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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Journey to Bishkek #1

Although getting there was something of a pain, the city of Bishkek can be rather pleasant when you arrive. Flying-in, one is treated to row upon row of snow-tipped serrated knife-edges stretching south for a hundred miles. From the city on a clear morning, one can spot part of the Ala Too mountains, one of the northwestern ridges of the Tian Shan range. The Tian Shan is, in turn, the northwesternmost portion of the massive geological knot in which the Hindu Kush meet the Pamirs, the Pamirs meet the Karakorams and the Karakorams meet the Himalayas. So maybe you ought to bring some good hiking boots...

Bishkek, however, is at the point where the steppe meets the mountains. Everything to the north into Kazakstan is flat as a board with amber waves of grain and all that.

There's not much history to Bishkek and there's certainly no Silk Road legacy to speak of. Like Almaty in neighboring Kazakstan, Bishkek was built around a fort in the 1860s as the Tsar's empire marched to the southeast. For a few decades during the Soviet years, the city was called Frunze, after the bolshevik bigwig Mikhail Frunze who led the Red Army against the Whites and basmachi during the Russian Civil War. (His statue, incidentally, still stands outside the Bishkek train station while his ashes are within the Kremlin wall.)

Bishkek itself is a mixed bag but some parts are quite pleasant. Almost all of the buildings in town are, naturally, holdovers from the Soviet era and many are in varying states of disrepair. There are also a number of idle sites with cranes in which you aren't quite sure if the buildings are being put-up or ripped down. Apart from that, the city itself has plenty of broad trees lining its streets and a park-like feel, while down the minor streets one can find potholes, uncollected garbage, abandoned buildings and the like. Here's a gander at Prospekt Chuy, one of the better avenues:

Kyrgyzstan, the poorest country in Central Asia (apart from neighboring Tajikistan), has more recently suffered a few spates of political violence over the last few years, including one in April, 2010. The minor miracle is that, following the Tulip Revolution of 2005, Kyrgyzstan currently has what international observers consider to be the most open political system in the region. Considering the neighbors, that's not a terribly difficult feat to pull-off.

The conflicts of recent years need to be put into context, however. The borders of the nation were drawn by Stalin in the early '30s, and Stalin knew how to draw borders that'd guarantee conflict were the Soviet Union to break-apart (remember the little wars between Georgia and South Ossetia in '91 and in '08? Nagorno-Karabakh? Transdnistria? Of course you know about those. Who doesn't? What are ya, friggin' ignoramuses or something??)

About 69% of Kygyzstan's population is Kyrgyz; the remainder are Uzbek (14%) and Russian (9%), with a few spill-overs from western China (Uighur, Dungan) thrown into the mix. Little enclaves of Uzbeks were gerrymandered within the borders of Kyrgyzstan on the best farmland in the Ferghana valley salient with the Kyrgyz traditionally being up in the mountains. The Kyrgyz people themselves are divided between north and south, with northern social and economic activity being organized around Bishkek while southern life is centered around the city of Osh; these cities are separated by about 200 km of mountains and connected by a single road.

The previous president (Bakiyev), had his primary base of support among Kyrgyz people in the south. He resigned in the midst of massive demonstrations by northerners in early 2010 (largely about harsh economic austerity measures and corruption). He fled the country (supposedly with the remainder of the treasury in his suitcases) and resigned in neighboring Kazakstan while his supporters manipulated the ethnic fault line in the south when the incoming government tried to exert its authority in order to screw them over. Hence, there was ethnic violence earlier this year and, well, the whole situation was kind of a mess.

Ala Too square honor-guard, complete with bulletproof glass and comically-large caps.

Ala Too square happens to be the most nicely-kept part of the city

On April 7th, 2010, the area looked slightly different when a noisy crowd outside the presidential palace demanded that Bakiyev leave office. Snipers in neighboring buildings opened fire, killing an estimated 70+ people. The following video was shot slightly to the west of the square:

Today, one can see a memorial on the fence.


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