How do I love thee, sweet Bishkek? Let me count the ways: The sumptuous cakes and tortes at Kulikowski and Vanilla Sky, the different pumpkin pies in the fall, the small mountains of dried fruits and the elaborately constructed towers of cookies at the bazaars, the cookies and candy at Magnolia and Karmen on Manas, the chak-chak, the cakes and pastries at the French Bakery on Kievskaia and at Bellagio‘s Pastry Shop on Bokonbaeva, the beautiful wrappers of the Russian candies (Alyonka forever!), the Easter cakes with the multicolored sprinkles, the popcorn, cotton candy, and candy apples from the street vendors, the German and Swiss chocolate section at Euro Gurmania. The icing on the cake: the many, many ice cream booths and stands on Bishkek’s streets. Where to start, describing the taste of deliciousness? And when to end eating? Since words are failing me, here is the visualization of Bishkek’s delicious sweetness, from the city where every day is a Wayne Thiebaud day:
sweet stuff, a set on Flickr.
Because I love it.
Bishkek is an interesting car city: used Western and Japanese cars fill the streets, with many upscale SUVs mingling, and with an obnoxious Hummer making an occasional showing. On wedding weekends, (rented) luxury vehicles abound: decorated stretch limos and Mercedes lead the honking wedding convoys. Add to the mix the beat-up taxis (Unsafe at Any Speed comes to mind), the old Soviet and Chinese and the new city buses, the fleet of fast and furious Mashrutkas, and the old cars from the Soviet era -above all the Ladas- and Bishkek traffic as we know and fear it is complete. Then, there are the gems that stand out from the horse power pack. Like these:
Or, like the, no, THE, 1964 Volga.
I noticed the beautiful car on a warm and sunny Sunday last year, on a quiet street. Or maybe I noticed the owner first, who used a feathery household duster for touch-ups on the shiny and spotless vehicle, and who seemed to have stepped out of a Hollywood movie set, with his fabulous outfit matching his fabulous car.
There was already a photo shooting of the four-wheeled beauty going on, so I just joined the vintage Volga paparazzi and turned left and right, along with the car going back and forth for the perfect glamor shot at the perfect angle with the perfect light reflecting on the perfect, shiny surface. “What a beautiful car,” I complimented the owner. He asked me if there are such cars in my country. I am never sure which one that is, “my country”: Germany? The U.S.? No matter which: no, no such cars, was my answer. And that made him laugh and beam even more with pride.
Bishkek is, obviously, a great city for car talk, especially for a German. Nationality as a conversation starter (cars and soccer are the universal themes; in Bishkek, sometimes, taxi drivers talk about having been stationed as soldiers in the GDR, or about relatives living in Germany). I experienced the same in Lebanon, another country with many used German cars, some ancient, rolling along on the roads. After the standard nationality question that (friendly) Bishkek taxi drivers, especially those who drive an old Audi, Mercedes, or Volkswagen, ask me (“Amerikanka?” Answer: “Niet! Ya niemka!”), they go into long and passionate monologues about how fantastic German cars (and roads) are. That much I can tell, though not fully understand. Tom and Ray Magliozzi would be in heaven and among equals here. And then, after my limited ability to contribute meaningfully in Russian to expert talk about engine specifics, mechanical wonders, and engineering finesse, they tend to move on to the next favorite topic to be had with a German: soccer. Gladly.
Bishkek is also a city with visible traces of young male drivers testing their fast cars’ brakes, or, differently put, of insane maneuvers. Some abuse wide roads with little traffic as race tracks for burning rubber by breaking sharply and making extreme turns. Bad for your ears, bad for weak hearts and nerves, bad all around, but some may see a certain aesthetic in the visual manifestation of testosterone behind wheels:
But back to the cars. Here (in the photo spread below) is to the ordinary, old, and little Soviet cars that could. And to other curious things that roll, and some that rock, on Bishkek’s streets!
Maschina! Of Things that Roll (and some that Rock) in Bishkek, a set on Flickr.
Work has caught up with me, and now it’s time for me to catch up with this blog. And to steal back some time. On this first day of June, 3,000 miles away from Bishkek, it’s time write about a weekend in April. And about how people in two cities in Kyrgyzstan remembered the events that changed the country’s history three years ago.
On April 7, people in Bishkek remembered the 2010 Revolution, which led to the overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. At the White House, next to the memorial dedicated to those who died in the violence, people sat in front of the plaques inscribed with the names of the dead. They were sitting silently, some praying and crying, and some were hugging each other, sharing their grief. Some who walked by briefly stopped and paid tribute to those who had been killed.
New wreaths had been put up. People left flowers, bouquets and single red roses and carnations, at the White House fence and at the memorial.
By coincidence, I happened to be in the city of Talas the day before, on April 6. In the small, remote city in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, one of the country’s agricultural centers, where the 201o Revolution started exactly three years ago. From this small city, with a population of less than 35,000, cut off from the rest of the country by a massive mountain range, a revolution spread. Public events commemorating the revolution took place in Talas on April 6; many people, all dressed up, were out and about on the streets in the early morning. And lots of stories were told, that weekend. Of the extreme economic hardship that people endured; of persistent electricity outages; of skyrocketing utility costs; of the bitter knowledge of being cheated and abandoned by the corrupt government; of tensions rising in light of the increased visibility of government forces that had poured into the city in anticipation of an uprising. Of the breaking point, when people would not, could not, take it any longer. Of violence.
Here, too, a memorial reminds of the events of April 2010:
As I walked home from Bishkek’s Ala-Too Square that Sunday, April 7, away from the memory work, there was other work going on in the city. Public workers were busy with urban spring cleaning. They planted flowers:
They added a new coat of paint to the pedestrian crosswalk markings:
And workers built houses:
Bishkek on a Sunday, three years after a revolution.
Remembering a Revolution (April 2013), a set on Flickr.
March in Bishkek: the weather has been kind. The outlook for this week: even brighter. So much so that I feel emboldened to write about the winter in the past tense. Why not get carried away by sunshine while it lasts; especially knowing that ice might, soon again, carry me away, involuntarily, on Bishkek’s sidewalks.
Last week, I could still spot them here and there, the remaining layers of thick and relentlessly treacherous ice that persisted despite weeks of warmer weather. But now that these last, solid patches that seemed to have forever merged with the ground have melted, it’s time for some visuals of winter in the city. And, to catch up with some images of last fall. That fall of Indian summer quality.
And what were the obvious signs of fall transitioning into winter? People got out their fur hats.
Even the honor guards at Ala-Too Square did.
What makes winter hard in Bishkek, despite the fact that this winter was relatively mild, is that there is no snow and ice removal on sidewalks. Surprisingly -no, miraculously- I did not see one person falling on the icy sidewalks (but heard of many bad falls). People here have shown amazing talent in catching their fall. Sheer acrobatics. Every day, when I, about half a dozen times, caught my fall (neither gracefully nor elegantly but effectively), I found myself in awe of the women who were gliding by me in high heels while I was inching my way forward (backwards, sideways) in heavy boots. The best explanation that I have heard for why they were still standing while I was stumbling is that their heels serve as spikes, though I would not dare to try the method myself. Yes, my fashion sensibilities were defeated by first experiences with snow and ice in December and by gloomy predictions about bouts of severe winter weather to come. For the first time in my life, I felt compelled to roam the SERIOUS winter boot/moon boot isle in German shoe stores before returning to Bishkek in January. Completely uninspiring. Nothing of St. Moritz winter glitz and glamor about these babies. (Are you sure you don’t have anything a bit more sculpted? A pair that doesn’t look and feel like casts on my legs? Do you at least have these in black? Not even in white?). Gore Tex instead of Italian leather. Romika instead of Vic Matie. Deep sigh instead of beaming smile when leaving the shoe store, bag in hand. Now, though, having bonded over ice and snow on Bishkek’s sidewalks: best friends, these boots and I.
My greatest accomplishment for proudly claiming winterized status in Bishkek: having mastered snow and ice (once) with coffee-to-go in my hand, without spilling a drop. Wow! A balancing act. Probably looked like the butler James (Freddie Frinton) in Dinner for One, tripping over the tiger’s head rug with the champagne bottle in his hand. There is a fundamental decision that one has to make in Bishkek in snow and ice: which one is the safer option, taking a taxi or walking on icy sidewalks? A matter of risk assessment. Having seen cars barely able to come to a full stop when the lights turn red, or at crosswalks (where they must and do stop, even though it might be with screeching tires and way too close to your body), instead sliding on due to inadequate tires and breaks in bad weather conditions, I have mostly opted for mastering the icy sidewalks on foot (but even then: careful when crossing the streets at intersections with traffic lights and at pedestrian crossings. It’s not that drivers don’t want to stop; it’s that they might not be able to).
But now to the beautiful part of winter in Bishkek. To winter wonderland Bishkek. To the blanketed trees, and the monuments and memorials frozen in time, and in snow. I measured winter weather in how it transformed familiar objects that I pass almost every day. They change with various amounts of snow covering them. And somewhat softening them.
The generals seem less stern.
The pirates (of Issyk-Kul) seem less tough. And the dragons (of the Tian Shan mountains) less fierce.
The rather depressing looking apartment buildings look friendlier framed in white.
But the people fighting for the revolution keep pushing just as hard against the powers that be, even with the added burden of snow on their shoulders.
February still brought snow: inches of thick snow and faint traces of powdery snow. The elements of Bishkek’s winter beauty are its many trees and blue skies, even in icy cold weather. And the crystal quality of its snow. I have had Smilla moments, here in Bishkek, studying the glistening snow.
Longing for warm weather to beat the winter blues? Dreaming of palm trees and sandy beaches? No problem in Bishkek. There is always the Hawaii Bar on Manas Street.
With the promise of perfect sunsets seen from perfect beaches. Or from comfy chairs, with a cocktail in hand, in LCD quality, surrounded by fish tanks. The next best thing to sitting on that beach on cold winter nights.
But now that spring is around the corner, dreams of Hawaii -faraway, so close- slowly give way to the anticipation of summer weekends at Issyk Kul. And the signs of spring are here, for sure. On Friday, I noticed the first green branches on the tree outside of my office. And on Saturday, for the first time, the honor guards had shed their heavy winter coats and hats for lighter uniforms.
Seems it’s here, that spring. And here to stay. Stopped believing in it? Not me, and not Tom Waits: