Central Asia Travel Diary

Andy and I both had a wonderful sleep last night.  The beds in the spacious yurt were very comfortable, the temperature cool and refreshing (20 degrees as we went to sleep, 18 degrees as we woke) and the environment on the sand spit stunning – a mountain backdrop overlooking the waters of the lake, with fresh air and quiet surroundings.  Now if only the toilets had somewhere to sit instead of squat, and if they were less than 300 metres away, and if Timothy's husky pup didn't spend all its time trying to jump on us and run around us as we walked, we could be in heaven!  Actually, I found a way this morning to stop the dog jumping and running around us all the time – I trod on it (accidentally of course), and after a high pitched yelp, the dog spent more time limping and licking itself than chasing us.

After a great breakfast of porridge, hard boiled egg, Kyrgyz doughnuts and dry bread, we took a while to watch a new yurt being erected before departing.  They say that a champion team of yurt builders can erect a yurt in 50 minutes.  I guess this means that team we were watching was not a champion team!

The drive along the southern shore of lake Issuk-Kul provided a great variety of scenery.  As we progressed to the west, the land became progressively drier, and the land soon took on a semi-arid appearance with brightly coloured badland scenery that had been eroded into often bizarre shares and forms.  Always backing the nearby scenery to the south were snow capped mountains, while to the north the waters of Lake Issuk-Kul were a brilliant deep blue colour, often lined with bright sandy beaches or spits.  It is was interesting to see obviously coastal landforms on the side of this alpine lake, sure evidence that the lake is large enough to produce landform-shaping waves.

The villages we passed through looked like living museum pieces from Soviet times, except that they were more run-down and depressed than during the Soviet era.  The cars were almost all old Ladas, Zhigulis, Moskviches and Volgas, and several of the villages had statues of Lenin or model workers (and in one case, Karl Marx!).  The trip felt like a journey of time travel.

In several places, I noticed concrete irrigation aqueducts beside the road that seems to be in disrepair and disintegration.  I asked Marat about these, and he told me that these irrigational aqueducts had been built in Soviet times and had transformed the area into irrigated farmlands.  After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the collective structures to maintain the aqueducts evaporated, and they started to break down.  Then local people, usually officials who were above the law, began to take away sections of the concrete aqueduct for their own private purposes, often using bulldozers and heavy equipment.  As a result, the irrigation system has been destroyed and the land has reverted to desert.

Towards the end of our journey into Bishkek, our road followed the river that marked the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.  In many places, the river was quite narrow and it was possible to wade across this international border, even considering the turbulent brown flow of the river.

We arrived in Bishkek at about 4:00 pm, and proceeded first to our hotel, the Silk Road Lodge, perhaps the most comfortable night of our trip.  The aim was to check in and proceed immediately to the State Historical Museum, but as our rooms were not yet ready, we went immediately to Ala-Too Square, which marks the city centre.  The square used to be dominated by a large statue of Lenin, but this was recently replaced by a statue of Freedom.  Unlike many other ex-Soviet cities, however, Lenin was not removed in Bishkek, just relocated, in this case to a smaller but nonetheless significant square one block away.  After walking through Ala-Too Square and seeing the Freedom Statue and its associated fountains, Andy and I went around the back of the State Historical Museum  to see the statue of Lenin before then returning to go inside the Museum.

What a Museum!  It was opening in 1984, and the Soviet-era display is still intact!  It was like walking back in time to the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  On entering the museum, we were greeted by a huge bronze statue of Lenin leading a group of flag-carrying workers, over which another huge bronze flag displayed am enormous hammer and sickle.  Ascending the stairs, we could not miss the shrine to Lenin, comprising a bust surrounded by copies of his books.

The top floor of the museum traced the history of humanity according to the Marxist sequence of collectivism, serfdom, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and, the final highest stage of development, communism.  The middle floor of the museum was pure Leninism, comprising fabulous bronze sculptures in the socialist-realist style, amazing ceiling paintings showing revolutionary scenes, all supplemented by photos of Lenin's life.  The story seems to stop just prior to Stalin's rise to power, so the significant but perhaps less revolutionary aspects of Soviet history under Stalin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Andripov, Chernenko and Gorbachev are notably absent.

Inspired by the Museum and having taken a huge number of photos, we purchased come postcards in the Museum shop and then walked four blocks to the central Post Office.  This post office experience was the most positive we have experienced so far – it was all so simple, we asked for stamps, we got them, we paid for them, and we stuck them to the postcard without having to cover one and a half sides of the postcard because THIS time, each postcard required just two stamps.

We then walked back to the hotel, and given all the warnings we had received about how dangerous Bishkek is after dark, decided to eat in the hotel's dining room.  We enjoyed steak with pepper sauce and fries with Coke for under $10 for the two of us – quite a bargain.

After dinner, I used the business centre (my first internet access for more than a week) while Andy downloaded photos and wrote his diary – it is now day 7 and he has just completed day 3; he seems to be going into a LOT of detail!  After finishing my e-mail, I returned to the room, had a much-needed shower, and then wrote my diary while Andy went for a swim.  All in all, it was quite a nice relaxed end to the day.

Friday 7 July 2006

Tosor to Bishkek

Andy in our yurt, Tosor
South side of Lake Issyk-Kul
Karl Marx statue, Kyrgyzstan
National Museum of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek