We were flying to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan with Turkish Airlines. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. We had originally planned to hop back on a train bound for Moscow (and beyond), but due to Russian visa difficulties, we had to make alternate plans. We’d already committed as far as UB, and our original final destination was to be London, but that too was cancelled due to visa complications (and is a whole other story). At the time, the cheapest option for us to get between Mongolia and London was with a Turkish Airlines flight from UB to London via Bishkek and Istanbul – two countries that I’d really wanted to visit. Conveniently, there was no complications getting visas for either of these countries, so we decided to make a couple of detours there.
We said our good-byes to our friends, and caught a taxi to the airport. I spoke with the man who drove us last time (after our Gobi trip) and I misunderstood the price – seems it was T15,000 each, not in total. Not sure why taxi was priced that way… It is getting repetitive to say, but the traffic in UB is really terrible. Interesting our taxi driver lived in Japan for quite a long time and spoke remarkably good Japanese!
Since there aren’t a lot of international flights out of Ulaanbaatar, customs and immigration were a snap. We passed through much quicker than we had anticipated, which left us with a glut of time to kill in the rather small and sad international departures lounge. Other than sitting and waiting (and making use of the free wireless internet), the only thing for us to do was to visit the collection of souvenir shops. Risa bought a little camel souvenir in the Gobi, but at the airport she realised she didn’t have it. We tried really hard to find another one the same, but all the ones for sale looked mass-produced.
I’ve been on some rather uncomfortable flights, but I have to say that this ranks rather highly on that expanding list of uncomfortable flights. It was a narrow seat, next to large and sweaty (though, very polite) man in seats that didn’t recline (in front of the emergency exit). And then the person in front reclined and all I could do was to press my knees firmly into the seat in front to save a little personal space. The meals were the worst we’d had and the final straw was the lack of inflight entertainment. At least the only children crying were in the seats in front of us. Oh wait, the final straw was the emergency exit seats being allocated to short people who don’t need a little extra leg room.
We got off plane feeling so uncomfortable and generally irritable, at least the customs and immigration were simple. I was expecting to have to pay for visa, but was never asked to purchase one.
After coming from the still frigid Mongolian climate, it was quite a shock to step off the plane into the heat of Bishkek. It was one thing to read weather reports with 20-something degree temperatures and another to actually feel it. The entire time we’d planned and prepared for a cold and bitter time in Kyrgyzstan. This was the warmest weather we’d experienced since leaving Australia more than six months ago.
Entering the arrivals section of the airport, and clearly looking like hot and tired tourists, we were easy targets for taxi touts. Fortunately I’d done a little reading prior to arrival and saw that a taxi to/from the airport should be about 400som ($8), so I stuck to that price when negotiating. It took a while (probably because that guide book was many years old), but they eventually agreed (though not without cheekily trying to get me to agree to a higher price of 500som). The taxi was an old (mid 90s) VW Golf, much like the one we owned in Australia. And, much like the Golf we owned in Australia, this one had mechanical problems. After we were seated and our luggage was secured in the boot of the car, the driver hopped out and started playing with the engine… After close to five minutes of waiting patiently while the driver and a few other people banged around in the engine bay, and just as we were about to give up and look for another ride, the driver sat back down and the car roared into action and we were off. And boy was he making up for lost time! We were clocking over 110kph at times, swerving between lanes, beeping at old men in carts being pulled by donkeys, sucking down cigarettes (which he kindly offered to us) and making a couple of phone calls. Adding to the excitement factor was the lack of rear seat belts… But, he made it to our hotel. Once in town things were much more orderly, especially compared to the anarchy in Mongolia – people stopped at red lights for one thing!
The hostel, Nomads Hostel, was great. We weren’t sure what to think after seeing the old apartment block complex, but it was quite modern inside, and our double room (though sadly with a shared bathroom) was only $35 (which was quite cheap for Bishkek).
Apart from the heat, the biggest surprise for us was just how green and lush it was here. It looked very much like Japan at the height of summer – trees were covered in thick green leaves, the grass was long and lush and there were flowers blooming everywhere. After five months of snow in Japan, a week of concrete and haze in China and two weeks of desert (mostly) in Mongolia, it was a bit of a novelty to see so much green. But, outside of the tree filled parks and avenues, it was grey concrete soviet apartment blocks, lacking much character or appeal.
The receptionist at the hotel suggested we go for a walk to the main square in town (Ala Too), so that is where we headed. As we were getting near, we could hear (what we assumed to be) fireworks. Then we saw a rather large crowd gathered, though they were mostly hidden by smoke. I can’t tell you our surprise when a large military parade exited from that smoke and was running in our direction and firing off more shots (it wasn’t firecrackers that we could hear after all). Like in Beijing, the crowd didn’t seem concerned, so we assumed it was just a display.
This group that was running, dropping smoke grenades, performing army rolls and letting off rounds of (what I can only hope were) blanks eventually regrouped and reformed on the other side of the wide street. The smoke had now cleared and we could see several other groups stood next to them. Some of the other groups, who were dressed differently, which I can only assume means that they are from different sections, performed different routines, including something resembling (not very co-ordinated) martial arts (set to some very cheesy Kyrgyz or Russian rap music), as well as marching (with even less co-ordination) and other military style flamboyant prancing around. We were sweating in the shade in our shorts and t-shirts – I can only imagine how they felt in the sunshine in their full-length outfits… We were utterly confused, but luckily a local told us that in two days time (29th of May) it was a significant military event that they were rehearsing for.
We continued walking towards the Osh Bazaar, passing many interesting soviet-style buildings.
We also noticed dozens of these small stalls on the side of the footpath selling drinks (in cups) from large barrels. Since it wasn’t too expensive (and we were hot and thirsty), I ordered a large glass of the most expensive one (because most expensive = best, right?). I was expecting some kind of juice, or maybe a lemonade. I certainly wasn’t expecting a milky coloured drink. Oh, but if only the surprises stopped there! Not only was it milky, but it was also sour, salty and fizzy! It seemed quite an achievement to fit so many mouth sensations into a single glass! It wasn’t horrible – I had no problems finishing it – but I was in no rush for another cup. I think Risa’s face explains the taste better than my words ever could!
Osh Bazaar was much smaller than the sprawling markets at Narantuul in Ulaanbaatar. It may have been paranoia, but for the first time I was properly concerned about my property (camera, wallet, phone). We’d just entered the markets, and I had just finished watching a huge group of young men betting on something that looked like an electronic roulette wheel when a small boy tapped me on the back. To my surprise, he was giving me back the hotel key that I had dropped from my wallet (which I had removed from my pocket and stuck half inside my underwear. I had read in Lonely Planet about scams that started by someone telling you that you had dropped something, so I was quite apprehensive, but really happy that this little boy ran up to us with our key.
The things for sale seemed quite similar to Narantuul, though there definitely seemed to be more food and produce (and less replica Nike). One thing that did immediately get our attention was the smokey roast meat smell that wafted through the markets. I was hungry (after my lacklustre airplane lunch), but we were meeting friends for dinner, so it was a difficult balance. We finally walked past one of those shops that were roasting up meat over coals and ordered a stick of chicken. I thought we’d just grab one and go, but instead we were ushered inside to a table. About 10 minutes later, a plate with some (plain) bread and some (plain raw) onions came out, complete with an awesome stick with large chunks of coal roasted chicken. I don’t know if it was the hunger, or if it was the marinade, but it was incredible and made me regret not buying a couple more…
We also bought some really cheap (though rough looking) dried fruit, and another souvenir t-shirt to add to my growing collection.
I had also read in Lonely Planet about police officers attempting to extort tourists for money. So, when a smiley policeman came up to me as we were leaving and started a conversation, I naturally assumed the worst. He asked for our passports, but I had left them at the hotel. He then wanted us to accompany him back to their office to do some paperwork. He seemed too happy, and too enthusiastic to be legit. But, after questioning us about drugs and searching us (and my wallet) he let us leave. I don’t know if he got a chance to look inside my wallet, but maybe the reason he decided to let us go was because there was less than $5 of local currency inside. Speaking to friends about this later in the evening they said we were quite lucky because other (Japanese) friends of theirs had passports confiscated and threatened detainments in exchange for bribes…
Risa found out just before we left Japan that one of her good school friend’s brother was living and working in Kyrgyzstan as a JICA volunteer, so he put us in contact. It was fortunate that he was here in Bishkek, making it quite easy for us to meet up with him for dinner. We were also joined by two of his friends who were also JICA volunteers. I’m not really sure what the restaurant was, or what it was called, but it seemed like a German/Russian style alehouse, serving up big cups of various local and imported beers (complete with straws for the ladies) and big serves of meat and bread/potatoes.
There was a DJ and a bit of professional karaoke going on (which I later learnt we sadly had to pay a surcharge for, as I would have preferred some silence). There was a large group of Russian/Kyrgyzstani women dancing in front of the DJ and beside the exit. So, as we were leaving, some of the old grabbed us and wanted to dance. They were trashed (and strong), so didn’t take no for an answer. Risa was having fun, but she managed to escape their grip. I tried to leave, but they latched on with hydraulic-like grip, so stayed for one more. As the third song started, and I really wasn’t in the mood, we freed ourselves from their grip and made our way to the exit. Luckily for us they were so drunk that they fell over (hard) trying to climb the steps to the door giving us the space to get free.