Saturday, April 18, 2015

Around Bishkek.

Students passing by the statue of Tokombaev Aaly (1904-1988), a Kyrgyz national poet and academician.

We arrived into Bishkek last evening, with Lilya accompanying us.  When we stepped out of the arrival terminal at the airport, our driver was there to greet us.  Lilya introduced him as Bakhryt (sp?), pronounced *bak-kreet*.  I can remember this name.

With our luggage safely stowed away in the back of the van, Bakhryt drove us to our hotel, Asia Mountains 2, located in downtown Bishkek.  After arriving, Lilya helped us get checked in and then bid us goodnight.  The plan was to meet back up with her this morning at 9a.


Pat and I kick started our day with....breakfast!  There is no chance we would miss a meal.  Our room is conveniently located on the 1st floor, just next to reception so it takes us about 20 seconds to get to the hotel's dining room.  There was the usual Central Asian continental breakfast buffet but this place also offered up eggs which are cooked to order.  Nice!


Lilya arrived with Bakhryt, pretty much on the dot at 9a.  I have to say, once again, how impressed I have been with this tour.  Despite how many times we've been passed from one guide and/or driver to another - within a country or cross borders, not a single one has either failed to show up or truly late in arriving.  I definitely give Advantour 5 stars!

Like the three other Central Asian cities we've visited so far, Bishkek is a small city, chock of full of Soviet era buildings.  Like the three other cities, it also touts itself as a *green city* and indeed, it does have a lot of tree lined streets and parks.

If you didn't know this was Bishkek, it could just as easily be Tashkent, Dushanbe or Ashgabat....thanks to the Soviets!

We were suppose to begin our Bishkek sightseeing with a visit to Ala Archa National Park, located a short distance outside the city limits and then do a city tour in the afternoon.  But the weather conditions were a bit chilly in the morning for a walk through the park so Lilya suggested we flip the two so we explored the city first.  We were fine with that suggestion.

So, the first destination on our city tour was Victory Square.  Bahkryt dropped us off at the curbside and we crossed to road to a large plaza.

Victory Square.

At one end, stood a large monument that was unveiled in 1984, the 40th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.


The figure of a woman, (a mother/a wife), stands over the eternal flame, waiting for her son/husband who will never return home from the war.


The statue of the woman is positioned under a representation of a funeral wreath  (one of the national symbols Kyrgyzstan) held aloft by three ribs of red granite representing a yurt, an homage to Kyrgyzstan's nomadic cultural roots.


There are two other statues in Victory Square.  As best as I can tell, both were relocated here from their original installations to essentially create a memorial complex.  One is a sculptural image of two men carrying a disassembled machine gun.


The other is a group of men with children, solemnly returning from the war.


As we stood in Victory Square, taking in the sights of the three monuments, Lilya pointed to a location in the far distance.  Behind a hotel, we could see a minaret.  According to Lilya, the minaret is part of a mosque that is under construction.  It will be THE largest (until one of the other countries builds a larger one) mosque in Central Asia.  Funding is coming from Turkey.  For the record, Kyrgyzstan is officially a secular state.

From Victory Square, we walked over to a small park.  A pretty bit of green space that could do with a bit of manicuring.


Here, we came across one of the dozens of statues that fill this small city.  This one was of a lovely ballerina.  Her name is Byubyusara Beyshenalieva (1926-1973). Not only was she a famous ballerina but she was also one of the founders of the National Ballet School.  The sculptural image obviously depicts her in her performance years.  She looks so dainty and delicate.


The statue of Byubyusara Beyshenalieva overlooks a small section of the park which neighbors the Hyatt Regency, only 5 star hotel in Bishkek.

As we were admiring the statue of Byubyusara Beyshenalieva, two very cheerful young girls came bouncing past us.  They stooped down to pick the dandelion flowers, creating a large bouquet of the lovely flowers that US gardeners consider to be weeds.  In any other setting, they are pretty yellow blooms.



A short walk took us to the Opera and Ballet Theatre, a small but very stately and elegant looking building.




Immediately, Pat and I were curious as to whether or not there were any performances taking place.  Lilya checked the placard out front and confirmed that there was indeed a performance but it would start at 5p.  I would have gladly cut our sightseeing short to attend a performance - even if it's all presented in Kyrgyz or Russian.  But unfortunately, the ticket booth wasn't open so we couldn't make any inquiries.



I was a bit disappointed about missing out on a performance.  Sadly, I think this was our last opportunity.  From the Opera and Ballet Theatre, we walked over to the small park, located right next to the theatre.


There, we paused to look at the statue of Toktogul Satylganov (1864 - 1933) who was a Kyrgyz poet, singer and musician.  He's holding a komuz, a fretless string instrument, a common Kyrgyz musical instrument.


We then crossed the main road, stopping on the other side to take a photo of the Opera and Ballet Theatre.


We turned around to face another small park.  A raucous group of teenagers ran past us as we walked towards yet another statue.  This one is of Tokombaev Aaly (1904-1988), a Kyrgyz national poet and academician.  The location of his statue here is no coincidence as it marks the start of a small square where....


....The Bayalinov National Library of Kyrgyzstan is located.  It's one of many libraries in the city but it's notable because of its collection of English language materials.


The libary's English materials collection was established in cooperation with the US Embassy in Kyrgyzstan.  The project, known as the American Corner, is the Embassy’s flagship public outreach program in the Kyrgyz Republic.  According to Lilya, the English materials are a popular loan items - I can understand why.

Image from the United States Embassy, Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic

Situated opposite the library is the National Museum of Fine Arts, a pretty nondescript looking building.

Between the two buildings stands yet another statue.  They sure do love their statues in Bishkek!  I do have to say that at least they are all of citizens deserving national recognition and are interesting characters - not just all military figures or war heroes.  This statue, of a dancing man, is of Cholponbek Bazarbaev (1949-2002) a Kyrgyz ballet dancer.  One of Kyrgyzstan's greatest ballet dancers, Bazarbaev not only performed in the troupe of the Theater of Opera and Ballet but he also served in the administration of the company.  The bronze statue is relatively new, only having been unveiled in September 2012.


Walking about town, I can attest to the fact that Bishkek is green city.  Apparently, there are over 20 parks located within the city limits.  Of all these parks, the most centrally located as well as oldest park in Bishkek is Dubovy (Oak) Park so named because of all the oak trees that are planted there.


The first oak trees were planted as far back as 1890 by Agricultural School students, directed by botanist Aleksei Fetisov, who came to Pishpek (which was what Bishkek was known as back then) from Russia.   In 2010, Oak Park was renamed to Park named after Chingiz Aytmatov, however Bishkek residents still continue to call it Oak Park which is how Lilya introduced it to us as.

Of course, you can't have a park in Bishkek without a monument or statue so I now give you a monument. 


The monument is known as the Red Guards Memorial and commemorates the Red Guards who died in World War II.  It is essentially akin to the Tomb of an Unknown Soldier that exists in other countries, including the US.  The polished red granite obelisk replaces an earlier simple wooden structure.  The obelisk stands 11 meters (36 feet) high.  At the top is a hammer and sickle in a frame of bronze wreath. In the corners of the pedestal, mounted on granite carriages, are gun barrels cast of bronze.

On the west side of the monument is an eternal flame which is currently not lit.


Oak Park is a popular place for locals to come to stroll and enjoy a bit of nature.  Even though it was Saturday today, the park was a pretty quiet place.

Our walk through the park took us by a small section where there were statues on display.  If I remember correctly, these come from the collections of art galleries located near the park.  The statues are switched out every so often so it's like seeing a new exhibition every so often.  I can appreciate having art in the park.


The park is also graced with several pools.  They were being cleaned on the day we were there.  I presume they will be filled soon so Bishkek residents can enjoy them come the hot days of summer.


Sadly though, as nice as the park is, it could greatly benefit from repair work - there are many lights and sidewalks that need fixing up.



One end of the park opened up to yet another square/plaza area. 


As we entered the plaza, the first thing that caught my eye were all the colorful bicycles that were sitting there.  I imagine these are rental bikes - they look in much too nice a condition to be loaned out for free.

You had your choice of one seat, two seat or three seat bikes.  What a fun way to roll around the park!


Standing over a domain of rental bikes is the imposing statue of Kurmanjan Datka aka Queen of the Alia (1811-1907), a notable Kyrgyz stateswoman of the Kyrgyz Republic.  The word *Datka* means “General” and she was awarded the title twice. Born into a simple nomad family of the Mongush clan in the Alai Mountains.  As an adult, she governed the Alai region, earning the distinction of being the only women to have been granted the role of ruler in the Muslim world.  She came to be regarded as the *mother of the nation*.  Her fall from fame was as precipitous as her rise was.  When she was at the height of her power, two of her sons and two grandsons were accused of “contraband” and of murdering customs officials – and even her status could not help to save them.  Suffering from insult and shame, she retired from public life - retreating to a village and continuing to live the life of a hermit until her death.



From here, we walked through what looked like a pop art gallery - perhaps set up for the weekend crowd to wander through.  Pretty much all of the works were large oil paintings on canvas and the subjects were very Kyrgyz in theme.  As Pat described them, the paintings look like what you would see hanging in a hotel room.  Nothing appealed to either one of us so we just took quick glances at the paintings as we walked by.



We continued walking and soon arrived at Ala-Too Square.


Just as the square came into view for us, so did the sound of chatter.....a lot of chatter.  As we entered the large square, we saw an enormous group of children, lined up in several long rows.  Each child was carrying a komuz, the iconic string instrument of Kyrgyzstan, in their hands. 


It was obvious that they were rehearsing for some sort of a performance.  A small stage was set in front of the children.  Several adults were on the stage and a woman was speaking over the microphone, issuing commands out to the children.

As we waited for the children to begin playing, I walked about to take a few photos.

I love the older girls outfitted in traditional Kyrgyz dresses.



This cute youngster flashed me a smile.  How could I not take a photo?

I admire how Kyrgyzstan is working to keep its traditions alive.  It would have been just as easy, if not easier, to have adult performers but instead, they enlisted the kids to carry on the dress and music traditions of the country.

At times, the kids seemed to be preoccupied with everything but playing their instruments.  For the poor woman who was leading the rehearsal, it was probably like....as the saying goes, herding cats.  But, on cue, the went down on bended knee and began to play.




Just a few feet away was a group of young women, who were also rehearsing for a performance.


They had their marching steps down so it was obvious they had been through many a rehearsal already.  From the position of their arms and hands, I was guessing that they would each be carrying a flag in the final production.

Too bad, it wasn't a dress rehearsal for either of the groups we saw.  Lilya thought maybe they were practicing for the upcoming Labour Day (a Kyrgyz national holiday) celebrations.


Ala-Too Square is the central square in Bishkek.  Its names translates fro from Kyrgyz as “Snow Mountain” - symbolizing the nature of the country, two thirds of which is mountainous terrain.  Located on the perimeter of the square are several government administration buildings as well as a museum.


Standing tall, in the center of the square is a bronze statue of fictional character, Manas, who is the central figure in a traditional Kyrgyz poem titled,  "The Epic of Manas".  There are some 60 different versions of the epic poem - the longest of which is composed of 60 poetic lines.  Regardless of the version, the epic poem is  basically a trilogy that presents the story of three generations of heroes - Manas, his son Semetei, and his grandson Seitek.  Manas is very much a revered figure in Kyrgyz culture.

A 45 meter (148 feet) high flagpole with the huge waving flag of Kyrgyzstan is installed on the square.


The statue of Manas depicts him riding his horse, Ak-Kul. 


The museum, located on the perimeter of Ala-Too Square is the State History Museum.  From the outside, the building doesn't look like much.  Something went way awry in Soviet architecture between when the Russians built the Hermitage and this utterly uninspired cube of stone and glass.



Built in 1984 by the Soviets, the museum was basically constructed as a state-of-the-art Lenin Museum. So no surprise that a statue of Lenin graces the lobby.

Statue of Lenin



The exhibits start on the second floor which you get to via a wide stone staircase.  The entire second floor is dedicated to Lenin and life in Kyrgyzstan during Soviet rule.  Here you can also see a series of photos and mementos from the he Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010, also known as the Second Kyrgyz Revolution which began in April 2010 with the ousting of Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Bishkek. That event was followed by increased ethnic tension involving Kyrgyz people and Uzbeks in the south of the country, which escalated in June 2010. The violence ultimately led to the consolidation of a new parliamentary system in Kyrgyzstan. The museum also displays portraits of martyrs from that revolution, which was obviously a very pivotal moment in the country's history. 

Not really knowing anything about the country's history, the displays were nothing more than nice things to look at.  Of all the odd things to admire, I did appreciate the ceiling of the gallery which was completely painted with a mural reflecting the country's time under Russian rule.

The third floor, which is also the top floor, is a complete disconnect from the 2nd floor in that it is a section on Kyrgyz ethnology and archaeology.  There's also a bit of applied arts mixed in with samples of what I would presume are museum quality felt rugs and textiles.  Wool felt not only serving as the *walls* for yurts but also as rugs and clothing.


The first thing that greets you when you arrive at the top of the steps, to the third floor, is a small yurt.  I think these days, most Kyrgyz live in modern style homes but yurts are still common in the mountain villages.


Thick felt serves as the walls and roof as well as the decorative border.


To allow air in, the felt is rolled up.  Of course. it is rolled down to keep the heat out in the summer and cold out in the winter.  Lilya told us that the size of a yurt determines its cost as well as difficulty to relocate from one spot to another.  I guess if you can afford a large aka expensive yurt, you can afford the higher cost of moving it.


Horses still play an integral role in rural life.  Like the Turkmens, Kyrgyz revere their horses though unlike the Turkmen, the Kyrgyz do eat horse meat.


On the second floor, there was also a small display of balbals, recovered from the region around Issyk Kul.  We'll get to see the real ones in situ but it was still nice to get an idea of what they look like.


A model of the Burana Tower which we will also be visiting on this trip.

Very few museums capture my imagination to the point where I want to spend more time that it takes to quickly stroll through.  This was not one of them.  If not for Pat and Lilya, I think I would have been here for just a handful of minutes.  Sorry, but there wasn't anything here that really wowed me.

Back outside, we walked back through Oak Park to meet back up with Bahkryt.  On the way, we passed by more balbal.  I have to say, it seems more appropriate for them to be displayed outside than inside - it's really where they are suppose to be.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing them at Lake Issyk Kul.



Our visit to the museum was the last thing on our morning sightseeing itinerary.  Next was lunch.  Lilya took us to a popular local restaurant called Arzu.  Lilya said the restaurant has a branch in NYC and a quick check on the web confirmed that there is indeed one - in Forest Hills, Queens.  Pat and I can go check it out if and when we ever get a hankering for a Central Asian meal.

Arzu in Bishkek.

For lunch today, I went with what Lilya described as stir fried lagman and that's essentially what it was - there were bits of beer and peppers.  It was a nice change from the usual soupy lagman I've been having.  She herself had a very light salad and Bahkryt - well, he's Central Asian through and through so lunch for him was manti, his favorite dish :-)

Lilya and Bahkryt.

We had a nice leisurely lunch before continuing with our day in Bishkek.  Next, it was a chance to burn off some of the calories we had just consumed - we're headed to Ala Archa National Park.