The 6 month mark on our lives in Bishkek has come and gone. I have never lived anywhere that has engendered a vaster range of opinions; we recently read an article in which Bishkek was named one of the top 30 worst cities to live in – in the world. The article cited “the government battling continual attacks from members of the Islamic State”, prompting us to question whether we live in a huge bubble where we don’t hear about frequent terrorist attacks in our small city of 1 million, or if the media can just be that dead wrong. (answer: the media often gets things wrong when it comes to Bishkek). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan has been named one of the top countries to travel to this year by Business Insider. And by Ryan.
Our friends reflect such a mix of positive and negative experiences in Kyrgyzstan. Ryan’s brother loves Bishkek and views it as a magical place where interesting people mingle and anything can happen. Most of our friends view Bishkek with the same mixed opinions most people feel about where they live: the good and the bad coincide, but it’s generally a livable place. And then two of our friends open knives before they walk home at night.
Bishkek is an extremely diverse place, so it’s easy to see how perceptions of the place could be so drastic. For us, it is strange living in a place where we are so economically advantaged. While we revel in the ridiculously affordable restaurant scene, ordering what we want off the menu without assessing the price and never turning down a drink refill, we lament the pile of burning trash down the street that sends choking fumes wafting through our garden. At the same time, it is hard living in comfort while knowing that so many people in this country suffer from poverty and lack of necessities. Our neighbor to the south has a huge 3 story mansion, while our neighbor immediately north has a poorly constructed shack. The binary between the positive and negative is always at play for me here.
Things We Love:
1. Community: The people who live in Bishkek are all interesting. Obviously, they all live in Bishkek, so it’s fun just hearing how everyone ended up in Kyrgyzstan of all places. Expats here are generally caring and intelligent, with a high population of the expat community working places like the UN, the Peace Corps, USAID, or foreign embassies. Local friends are thoughtful, open, and friendly, and interesting. Although there aren’t a huge number of expats, Bishkek, like anywhere, is full of people from all over the world, always there to offer a new perspective. The community here is also really active; there is always something to do, between the Women’s Club organizing events like photography classes or book clubs, concerts with surprisingly good Beatle’s cover bands, and lovely outdoor cafes to meet and eat fairly good food.
2. Our House: Now that we have it (it was surprisingly hard to find), we love our house. We have a comfortably huge house with lots of space, and a beautiful yard where we have started gardening and can hang out in hammocks and bask in the sunshine in our own quiet neighborhood. This is our first house and Roxie’s first yard, a comfortable haven from some of Bishkek’s less desirable qualities.
3. Possibilities: Last month I toyed around with the idea of opening a yoga studio with a friend. Ryan’s brother is building and opening a Thai vegetarian restaurant. The kinds of business ventures that are risky and seem like far-off dreams in the US can happen here if you want them to, and quickly.
4. Affordability: We eat out when we want to, buy what groceries we want, order what drinks we want, travel where we want, and otherwise do what we want without the shackles of financial woes. Although we are still reasonable with our money (we aren’t throwing it around), we live day to day without thinking about money, which was impossible on our income in the US. We are free of student loans and other debts, meeting our saving goals, and still able to live freely. It will be a hard thing to let go when leaving Bishkek.
Things That Are Hard To Love:
1. Trash: The streets are littered. There are dumpsters, but many people don’t use them. We have a dumpster literally around our corner, but once spring hit at least three people on our block piled their trash up and burned it, like it was some sort of yearly practice – a spring cleaning that ruined the air for the rest of us. It doesn’t help that there appears to be a system where dump trucks pick up trash at random points along the road, so people set out bags of trash that are generally picked at by animals and people scavenging for plastic or other goods before the truck gets there. What this actually means is that most of the time there is trash everywhere. It’s also painful to us that people just like to light their trash on fire, dumpsters be damned. One day we looked out of our apartment window, and the dumpster was on fire. We thought it was an accident until it happened again a month later. Someone was lighting the trash in the dumpster on fire – a dumpster that is regularly serviced by dump trucks.
2. Strays: It breaks our heart to walk by stray dogs and cats every day. Winter was the worst, walking by dogs in the freezing cold and knowing that they don’t have regular food, water, or shelter. The most difficult was the morning we walked outside to see a neighborhood stray dead on the street, much thinner than she had been the last time we saw her a few weeks ago. We guess she had gotten really sick, and hope that the fact that she had been missing and her body was laid out by a house meant that someone had been caring for her in her final days. In addition to the emotionality of seeing strays everywhere, Roxie is aggressive to other dogs. We can’t take strays in because they won’t get along with our Roo, and when we’re on the street and she sees dogs it causes a conflict that we need to avoid, hiding around corners and sometimes picking Roxie up until the stray is out of sight. We helped get an injured stray to an overpacked shelter, but otherwise haven’t been able to find a way to do much for the plight of animals here.
3. Police: We often joke that nothing and everything can happen here. It’s uncomfortable thinking about the bad things that come of bribery, but it’s also nice to think that if you get pulled over while driving, the worst that generally happens is you pay a small bribe (the best being you pay for the actual infraction, whether it happened or not). Although we haven’t had any scary police encounters, we are cognizant of the stories we have heard from others. When police are around we are quiet so they don’t hear us speaking English and don’t make eye contact, and remember to carry our passports with us wherever we go.
4. Surprises: Our friends regularly joke about the penises they see walking to school – I believe they have counted 3. They also saw a man squat and poop in a bush in broad daylight on the side of the busiest road in Bishkek. While we, luckily, haven’t dealt with genitals, we have encountered drunk men asking me if I will kiss them (a surprise twist in his otherwise incomprehensibly drunk Russian slurring) and being threatened with a knife because Roxie growled. This category is difficult, because it’s something that’s obviously not isolated to Bishkek or Kyrgyzstan (this stuff happens everywhere in the world, unfortunately), but is present here.
Really, every place in the world has things that are more and less ideal. We are happy to be living in an interesting, different, and naturally beautiful place, where we are generally safe and comfortable. Bishkek might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly has a different flavor than anywhere else in the world. So many people have such radically different views on Bishkek, but our day to day life has the ups and downs that you will find anywhere else in the world.