Sunday, November 8, 2009

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is a country in Central Asia. Landlocked and mountainous, it is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east.

The ethnonym "Kyrgyz", after which the country is named, is thought to originally mean either "forty girls" or "forty tribes", presumably referring to the epic hero Manas who, as legend has it, unified forty tribes against the Khitans. The 40-ray sun on the flag of Kyrgyzstan symbolizes the forty tribes of Manas.

Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic is located just off the northern fringe of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, an extension of the Tien Shan mountain range, which rises up to 16,000 ft and provides a spectacular backdrop to the city. North of the city, a fertile and gently undulating steppe extends far north into neighboring Kazakhstan. The Chui River drains most of the area. Bishkek is connected to the Turkestan-Siberia Railway by a spur.

Bishkek is a city of wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings combined with numerous Soviet-style apartment blocks surrounding interior courtyards and, especially outside the city centre, thousands of smaller privately built houses. It is laid out on a grid pattern, with most streets flanked on both sides by narrow irrigation channels that water the innumerable trees which provide shade in the hot summers.

I visited Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyz Republic for about 20 hours. I enjoy visiting former Soviet Union countries because I develop more of a perspective on what it must have like to live in a communist society. As noted above, Bishkek has some beautiful tree-lined boulevards. But I am not sure that I saw anything that merits Bishkek city being called “The Garden City.”

The city’s air is so dirty. There are three very tall smokestacks that loom over the city. At night, the light from auto headlights shines into the dust from the air, as if into fog. I assume that the dust comes, in part, from the smokestacks. The city has many Soviet-style buildings. To me, this style of architecture means some variant of neo-classical style with large flat surfaces of marble or concrete. The buildings are oppressive and usually too large scale for their setting. Like Brutalist buildings in the US, their surfaces collect dirt from the air and the rain to become stained with black gunk. What may have started as a marginally attractive building transforms into an eyesore.

The Soviets also spent little on infrastructure. The highways are rough and bumpy, as are the airport’s runways. The lights along the boulevards on mounted on standards that look like they are made up of erector set pieces. Some of the apartment buildings in Bishkek are large and graceless. Their facades are sometimes overly busy or overly unadorned. My guess is that Soviet architects became masters of creating cityscapes that demoralized the citizenry and submerged individuality into the state collective. Bishkek may be one of the most unattractive cities I have seen.

I was surprised by two things about the people. The first is that they are, on average, quite attractive. The men are tall and thin and the women are quite beautiful. The second is that they dress very, very well. Maybe their style of dress is a reaction to Bishkek’s bleak physical environment. That is, they dress to improve what they look at. It might also be a function of Kyrgyzstan’s low cost of living where nice clothing is affordable. I was surprised to see a 24-hour fashion channel on TV. I saw the same channel that I saw in Dubai. I think that fashion and style are important to the Kyrgystanis and it was great to see.

I met a representative of the World Hunger Program in the hotel where I was staying. She said that they were faced with many large challenges in the Republic. A quick internet search confirms that hunger remains a huge issue in this country. I thought to myself, somewhat facetiously, that this is the explanation for everyone being slim.

One final note, Kyrgyzstan’s government is considered by the United Nations to be one of the most corrupt in the world. Maybe that helps account for its terrible infrastructure and visual pollution.

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