Life on Ala-Too Square - A Day in Bishkek
Nina and I, my sister (not my girlfriend as most assume when they meet us) arrived in Bishkek at 4:30am on the 12th of September 2016. That gave us ample time to get a SIM card, flirt with the attendant, joke & negotiate with the taxis and get an early meal before the sun started rising.
My new SIM card’s first phone call is to the girl who sold it to us, whose number becomes my first contact here. It seemed like we were making friends left and right. Carrying our bags around labeled us as foreigners and the resulting attention combined with our smiles and spirit made for easy contact.
This all changed once we put the bags down, as we quickly realized that we could easily fit in here, a country of over 80 ethnicities (everything from Kyrgyz and Russians to Poles and Germans who were sent here during Stalin’s ethnic cleansings). The ethnic diversity in this country is truly amazing.
During our meal at Adriano Coffee, one of the 24 hour spots of the city, we learn from Rahim, the brother of a young Kyrgyz woman returning from Dubai, that we had arrived just in time for Eid, which would start at 8am. Thousands of people would join in the main square to pray together, and I was not about to miss it.
I had attended a similar event before, the Bishwa Ijtema in Bangladesh. It had been an intense endeavor, where I had feared for my life considering the fact that I had a one liter of rum in my tiny backpack… But let’s leave that to another session of narration.
Rahim and his sister dropped us off near the center of the city, where a brisk walk led Nina and I to Ala-Too square, which was surrounded by police, military and other forms of security forces in impeccable suits and uniforms. I wouldn’t be surprised if every single type of security force was represented, including intelligence and covert forces.
Nina and I passed the first security check by police forces, where they scanned my bag thoroughly with a metal detector, before checking every pocket inside and out.
Arriving at the second and final check, they informed us that women would not be allowed. ‘Sorry’, he said. I was surprised to receive an apology.
A man in a black suit and a suspicious vibe swiftly approached, too close, asking for our passports. ‘Our passports are at the hotel’, I replied, remembering what I had read on the flight over.
Police forces can be quite corrupt in Central Asia, and cases of policemen extracting bribes or even bringing tourists to the station to then steal their belongings aren’t unheard of.
Plus, it’s generally a good idea to keep one’s identity and papers close to the chest when dealing with authority, and our excuse was good enough. Petty criminals (who can double as authorities) tend to be lazy, so place a barrier of time and effort between intimidation and reward and they will, almost without fail, give up.
With Nina now barred from participating or even observing Eid on the basis of being a woman (totally normal, of course), we walked around looking for a place for her to relax while I would go experience it and brings back some pictures.
Ever the intellectual, she chose to sit on the stairs leading to a library, and I ran to catch the beginning of the prayer, which would last around half an hour.
Run run run! Check out a shaky video of my arrival on the square.
Standing amongst thousands of people praying in unison is akin to drinking a strong cup of coffee.
The energy is powerful and you can’t help but feel the ripples of tension through the air. That is, until you notice the few locals checking their smartphones, seeming slightly bored by the whole endeavor.
Here's a stable clip of the prayer
A few pics, use dots on top left to switch pictures or hide captions!
I did not participate in the praying, unlike in Bangladesh, which had been an altogether much more serious affair.
Being on the sidelines was of little concern, and though it felt intimidating to be the only one standing when everyone would kneel or sit down, I was reassured by the sight of a few locals standing up to take panoramic videos of the event.
It ended swiftly, and as everyone got up to shake the dirt off the mats they had been on, I ran back to my sister.
For the few minutes it took to reach her, I felt quite anxious. As the first time I had left my sister alone on this trip, I was uneasy and worried for her safety. I needn’t have been. I found her right where I had left her, reading a book. I showed her my pictures, and we got up to walk to our accommodation.
Paying for a place to stay is something I am not in the habit of doing and feel uneasy about. It isn’t so much about the money as it is about the principle of care & friendship.
My travels are a sort of pilgrimage towards reality, a daft attempt at meeting (sometimes colliding with) the world. One aspect of this has been a thorough dive into the meaning and functionality of money.
I came to the conclusion that money replaces human relationships, that with money, one can travel the world without getting to know anyone. It is the quickest, simplest way of getting anything… But also the most boring.
Staying with someone entails hospitality and care, being a proper guest and true gratitude. It’s hard to feel gratitude when you pay for something, as you can more easily start feeling entitlement. Conversely, the person you stay with, when your stay is a transaction, is motivated by gain, not care. This is something I am unused to, as I have gotten into the habit of either being homeless or being hosted.
Nevertheless, being human, imperfect, weak and spoilt, we headed towards a deceased famous writer’s home now operating as a guesthouse, managed by his son. To take a nap, rather than roam the streets while accumulating sleep debt.
Before falling asleep, I had meditated on this feeling of unease. Being back on the road was prompting a flurry of processes of my mind back into the limelight. Old concerns & considerations, questions of how I wish to operate, how I wish to travel and interact with the world, which principles to abide by… My nomadic self was waking up from the slumber of a pampered summer in Geneva.
The main takeaway was the reiteration of the essence of my strategy: follow intuition, always my guiding light. And so after a long nap, we head out again at 4pm, following our feet.
We came across the train station, which links to Moscow through a 3 day train ride that the locals take to go and get some work. Trains also head towards Issy-Kul Lake, the world’s second largest high altitude lake, also the country’s prime tourist attraction.
Further down the unique tracks of our convoluted path through the city, we chill by the Philharmonic Hall, taste some Samsis (delicious pastry with seasoned potato filling inside), hop on some marshrutkas (minivans that operate as busses) to zip through the city’s main streets, ending up at a small indoor market where we fill up on tiny dried figs (of the variety I use to gorge on in Iran), dates and apricots.
The next door building is a strange architectural conception, a circus which is currently hosting plenty of romantic teenage get-togethers of the sort we’ve been seeing throughout the city.
I didn’t take my camera out on this walk, so here are a few pictures from my phone.
Take a walk through the city
Our roaming ends up taking us back to the central square, which is by now lit up in multicolor, populated by young and old. The young are zipping around on electric devices and wheels of all sorts from rollers to scooters (non-motorized) to bicycles.
As we arrive at Ala-Too square, I slowly realize what is happening. Whereas this morning, thousands of men were praying in unison, now groups of young men and women are walking around, vying for each other’s attention and flirting with each other. It’s mostly a game of looks.
More often than not, groups will swerve by each other, sit next to each other, glance at each other, but without speaking. Occasionally, this is spiced up by an approach. Two young men approach two young ladies next to me, introducing themselves and shaking their hands. The girls don’t seem interested, but after some soft persistence they get up and leave with one of the guys while the other goes off on a walk, only to join them later on.
It is plainly obvious to me that everyone thinks my sister is my girlfriend, putting me on the sidelines of this global dance of romance. We sit at various places, observing the locals and enjoying the atmosphere. Everyone is clean cut, well dressed, healthy and seemingly pretty well-off. The streets are perfectly clean (not only on the main square).
Music is playing, traditional Kyrgyz music. It’s beautiful, and we go and sit close to one of the main speakers. I almost feel like crying. Public spaces such as this, hosting gatherings and meetings of this sort are, no doubt, an accomplishment of civilization. I marvel at the life of this place, which from morning to evening can go from Eid to a dating arena, seemingly without hitch.
As we head back home, I feel slightly sad to not have been able to participate in the meet & greet game. Just as I’m thinking this, my phone vibrates. It’s the girl who set up the SIM cards for us at the airport. We set up a rendezvous for the next day. My sister and I are laughing.
As my sister eases herself into bed, I step back out with my computer, looking for a place to sit and type this up to share with you. I end up back at the main square, lie my head on my backpack and write on my phone instead.
After a few paragraphs, a chocolate-skinned foreigner sits next to me. There are all sorts of ethnicities in this city, but chocolate-skinned people certainly aren’t locals. I inquire. We kick it off like a house on fire, and after fifteen minutes Randy, my new Cuban friend, and I rave about everything from relationships to mass emigration out of Cuba.
A singer here with his band for the past four months, Randy starts getting emotional as he tells me about his mother’s escape from Venezuela (where she had been sent from Cuba) to the US, through the whole of central America. He tells me her stories of death, despair and human smuggling. What does it say of a regime, that people are willing to die to escape it? In Cuba, people have nothing, only love, he says. As everyone is on the same level, people are all together. But they are also all together brainwashed, lacking freedom and information.
In contrast, Kyrgyzstan is doing pretty well. As the only functioning democracy in the area, things seem to be running smoothly. Streets are clean, roads fairly well paved, people respectful… I couldn’t believe it when a road full of cars stopped to let my sister walk across. An uncommon sight anywhere in the world, especially in Asia, where one usually has to fight for one’s life to cross a street. Here, people stop at the red light and acknowledge you through the windshield. It’s all in the small things.
That’s my perspective. Randy has a different one. He says the people here are crazy, but that with my skin color I won’t realize it, because I blend in. He tells me that people here continuously try to fight with him. I eventually start wondering if he is attracting that kind of experience through mistrusting others. Chicken or the egg?
As we get to know each other, I can’t help but think to myself, as I have for years: why write, when one can live? It is that thought that had delayed my long-form writing until recently. I was interrupted in my writing after a few paragraphs, and of course chose to pursue the conversation (that I had initiated) rather than retreat into my phone.
‘Here, people don’t dance or sing. No, here, they like fighting.’ He continues. Apparently local girls are all over him, and this irks the Kyrgyz men. Big surprise.
I look at his haircut. Elevated in front and a tiny ‘braid’ in the back. What’s up with that?
‘My father was a big fan of Michael Jackson. My big brother’s name is Michael, mine Randy and my little brother is Marlon. My sister’s name is Janet.’ He says, laughing.
‘Is your father a singer too?’ I ask.
‘No, he just drinks’. We both pause, then laugh, shaking our heads.
I ask Randy where I can get a bite to eat. It’s midnight, and the square is now pretty much empty. We get up, look around and meet a group of three young Kyrgyz, two boys and a girl. They are going for a midnight snack too. And so our group expands.
With the girl being the only one to speak a very, very limited English, our communication becomes quite comical as the Kyrgyz’ words are filtered through Randy’s broken Russian, then passed onto me in his broken English. I alleviated him of the translation task and continue chatting with the girl, letting her know that no matter how limited one’s language skills are, communication can be natural. I also ease her concerns by complimenting her English, something the locals here are particularly sensitive to.
Arriving at a 24 hour food stall after a ten minute walk, we meet three other Kyrgyz men, one of which is fluent in English. Chatting and laughing with them, they eventually pull out a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
‘Beer’ I learn. ‘Want some?’
‘Sure, but why are you wrapping it in cardboard paper? Am I in the States?’ I inquire.
‘Well, it’s not illegal to drink here, but it is a Muslim country, you know…’
I don’t really get it, but OK. I take a swig and pass it on to Randy.
One of the three guys pulls out a little baggy from his pocket. It looks like hash, but as I smell it, I realize it isn’t.
‘What is this?’ I ask.
‘Naswar’. Oh my god. I had come across Naswar, a form of tobacco snuff, from a tiny Afghani man named Sarwar in Dubai. A nasty substance that does to your teeth and mind what Bing Lang (beetle nut) does to the Taiwanese.
He offers, I refuse. ‘Ploha Naswar’, another one says. We all laugh. (Ploha means ‘bad’ in Russian.)
As the mildly disgusting Shawarma I had ordered halves in size, my appetite disappears and though the food had really been an excuse to get up and walk around, it is time to go sleep.
We exchange numbers, Facebooks and Instagrams, Randy lets them know that if they need a performer, him and his band are always available, then both of us head off, gratefully refusing the lift offered by the three guys.
Randy accompanies me home despite my assurance that all will be OK.
‘It’s not safe for you to walk around at this time, alone.’ He says.
I share with him my conception of danger and petty crime. Petty criminals, I tell him, generally don’t attack at random. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they have a radar for victims, antennas for fear. Victims harbor fear. Eliminate fear, perhaps replace it with love and a good vibe, and you tend to disappear from their radar.
He thinks for a minute.
‘Yeah, with your smile and attitude, people approaching you for trouble would probably leave as friends. I don’t have your charisma.’ He says.
I assure him of the contrary: ‘just place a big smile on your face, bro.’
We shake hands and hug at the entrance to my abode, and I step in to go to sleep, satisfied with this beginning to our Central Asian adventure.