First off, apologies for the many typing errors that might be in this post. I’m writing with a kitten sitting on me/my IPad.
The Dacha is a soviet holdover, something as essential to Russian identity as fishing cabins are to Minnesotans, or hockey games to Quebequois. It’s something mentioned over and over again in every Russian textbook I’ve seen, a trace reference running through society. “They listened to the radio while coming home from the dacha. “Sasha spent the summer at the dacha with her grandmother”. “He drove the kids to the dacha for the weekend”. It’s something that doesn’t quite translate into English – summer house, country cottage, vacation home, cabin. Most are just rustic bungalows outside of the city, in the mountains, by the sea on a lake, in the woods, by some village with a small vegetable plot. In their most basic form, they’re a reprieve from the city, somewhere simpler to escape to when the weather is warm. Bishkek might be predominantly Kyrgyz, but the dacha is one cultural holdover that’s now ethnically indistinguishable.
On Friday night we went to a terrible New Mexican restaurant (and I mean really terrible. Then we called up a local Turkmen/Kyrgyz friend who used to work at Bar 12, which used to be one of he classier bars in town (it’s apparently now full of money-flying self-important young VIPs). He and his wife and a few friends were at an outdoor cafe on the southern end of the city, the local type with bad karaoke, cheap beer, and Kyrgyz-style seats on a raised carpeted platform. Bad karaoke, but a good place to spend a summer evening. We chatted and drank two glasses of Arpa, a sweet light local beer, and were invited to BBQ at the dacha the following day.
***Important Interjectory Note*** DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE IN KYRGYZSTAN A country with underpaid, corrupt policemen still relying on soviet walkie-talkies will not/does not have the resources to give a breathalyzer test. If a policeman pulls anyone over any time on the weekend, they will smell your breath to determine if you’ve been drinking. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sunday morning, and you had one beer the night before. There is no legal blood alcohol limit (at least in practice), and you will get fined (i.e. pay a bribe) in the vicinity of $100 or risk having your license confiscated while you end up on a police blacklist. Most people just pay the fine. But since a taxi generally costs $2-3 anywhere in the city, it’s better to just plan ahead: if you think you might have even one beer or glass of wine after dinner, don’t drive. Even if you can still drive perfectly fine, police are prone to pull over foreigners for basically anything, even if it’s made up (like turning right on a green light, or sitting in your car without your seatbelt on) as foreigners make easy bribe targets (most bribes cost $4-$10, and foreigners are usually more willing to pay the bribe than go through the hassle of going to the central police office to register a complaint or pay the smaller fine in order to get their license back from the original police officer).***
On to the Dacha…
Just like American country cabins, lake houses, and hunting shacks, the Dacha takes on many forms. While Soviet-era officials may have had grande states around Sochi, most dachas around Bishkek are simpler affairs, run down and overrun, half an hour from the city but reached only by bad roads. There are communities of them, set behind the more commercially-oriented villages that face the main roads, warrens of bumpy dirt paths with a jumble of brick and wood houses encircled by small, overgrown yards. Most of the ones we saw look like they haven’t experienced upkeep since the 1980’s. But for Bishkekers, a Dacha isn’t a luxury experience – it’s a summer escape, a little land that provides opportunity for outdoor activities, respite from a city filled with dust, concrete and weeds (in some quarters at least).
We unpacked the cars, and brought all the food inside the tiny, two room dacha – little kitchen in the front, with matching little stove and a fridge similar to the one my grandmother must have used at their summer house…back in 1955; small sitting-bedroom in the back, with a single fold-down couch. Sardar and his family never actually stay here – they just come out for the day, and for now the house is little more than a place to put their stuff, for their toddler daughter to nap, for his wife to breastfeed heir infant.
The men cut down weeds (Urban-born E learned to use a scythe), the wife and baby napped, and it entertained the two-year-old with the neighbor’s chickens, cucumbers, and a giant umbrella leaf I found in the back lot.
We then prepared for the barbecue (shashlik). Men for mayonnaise on everything. E cut up the chicken, I prepared the spices, and then Sardar squished mayonnaise over it all “to marinade”. One thing I haven’t missed about not eating local food – the mayonnaise component. Two bites of a mayonnaise-fish-beet salad last New Years and I was ready to hurl. This time we prepared two cucumber-tomato salads, one with just vegetables and spices, one with vegetables, spices, and mayonnaise-yogurt. Guess which one disappeared first? As Sardar explained, “Of course the fresh salad is better, but…. mayonnaise“
While we waited for the shashlik Sardar talked about his former hopes and plans with the house. Sardar is a Turkmen-Kyrgyz former barman/bar manager. He quit his last job, at the once-classy (now “posh” and young-money-self-accolated-VIP-filled) Bar 12 about a month ago, and was followed by half the bar crew, three of whom were present at the Dacha. Bars in Bishkek rise and fall, as do restaurant, shops, and everything else. Few establishments last longer than a few years, as most inevitably go bad or get involved in murky finances. At times Sardar talks about setting up his own bar, an actual bar, not some snazzy Kyrgyz imitation. A pub-bar, the like of which we don’t have in Bishkek. Other times he talks about moving his family to Turkey, or to the UAE (where they would be second-class citizens, but live a more stable and comfortable life). And then he worries about work and finances.
He bought the Dacha last year for $18,000. Originally he planned to build it up extend the front, add a second floor, and move his family here, out of the city (thus relieving them of rent pressure, at least in the summer). But now he pays for the rent for their one bedroom flat, and the rent for the flat his mother and brother share, and he is currently unemployed, so finances are a bit strained, and he’s thinking of selling the dacha. Now it’s worth$25,000. Past New Year’s and it will be worth $35,000 he says, in great part because of rising land prices pushed up from all the luxury developments on the southern side of the city. I suggested that he rent it out to foreigners living in Bishkek through AirBnB, as that would probably net him a few hundred a month and stave off the need to sell it, at least until the property is worth more. But that seemed to practical a suggestion.
Kyrgyzstan, it confuses me (and rightly it should). Bishkek: A growing economy, an unstable, (maybe) growing economy matched by an equally shiftless society. Collapse of the soviet era and nothing – no core set of values or identity – to fill that vacuum. Except maybe money. Some people have just collapsed. Like the dachas, they look like they haven’t been renovated since 1989. Sagging old Russian women with disheveled gold blond dyed hair and bright red lipstick, bras and fat rolls equally visible under transparent white ruffled blouses. Stout grandmothers with thick socks who still look bewildered by the changes around them. While we were waiting for the second batch of shashlik one of Sardar’s neighbors came over, a half-shirtless country-tanned Russian man who stank of soviet poverty and perpetual vodka stupor. He talked in slurred speech, as if drunkeness was a lifestyle, as if even when not drinking he would still be drunk, never achieving, never aiming. When he left he took with him the packet of smocked fish Sardar had brought back from Issyk Kul.
And on the other side, there are the VIP clientele of Bar 12, drunk in money. The rootless half of society who, having abandoned their neighborhood communities, strive for recognition through a set of symbols reflecting their newfound (and most likely ill-gained) wealth. Assholes in Land Rovers and Lexuses who bully their way around the city in muscled cars, simply for a show of power. The car, the dress (for women), the arrogance and attitude. Shoddy imitations, like when you walk into the women’s restroom in Promzona and see all the women in their caked-on makeup under brighter lights, hungry painted ghouls in cheap glitter and sequins. This striving for recognition, for respect through getting others to bow before your arrogance, these attempts to fit into that wealth-shaped image of acceptance and success.
And Sardar – caught up in the middle of this tangle. More a family man than most I’ve met in Kyrgyzstan, torn between providing for their solid future, and chasing after these glints of wealth. Recently he traded his Honda Odessy for a friend’s SUV. He bemoans the poorer gas mileage, but commented on the status it brings him while driving, drunk by Bishkek’s Lexus Obsession.