Monday, January 17, 2011

Midnight Observations

Well, my neighbours have invited a hundred friends over to drink vodka, listen to minor-keyed Russian tunes with thumping beats, yell the words and stamp in time and generally do their best to bring this Soviet party to the people. It's my first teaching day tomorrow, but I relinquish the thought of sleeping much beforehand. And as I was lying in bed, listening to the chorus of the fourteenth dance remix, it occurred to me that my time would be better spent on a blog post from Bishkek. So here it is, a bleary-eyed postcard.

It's been practically a week now, and the shell-shock has nearly worn off. After an idyllic three weeks of doing civilised things with good friends in beautiful Europe, the first few days in Bishkek were like being dunked in ice water; apart from the obvious metaphor, it's about -10 degrees Celsius during the day, a phenomenon that this delicate Irish-English flower has never encountered before. The streets are paved with black ice - it has the glossy consistency of smooth, convex glass. This makes the footpaths treacherous, except for the random places where sand or salt has been scattered. I've learned a sort of shuffle that makes walking easier. I've only fallen over once, in front of two little girls in a playground, who exchanged superior glances with each other as I dusted off my behind. It promises to snow tomorrow, which means the piles of old dirty snow will be hidden briefly.

Apart from walking, the main way of getting around is public transport. The first option is buses; do you know the scene in Harry Potter where Ern, the crazy driver of the Night Bus, squeezes through traffic at a terrific pace? That's kind of what these bus drivers do; there are no lines on the road but about three lanes of traffic, all the same. They accelerate and brake with no warning. This costs about 6 som. The second option is taking a marshrutka; a marshrutka has the appearance of a gnarled and ancient Combi van, and they take numbered routes; there's only a few seats and one handrail, but that's not a problem because you literally can't move for the bodies around you. In the event of a crash, you are extremely well cushioned by fur-coated locals. This costs 8 som, but is quicker than a bus. The third option is a taxi - they're everywhere, but you have to negotiate a price and have the correct change to hand.

Obviously, there are no timetables and no predictability to any of these options, but that's the fun of it! Yesterday, I had my first solo adventure: I took a marshrutka to Osh Bazaar on the outskirts of town. Osh Bazaar is basically acres of market stalls selling everything under the sun. I think I did well; I bartered for a pair of black boots and a nice grey coat and some interesting-looking vegetables. I also bought some fresh doughy things to eat - breads and doughs are a staple in the diet here, and some of them are very nice indeed, filled with assortments of vegetables or meat. Given that I have no Russian yet, it's always an interesting surprise to learn what's in them.

A friendly local girl helped me with apartment-hunting (and despite the Russian archetypes living next door, I like it very much) so to celebrate I took her and another friend to a local restaurant that served authentic Kyrgyz food. We ordered Beshbarmak, a traditional dish of meat and noodles. I understand it's normally lamb; in our case, however, it turned out to be horse; very authentic indeed, and apparently a delicacy. I ate about half but piked out before my sensibilities were permanently damaged. It really wasn't too bad, just - horsey. I enjoyed the yoghurt drink that accompanied it, though I didn't ask the origin of the yoghurt.

It is possible to eat well here: pasta, rice, breads are all easy to come by, and there's plentiful vegetables, though a limited range. The challenge is to avoid carbohydrates and find creative ways to cook well. Part of my problem is that I look at cans and jars and packets and unless it has a picture on the label, I have no idea what it is. Hopefully this won't be the case for long. Osh Bazaar had lots of spice stalls, but I couldn't identify many of them.

The city is quite beautiful in places, thanks to the imposing monolithic buildings, precise avenues of trees, orderly parks and wide open spaces. There are lots of statues of political heroes everywhere, and I have a lot to learn about that era in history.

I'll try to post some interesting pictures as soon as I can; for now, I might try to sleep again - things have died down slightly!


  1. You write so well and have painted a very clear and interesting picture of what is happening. All the best for you first day at school! Enid :)

  2. Will be thinking of you as you start the school term. Thanks for painting this colourful picture for us. It's still hard to believe you are there and not here so your wonderful description helps that truth to sink in. love Margaret