Confounded in the Capital: Bishkek Oddities

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ve probably seen me mention the oddity that is the Bishkek economy more than once. The relative value of things and services in Bishkek is something I’m still trying to figure out, something that still perplexes me with its seeming incompatibility with any logical system. But it’s not the only strange or hard-to-crack part of Bishkek. Being an unequally-developed poor post-soviet city, there are may, many aspects to urban life and city geography equally confounding.
One of them is roads. Now I’m usually good with directions. I love maps. I’ve rarely gotten lost, even in foreign cities. But Bishkek (again) is another story. Even trying to find out where you are in Bishkek can be a pain.
The first thing you’ll probably notice walking down a street in Bishkek is that most buildings don’t have numbers. So if, for example, I’m trying to find a itty-bitty neighborhood post office located at #74, I might have to walk half a kilometer before I can find two addresses in the 120’s and ascertain that I’m walking in the wrong direction. Looking at the other side of the road won’t necessarily help: usually the two sides have roughly corresponding numbers with evens on one side and odds on the other; sometimes not. Frunze, for example, has evens and odds on both sides, with the numbers separated by about a hundred. We once drove up and down the entire street looking for a restaurant at 519 Frunze that (going by the evens on one side, odds on the other theory) should have been on the south side. It was on the north, right across from 437. Go figure.
The other really confusing bit is road names. Some streets (like Manas/Mira/Tin-something-something and Sovietskaya/Bakanbaeva/something else) have up to four different names for different segments of their length. Some maps have all four names. Some maps (like sometimes google maps…) have only one, or two. Some streets have four names, but are known by one. Some streets have a segment with a Russian name and a segment with a Kyrgyz name, and the same segment may be called a different name depending on the ethno-linguistic inclinations of the speaker. Kyrgyz taxi drivers might not even know the Russian name, and Russian-speaking taxi drivers might not know the Kyrgyz. Sometimes names are just non-sequetor – not far from our house there are a few branch roads off a main road. The branch roads are “Line 1”, “Line 3″,”Line 4” and “Line 7”, in that order. No 2, no 5, no 6.
In short, it can be really difficult to navigate the city, even with a smart phone or a hard-copy map. Finding places for the first time can be a nightmare (it took me thirty minutes and five times walking past it to find the London School last year – no number, not even a name on the building). So, advice to travelers and recent arrivals: ask for an address, but also ask for a phone number to call if you get lost, and specific location in relation to a well-known landmark.


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