “I’m looking forward
to my married life, yes,” the groom mused, “It was
either this or my other plan...”
“Your other plan?” I asked, confused. “Yes my
other plan,” he pondered a little. “To go to Eu-
rope…” The dream seemed suddenly distant, like
that of a different person. He assured me, however,
that he was content because his parents are happy,
and that I was to understand that his village had
very strong traditions and values which he was
obliged to uphold. He returned to dance one last
straight-faced dance before the music faded and
the gates closed, almost silently, for him and his
bride Gulsever to begin their married life together.
Hamma zor - may it be long and prosperous!
Aside from plov-gobbling Uzbeks and the
best CBT office in Kyrgyzstan, Arslanbob is fa-
mous for being the home of the country’s first
known export to Europe: the walnut. A legend
goes that Alexander the Great, forger of one of
the largest empires in world history, returned
home from his Persian campaign with a sack
of Arslanbob’s finest. Whilst various sources
attribute the origin of the nuts to the Middle
East, the ‘bob has over 11,000 hectares and
1500 tonnes-per-year’s worth of evidence to
support its ancient claim; the alpine forest
that overlooks the town is the largest single
natural source of walnuts on the Earth’s sur-
face, a source which supplied the Trans-Oxa-
nian region before the Silk Road even existed.
The nut season, which runs from late Sep-
tember to mid-October, marks the best time to
visit Arslanbob, as whole families of registered
walnut gatherers amble around the woods,
collecting nuts and offering handfuls of hospi-
tality to grateful tourists. Nevertheless, in view
of the fact that Arslanbob is a poor town, and
walnut-poaching a state offence, ensure that
you pay a fair price for larger quantities of the
forest produce.
The other eleven months of the year of-
fer separate but nevertheless attractive tour-
ism opportunities. The mountains ringing the
forest are a popular destination for skiers in
winter, while spring ushers in bright blue skies
and no shortage of inspiration for the flora
and fauna fanatic. In summer, the settlement’s
altitude provides welcome relief from the
scorching heat of the Fergana Valley below, as
well as a chance to pit your wits against chess-
playing locals in the town square. Seats in a
shared taxi from Jalal-Abad to Arslanbob cost
less than $10. For CBT office, tel: 0773342476.
February 2011 The Spektator
16 Focus
Turn on any state television channel in
Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan and you are
likely to stumble on scenes of bearded
men jamming away in the steppes and
the jailoos. But what is that curious
stringed instrument they are so fiercely
strumming? It is, in fact, the mother of
all stringed instruments, the seed that
spawned Jimi Hendrix, the great and
glorious komuz..........
VER THE RADIO came a tune I knew,
played on the komuz. It was a Kirghiz
song which always made me think of a
lonely horseman riding through the twi-
lit steppe. He has a long journey before
him, the steppe is vast, he can think at leisure and
softly sing a song, sing on what is in his heart. A man
has many things to think over when he is alone,
when the only sound in the stillness about him is
the rhythmic thud of his horse’s hoofs. The strings
of the komuz rang gently, like water rippling over
smooth, clean stones. The komuz sang of the sun
setting behind the hills, of the cool blueness sweep-
ing stealthily over the ground, and of the worm-
wood and yellow feather grass stirring and sway-
ing, shedding their pollen on the sun-baked road.
The steppe would listen to the rider and sing with
him…” – Chingiz Aitmatov, writing in Тополек
Мой в Kрасной Kосынке.
Voices rang out from one room. A piano tin-
kled in another. I was navigating the corridors of
the Kyrgyz National Philharmonic, following the
meekest Kyrgyz man I had ever met. After spend-
ing time with eagle hunters who collect videos of
dog fights, I was genuinely relieved to meet Tu-
ratbek. His moustache and artist’s beret set him
apart from the more thuggish types with whom
I’ve been cavorting. His demeanor, too, was re-
freshing – a caring sensitivity that immediately
put me at ease. My friend Mark Humphrey had
given me his number, and he had generously of-
fered to give me a tour of the ‘philharmonia’ and
his musical instrument workshop.
Turat was a master woodcarver, and from
boiled blocks of Batken apricot he created beau-
tiful specimens of the iconic Kyrgyz lute, the
komuz. It has three strings made of sheep gut and
a neck without frets, but its seeming simplicity
belies the incredible range of sounds that virtuo-
so komuz players, or komuzchus, can wrangle out
of their instruments. It’s voice is clear and sincere,
and any description of its song tends toward nos-
talgia. You read a lot of quotes like Aitmatov’s, of
shepherd’s strums soaring over the open steppe.
When I heard it, I somehow longed for this past
that I never knew. I needed to learn more about it,
and perhaps learn to play the instrument myself.
Sadly, I couldn’t hear any komuz tunes this
time because all the resident komuzchus were
on vacation. Besides the anonymous piano play-
ers behind closed doors, we were the only ones
here, and we walked through this Soviet palace
to music that felt sadly abandoned. The feeling
only intensified when Turat took us downstairs,
into the dark dungeon of the philharmonic. Our
voices echoed in a hall filled with wood. The logs
were waiting to be komuzes, but they would be-
come tables and chairs instead. The instrument
workshop down here had been abandoned by
the previous director of the philharmonic, and
now a lonely old man made furniture with the
komuz-carvers. We saw wood-bending machines
and a device used to make chopo choors, a kind of
Kyrgyz ocarina. Turat had invented the contrap-
tion himself, but now it sat unused, covered in
powdered clay.
Up at ground level, we walked through a
lobby watched over by framed heads, portraits
of komuz players past. Turat pointed to one, Atai
Ogonbaev, and told me about how he once had a
contest with a Kazakh musician where he played
his komuz with his feet. Next he played it with a
knife, but the Kazakh player couldn’t keep up. He
sliced his strings. Turat smiled, as if his story spoke
volumes. Don’t try to outplay a Kyrgyz. You will
end up a broken man, with broken strings.
Above The komuz in a rudimentary phase of
its manufacture (all photos Dennis Keen)
Above Right Snapshots from Turat Akunov’s
workshop. The central image is Akunov as a
young man
Creation February 2011 The Spektator
17 Focus
Outside it was softly raining, and we jumped
in a taxi to Turat’s. On the ride over, I was regaled
with the story of Kambar Khan, the father of the
komuz. Old Kambar was inspired by a mountain
goat, impaled on a tree, its intestines humming
softly in the wind. From those guts the Khan made
the very first komuz strings. It was certainly a viv-
id creation myth. I had heard it before, but read
that it was a monkey whose insides had turned
musical. This new version seemed to correct the
discrepancy, as there have surely never been any
monkeys in Kyrgyzstan. Yet Turat, despite being
more sympathetic to the goat intestine school of
thought, insisted otherwise. In the epics of old, he
said, Kyrgyzstan was filled with lions, tigers, and
rhinos. Monkeys were certainly possible. Kyrgyz
are ever-boastful, and my translator Ertabyldy
was not to be outdone. All people in the world, he
said, are from Kyrgyzstan. The Italians are actually
Kyrgyz who took lepyoshkas and made them into
pizza. And the Native Americans are Kyrgyz too.
They have the same eyes, he said.
On the east side of town, we wove around
puddles and arrived at a gate, where a little girl
smiled and beckoned us in. “My daughter,” Turat
said. He was a loving father, kissing her gently on
the head. She marched forward and showed us to
his workshop, a small space brimming with wood.
The walls were coated in instruments, komuzes,
rebabs, and violins. I lusted after the twelve-string
guitar I spied in the corner, but he said I couldn’t
play it. He didn’t make these instruments, he was
just repairing them. The guitar was cracked, and
disembodied komuz parts were strewn through-
out the room. Water, water everywhere, and nary
a drop to drink.
I sat down and talked with him for an hour
or more, asking him everything I could think of
Want your own Kyrgyz music-maker? Turat
Akunov can fashion you any folk instrument
you like, from a komuz to a kyl kyak. Heck, he’s
studied violin-making in Switzerland so he can
sort you out with one of those too. Expect beau-
tiful craftmanship at reasonable prices. Repairs
and workshop tours are also in order. Call him at
(0312) 461 968, or write to
about how to make a komuz. I fancied most his
stories of ‘the old days.’ Back then, they would
make each komuz from only one piece of wood.
The strings were made of sheep intestines, dried
in the sun. “I’ll share a secret with you,” Turat said.
“If you slaughter the sheep in the spring, it will
be thinner and have less fat. Perfect conditions
for gut harvesting,” he told me with a wink. I felt
privileged knowing that spring strings are the
finest. In the old days, they would also take their
finally-carved komuz and bury it in animal shit.
They’d keep it there for a year, to toughen the
wood. I thought that the ritual must have made
for a nasty-smelling komuz, but it appeared not to
have bothered anyone. They do, after all, use shit
for firewood.
As romantic as the old days were, Turat didn’t
quite miss the komuzes of yore. They were built
for playing in the confines of a yurt, but now they
rang out to concert halls; thus, the instrument was
forced to evolve. So the komuz grew thicker, its
concavity deeper, the strings secured with pegs
and not leather. Every komuz I make, Turat said, is
a quest for the ideal. For inspiration, he looked not
to humming goat guts but to guitars, role mod-
els for the komuz of the future. Yet while admit-
ting the acoustic inferiority of this national icon,
he was also insisted on its divine status. From the
komuz came everything, he showed me, taking
‘Turat was a master wood-
carver, and from boiled blocks of
Batken apricot he created beauti-
ful specimens of the iconic Kyrgyz
lute, the komuz’
out a chart of stringed instruments. The violin, the
lyra, the harp, you name it – all bastard stepchil-
dren of the komuz dreamed up by the ancients.
All this talk of gut harvests, shit soaking, and
national pride had made us thirsty, so we headed
across the courtyard to Turat’s household proper,
where we sat on cushions and drank tea. His musi-
cian friend came for a visit, and from an unseen
room Turat found the one instrument on the
property that wasn’t in disrepair. It was a kyl kyak,
strung with horse hair and played between the
knees with a bow, the original cello, of course. It
was small, though, like a violin, and the musician
pretended it was one, tucking it under his chin
and playing it like a fiddle. It was Turat’s first kyak,
he protested, so the sound was not perfect, but I
was happy to find what I came for – music, in Kyr-
gyzstan, played amongst friends.
As we left, I told Turat that next time I would
bring my guitar and play him some folk music
from America. Most people are amused to hear
that such a thing exists, but he seemed genuinely
excited. He would make me a komuz, he said, and
then I could play folk music from both our coun-
tries. Under his moustache flashed a smile, and I
felt good to be amongst my own, the music-mak-
ers of the world.
February 2011 The Spektator
OR TWO MONTHS, Mairamkul As-
analiev was a mystery to me. I had come
across his work through simple seren-
dipity, on a pirated CD of Kyrgyz folk
music I had bought at a bazaar. Sifting
through its contents on my computer, I found
more than just the music I had bought it for. For
sure, there were komuz tunes aplenty, but hid-
den amongst the mp3s was a strange hodgep-
odge of Kyrgyz cultural ephemera – nationalist
music videos, Arabic calligraphy, seventy-year-
old recordings of Kyrgyz bards reciting ancient
sagas. I dug through the folders, surprised and
intrigued. Hidden in the depths of this two-dol-
lar disc was the most striking Kyrgyz art I had
ever seen. Lions fused into crocodiles with arms
studded with emblems, and fine lines formed
abstract patterns within eagle heads. Primitive
imagery was entwined with psychedelia, my-
thology mixed with surreal abstraction. It all
seemed to sing with hidden meaning, but I had
no idea what that meaning was. One picture
was a scanned poster, faded and scrawled over,
and on it the artist had revealed his name in ru-
nic font: Asanaliev Mairamkul Musabai uulu.
For weeks after, I searched for more. English-
language googles gave me nothing, but some
Russian-language searches told me that this
Mairamkul was a famous Kyrgyz designer. He
had created the flag of Bishkek and its city seal,
an abstracted snow leopard hunched beneath
a castle. The emblem was everywhere, from
news stands to cop cars, but it was presented
with anonymity. You would never know who
had created it. But now I knew, and the mystery
grew. Then, just as accidentally as I had found
the art, I stumbled on the artist. I was speaking
with a colleague when she suggested I speak to
some Kyrgyz scholars about my eagle hunting
research. There is one man, she said, who knows
a lot about these ancient traditions. You should
meet him. His name is Mairamkul. “Mairamkul
Asanaliev?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied, “Do you
know him?”
“Meet me by the eternal flame,” he told my
translator Abay when we called. A few days later
we found him there at the war memorial, short
and dressed in a shabby suit, topped with a
felt Kyrgyz kalpak embroidered with runes. He
had the shyness of an artist, with none of the
boisterous bragosity that I had encountered
in other men in these parts. Walking to a Chi-
nese restaurant, he asked us if we recognized
him. We had met this mystery man before, ap-
parently, at an eagle hunting festival in Talas,
without even knowing it. It turns out that the
hunter and the artist were one and the same.
He was actually the leader of a hunting federa-
tion in Kyrgyzstan. My interests had come full
circle. Perfect.
As I filled up his teacup in the back room of
the Chinese place, Mairamkul gave me a book
of his art. I stared at the designs, trying to de-
cipher them. Around the book’s frame was a
trail of symbols, and the artist pointed at them
and spoke. “Holy letters,” he said. One by one, he
picked apart the runes, letting me in on their
secret meanings. “See this one here? This is the
earth and this is the heavens. This line between
them? It is the connection between men and
gods.” He had found the lines and spirals in old
books, and each one had a story. I tried to ask
who made them, when they were used, but the
specifics didn’t seem important to him. They
were just a part of a hazy Kyrgyz past, the realm
of his ancestors, when men blended into myth
In the second of two articles focusing on
Kyrgyzstan’s creative and talented indi-
viduals, Dennis Keen follows the unlike-
ly trail from a pirated disc to the master
artist responsible for designing Bishkek’s
city seal, discovering a few new things
about Kyrgyz national hero Manas in the
Right Dragons are a dominant feature in
Mairakmul Asanaliev’s artistry (all images
used with the permission of M. Asanaliev)
Opposite Page Asanaliev’s world: a fantastic
mix of ancient warriors, mythical animals and
Soviet-era conspiracy theories
a February 2011 The Spektator
19 Focus
and all was sacred. “Nowadays, people talk and
talk but say nothing. Everything is senseless.
But back then,” he said, “everything had mean-
He pointed to a drawing of his to ex-
plain. A man sat in meditation, flanked by
lions and dragons. Behind him loomed an
eagle, and on its feathers were forty sym-
bols, every one a tribal marker. The man
was Manas, a Kyrgyz hero who was said
to have united these forty tribes and led
them into the golden age of the Kyrgyz
people. In Kyrgyzstan, he is ubiquitous –
his statues grace the squares and his name
is on the airport, the streets and the stores.
“He is like a god,” said Mairamkul. Pointing to
the hero’s face, he traced his finger along the
curves of his moustache. “See how it’s curled up
at the end? Back then, this meant something. If
your moustache curved up, it meant you were
strong, and your health would not leave you. If
it drooped down, you were weak. Your health
was not good, and soon, maybe you would die.”
He stared at me earnestly. Everything had
meaning, he repeated. Even the direction of
the handlebars on your ‘tache.
The mythology was endless. Stories
built upon stories, and what seemed su-
perflous to me was deadly serious to the
artist. He pointed to a spiraling rune and
leapt into another tale. When they went
into battle, Kyrgyz warriors used to put
this on the forehead, he said, painted in red.
They wore all black, and rode dark horses.
When they were fighting the Greeks, the enemy
saw them only as shadows, and the spirals be-
came red eyes. Once defeated, they went back
to Greece and spoke of one-eyed monsters, and
they called them Cyclops. I tilted my eyebrows
in disbelief, but Mairamkul kept going. The man
and the horse seemed to be one, he said, and
they called this beast a Minotaur. The stories
were mixed up, the truths were jumbled, but
the Kyrgyz were at the centre of it all.
Most of these tales are gone now, he said,
lost to the ages. The Kyrgyz were a rich peo-
ple, blessed by the wisdom of their forefathers.
When the Russians came, it was all destroyed.
They wanted to take from us what defined us,
Mairamkul told me, what made us special. So
they found the people who knew the most
about these things and they killed them. “I met
one old man,” he said, “named Hussein Karasol-
tov. He had no teeth. The Soviets had ripped
them all out and then thrown him in jail. When
I talked to him, he laughed. He laughed at the
wonder of still being alive. Everybody else was
killed.” According to Mairamkul, the plot was
far-reaching. “If you even said the word Manas,
wrote the word Manas, you were not safe.”
The stories of persecution piled up beside
the mythology. Even dogs were exterminated.
Mairamkul looked sad as he told about the
taigans, a Kyrgyz breed that would accompany
falconers on their hunts. He had some of these
dogs himself at home – most hunters did. Be-
fore the coming of the Soviets, though, the dogs
were even more plentiful, more pure, more glo-
rious. They could catch a snow leopard, people
said. But the Soviets wanted to eliminate them.
The secret service had a list of dog-owners,
and they went town-to-town, tracking them
down. They would tell them that their dogs
were sick, and they would give them injec-
tions. The needles were full of water. The
dogs all died.
I listened to these stories with incredu-
lity. What was I to believe? It seemed like
seventy years of Sovietification had left the
Kyrgyz people so bereft of any authentic
understanding of themselves that they had
crafted fantasy worlds for themselves, convinc-
ing themselves of their own glory and victimiza-
tion, where Kyrgyz defeated Greeks and the KGB
killed their dogs. I was reminded of a friend of
Mairamkul’s I had met in Talas, who told me that
the Kyrgyz people had invented the fork. For
these scholars, nothing was worth fact-check-
ing. Everything was possible, because the Kyr-
gyz nation was all and everything.
As we were leaving the restaurant,
Mairamkul signed his book for me, writing
my name in his very own font. He had taken
runes and shaped them into Cyrillic, turn-
ing them and twisting them, old symbols
coming alive again as they turned into the
sounds of my name. Were these shapes re-
ally Kyrgyz? I didn’t know. Did the man on
the cover ever really exist, and did the shape
of his moustache really have some sort of cov-
ert meaning? It didn’t matter. To Mairamkul, it all
meant something, and to me, it was all beautiful.
Whether by fact or fiction, the hunter’s art was
inspired, and truth had nothing to do with it.
February 2011 The Spektator
O YOU THINK that a little man, a bu-
reaucrat without much in the way of
brains or spirit can turn a whole capital
city upside down?” “Of course not.” “But
why not? He just might do it.” “I say he
can’t! Not if he’s a timid mouse.” “Then listen... It
seems that in this world anything is possible.”
So begins Kazat Akmatov’s novel, an adven-
turous bildungsroman that blends philosophy,
religious treatises, socio-political critique, science
fiction, and magical realism with traditions of folk
history and oral storytelling.
The novel follows the life of Adilet, an unusu-
al Kyrgyz boy who chases the squeaking sound of
swing sets in his sleep as he searches for a gravita-
tional corridor to the planet Sirius, the star under
which he was born. His parents named him Adil-
et, meaning “Justice”, in memory of the injustice
dealt to him on the first day after his birth, when
government officials took away the glorious title
of “one millionth resident in Bishkek” because his
parents lived in the poor part of town. Nine-year-
old Adilet, whose eccentricities and strong sense
of justice prevent him attending regular schools,
leaves his home and family to study in a Tibetan
Buddhist temple, where he hopes to find answers
to the questions that have been troubling him.
At the temple, he is renamed Mani Yaso, de-
termined to be a reincarnation of the famous saint
Milarepa, and taught several different Buddhist
arts – both meditative and magical – on his way to
attaining arhat, a very high stage in Tibetan Bud-
dhism, in which the foes of affliction are destroyed.
Now a young man, and already a renowned lama,
Mani Yaso embarks on a difficult journey, where
he must learn to judge what is right and what is
wrong, battling the dangerous egoism in himself
and others. When Kazat Akmatov had just finished
writing Arhat, he spoke to a Kabar correspondent
about this theme of egoism in the novel:
“The boy went to a Tibetan temple to study,
creating his own mantra of the occult and a meth-
od to change the selfish human consciousness.
But it turns out that a person can only change
his ego on another planet. Today, humanity is
changing everything, effecting the cosmos all
around, but it cannot change its ego in any way.
Egoism may be found in an individual, collective,
group, or national government. Take, for an ex-
ample, the threat of environmental catastrophe,
which is in such a critical position today. The In-
ternational Organization of Kyoto, calling for the
prevention of the “greenhouse effect,” an ecologi-
cal disaster, has not been able to get Russia and
the USA, two of the strongest world powers, to
sign this agreement. Thus, two enormous gov-
ernments, which are threatening nature more
than anyone, do not want to sign the agreement
– this is the strength of a government’s egoism.
And there are many such examples in life, when
different types of egoism dominate... Of course,
everyone should have a healthy sense of self, but
excessive egoism is certainly bad and can lead to
dire consequences at the global level. These and
other problems are raised in my novel.”
In juxtaposition to the novel’s topical themes,
the element of ‘magical realism’ may present the
greatest challenge to Western readers of Arhat.
More often trained in the convention of Realist lit-
erature, and farther removed from a cultural back-
drop of mythology, Western readers may be more
likely to expect a reliable narrator to create and ex-
plain the text’s reality using the accepted natural or
physical laws. In magical realism, however, an osten-
sibly reliable narrator creates the sensation of real-
ity, perhaps one that is familiar in many ways, which
suddenly, without warning or excuse, behaves un-
expectedly, defying these natural or physical laws.
After Mani Yaso has grown up and begun
traveling around the world, the mishmash of real
and fantastic becomes all the more pronounced
with the addition of extraterrestrial tribes and
outlandish conspiracies. The infamous Count
of St. Germain, here a supposed reincarnation
of Nostradamus, becomes one of Mani Yaso’s
friends; he claims that no one wrote about him
better than Aleksander Pushkin in the novella,
Queen of Spades. (The English version mistak-
enly translates this title as “Queen of Hearts.”)
The Committee of 300 plays a strange role in the
novel’s plot, as Mani Yaso warns world leaders of
the Committee’s secret plans to corrupt human
morality, by putting narcotics in school cafeteria
food and legalizing same-sex marriages, and even-
tually turning the populations of China and India
into cyborg robots. These strange arguments are
abandoned, however, in the novel’s conclusion.
Toward the end of the novel, Professor Robert
Langdon, Dan Brown’s fictional character from The
Da Vinci Code, makes a harried appearance, defend-
ing himself against attacks of “sowing discord in the
souls of Christians around the world.” First, he ar-
gues: “The protests aren’t about me! I’m a character
in a novel!” But then he impresses Mani Yaso with
speeches about the power of Truth, demanding: “Is
it righteous to deny a fact centuries later and issue
an absurd statement that it never happened?” The
question frightens Mani Yaso, as it forces him to face
the fact that he may have once again lost his way
by trying to change the world according to his own
will, when speaking to world leaders about the ac-
tivities of the Committee of 300. Abandoning that
direction, he sets himself on an ever more fantasti-
cal course, and the novel ends on a tenuous note
of hope for humanity’s salvation from the effects of
Since its publication in 2007, Arhat and its au-
thor have received a number of prizes and
awards, including the Kyrgyz State Toktogul
Prize (2009), the National Bestseller of the
Year (2008), the gold medal Lomonosov Prize
(2007), and the international Ruhaniat prize
(2007). The English version, translated by Eliza-
beth Adams, can be purchased for 370 soms
from Raritet book stores in Bishkek. At 495
pages long, it is worth every som.
Book Review:
About the Book
February 2011 The Spektator
Bishkek life
$ - Expect change from 150 som
$$ - A little over 250 should do the trick
$$$ - Expect to pay in the region of 350
$$$$ - A crisp 500 (or more) needed in this joint
Ak-Bata (108, Ibraimova)
This place must serve up pretty authentic dishes
as it’s always full of Chinese playing mah-jong and
waving their chopsticks about. Smoky and stuffy,
but in a nice way. $
Cowboy* (Toktogul/Orozbekova)
Bishkek’s all-American restaurant-cum-dance
club has now gone a little more up-market, but
wild nights are still to be had. Dig in to a kilo of
chicken wings and then hit the dance floor. $$$
As you would probably guess, decorated with
movie posters, photos of cinema icons and a
bunch of American kitsch. Hollywood is popu-
lar with a younger crowd and is usually packed
from mid-evening onwards. A fun place for a few
drinks before heading off to the clubs. $$
New York Pizza (177, Kievskaya)
Decorated with pictures of the Big Apple and
serving a fine selection of steaks and other
American-themed dishes, NYP is sure to get New
Yorkers thinking of home. For home delivery
ring (0312) 909909. $$$
The owners claim that the inspiration for the title
came from the first letters in each of their sur-
names - pull the other one guys, the bloke is all
over the walls. The pizza, like the presidency, has
certainly been over-hyped, but the chicken plat-
ter and the cheese burgers are a treat. Big por-
tions. $$$
Landau (Manas/Gorky)
Fancy something a little different? If you can tol-
erate the arthritic service, Landau isn’t a bad spot
for a pork steak or some other Armenian culinary
goodies. Also, treat yourself to some decent Arme-
nian conjac whilst your here, you’ll never go near
Bishkek conjac again. Ever. $$$
Hui Min (Relocated to the Hotel Dostuk)
A former favourite, we have been told that Hui Min
has now relocated to the Hotel Dostuk. Apparently
the menu has been revamped and the prices in-
creased. The Spektator will be checking it out soon.
We hope they still serve the special Dungan tea, as
it’s rather good.
There’s a fine line between ‘bar’ and ‘restaurant’ in
Bishkek. Places more suitable for drinking sessions
are marked with a star *
Price Guide (main course and a garnish)
(5, Gerzena)
Don your beer drinking trousers and head down
to Bishkek’s take on a Bavarian-style beer hall. They
brew their own stuff - such a relief from the insipid
bilge that’s normally sold as lager. Compliment your
pint with a plate of German sausage with sauerkraut.
Excellent little stolvya (canteen) full of the timeless
regional favourites. Being han Uighur restaurant its
gero lagman or lagman pa Uighurski particularly stand
out. No smoking, sit, eat and leave. $
(TeplIkluchy village)
Wooden cabin located by a rushing stream thirty min-
utes out of town. The overpriced food is more than
compensated for by the chilled atmosphere and wild
surroundings. Hotel accommodation also available.
Head south on Almatinskaya and keep going. $$$$
Bacardi* (Togolok Moldo 17/1)
Elite lounge bar affair with separate rooms for din-
ing, dancing and whiling the night away smoking
hukkah pipes. Urban grooves played at a reason-
able volume and a full menu that includes a range
of tasty platters. $$$$
Barcode* (Toktogul/Sovietskaya, inside ‘Moto’)
A hip, clean interior, fast wi-fi and an affordable
business lunch have made Barcode something of
a hotspot since it opened in early 2010. The place
comes to life at night when 3 DJs compete for your
affections with an array of banging tunes. $$
Blonder Pub is the new brewery-restaurant to try
out. Cavernous yet cosy inside, there’s decent blues
every night, live Premiership Football, Eurogrub
and a good selection of ales. In regard to the latter
we recommend ‘Irish Red’. $$$$
Buddha Bar (Sovietskaya/Akhunbayeva)
Buddha bar offers a taste of the East inside a tastefully
constructed zen log cabin. The sushi is excellent, and
for those on a budget, the stir-fry noodle dishes make
an excellent lunch. Recommended! $$$$
Captain Nemo’s (14, Togolok Moldo)
Small nautically themed restaurant with a selection
of evocatively named dishes including ‘Fish from the
ship’s boy’ and ‘Tongue from the boatswain’s wife’.
Cosy wooden interior and porthole style windows
create an underwater log cabin experience. Spirits,
cocktails and a good business lunch. $$$
Ceska* (115, Alamatinskaya)
Cousin to Blonder Pub, this Bros Co. ‘theme bar’ is
worth checking out for its fantastic tiramisu cake
alone. Every third beer is free but don’t get too ex-
cited - they come in 0.4l glasses. $$$
Coffee House (9, Manas & Togolok Moldo/Ryskulova)
Treat yourself to some of the finest coffee and
cakes Bishkek has to offer at the imaginatively
named ‘Coffee House’, a cosy boutique café with a
European flavour. Curl up and read a book, or just
drop in for a caffeine hit and a chocolate fix. $$$
Cosmo Bar* (Sovietska/Moskovskaya)
Board the sweet smelling elevator, ascend to the
top-floor Cosmo Bar and splash the cash with your
fellow free-spending cosmonauts. Elegant interior,
plush sofas, fancy drinks and pretty waitresses.
Huzzah! $$$$
Crostini (191, Abdrahmanova)
Situated inside the Hyatt, this is a joint to be re-
served for a business lunch or marriage proposal
only. Chef Taner Erdemir serves up mouth-water-
ing international cusine, but at a price. $$$$$
Mimino (27, Kievskaya)
Mimino is nice, cosy and serves up bowl-fulls of steam-
ing, hearty Georgian fare with pomegranate seeds
a-plenty. We recommend the kjadjapuri, khinkali and
anything that’s served in a pot. Watch out for Uncle Joe
at the door. $$$$
Chuchuara Hoga (117, Chui)
With this Chinese restaurant, a little out of the way
and rarely visited by tourists, you really feel you
are getting the real deal. Request a хого (your own
personal Chinese boiling-pot) and randomly select
a variety of unusual Chinese delicacies to throw in.
Beware, the ‘spicy’ sauce, although delicious, may
leave delicate stomachs in some distress several
hours later - consider the ‘not-spicy’ sauce as a suit-
able alternative $$
Free semechki is one of many reasons to check out
this lively hangout, rammed with Chinese at lunch
and dinner time. The menu is encyclopediac in
terms of scope, but if you’re feeling bewildered,
just point to something tasty-looking on a neigh-
bouring table like we did. $$
Peking Duck I & II
(Soviet/Druzhba & Chui/Tog. Mol.)
Huge portions to feed even the biggest of glut-
tons and an English language menu that provides
plenty of amusing translations. $$
Shaolin (Zhibek Zholu/Prospect Mir)
This tidy looking restaurant sticks out for its sheer
range of oriental dishes and its large, round tables
that make it ideal for extended gatherings. $$ February 2011 The Spektator
Glamorous VIP complex including a restaurant, bar
and casino. A decedantly decorated and perculiarly
endearing homage to the notorious bank robber -
we’re sure he would appreciate it. $$$$
Civilized, friendly cafe bang in the middle of town and
a popular ex-pat meeting point. Sensible spot for con-
versation, but if you’re alone there’s a mini-library to pe-
ruse (although literary classics are thin on the ground).
Check out the American pancakes for breakfast, top
marks. $$$
Four Seasons (116a, Tynystanova)
One of the poshest places to eat out in Bishkek. El-
egant, yet modern interior and polite service. Great
place to splash out on a special occasion or just for
the hell of it. $$$$
Foyer (27, Erkindik )
Foyer is an excellent place to enjoy an evening cock-
tail or check your inbox with a cup of coffee. Free
Wi-Fi, good deserts and blues on Tuesdays. $$$
Griffon (Microregion 7)
A cosy log-cabin affair with a large meat-roasting
central fireplace. On one disturbing occasion the
waiting staff were about as plesant as a bunch of
chavs, but hopefully that was a passing phase. $$$
(179, Toktogula)
An underground oasis of cool. Jam is a cafe with a
full menu, kalians (shisha pipes) and a lounge bar
atmosphere, open till 3am . $$$$
Jumanji (Behind the circus)
It’s strange. This place is decorated with fake jungle
foliage and is based on a crap kids’ film yet still sort
of works. You also get to roll a pair of Jumanji dice
before you order for the chance to win a special se-
cret prize - we like this. $$$
Twenty-four hour sports bar with live music at
weekends. Plenty of leather couches provide the
ideal place to sip cocktails whilst watching the
Champions league at three in the morning. $$$$
(338a, Frunze)
One of our favourite places to drink in the Summer-
time, when we can afford it. Outdoor balcony-cum-
terrace high above the street with slouch-couches
and fine views of the circus - which you can some-
times smell in hot weather. Nice. $$$
Metro* (133, Chui)
In the impressive location of a former theatre, Metro
remains the première drinking hole for ex-pats. A
high ceiling, a long bar and friendly staff compli-
ment a good Tex-Mex menu and a wide selection
of drinks. Metro is one of the best bets for catch-
ing sporting events on TV, although thanks to the
hideously late kickoff times for Champions League
football matches, don’t count on the staff waiting up
unless it’s a big one. $$$
Bars, Restaurants & Clubs

Find the best bars in town with the Spektator and
Dolce Vita (116a, Akhunbaeva)
Cosy Italian restaurant with smiling waitresses serv-
ing excellent pizza. Also serves salads and European
cuisine. Small terrace outside for summertime din-
ing. $$
Cyclone (136, Chui)
Smart Italian restaurant with plush interior, efficient,
polite serving staff and a warm atmosphere to al-
leviate Bishkek’s winter chills. Pasta dishes stand out
among a menu of traditional Italian favourites. $$$
Petel (52, Zhykeeva Pudovkin)
Operating in the back room of a Korean family’s
house, this is Korean style home-cooking at its most
personal. Closed on Sunday. Ring: 0543 922539 $$
Aoyama (93, Toktogula)
Elegant sushi joint frequented by serious looking
suited-types concluding their latest dodgy deals.
The food’s excellent though - if you can scrape to-
gether enough soms. $$$$
Watari (Shevchenko, Frunze)
A small Japanese-owned restaurant that serves su-
shi as well as dishes with a more indian flavour. The
refined atmosphere makes it ideal for a business
meeting or just a sophisticated night out $$$
Santa Maria (217, Chui)
Plush Korean restaurant offering Eastern favourites,
including exciting Korean barbecues where you get
to cook your own dinner, plus an extensive Euro-
pean menu. $$$
This formerly sophisticated laid back shisha pipe)
bar has moved to a new location and, by the looks
of the bath in the toilets, may still be under devel-
opment. Three floors, VIP rooms, kaliyans aplenty.
Beirut (Shevchenko/Frunze)
Now in a new location, Beirut continues to serve en-
ticing Lebanese goodies including falaffle, humus,
and tasty little meat pie things. $$$
Regional/Central Asian
Adriatico (219, Chui)
Reportedly suffering following the departure of
its Italian chef, Walter, although we have been told
that the soup is still excellent. $$$$
Bella Italia (Kievskaya/K.Akiev)
Adriatico’s former Italian chef, Walter, has moved
homes and is now serving a practically identical range
of dishes at this spot just behind October cinema.
Enjoy the best pizza in town, gnocci and other typi-
cal Italian numbers, tasty business lunches from 200
soms. $$$$
Moldova Restaurant (Kievskaya/Turusbekova)
If it’s been a while since you last went out for a
Moldovan, this wooden paneled, sturdy-tabled ea-
tery may be the answer to your prayers. Also, the
Moldovan Embassy is next door should you care
to learn more about the world’s favourite budget-
wine exporting country. $$$
(Sovietskaya, opposite the Hyatt)
A varied and interesting menu including fine Indian
food make this place a real treat. On midweek days
there are also several excellent business lunch deals
offering a soup, salad, main course and dessert for
250-350 som. A real stand out and a Spektator fa-
vourite! $$$$
(103, Moskovskaya)
A pricy, but pleasant place to while away an after-
noon. Sit in the bar area over a beer or lounge in the
airy non-smoking conservatory. Attentive service
and a refreshing selection of salads, a good place
for a light, healthy lunch when fat and grease are
getting you down. $$$$
(15, Panfilova)
The concrete monstrosity of the Russian Theatre con-
ceals one of Bishkek’s finest attempts at a cosy base-
ment bar. Friendly staff, a decent menu and a collection
of old bits and bobs decorating the walls make Edgar’s
an attractive alternative to the city’s mainstream cafés.
A blues band plays most nights and a pianist adds a ro-
mantic ambience on some Sunday evenings. $$$
U Mazaya (Behind ‘Zaks’ on Sovietskaya)
Possibly Central Asia’s only rabbit themed restaurant.
Descend into this underground warren and tuck in.
Also check out the fairy-light adorned flagship sister-
rabbit-restaurant in Asenbai micro region. $$$
(Microregion 7)
Finely presented dishes, reasonably priced beer (60
som) genuinely friendly and attentive service and live
music from 8-ish on most evenings. Definitely worth
the trek out to the suburbs ( tell your taxi driver to turn
left at the yuzhniy vorota and head towards Asenbai
for about 1.5km) $$$
(26, Logvinenko)
Soon to be renamed “The Queen’s Head”, This place is
a new honey pot for ex pats. Steak is always advisable
when eating at an appendix to a butcher’s, and the sir-
loin here is exceptional. Also, enjoy English breakfasts,
chips that aren’t cold and local dark ale Chuiski on tap.
Recommended! $$$
February 2011 The Spektator
Bars, Restaurants & Clubs
There are some Bishkek old-hands who say that
things aren’t what they used to be when it comes to
nightlife in Bishkek. They talk of legendary nights of
carnage, vomit, and debauchery - delights that con-
temporary Bishkek struggles to offer.
Not so, we say. Take your pick from the list below and
we’re sure there’s still enough carnage, vomit and
debauchery in town to keep everyone happy.
Promzona (16, Cholpon-Atinskaya)
Promzona’s far-flung location sadly means a taxi
ride or a long walk home are in order at the end
of a night. Nevertheless, this trendy live music
venue has a lot going for it: good bands, an exten-
sive menu, and a hip industrial interior featuring,
strangely, a wind tunnel fan, make this one of the
best nights out in Bishkek. Tuesday is Jazz night.
Rock or blues bands normally play at the week-
ends. (Music charge 200-350 som)
Tequila Blues (Turesbekova/Engels)
A possible misnomer, the tequila is just fine but
the blues is non-existent. Russian studenty types
mosh away the nights to Rock bands in an at-
mospheric underground bunker. (Music charge
150 som)
Zeppelin (43, Chui)
Zeppelin is in the same vein as the old Tequila
Blues but not quite so spit and sawdust. On the
nights we’ve visited, there’s been a line up of young
rock or punk bands strutting their stuff, heavier
beats seem to go down best with the young Rus-
sian crowd. Full restaurant menu.
(Entrance charge 100-150 som)
Arbat (9, Karl Marks)
Tel. 512094; 512087
Smart ‘elite’ club popular with a slightly older
crowd. Strip bar and restaurant in same building.
(Entrance charge 200/350 som midweek, 350/450
som Fri/Sat. Strip bar 700 som)
City Club (85/1, Zhukeyeva-Pudovkina)
Tel. 511513; 510581
So exclusive it makes the Spektator crowd feel like
cheap scum bags, City Club is one of the posh-
est clubs in town. Get past the ‘face control’ (ugly
people beware) and spend your evening with gang-
ster types, lecherous diplomats, Kazakh business-
men and a posse of young rich kids who all seem to
have studied in London. (Entrance charge: girls 200/
boys 300, Fri/Sat girls 300/boys 500
Golden Bull (Chui/Togolok Moldo)
Tel. 620131
A Bishkek institution. Full of ex-pats and tourists liter-
ally every night of the week. Long bar, friendly staff,
cheapish beer, everyone’s happy. (Entrance charge
[girls/boys] free/400 midweek, 150/400 Fri/Sat. ‘For-
eigners’ free.)
Retro Metro (24, Mira)
Bright, happy, 80’s kitsch bar, the DJ spins his rec-
ords from inside the front of a VW camper van. One
of the most popular places for post-2am partying.
(Entrance charge: 200/300 som midweek, 350/450
som Fri/Sat. Reserve for 200 som)
Pirogoff-Vodkin (Kievskaya/Togolok Moldo)
Classy restaurant with a turn of the 20th century
atmosphere serving Russian specialities. Have your
tea in a giant samovar. $$$
Khutoryanka (Sovietskaya/Lev Tolstoy bridge)
Unassuming, to put it mildly, on the outside, this
place is a revelation on the inside. Delicious food,
reasonable service, Ukrainian brass band music
on the cd player. We love it! $$$
Taras Bulba (Near the Yuzhniy Vorota on Sovietskaya)
Like all the Ukrainian restaurants we’ve tried in
Bishkek, Taras Bulba serves great food. We liked the
potato pancakes with caviar, the delicious soups
and fresh salads. $$$
(Sovietskaya/Lev Tolstoy bridge)
Twenty-four hour joint that’s a godsend for those
who get cravings for lagman or manti at four in
the morning. Sometimes smoking isn’t allowed,
sometimes it is, however the food and prices are
constantly pretty good. Comfy booth style seats to
dig yourself into after a heavy night. $$
Arzu-I (Togolok Moldo, next to the stadium)
Offers a hearty selection of Kyrgyz and European
dishes and a homely atmosphere. There’s also a
great outdoor terrace and national favorouit Arpa
on draught. $$
Derevyashka* (Ryskulova, behind Dvorets Sporta)
Atmospheric drinking cabin that serves a range
of Central Asian and Russian cuisine, as well as an
impressive array of pivo. Well worth it on football
nights, when the locals are rather rowdy. $
Faiza (Jibek Jolu/Prospect Mira)
Possibly the best place to munch traditional grub
in town. Their fried pelmeni and manti are so good
that they have often run out by supper-time. Save
an appetite and go early. $$
Forel (Vorentsovka village)
Twenty minutes outside of Bishkek, Forel is a fish-
based ‘relaxation centre’ set amongst babbling
streams and offering fine veiws of the mountains. Fish
your own trout out of a pool and have it deep fat fried
for your pleasure. Only salads, bread, tea and juice are
sold on site but you are welcome to bring any booze
or garnish you desire, it’s also possible to rent a BBQ.
To get there take a taxi to Vorentsovka village and, if
your taxi driver doesn’t know the exact location, ask a
friendly villager. Trout is 800som/kilo $$$
Jalalabad (Togolok Moldo/Kievskaya)
Basically the cheapest food (that won’t give you gut
rot) in the centre of town. While it should stand out
for its fresh lagman, Jalalabad is sometimes over-
looked. Probably at its best in summer, when the
shashlyk masters flanking the entrance offer their
creations straight to guests sitting at Eastern-style
tables – cross your legs and see how long you can
last before cramp sets in. $
Live music also common at Stary Edgar’s, Beatles
Bar, Foyer and Blonder Pub (see ‘restaurants’)
Live Music
Heaven (Frunze/Pravda - in the Hotel Dostuk)
As Heaven is found inside a hotel it is surprisingly
unseedy. In fact it stands out for being a bastion of
the well-dressed (if one is generous). Turn up in tatty
jeans and a t-shirt and you may feel a little out of
place; then again, you may not give a shit. Tables by
the dancefloor cost 1000 som but include drinks up
to this value. (Entrance charge 200-400 som)
Fire & Ice (Tynystanova/Erkindik)
A slightly grittier version of Golden Bull. Again, for-
eigners can often get in for free. Popular throughout
the week. (Entrance ‘foreigners’ free)
Gvozd (Western side of the Philharmonia)
Foreigners for free, urban grooves and acceptable
prices at the bar. ‘Gvozd’ means ‘nail’ in Russian, but
you’ve probably got a better chance at the Golden
Bull. Its almost like the crowd from Pharaoh have mi-
grated. (Entrance ‘foreigners’ free)
Platinum (East side of the Philharmonia)
Take a seat at the snazzy 360 degree bar and do
battle with some of Kyrgyzstan’s most convivial
‘elite’ for gold-digging temptresses. (Entrance
charge 400-500 som)
Sweet Sixties (Molodaya Gvardia/Kievskaya)
Live cover bands most nights. Full menu, popular
with a younger crowd. $$
Ajar (On Erkindik between Moskovskaya, Toktogula)
Technically an ‘Azerbaijanian’, but don’t let this fact
ruin the best value kebabs in town. The menu is
limited and if your Russian is too, just say ‘kebab’ and
something cheap and tasty will arrive. $
(166, Sovietskaya)
A good outdoor terrace and some hearty food, but
the Karaoke style crooners who provide evening
entertainment are an acquired taste. $$
Huzur (Kievskaya/Togoluk Moldo,)
Convivial proprietor Ali claims to have Steven Ger-
rard’s 2005 Champion’s League winning Liverpool
shirt. If you don’t believe that, belive in free lipyosh-
ka and good, affordable Turkish cuisine. $$
Konak (Sovietskaya/Gorkova)
This Turkish joint used to be ‘Restaurant Camelot’
hence the incongruous suits of armour in the back
room, and the rather crappy castle facade. However,
the food is often great, the salads are large and fresh,
and the staff are always pleasant. Recommended!
(And now open 24 hours a day) $$
Apple (28, Manas)
Fat, old, lecherous foreigners not welcome, this
place is for a younger cooler crowd. Multiple bars,
large dance floor, friendly atmosphere. Thursday
usually a big night. (Entrance charge 100-300 som)
Zaporyzhia (9, Prospect Mira)
Recently opened, Zaporyzhia is a cossack fla-
voured restauraunt in a varnish-scented log cab-
in. Hearty rustic dishes and a homely atmosphere.
The medovukha is recommended! $$$
Rates from 2000 som per page.
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the Spektator February 2011 The Spektator
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February 2011 The Spektator
February 12th
‘F**k Valentine’s Day’ at Metro Bar
Some angry Russian youths are planning a
night of heavy metal bedlam in revolt against
this bourgeoise Western holiday. Free Henna
tattoos, starts at 8.30pm.
February 14th
‘Day for Lovers’ at Promzona
Promzona, way out in the ‘burbs, but always
worth the trek, is planning a special night of
music and love. Entrance: 350 soms.

February 14th
‘Eastern Love’ at Marrakesh Lounge Bar
Dubiously titled, but we’ve heard good things
about this spot, located out on 32, Akhunbaeva
street. If you make this evening, feel free to send
a review to
February 18th
Talent Show Final at Russian Drama Theatre
Even if you think you live with her, this has
to be worth a watch. Ring organizer Nittu
(0555695331) for details and tickets.
February 18th-19th
Moscow Ballet comes to town
The Moscow ballet will be performing at the
Opera Ballet Theatre in what looks to be the
cultural highlight of the month. Tickets can be
purchased over the counter at the OBT. Their
are two performances: ‘Mystery: Ode to Joy’ set
to a Beethoven score and ‘Confessions of Love’
to music by Tchaikovsky.
Tel: 66 15 48
February 25th-March 1st
Fashion week and textiles exhibition
Legprom (light industry enterprises) are pro-
moting the brand ‘Made in the Kyrgyz Repub-
lic’ at this week-long event. Events will include
catwalks, presentations by senior designers
and ‘fashion competitions’. There will also be
the opportunity for tourists to buy clothes.
Mederova, 44 (Near Golden Dragon Casino)
Tel:54-92-29, website:
Valentine’s Day Dates
Miss Kyrgyzstan Final
TUK Dates for February Entertainment Directory
Map: Location guide
1. Tequila Blues
2. Metro Bar (American Pub)
3. Watari
4. Zaporyzhian Nights
5. Coffe House (I)
6. 2x2 Bar
21. Stary Edgars
22. TSUM Department Store
23. Jam
24. Mimino
25. Arabica
26. Konak
27. VEFA shopping Centre
14. New York Pizza
15. Cowboy
16. National Museum
17. Navigator
18. Sky Bar
19. Foyer
20. Fatboy’s
7. Beta Stores Supermarket
8. Derevyashka
9. Cyclone
10. Coffee House (II)
11. Adriatico
12. Santa Maria
13. Faiza
The Puppet Theatre
Performances on Sundays at 11:00am.
Russian Drama Theatre
Tynystanova, 122 (Situated in Oak Park)
Tel.: 662032, 621571
Hours: Mon-Sun, 10:00-18:00
Tickets 30-100 som
Local and international plays in Russian.
The Conservatory
Jantosheva, 115
Tel: 479542
Concerts by students and professors.
Kyrgyz State Philharmonic
Chui Prospect, 253
Tel: 212262, 212235
Hours: 17:00-19:00 in summer
Tickets: 70-100 som (sometimes much more for
special performances)
There are two concert halls featuring classical,
traditional Kyrgyz, and pop concerts and a variety
of shows.
Opera Ballet Theatre
Tel: 66 15 48
Hours: 17:00-19:00
Tickets: 150-600 som
Tickets for performances sell out very quickly and
it is necessary to book a seat in advance.
For all the Bishkek opera, ballet and concert listings,
check our frequently updated What’s On listings at:
Live updates
February 11th-13th
Trip to Semenovka Village (Issyk Kul)
Snowshoes trip to the TUK tourist base in Se-
menovka village. Trekking around the Ak-Say
gorge. Transport and accomodation (includ-
ing consultation and guide) for a group of 15
is about 2220 som per person (1770 som for
February 12th
Second Annual Ski Festival
The second charity festival ‘Kyrgyzstan coun-
try of Alpine ski’ will take place at the ski base
Toguz-Bulak. The festival program includes,
music, downhill skiing, a meal, 50% discount
on ski equipment and the opportunity for a
snowshoes trip. Call TUK for details.
February 13th
Day trip to the Sokuluk gorge
Hike to a local waterfall and return to Bishkek.
Suitable for all ages and abilities. Transport
and organization (including consultation and
guide) for a group of 15 is 270 som (for TUK
members – 250 som).
February 18th-20th
Alpine ski at the Karakol ski base
Three days skiing at Karakol ski base.
Transport and organization per person for a
group of 15 is about 1300 som (for TUK mem-
bers – 1200 som).
February 19th-20th
Alpine ski at the Orlovka ski base
Day trip. Transport and organization fares
including consultation and guide are: For a
group of 15 tourists - 350 som (base fare), 430
som (TUK).
February 20th
Day trip to the Alamedin gorge
Hike in the panorama of the “Black Finger” and
“Aman Too” peaks. Hike to local waterfall and
picnic in the open air. Visit hot springs. Suit-
able for all ages and abilities. Distance: 12km.
Price of transport from 240 soms -310 soms de-
pending on numbers.
Attention: Groups must be formed and meet
on the Thursday prior to the day of departure,
between 14.00 and 19.00 pm. TUK can also pro-
vide equipment for hire at competitive rates.
Spring is threatening to come early this year, which
means a trip to the slopes may be in order while there is
still good snow. Karakol’s ski base is receiving rave reviews
and we can thoroughly recommend Amir guesthouse to
the non-budget traveller heading out in this direction.
Breakfast here is superb and the on-site Russian banya is a
revelation. Phone (0392251315) for more details.
Spektral Travel
What’s On
Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek, Chui av. 4A, Office A4
Tel.: +996 (312) 90 61 15, 90 61 39
Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan
Culture Dates