The last time I was here in was 2003 and the Iraqi insurgency was just getting started. Most people thought I was nutsto be coming out here. They were probably right.
Last time I was in Bishkek it was a bit more than halfway on my journey from Istanbul to Bombay via Tibet. Those last two weeks in India were tough, especially after the car wreck coming down from the Everest Base Camp. That sucked. Two weeks in India with three herniated discs. Not so fun. Not that India is ever really fun. It’s always compelling, but fun? No. But I digress.
Has Bishkek changed?
Yes and no.
Physically: yes. There is some new construction. There are no more Ladas or Zhigulis or Volgas on the road. Most of the cars are Japanese. And not only Japanese but grey market Japanese in the sense that the steering wheel is on the opposite side of the car, but they drive on the same side of the road as the US does. Strange. Lots of Hondas. A few Mercedes. There are more mobile phones on the street. The facades of buildings are renovated somewhat, but they are still the same Kruschev or Brezhnev era brutalist constructions.
The people are still a mix of East and West. One will find the occasional blond with Asian eyes. And one will find the occasional pure Mongol-looking man or woman with deep blue or green eyes. It’s jolting. But mostly they are a mix. I do not hear any English on the street. I hear some Russia and some Kyrgyz. Mostly Kyrgyz, but it’s close to 50/50.
One large change: lots of women in hejab. Back in 2003 it was simply unheard of for women to be totally covered in Bishkek. Maybe a headscarf on an old babushka. But a young twentysomething in all black? Political Islam is everywhere.
I’ll have more soon. Hoping to head to the mountains tomorrow so I’ll be out of touch for two days at the least.
Here are a few photos to tide you over until then.