Bishkek’s Sudden Wealth

Jal Artis used to stand like a beacon of wealth and modernity, or at least comfortable trappings of secured, gated middle class. The parking lot was once manageable, with sedans and small compacts imported from Germany and Japan. Now every second vehicle is a Lexus or a Landrover, and still we stand in the dust. Buildings rise to our east and our west, promising to one day block out our sweeping view over the low-lying city. Dust storms whip up in spring, blocking out the mountains and churning the sky into a hazy yellow grey. All across the city we see apartment blocks rising – some ugly in sickly yellow and brown trim, some pronounced and decidedly elegant, most just modern boxes. Dozens of new apartment buildings sprouting from the dust in a city where there once was just one. Thousands of new city-center apartments with glowing chandeliers visible from the street renting for $2,000 a month – in a country where the annual GDP hovers around twelve hundred, in a city with a population of only 800,000, where bazaar porters still only earn $2 a day and tomatoes go for as low as fourteen cents a kilo at the end of summer.

In a city where broken doors hang on hinges in the village-like warren of old wooden houses sprawling behind our apartment, where women complain of salaries being too low (often around $200-400) to justify working, there is a beehive of brand new construction all for oversized private homes that tumble like concrete weeds amidst the rubble and crooked dirt drives of the city’s outskirts and for modern apartment complexes where the bottom prices are $600-800 per square meter.

In a city where the roads are broken each spring, and the government has declared it has no money for new buses to replace the maniac marshrutkas that ply the streets bouncing between gaping potholes, you can find a hundred SUVs in a twenty-minute drive, every one of them a white or black Lexus or Landrover. The Lexus 470 is the country’s most popular model – at least two dozen of them have tried to squish their way into our complex’s Korean car-sized parking spots – and they cost upwards of $20,000 even used. American car prices in a country where most people can’t even meet the minimum wage.

So where is this money coming from? How can we understand this sudden influx of the trappings of middle class wealth?

Kyrgyzstan’s main industries are agriculture, textiles and tourism – jams and juice, hand-made felts, and yurt stays over the summer. These aren’t mega-money industries.

In short, we have no idea. Suddenly thousands upon thousands of people in a small, comparatively-impoverished landlocked country can afford luxury SUVs. With what money, we don’t know.

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