Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[BISHKEK] Ala-Too Square

Bishkek has been on my radar for quite some time now not because I wanted to see the place, but rather because I find the Russian language learning opportunities to be quite attractive. A quick research of affordable intensive courses will lead you to London School, a reputable Russian-teaching institute in Kyrgyzstan whose claim to fame is its one-on-one classes. It has its pros and cons, but the school has been a popular choice for many Russian language learners around the world. So I thought hey why not?

To add to that, I hold a Philippine passport. Kyrgyzstan is probably the only country in the former USSR where I don’t have to go through hell to secure a visa. Did I mention that Russian is still widely spoken in the streets of Bishkek? Win-win. I get to learn Russian and at the same time the city can serve as my gateway to Central Asia, that region of the continent that seems so inaccessible to us from the far east. I started planning this four or five years ago. Now, I am finally here. Better late than never, eh?

I had grand plans, but reality eventually catches up with you. You can apply for a Kazakh visa here and it takes around five working days to process. But I’m kinda low on funds right now, and the visa I got when I landed in Kyrgyzstan was single-entry. Almaty is just a five-hour drive from here, but getting a new Kyrgyz visa means I have to FLY back to Manas Airport as my entry point. So near yet so far! But Kazakhstan won’t go anywhere. We will reserve that for next time. As for Uzbekistan, getting a visa is easier.

If you are in possession of an LOI, rumor has it that you can get the Uzbek visa at their embassy here ON THE SPOT. The real problem here aside from my dwindling funds is the change in flight schedules. There are only two flights a week from Bishkek to Tashkent, if I’m not mistaken. A cramped three-day itinerary consisting of Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand translates to two days of missed classes on my part. That’s equivalent to 10 hours of classroom time. Am I here to waste money? Defo not. Fine then, next time.

And so I ended up stuck here in my room despite being in the city for three weeks now. It’s not that bad. I came here to learn Russian after all, and learning I am. Lots. Every freakin’ day. Luckily, we have Wednesdays off, and this week I finally decided to get off my ass and hop on a marshrutka to see the city center. This is the part where I tell you that there really isn’t much to see in Bishkek. This time around, though, I’m not joking. And the internet agrees with me. But we’re already here anyway so let’s check it out!

The ride took no more than ten minutes. Think of a marshrutka as a mini van that has a specific route. In short, it functions like a jeepney in Manila. Fares start at KGS10 (~PHP7.50) which makes it a really affordable way to get around. 243 and 212 cover both Vefa Center and Ala-Too so take note of that if you are coming from London School. Basically, that area surrounding Ala-Too is all there is. The first one you see is the square, which is not as big as most squares but big enough for you to get your own spot.

It’s super hot and humid in Bishkek right now. As expected, this is good for photos as long as you are not against the light. You might want to apply a generous amount of sunblock, though. Ala-Too is adorned with colorful flowers during spring and summer, and I think they contribute a lot to the overall good vibes of the place. You also have one too many fountains at the middle, but they weren’t functioning today. Maybe it’s because of the repairs of perhaps they only work at night after the sun sets?

From across the street, you will see the National History Museum. The centerpiece is a guy on a horse, and his name plate says MANAS. This must be the guy after whom the airport was named. A flag of Kyrgyzstan is waving high to the left. I wanted to check out the museum but the entrances from all sides appear to be blocked because of the ongoing restoration project. Fine then, no history lesson for me today either. The fountains here are working, though, and there were kids taking a shower.

Take your own shampoo and bath soap with you next time. Taking advantage of those fountains in this heat doesn’t seem to be illegal. Or maybe that’s just for children? Cross the street to the left to head over to Panfilov Park. This one is an old school theme park still popular to locals. The rides seem rickety at best, but that adds more to the thrill. The standard payment per ride is KGS60 (~PHP45) so that’s affordable enough. Cheap thrills, bruh. There are benches scattered all over the park. Try to find one with ample shade.

I forgot to mention that the park’s concrete footpaths form the shape of a star. Cute. The complex next to it looks like a government building. I took a photo and I wasn’t arrested, so I assume photography is not forbidden. You can’t enter the premises, though. And then I sat on a bench and chilled before heading to the other side of the museum. By the way, the Lenin statue mentioned on Wikitravel has been banished to the back of the museum. Poor guy, he’s not famous anymore. Cry me a river.

This park is not part of Panfilov, I think, but it has more sculptures. They look like recent ones, from various local artists maybe. Long story short, you won’t run out of green parks here in Bishkek, each littered with colorful blooms in spring and summer. I feel like you can do Bishkek in one day, the museum included. Most people just transit here and go south to Osh or east to Issyk-Kul. But if you’re learning Russian, then welcome to your immersion. Make the most out of it, you’ll need it in touring Central Asia.

[BISHKEK] Ala-Too Square

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