The flight from Istanbul took us across the Black Sea, into Russian airspace, across the Caspian, into Kazakh airspace and, finally, into Bishkek. Manas airport is substantial and inspires confidence though it appears their main customer is the US military using it as a base for Afghanistan operations. Nevertheless, it beats quonset huts and barbed wire at 2:40 AM. My driver showed up promptly though I would have been quite glad to wait since the immediate alternative was sharing a ride with the slightly drunk German businessman who'd been persistently suggesting that I'd be better off at the Hyatt... where he's staying.
The main road into Bishkek from what I could see squinting into the dark was basically empty, immaculate and lined with trees. It seemed like a long time with a lot of backtracking (until I later saw a map) but at last we turned down a dark bumpy road, then another, then onto a smaller pitch black lane lined with trees and dark bushes where there were no visible structures. OK, if I have to fight off an assailant in order to get to bed, then let's get it over with because I am really freaking tired. Actually too tired to even give a moment's paranoia any credence. As it turned out the only fight was hauling my sleepy ass up 2 flights of stairs to reach my room in this very pleasant guest house. (Google "Asia Mountain Guest House" if you are interested.)
Despite good intentions -- and multiple alarms -- of getting up in time for breakfast, I slept blissfully until 1:30 PM and took a long time to sort out my belongings and get ready to travel in country. I finally ventured out for a couple of hours before the rest of the group arrived to see what I could see. Picking up a Russian sightseeing map from the reception, I was able to figure out where I was in relationship to the icons denoting parks, monuments, mosques, pharmacies and shopping. Sidewalks and other walking surfaces require careful attention as they are uneven and constantly changing in composition. Smiling is not a social practice on the street; passersby clearly notice me but look away quickly if I make eye contact... even the children who are leaving school and walking home jostling around and playing amongst themselves. It is not so immaculate on the side streets, the garbage collection receptacles overflow and the plastic bottles and bags have migrated. Development is everywhere, cranes looming above tall buildings in various states of construction amidst the rundown concrete apartment buildings that conform to every stereotype of Soviet architecture I've ever had. I pass many small shops with very limited offerings and most of them are filled with customers. Onto one of the main thoroughfares the traffic picks up with lots of honking and modest attention to signals -- I make a point to attach myself to groups when crossing the road. The Lonely Planet guide says the TsUM, the big Russian department store has a great selection of well priced textiles so I venture in to what seems like a collection of sizable cubicles within the large building, each representing different categories of consumer goods. On the third floor, the cubicles of ethnic goods (very touristy and souvenerish) are juxtaposed with major appliances -- you might need a new vacuum to clean that shyrdak (traditional wool felt rug.). On the way back I pass the grand opening of a new jewelry store. It seems that radio DJs are blasting the event with loud music, interviewing spectators (and there are plenty) and using the same inflated, oily-jokey cadence of radio hosts everywhere. From the looks of the spectators, my guess is the jewelry store is not going to get many customers from this crowd but from the advertising everywhere on this main drag and the presence of luxury items for those who can afford them, it's clear that consumerism is firmly planted and sprouting vigorously.
Hearing the sound of Russian isn't so unfamiliar to me given the sizable populations in N. California and the Pacific Northwest but the Cyrillic alphabet throws me way off and my eyes are drawn to anything Roman: pole dancing school, tennismax, designer names, Toyota, VW... imported things. At dinner the guide, Ulan, tells us that many Pakistanis and Indians come to Bishkek to study medicine because the tuition is so much less. Someone asks if it is taught in Kyryz or Russian: it is taught in Russian. There are not enough words in Kyrgyz -- sometimes not ANY words -- for all that goes on in a body, he says. With all the foreign investment and influx of international visitors and residents, it seems to me that Kyrgyz culture is transforming very quickly -- jumping from the yurt to the apartment block in record time. Where can I get a cell phone holder for my camel saddle?
Having formed and dispensed such deep insights after barely more than 24 hours here with minimal knowledge and scant observation, it's time to get ready for today's excursion around Bishkek and to get better acquainted with my Aussie fellow travelers. Tomorrow we begin our trip around Lake Issyk-kul.