Sunday, 16 September 2012

Kyrgyzstan and Kommunism

Central Asia is a fascinating place. It's at a sort-of crossroads between the Soviet past and the Chinese future, Kyrgyzstan especially. The time before and after the actual climbing (in Bishkek and on the 'road') gave me a chance to get a look at the place and see what the dark underbelly of the USSR was like.

From a Western perspective, Bishkek is a bit odd. Soviet architecture, engineering and city planning dominate, but with propaganda posters long replaced by advertising and Islamic influences on show. Red East meets Green east, if you will, with the only 'West' on display being the ludicrous amount of German cars mingled amongst the Ladas and Moskvitches.

Imagine the capital city of a Borat-esque Central Asian republic and you'll come up with an image almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Bishkek.

Ala-Too Square, looking delightfully Soviet

It was built by the Russians/Soviets and as such is a big grid, with loads of irrigation channels feeding trees that keep the sun off in the hot summer. It's almost fully paved (albeit with few road markings) and has loads of trolley busses and taxibusses, and some pretty mad traffic. Everything's in Russian, which is the main language in the city, ahead of Kyrgyz which dominates elsewhere. It's not as ramshackle as you'd think, and looks largely like any Soviet city, although with a lot more eastern influence.

What surprised me most is that despite the crash westernisation of the economy in the early 90s and the weak local economy a lot of things we're used to in the west haven't (at least not yet) crept in. Even in Russia you can see McDonald's and a whole host of franchises and massive supermarkets and department stores, but in Bishkek the biggest shops are the Narodny you see everywhere which aren't much bigger than corner shops in the UK, and there's not a single McDonald's, Starbucks, Burger King or KFC (Hallelujah). The West never quite conquered this place, and the only international chain I could spot was Gazprom, the Russian state owned oil company (Kyrgyzstan has no oil). The best spot for shopping in town was the eclectic Osh Bazaar, where you could buy pretty much absolutely anything at excellent prices.

So there's hope yet, the bland homogeneity of globalisation has so far left Kyrgyzstan alone, meaning any chains are reasonably local ones, and most shops are of the kiosk variety, with a lot of street vending.
Nyet, tovarisch McDonald (и-ай-и-ай-о)
I'm class at image manipulation

Communism was pretty kind to this place, and it still shows. The Soviet era buildings of the main square are far more impressive than the stock exchange, which looks a bit like a shed.
Outside of Bishkek, things get rurul pretty quickly, and the roads get pretty bad. I think I saw two roadsigns in 300 km. The south-east is very nomadic - but some of the nomads, who own large flocks of horses, are among the richest in the country, as each horse is worth about $1000.

Before the Soviet era Kyrgyyzstan was a poor, nomadic nation with zero industry or infrastructure. In the Soviet days the Kyrgyz gained new opportunities, and Moscow invested heavily to build the towns and cities as well as basic infrastructure and an industrial base.
Nowadays, it's a relatively poor country again but at least the Soviet legacy has left it something to work with - reasonably robust infrastructure that they couldn't afford to install themselves. And robust it is - Soviet apartment blocks won't win any prizes for beauty, but they were cheap and provided desperately needed housing, and they've lasted well. Supposedly badly made 70s/80s era Ladas are ten a penny and running well, alongside even older Moskvitches.
 It's all a bit rough round the edges (no Health and Safety mollycoddling nonsense here) with irrigation channels exposed, holes in roads, gas burners with no cutoff and no smoke alarm or fire escape and roads under construction but still open as prime examples. Cars in Kyrgyzstan are raised (not lowered like they are here) to deal with the roads.
 I like the idea of no-nonsense infrastructure, with nobody holding your hand or looking over your shoulder in case your silly enough to hurt yourself. Just enough to get the job done and last well, with no expense wasted on aesthetics - functionalism has its own inherent beauty I suppose.

A lot of Kyrgyz people who remember the USSR miss it. They went from being part of something big and stable to being their own small and (until recently) badly run middle-of-nowhere Republic. Industry never recovered to pre-collapse levels and the standard of living is only now recovering. The image you get in the West of the USSR as an evil empire bent on world domination doesn't seem to hold true, with the Soviet Union seeming as more of a benevolent but authoritarian dad to Kyrgyzstan.

There's Communism in Kyrgyzstan's future, although of a very different kind. The place seems to be in the process of being bought by China, who see it as an important gateway to Asia. While there I saw many huge Chinese trucks travelling on Kyrgyz roads, and construction crews brought in from China to build new roads. Kyrgyzstan may have found a new authoritarian dad.

Food for thought. Current economic trends suggest that a more planned economy might not be a bad idea after all. I've been doing a bit of reading on the Cuban model of sustainable planned economics... hmm.

Anyway, enough pseudo-intellectualism. The All-Ireland is on tomorrow. Up Donegal.

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