Before my first visit to Bishkek I stayed for a week in Almaty. After the construction and dust and brooding summer tension of Urumqi, Almaty seemed a peaceful green haven, and I remarked as much to my couchsurfing host. Standing on the top floor of her building, the city seemed to roll out beneath us, quaint upkept soviet era manses and old parliament buildings lost almost in a sea of oaks, birches and firs. She told me I’d like Bishkek, as the second city as even greener.
Bishkek is…green (at least in spring and summer). But it’s also surprisingly decayed (in patches). After the symmetry and order of Chinese cities (in Beijing the grass is only for observing, and all parks are planned with precision) Bishkek struck me as just – unkempt. On my first afternoon in the city I walked down Manas Prospect, from Chuy to Axunbaeva. Chuy and Axunbaeva are two of the town’s central East-West veins, full of shops and cafes and cars and offices and people. Manas is a major artery as well. But about halfway between Chuy and Axunbaeva cut the old railroad tracks, coupled by its abandoned factories and boarded up buildings ringed by broken sidewalks. It’s almost like there’s a stretch of deadzone in the middle of the city, running along the railroad tracks from Sovietskaya to a little west of Manas. Buildings half caved in and covered in graffiti, locked gates hanging on rust, broken window panes with the occasional low light flickering. And half a mile away on both sides the city teems with summer life. I’ve been told by half a dozen people that this is because really great city development plans were laid out in the late soviet times – but they’ve never come to completion, and yet city regulations still hamper any city center development that would take place. Two years ago development was also hampered by lack of capital to start bigger projects. This is beginning to change – they city’s seen a burst of new construction since I re-arrived last March, most for European-style upper-ticket apartment blocks.
But Bishkek – it is green. The summer streets are lined with long, overgrowing trees. Grass grows by the roads – long enough that someone brought a few sheep to graze on a patch by our office last week (not sure how they transported them there though – as our office is in the middle of town). The short-story soviet apartment blocks (save those in Jal) are shaded by oldgrowth trees. In the afternoons we stroll down sun-dappled sidewalks. And yet it is very unkempt. Trees in the microrayons hover like a forest canopy over the houses, sticks here, rocks there, mud when it rains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen grass mowed, except maybe (?) around the central plaza.
I guess the most important question is whether people can use the space, whether they actually take satisfaction from our surroundings. China’s cityscapes were (mostly) meant to be very user-friendly, with abundant park benches and clean-swept winding paths for walking, and just-placed just-trimmed shrubbery. Bishkek’s greenery on the other hand is wild – and natural. Which extreme creates a better environ for the population – I wonder. I don’t have an answer.