Recapping A Longer-Than-Expected Visit To The Visa-Free ‘Stan
Market day in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. March 3, 2015
Kyrgyzstan (February 22 – March 4 2015)
From killing time in the capital Bishkek, a tree infested, Soviet-era architectural nirvana, to escaping the Russified north to the true feel of a Central Asia town in historic Osh, a look at 11 days of visa-free travel in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, the 2nd smallest of the five ‘Stans.
Kyrgyzstan, officially Kyrgyz Republic, is a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked, mountainous & geographically isolated, it’s the second smallest of the 5 Central Asian states, larger than only Tajikistan, with a population of 5.7 million. The country was annexed by Russia in 1876 but, and despite standing up to the Russians in 1916, a move that saw them losing about one-sixth of their population, the Kyrgyzs didn’t achieve independence from the then Soviet Union until 1991 – it was the first of the 5 Central Asian ‘Stans to declare independence & at the time Kyrgyzstan could boast the only non-communist party backed president in the Central Asian region. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing since in a country where democratization is a work in progress – violent demonstrations against government-level corruption & nepotism rocked the country in 2005 & as recently as 2010. That said, the country has one of the more progressive post-Soviet governments in the region; it’s liberal visa policy means that it’s the only Central Asian state where the majority of visitors do not require a visa, a welcome relief given the hoops one must jump through to secure visas for elsewhere in the region.
Posts From The Kyrgyzstan Road (Presented In Chronological Order)
BISHKEK - THE CAPITAL
Today is day 2 & a bit in Kyrgyzstan, officially known as the Kyrgyz Republic, country number 2 on this little Central Asian junket of mine. I’m in the capital, a place called Bishkek, having crossed over the border from Kazakhstan a few days ago.
Unless you like Soviet-era architecture & monuments then Bishkek, a young city short on history & sights, doesn’t offer much in the way of attractions, doesn’t offer up many reasons to detain travellers for longer than is necessary.
The majority of those who do visit the city generally pass through en route to the rural and high altitude-based attractions Kyrgyzstan is worth visiting for – snow-capped alpine vistas, endless grassy rolling plains, hidden lakes, forested valleys and basins dotted with nomadic, yurt-dwelling Kyrgyz herders. The thing is, there’s not much of that on offer this time of year – Lonely Planet warns to ‘think twice about a winter visit unless you’ve come to ski’. I’ve come but I don’t ski.
Just like Almaty, Kazakhstan, before it, I’m waiting here in Bishkek. Waiting for a visa to come through, this time for Iran. I can’t leave the country until I get it. I do plan a few trips from the city to help pass the time but for now Kyrgyzstan has been Bishkek & Bishkek alone. I could have waited a bit longer in Almaty but I decided to spend time doing nothing in a new city, & country, as opposed to a familiar one.
So, I’m into my third day of biding my time in Bishkek, more than is needed, a lot more than is needed, to ‘do’ this city. I’m not bored. Yet. I would be if I didn’t enjoy looking at boxy Soviet-era architecture. I do. I really do. And the more I do, the more I realise I do. And I don’t think I’ve been to a city – not even one in Eastern Europe, or even Mother Russia herself – where I enjoyed looking at massive, boring, boxy, uninspiring, neglected & unkempt piles of concrete & marble as I have done here in the Kyrgyz capital; Bishkek is the Eastern Europe of 30 years ago, a veritable open-air museum relic of the former Soviet Union Bloc, the sort of place that would no doubt arouse nostalgia in people who knew and long for the old Soviet Union. Short on so-called attractions it may be, but I found the city’s planned grid layout of wide boulevards flanked by irrigation canals & large trees, buildings with marble façades, and Soviet apartment complexes strangely photogenic. Very photogenic. Here are a few more, quite a few more, architecture-heavy captures from my time in the city so far.
Kyrgyzstan is a poor country. That much is obvious when walking the streets of its dusty, infrastructure-challenged capital, and especially after coming from Kazakhstan, the region’s wealthiest country – buildings are decaying/crumbling, roads (those that are paved) are uneven, & footpaths/sidewalks are at best badly cracked and at worst missing altogether. That said, it’s a pleasant city to wander around & with distances relatively short you’re never too far from the next Soviet-era statue, monument or building.
The city’s main civic space is the city centre Ala-Too Square, a vast expanse of concrete that was until 1991 called Lenin Square. The site of frequent political demonstrations and regular festivals, it was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz SSR, at which time a massive statue of Lenin was placed in the square’s center – that statue was relocated in 2003, 12 years after independence from the USSR, and replaced by a triumphant statue of the Kyrgyz epic hero Manas.
Yes, of course Bishkek has a War Memorial. And yes, of course it’s big.
I left the city yesterday with the intention of spending the night in the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata, about 250 kilometres east of Bishkek on the shores of Lake Issyk-Köl, the world’s second-largest alpine lake (after South America’s Lake Titicaca). Things didn’t quite go to plan.
Sitting at an altitude of 1,600 metres, Cholpon-Ata, is just one of many towns dotting the northern shore of the 170 kilometer-long by 70 kilometre-wide Lake Issyk-Köl, a lake that never freezes over, not even during the bone-chilling Central Asian winters (and it avoids doing so thanks to a combination of extreme depth, thermal activity & mild salinity). The town is Kyrgyzstan’s summer resort getaway, one that seemingly has white beaches, Kyrgyzstan’s biggest Ferris wheel (nowhere to be seen), & dozens of hotels, guesthouses, cafes and bars. But Cholpon-Ata is about as seasonal as they come – it a veritable ghost town in winter, or right around about now, & virtually everywhere is closed. I knew this before leaving Bishkek but I still expected some places to be open, especially for a town with a year-round population of over 10,000. But there was very little stirring for the hour I spent walking through the town looking for life (& a bed). That was long enough for me to loop the town & eventually see me hoofing it back to the bus stand for the next transport option out, back whence I came. So all in all I spent 8 hours on two buses getting to and from a lakeside town I spent an hour wandering around, all the while wondering why I even bothered. Oh well, at least I got out of the capital for the day.
BISHKEK - THE WAIT
I‘m still here in Bishkek. It’ll be a week tomorrow. A whole week. I commented in my last/first post from the city how I wasn’t yet bored, that after three days in a city that’ll struggle to entertain you for a day. Well make no mistake, I’m bored now.
Obviously I was hoping the Iranians would have come through with my visa authorisation by now. Needless to say they haven’t. I’ll give them a few more days, not counting the right here & now weekend. I don’t have a no-Iran plan B; no Iranian visa also means no Turkmenistan visa either (long story), the latter a doubt even with an Iranian visa (it, Turkmenistan, is called the North Korea of Central Asia for a reason). An Iranian pass would be great – yes please, thank you very much – & so I’m continuing to hold out. But only for so long. How long (more) I’m not sure but there has to be a limit to how long I can amble the dusty Bishkek streets & sit in the sanctuary that is the city’s Sierra Café, the closest you’re going to find to a Starbucks – or any other well-known Western coffee chain or fast food outlet for that matter – in the country. And there’s little else to photograph either. Here are a few captures from the last few days. Just cos.
BISHKEK - MOVING ON
I’m no stranger to changes in my travel plans. Generally life gets the way, things change, yada yada yada. But rarely do my plans change en route. Once in motion things generally pan out as I had hoped & planned. Not this trip however. Things had already changed prior to today with the cancellation of North Korea tour. Today Iran, & by extension Turkmenistan, bit the dust. I just gave up waiting – after submitting an application for visa authorisation to the Iranian authorities on February 13th last, and waiting ever since, including the last 8 days here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, I just cut my losses. So today I feel like I’m resuming the trip, heading south to Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, before crossing the border into Uzbekistan. That was always the plan but the old Itinerary would have seen me continue on through Turkmenistan and into Iran. However, I have formulated a plan B & now I’ll be flying from Uzbekistan to the Caucasus – I’ll fly north when I envisaged going south overland. Iran will join North Korea by staying on my bucket. I’m a tad miffed – NK & Iran were the 2 standout locations on this trip – but not overly so. And at least I’m moving again.
OSH - THE SOUTH
Allegedly Osh is older than Rome. So say the locals. Whether it is or not it’s no doubt old & it looks & feels every bit its age.
There’s history here. Osh was a major crossroad on the famed Central Asian Silk Road & the city has drawn traders for centuries. The traders are still here today, doing their thing in the city’s bazaar, one of Central Asia’s biggest.
Osh also boasts Kyrgyzstan’s only UNESCO World Heritage listed site, Suleiman Too (Solomon’s Throne), a rocky crag (some claim it to be a full-blown mountain) looming over the town. I visited both the bazaar & crag/mountain today on a day when I feel I have finally arrived in Central Asia proper. There’s a totally different look & feel down here compared to the industrialised, Russified north – Osh’s bustling, dusty, chaotic streets teeming with hardworking, weather-beaten & unfailingly hospitable locals is more how I envisioned Central Asia to be.
Suleiman Too (Solomon’s Throne)
A UNESCO World Heritage site in Osh. Well I never. Suleiman Too is a big chunk of rock looming over the western edge of the city. Boasting 5 distinctive peaks, the highest of which tops out at 191 metres, the crag is some 2 kilometres long & between 500 metres & 800 metres wide. Dotted with petroglyphs & ancient revered sites, mostly caves & crevices, one of which houses a neat Cave Museum, it has been a place of worship for centuries – supposedly the Prophet Mohammed once prayed here – & today it is considered the most complete example of a sacred mountain in Central Asia, hence the UNESCO listing.
– UNESCO commenting on Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain
All that is well & good but it was the views down over a sprawling Osh that were the highlight of the crag for me.
A few other pictures from ambling around Osh today, my last day in Kyrgyzstan.
Tomorrow I bid adieu to Kyrgyzstan and will cross the border into Uzbekistan, only 10 kilometres from Osh. I’ll be heading for a city called Kokand the Islamic Uzbek Fergana Valley, which Osh rests on the edge of. Seemingly I’ve left the Russified Central Asia behind and Osh is a good introduction for what the valley, & Uzbekistan, is all about. So no more Lenin statues I take it.