July 29th – August 2nd
My early morning flight out of Seoul on Monday, July 29th, stopped briefly in Almaty, Kazakhstan before heading to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In Almaty, the atmosphere was convivial as all international flights were sent to a small, common area with a cafe/bar (that fortunately, for me, took US dollars). We helped each other by taking group photos, sharing snacks, and generally looking after one other. I noticed a group of older men from Korea who were kitted up for hiking, young women loaded down with gifts, many families with small children, and couples enjoying a moment’s rest in their travels. Isolated from the rest of the airport, everyone seemed to enjoy this interlude from the stresses of travel.
My host Anna picked me up at Manas International Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and drove me to her home, where I was welcomed to stay for the duration. She prepared a wonderful meal of Russian cold soup called okroshka (a salted, milky base with chopped vegetables), stuffed peppers, and a homemade compote (fruit drink) which I couldn’t seem to get enough of. While some drinks were definitely an acquired taste, like the shoro we tried on the way home from the airport, anything fruit-based was so much better than what I usually buy in the US.
It’s not easy to keep travel notes, blog, and have the travel experience all by myself, so the fact that I was not able to access WordPress via Anna’s internet provider was a welcome opportunity to get a good night’s sleep.
Tuesday July 30th – Walking tour of Bishkek
Plan your next trip to Bishkek well, because there is a great deal to see as well as the most wonderful places to eat — not just in terms of food, but environment and entertainment as well.
The first thing that I noticed was that there are parks and avenues which reminded me of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston: tree-lined parks run the length of the roads, interspersed with statues of heroes and important figures including Frunze, a Soviet general of Moldavian origin who established the Soviet regime in Kyrgyzstan. You may notice that the airport code in Bishkek is FRU — originally named for Frunze. There are also playgrounds, ice cream stands, and tall trees providing a reprieve from the day’s heat. These same trees made it a bit hard for me to photograph the apartments and shops nearby though, but that’s alright.
Our next stop was near Chuy Avenue (pronounced Chewie, which made me think of Chewbacca for Star Wars fans) at a place called Ala Too Square. In this square I saw a well-guarded and truly grand statue of Manas, the national hero after whom an epic poem is named, which tells the country’s history in grand fashion. Manas is the person whom the airport is currently named after, even though it has kept the airport code FRU.
On the other side of the street is a beautiful park with flowers everywhere and a statue of famed Kyrgyzstan writer Chingiz Aitmatov. Next, we saw the very elegant building housing presidential offices, followed by a distinctive sculpture broken into two pieces — a solemn monument to the 2010 Kyrgyzstan Revolution, when President Bakiev was forced to leave the country. That was the year I was host to Anna during her Humphreys Fellowship in the US, along with Nassera from Algeria.
We then headed into Panfilov Park, where a summer carnival was providing many families with a reprieve from hot weather and city life. A quick spin on the ferris wheel gave me a nice vantage point for an even better view of the presidential office building. As we headed for lunch, I noticed a rough carving on a wooden gate; this was not graffiti, but rather a purposeful illustration of Pishpek, the name for Bishkek when it was used as an outpost of the Russian empire.
So glad once again to be guided by my host Anna, as I would never otherwise have discovered Arzu, a restaurant with traditional Kyrgyz fare such as boorsok (fried dough, an appetizer), manty (dumplings filled with meat, chives, or pumpkin), and lagman (noodles with meat and vegetables). And while cool air conditioning was offered inside, we preferred to eat outside where there was plenty of shade from the plant-covered trellises and misty sprays to keep us comfortable.
Our tour of Bishkek wound down with a stroll around Oak Park, where one can find many points of interest related to art and literature: the Raritet bookshop, Republican Library for children and youth, National Library of Kyrgyzstan, an art shop with an artists’ market nearby (including several very large paintings exceeding 1,000 USD in price), the opera and ballet theatre with an elegant statue of famed dancer Bazarbaev, and “Zero Kilometer” — a large marker in the walkway featuring distance measures to prominent locations within the country. As we left Oak Park, I looked back at the entrance which hosted a very grand and elegant statue recognizing Kurmanjan Datka, Queen of Alai (southern mountain region) and respected female leader who lived from 1811-1907.
I should mention that on the bookshelves of the Raritet, we found copies of a book co-authored by Anna: “The English Language for Fifth Grade”, the official language book approved by the Ministry of Education for Kyrgyzstan children. Congratulations, Anna!
In the evening we were joined at Navat restaurant by two Humphreys Fellows: Tina, who studied communications at the University of Arizona, and Chinara who studied city planning at MIT. Navat was a delight in all respects — visual, sound, and the meal itself. I’m told the décor was a mixture of country influences, from the Tajikistan plate display on the wall to the Kyrgyzstan carpets suspended above. In terms of music, I was caught by surprise to realize that the musicians in traditional costume were playing Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” when we first walked in. But later, they and the staff put on a very traditional performance that included exaggerated shoulder movements and other very expressive dance moves. As for the meal, I enjoyed “plov” — a meat and rice dish, with rice grown in the southern Batken region of Kyrgyzstan (vs brown rice from Uzgen). A well-earned meal after my five-hour walking tour!
Wednesday July 31st – Burana Tower
For a change of pace and some fresh country air, we drove out to see Burana Tower, built between the 9th and 11th centuries and used as a minaret, with men climbing to the top several times per day to issue the call to prayer. I viewed petroglyphs and stone artifacts, some freestanding in the field and others carefully sheltered in the museum, many of which dated back to the 8th – 10th centuries. How amazing to be present amongst items once touched by other human beings more than 1,000 years ago…
… It seems that mobile phones have been around since then, as well!
Our climb up the tower staircase was quite sobering: the narrow, narrow, narrow (and did I mention, narrow?), dark staircase left little room to maneuver. For a tall person such as myself, the fear of becoming stuck or blocked in was initially overwhelming. Although we had just witnessed a group of tourists coming down from the top and exiting through the passageway, I found it very hard to venture inside. However, once the couple standing in front of me began to make their way, I quickly followed and focused my mind on following them, forcing thought to overcome my feeling of fear. The phrase “Just Keep Going” is a mantra that has helped me through many such challenges in recent times. We made it to the top safely, of course — it isn’t that far — and the view was well worth it.
Thursday August 1st – Discovering Supara
Today we planned to do some hillwalking and sightseeing in the Chunkurchak valley, located near the base of the Tian Shan mountain range south of Bishkek. Tian Shan, whose name means “the celestial mountains”, is an enormous presence, with peaks exceeding 23,000 feet / 7,000 meters. These mountains are easily seen from downtown Bishkek, making the horizon look like a watercolor painting that one can enjoy every day.
Anna and Chinara, however, had a special highlight for this outing: we were to visit an eco-friendly conference center and resort called Supara Chunkurchak, or “Supara 2” (I will refer to it simply as Supara).
Supara was the dream of a man named Tabyldy Egemberdiev, who built the resort in 2013 but died of illness only one year later; he also founded the Legend water company. This man was a beloved figure in the community, known for being kind to the poor, for helping out as the facility was being constructed, and for his deep caring and commitment to the mission of Supara. Our young guide spoke of him with reverence and emotion, as if the man had been lost only recently. It was easy to see that Supara is a special place indeed.
We met with Tabyldy’s wife Janyl, who runs Supara and upholds its high standards and commitment to the local culture and environment. We had the chance to see inside one of the yurt hotels, toured the resort complex, hiked to the panorama overlook, and enjoyed a wonderful multi-course meal. Janyl sat with us for a traditional dessert and fine coffee before we set off for home.
Coming and going from Bishkek to Supara was in itself an adventure, with the long stretches of rough, winding mountain roads; encounters with horses, cows, and more; and breathtaking views at every turn. We also stopped alongside a roaring stream to have a picnic on the way home. Our wonderful outing to Supara is one I will never forget.
Below are photos from our Supara adventure…
My friends, Chinara and Anna, and the road to Supara:
Scenes of Supara
Demonstration of traditional Kyrgyz life and culture;
Our mountain hike
On the way back to Bishkek
Bonus pictures can be found in the Journals menu — see the blog post on Kyrgyzstan