First Photo: Bishkek


Bishkek is still illogical to me, even on my third stay. The question of the direction of development in this country – completely indecipherable, because all players and factors are inconsistent. And development requires the existence of some system reliable enough for people to make future predictions.

Take this photo for example: I’m not quite sure what is happening, but there are a lot of potatoes, a lada-taxi, and a marshrutka (minivan bus) right outside the gats to the apartment complex where I live in Jal, one of the southern districts of Bishkek.  Jal itself is an odd place – home to some of the only modern highrise apartment complexes in the country, and a few thousand “American style” private homes in wretched messy suburban sprawl, all with no sense of landscape architecture or street planning.  Interspersed in between are old soviet style apartment blocks and railroad cars that have been converted into temporary homes; bulletins for new complexes and fashion stores; restaurants and stores serving the poorest of food for the cheapest of prices; chain grocery-convenience stores open 24 hours a day and women selling apples on the street, mushy after winter and still more expensive than good produce in the US. Development isn’t by design. It just happens, haphazard.

The cars are just sitting there.  With bags of potatoes on the road.  The marshrutka driver was just sitting there, feet up on the dash board.  No idea where they were going, or how the potatoes ended up on the road, but it seemed to them an acceptable state of being. (And a lot of people I’ve talked to in Kyrgyzstan seem similarly directionless – some complaints, some desires, but no solid comprehensive vision of a future that is any different from today)

Police (The State): None there, though there are always a ton about, bothering people and collecting bribes for made-up traffic infringements like turning right on a green light or sitting in a car without your seat belt on. But the police presence (like the government presence) isn’t consistent – they won’t necessarily show up to direct traffic when needed, and there’s little sense that they will consistently enforce rules, that the rules really make sense, or that people will be held accountable to an indifferent and unwavering law.  Laws, furthermore, aren’t really used to build and enforce community values.  When broken (real or imaginary laws), most people choose to pay the police on hand a fine-bribe, and then go on with their day.

So what will Bishkek look like in five years?  How will it develop?  It’s hard to say – especially when there doesn’t seem to be a plan, there are no consistent actors, no steadfast rules or guidelines, no clear objectives.  I have no idea, but I’m guessing development will look a bit muddled, whatever direction it takes.



11 thoughts on “First Photo: Bishkek

  1. (1) How about mentioning how the Kyrgyz people and government are working to design & implement systems that overcome corruption? For example, nowadays you can pay your fines on the spot with an ATM swipe. The police carry a machine to run your ATM card for the penalty amount, the money goes directly to the government, and you can carry on with your day in an expedient & timely manner.

    Besides, the only times I have been pulled over by the police, I deserved it. One time it may have been considered a speed trap by how quickly the speed limit changed from 60km to 40km, but I was speeding. Another time, a person really was in the crosswalk. Speaking Russian with me, the genuinely concerned officer took the time to ask me to be more careful. I appreciate that police enforce rules such as cars stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks here – what a way to enhance community values! Also, I think it is awesome that police in this gorgeous country cannot carry guns.


    • Hmm… I work in development, and I would say that change is still slow. A lot of civilians want it; some actors in the government definitely want it; a lot of people are still working against it, because they benefit from current corruption. A lot of those police you mention will claim that their “card reader is broken” (it’s not; they’re often off-duty police who shouldn’t be there in the first place) and demand a cash bribe. If you haven’t been pulled over so often, you probably have embassy plates. I’ve noticed on our own account that we’ve barely ever gotten pulled over after E’s workplace gave him a sticker ID for the windshield – it looks quite similar to the government IDs, and no police officer wants to deal with that. Corruption with the traffic police isn’t going to change until there’s an ‘expedient’ way to report irregular behavior, as a foreigner or as an ordinary citizen.
      I have, however, seen an increase in the number of police actually directing traffic since I wrote this post a little over a year ago.


    • Another thing you forgot in your assessment is racial/nationality profiling: as Americans (and female) we benefit from having a big embassy with a little in-country expat population (most residing here for legitimate or innocent reasons). I’ve actually never come across an American female residing in Bishkek who has experienced more than minor incidents with the police.
      For Turkish (and Indian, I’ve heard) citizens, particularly males, this is a different story – there is a high expat population (many of whom fall into the category of slightly-shady businessman, or students if they are Indian) and a local embassy with less power. Police know that businessmen often have money, and they are unlikely to report anything (as they might be doing quasi-legal dealings in the country in the first place). So if a cop pulls you over, and the man in the driver’s seat looks Turkish, be he businessman or not, a bribe/fine is far more likely. There are also certain areas of the city (like Jal) where bribe-taking police are far more present.


  2. (2) “No idea where they were going, or how the potatoes ended up on the road, but it seemed to them an acceptable state of being.”
    Did you try to really understand? Did you ask the driver where he was going? If so, in which languages? And anyway, why does he have to answer to your judgements of him? Who are you to judge again? And why should he have to bare the burden (extra work) of explaining himself and his country to you? As an extended guest, you bare the responsibility to put in the work to respectfully better understand the people, local system, and this country.


  3. Pingback: Idyllic Communities: Kyrgyzstan | Mountains And the Sea

  4. Pingback: Our Differentiated Experiences | Mountains And the Sea

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