Monthly Archives: July 2019

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History walking tour – Bishkek

Spending a month hanging out in Bishkek has allowed me to do several walking tours with the amazing Rahat of Bishkek Walks. I loved her unusual ideas of building a walking tour about a very specific aspect of Bishkek History (the Interhelpo: The making of industrial Bishkek tour), and exploring the history of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan through artwork (Mosaic Walking tour). So to end my stay I also joined her once more for her History of Bishkek tour.

The amazing and extremely knowledgeable Rahat from Bishkek walking tours - Kyrgyzstan
The amazing and extremely knowledgeable Rahat

Victory Square

The tour began in Victory Square. This location used to be the central market of Bishkek, but has now been turned into a plaza with the Monument of Victory at its centre. The monument itself was finished in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and features a woman waiting for loved ones to return home from battle.

Victory Monument wide view - Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Monument of Victory in Victory Square

She is positioned facing North (the direction in which the men went off to fight) under 3 granite half-arches that represent the supports of a yurt (a traditional Kyrgyz nomad tent). The crown (the ring where the supports come together) is in the shape of a wreath with the Soviet star inside. The eternal flame sits at her feet.

Details of the Monument of Victory

The Silk Road

As we gathered in the shade under the arches of the monument, Rahat told us about the ancient history of Kyrgyzstan and its nomadic tribes. She then led us over the Northern branch of the ancient Silk Road heading towards our next stop.

Yes – the Silk Road looks a little less romantic these days…

The ancient Silk Road as it passes through Bishkek in 2019
The ancient Silk Road as it passes through Bishkek in 2019

Blacksmith’s Fortress

We walked along a dirt road between slightly dodgy looking houses to arrive at something you would never find for yourself if you weren’t on a guided tour. The Кузнечная крепость – or Blacksmith’s Fortress.

Drag to see the entire panorama

While there is no longer all that much to see beyond a few mounds indicating foundations of structures (the original buildings were made of mud), Rahat had a wealth of information about the site and its importance in Kyrgyzstan. While the last ruin was that of a Kokhand fortress built in 1825, the site has multiple layers of history, reaching back to ancient times.

Walking towards our next major stop, Rahat talked a lot about the evolution of languages in Kyrgyzstan, the origin of Bishkek’s parks, and we even stopped off to try the traditional drink – Shoro – sold by a street vendor. She really is the most incredibly knowledgeable person and we had a great group that asked loads of questions!

Talking about Bishkek parks - Kyrgyzstan - history walking tour
Rahat explaining about the establishment of Bishkek’s beautiful parks

Mikhail Frunze Museum

Did you know that Bishkek was called Frunze for a period of time?

The story of how this came to be was the next piece to fall into place in the History of Bishkek walking tour.

Exterior of the Mikhail Frunze Museum - Bishkek History Walking tour
Exterior of the Mikhail Frunze Museum

Frunze, it turned out, was a celebrated Bolshevik General and a close associate of Lenin. To honor his death (itself an interesting story), the Soviets renamed his home town of Bishkek to be Frunze – a name that it kept throughout the Russian era. It was only renamed to Bishkek in 1991 when Kyrgyzstan re-gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Although we didn’t go inside the museum, it occupies the building where Frunze’s father provided medical services (the house he grew up in was destroyed) and apparently documents his life and military exploits, as well as Kyrgyzstan’s accomplishments both before and after the Soviet era.

Lenin Memorial

Our next major stop was the Lenin Monument. Originally occupying pride of place in the centre of Ala-Too Square (then called Lenin Square), it was moved around the back of the National History museum to this park in 2003.

The Lenin statue in Bishkek - Bishkek history walking tour
Learning about the Lenin statue in Bishkek

Where many Lenin statues were torn down and/or destroyed after the ex-USSR states achieved their independence from the Soviet Union, Bishkek’s Lenin enjoyed a more generous fate. The Kyrgyz people still recognise the positive aspects of communism and socialism (equality, good health care, free education system, etc) and wanted to preserve that part of their history. This monument is thought to be the last major statue of Lenin standing in all of Central Asia.

Ala-Too Square

The final location of the tour was the impressive Ala-Too Square. This enormous space is backed by the beautiful National History Museum building (which has unfortunately been closed for renovations for the past 3 years!), and is used for all major National events. For example, it was the site of the largest anti-government protest during Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005. 

Ala-Too square with the National History Museum and the statue of Manas - Bishkek History Tour - Kyrgyzstan
Ala-Too square with the National History Museum and the statue of Manas

Lenin used to occupy pride of place here, but in 2003 his statue was moved around the back and replaced by the controversial Freedom statue (Erkindik), which in turn was replaced in 2011 by the current statue of Manas – the national hero of Kyrgyzstan and someone universally loved by the Kyrgyz people.

Statue of Manas in Ala-Too square - Bishkek
Statue of Manas

Recommendation

The History of Bishkek walking tour with Bishkek Walks is the absolute best way to learn about the city and Kyrgyzstan in general. I haven’t covered even a fraction of all the things Rahat told us about in the above – she is a truly amazing wealth of stories and information.

If you are interested in learning about the history of Kyrgyzstan, you absolutely must do this tour! You won’t find a better or more knowledgeable guide than Rahat.

Time: 2 – 3 hours

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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Felt making workshop – Bishkek

One of the things I love to do while travelling is trying my hand at any local handcraft I come across. I still wear the silver ring I made in Nicaragua, travel with the scarf I made for myself in El Salvador, and will forever be in awe of the women who make the beautiful and intricate textiles in Guatemala – just to highlight a few. I was therefore very excited to join Bishkek Walks on another of their amazing experiences – this one to make my own felt product.

Felt making was one of the most important traditional skills in Kyrgyzstan. In particular, the technique of Ала кийиз (Ala-kiyiz) – literally “Multi-coloured felt” – was used to create clothing, as well as carpets and other everyday items for the yurts of the nomadic Kyrgyz. This is the technique we would be learning.

Our small group met at one of the many amazing coffee shops in central Bishkek, and Gulmira, a felt artist and our teacher, began by showing us some of the different products she’d made recently.

Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop
Gulmira displaying her artistic felts as an introduction to the workshop. Rahat is translating for us though Gulmira did speak some English

Gulmira actually has a degree in fine arts and, although the use of coloured thread and embroidery in felt work was traditionally used by the nomads, she takes it to another level for modern tastes.

Selection of Gulmira's artistic felts
Selection of Gulmira’s artistic felts

I particularly loved this one where she had incorporated the use of material as well for a very 3-dimensional artwork.

Black and white artistic felt by Gulmira
This is a beautiful piece of art

While she showed us the different pieces, Gulmira also talked about the history of carpets and felting in Kyrgyzstan. It is a big job (as we would soon discover), and she painted a lively picture of how the nomadic people would congregate and work together to assist with the preparation of felts (and other items), given the amount of work involved.

Soon enough, it was time for us to try our hand at making our own piece of felt artwork.

Step 1: Felt making workshop

Choose your base colour. Gulmira had bought a large shopping bag full of wool that had been dyed different colours. I decided to go with a maroon base and blue highlights – two of my favourite colours.

Selecting wool for our felts - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Selecting wool for our felts (top) and the colours I chose to work with (bottom)

Don’t worry – I’ll explain later. I, too, was intrigued as to the purpose of the washing up sponge and the soap!

Step 2: Felt making workshop

Lay a thick base for the felt by pulling the wool apart and layering the stretched fibres over the top of each other.

images of laying the base of the felt mat - Felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira showing me how it’s done (left) and me trying to replicate (right)

I think a video will work better to explain this step.

Step 3: Felt making workshop

Once you have a full, fluffy base-layer down, turn by 90 degrees and add another layer over the top. This could be another block colour, or you could choose to start bringing other colours in.

Step 4: Felt making workshop

Add a final layer where you finish off the design with more intricate patterns if you wish. I decided not to get too fancy for my first attempt

My final wool mat, ready for felting - Felt Workshop - Bishkek
My final wool mat, ready for felting

but Gulmira’s effort was very impressive! The orange-looking things are actually pomegranates – she has a whole collection of artworks based around these fruits. As you can see, the resulting mat of wool can be several centimeters thick!

Gulmira's final wool mat ready for felting - felt workshop - Bishkek
Gulmira’s final wool mat is a little more intricate than mine

Step 5: Felt making workshop

Lay fine gauze over the wool mat and wet thoroughly with hot water. The idea is to saturate the wool and compress it into a thin layer while retaining the design.

So this is what the washing up sponge was for…

Step 6: Felt making workshop

Now the soap came into play. To help speed up the process of matting, we took the soap and rubbed it vigorously into the mat through the gauze. Again this helped compress the wool fibres and aid in their transformation into a self-supporting felt.

Soaping and compressing the wool mat to make felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
… and this was the reason for the soap

I have to admit, I couldn’t seem to make mine mat together very well and Gulmira was brilliant at helping me finally get it to work. I suspect my layering of the fibres was not as good as it should have been (I didn’t have enough fibres laid), but we got there in the end.

Step 7: Felt making workshop

The next step was to take the saturated felt, roll it up tightly, and squeeze out much of the excess water.

Rolling is a crucial part of felt making

It was then time to roll it from every side to make it start to shrink. After going one round with the gauze still intact, we removed this layer and went again. After another round of rolling from all sides, we then carefully peeled the felt off the backing material and kept rolling – including diagonally now.

rolling the felt to make it shrink - felt workshop - Bishkek
Roll, roll, roll, roll. From every side, from every corner, until it is the size you want it to be and it is properly matted

We were being quite delicate and precious with our felt when we started this step, but eventually Gulmira stepped in and showed us how vigorous and rough we could get with the material. Traditionally, the felt product would be rolled with hands and trodden on for several hours in order to mat the fibres together. We were being far too gentle it seems!

In the end, my geometric design turned out a bit wonky – but that is the nature of Ala-kiyiz.

my finished felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
It’s a little wonky… perhaps I shouldn’t have gone with straight lines on my first try?

I was very impressed by the designs the others had created (most of which turned out less wonky than mine) and Gulmira’s pomegranates looked amazing!

finished felts of all participants - felt workshop - Bishkek
Final felts from Dina, Rahat, Gulmira and Sjannie (clockwise from top left)

She was actually going to take it home and work on it a lot more – rolling it until it had shrunk down to about 1/4 size so she could make earrings out of it!

detail of Gulmira's pomegranate felt - felt workshop - Bishkek
Now I understand the structure! The pomegranates are mirrored so they can be folded over and gathered together into a dual-sided earring! Clever!

Recommendation

In my opinion, the best souvenirs are either the ones you purchase directly from an artisan, or ones that you make yourself under the instruction of an artisan. The Felt Workshop hosted by Bishkek Walks is a wonderful opportunity to create your own felt product using a traditional Kyrgyz technique, and is a wonderful way to experience first hand the challenges involved in creating these impressive everyday items. I can’t imagine making a whole carpet like this!

Felt workshop group with our finished felts - Bishkek
Our finished felts

Time: ~3hrs or a bit longer, depending on the group.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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Mosaic walking tour – Bishkek

Having explored an obscure but interesting part of the history of Kyrgyzstan’s capital on the Interhelpo: The making of industrial Bishkek walking tour with Bishkek Walks, I immediately signed up for Rahat’s Mosaics of Bishkek: Soviet Street Art exploration. I have a particular fascination for street art wherever I go so was very keen to see what Bishkek had to offer.

Detail of one of the mosaics on the Bishkek mosaic walking tour

An added interest for this particular tour was that all of these artworks were created between the 1960s and 1980s to highlight the positive elements of the Soviet system and “inspire citizens with beautiful everyday surroundings”. I was curious to see what this looked like.

Sunny Fish Fountain

We met less than 100m from where I’m staying in central Bishkek (literally around the nearest corner) at a large fountain that I must have walked past at least 10 times but never noticed! 😳

Rahat talking about the Sunny Fish Fountain
How did I manage to miss this?

The Sunny Fish Fountain was built in 1982 by Russian designer Vladimir Krugman as Soviet limitations on artistic freedom were relaxing. It is pretty easy to see how it got its name 🙂

Sun and fish of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Fish and sun anyone?

The tiles are made from melted glass stained with different compounds, some of which had to be transported all the way from Belarus. The artists involved in the project had to travel, create each tile, transport it back to Bishkek and erect the statue themselves – quite an undertaking for a fountain as large as this!

The whole and details of the Sunny Fish Fountain - Bishkek
Sunny Fish Fountain seen in its entirety and in detail

Ala-Too Movie Theatre

Our next stop was a few blocks away at the avant-garde Ala-Too movie theatre. This is the oldest cinema in Bishkek and is recognised as a cultural monument of the Kyrgyz people. Rahat explained a little about the history of social change in Kyrgyzstan during the life of the theatre, before focusing in on the artwork that decorates the upper part of the building.

Walking tour group in front of Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek

It turns out, this is not the original decoration! In 1963, to mark the 100th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia, the original horses were replaced by panels showing the achievements of the Soviet Union, including a man with a dove to symbolise peace, a cosmonaut to represent scientific achievements, and people reading books to symbolise education.

Artwork panels on Ala-Too movie theatre - Bishkek
A cosmonaut, the Soviet star, education alongside agriculture, the hammer and sickle, and a symbol of peace now adorn the Ala-Too movie theatre

Labor mosaic

After a stop at the Monument of Friendship (another creation to mark 100 years of Kyrgyzstan joining Russia) and a discussion of the Women mosaic and others that visitors are now not able to see because they are located in a privately owned buildings, we walked about 1km west to find our next artwork.

The Labor mosaic by Mihail Bochkarev and Altymysh Usubaliev was created in 1964 and was one of the first mosaics in Krygyzstan. The panel depicts some of the working class of the Soviet Union (farmers and factory workers) and also some of the more intellectual achievements (scientists sending rockets to outer space).

Walking tour group in front of the Labor mosiac - Bishkek
Note how the mural is located on the side of a pretty standard Soviet building

They used river pebbles as a cheap and convenient material to create the artwork, and it is an example of how artists attempted to beautify empty space on the walls of otherwise boring Soviet buildings.

An unusual thing about this mosaic is that it includes a panel with the names of the artists. Since artwork was supposed to be created for the enjoyment of all people, the artists themselves were generally not deemed important and very few include this acknowledgement.

The Path to Enlightenment mosaic

Another kilometre further west (yes, there is a fair bit of walking in this tour), we arrived at one of the campuses of the Kyrgyz National University whose back entrance sports an amazing mosaic called The Path to Enlightenment.

Walking tour group in front of the Path to Enlightenment mosaic - Bishkek
The front entrance is not nearly as beautiful

Created in 1974 by Satar Aitiev, it remains a mystery how this particular mosaic was even allowed! During this period, the Kyrgyz Union of Artists dictated that all artwork had to be accessible and easily understandable to the common person without explanation or interpretation. They had a lot of control over what an artist could create and would intervene in the design of artworks if they did not adhere to their guidelines

The Path of Enlightenment mosaic in Bishkek

Its modernist, painting-like feel was completely at odds with anything that had ever been done in before Kyrgyzstan and definitely requires some interpretation! The passive figures are in stark contrast to the strong and active figures typical of Soviet style art, and although religion was not part of the Soviet era in Kyrgyzstan, the central figure is almost spiritual in nature.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic

Our next stop was Bishkek’s telecommunications office and its very relevant mural of a giant sending out radio waves. Science was a favourite topic for artists during the Soviet time (we’ve already seen scientists depicted in the murals above), and this science-related mosaic was again made from cheap, local pebbles.

Radio and Nowadays mosaic - Bishkek
Note the use of pebbles to make up the mosaic

The Lenin is with us mosaic

The final artwork we visited on the tour, Lenin is with us, turned out to be another vast mural canvas. Created in 1978 by Lidia Ilyina (a rare female artist), it depicts the whole of Soviet society, including soldiers of the Red Army, female and male working class citizens, students, pioneers and, of course, Lenin.

Walking group in front of part of the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Interestingly, all of the men are depicted with some kind of profession while the women play a support role. As a female artist, whether this was her artistic impression of the realities of society at the time and she wanted to send a message within the constraints of the Artist’s Union guidelines, or whether it was simply an order from the state – nobody knows.

Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

We also don’t know whether the fact that Lenin (depicted in his classic posture showing the way to communism) occupies a significant portion of the mural perhaps indicates the artist felt that Lenin was being forgotten. Unfortunately, records were not kept about any of the artworks created at the time and so many remain open to historical interpretation.

Lenin figure in the Lenin is with us mosaic - Bishkek

Recommendation

If you are interested in the history of a location told through artwork, the Bishkek Mosaics Walking Tour is fantastic.

Rahat had a lot of information about each of the mosaics and wove them together with the story of the Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet era history in a really amazing tour. She covered a lot more than what I’ve summarised above so definitely do the tour to learn more!

Time: 2hrs. Note: it is about 4km of walking and you end in a different place from where you start. Rahat can offer advice on how to get back to where you need to go.

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.

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Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek – walking tour

When I was in Kyrgyzstan 2 years ago, I really wanted to participate in the walking tours offered by Bishkek Walks. Dennis from Walking Almaty (the Green Bazaar and Golden Quarter tours are two of the best walking tours I’ve ever done) recommended them to me, but unfortunately I did not have enough time, given our small delay in mud of the Tamgaly Petroglyphs in Kazakhstan.

I was therefore very excited to see that the day after I arrived for my second trip to Bishkek, the Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek walking tour was scheduled. Yes – it is a bit of a random theme for a walking tour. But this is what I love about about tours offered by Bishkek Walks and Walking Almaty! They go beyond the standard history spiel and tour of obvious buildings to showcase something different and unusual about these cities.

Selfies of me, Rahat and David
David (right) joined myself and Rahat (centre; the guide) on the Interhelpo walking tour. Thanks for the photo Rahat!

The story of Interhelpo

Rahat began by explaining the origin of Interhelpo – a cooperative of industrial workers and farmers who came to Bishkek in the 1920s from Žilina, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Their goal: to build a socialist economy within Soviet Kyrgyzstan and introduce modern industrial and agricultural practices to the country. As Rahat explains in her blurb about the tour:

More than one thousand workers including their family members arrived in Kyrgyzstan – a pure land that was free from capitalism, and where they could build a new, equal socialist society.

As we walked down a seemingly non-descript street lined by the houses built by Interhelpo members, Rahat painted a detailed picture of the hardships and challenges faced by these intrepid souls when they first arrived in Bishkek.

Scenes from the street with Rahat showing us before photos of the area and the way people lived
Rahat had many historical photos to illustrate her descriptions of Interhelpo and how the people lived
Photos of the exteriors of different houses built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
Some of the different houses built by Interhelpo. The man in the main panel invited us into his home. Here he is explaining that the original Czech exterior is the green layer and the grey “shell” decoration was added as a “beautification” in the 1970s. You can also see some whales/dolphins (bottom-left) and a rocket (bottom-centre) that were also added as part of this beautification process.

Even now, families living in the apartments that were built during that time do not have a lot of luxuries. We were lucky enough to meet a man who invited us into his small and crowded home for a short visit. There was very limited light and the walls were so thick (at least 30cm!) the lady of the house complained that there was no way you could make modifications even if you wanted to.

I guess buildings were constructed in this “brute force” manner as the Interhelpo cooperative did not include any architects or engineers in their midst!

Scenes from inside one of the Interhelpo apartment buildings - Bishkek
Inside the dark hallways of one of the Interhelpo apartment buildings

The achievements of Interhelpo

Despite this difficult start, the members of Interhelpo went on to achieve a great deal in a very short time through sheer determination and hard work.

At the centre of their endeavours were the all-important factories they originally envisaged. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter (it is now a modern industrial complex) but you can clearly see it is the same gate in the image below.

Modern day and historic images of the gate to the factories of Interhelpo
Modern day (top) and historic (bottom) photo of the main gate to the factories. You can see it is the same gate if you look for the 3 doors that are now hidden behind the blue gate

They also built a vibrant community that operated under Socialist ideals. This included a Community House – complete with theatre and meeting rooms.

The theatre inside the Interhelpo community centre - Bishkek
The theatre inside the old Interhelpo Community Centre. Note the old-fashioned chairs.

An impressive stadium that you are still able to rent out for 900 Kyrgyzstani Som (about USD$13) per hour. I love the old board showing matches between the different factories (vertical) for the different sporting events (horizontal).

Images from outside and inside the stadium built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
Outside and inside the stadium built by Interhelpo. Bottom-left is the old match fixtures board.

A swimming complex. I’m not sure I would want to swim there myself, but the kids were having fun and I thought the diving platforms (now into an empty diving pool) were awesome.

Images of the swimming complex built by Interhelpo - Bishkek
The main pool (top) was filled with water but I wouldn’t want to jump off the impressive diving platforms (bottom) at the minute!

And amazingly large parks that have been revived in recent years by the descendants of Interhelpo members and funding from the Czech government.

Rahat and David walking in one of the parks built by Interhelpo
Part of the large park established by Interhelpo and recently revived.

Interhelpo also built many more buildings and a lot of the basic infrastructure of Bishkek before dissolving in 1943 and having its assets transferred into the hands of the State. An ironic end to this interesting experiment in socialism.

Recommendation

If you are interested in history and want to learn about a different aspect of the development of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, the Interhelpo and the making of industrial Bishkek walking tour is a great option.

It was a fascinating 2hr stroll through an area of Bishkek that tourists don’t generally visit, learning about a history that few people are even aware of. Rahat has loads of stories and details that I haven’t gone into here – you actually have to do the tour to learn more 😉

Time: 2hrs

Cost: About USD$10 – $22 depending on number of people.