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The Last Duck Kebap In Bishkek

In Bishkek we are couchsurfing with TC Berker, originar from Ankara and currently teaching Journalism and New Media to the Kyrgyz. Before ringing his doorbell we take a breather in Balikci, a small town on the banks of Isik-kul lake. A quick lunch in a local shack is in order. We also shop for some local delicacies to later sample with our Turkish host: we pick some smoked fish and kurut, a cheese made from dehydrated mare’s yoghurt.

We will not enter the Kyrgyz capital before switching to road tires; while we are dealing with this, the mechanics in the shop grab some cooling kvas for us. A welcome treat.

Berker is waiting for us and he helps us carry our luggage into his apartment.

Bishkek is strangely familiar: the grim apartment blocks with shiny jeeps parked outside, the asphalt that crumbles like short pastry, the watermelons piled at street corners, the kitschy hair saloons, the ladies sporting chopped bobs, patterned leggings and excessively plucked eyebrows, the smell of pee in the elevator, the whole-int-the-wall where an old timer is patching up shoes for a living… it’s disturbingly funny how this resembles home.

Berker is nothing short of amazing. We are stuck in Bishkek with some administrative business to sort out, and we are lucky to have this awesome host who cooks for us, pampers us and when nobody is in the mood for doing dishes, knows the best place to eat an outstanding duck kebap.

Berker uses his connections to locate a dude who can help me fabricate a new plate for my side stand. No more welding this time, problem solved!

In the meantime we learn that our cyclist friends are in town as well, so we feel we must share with them the secret of duck kebap. Soon we are all hooked on the sweet fatty delicious thing!

More user-friendly than Dushanbe, Bishkek feels also somehow … smaller. The socialist architecture is less monumental after being adorned with Chinese neon. There are many parks and pedestrian areas, and they all teem with people even during daytime. The locals seem to enjoy consuming everything that is being thrown at them, be it from the West, or from the East, and by night the Ala-too square is resurrected to a Kyrgyz version of  Djema el-Fna.

Instead of sheep brains we find magenta cotton candy, and in the place of snake charmers we see small business ventures renting out rollerblades and tandem bikes to the enthusiastic, while huge subwoofers are blasting nondescript music. And in the middle of this tumultuous spectacle, instead of the minarets of a Moroccan mosque, a monument celebrating the Tulip Revolution .

Next to the statue and just as contrasting to the general vibe of the square, teenage soldiers perform a ritual inherited from soviet times.

The change of guards takes place hourly, from sunrise till sunset.

The young soldiers execute their impeccable ballet, but from up close one can see how humble their budget must be.

At 10 p.m. the music stops, the fountains dry out and people start their journey back from fantasy to their matchbox apartments.

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The Power of Facebook

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I mentioned we have to deal with some administrative issue: we need a second visa for Kazakhstan, and Bishkek is supposed to be the best place to get an easy stamp in. So no wonder we are appalled to find this note taped to the door of the Embassy (3 days earlier than the date advised).

Over the weekend we meet with other backpackers who are also stuck in Bishkek with no visa. We ponder our options. They are not great: we could park our bikes with Sambor and leave Mongolia for another time; we could ride back via Pamir Highway into Uzbekistan and Russia; we could select one of us to fly to Dushanbe with all the passports; or we could risk rolling into Kazakhstan on the Kyrgyz visa and simply try to negotiate our way further in Almaty. We have excluded straight from the bat selling or shipping the bikes by plane. Combing the Internet I learn about a Kazakh Consulate that should be open in Osh since about a year ago. So we decide Ana should fly in to investigate. While she is watching from above the panorama of the mountains we have crossed on bikes, I fiddle with Facebook. Would you believe what I find? The Ministry Of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan has a fan page! So I post a message, asking directions and phone number of the Consulate in Osh.

Meanwhile in Osh, Ana decides to avoid the taxi drivers and follows a man who is walking confidently out of the airport and into a mini-van. The price for the ride into town proves to be a fraction than the taxi fare, and the confident man proves to be a serendipitous encounter. After working for 5 years in Kabul, Art has resettled to Almaty, from where he has arrived for a brief family visit. He not only knows where the Consulate is, but he happens to know the consul. He offers to take Ana to the office, and while riding to town he calls the Consulate for advice. But the news is bad: the Consulate sheds some light on the mysterious Embassy closure. It’s the annual bureaucratic holiday, and it can take anywhere from two to three weeks before they will resume operations. No visa processing, except for diplomatic emergencies. Jokingly, Art suggests Ana should try a millennia old trick: tobogganing down the sacred Sulaiman-Too. For generations people have come to this mountain hoovering above Osh, to ask for a miracle.

From up, the city reveals its dirty secrets. Art recounts for Ana the emotional stories of the civil clashes aftermath. I can only imagine how that must feel. Though I often look for one among the generation of our fathers, I wonder if there can really be a cure for hate. Part of it is the communism, which changed this place already and could do it again. But this city has an even heavier heritage. The War. When you hear the number you think, impossible. A few dozens dead goes the official count, more than 2000 claim independent sources (with 100000 displaced, most fleeing to Russia for good). Osh is full of ghosts of the walking wounded, and most of the wounds aren’t even visible to the naked eye.

But there’s nothing here to help with your problem, says Art, you should go back to Bishkek.

Meanwhile I keep my Facebook on. And hours later a new reply pops on the screen: the Kazakh Ministry has consulted with the Embassy in Bishkek and they decided to make an exception for our “team”. I am in awe. They will accept our application if we can provide a relevant supporting document from the Romanian diplomatic mission. It’s great news; naturally we’ll toast it with one last duck kebap.

The next day I launch my operation, calling Astana and emailing back and forth; with the precious note in hand, we are well received by the same man who has slapped the door in our face almost a week ago.

Two days later we have our visas. We must thank to all who helped so much, and to Berker, who made all the commotion easier to bear. The green pastures an the rocky rails of Kyrgyzstan demand a re-ride one day. As for now, we are readying for a flash drive across Kazakhstan and Russia, before anther visa, the one for Mongolia, would expire. Ahead of us, you guessed it, rain.

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