A Walking Tour through Soviet Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

One of the things that most excited us for our trip to Central Asia was the number of well preserved buildings from the Soviet Era. Bishkek, in particular, had a great concentration of the buildings, ranging from Stalinist to Socialist Modernist, all within easy walking distance from one another.  As you know by the title of my blog, I am a big fan of concrete architecture, and this post is for all of those wishing to see the greatest examples of the medium in the shortest amount of walking time.  I did a great amount of research before our trip to ensure our two days in the Kyrgyz capital wouldn’t be spent idling about.  We had an itinerary, and we stuck to it.

To start, here’s the route we’ll cover:

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Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Not So Large, but Contains Multitudes

Boo yeah, that is a Walt Whitman reference in the title!  Literary self-congratulations aside, the description fits our impressions of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second city.  Often referred to as Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital, Osh feels completely different from Bishkek – less modern, more steeped in tradition, and more Islamic.  As we ventured even further south, to Sary Mogul and deeper into Kyrgyzstan’s Islamic heartland, stores even stopped selling alcohol and cigarettes.  Despite how Islam is portrayed by American media and, sadly, the incoming presidential cabinet, we found that as places became more majority Islamic, so too did their people become more friendly.stans-2016-292_29912580065_o

Though, to be fair, the comparison is mostly Islamic versus Russified.  And in comparisons of friendliness, I’m afraid Russians will typically not make the podium. Read more

Renewing our Vows at a Post-Soviet Wedding Palace: Almaty and Bishkek

Unlike our time in Southeast Asia this past May, where we were pleasantly surprised by several examples of our favorite architectural styles in Phnom Penh, I knew leading up to our Central Asia trip that Almaty and Bishkek would be tremendous places for modernist/brutalist architecture spotting and photography. Thanks to several books I’ve collected over the years and some mildly creepy Instagram stalking, I already knew the places I wanted to see in both cities. I’ve always been particularly captivated by Soviet Wedding Palaces, and prior to this trip we’d seen some great examples, most notably being those in Tbilisi, Georgia and Vilnius, Lithuania. And while not much has been written (in English, anyway) on Almaty’s Wedding Palace, Bishkek’s Wedding Palace has been well documented all over the internet – particularly well by this post by Cooper Thomas, a former Bishkek expat.

Almaty Palace of Weddings
Almaty Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings
Bishkek Palace of Weddings

Wedding Palaces served a very interesting role in Soviet society – a role which continues today in many post-Soviet nations: to gather information, making sure every couple is properly registered. It seems like the actual ceremony plays second fiddle to the act of registering itself. Despite this, it appears that weddings in the post-Soviet world have adapted to incorporate the more conspicuous displays of wealth commonplace in American weddings. The weddings held in these Wedding Palaces aren’t traditional to the region – contracts between families and festivities that usually linger for weeks – but instead more closely mimic their Western counterparts. Official documents are signed, then couples are whisked off in a fancy car, often back to everyday life. Read more

Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan: An Unlikely Hamlet at 12,000 Feet

There isn’t much space devoted to places like Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan in guidebooks.  Sary Mogul is one of those places that is typically seen as a stopping off point, or a place to have a sort of layover, perhaps in the midpoint between two more noteworthy destinations.  But for whatever reason, I was immediately struck and fascinated by the place.  Neat rows of one-story mud houses, free-roaming cows and pigs, a lack of vegetation (save for the odd potato plant), and the curious people made it very hospitable, and I found it to be an absolute delight to explore and photograph.img_2302 img_2300

Places like Sary Mogul, traditionally, shouldn’t exist in Kyrgyzstan.  Sary Mogul, like it’s larger neighbor to the east, Sary Tash, were founded in the 1940s by Soviets in an attempt to supply nearby Murghab with potatoes and livestock.  Murghab was a strategic point along the Pamir Highway, connecting the major parts of the southern Soviet Empire with the relatively more Russified Kazakh and Kyrgyz Soviet Social Republics.  Thus, Sary Mogul came to existence to support another town that wouldn’t exist if it were left to the rules of traditional Kyrgyz nomadism.  It was truly a manufactured place, and in that respect, it had been given a blank canvas for independent cultural development. Read more

Where are the Tourists in Central Asia?

It’s been a few weeks since our return from Central Asia, and I think I’ve had ample time to process our amazing experience there. One of the things we noticed throughout our time there was the near complete lack of tourists. With the exception of the odd Dutch or Israeli traveler, we met very few other travelers on the road. With all Central Asia has to offer, from crumbling modernist concrete to majestic scenery to extremely inexpensive transportation and cost of living, we were constantly wondering, “Why are we the only ones here?”

So I went about gathering opinions about why Central Asia (granted, we were only in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) seems to fly under the radar when it comes to travel destinations. To be fair, this is not a statistical study, as my sample size was about five, including my parents and others who might have some trouble identifying the stans on a map. Hey, I never claimed to be a mathematician.img_1958 img_2092 img_2222 Read more

Big Concrete and Bigger Nature: Central Asia 2016

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been captivated by Central Asia.  My father runs an antique rug store in the Seattle area, and since I was a wee child I’ve been surrounded by Central Asian textiles, from Uzbek suzanis to Kyrgyz shyrdaks.  For one reason or another, I’ve yet to make it to the region from whence these textiles came, but that is about to change.  David and I are heading on our second trip of the year – to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.  And I couldn’t be more excited about it.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/depenbusch/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/depenbusch/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mibuchat/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mibuchat/

I long thought that Central Asia wouldn’t happen for me until I was older – its remoteness proved to be a hindrance, with only expensive and lengthy flights serving the region from my relative backwater of Seattle.  However, with Momondo flight alerts set, I stumbled upon round trip tickets to Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, for under $1,000 and with only one stop (in Frankfurt, of course), for precisely the times David and I would be able to travel.  I jumped, and bought the tickets, and decided to figure the rest out as the cards fell. Read more

August’s 5 Travel Obsessions

Another month, another list of 5 places I’m dying to explore.  My travel ADD has me constantly down rabbit holes, and this month is no different, despite getting ready to get out of Dodge for a few weeks at the end of the month – for my honeymoon, no less!  Did I mention that I got married last weekend?  Anyway, here are the places that have me googling until my fingers bleed this month: Read more

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July’s 5 Travel Obsessions

I have written about my predilection for falling down rabbit holes before – see Chiatura, Georgia, what remains one of the highlights of David and my trip to the South Caucasus last winter.  I fall down them all the time, so I thought it could be fun to keep track of my brain’s eccentric wanderings in the universe of travel.  Especially now that I’m attempting to devote more time to working on this blog, I am becoming aware of more things to wrap my mind around than ever before.  SO, here goes:

  • Hungarian Seccesionist Architecture, Subotica, Serbia
The synagogue in Subotica, Serbia - a prime example of Hungarian secessionist architecture.
The synagogue in Subotica, Serbia – a prime example of Hungarian secessionist architecture.

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