30 November 2016

Expat Stopovers: Bishkek

There are so many places that you get to go to as an Expat that you might not otherwise decide to visit.  I would hazard a guess that not many people based outside of Central Asia would choose to go to Kyrgyzstan on holiday.  That is a real shame as it is a beautiful country with amazing alpine scenery and an interesting history.  It is also visa free for many nationalities.

Bishkek, Capital of Kyrgyzstan on a rather overcast day.
The capital, Bishkek, is only a short flight from Astana so a few years ago we decided it would be the perfect spot for a short break for Nauruz (Persian New Year) at the end of March.  I was 15 weeks pregnant at the time so  a short hop was ideal.  At that time Astana is usually still on the cold side although winter is loosening its grip.  Bishkek is quite a bit further south and very close to Almaty (the former capital and largest city of Kazakhstan) and has a much more temperate climate. The downside of this is that unlike Astana which is typically dry with wide blue skies, Bishkek can be overcast and wet.

Traces of the Soviet past are still in evidence.
Bishkek, unlike Astana, is a low rise city, all the better to enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. It  is very typically Soviet in its design looking very like Karaganda and other similar cities (broad boulevards lined with apartment blocks).  The city is very green and there are ample small parks for children to play in or people to stroll through.

Parks and open spaces can be found all over the city.
Our rental apartment was about 45 minutes walk from the centre of town we decided to orient ourselves to the city with the short walk to Chuy Prospect, the central artery of the city.  After lunch (Bishkek has excellent restaurants at very good prices) we took in the main sites.  These are mostly clustered around Ala-Too Park and include the Krgyz White House (Parliament), the National Flag (much smaller than its equivalent in Astana) and many statues in typical Soviet style including a very large one of Lenin.  After that we went on  to the market.  This bazaar was refreshingly unpretentious, there were, of course, a few stalls selling national costumes, magnets and the like but many more selling pieces of tack for horses, plumbing equipment, babygrows and so on.  There were even doctors’ offices operating out of the market.

The Burana Minaret is a short drive out of the city

Now restored the tower was in a very poor state
when the Soviets took over the country.
Not all aspects of the restoration have been well done...

The inside climb is steep and narrow
The following day we hired a driver to take us out to the Burana Minaret about 80km from Bishkek.  This tower is all that is left of an old Krgyz city on the silk road.  The site is fairly open and, along with the tower it is possible to look around some old mausoleums and grave markers.  There is a small museum on site which gives details of renovations that have been undertaken since the 70s and information on the artefacts excavated in the area.  The babushka in charge was extremely friendly and more than happy to talk about the place and her experiences during her time there and the restoration work that has been carried out.  The tower has been repaired and can be climbed.  Miss EE was keen to get to the top and took Mr EE with her.  Master EE and I stayed at the viewing platform half way up and watched a Krgyz bridal couple on their photo tour come to have shots taken at this iconic site.  Unfortunately the bridal party started the climb in the narrow upper section of the Minaret before Master EE and I could take our turn.
Markers cover the ground surrounding the minaret

The complex is large and covers a lot of ground

It is a favourite spot on bridal photo tours
The city must have been impressive in its time.
The following day our friendly driver took us out along the old silk road (now a rather unromantic and poorly maintained highway)  towards lake Issyk-Kul.  One of the largest (10th)and deepest lakes in the world it is slightly saline and never freezes despite being exposed to some very cold temperatures.

The modern silk road...

In training to be a security guard
The lake was used a naval test site in Soviet years and a portion is still leased to Russia (and I think, India although I am not sure) for these purposes.  It was also a very popular Soviet tourist destination and the shores are dotted with old sanitoria.  There is excellent hiking and trekking in the area and had we not had the children with us we might have stayed the night in order to indulge in some mountain walks to view the famous petroglyps that abound in the local area.  Instead we went to the town of Cholpon Ata where we spent some time in the small museum which documents what life was like in the area from prehistoric to pre soviet times.  We bought some fruit, grown in the orchards that pepper the local area to keep us going on the way home and as a gift for the wife of our driver.

Spring is still low season so the sanitoria are left for the animals to enjoy,
a few months later and the beaches will be teeming with holiday makers

Just saline enough to prevent the lake from freezing in the winter
local livestock still find it potable.
On  the way home we stopped off to see the monument to Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky, a chair of the Russian Geological Society  and the man responsible for much of the initial exploration of the Tian Shan mountains, the surprisingly lovely monument is surrounded by a small park and shows the gentleman as a young man and explorer.

Pyotr Semyonov Tian Shansky
Miss EE came down with a horrible bout of tonsillitis running a very high temperature, she was so bad that the insurers said that had we been in Astana they would have wanted her in the clinic, as we were in Bishkek where they were not comfortable with the facilities on offer they gave us the option of driving to Almaty in KZ (just the other side of the mountains) or taking care of her ourselves and bringing her in for a check up on our return to Astana.  I have found that insurers tend to err on the side of caution by a massive degree and while she was clearly ill and in need of antibiotics we thought she would be able to wait 24 hours.  I always, always, travel with children’s medicine and this was the one and only time I could not find it.  Mr EE went out to find a 24 hour pharmacy.  There were plenty available but the one he went to operated on an intercom system  and as any expat or traveller knows a lack of face to face contact makes communication very difficult when you are not 100% fluent in a language.  Whether they did not have it or whether the intercom scrambled his accent too badly they did not give him ‘children’s paracetamol’ but ordinary tablets.  A quick call to the insurers told us how much to give per KG though and we were able to grind them up in some juice to give her some pain and fever relief

We enjoyed a tour of some of the other city centre sites while cafe
hopping for Miss EE.

We stayed in the apartment for as long as possible the next morning before dropping the bags and getting a taxi (for Miss EEs benefit) into town.  Once there we went straight to a pharmacy to get some children’s paracetamol  and ibuprofen syrups. We then spent some time in the rather fascinating museum devoted to the history of the Kyrgyz people, Mr EE and I taking turns to walk around  with Master EE while the other sat with Miss EE asleep in our laps.  Unsurprisingly a large portion of the museum was taken up with the history of Soviet rule.  I always find it interesting to look at things from a different perspective, to see how the people who lived (and prospered and suffered) under Soviet rule view it with the benefit of hindsight and compare it to the view we have from the west.  Museums such as this one are a wonderful resource.  Once we had exhausted all the museum had to offer we were at a loose end.  While there was much we would have wished to see in the City we could not really make poor Miss EE walk around any more than she needed to.  We therefore decided to engage in a sort of café crawl, looking for places with comfortable sofas where she could sleep in between being dosed with medicine.  The crawl took us slowly but surely back to our bags and onwards by taxi to the airport, home and antibiotics.

Good To Know

The currency is the Som and the cost of goods is very cheap.  Be aware that most ATMs only take Visa, our Kazakh bank cards (Mastercard) were next to useless to get money out although we could use them to pay for goods by PIN.  Luckily our English bank cards are Visa supported and we were able to use those to take out money.  English is not widely spoken away from the main hotels so be prepared to communicate in Russian.

We hired a driver because it worked out cheaper than a car hire over a short period.  I understand self drive rentals are easily available.  Petrol was more expensive in Kyrgyzstan than Kazakhstan at the time of our visit, we were surprised at how expensive it was compared with goods like fresh food which was much cheaper than KZ.

We went in the early spring for two reasons, firstly we wanted to visit in a quiet season and secondly it was the time we had available to devote to a trip there.  The weather in spring is warm (15 degrees) but can be wet and overcast.  Winter will not be too cold (ie more alpine as opposed to Astana style cold) and summer is warm and sunny but busy.

For more posts on expat life please click on the photo below.

Ersatz Expat

3 November 2016

Travel At Home 10

Welcome back to Travel At Home. Wherever you are in the world there are probably so many wonderful and fascinating things to see.  If you are anything like my family it becomes all too easy to ignore the sites close to home, falling prey to the belief that they will 'always be there'.  Familiarity breeds contempt and we hanker after the exotic.  But the truth is that what is home for one person is exotic to many others.  As an expat family we get to be at home in a wide range of different places and we try to make sure that we make the most of any place we are living right now, getting out and exploring as much as possible.  

Travel at Home is the linky for people who want to write about their home (or host) location and all the places that don't make it into a guide book (but really should).  You don't have to be an expat to participate, just someone with a passion for their local area.  The link will be open for a week so there is plenty of time to add your post (or posts).  If you notice that something does not work as it should or you think I could improve something please do let me know.

Last month we travelled around Africa, Europe and the Middle East.  My favourite post was Eco Gites of Lenault on the commemorations of the Battle of Hastings from the Norman Perspective.  Visit the website to see more on the fascinating history of Normandy, I know I would love to book a stay there.

There are just a few rules:
  • Share your post - it can be a new post or an old one you want to share with a new audience.
  • You can write about anywhere you have a strong connection, home country, current host or former host.
  • Add the link up button and code to your post so that people can navigate back easily
  • Comment on some of the other posts on the link up (the more the merrier)
  • Tweet/share your link.  If you include me (@ErsatzExpat) in your tweet I will retweet.
  • Add your post to the Travel At Home Pinterest Board contact me via Pinterest and I will add you to the board.
  • Spread the word - the more the merrier and everyone is welcome.

Monthly link ups will go in the main feed but will then be linked to a tab (see above) for reference.  Thank you in advance for linking up and participating in this venture.  I look forward to enjoying some vicarious visits in the next few days.   

Ersatz Expat

Monasteries in Mardin

My Travel at Home piece for this week is a retrospective, dating back to our time in Turkey.  For various reasons we were not always able to drive far from Diyarbakir but when we did manage to do some exploration it was always a memorableexperience.  In August 1995, to take my mind away from my impending A Level results and whether they would be enough to allow me to start university that October (they were fine) some family friends, one of whom, a lawyer, I did work experience with during my holidays, joined us on a drive down to the town of Mardin on the Turkish/Syrian border.
View across the border into Syria beyond.
Mardin is an old town, there has been a settlement there since the Bronze Age.  It is also very beautiful, watch the  spectacularly enjoyable film Ek Tha Tiger (a Bollywood James Bond type film but so much better than the Hollywood versions) and you will see the town featured in the opening sequence.  It has a commanding presence on the hillside and the plains of Syria stretch out below.  Back in 1995 Syria was peaceful, 20 years on things are very different.  Mardin became Christian during the Roman period and was a seat of a Bishopric (it is still a titular Catholic See).  Following the Ottoman conquest the region became Muslim but given the tolerance of the Ottomans for ‘people of the book’, Christians were allowed to continue to practice their religion.  Mardin became a centre for various Christian sects including Armenian Catholics, Syriacs and Chaldeans, the churches nestled in amongst the mosques of the town.

The Saffron Monastery on the outskirts of town.

There was still a small but devout Catholic community at the time of our visit and the churches were open to visit.  We stopped at the Catholic Church of Meryemana (Mary), similar to most Catholic churches it fascinated our Turkish friends who wanted to know about the forms of worship and meanings behind the decorations and took the opportunity to quiz a member of our party who had grown up Catholic.

The monastery gets its colloquial name from the yellow colour of the walls.
From there we went on to the real object of our visit, the Syriac Monastery of Daryo d-Mor Hananyo also known as the Monastery of St. Ananias or the Saffron Monastery. Like the town it lies near, the Saffron Monastery has had a long history.  The site was originally home to a Temple dedicated to a Sun God (the remains of which can still be seen in an underground vault).  The Romans turned it into a citadel and when they left in the 490s this citadel became a monastery. The monastery has been rebuilt several times and even abandoned for periods in the intervening centuries but the dedication to Mor Hananyo is in memory of a Bishop who carried out renovations in the 8th Century.  In the 12th Century the Monastery became the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church.  The seat moved to Damascus in the 30s but much of the official regalia is still held by the Monastery and several Patriarchs are buried there.

The Syriac Orthodox Church claims descent from some of the earliest Christian communities.  It has a large presence in countries such as India and Sweden but very few still in Mardin.  Some are still in residence, however, and it remains a working monastery.  One of the residents was happy to take us round and talk to us about the history of the Monastery which amongst other things had housed the first printing press in Turkey. The monastery was clearly in need of some renovation which, I understand, has now taken place.  It was, nevertheless beautiful and impressive, the Church of the Monastery in particular which at the time of our visit was dark, atmospheric and impossible to photograph.   After our tour we were invited to enjoy the grounds and picnic in the groves of Apricot Trees, a peaceful and beautiful place.

Looking back at the photographs I realise that we only have 11 or 12 to mark our day there and very few are good quality.  We did not get any pictures of the spectacular interiors of the Churches we visited, film was expensive to buy and even more to develop.  How different to today when we would have 30 or 40 each on our telephones, taking a chance on whether or not they would come out.  The place is, however, deeply ingrained in my memory, perhaps more so than if I had been able to photograph everything we saw.

Jimmy, our Nigerian rescue dog came everywhere with us and
enjoyed his picnic.
Posted as part of the Travel At Home Blog Link Up, click on the link to see posts from other bloggers.

Ersatz Expat