Word of the Trip: Hairdresser

By Rob Packer

Today’s my last day in Bishkek. Over my time here, I’ve realized that the words for hairdresser in Bishkek are fantastic. The Kyrgyz word is chach-tarach and is one of the coolest sounding words I’ve seen in a long time. Meanwhile, the Russian word is parikmakherskaya: it’s actually the German word Perückenmacher in disguise, which means wig-maker.

Down at Mirage, a chach-tarach, or parikmakherskaya in Russian. I'm pretty sure the two people in the photo are Kyrgyz pop stars: this is pretty common in Kyrgyzstan, and I'm really not sure Shakira and Penelope Cruz know they're advertising a chach-tarach on Chuy.

As well as mens', women's, children's, party and wedding haircuts, this chach-tarach offers things like "eyebrow correction". Mysteriously, they also have "All types of services".

Chalk and Cheese: The Art of Going Local

By Rob Packer

In English, if you want to emphasize how different two things are, you say they’re like chalk and cheese. In Central Asia, they have kurut. Kurut is the “final stage in the milk cycle” according to the Lonely Planet. It’s a ball of dried kefir, a drinking version of sour cream, and is just like a chalky ball of cheese.

Kurut traditionally comes with beer in Central Asia and this is where I first came across it. When it was first handed to me, I tried to take a bite; when that turned out to be impossible, I stuck the whole thing in my mouth. What happened next is best described as a taste explosion: after a hard crunch, my mouth was filled with a chalky substance that tasted vaguely of sour cream and for all I tried to chew, it wouldn’t go away until I washed it down with beer. I thought it was disgusting and vowed never to have it again.

But Central Asia gets to you. I had it again on a breakfastless journey over a mountain pass in Uzbekistan. And I don’t know what made me to go into a kiosk earlier today, look at the jar of kurut and say “I’ll have ten, please”.  Is this a sign to leave or stay?

Kurut. It's like chalk and cheese.

Bishkek Bazaar

By Rob Packer

I stand in awe of bazaars in Bishkek. When I told my colleagues I sometimes go to Osh Bazaar at the weekend, their reaction was best described at horrified: they think of it as one of those “dangerous places” where bad things happen (mainly theft) and really not a place foreigners like me should be venturing. Which is odd, because I think of Osh Bazaar as one of the most chilled markets I’ve been to in a long time: I used to be a lot more wary in the markets of Mong Kok, Hong Kong where there was also the nightmare scenario of being doused with acid, as well as the usual missing-wallet market antics and coming back very much empty-handed after once again finding nothing to buy, or even worse, with bags of stuff you’ll want to throw out within a couple of hours.

By comparison, Osh Bazaar actually has some things you might want to buy. On my most recent trip, I went for the souvenir section, which is full of the felt slippers, felt carpets, felt hats, little felt yurts and felt camels that everyone will be getting for Christmas. Weirdly, the souvenir section blends seamlessly with the army surplus section if you need any Red Army boots, coats or hats, and round the back of that are a few stalls of old sewing machines. Other parts of the market include the Uzbek fruit section, spices and row upon row dried fruit. The salad section also has kimchi-inspired products (see Sunday’s post). You can get pretty much everything you’ll need for day-to-day life in Bishkek, especially if what you need for day-to-day life is a Kyrgyz hat.

In the fabric section at Osh Bazaar

Taking a rest in the fabric section.

Felt slippers. One of the things that people are getting for Christmas.

Kalpaki, or Kyrgyz felt hats. Who wants a kalpak for Christmas?

Felt camels.

Counting the money after I bought yet another hat.

Traditional Kyrgyz chests.

Spending time with the sewing machine man.

Boxy sewing machines.

Curvy sewing machines.

Osh Bazaar Spices

More spices

The salad section.

Dried fruit.

Fresh fruit from Uzbekistan.

Dordoi Bazaar, Osh’s bigger, scarier cousin, is another matter and can only be called chilled in terms of temperature. It really has to be seen to be believed: it’s the largest markets in the CIS, and one of the largest in the world; from what I can tell it’s second or third largest in Asia after Tehran’s Grand Bazaar and (maybe) Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. The place is huge and entirely made up of a labyrinth of shipping containers; it’s easily the largest collection of shipping containers I’ve ever seen this far from the sea. The bazaar sprang up after the fall of the USSR as other markets in Uzbekistan went out of style as it became harder to visit and do business in Tashkent. There’s something incredibly unplanned about the whole place with power lines bisecting it at some points and trees growing through some of the containers – I have no idea how that happened. But this isn’t a tourist or produce market. The name of the game here is wholesale, so its customers include stallholders from all over Central Asia, including Osh Bazaar. You could spend hours navigating this container city with its vague claims of “organization”, i.e. vague grid system; first-timers are probably most likely to give up after sifting through haystacks of low-quality merchandise for the proverbial needle. Going with a colleague meant that many days of sorting were condensed into a few hours with his help. But I fear the day I have to go there on my own.

Dordoi Bazaar. Container City.

More containers. The top level is used for storage, the lower levels are the shops.

One of the reasons why Dordoi feels very ad hoc. Pylons coming through.

Sick and the supermarket

By Rob Packer

I was ill last week with the flu (not a cold, this was flu alright), and when you’re ill, what makes more sense than soup? It’s wholesome, good for you, delicious and universal. The CIS is deservedly known for its borshch and shchi, and there are some excellent Kyrgyz soups like shorpo, which was part of our Eid celebrations at work. Supermarkets in Bishkek are normally palaces of Romanian pop and their permanent loop always manages to give me a twinge of ancestral pride; current flavour of the month is Akcent’s That’s My Name, which my friend Annie described as where Lady GaGa’s Poker Face meets accordions. I was expecting my local supermarkets to be palaces of soup too.

Unfortunately in Kyrgyzstan, things don’t always work as easily as that. I must’ve trawled every aisle of that supermarket looking for canned soup. But it seems that in Kyrgyzstan soup is something that you really only make at home, because canned soup is not imported to Kyrgyzstan (I now check every supermarket I go into, just to confirm this). Normally, I’d support this kind of enforced soup-making, but does an ill person really want to make chickpea soup from a powder? I’m guessing the answer is no.

While I was at the supermarket, I did pick up some salt. This is the smallest packet they had.

The smallet pack of salt I could find.

Kyrgyz Kimchi

By Rob Packer

The first time I mentioned kimchi in Kyrgyzstan to some of my friends, I could tell that a collective eyebrow was raised because I was actually expecting it to be good. The fact is that I was, not because I automatically expect kimchi thousands of kilometres from Korea to be good, but because Bishkek (and Central Asia, in general) is home to a reasonable population of Koreans who were uprooted by Stalin and resettled in Central Asia. One of the influences of this on the food culture in Kyrgyzstan is the way that something called “kimchi” keeps cropping up in unlikely places.

Standard kimchi in Kyrgyzstan is something else though. The first time I had it, I thought it was disgusting, but by the time it was brought out at work for lunch, I’d got used to the idea of it. It really needs to be put in perspective: there’s a deep pickling culture in the former Soviet Union, but it’s more of the briny kind and most locally produced kimchi ends up following the Russian method. It’s almost like someone left the recipe behind in Vladivostok and it had to be taken down over a crackly phone line from Pyongyang. Once you’ve got used to the idea that what you’re about to eat is a kimchi-inspired pickle, rather than kimchi, the soggy, briny, not very spicy cabbage on your plate starts to make sense. And once you reset your expectations, it’s actually pretty good.

Kyrgyz kimchi. It's not really kimchi, but it's not really not kimchi either. More of a kimchi-inspired pickle.

Luckily for me, Bishkek actually does have decent real kimchi at Cheong Gi Wha at the far eastern end of prospekt Chuy, although the improbably named Santa Maria is more famous and more central. They have good kimchi (Korean-style), their kimchi jjigae has real spice (no pseudospice here) keeps out Bishkek’s winter chill and – this is what makes it authentic – like many other Korean restaurants around the world they have a selection of Korea Sparkling posters, including the one of the young girl in traditional dress with two red spots on her cheeks. The only thing they don’t have is tabletop cooking. It may not be Seoul, but it’s one of the best restaurants in the city.

Found it! The object of my cravings.

Kimchi jjigae, or kimchi soup. Keep that winter cold out!

A Trip to the Lenin Museum

By Rob Packer

First of all, this museum is really called the State Historical Museum. During Soviet times, it was called the Lenin Museum and I’m not sure how much has really changed since then. The first floor is a scene-by-scene re-enactment of the October Revolution cast in Socialist Realist bronze. In my opinion, it’s one of Bishkek’s must-sees. Take a look at the pictures and decide for yourselves.

Outside the State Historical Museum on Bishkek's main square.

Life was pretty miserable before the October Revolution, especially if you were one of the many "emancipated" serfs after 1861.

Hello boys! Marx and Engels to the rescue.

Getting the good news in Iskra.

He's back! Lenin comes out of hiding.

The Proletariat strikes back.

Come with us!

Finding the proletarian Holy Grail.

Which way for freedom?

"All power to the soviets". Any student of the October Revolution will know that this is not what happened next; it was all power to the Communist Party.

Looking very pleased with their socialist freedom.

Marching as to war.

That morning call

By Rob Packer

When you’re slightly late for work, running out of your apartment, then the lift doors open and there’s nothing but a lift-shaped black box, what do you do? Do you get in or do you sprint down the nine flights of stairs?

Welcome to Bishkek, or “welcome to the army”, as someone at work said today. My call was to get in, press 1 and take out my phone to give me some sort of light. On the way back I got in again, but minus phone light. Since I’ve moved to Bishkek, I’ve had to learn to live without things that I used to take for granted, and I don’t mean my iPod, my laptop or the internet. Those all work perfectly, although there’ll be more on the internet another time. I mean gas, water (cold and hot), electricity and heating. As I’m writing this, all of these work, although the hot water is the wrong colour. By Sod’s law, one of these will not work tomorrow.

Lights out

Lights out! Part one of my journey to work.

Going round the table at lunch, I started to realise how lucky I am, when I heard the number of people saying that on Monday night they had no water, or no gas, or no electricity at home. Getting home to find something not working is a fact of life in Kyrgyzstan and a fact of daily life everywhere outside of Bishkek where austerity measures mean that electricity stops at midnight. Once you know this, going to work in a blacked out lift is really nothing, and it reminds me that today’s another lucky day. I know that one day I’ll get home and find there’s no electricity; I’ll take out my phone and will be guy climbing those nine stories who I heard huffing and puffing through two walls a few weeks ago. There’s a what-if scenario here that I’m choosing not to think about.

The other joy of the lift that takes a bit of getting used to is that the lift is built to a design that must’ve once existed in the West, but has now been outmoded. This lift has the memory of a goldfish. Once you press that button, that’s where the lift’s going; and if you’re going to the fourth floor and some foreigner presses 8 first, then you’re going a long way in the wrong direction. The only way to stop and go back is to press another disabled lift function. Yes, the stop button, a neat trick I’d only ever seen in films until now.

And once I’d realised all of this, it was child’s play that the lift only goes to the eighth floor and I have to walk the last flight of stairs to the floor with my apartment and the lift pulleys.


The lift panel. The red button means Stop, and the button for 9 is a red herring. I don't know why there's a cigarette burn where 5 should be

My first snow in Bishkek

By Rob Packer

My predictions came true. When I was first moving to Bishkek in October, I did what most people do and checked the weather forecast. Sunny and 30°C at the end of September was not what I expected to see. I’d been told it would be cold and had to work it out for myself that at some point in the near future, the temperature would drop off a cliff.  There were a couple of cold snaps in October and an item on the forecast each time that Bishkek would see its first snow in the “next few days”. Each time, I’d look out the window in the morning and there’d be no snow. So when the temperature climbed over 20°C last week and the whispers started that snow was on the way, it sounded like those whisperers were crying wolf. They weren’t and the weekend’s days of rain changed overnight. This is the view that greeted me out of the window this morning:

Bishek Snow 1

The view out the back window

Bishkek Snow 2

And of the building site at the front

I think the last time I saw proper snow was in 2003 when I lived in Berlin, rather than the melted-by-lunchtime variety that I’m most used to from growing up in the UK (I know there were snowstorms in 2008 and 2009, but in Hong Kong we were breathing easy that it wasn’t the typhoon season). Predictions for the rest of the week are that I’ll be slipping on the ice as it starts to form and getting an earful for not having warm enough clothes.

Добро пожаловать, граф Картошка! ジャガイモさん、いらっしゃい!Welcome Mr Potato!

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog

Inter-Cultural Exchanges in Kyrgyzstan

The words ikebana and prazdnik started spreading around the offices of Mol Bulak Finance, my MFI last week. Prazdnik was the easy part: it means holiday, festival or party in Russian, but the word ikebana was new to me. My first thought was “That word sounds a lot like the Japanese art of flower arrangement!” and then decided it didn’t really sound all that Russian, and used my limited knowledge of Kyrgyz (eki means two) to convince myself it must be Kyrgyz. When I asked I was met with shocked expressions and told it really was the Japanese word and that on Thursday flowers would be arranged, or lunch prepared.


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