Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

One Steppe Beyond

Posted by Andy Hockley on 11 January, 2005

So, I find myself in Bishkek. Bishkek, for those of you unfamiliar with obscure central Asian capitals, is in Kyrgyzstan. (Or Kyrgyzstn as it would be written in txt speak). Bishkek used to be called Frunze after some important Bolshevik who was born here, but at some point in the not too distant past, was renamed Bishkek. A Bishkek is some kind of churn used to make fermented mare’s milk. It says here. The Lonely Planet even goes so far as to claim that it’s the only town in the world named after a wooden plunger. Though I think that’s unfair to Plunger, Illinois. Not to mention Pine Syringe, Madagascar; and of course Oak Pestle, Venezuela.

It’s a fairly new city, having been mostly built during Soviet times. This means, as you might possibly imagine, that the architecture is, how can I put this, less than beautiful. It’s not a spectacularly ugly city, since (a) there are lots of trees, (b) there are some beautiful snow capped mountains that overlook the town, and (c) the buildings, while bland or just plain ugly, are not very high so they don’t completely overwhelm you with their in your face repulsiveness.

I came here last year for a conference, but was only here a few days in an “international” hotel, and so didn’t really get the full on Bishkek experience. This year, I’m here for a whole month doing a course and already I have been getting more of a feeling for the place. I’m in an apartment, which is very comfortable if a tad over-furnished. The effect of 70 odd years of Communism seems to have been a post-command-economy desperation to own as many things as possible, and more importantly, to be seen to own them. The room in which I am currently sitting, for example, has red and green polka dot net curtains, a massive black wood thing along all of one wall, covered in weird kitschy knick-knacks and random ornaments and soft toys. The furniture (aside from the ‘thing’ just described) is sort of patterned brown armchairs and a sofa. The two visible walls have this kind of speckly patterned mint green wallpaper, highlighted in the centre of each by this kind of embossed flock shimmery pre-French revolution pattern. In front of the window there is a large TV and associated electronic gadgetry, and next to me (on part of the black thing) is a TV set up as a karaoke machine. To top it all off there is currently (and I am just hoping that this is a temporary feature) a fibre optic Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and random baubles. The ceiling is one of those molded ones with repeating patterns in little squares, and on the floor (actually a very nice wooden floor) there is a large brown patterned rug. The effect of all this is somewhat overwhelming.

Things I have been learning/getting used to include an electric samovar which is my way of heating water for tea and what have you. The landlady came in and demonstrated to me how this would work, but it seemed to involve some weird plug wiggling activity which I couldn’t follow, so I just unplug and re-plug it in to make it work. It’s a bit fancier and more ethnic than a Russell Hobbs electric kettle though, so I’m happy.

Yesterday I popped into Tsum the large department store in the middle of town (I think – the town doesn’t really have a clear middle, it’s more like a very large suburb than a city in some senses). Tsum is a four story tribute to untrammeled capitalism. The kind of capitalism that the libertarian arm of the far right can only dream of. Capitalism unfettered by considerations of intellectual property or such like issues. The kind of stuff you might buy down a dodgy pub or off some guy with a suitcase outside a metro station. Here it’s mainstream and available down the equivalent of Debenhams or Sears. On Sunday for example I bought (for an extremely reasonable price) a DVD of “The Incredibles”. The Incredibles is not yet available on DVD, so what this actually is is a video shot of the film playing in a cinema somewhere. If you ever saw the relevant episode of Seinfeld you’ll know what I mean. Some bloke (I assume it was a bloke) goes into a cinema somewhere in the States with a video camera tucked up his jumper and proceeds to video the entire film. Somehow they manage to do this with incredible steadiness and without a single extraneous noise or movement coming across on the video tape. Maybe they do a deal with the projectionist to show it at 4am privately so no-one is there to interrupt. Then they turn it into a DVD, knock out a ton of copies, and stick it in Zum (or any other department store in the former Soviet Union) as well probably as on the black market everywhere else. There were loads of films there that were so new (ie only released in the US) that I’d never heard of them. I have to read some movie reviews to see whether I’d be interested in buying one or two to watch on my weekends.

That’s it from Bishkek for today. I bet you can’t wait to hear more can you?

One Response to “One Steppe Beyond”

  1. nojer said

    ‘One Steppe Beyond’ – I’m sorry, but that is a truly dreadful title. I can tell you’re getting on a bit.

    Otherwise, very good, 8/10. I particularly enjoyed your diagram of a Wotsit.

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