Broken Soviet Nostalgia: The Seaside Sanitorium

In Bishkek it’s a rite of passage to spend part of the summer at Issyk Kul, the frigid-watered lake ringed by mountains four hours from the Capitol. There’s really no other place to go, as Bishkek is nestled at the very northern end of the country (35 kilometers, I think, from the Kazakh border) immediately backed by a high wall of mountains cutting it off from the rest of the country. Some people in the city have summer cottages (dachas, like the two we visited earlier this summer), but pretty much everyone spends some time in Issyk Kul. Half Bishkek’s population disgorges itself and flocks to the sandy stretches of northern shore. The narrow, pitted, half-tarred highway between the two is hell on Summer weekends – minibuses, shiny low sports cars and expensive SUVs weaving in and out of traffic, tinkering ladas, middle class Hondas and everyone else trying to rush to their favorite holiday destination, along with all the long-distance truckers and lurching tractors or combines that sputter in front of long lines of impatient drivers who try to pass on blind curves. The roadside is littered with fruit stands where fruit is always overpriced on the weekends, crumbling soviet hole-in-the-ground public ‘toilets’ and shops bright with inflatable beach toys. Close to the lake it’s strings and strings of dried fish on sale, along with local honey. E hates dried, smoky fish, but I’ve convinced him to buy a few to bring back to Bishkek, for meals reminiscent of childhood summers spent on the north shore of Lake Superior.
We reached our hotel by seven, after the usual forty-five minutes of driving back and forth across red dust roads trying to figure out where it was.

The northern end of Issyk Kul basically has three types of accommodation on offer: cheap, bare-bones, not-so-safe-for-foreigners rental of a room in a local house for about $20 a night; more-expensive-than-America rooms and cottages in giant resorts with a scattering of amenities, usually located right on the lake; and ‘Sanatoriums’ (or ‘public health resorts’) left over from Soviet days, some of them crumbling, some of them rather spruced up. Cholpon Ata, the resort town of choice, is also a mere 60 kilometers from Almaty, so each summer the lake receives the extra burden (and much more free-flowing money) from Kazakhs and ethnic Russians on vacation. Kazakhstan’s GDP is about quadruple Kyrgyzstan’s, so accommodation here is a relative bargain (though I do remember food being better and cheaper in Almaty).

Last weekend we missed a group excursion to Issyk Kul with some of E’s co-workers to a hotel managed by a Kyrgyz co-worker’s relative – the second cousin twice removed of their niece’s half-sister, or something like that. We were told they were ‘waiting for us’ and we should come out soon. The manager of the engineering department highly recommended the hotel as clean and nice, and a break from Bishkek sounded like a not-bad idea, a short weekend to wind down before we start our big trip to Turkey. So we came.

We drove through a three-story tall steel yurt structure, parked next to a gleaming white Lexus SUV (SUVs here are invariably Lexus, invariably black or cream white) and walked into this giant soviet-era grey concrete block with a huge greenhouse garden, video games, and a lone coffee stand in the lobby, blond-haired children running wildly amok. We were told at reception that the price for two, with full board, would be $110 per night – reasonable in the Issyk Kul area. Then E called the Kyrgyz co-worker, who in turn called the relative, who then talked to reception, who then dropped our price to $60. For two nights. Full room and board still included.
We were shown upstairs to an endlessly long hallway fitted with fluorescent lights and a crooked carpet. Clean, but old, with half the doors missing at least part of the room number. I felt like I’d stepped back into 1983, which is probably when the hotel (which is actually of the sanitorium type) was last decorated. The house cleaner showed us into a room, a tiny little affair with two very narrow single beds, and proclaimed it ‘just like home’. Except that our rooms in Bishkek are a little more spacious, aren’t dominated by an ironing board (who needs an ironing board when spending the weekend at a soviet-era beach resort where everyone wears shorts? But there were ironing board everywhere – even nestled between two sagging couches in the third floor lounge) and aren’t faced by a beautiful sprawling balcony.
We had missed dinner, so pushed the beds together and stretched after the long drive. Post-restaurant hours, our options were limited to the ‘Green Garden Cafe’ smelling septic and located behind the sprawling mass of foliage in the lobby, and the ‘Greenwich Pub’, one of many Bishkek franchises transplanted to Issyk Kul (also one of many restaurant-pubs illegally named after football teams or other brand-items – Bishkek also has a Barclay’s, a Manchester, and a Bar Martini, all of which have appropriated their respective logos). We chose the Greenwhich Pub and walked outside, into the chilly night air, to find it – a white tent surrounded by a fake moat. Again, everything on the menu was 20-60% more than anyone would consider paying at the Bishkek branches. The food was slathered in oil – not olive oil, but cheap, greasy vegetable oil. Even the ‘fresh salad’ of lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers (100 som in Bishkek, 160 som here) was slick and slippery on the tongue. But then again, where there isn’t much competition, monopoly and mediocracy reign.
Around nine a DJ/singer in a benign white sports jacket half hid himself behind the speakers on the small corner stage and started to wail along with the music, karaoke-style, to Russian and American hits appropriately two or three decades old. When our bill came at the end of the meal it was a little higher than expected – and then I noticed an item on the top ‘Music…100 som’. And yes, ‘music’ was included in the total onto which they then calculated a 15% service charge. I would have rather paid him not to sing. It’s one of those things I profoundly dislike about Kyrgyz petty capitalism and the wealth struggle – charging for things not ordered, for things that should normally be included, for sneaking in extra items, or changing prices on the bills and claiming that ‘we didn’t have what you ordered, so we had to make a special order’ (that just happens to not be on the menu either and costs twice as much), for bringing a liter of a beverage when you order a cup – all of these little ways establishments try to increase their profits by preying on unsuspecting customers. And usually it works – people don’t check their bills, don’t want to bother with a re-order, don’t want to appear petty in front of friends. But I hate that feeling – money first, people maybe second.

On our way back we noticed a night club and a karaoke bar between our hotel and the lake, the former looking like a tipped-over tin can half buried in the ground. E tried to convince me to go back later, though admitted it would probably be as bad as the 1980’s decor in the hotel, meaning full of drunk Russian guys dressed like they hit the thrift stores after Macklemore arrived and swept away everything salvageable. Instead we flopped down on the beds and fell asleep almost immediately. Around one in the morning my dreams were interrupted by a strange persistent sound, a “whuf…whuf” against the door, like there was a strong wind blowing in in the casements. This went on for some half an hour (or so it seemed), with the noise incorporated into groggy half-dreams until suddenly we were hit with light, sat up and shrieked. For the house cleaner had just opened our room to someone else. She shrieked too, immediately apologized, and slammed our door softly shut so fast she didn’t turn off the light. No doubt someone had come back without their keys, most likely more than a little drunk, mistaken our room for theirs, and finally found the housekeeper to open it for them. In the night it made no sense, and we groggily fell back to sleep soothed by the sounds of bad disco and unrecognizable Eastern European pop songs wafting across the yard. It rained, and in the morning we woke up to a visage cold, green and cool.

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