Last week I travelled to London to attend the inaugural meeting of the Kyrgyz-British society. It was great. Stepping out of the train and across London I felt an exhilarating sense of freedom. London is different. It smells different. It has a vibe. There’s a constant hum of traffic. There are so many people talking so many languages. Looking back my rural village seemed drab and ordinary in comparison.
I walked through affluent West London to get to the hotel where the reception was being held. It smelt of sweet Turkish coffee. Women were having their hair done in expensive salons. Three armed policemen stood at the end of a cobbled mews making me wonder who was down there. The Jimmy Choo shop looked like an elegant drawing room. I passed immaculately dressed mothers pushing designers prams and I started to understand some of the mummy lit I’d been reading. I’d scathingly dismissed the fictional London mums for their obsessive need to conform, but I was already feeling the pressure of wanting to keep up with everyone else.
The reception was in a smart hotel where there was no sign of the recession. Glossy people in gold jewellery were drinking expensive coffees and cocktails in the lounge. It was all opulence – and waste. I had this sinking feeling that the environment was doomed: in the washroom the towels were thick and disposed after each wipe. In the restaurant beautiful food was being removed from tables to be thrown away. Pulling up were endless shiny 4 by 4’s.
Eventually I stopped staring at other people and went to the reception. It was good to reacquaint with people who have been so supportive of Revolution Baby – the Kyrgyz Ambassador, his wife and other friends from the Kyrgyz Embassy; Tim Hutton of Yurtworks who makes yurts in Cornwall and offers yurt-stay holidays and Marat Akhmedjanov who publishes Discovery Central Asia and Open Central Asia.
I asked John Collis, chairman of the fledgling society, what they hope to achieve. The aim is to promote cultural and trade links through events showcasing Kyrgyz culture and art – both of which I can recommend.
Having lived there for three years I can say with experience that Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country and I would love it to have more recognition in the UK. I was therefore sad to read a recent article in the Telegraph, unappealingly titled Bored in Bishkek. (People love to alliterate with Bishkek, someone once wrote a very scathing review of my book under the title Boobs in Bishkek!)
Douglas Whitehead, cycling to India, was updating readers on his progress. He was frustrated because he was waiting in Bishkek for a Chinese visa. His frustration was taken out on Kyrgyzstan. Most depressing was his list of ten “do’s and don’ts if you ever find yourself waiting for a visa in Bishkek”; a very poor summary of three weeks in a unique place. All he could enthuse about was a full English breakfast and a book by Boris Johnson. I was most saddened by his second point – “Do not bother sightseeing around the city itself. There is absolutely nothing to see.”
I completely disagree. Bishkek is a fantastic city. While I found it very intimidating when I first arrived – it’s grey and austere and full of soviet concrete – I persevered and learnt to love the Kyrgyz capital, even becoming obsessively enthusiastic about the symmetrical geometry of Soviet architecture!
While many of my detractors would argue that I moaned too much in Revolution Baby about Bishkek, especially at first, I would defend myself by saying that I was newly pregnant and struggling to find my place, for the long-term, in a new environment. What I did do, unlike Douglas Whitehead, was try!
As a traveller, surely there’s always something to see in a new city? One of my favourite things to do in Bishkek was just walk the streets. That way I saw so many snapshots of Kyrgyz-Soviet life. It’s often the small detail which gives the greatest experience.
I suppose Douglas Whitehead is travel tired. Cycling around the world, I’m sure new places can lose their novelty after a few countries. Does that defeat the object of these long term trips, if the traveller becomes jaded and consumed by the tribulations of visa red-tape rather than what’s actually there? Can too much travel numb the joy of some new places, especially if its attributes aren’t obvious or anticipated?
Bishkek doesn’t have the lore of Samarkand or Istanbul so maybe it becomes a non-event on a long-distance traveller’s tour. Do you become lazy about exploring when you get the chance not to? Any excitement is reserved for unexpected pieces of home. Wallowing in the perceived luxury of familiar things is comparative comfort, a welcome respite from always breaking out into new territory. I know one round the world cyclist who watched a lot of Cold Feet episodes in Bishkek...and another ex-pat traveller who ate a lot of my Shreddies supply!
So, back to the inauguration of the Kyrgyz-British society. The canapés were great! (As a periodic single mother I don’t get out much and having spent the last month eating child-friendly food, because I’m too lazy to cook for myself, I probably ate more than was polite.)
There’s not much detail to report yet. It was the first event and we are all being encouraged to join up. For an application form please write to: Board of Directors, Kyrgyz-British Society, 64 Clifton Street, London, EC2A 4HB or ask for information through the Kyrgyz Embassy. I am promised that a website is being developed so I will link from here when there is. They hope to run at least four events a year. I’m hoping for a concert of haunting folk music.
Kyrgyzstan has so much to offer, I really hope the society can bring positive aspects of the country to wider attention. I’m not as widely travelled as Douglas Whitehead but I do believe that Kyrgyzstan maintains the luxury of being OFF the tourist route and therefore remains raw and untarnished. Its travel industry is wonderfully un-commercial; no coaches to mar your view, hundreds of miles of valleys and mountains to explore by yourself. In Bishkek alone you’ll find men in conical felt hats, jostling bazaars crammed into treacherously narrow streets, stalls selling sheep heads, beautiful felt carpets, massive Soviet statues, parks to promenade in, delicious lepioshka (bread) straight from a clay oven, and tiny babushkas selling cheap, tasty and colourful fruit, veg, jam, cordials and pickles on every street corner. Please, don’t be put off by the negativity of Douglas Whitehead’s article. Consider an expedition to Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan and form your own conclusions.
Ps, there must currently be lots of cyclists in Bishkek as Simon Evans and Fearghal O'Nuallain, undertaking the first Irish circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, arrived in Bishkek last week! You can find out more about them on their website.