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Spektator

№19 September 2011
Your monthly guide to what’s happening in and around Bishkek


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Restaurant Guide Tourist Map What’s On
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Contents
This Month
Out & About

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Spektator
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Restaurants, Bars, Clubs
All the best bars and clubs in town.
City Map
Don’t get lost.
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What’s On
The pick of the entertainment listings.
The Guide
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.
Focus
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.
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TheSpektator Magazineis availableat locations throughout Bishkek, including: (Travel Agencies) Adventure Seller, Ak-Sai Travel, Carlson Wagonlit, Celestial Mountains, Ecotour, Glavtour,Kyrgyz Concept,
Kyrgyz Travel, Muza, NoviNomad (Bars & Restaurants) Cowboy, Hollywood, Metro, New York Pizza, No1, 2x2, Boulevard, Coffeehouse, Doka, Fatboy’s, Four Seasons, Live Bar, Lounge Bar,
Meri, Navigator, Stary Edgar’s Veranda, Adriatico, Cyclone, Dolce Vita, Santa Maria, Golden Bull (Casinos) Europa, Golden Dragon, XO (Hotels) Dostuk, Hyatt, Golden Dragon, Holiday, Alpi-
nist (Embassies and Organisations) The UN building, The American base, The German Embassy, The Dutch Consulate, CAMP Ala-too, NCCR, The Bishkek Opera & Ballet Society.
ON THE COVER: Soviet-era street art in Balykchi (photo
by Ben Rich)
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.
The Spektator Magazine
Founder: Tom Wellings
Managing Editor: Chris Rickleton
(editor@thespektator.co.uk)
Staff writers: Alex Ward, Robert
Marks, Winton Olsen, Dennis Keen
(keenonkyrgyzstan@thespektator.
co.uk), Palmer Keen, Holly Myers,
Evan Harris, Nigel Browne, Adeline
Bell (Adelinebell@thespektator.co.uk),
Patrick Barrow, Pavel Kropotkin, Alice
Janvrin, Sergey Vysotsky
Guest Contributor: Ben Rich
Design: Aleka Claire
Advertising Manager: Irina Kasymova
(email: advertise@thespektator.co.uk)

www.thespektator.co.uk
Want to contribute as a freelance
writer? Please contact:
editor@thespektator.co.uk
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.
6
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.
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
4 This Month
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
Global Voices: Kyrgyzstan’s Bloggers Stand up to Manas-pulation
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 EurasiaNet.org (‘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.”
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
5 This Month
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
IWPR: Deep Waters in Kyrgyzstan, as Tensions Rise at Issyk-Kul
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.
ALMAZ RYSALIEV
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,
Above A tourist complex at Bosteri, Lake Issyk-Kul (A.Rysaliev for IWPR.net)
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 www.thespektator.co.uk
6 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.
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
W
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
Being
Number
One
This Month
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
CHRIS RICKLETON
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
7
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,
a micro-manager... When [he] became the head
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...himself, shown
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.”
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
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 –
This Month
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
8
Out & About
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)
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-
dores)
This Month
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.
Dark Horses
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
10 Out & About
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.
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’.
PALMER KEEN
I
Above A horse and its rider emerge from a dip in
the lake (all photos Palmer Keen)
Opposite Music lessons at altitude
The
LastLake
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
11 Out & About
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
a while for the horses, roaming wild across the
pastures, to be gathered.
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 www.cbtkochkor.com. Folks with their
own CBT stories can email ideas to our e-mail ad-
dress: editor@thespektator.co.uk.
Just CBT it
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
12 Out & About
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.
Above This young girl had never seen an African
kalimba before
Right Setting the table, 3,000 metres above sea
level
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
16 Focus
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-
NIGEL BROWNE
I
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.
Tales
from
Paradise
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
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
17 Focus
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.
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.
Editor’s Note: Nigel Browne is a British resident of
the Kyrgyz Republic. More information about the
Castle Hotel can be found at www.kyrgyzstay.com.
‘As the project progressed,
thoughts of John Cleese’s ‘Fawlty
Towers’ and the film ‘The Money
Pit’ came to mind’
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
18
Focus
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.
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
Town
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
A sign let me know we had entered the outskirts
of 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
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
BEN RICH
Balykchy:
Edge
on the
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
19
Focus
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
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.
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
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
‘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’
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
20
Focus
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
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!”
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 desolationtravel.com.
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.
The Slow
Train to
NOWHERE
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
22
THE GUIDE
Bishkek life
Bars
Dungan
$ - Expect change from 150 som
$$ - A little over 250 should do the trick
$$$ - Expect to pay in the region of 350
$$$$ - A crisp 500 (or more) needed in this joint
Chinese
Ak-Bata (108, Ibraimova)
This place must serve up pretty authentic dishes
as it’s always full of Chinese playing mah-jong and
waving their chopsticks about. Smoky and stuffy,
but in a nice way. $
Hollywood*(Druzhba/Sovietskaya)
As you would probably guess, decorated with
movie posters, photos of cinema icons and a
bunch of American kitsch. Hollywood is popu-
lar with a younger crowd and is usually packed
from mid-evening onwards. A fun place for a few
drinks before heading off to the clubs. $$$
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. $$$
Landau (Manas/Gorky)
Fancy something a little different? If you can tol-
erate the arthritic service, Landau isn’t a bad spot
for a pork steak or some other Armenian culinary
goodies. Also, treat yourself to some decent Arme-
nian conjac whilst your here, you’ll never go near
Bishkek conjac again. Ever. $$$
restaurants
and
Hui Min (Relocated to the Hotel Dostuk)
A former favourite, we have been told that Hui Min
has now relocated to the Hotel Dostuk. Apparently
the menu has been revamped and the prices in-
creased. The Spektator will be checking it out soon.
We hope they still serve the special Dungan tea, as
it’s rather good.
There’s a fine line between ‘bar’ and ‘restaurant’ in
Bishkek. Places more suitable for drinking sessions
are marked with a star *
Price Guide (main course and a garnish)
(5, Gerzena)
Don your beer drinking trousers and head down
to Bishkek’s take on a Bavarian-style beer hall. They
brew their own stuff - such a relief from the insipid
bilge that’s normally sold as lager. Compliment your
pint with a plate of German sausage with sauerkraut.
$$$
(Moscow/Soviet)
Actually an Austrian, but subsumed into our German
section in the name of Anschluss. Vena is a cracking lit-
tle place to people-watch over some great European
dishes and a glass of fine Austrian wine. If you didn’t
know Austria had fine wines, you can check into the
adjoining shop to begin your viticultural education.
Vienna is spelled ВЕНА in Russian. Free Wi-Fi. $$$
American/Mexican
Armenian
German
(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. $$$$
Bacardi* (Togolok Moldo 17/1)
Elite lounge bar affair with separate rooms for din-
ing, dancing and whiling the night away smoking
hukkah pipes. Urban grooves played at a reason-
able volume and a full menu that includes a range
of tasty platters. $$$$
Barcode* (Toktogul/Sovietskaya, inside ‘Moto’)
A hip, clean interior, fast wi-fi and an affordable
business lunch have made Barcode something of
a hotspot since it opened in early 2010. The place
comes to life at night when 3 DJs compete for your
affections with an array of banging tunes. $$
(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! $$$$
(Gorky/Tynystanova)
Glamorous VIP complex including a restaurant, bar
and casino. A decedantly decorated and perculiar-
ly endearing homage to the notorious bank robber
- we’re sure he would appreciate it. $$$$
International
Alabama Cafe (Sovietskaya, opposite fitzpribori)
With the demise of Mimimo, Alabama is currently
the Spektator’s favourite place to load up on tzizitski,
khajapuri (three types of), some truly delicious khinkali
(think fresher, tastier manti) and other sensibly-
priced Georgian treats. Competitive steaks,too. $$
Georgian
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. $$
Shaolin (Zhibek Zholu/Prospect Mir)
This tidy looking restaurant sticks out for its sheer
range of oriental dishes and its large, round tables
that make it ideal for extended gatherings. $$
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
23
(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. $$$
(Asenbai region, next to City Club)
We watched a band called Liquid Cactus play here
and admired the old Soviet paraphenalia hanging
on the walls. Lenin makes an appearance outside
the bogs and you can get Spektator favourite Ven-
skoye on tap. Good beer snacks and the burgers
aren’t bad either. Nice for a ‘theme’ night out. $$$
(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 . $$$$
Jumanji (Behind the circus)
It’s strange. This place is decorated with fake jungle
foliage and is based on a crap kids’ film yet still sort
of works. You also get to roll a pair of Jumanji dice
before you order for the chance to win a special se-
cret prize - we like this. $$$
(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. $$$$
(338a, Frunze)
One of our favourite places to drink in the Summer-
time, when we can afford it. Outdoor balcony-cum-
terrace high above the street with slouch-couches
and fine views of the circus - which you can some-
times smell in hot weather. Nice. $$$
(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
Bars, Restaurants & Clubs

T
H
E
Spektator
Find the best bars in town with the Spektator and thespektator.co.uk
.co.uk
Dolce Vita (116a, Akhunbaeva)
Cosy Italian restaurant with smiling waitresses serv-
ing excellent pizza. Also serves salads and European
cuisine. Small terrace outside for summertime din-
ing. $$
Cyclone (136, Chui)
Smart Italian restaurant with plush interior, efficient,
polite serving staff and a warm atmosphere to al-
leviate Bishkek’s winter chills. Pasta dishes stand out
among a menu of traditional Italian favourites. $$$
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. $$$$
Fusion (Vefa Centre, Sovietskaya/Gorkova)
Takeout is free on orders over 450 soms (0312 510
707). Teriaki chicken, Miso soup, sushi rolls and pork
in ginger sauce are all well worth a phone call. $$$
Japanese
Korean
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. $$$
(Mederova/Tynastanova)
This formerly sophisticated laid back shisha pipe)
bar has moved to a new location and, by the looks
of the bath in the toilets, may still be under devel-
opment. Three floors, VIP rooms, kaliyans aplenty.
$$$
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. $$$
Lebanese
Regional/Central Asian
Adriatico (219, Chui)
Reportedly suffering following the departure of
its Italian chef, Walter, although we have been told
that the soup is still excellent. $$$$
Italian
Moldovan
Moldova Restaurant (Kievskaya/Turusbekova)
If it’s been a while since you last went out for a
Moldovan, this wooden paneled, sturdy-tabled ea-
tery may be the answer to your prayers. Also, the
Moldovan Embassy is next door should you care
to learn more about the world’s favourite budget-
wine exporting country. $$$
Indian
(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! $$$$
(Vefa Centre, Sovietskaya/Gorkova)
It’s on the third floor (if you count ground floor as
the first). A cheaper version of The Host, if you can
bear the fake-fontaine, soul sucking environs of this
Turkish-built mall. The vegetable biryani is good for
days when you are feeling off meat, while the milky
chai tea is authentic, if a little sweet. $$
getting you down. $$$$
(15, Panfilova)
The concrete monstrosity of the Russian Theatre con-
ceals one of Bishkek’s finest attempts at a cosy base-
ment bar. Friendly staff, a decent menu and a collection
of old bits and bobs decorating the walls make Edgar’s
an attractive alternative to the city’s mainstream cafés.
A blues band plays most nights and a pianist adds a ro-
mantic ambience on some Sunday evenings. $$$
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! $$$
U Mazaya (Behind ‘Zaks’ on Sovietskaya)
Possibly Central Asia’s only rabbit themed restaurant.
Descend into this underground warren and tuck in.
Also check out the fairy-light adorned flagship sister-
rabbit-restaurant in Asenbai micro region. $$$
(Microregion 7)
Finely presented dishes, reasonably priced beer (60
som) genuinely friendly and attentive service and live
music from 8-ish on most evenings. Definitely worth
the trek out to the suburbs ( tell your taxi driver to turn
left at the yuzhniy vorota and head towards Asenbai
for about 1.5km) $$$
(26, Logvinenko)
This place is a new free wi-fi honey pot for ex pats.
Steak is always advisable when eating at an appendix
to a butcher’s, and the sirloin here is exceptional. Also,
enjoy English breakfasts, chips that aren’t cold and lo-
cal dark ale Chuiski on tap. Recommended! $$$
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. $$$$
September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
24
Bars, Restaurants & Clubs
Clubs
There are some Bishkek old-hands who say that
things aren’t what they used to be when it comes to
nightlife in Bishkek. They talk of legendary nights of
carnage, vomit, and debauchery - delights that con-
temporary Bishkek struggles to offer.
Not so, we say. Take your pick from the list below and
we’re sure there’s still enough carnage, vomit and
debauchery in town to keep everyone happy.
Promzona (16, Cholpon-Atinskaya)
www.promzona.kg
Promzona’s far-flung location sadly means a taxi
ride or a long walk home are in order at the end
of a night. Nevertheless, this trendy live music
venue has a lot going for it: good bands, an exten-
sive menu, and a hip industrial interior featuring,
strangely, a wind tunnel fan, make this one of the
best nights out in Bishkek. Tuesday is Jazz night.
Rock or blues bands normally play at the week-
ends. (Music charge 200-350 som)
Esco-bar (Gorkova, 200 m East of Tash Rabat)
Named after the infamous Colombian cocaine
baron, staff are unlikely to bash a line out for you
on arrival. What you will get is decent tunes most
nights in a ‘pre-party’ spot brought to you by the
creators of the Vefa centre’s Veranda. $$$
Zeppelin (43, Chui)
Zeppelin is in the same vein as the old Tequila
Blues but not quite so spit and sawdust. On the
nights we’ve visited, there’s been a line up of young
rock or punk bands strutting their stuff, heavier
beats seem to go down best with the young Rus-
sian crowd. Full restaurant menu.
(Entrance charge 100-150 som)
Arbat (9, Karl Marks)
Tel. 512094; 512087
Smart ‘elite’ club popular with a slightly older
crowd. Strip bar and restaurant in same building.
(Entrance charge 200/350 som midweek, 350/450
som Fri/Sat. Strip bar 700 som)
City Club (85/1, Zhukeyeva-Pudovkina)
Tel. 511513; 510581
So exclusive it makes the Spektator crowd feel like
cheap scum bags, City Club is one of the posh-
est clubs in town. Get past the ‘face control’ (ugly
people beware) and spend your evening with gang-
ster types, lecherous diplomats, Kazakh business-
men and a posse of young rich kids who all seem to
have studied in London. (Entrance charge: girls 200/
boys 300, Fri/Sat girls 300/boys 500
Golden Bull (Chui/Togolok Moldo)
Tel. 620131
A Bishkek institution. Full of ex-pats and tourists liter-
ally every night of the week. Long bar, friendly staff,
cheapish beer, everyone’s happy. (Entrance charge
[girls/boys] free/400 midweek, 150/400 Fri/Sat. ‘For-
eigners’ free.)
Retro Metro (24, Mira)
www.retrometro.kg
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)
Night
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. $$$
(Sovietskaya/Lev Tolstoy bridge)
Twenty-four hour joint that’s a godsend for those
who get cravings for lagman or manti at four in
the morning. Sometimes smoking isn’t allowed,
sometimes it is, however the food and prices are
constantly pretty good. Comfy booth style seats to
dig yourself into after a heavy night. $$
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. $$
Derevyashka* (Ryskulova, behind Dvorets Sporta)
Atmospheric drinking cabin that serves a range of
Central Asian and Russian cuisine, as well as an im-
pressive array of pivo. Well worth it on football nights,
when the locals are rather rowdy. $
Faiza I (Jibek Jolu/Prospect Mira)
Possibly the best place to munch traditional grub in
town. Their fried pelmeni and manti are so good that
they have often run out by supper-time. Save an
appetite and go early. Slightly more upmarket sister
restauraunt on Mederova/Tynastanova. $
Forel (Vorentsovka village)
Twenty minutes outside of Bishkek, Forel is a fish-
based ‘relaxation centre’ set amongst babbling
streams and offering fine veiws of the mountains. Fish
your own trout out of a pool and have it deep fat fried
for your pleasure. Only salads, bread, tea and juice are
sold on site but you are welcome to bring any booze
or garnish you desire, it’s also possible to rent a BBQ.
To get there take a taxi to Vorentsovka village and, if
your taxi driver doesn’t know the exact location, ask a
friendly villager. Trout is 800som/kilo $$$
(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. $$$
Live music also common at Stary Edgar’s, Beatles
Bar, Foyer and Blonder Pub (see ‘restaurants’)
Russian/Ukrainian
Diskoklubs
Live Music
Turkish
Heaven (Frunze/Pravda - in the Hotel Dostuk)
As Heaven is found inside a hotel it is surprisingly
unseedy. In fact it stands out for being a bastion of
the well-dressed (if one is generous). Turn up in tatty
jeans and a t-shirt and you may feel a little out of
place; then again, you may not give a shit. Tables by
the dancefloor cost 1000 som but include drinks up
to this value. (Entrance charge 200-400 som)
Fire & Ice (Tynystanova/Erkindik)
A slightly grittier version of Golden Bull. Again, for-
eigners can often get in for free. Popular throughout
the week. (Entrance ‘foreigners’ free)
Gvozd (Western side of the Philharmonia)
Foreigners for free, urban grooves and acceptable
prices at the bar. ‘Gvozd’ means ‘nail’ in Russian, but
you’ve probably got a better chance at the Golden
Bull. Its almost like the crowd from Pharaoh have mi-
grated. (Entrance ‘foreigners’ free)
Platinum (East side of the Philharmonia)
Take a seat at the snazzy 360 degree bar and do
battle with some of Kyrgyzstan’s most convivial
‘elite’ for gold-digging temptresses.. Look out for
‘special nights’ advertized on a billboard near you.
(Entrance charge 400-500 som)
Sweet Sixties (Molodaya Gvardia/Kievskaya)
Live cover bands most nights. Full menu, popular
with a younger crowd. $$
(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. $$
Apple (28, Manas)
Fat, old, lecherous foreigners not welcome, this
place is for a younger cooler crowd. Multiple bars,
large dance floor, friendly atmosphere. Thursday
usually a big night. (Entrance charge 100-300 som)
Zaporyzhia (9, Prospect Mira)
Recently opened, Zaporyzhia is a cossack fla-
voured restauraunt in a varnish-scented log cab-
in. Hearty rustic dishes and a homely atmosphere.
The medovukha is recommended! $$$
www.thespektator.co.uk September 2011 The Spektator
25 Map

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September 2011 The Spektator www.thespektator.co.uk
26
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
(0775582369).
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.
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@
gmail.com or phoning 0555950823.
.
September Dates TUK Dates for September Entertainment Directory
Map: Location guide
1. Bella Italia
2. Metro Bar (American Pub)
3. Mexican Canteena
4. Zaporyzhian Nights
5. Coffe House (I)
6. Vis-a-Vis
21. Stary Edgars
22. TSUM Department Store
23. Jam
24. Mimino
25. Arabica
26. Blonder Pub
27. VEFA shopping Centre
14. New York Pizza
15. Pinta Pub
16. National Museum
17. Navigator
18. Sky Bar
19. Foyer
20. Fatboy’s
7. Beta Stores Supermarket
8. Derevyashka
9. Cyclone
10. Coffee House (II)
11. Adriatico
12. Santa Maria
13. Faiza
The Puppet Theatre
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.
For all the Bishkek opera, ballet and concert listings,
check our frequently updated What’s On listings at:
www.thespektator.co.uk
Live updates
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
km, picnic at the Kel-Tor lake (2725 m.) Medium
level of difficulty. Kids older than 12 years old may
participate with parents only. Same day return.
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@
elcat.kg. Web site: http://www.trek-kyrgyzstan.
com
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.
Spektral Travel
What’s On
Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek, Chui av. 4A, Office A4
Tel.: +996 (312) 90 61 15, 90 61 39
e-mail: trek@elcat.kg,
website: www.trek-kyrgyzstan.com, www.tuk.kg
Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan
Into October