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S p e k tator №19 September 2011 Your monthly guide to what’s happening in


№19 September 2011

Your monthly guide to what’s happening in and around Bishkek

Balykchi: Town on the Edge Independence Special!


The Spektator Magazine

Founder: Tom Wellings

Managing Editor: Chris Rickleton (

Staff writers: Alex Ward, Robert Marks, Winton Olsen, Dennis Keen (keenonkyrgyzstan@thespektator., Palmer Keen, Holly Myers, Evan Harris, Nigel Browne, Adeline Bell (, Patrick Barrow, Pavel Kropotkin, Alice Janvrin, Sergey Vysotsky

Guest Contributor: Ben Rich

Design: Aleka Claire

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Want to contribute as a freelance writer? Please contact:

writer? Please contact: This Month News and Views 4 As independent Kyrgyzstan

This Month

News and Views


As independent Kyrgyzstan celebrates its 20th anniversary, Manas is making many appearances. In other news, xenephobic mining riots startle investors and a tense tourist season finishes at Issyk-Kul.

Being Number One


It gets lonely at the top of the Central Asian food chain, particularly if your predecessor cast himself in gold, or your son is a soccer- loving homicidal maniac. We catch up with the region’s leaders, twenty years after the break up of the Soviet Union.

Out & About

The Last Lake


Son-Kul is one of Kyrgyzstan’s better-kept secrets, a surreal, elevated landscape that humans have yet to make their mark on. Palmer Keen waxes lyrical about horse rides and kalimba lessons, 3,000 metres above sea level.

rides and kalimba lessons, 3,000 metres above sea level. Focus Tales from Paradise The tourism industry


Tales from Paradise

The tourism industry in Kyrgyzstan is fraught with bureaucracy and corruption. But if your wife’s aunt’s acquaintance went to school with the hygeine inspec- tor, it normally works out okay in the end. Nigel Browne muses on life as a Cholpon- Ata hotel owner.

Balykchi: Town on the Edge

In a vivid portrait of post-Soviet decay, Ben Rich visits Balykchi, a once proud set- tlement on Issyk-Kul’s western shore. With the collapse of the USSR, Balykchi’s local economy contracted massively, leaving the town aesthetically depressing and generally desolate.



town aesthetically depressing and generally desolate. 16 18 The Guide Restaurants, Bars, Clubs All the best

The Guide

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.



ON THE COVER: Soviet-era street art in Balykchi (photo by Ben Rich)

COVER: Soviet-era street art in Balykchi (photo by Ben Rich) The Spektator Magazine is available at

The Spektator Magazine is available at 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.

CAMP Ala-too, NCCR, The Bishkek Opera & Ballet Society. S p e k tator The
CAMP Ala-too, NCCR, The Bishkek Opera & Ballet Society. S p e k tator The


The Spektator is now online at


This Month

Global Voices: Kyrgyzstan’s Bloggers Stand up to Manas-pulation

BISHKEK, August 20 (Global Voices) - “Beyond, I entered a shrine-like museum. In its central painting Manas was conjured as a steel plated prodigy – part wizard, part Arthurian hero - whose hosts gathered behind him in a spectral forest of banners, ascend- ing at last to the pastel clouds of heaven.” In the above passage, taken from Shadow of the Silk Road, travel-writer Colin Thubron notes the fantastic qualities of Manas, the nomadic folk-hero of the Kyrgyz people, with typical eloquence. As the central character in an oral epic - often trumpeted as the longest in the world - Manas is credited as having unified the forty Kyrgyz tribes before inspiring them to score unlikely victories in battles against numerically superior military oppo- nents, including the Chinese and the Uighurs. Thubron goes on to ponder the historical ac- curacy of the legend (“Did he even exist or was he a conflation of half-mythic war leaders?”) as he fumbles around the musty corridors of the impres- sive Manas Ordo complex in Talas, Kyrgyzstan.

Warrior King

Such skepticism would seem justified, given that the warrior-king’s achievements are never blem- ished with specific dates by the time-weathered manaschi that chant the epic. Furthermore, no creditable historian has ever produced evidence for the national saviour’s existence. But as Kyrgyzstan prepares for its 20th anni- versary of independence and subsequent presi- dential elections, Manas is becoming more and more real by the day. The complete list of tired, asinine schemes dreamed up by candidates for the presidential elections (October 30, 2011, is the tentative date) and government apparatchiks in recent months is too lengthy to detail here, but if their ideas share something in common, it is that most of them begin with the letter ‘M’. Back in April, Neweurasia reported on an initia- tive to rename Ala-Too square - where over 80 pro- testers were gunned down by government troops on April 7, 2010 - Manas square. By mid-July, that had morphed into a decision to tear down a mon- ument to freedom standing on the square, and re- place it with a statue of “Magnanimous” Manas, as part of the country’s latest effort to re-brand. Fast forward to August, and, perhaps sensing they had been understated in their adulation of the mythical warrior king, the country’s power- brokers began debating an old idea with new vigour: to name or not to rename the national capital, Bishkek, after You Know Who. (Clue: That’s not Lord Voldemort, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince, or Kurmanbek Bakiev). Many of the capital’s bloggers, though, don’t share their rulers’and would-be-rulers’enthusiasm. In a brief, ironic post, Isken Sydykov challenged his country’s government to go one step further and re-title everything in the legend’s honour:

“In light of our government’s decision to de- molish the Statue of Liberty and replace it with a monument of Manas, and in connection with the initiative of Mrs Umetalieva to rename Bishkek Manas, I came up with the quite brilliant idea of renaming everything Manas. The capital city can

idea of renaming everything Manas. The capital city can be Manas, the president Manas [of the

be Manas, the president Manas [of the country] Manas, intersections between [two] streets – both called Manas, and hotels called Manas on the shores of Lake Manas.” At that stage, the blogger suggests, Kyr- gyzstan would be in a good position to do a re- make of the film “Being John Malkovich” : “Being Manas the Magnanimous”. The author of this Glo- bal Voices post suggests that Mel Gibson could be persuaded to play lead.

Manas Mania

This isn’t the first time the country has indulged in Manas mania, of course. A piece by Dennis Keen, known to the World Wide Web as KeenonKyr- gyzstan, takes readers around a decaying tour- ist trap devoted to the Magnanimous One, and provides a sense of the hubris associated with the UNESCO-declared year of Manas, way back in 1995:

“The epic is a bedrock of Kyrgyz culture. It is an ancient document, an encyclopedia, they say, of the Kyrgyz way of life. It is at the center of the Kyrgyz soul. So when a world body took the center of their soul and gave it international recognition, the Kyrgyz went a little crazy. Manas classes be- came required in school, statues of the horseback hero went up everywhere, and in Talas, the guy’s apparent birthplace, a grand complex was built near his mausoleum and the party of the millen- nium was planned. The world’s first three-story yurt was thrown up in haste; leaders from all over the world were invited […] In the end, hundreds of dancers reenacted the epic in front of thousands of people, and for one day, Talas felt like the cent- er of Kyrgyzstan. For one year, Kyrgyzstan felt like the center of the world.” In those heady days, as noted in a recent arti- cle on (‘Manas Re-branding Drive Stirs Worries about Money, Nationalism, Scorn’), Manas was a central component in first President Askar Akayev’s drive to promote cultural diversi- ty, tribal stability and inter-ethnic harmony. It was stressed, for instance, that Manas’ wife Kanikay was of Tajik origin and that his best friend and ad- visor was Chinese (Akayev was preparing to sell

off chunks of sovereign territory to China at the time), while many of his soldiers were not Kyrgyz in the strictest sense of the word. But as the Kyrgyz body politic lurches hap- lessly towards proto-fascism, Manas has been sucked horse-over-head into the void. This apparent change in political direction is not lost on foreign analysts. David Trilling, Eura- siaNet’s Editor for Central Asia posted:

“Furthering an ideological shift from national liberation to nationalism, authorities in Bishkek have removed a prominent statue called “Freedom” and will soon replace it with a statue of the mythical hero Manas. Manas, of the eponymous Kyrgyz-language epic poem, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years as Kyrgyzstan struggles to define an identity.” Trilling then added: “That task has taken on renewed urgency since ethnic pogroms against mi- norities — who make up 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population — last year. But in this multiethnic state, Manas – unlike Freedom – is unmistakably Kyrgyz.” Kyrgyzstani bloggers though, are not against Manas per se, for the legend itself stands as a won- derful representation of the oral gifts and rich im- agination embedded in the country’s traditions. Rather bloggers fear further Manas-pulation, the cynical use of the epic by the eternally ambitious, and populist rhetoric that provokes conflict be- tween ethnic groups, ignores the state’s economic woes, and sacrifices change for tradition. Colin Thubron began writing Shadow of the Silk Road in 2003. Almost nine years and two coup d’états after he set out on his own epic, lyrical journey, the concluding remarks to his Kyr- gyzstan chapter - “The Mountain Passage” - have acquired a striking prescience:

“The pilgrims [at the Manas Ordo complex in Talas] kiss the soft walls. If they could read the Ku- fic, it would not trouble them. A legend can lodge anywhere, and Manas, like the Yellow Emperor, swims in his own stream of time. A nation, as the philosopher Renan said, is bound not by the real past, but by the stories it tells itself; by what it re- members and what it forgets.”

September 2011 The Spektator

This Month


IWPR: Deep Waters in Kyrgyzstan, as Tensions Rise at Issyk-Kul


BISHKEK, August 28 (IWPR) - This summer has been an exceptionally hot one at Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul, one of the top holiday destina- tions in Central Asia. Temperatures reached the high twenties in the week I spent here with my family. That’s noth- ing for Central Asia, but unusual here. Part of the lake’s attraction is its temperate climate – pleasantly warm in summer but never cold enough for the water to freeze over in win- ter. Hence its name – “issyk-Kul” means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz. Nearly 200 kilometres in length, it is incredibly deep and is also the world’s second- highest lake. In the village of Bosteri where we were stay- ing, children raced each other into the water, couples floated by on paddleboats, and young men played volleyball on the beach, while others enjoyed ice cream, beer and locally-caught fish.

“The climate seems to be changing,” com- plained Kadyr, a local man selling fish to the tour- ists, fanning himself with a newspaper. Surrounded by snowcapped peaks, the lake draws summer visitors from Russia, Kazakstan

– where I myself live – and other parts of Kyr-

gyzstan. Peak season, when it gets warm enough to swim in the lake, normally lasts only a month, from mid-July to mid-August. For those who live on the lakeside, the summer season is just about the only time they can earn money by offering food, accommoda- tion, and rented boats. With few regular jobs around, the money has to last them till the next summer. Their children help out, wandering among the beach umbrellas calling out, “Fish, beer, anyone?” Many look too young to be at school, but they can sell their wares and give the right change. This year was particularly important because many tourists from Russia and Kazakstan stayed away in 2010 following ethnic violence that left more than 400 people dead in Kyrgyzstan. The clashes took place in the south of the country, a long way from Issyk-Kul, but visitor numbers around the lake fell dramatically, and homeowners had to offer cut-price holiday rents as they chased after customers. This summer, things seemed to be better.

I saw a lot of cars with Kazakstan or Russian

number plates on the road to Issyk-Kul. Prices were high, too – I paid double the amount for the same cottage where I stayed last year. One group of tourists was still missing – those from neighbouring Uzbekistan. This ap- peared to confirm what I had read on internet forums, that nationals of Uzbekistan were boy- cotting Issyk-Kul because of last year’s violence, which pitted ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks from southern Kyrgyzstan against one another. It may not only have been a protest, since some may have been genuinely worried they

a protest, since some may have been genuinely worried they Above A tourist complex at Bosteri,

Above A tourist complex at Bosteri, Lake Issyk-Kul (A.Rysaliev for

might be in danger if they travelled to Kyr- gyzstan. And their fears may not have been un-

founded. When I spoke to young people living in the area, I could see they had grown more hostile towards Uzbeks.

A handful of incidents over the summer re-

minded everyone how edgy the atmosphere is

in a country still struggling with law and order.

In early August, an Almaty resident holiday-

ing in Kyrgyzstan was attacked and later died in hospital. A few days earlier, another Almaty man was beaten up in a bar. Even the village where we were staying, Bosteri, was the scene of a clash between police and local men who had been drinking. Villagers later blocked the main road and beat up two senior police officers. Bad publicity in the media reports suggest- ing instability worries Issyk-Kul residents who

depend on the tourist trade. Many have taken out loans to build or renovate houses to rent out. As the owner of our rented house said, “If I got hold of those people who attack tourists from Kazakstan. I’d punish them so much that

they wouldn’t dare go within 100 metres of our foreign guests. When our holiday was finally over, we re-

luctantly left the lake behind us and got on the road back to Almaty. We went through beautiful mountains and traditional yurts set up for the more adventurous tourists to stay in. The weath- er was still excellent, and we were tempted to turn around and go back to Issykkul for one final swim. We’ll definitely be back, I thought to myself. And with luck, so will many others who want to enjoy this unique place.

Kyrgyz Vow Probe After Chinese Mine Workers Beaten

BISHKEK, Aug 29 (RFE-R/L) - The Kyrgyz gov- ernment has promised a thorough investiga- tion after three Chinese workers were beaten during a recent protest against a Chinese gold-mining project in the north of the coun- try, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reports. Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev made the pledge following a special government session held today to discuss the August 26 incident in Naryn Province. Atambaev stated at the session that in- vestors’ security should be guaranteed and secured. He also urged the government to make more transparent the process of grant- ing licenses to foreign companies to operate in Kyrgyzstan. On August 26, some 300 people gathered outside the headquarters of the Chinese-oper- ated Solton-Sary gold, assaulted three police- men who tried to persuade them to disperse,

and beat three Chinese mine employees. The protest was the latest in a series of demonstrations in recent months against Chi- nese companies operating in Kyrgyzstan. Chinese Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Wang Kaiwen told journalists in Bishkek earlier today that unnamed political groups may be behind recent protests against “foreign investors.” Wang noted that some protesters demand that the licenses given to Chinese companies working in the mining sector be withdrawn. He argued that investors’ interests should be taken into account as well. Wang expressed concern at what he termed the “poor pro- tection of foreign investors’ interests in Kyr- gyzstan.” Residents taking part in the recent pro- tests have complained that Chinese workers in the mining sector are taking jobs from lo- cals.

September 2011 The Spektator


This Month




This month, we take a look at the men and woman in charge of the post-Soviet Cen- tral Asian republics, a full two decades after their independence from Moscow.

Above The statue of Sapurmat Niyazov in Ash- gabat is an enduring monument to the megolo- mania of leaders in the region (archive)

Opposite Page (L-R) Emomali Rahmon has do- mestic issues; Turkmenistan’s ‘Protector’ Gur- banguly Berdimuhamedov, Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan

Next page Nursultan Nazarbayev is on his last legs, while Rosa Otunbayeva (right) has vowed to step down after autumn’s presidential vote

has vowed to step down after autumn’s presidential vote CHRIS RICKLETON W HY DO CENTRAL ASIAN


W HY DO CENTRAL ASIAN lead- ers go to the trouble of having sons? The evidence against male presidential progeny in the re- gion is damning. While the girls jet

around the world, promoting perfumes named after themselves and getting photographed with Sting, the lads stay at home and cause bother. This is the painful lesson being learned by Tajik supremo, Emomali Rahmon. Coming to power in 1992, Rahmon has sur- vived a five-year civil war, an assassination at- tempt and more recently, a spate of terrorist at- tacks, to remain Tajikistan’s foremost leader. The latest challenge to his reign at the time of writing is his 23-year old son, Rustam. Normally, if your son wants to be a profes- sional footballer, you go through the motions of enlisting him in a local Sunday league team, cheering him on every weekend as he gets mud- spattered and run off the field by players with twice his ability, before he gets it into his young, delusional skull that he’d be better off signing up for a trader’s apprenticeship, or trying to enter university. But if you’re the president of a post-Soviet country that just isn’t a realistic option, and in the last few months, Rustam’s passion for the beauti- ful game has brought his father real political grief. As the suspected owner, team captain and “star” striker of Tajikistan’s league leaders, FC Istikol Dushanbe, the prince of the realm has become the focus of increasingly violent riots staged by football fans who claim he is buying club chair- men, threatening referees, and generally ruining the sport. Initially, Rahmon welcomed his son’s em- brace of sporting activity. After all, three years ago, “Rusty” was showing signs of going off the rails, having reportedly shot his uncle in the neck when the latter refused to cede control of a local bank. While the event is still somewhat shrouded

in conjecture, Hassan Sadullayev, who was the President’s brother-in-law, died of a bullet wound in a German hospital one week after the incident reportedly took place. But while the youngster is to be applauded for channelling his lofty ambitions into football rather than gun crime, he should know that he isn’t the only person who sees the sport as an outlet. Soccer fans traditionally go to matches to forget about things like pervasive corruption, or- ganized crime and double -digit inflation, and yet Rustam’s unbeaten (and unbeatable) team has the nasty habit of jogging their memories. Rahmon Senior is still a spring chicken by the standards of post-Soviet rulers, but he will need all the energy he has left just to begin tackling some of the problems that threaten his state’s very viability. In the meantime we can assume that football, along with religion and politics, is very much a taboo topic of conversation at the dinner table of the ruling family.

Did you know?: Experts are predicting that a recent piece of president-approved legislation banning minors from worshipping in mosques is likely to fuel further unrest.

Verdict: Prepare for the big kick-off.

Theme tune: A Family Affair (Sly & the Family Stone)

Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov

Sapurmat Niyazov, aka “Turkmenbashy” was al- ways going to be a tough act to follow. The au- thor of the unreadable Ruhnama constructed gold statues of himself in Turkmenistan’s national capital, and forced his cabinet to walk up long, rocky staircases to nowhere in particular. But fans of this surreal, isolated state will be pleased to know that his successor, Gurban- guly Berdimuhamedov, is continuing the gas-rich country’s tradition of having a colourful personal- ity as leader. Berdimuhamedov took office shortly

September 2011 The Spektator

This Month

This Month

This Month 7 after Niyazov’s death in December 2006. Despite promising broader political repre- sentation and

after Niyazov’s death in December 2006. Despite promising broader political repre- sentation and a more independent media, tun-

ing into a Turkmen news channel still feels like a trip to the twilight zone. On any given day, news- reels show Berdimuhamedov meeting President Medvedev, Berdimuhamedov discussing eco- nomic cooperation with China, Turkmenistan exceeding grain production targets by 150%, and some far-flung country holding a day-long cel- ebration of Turkmen culture. All the while, the camera jumps around, cap- turing Berdimuhamedov from every conceivable angle, pausing only to pan rapidly around nod- ding advisors and female cabinet ministers, who smile eerily, dressed in the eye-catching national garb. For Sylvia Reed-Curran, the Wiki-Leaked former US Charge D’affaires of Turkmenistan, Berdimuhamedov is “vain, fastidious, vindictive,

When [he] became the head

a micro-manager

of a dental clinic, he insisted that the other men who worked there had creases in their pants.” Curran then added: “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy, our source offered, he

is suspicious of a lot of people.” But if the Turkmen president has one redeem-

ing feature, it is that he enjoys a good sing-song. That was made clear in a post by RFER/L blogger, Bruce Pannier: “President Gurbanguly Berdimu- hamedov has surprised his people by making an appearance on stage to perform his new song,” he wrote. “Before a packed house, he is shown

in a video running above the stage strumming a

guitar to the accompaniment of

also playing accordion.” Pannier described the clip of the perform- ance - subsequently posted on Youtube - as “a look at a lighter side of Berdimuhamedov, whose attire seemed to have come from the American children’s show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.”

himself, shown

show, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.” himself, shown In the past, Turkmen have displayed a re- markable tolerance

In the past, Turkmen have displayed a re- markable tolerance towards the strange antics and general bullshit of their leaders. There are, however, signs that this may change. On July 7, 2011, a series of explosions at a government am- munition depot in Abadan, outside Ashgabat, killed fifteen people (unofficial figures are high- er), forcing a total evacuation of the settlement. Much to the discontent of the victims’families and the population as a whole, Berdimuhamedov proceeded to play down the blast, conspicuously failing to announce a day of national mourning as the Turkmen government continued with prepa- rations for Day of Independence celebrations.

Did you know?: Berdimuhamedov hails from the Akhal region known for producing the world- famous Akhal-Teke breed of horses.

Verdict: The most extravagant name to emerge from the former Soviet Union since Uzbek Tour de France cyclist, Djamolidin Abdujaparov.

Theme tune: Crazy (Gnarls Berkley)

Islam Karimov

You would never expect someone who remoulds his country around the image of the Mongol des- pot Tamerlane to be particularly pleasant, but Islam Karimov is growing crueller with age. The dictator that gives other dictators nightmares, Karimov was referred to by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as someone who is “still breaking his own records for repression and paranoia.” That paranoia becomes immediately visible at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, stretches of which exhibit a level of fortification unknown even to the Berlin Wall. The border regime there is one of the most hostile, corrupt and unfriendly in the world, stymieing shuttle trade and con- tributing to massive tensions between the two communities. That Uzbekistan’s economy is a command

two communities. That Uzbekistan’s economy is a command economy with Karimov in full command was made

economy with Karimov in full command was made abundantly clear in 2005 in Andijan, when Karimov massacred hundreds of his own citizens following a peaceful protest started by regional businessmen. The regular use of torture, particu- larly boiling, is a trademark of his reign. Having annihilated most of his enemies - both real and imagined - and scared off terrorists in the direction of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Ka- rimov’s hold over power is now unquestioned. A malleable parliament and ingratiating governors are post-Soviet norms, but Karimov also appears to have succeeded in bringing the country’s three largest clans (Tashkent, Samarkand and Fergana) to heel. Simultaneously, evidence abounds that his feared Secret Service has expanded its writ to include ‘operations’ in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. With a pliant, traditional wife and no legiti- mate son to serve as an oedipal rival, “Father Is- lam” is moreover the master of his own family. Daughters Gulnara and Lola enjoy the ambas- sadorial life abroad in exchange for acceptable chunks of the Uzbek economy, and other petri- fied relatives take whatever they can get, in the hope that it won’t be ten years in the cotton fields. In good health, and at 76, only slightly doddery, Karimov is doing remarkably well in the World’s Ultimate Tyrant stakes.

Did you know?: Karimov’s parents gave him to an orphanage aged three, only to take him back a year later.

Verdict: The devil never dies.

Theme tune: Under My Thumb (Rolling Stones)

Nursultan Nazarbayev

As megalomaniac dictators go, the consensus suggests Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is a pretty good egg. That’s not to suggest he is perfect – on his watch, Kazakhstan has seen little in the way of press freedoms and journalists are regularly hounded out of town and worse –

journalists are regularly hounded out of town and worse – w w w . t h
journalists are regularly hounded out of town and worse – w w w . t h

September 2011 The Spektator


Out & About

This Month

8 Out & About This Month DarkHorses Next month we may or may not be having


Next month we may or may not be having a frivolous look at some of the candidates being heralded as frontrunners in Kyrgyzstan’s presi- dential race. For the moment though, let us con- sider a few of the over-hopefuls currently bidding to succeed Rosa Otunbayeva this fall. (If they manage, we take full credit for launching their political careers in this humble grey box). Kachkynbay Kadyrkulov, coordinator of the public foundation Rural Hotline Service, is rated as being rather unlikely to become Kyrgyzstan’s next head of state as no-one really knows who he is or what his Rural Hotline Service does. Unless he can secure some cash and the signatures of 30,000 suicidal farmers, this agri-samaritan will fall at the first hurdle, missing the ballot presented to the electorate on October 30. Joining him should be Kubanychbek Apas, editor of the World of Manas newspaper. Our sources in the local media tell us this rag isn’t exactly hot copy and that the ”Manas vote” is being fought over by bigger fish. Nishanbay Sulaimankulov is one of a score of retired military sorts that have kindly made themselves available for the top job. Unfortu- nately for him, he is the least well known of the soldiers on parade and is likely to be back in his metaphorical barracks before the competition begins in earnest. Mambetzhunus Abylov has a doctorate in Economics, but is not currently in gainful unemployment and it is rare that benefit seekers become heads of state overnight, Hitler aside. Zhambylbek Kamchiev, his abilities as a cardiovascular surgeon notwithstanding, is also unlikely to make it to the first round, ditto Russian language and literature teacher Murat Borom- bayev. The Spektator-sponsored long shot of the year though, would have to be Kalmamt Makty- baev, a foreman at the Kambarata-2 hydroelec- tric power station. We wish them all the best of luck in their campaigns.

We wish them all the best of luck in their campaigns. but he gives an impression

but he gives an impression of caring about his country and its diverse peoples, making him something of a rarity in these parts. Underpinned by oil profits, the Kazakh economy is without doubt the perkiest among the post-Soviet Central Asian “stans”. What this owes to Nazarbayev rather than fortune is open to debate, but the country’s 20-year president has at least allowed business a bit of breathing space, while the only people he’s re- ally nasty to are those that don’t like him. A deft political operator, Nazarbayev is evocative of Augustus Caesar, initiator of the Pax Romanus. Every so often, his obeisant par- liament offers him some sycophantic title or an extension of his two-decade term. He os- tentatiously refuses, only accepting when they thrust the honour on him and won’t take nyet or zhok for an answer. This approach has left him possibly the most decorated and titled president in the region. His most recently adopted form of address, the “Leader of the Nation” is the equivalent of “President for Life” status. But with rumours of serious illness and a visible decline in the quality of his public performances, his adoring public have been left to ponder just how long “life” will be. Indeed, with no-one slated to take over in the event of his death, Kazakhstan’s fu- ture is anything but certain.

Did you know?: Nazarbayev came from hum- ble origins – his father was a shepherd.

Verdict: Name a successor, Nazza.

Theme tune: One Foot in the Grave (Eric Idle)

Nazza. Theme tune: One Foot in the Grave (Eric Idle) Rosa Otunbayeva Rosa differs from her
Nazza. Theme tune: One Foot in the Grave (Eric Idle) Rosa Otunbayeva Rosa differs from her

Rosa Otunbayeva

Rosa differs from her counterparts in that she doesn’t intend to die in office. This made her something of a “lame duck” from the outset, the region’s first female head of state discard- ing tradition by promising to depart after the country’s presidential elections, slated for Oc-

tober 30 of this year.

The top job in Kyrgyzstan (if it is indeed the top job) became rather more decorative than

it used to be, after the events of April 7 saw

the country switch to a parliamentary style of rule. That acknowledged, it still retains a cer- tain prestige in the public imagination. Eighty- three people have signed up for the ongoing electoral campaign, many of them unknown independents (see grey box). Rosa may well be remembered for what she didn’t do, rather than what she did. No acts of tyranny, no portraits of herself hanging in conspicuous places, no attempts to extend her limited powers, and instead, a modest em- brace of executive restraint. Yet under her watch Kyrgyzstan has seen violent ethnic pogroms, police brutality and punch-ups in parliament, a rising nationalism and a populist urge to rename everything after Manas. During that period, rather than whipping

her useless colleagues into shape, Otunbaye- va has quietly tutted like a concerned parent, enjoyed her diplomatic trips abroad and wal- lowed in the awards and accolades given to her, primarily for the reason that she isn’t a psychotic, machine-gun-wielding re-make of Ghengis Khan. In a sense, though, Rosa is already history. Appreciated in some quarters, cursed in oth-

ers, the focus is now on the race for the office she is set to relinquish. With a cast that in- cludes deranged coal barons, magazine edi- tors, paranoid human rights activists and even

a few politicians, Kyrgyzstan is truly spoilt for choice.

Verdict: Better than Bakiev.

Did you know: Otunbayeva used to be the Kyr- gyz ambassador to the United States.

Theme tune: Three Times a Lady (The Commo-


United States. Theme tune: Three Times a Lady (The Commo- dores) September 2011 The Spektator

September 2011 The Spektator


Out & About

The LastLake


The sight of the ethereal Lake Son-Kul is sure to bring even the most seasoned trave- lers to their knees in veneration. For three months of the year, the lake’s elevated shores host a yurt camp that has become something of a sapphire in Kyrgyzstan’s tourism crown. As the last few weeks of the season there approach, Palmer Keen makes the case for the‘other Kul’.

Above A horse and its rider emerge from a dip in the lake (all photos Palmer Keen)

Opposite Music lessons at altitude

I HAVE TO ADMIT, I’m a bit of a travel hip- ster. Given a choice between a well-traveled hotspot and an obscurity, I’ll always take the path least-traveled. Surely this factored into my decision to come to Kyrgyzstan

to begin with, that perverse pleasure in telling people I was going to “Kyrgyzstan – you’ve prob- ably never heard of it.” It was this same travel hip- sterdom that made my heart skip a beat when I was invited by my friend Debbie to go on a trip to Son-Kul. “It’s like Issyk-Kul,” I thought, “but less… mainstream.” While Son-Kul, which translates from Kyr- gyz as ‘the last lake’, ranks as the second biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan, it is nonetheless significantly smaller than that famous behemoth Issyk-Kul. Perhaps it doesn’t qualify as an obscurity, but it is still something of a hidden gem, lacking the crowded resorts and hordes of Russian and Kyr- gyz tourists of its much larger rival. In place of the jet skis and bustling beaches of Issyk-Kul, the fantastic folks at CBT (Community Based Tourism) Kochkor provide access to the only development for miles around Son Kul – a small collection of yurts nestled by the lakeshore. For an extremely reasonable fee, my friends and I signed up for a few nights of the Son-Kul yurt experience. After a harrowing taxi ride from Bishkek to Kochkor by way of Balykchy, access to the moun- tain treasure was granted at the CBT office in the village, where we met with Yusuf, a veritable gatekeeper with wise eyes and a fine white beard. From Kochkor, Yusuf whisked us away on his trusty steed (a Toyota 4-Runner), kicking up dust along lonely dirt roads, passing through pristine landscapes of green grass, lazy rivers, and solemn rural mosques. Occasionally, Yusuf would stop

the car and give insight into the mysteries that surrounded us, sharing through our friend and de facto translator, Timur, such tidbits as, “Those are yaks – they are basically wild, but we use them for milk.” As we all silently considered the logistics of milking a wild yak, Yusuf coerced our steed up- wards, ascending through the thinning air to Son-Kul’s lofty heights over 3000 meters up. Af- ter passing stubborn shelves of ice and herds of sheep traipsing through wildflowers, we found ourselves in a new kind of paradise: beyond the expanses of alpine meadows, Son-Kul lay like some kind of mountain mirage, snow-capped peaks reflected in its calm waters. We made our way to the cluster of yurts by the shore, the only sign of life for miles around. Once settled in, we sat yurtside and took in the surreal beauty of life being lived at a pace altogether different from the hustle and bustle of Bishkek, or even the more proximate Naryn. A babushka brewed tea in a samovar while horses grazed the wide pastures and young boys used their donkey to cart water from the lake. As I sat and quietly romanticized this neo-nomadic lifestyle, another young boy approached gently carrying a tiny lamb in his arms. Seeing the op- portunity for an adorable photo op, I kneeled down and started snapping shots, only to real- ize mid-photo shoot that there was something wrong with the scene. The lamb’s fur was wet and matted, its head hanging at an awkward angle. “It drowned in the lake,” explained Timur, quickly putting an end to my amused cooing. The kid holding the dead sheep just shook his head and walked away. I only realized days later that we ate the adorable thing for dinner that night.

September 2011 The Spektator

Out & About

Out & About 11 After a dinner of brined lamb, the sun sank below the mountains,

After a dinner of brined lamb, the sun sank below the mountains, leaving behind a pink sky and a chill that threatened to become chillier still. Coming to terms with the fact that isolated mountain beauty arrives at a frosty price, we bundled up with jackets and stood by the lake- side, all shivers and smiles, watching the light fade in the reflection of Son-Kul. As I began to hear my teeth chatter, the utter silence of the place began to sink in. In stark contrast to the cacophony of honking horns and echoing azans in the national capital, the lakeside quiet was as crisp and pure as the mountain air itself. Looking out across the dark waters, I breathed it in – the silence, the air, the essence of the place. As I let out a contented sigh, Timur said: “This is, how do you say? Unforgettable.”Yeah, I agreed. That’s just the right word. After our lakeside reverie, we returned to find Yusuf in our yurt, kneeling and quietly murmur- ing his evening prayers. Taking this as a cue for an early rest, we settled into the warm beds that had been laid out for us. A layer of comforters pro- vided a comfortable buffer between our bodies and the cold, hard ground of the yurt, while an- other layer of blankets and a simple furnace kept us swaddled in sublime warmth. The lone candle was blown out, and a darkness descended on the yurt as thick as the silence. That was interrupted, however, as minutes later Yusuf and Debbie be- gan to snore in harmony, their snorts becoming reverbs, amplified by the acoustic space of the yurt. Still stubbornly clinging to my pastoral Zen reverie, I pulled the thick blankets over my head and let the snores wash over me as I fell, still smil- ing, into a deep, contented sleep. I awoke to the sound of a rooster proudly

crowing, demanding not so subtly that we get out of bed. Yusuf had clearly taken heed of the request, as I rolled over to see him kneeling be- side the doorway, pointed towards Mecca once more, incanting sacred Arabic in the dawn light. As I rubbed my eyes and listened to Yusuf’s whis- pered prayers (randomly interjected by cock-a- doodle-doos), I was briefly motivated to greet the day with Yusuf and the rooster, imagining myself quietly sitting with the babushka as she brewed her morning tea under a growing sun. Then I re- membered how someone had once told me that the mountain pastures are always coldest in the morning hours, when the bitter chill of the night

has sunk its claws deep into earth. Sleeping in is nice, too, I thought. The morning tea could wait. I rolled over and told the rooster to go to hell. When I awoke next, it was to the sound of a woman gathering silverware from a cupboard in our yurt, a healthy reminder that I was sleeping

in someone’s home, not some private suite. Not-

ing the rooster’s sonic absence, I realized that the locals had long since been up. Outside, the sun’s rays had already warmed the pastures, and our host family was busy preparing breakfast for the sleepy folk. Joining Yusuf and our host babushka

in the yurt beside our own, we hungrily devoured

our oily eggs and the fresh bread and jam that had been spread about the table. After a cup or ten of chai to chase the sleep from our eyes, we considered what to do with

a day as open and free as the land around us.

We’d been told that the family would rent horses for riding for a reasonable price, so we made ar- rangements and were told that we’d have to wait

while for the horses, roaming wild across the pastures, to be gathered.


horses, roaming wild across the pastures, to be gathered. a Just CBT it Community Based Tourism
horses, roaming wild across the pastures, to be gathered. a Just CBT it Community Based Tourism

Just CBT it

Community Based Tourism (CBT) seems to be one of those blessed things that everyone agrees on – they are fantastic. And, while we are also very fond of their Arslanbob office, the CBT guys in Kochkor, Naryn, take some beating for service. Son-Kul is just one of several gigs Myrza (0777718334) and his staff can help organize for you. Another is Kul-Ukok (3,000m) lake and jailoo, although unlike Son-Kul, getting to Kul-Ukok is a strictly-by-horseback affair. Riding out of Kochkor, the trip cost three people 4,000 soms, including a yurt stay and a breakfast featuring the yummiest kaymak and borsok this side of Naryn. The horses themselves are born to bear jittery tourists over perilous passes and are remarkably patient. This was evident when on our descent from the Kul-Ukok lake, one of the region’s famous thunderstorms quickly unravelled into something biblical and potentially life-threatening. The stallions didn’t panic, and as the track down the mountain became one long mud-flume they calmly read its rocky underpinnings, finding foot- holds beneath swelling brown froth. In better weather, we were told, the area sur- rounding the lake is home to an incredibly diverse range of wildlife. While we saw plenty of marmots and even a fox, the talk of badgers beyond the lake was enough to tempt us back for a second trip. On a second tasting, the kaymak and borsok was su- perb, but alas, an even longer horse ride failed to yield any badgers. Info on trips offered by CBT Kochkor can be found at Folks with their own CBT stories can email ideas to our e-mail ad- dress:

September 2011 The Spektator


Out & About

12 Out & About Above This young girl had never seen an African kalimba before Right

Above This young girl had never seen an African kalimba before

Right Setting the table, 3,000 metres above sea level

Right Setting the table, 3,000 metres above sea level I turned restless. I watched as cute
Right Setting the table, 3,000 metres above sea level I turned restless. I watched as cute
Right Setting the table, 3,000 metres above sea level I turned restless. I watched as cute

I turned restless. I watched as cute Kyrgyz kids ran about the camp, giggling and kicking a donkey in the ass, and found myself desperately aching for some interaction. My total lack of pro- ficiency in Russian or Kyrgyz had so far seemed to leave something of a gulf between me and the people who were hosting us, as our interactions had so far been limited to shy smiles and a badly- pronounced rakhmat or two. Suddenly, I realized that even if I didn’t join in the ass-kicking, I had another option for intercultural exchange. Stepping into the yurt, I dug from my back- pack two tools that have yet to fail me in times of boredom: my kalimba, a kind of African thumb pi- ano which is my constant companion, and a temir komuz, a tiny Kyrgyz jaw harp which I had picked up at Tsum in Bishkek days earlier. Instruments in hand, I settled down outside our yurt and plucked a few notes on the kalimba, knowing that the kids’ curiosity would do the rest. Soon enough, I had three or four kids gathered around me, giggling and plucking my kalimba with amusement. As a few tykes explored the kalimba, I tried playing a Kyrgyz-style ditty on the temir komuz, hoping that it would elicit some sort of patri- otic appreciation. All it got were some bemused stares. Then, I remembered that whether it’s at the clubs in Bishkek or in some packed marshrutka, the modern Kyrgyz musical taste leans more to- wards fat club beats than pastoral folk. Yearning to be a crowd-pleaser, I launched into my best attempt at a jaw harp techno jam, and the group went totally wild. After some impromptu music lessons, our horses were ready, so we mounted our steeds and galloped along the lakeside. If only it had been that easy. In reality, after awkwardly position- ing myself on my horse’s back, I was told to spur

it on by letting out a cry of “tcho!” accompanied by a firm kick to the horse’s side. Letting out a pa- thetic whimper of a “tcho” and daintily tapping my horse’s side, we ambled forward with all of the momentum and confidence of a baby’s first steps. Meanwhile, Timur galloped off with a manly roar, Kyrgyz blood pumping through his veins. Debbie and I, ever the feeble foreigners, were left to mope along at a ridiculous pace, our horses snorting and farting in distain all the while. After a refreshing, snail’s-pace ride along the lakeside, we returned to camp, butts sore and hearts soaring. Having ridden across a good length of the shore, the profound emptiness of the place had really set in – other than a few other yurts down the dirt road from ours, Song Kol and its surroundings were untouched. In America, I thought, this place would be littered with paved trails and resorts, asphalt campsites and piles of trash. But here, people knew to leave paradise be. Looking back at the yurts, the locals’ understand- ing of the place became clear. As winter approach- es, they would be packed up and driven back to their villages, and nothing would be left behind save the odd outhouse and a pristine beauty. That night, our stomachs full of lagman and our souls full of the romantic optimism of travel, we stood by the shore, yurts in the distance, and looked up at the milky way, all cloudy and brilliant. As satellites circled across the sky, they seemed somehow lost. Surely they must have taken a wrong turn to end up here, in a place that felt like some hidden frontier, like the last place on earth. Arcing off into the distance, they left us alone by the lapping shore, thinking that oddly selfish thought; together, with the people who some- times call the place home, we had Lake Son-Kul all to ourselves.

times call the place home, we had Lake Son-Kul all to ourselves. September 2011 The Spektator

September 2011 The Spektator






The end of the Issyk-Kul tourist season brings with it sadness, relief and a mo- ment for quiet reflection. Nigel Browne, a Cholpon-Ata hotel owner, muses on some of his experiences with local dig- nitaries, tradesmen and water pilferers.

Above and Opposite The Castle Hotel at a ten- der stage in its development eight years ago (all photos Nigel Browne)

Next Page Sunny days in Cholpon-Ata

photos Nigel Browne) Next Page Sunny days in Cholpon-Ata NIGEL BROWNE T’S DIFFICULT TO GET ANGRY


T’S DIFFICULT TO GET ANGRY (when he’s sober and not AWOL) with our ever-smiling toothless local plumber. I explained that each tap and shower in the bathrooms were to

have separate on/off taps in case of a problem. “Why?” he asks. “There’s an off-tap outside!”

“Yes, I know”, I reply, “but if there’s a leak I’d have to shut off the water to the entire hotel!” I handed him

a bag of blue and red taps for the purpose. I now

have bathrooms with only blue taps and others with only red taps. It was during a chance conversation in 2003 whilst holidaying in Cholpon-Ata, Issyk-Kul that the subject of some land going for sale cheap, not far

from the beach, was related to me by an in-law. At the time I had no intention of investing in Issyk-Kul, but was persuaded to have a look, and, as the say- ing goes, the rest is history. The property was bare land with a 30° degree slope to one side. It had no water supply, electric- ity or road access. What started as a blueprint for a small, two bedroom holiday home grew, finally be- coming a nine bedroom boutique hotel. By 2006, the main building was completed, followed by the purchase of neighbouring land, outside kitchen, panorama roof-top cafe, garden landscaping and

a fountain. As the project progressed, thoughts of

John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and the film The Money

Pit came to mind. Whenever possible we sourced materials and labour locally, but there were times, because of bulk quantities and prices, when it was necessary to transport materials from Bishkek and the centre

of the Kyrgyz cement industry, Kant. From memory

we hired about five articulated lorries and small trucks loaded with cement, bricks, concrete floor- ing, windows, doors, concrete paving, paint, pipes,

wiring, furniture, etc, etc. The choice of a flat roof enabled us to create a tasteful castle facade and the option to build another floor on top in the future.

In the meantime, a romantic roof-top cafe captures


views of the lake to the south, and snow capped mountains to the north. But before we could open, we needed to pass an official kitchen hygiene inspection. A woman ar- rived and tried extremely hard to find any number of short-comings (e.g. “Not enough grass outside!”) and refused to give approval when we made it clear we would not offer inducements. As is often the way in this wonderful country, networking and acquaintances were the key to success. We got in touch with our resident aunt, who knew the direc- tor of a local government sanatorium, who had been to school with the hygiene inspector. The next day our hygiene permits arrived. Not long after opening, a local VIP arrived to explain how he could assist us with the hotel’s reg- istration and other bureaucratic requirements. Dur- ing the vodka session, we shocked him by telling him that we had all the necessary permits. He raised his eyebrows in astonishment. Previously, I told him, we had discovered that my ex-office manager’s fa- ther was a worker in his office, and that this tenuous connection had kindly and quietly organised all the necessary signatures and official stamps for us. Several days later, whilst we were in Bishkek and babushka (wife’s mother) was left in charge, the same VIP arrived with two friends to stay overnight, expectant of a discount for services rendered by his office. Our babushka was having none of it, however, charging a full price for the room and in her confu- sion, the same charge for a mattress on the floor! The VIP wasn’t used to being double-charged, or sleep- ing on a floor, but he paid up without complaint. The main problem with the tourism industry at the lake is the duration of the season - only two- and-a-half months from mid-June to the end of August. This has been made worse by the on-going development of huge “all-inclusive” resorts, which are slowly destroying the smaller family-run estab- lishments. Local traders suffer as well, since holiday- makers tend to spend their tourist dollars only with-

September 2011 The Spektator


Focus 17 in the resort’s walled-in compound. A more recent phenomenon sees these resorts fenced-off and

in the resort’s walled-in compound. A more recent phenomenon sees these resorts fenced-off and manned by security guards, severing long swathes of the beach from the general public. Should this sad practice continue, the residents of Cholpon-Ata will soon have to travel to another town to enjoy the lake on their own doorstep. When laying the water from the mains supply, some two kilometres away, we were approached by a work gang who offered to do the work in two days and at a competitive price. My wife had needed to go to Bishkek and had left me in charge. The days were hot and sunny. I felt sorry for the gang and fetched chilled bottled water and food. Day two passed and only one kilometre was completed. My wife returned and understood the situation imme- diately. She marched up to the foreman, “got in his face”and screamed expletives at him. The work rate doubled immediately. She told me: “You were too kind, they thought you were weak and they took advantage of you. Being a good, kind employer isn’t always the best strategy.” Indeed, manage- ment by shouting can be very effective under the right circumstances. A defence of the large resorts and hotels is that they still offer revenue opportunities to locals through employment, but even this is changing. It is now common practice for these establishments to “bus-in” workers from Bishkek and elsewhere. These workers work extremely long hours and, in extreme cases may never get paid at the end of the season, their main compensation being food, board and a view of the lake while they toil. Local residents see the lake every day, so unsurprisingly, that doesn’t quite cut it for them. The Issyk-Kul region suffered a lot during the 2008 – 2010 seasons: financial crisis, gross political instability and security concerns. Accommodation prices dropped by 50%, but there are signs of re- covery and the 2011 season was a marked improve- ment.

An advantage of running a hotel is you get to meet many interesting people. We have had guests from Japan, Sweden, Siberia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Britain, America, Canada, France, Spain, South Korea, Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Turkey and others. Often in the evenings the guests gather in

the lounge and make lifelong friends. The children mostly get on well, too. I’ve made a custom at the hotel to fly the flags

of the resident’s home countries, so if they book in

advance we always ask them to bring their national flag. In the early days I would fly the Welsh flag, which created a lot of local interest and even a de- gree of concern: Why was there a Chinese embassy in Cholpon-Ata? We are very careful to always fly our Kyrgyz flag a little higher than any of the others.

‘As the project progressed, thoughts of John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty Towers’ and the film ‘The Money Pit’ came to mind’

Sometimes water pressure can be problem

in the peak season, and because of this we have

a pressurised water system at the hotel. In early

2009 season we had problems – no water. We contacted the water company with whom we have excellent relations. It later transpired that person/persons unknown had turned our wa-

ter off at the central mains connection. This was quickly remedied and all was OK for a while be- fore the water ran out again. I went to the mains connection armed with a wrench and discovered our water had been turned off by a water thief. I turned it back on and emerged from the manhole to see a guy approaching rapidly, adopting an angry posture. I stood my ground, with the large, heavy wrench in my right hand, tapping my left palm with it, slowly and menacingly. He stopped,

turned tail and we haven’t had water problems since. It’s always good to have neighbours who understand you. It is oft-quoted that tourism is a major con- tributor to the country’s GDP. If this is the case, then it should be promoted, and the Kyrgyz au- thorities should make more effort to make visas easily available for tourists, and lobby airlines to make travelling here less costly. Also, the authori- ties should propagate a better understanding of the meaning of eco-tourism. I recall one tour agency’s advertisement espousing the merits of eco-tourism and wildlife sightseeing, while si- multaneously offering the opportunity to borrow guns to shoot at the animals. And the occasion when there was a tourist fair on the southern shore of the lake, where a wild wolf was chained to a stake and set upon by dogs, a sort of promo- tional spectacular. Things are improving in terms of standards and the true meaning of service is starting to hit home. However, the authorities should be careful not to repeat the mistakes made by Spain and Por- tugal, through careless and insensitive overdevel- opment. Remember, Lake Issyk-Kul is the jewel of Central Asia and a UNESCO site. Let’s not lose sight of the reasons why many tourists come in the first place - unspoilt nature, tranquillity, wildlife and the wonderful aqua-mountainous scenery, not for theme parks and high rise developments. With careful planning, the environment can be protect- ed whilst also serving the needs of the tourists. Finally, the lake is there for all of us, not just for private commercial interests and selfish greed. Give back the lake and the beaches to the peo- ple who live there all year round and the public

at large.

ple who live there all year round and the public at large. Editor’s Note: Nigel Browne

Editor’s Note: Nigel Browne is a British resident of the Kyrgyz Republic. More information about the Castle Hotel can be found at

September 2011 The Spektator



Balykchy: Town Edge on the
on the


One of the first lakeside towns you drive through (without stopping) on your way to an Issyk-Kul weekend of sunshine and fun, Balykchi has little to be thankful for after twenty years of independence from Moscow. Once Soviet Central Asia’s answer to port towns like Liverpool and Marseille, the town is now dilapidated, deserted, and a long way from a Capital of Culture award.

deserted, and a long way from a Capital of Culture award. Above and Opposite Balykchi’s harbour

Above and Opposite Balykchi’s harbour is full of depressing photo opportunities (all photos Ben Rich)

Next Page Boats stripped of anything of worth provide a window into the town’s economic woes

I HAD HEARD a lot about Balykchy whilst living in Kyrgyzstan and without exception, nobody had a good word to say about the place. When quizzing people as to what the town was like, I usually received a grimace as

though I had just let off a bad smell in the room, merely by mentioning its name. Everyone I asked in the capital told me of the squalor that would await me should I travel there. When I mentioned that I wanted to visit, people would try to per- suade me not to, as if the town of Balykchy was some kind of national shame that a proud peo- ple would prefer not to show to outsiders. “Go to Cholpon-Ata, it’s much more beautiful,” people would say. But Balykchy and the horrors it sup- posedly held had gripped me. I had to see for myself. On a Saturday morning in February I took a taxi across the city to the main bus station look- ing for a ride East to Issyk Kul’s western corner. I found a minibus that would be passing through Balykchy on its way to somewhere else and squeezed into a seat beside a young Kyrgyz man in the pre-requisite shiny black jacket and cap. The bus wound its way through Bishkek’s traffic before joining the main road towards the lake. I settled in with my knees crushed against the seat in front and stared out of the window, watching the world pass. About five miles out of Bishkek a reminder of the corruption endemic to this region came as our bus was flagged down by a traffic policeman. I watched our driver as he walked over to the policeman and in full view of passing motorists, released a small wad of som into the policeman’s hand, disguising the action as a handshake. The policeman put the money in his pocket without looking at it or counting it, and stared down the road, anticipating his next score. It was a modern- day highway robbery.

The road passed Tokmak, a Soviet jet fighter

guarding the town’s entrance, before heading out into a barren river valley that skirted the Kazakh border. Kazakhstan was only 500 metres away in distance, but a lifetime away in terms of poten- tial. This vast, neighbouring land is blessed with huge quantities of gas and oil, whilst Kyrgyzstan

has seemingly little to offer the outside world, bar parcels of land for foreign military air bases. As we neared the bottom of the mountain range that separated the valley from Issyk-Kul, the road deteriorated, every bump and boulder we hit jarring my knees and acting as a test to my traveller’s endurance. Soon however, the gears dropped and we began our slow ascent up to the pass. To our left, far below, were the murky waters

of the river Chui, and to our right were the barren

mountains of the Alatau range, ringed by long, slim, surreal clouds, hundreds of metres long like giant children’s slides. I had never seen anything like them before. We reached the top of the pass and began the descent towards Balykchy. It got suddenly warmer.

Just another dusty town


sign let me know we had entered the outskirts


my destination. A low-built, dusty town spread

out before me, indistinguishable from other equally dusty towns I’d seen in this corner of the world. A sort of tumbleweed blew across the road, and we drove down to what appeared to be a city centre. On the side of the road, women stood with kerchiefs on their heads, selling dried fish on string. We pulled into the town’s bus station and I was mobbed by the fish sellers as I stepped off the bus. Business in Balykchi was scarce. I didn’t really have a plan except to have

a look around before getting the evening bus home. At one end of the parking area, inclined nonchalantly against his Lada taxi, was an old Kyrgyz man. I told him that I had heard a lot about Balykchy, and asked him to show me what it was

September 2011 The Spektator


Focus 19 really like. We negotiated a fee and set off. I could not have found

really like. We negotiated a fee and set off. I could not have found a better guide.

I didn’t need to ask questions as he began

pouring out his life story and the town’s history in torrents of words, as though he had been in solitary confinement for years and I was the first person he had been able to talk to. Little bub- bles of spit landed in all directions as he hurriedly pointed out ‘landmarks’ and told me what they were. A lot of the government buildings seemed disused and locked up, but that could have just been because it was a weekend. There was not much happening in town, no markets bustling with shoppers and traders, no lovers strolling arm in arm under the warm sunshine. Life in Ba- lykchy had been reduced to its bare minimum: a petrol station, a food shop, a cafe, a bus station, a railway station - the necessities. And nothing but.

Back in the day

“I’ll take you to the docks, they were what this town was really about,” said the driver breath- lessly as we swerved between potholes and stray dogs. We turned down a small track towards the shipyard, its main building topped with a torpedo motif, since they had tested submarines here dur- ing the Soviet period. We parked by an old mural showing, amongst other things, the muscular

Soviet-Erectus, arms thrusting a Soviet flag sky- wards. None of the people depicted on the mural had Asiatic features, the triumvirate of planners studying a map were Caucasian. The Asian end of the empire had always known its place in the order. People were to be equal, but some more equal than others.

I approached the gates and a guard came

out of his hut to ask me what I wanted. I asked if I could enter to photograph the abandoned fish- ing boats I saw in the distance, but was told it was not allowed. Of course the words ‘not allowed’ are merely the opening gambit in the inevitable

allowed’ are merely the opening gambit in the inevitable negotiation, nothing is really ‘not allowed’ in

negotiation, nothing is really ‘not allowed’ in the former Soviet Union, unless you don’t have mon-

ey. I paid him 100 som and removed my lens cap. There were rusting hulks beached on the shore. Abandoned repair jobs lay scattered amongst steel debris, old rivets, drill bits and porthole hinges. I walked to the water’s edge, here silty and brackish, and clambered on board a beached boat long stripped of anything of use or worth.

I noticed that even the window panes had been

removed - probably to be used in someone’s dacha, or as a motorcycle screen for a Ural.

‘I had visited economically de- prived areas in other parts of the former Soviet Union, but this place had a feeling unlike any other I had visited - and I realized what it was. There was no hope’

An old woman appeared out of the reeds with a shopping bag on her way to the shop. I asked her when life was better, now or in the So-

viet days. It’s a question I’ve often asked, but here the answer was in the junk strewn yard in which

I was standing. Balykchy was once a thriving fish-

ing port. Fish were caught here and sent from its rail station all over the USSR to be eaten by fami- lies from Leningrad to Vladivostok. Ship build- ing was also a major part of the local economy. The one-time importance of boats to the town displayed itself in unexpected places: a motif on

a padlock, a boat carved into a wooden fence. That was all before the collapse. Nothing was built here now and it was hard to imagine a day when something would be built again. Without the subsidies integral to a command economy,

Balykchi had withered away. Building boats so far

economy, Balykchi had withered away. Building boats so far from an ocean made no economic sense,

from an ocean made no economic sense, and as

part of a newly independent Kyrgyzstan, Issyk-Kul had little need for these ships.

I returned to the car and my driver contin-

ued his monologue. “I worked in the factory my-

self, most of the town did, but then our directors started paying us late. We waited months to get our pay and when we complained, the directors started mentioning ideas like paying us in fish, like we were performing seals! It was then that we knew that we’d been bent over and f***ed by the party. That was when I decided to leave the factory and do this instead!” He patted the dash- board paternally. We drove on, pulling into a large dusty area surrounded on three sides by apartment build- ings. One of the buildings was abandoned, seem- ingly part-completed. A group of Kyrgyz teenag- ers were hanging around. I asked them to show me inside the building. It was empty except for the occasional mattress on the floor. Some of the walls had graffiti on them, names of Western or Russian music groups, English swear words and loving laments: ‘Maksim ya tebya lublu, no ti men- ya ne lubish.’ (Maksim, I love you, but you do not love me).

I returned to the car to continue my tour. “I’ll

show you something you won’t believe,” the taxi driver told me. “We call it our Iraq!”

Twentieth century ruins

We drove to a plateau overlooking the top of the town, along a dirt track that seemed to be ca- pable of bursting our tyres at any moment. And then I saw it. Spread out before us on a gently sloping hill was a sight quite unlike anything I’d ever seen, a scene of utter desolation. The whole area was a wasteland of rubble, maybe thirty or forty ruined houses, their walls shattered. These were not just houses that had just been left to fall into disuse, these were houses that had

been left to fall into disuse, these were houses that had w w w . t
been left to fall into disuse, these were houses that had w w w . t

September 2011 The Spektator



20 Focus The Slow Train to NOWHERE On August 31, Kyrgyzstan’s Day of Indepen- dence, a

The Slow

Train to


On August 31, Kyrgyzstan’s Day of Indepen- dence, a great big rusting hulk of iron crawls between Balykchy and Bishkek for the last time, as part of its set daily summer timetable. Once autumn begins its appearances are erratic and unpredictable, gradually entering a long period of hibernation before the Kyrgyz rail company wakes it from its slumber on July 18, the follow- ing year. Tickets cost 69 soms for adults, 35 soms for children. Ian Claytor, veteran British ex-pat in Kyrgyz- stan and founder of the Celestial Mountains Tour Company describes the‘slow train’experience as follows:

“It [the train] only goes as far as Balykchy, which is the terminus at the end of the line, so any tourists then have to get onward transport to their chosen resort further up the shore. The train is quite slow and the 180 kilometre journey can take several hours. For the most part, the journey along the single track line is not very dra- matic, although when it passes through Boom Gorge it is interesting. At one point the track rises quite high above the road giving a good view of the valley. The advantage, of course, is the cost, which is considerably cheaper than any other alternative: bus, minibus, taxi, hired car or even driving yourself.” There you go then. As usual the Spektator has given you all the information in a timely, efficient manner, and we can even confirm that if you are already planning to rail your way to Issyk-Kul’s most unlikely tourist honey-pot a year from now, the train departs from the capital at 6.25am. Once on board note the babushki hawking stale lipy- oshka and plastic bags overloaded with apples prior to the train setting off - they are your mo- mentary buffet service.

setting off - they are your mo- mentary buffet service. been smashed to bits, crushed to

been smashed to bits, crushed to rubble as though by some great hulking fist from the sky,

like the giant peasant’s fist that featured in early Soviet propaganda posters, smashing a kulak house in retribution for grain hoarding. Just the footings were left where once family homes had stood.

It truly was like a war zone; Dresden after the

raids. I walked about photographing the destruc- tion and saw a wooden house in the distance, seemingly occupied. I poked my head over the fence and startled an old Russian woman tend- ing to her garden. “I came with my husband in

‘67, it was a beautiful place. My children grew up here, there were never any problems. Neighbours would always help you, but not now. Everyone thinks only about themselves. My husband died in ’87; at least he never saw what we became.” Her children had left for Russia, but she would not. “This is my home,” she said. “My children call me from Russia telling me to come, but what for? I’m old and I don’t want to be a burden, let them live their lives.” We went for something to eat in a cafe where my driver seemed to know everyone. “I have a famous journalist from The London Times,” he announced mischievously. We were joined by an elderly Kyrgyz gentleman. I asked him about the future of the town. “Nobody cares about this place, nobody. You see government officials drive through on their way to Cholpon-Ata. We say that the reason for their blacked out win- dows is not so that we can’t see them, but so that they aren’t reminded about us. They’re all ban- dits. Our Mayor is another one - what has he ever done for us?”

I spoke to others, all telling sad tales of a

town that was seemingly falling into oblivion. A second man told me how, at one time, the town’s

A second man told me how, at one time, the town’s electricity supply had been cut
A second man told me how, at one time, the town’s electricity supply had been cut

electricity supply had been cut for 12 hours eve-

ry night. It did not surprise me; I couldn’t imagine how the population could afford to pay their bills as it was. A third recalled a whole summer with- out water. I have visited economically deprived areas in other parts of the former Soviet Union, but this

place had a feeling unlike any other I had visited

- and I realized what it was. There was no hope. In the run down areas of Belarus the people had placed their faith in an autocratic president, in Russia there was a sense of renewal under Pu- tin and Medvedev, and the Moldovans I’d met in the backwater of Unghen had targeted EU acces- sion. But what could the residents of Balykchy pin their hopes on? I pondered the question but drew a blank. Despite its location on the shore of one of Central Asia’s natural wonders, tour- ists would never flock to Balykchy in the way they did to the ‘showcase’ towns further round the shore. Balykchy had been a place of industry and trade, lacking the sandy beaches and stun- ning backdrop of other areas of the lake, as well as the necessary infrastructure for tourism. Who would invest in hotels in this windswept town? No, Balykchy had known the good times, and existed now on a diet of cruel reality and fading memories. My driver took me back to the bus station. Whilst I was heading back to the capital’s bright lights, the residents of Balykchy would be set-

tling in for another dark night without electricity.

I paid my driver and thanked him for his tour of

Balykchy. As I boarded the bus he shouted: “Next

time go to Cholpon-Ata, it’s very beautiful!”

“Next time go to Cholpon-Ata, it’s very beautiful!” Editor’s Note: Ben RIch is a freelance journalist,

Editor’s Note: Ben RIch is a freelance journalist,

who has travelled all over the former Soviet Union. Other travel articles by the same author can be ac- cessed at

September 2011 The Spektator


Bishkek life




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)

$ - 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


Hollywood*(Druzhba/Sovietskaya) 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. $$$

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. $$$

Mexican Canteena (Chui 158, near Beta Stores) At its best in the summer as sombrero classics ser- enade pedestrians down Chui and a mixed crowd sits on the porch washing down tacos with strong marguirita. Burritos and fajitas are mouth-watering here, and long-haired gringo types will be glad to have their beer served with a lemon, not a straw. $$$

Smokie’s (Donetskaya/Jukeeva Pudovkina) Bishkek’s first and only traditional American barbecue restaurant serves pit-smoked spicy beef brisket, ribs, pork shoulder, lamb legs and chicken quarters. Well worth the trek out to Or- to-Sai market in the cooler half of the city. Enjoy

a range of cocktails and spirits, too. $$$


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. $$$


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. $

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 $$

Frunze (Chui/Pravda) 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. $$


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.


Alabama Cafe (Sovietskaya, opposite fitzpribori) With the demise of Mimimo, Alabama is currently the Spektator’s favourite place to load up on tzizitski, khajapuri (three types of), some truly delicious khinkali (think fresher, tastier manti) and other sensibly- priced Georgian treats. Competitive steaks,too. $$


Steinbrau* (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. $$$

Vienna (Moscow/Soviet) Actually an Austrian, but subsumed into our German section in the name of Anschluss. Vena is a cracking lit- tle place to people-watch over some great European dishes and a glass of fine Austrian wine. If you didn’t know Austria had fine wines, you can check into the adjoining shop to begin your viticultural education. Vienna is spelled ВЕНА in Russian. Free Wi-Fi. $$$


12 Chimneys (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* (Pravda/Kulatova) 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 ‘Datski Schnaffer’. $$$$

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. $$$

Coffee House (9, Manas & Togolok Moldo/Ryskulova) Treat yourself to some of the finest coffee and cakes Bishkek has to offer at one of three ‘Coffee Houses’; cosy boutique cafés with a European flavour. Curl up and read a book, or just drop in for a caffeine hit and a chocolate fix. $$$

City Movie Bar (By Ala Too Square on Kievskaya) Movie’s outdoor patio is well positioned to peo- ple-watch on Bishkek’s equivalent of the Champs- Elysees. Order veal in a puff-pastry casing with- creamy mushroom sauce - you won’t regret it. $$$

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! $$$$

Dillinger* (Gorky/Tynystanova) Glamorous VIP complex including a restaurant, bar and casino. A decedantly decorated and perculiar- ly endearing homage to the notorious bank robber - we’re sure he would appreciate it. $$$$

September 2011 The Spektator

Bars, Restaurants & Clubs


Fatboy’s* (Chui/Tynystanova) Civilized, friendly cafe bang in the middle of town and a popular ex-pat meeting point. Sensible spot for conversation, but if you’re alone there’s a mini- library to peruse (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 cocktail 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.

Minibuses 195 and 110 take you right past it as you

head out to the mountains. $$$

GlavPivTrest* (Asenbai region, next to City Club) We watched a band called Liquid Cactus play here and admired the old Soviet paraphenalia hanging on the walls. Lenin makes an appearance outside the bogs and you can get Spektator favourite Ven- skoye on tap. Good beer snacks and the burgers aren’t bad either. Nice for a ‘theme’ night out. $$$

Jam* (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. $$$

Live Bar* (Kulatova/Pravda) 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. $$$$

Lounge Bar* (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. $$$

Navigator (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. $$$$

Stary Edgar’s* (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. $$$

Pinta Pub* (133, Chui) Brought to you by the same folks that own the best draught beer shops in the city, Pinta Pub is a bright green signed lighthouse for the Spektator on a hot day. With a host of well-kept ales on tap, food-wise we recommend complementing a nice ‘Greek’ salad with any of the dishes from the pork page on the menu, all of which are excellent. Recommended! $$$

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. $$$

Vavilon (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) $$$

Vis-a-Vis (26, Logvinenko) This place is a new free wi-fi honey pot for ex pats. Steak is always advisable when eating at an appendix to a butcher’s, and the sirloin here is exceptional. Also, enjoy English breakfasts, chips that aren’t cold and lo- cal dark ale Chuiski on tap. Recommended! $$$


The Host (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! $$$$

Indian Village (Vefa Centre, Sovietskaya/Gorkova) It’s on the third floor (if you count ground floor as the first). A cheaper version of The Host, if you can bear the fake-fontaine, soul sucking environs of this Turkish-built mall. The vegetable biryani is good for days when you are feeling off meat, while the milky chai tea is authentic, if a little sweet. $$


Adriatico (219, Chui) Reportedly suffering following the departure of its Italian chef, Walter, although we have been told that the soup is still excellent. $$$$



Find the best bars in town with the Spektator and
Find the best bars in town with the Spektator and

Find the best bars in town with the Spektator and

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 cin- ema. Enjoy the best pizza in town, gnocci and other typical Italian numbers, tasty business lunches from 200 soms. $$$$

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. $$$

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. $$


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. $$$$

Fusion (Vefa Centre, Sovietskaya/Gorkova) Takeout is free on orders over 450 soms (0312 510 707). Teriaki chicken, Miso soup, sushi rolls and pork in ginger sauce are all well worth a phone call. $$$


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. $$$


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. $$$


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. $$$

Regional/Central Asian

Arabica* (Mederova/Tynastanova) 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. $$$

opment. Three floors, VIP rooms, kaliyans aplenty. $$$ w w w . t h e s

September 2011 The Spektator


Bars, Restaurants & Clubs

Arzu-II (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 im- pressive array of pivo. Well worth it on football nights, when the locals are rather rowdy. $

Faiza I (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. Slightly more upmarket sister restauraunt on Mederova/Tynastanova. $

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 $$$

Karavan (Almatinkskoya/Chui) Excellent little stolyva (canteen) full of the timeless regional favourites. Being an Uighur restaurant its gero lagman or lagman pa Uighurski particularly stand out. No smoking, sit, eat and leave. $

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 overlooked. 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 before cramp sets in. $

Tubeiteika (Moskovskaya/Turusbekova) Hard to spell but great to eat at. The menu is well beyond the traditional Central Asian scope, with nods to China, Japan and Europe, too. We liked the Chinese chicken, the sushi and the shashlyk. $$$


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 (Bokonbaeva/Isanova) 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. $$$

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! $$$


Carlson (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 lepyosh- ka and good, affordable Turkish cuisine. $$

Ojak (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. $

Yusa (Logvinenko/Bokonbayeva) The lavash is outstanding here, as are the range of sauces that compliment a wide array of vegetable and meat dishes. We recommend their assorti kebab, which unlike other variations on the dish, won’t leave you glued to the toilet seat the next day. $$



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.


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’


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

Look out for

‘special nights’ advertized on a billboard near you. (Entrance charge 400-500 som)

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)

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)

Live Music

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)

Esco-bar (Gorkova, 200 m East of Tash Rabat) Named after the infamous Colombian cocaine baron, staff are unlikely to bash a line out for you on arrival. What you will get is decent tunes most nights in a ‘pre-party’ spot brought to you by the creators of the Vefa centre’s Veranda. $$$

Sweet Sixties (Molodaya Gvardia/Kievskaya) Live cover bands most nights. Full menu, popular with a younger crowd. $$

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)

Live music also common at Stary Edgar’s, Beatles Bar, Foyer and Blonder Pub (see ‘restaurants’)

September 2011 The Spektator



Molodaya Gvardia

Molodaya Gvardia

Jibek Jolu







Manas ave.



Manas ave.

Manas ave.




T. Abdymomunov






Togolok Moldo


Michael Frunze










Lva Tolstogo








Michael Frunze









A. Usenbaeva

Toktogula Moskov

Lva Tolstogo







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September 2011 The Spektator


What’s On

September Dates

From September 7 Rugby World Cup at Vis-a-Vis Watch the usual suspects from the southern hemisphere make our lot look like wallabies. Scrums, tries and Hakka dances, while you wash down your pork steak with a glass of fresh ale. Ring David Hutton for confirmation


Until September 12 Art Exhibition The Works of Musa Abdiev This is at the national art gallery, opposite the opera ballet. Musa Abdiev is one of indepen- dent Kyrgyzstan’s most famous artists. Reports welcome.

Into October

September 27 to October 2 Human Rights Film Festival The fifth anniversary of the International Festi- val of Documentary Films on Human Rights (“Bir Duino Kyrgyzstan”) is beginning on September 27, and will be held until October 2, 2011. The international documentary film festival is one of the sisters of the Czech festival of docu- mentary films on human rights, “Eden svet”, which influences the protection of rights and freedoms all over the world. The festival was first held in Kyrgyzstan in the spring of 2007 and brings together almost 30,000 viewers from all regions of the republic. Another version of the festival takes place in Hudzhent, Tajikistan. The selection of films submitted by Kyrgyz and foreign film directors has been completed. We have received more than 65 films in total. The event is sponsored by HIVOS-Culture and the European Union.

Contact: Farida Abdylaeva – faridaon@gmail. com or call (0312) 314166 for more info.

September 29 - October 2 International Festival of Street Theater! Touring, award-winning street artists offer up street theatre for residents of our beloved Bish- kek. Organizers say the event will take place in a boat (!?) and potential spektators must email to book their places. That can be done by drop- ping troupe director Sergey a line at mesto.d@ or phoning 0555950823.

TUK Dates for September

September 3-7 Five day trip to Arslanbob Five day tour around the forests of Arslanbob. Two days transfer, there & back. Trek around the nut forests, visiting waterfalls and sacred stones. Pano- ramic views of the rocky massif Baubash – Ata. Me- dium to light intensity, all accommodation in tents. Kids older than 12 years old may participate with parental accompaniment. The organization and transport per person for a group of 16 is 1700 som (for members 1500som). Equipment hire: 1035 som (tent, backpack, sleeping pad, sleeping bag)

September 4 Hiking in the Kel-tor gorge

Departure from Bishkek at 7:30. Total distance:16


level of difficulty. Kids older than 12 years old may participate with parents only. Same day return.

km, picnic at the Kel-Tor lake (2725 m.)

September 10 Three-day tour of Adygene gorge, Ala-Archa Depart from Bishkek at 7:30 for the alpinist base camp. Trek the gorge. Medium difficulty, Accom- modation in tents. Organization and transport costs 350 soms per person (TUK members: 150 som). Extra fee for entry into Ala-Archa national park – 60 som.

September 11 Rafting on the Chon-Kemin river Rafting in the Chon-Kemin gorge (category 1-3), along the Chon-Kemin river. Duration 2-2.5 hours. Distance: 25 km. For a group of 12-16 participants, the cost of rafting is 1400 som, No claustrophobes, kids or non-swimmers.

September 14-18 Five-day tour of Sary-Chelek Five day tour around the nature reserve of Sary- Chelek. Two days for transfer there and back, three days trekking around the five main lakes of the Sary-Chelek bio-reserve. Light and medium level of difficulty, accommodation in tents. Children from the age of 12 and over are allowed to take part with parental accompaniment. Organization and transport per person for a group of 16 cost 2100 soms (for TUK members 1600 som).

Groups meet the Thursday before the weekend of departure. Call (0312) 906 115 or email us at trek@ Web site: http://www.trek-kyrgyzstan. com

Entertainment Directory

The Puppet Theatre Sovietskaya/Michurina 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 Sovietskaya/Abdymununova 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.

Live updates

For all the Bishkek opera, ballet and concert listings, check our frequently updated What’s On listings at:

Spektral Travel

Barring an unforseen cold snap, September should of- fer good conditions for a jaunt around the republic. In the South, the heat is now bearable, and the TUK trips to Arslanbob and Sary-Chelek sound like real winners. In the north, Naryn is usually the first province to welcome in the winter, so ‘do’ Lake Son-Kul (see Palmer Keen’s article on pages 10-12) and Tash-Rabat while you still can.

Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek, Chui av. 4A, Office A4 Tel.: +996 (312)

Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek, Chui av. 4A, Office A4 Tel.: +996 (312) 90 61 15, 90 61 39 e-mail:, website:,

av. 4A, Office A4 Tel.: +996 (312) 90 61 15, 90 61 39 e-mail:, website:
av. 4A, Office A4 Tel.: +996 (312) 90 61 15, 90 61 39 e-mail:, website:
Map: Location guide 7. Beta Stores Supermarket 14. New York Pizza 21. Stary Edgars 1.
Map: Location guide
7. Beta Stores Supermarket
14. New York Pizza
21. Stary Edgars
1. Bella Italia
8. Derevyashka
15. Pinta Pub
22. TSUM Department Store
2. Metro Bar (American Pub)
9. Cyclone
16. National Museum
23. Jam
3. Mexican Canteena
10. Coffee House (II)
17. Navigator
24. Mimino
4. Zaporyzhian Nights
11. Adriatico
18. Sky Bar
25. Arabica
5. Coffe House (I)
12. Santa Maria
19. Foyer
26. Blonder Pub
6. Vis-a-Vis
13. Faiza
20. Fatboy’s
27. VEFA shopping Centre

September 2011 The Spektator