Bishkek

Kyrgystan’s capital Bishkek is a young and dynamic city, in whose environs you will still find traces of an ancient and rooted past.

I always like to experience any city I visit to the hilt, to breathe in its smell, to mingle with its people, and here too I waste no time. I’m in Kyrgyzstan, a place familiar with the mysteries of snowy mountains. The mad rush begins the minute I step off the plane. We’re on our way to the main square of Bishkek, the capital city, where the presidential residence, known as the ‘white house’, and the parliament building stand. It’s a very large square with lots of cafes. After strolling down the Street of Painters, we take a seat at one of them and order a ‘şaşlık’— what we know as lamb shish kebab, and available almost everywhere here. With its wide boulevards, marble structures and large Soviet-style apartment blocks, Bishkek is a young city compared with the historic spots in the surrounding area. What’s more, it’s emerald green. There are so many parks in this city on the banks of the River Chui that sometimes you can’t tell where one ends and the next one begins.
When we return to our hotel we’re besieged by a band of Turkey Turks who have heard a group of their compatriots has arrived. Following the introductions I ask what there is to see in Bishkek and its environs. They immediately begin reeling off the sights: Balasagun, Chontas, Ala-Archa, Törplükuluchu, the village of Manas, Dordoy Market, Osh Market, the Gazi University excavations, the Historical Museum, historic graves, the Mare’s Milk Market, the Dog Market, the Samovar Market, Gökbörü Oyusov (a game, also known as ‘buzkaşi’, played all over Central Asia), circus and authentic Kyrgyz tents, Issyk Kul lake, the Susamur Highlands... They hasten to add that seeing all these places will take at least a week. What’s more the game of Gökbörü is only played a few days out of the year so you have to catch it at the right time.

A JOURNEY INTO HISTORY
Our first stop on the new day is the Bishkek Historical Museum, whose most popular item is the ‘mummy of a girl’ found in the province of Batgen in 1960. The mummy, inside a wooden coffin, is partially decayed but clearly very old. In a warehouse-like area on the museum’s ground floor we find exactly 23 stones known as the ‘Talas Inscriptions’. Three of the large pebbles here are inscribed with lines in the runic Turkish alphabet. From the museum we go to Manas University to hear Kyrgystan’s most famous music group, Kambarkhan. Besides their fabulous concert, which takes us on a journey into history, there are also some additional brief performances, the most interesting of which is the Shaman Dance.
The next day we head out in the early morning hours with Zafer Özsoy, whom we’ve met in Bishkek and who knows the area extremely well and is unstinting with his time. Our first stop is the shopping center called Dordoy Market, an enormous mall where you can find everything from needle to thread. A woman burning incense over the counters at the market entrance at this early morning hour catches our eye—a symbol of the sacredness of fire...
Our second stop is the Osh Market, where more traditional products are sold. Available here too alongside the food items are the handicrafts of Kyrgyz culture. But the Korean pickle-makers capture our attention more than anything else. Next to Osh Market is a rather large dog market, where every breed in the world is to be seen. It’s interesting that most of the sellers are women.
Leaving Osh Market we head for the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. Our destination is Ala-Archa, the highland of greater Bishkek. Following half an hour’s journey we reach an altitude of 2500 meters. There is still snow on the summits of the Tien Shan. During a chat with a Kyrgyz I ask him, “What do you miss the most when you leave Kyrgyzstan?” His reply couldn’t be clearer: “I miss the mountains.” At first I didn’t get it, but now I understand very well. Kyrgyzstan is a land of mountains, and these are definitely mountains to die for...

THE SECOND LARGEST LAKE IN THE WORLD
One of the important areas still bearing traces of the ancient Turkish civilization is the lake known as Issyk Kul. The world’s second largest mountain lake, it lies three hours from Bishkek. Along the way we’re going to stop off at ‘Balasagun’, which is known here as ‘Burhan’. This is the place where Yusuf Has Hacip, author of the ‘Kutadgu Bilig’ or ‘Book of Sacred Knowledge’, was born in the 11th century. Balasagun also has its minaret. Once 48 meters high, it stands now at 24 meters following a collapse and restoration. Climbing up the dim staircase, I emerge onto the balcony at the top. A vast plain extends to the north as far as the eye can see. To the south is the Tien Shan range.
We have a lot of road to cover to reach Issyk Kul from Balasagun. The mountains boast a landscape all their own, and no one resembles any other, each being unique with its flowers, trees, people, birds and animals. We climb into the foothills of the Tien Shan, to Issyk Kul, setting and inspiration for the novels and stories of Cengiz Aytmatov. A smoked fish is the first thing to grab my eye at the first settlement we come to on the lake shore. I know this culture, a tradition spread through this geography by the Don Cossacks. There is every variety of smoked fish here, from those hardly bigger than your thumb to 20-kilo carp-all prepared by being gutted, salted and then smoked. Virtually everyone is in the smoked fish business and they’re all fluttering around our stopped car. Eager to try it, I buy one. The skin peels off easily, exposing the flesh, which I break into pieces and eat. It’s extremely tasty, a bit like Turkish pickled fish or ‘lakerda’.
Issyk Kul is a summer resort for the entire region, most of the visitors being people from Russia, Kazakhstan and other nearby countries who come for the summer holidays. Thanks to the investments made in recent years, Kyrgyzstan is well on its way to becoming a land of tourism.

THE WAY BACK
I go now to watch the line where night ends and day begins at 10,700 meters. It’s night where I am, but still day where I am looking. The sun pursues us as it flees towards the west. These are the last moments of a lively and adventurous journey that has lasted ten days. I gaze at the blue line where night meets day and it’s as if the day expands a little and the night is gradually diminished. We have an approximately four-hour flight ahead of us.
And now, at 9600 meters, we are flying at a speed of 716 km/hr. It’s 2716 km to Istanbul. The time here 4:49 in the morning. In an instant a bright red day dawns. It’s a crazy red. The most magnificent red I’ve ever seen in my life, like the red of the tulips at Ala-Archa. Mingled first with yellow, then blue, the sun starts the day. We are flying over the Caspian Sea, right alongside the red horizon line. I feel a completely different thrill as I return from this journey on which I set out with such excitement. It was enough just to see and experience a few exceptional remnants of a Turkish civilization that goes back a thousand years.