After a succession of guests and visiting co-workers I’ve collected not a few occurrences that generally surprise or baffle first-time visitors:
1. There’s Obligatory Service Charged in Every Western-Model Restaurant. Didn’t feel like you actually received any service? Received fantastic and prompt attention? It doesn’t matter – it’s all the same. Almost every restaurant that isn’t a cafeteria or hole-in-the-wall family joint will bottom your bill with a 10-18% service charge (15% is the most common). Think the service didn’t merit the charge? Waiter brought you the wrong food or had to be asked five times for a fork? Good luck arguing with it. And no, the service charge doesn’t always go to the waitstaff – the actual practice of divvying up the tips varies from one establishment to another. The four exceptions to charging a set percent for service seem to be Furusato, Sierra Coffee, Adriano Coffee and Slim Fit.
2…And No Service or Tipping Anywhere Else. No tipping taxi drivers, or hotel staff (except at the Hyatt), or waiters at mom-and-pop joints.
3. Dress Can be an Odd Mix of Conservative and…Not. Headscarves and leopard-print bras under white blouses? Perfectly complimentary according to local habits of dress. Women tend to don wear with higher necklines and longer hems. But clothing can still be incredibly tight…or transparent in areas that would turn heads in any western city. Two years ago fluorescent blouses made of net material paired with very visible animal-print bras were quite the rage, even in offices. A female might feel uncomfortable wearing shorts in the city, but I’ve seen even overweight middle-aged women wear dresses and tops that one would generally feel uncomfortable wearing without a cami or slip in the states. Also, impractical high heels are everywhere.
4. Traffic is Insane. Cars and repairs are cheap, and regulation of the roads is minimal. Unfortunately pedestrian crossings seem to be taken as more of a gentle suggestion than anything else (by both drivers and pedestrians) unless there’s a visible cop standing down the road. If you’re traveling in the city you’re safest bet is probably to take the trolley buses, which are big and only run along designated tracks. Marshrutkas may seem like public saunas driven by stunt drivers – avoid if possible. I’ve have, however, had luck with the new SMS taxi company (though the last driver couldn’t find the UN – as he believed it was still the ‘Children’s World’ – a change that took place some decades past).
5. Time is Relative. When somebody says the’ll get something done on Tuesday it doesn’t necessarily mean this Tuesday, or even next Tuesday. It could be any Tuesday, or, more likely, sometime in the vague future, meaning most likely never. While the soviet system may have run on the clock, nomadic traditions did not.
6….As is the Definition of an “Elder”. Expect to be subject to angry glares or just shoved out of the way if you don’t budge your bus seat when a woman of forty-five boards. Among Kyrgyz respect for elders is not expected, but assumed (and demanded). And an elder is simply someone older than yourself. It doesn’t matter if they are physically perfectly capable of standing, waiting in line, or anything else – they will often demand priority as due respect. Special ‘elder’ status is also most often claimed by women – a man of almost any age cannot sit if a woman boards a bus, and yet even a woman of 35 will not give up her seat for any but the feeblest of older men.
7. Just Because Salaries are Low Doesn’t Mean Bishkek is Inexpensive. Ten years ago foreign employees claimed that it was almost impossible to spend $100 over a month; not that there was much to spend it on. Today you can drop that on a modest meal for four. The country’s GDP per capita may barely scrape above $2000 per annum (or $1200, depending on which records you use), white collar salaries may hover around $400-800, and yet many things are almost as expensive or even more expensive than they are in the west, especially for items of comparative quality. Why? Mostly, it would seem, market monopoly, market size (small demand and thus low trade volume means its more costly to import individual items), and the absence of local production for most products. There are also basically two economies within Bishkek, and two economies within the country: local and western standards; and Bishkek/touristy areas like Cholpon Ata and everywhere else. Living in Bishkek, it’s shocking to see the street prices in villages around Osh.
8. Bishkek Has a Fair Amount of Wealth and Western Trappings. Two years ago this wasn’t true. Now the city seems flooded with SUVs (the white Lexus/black Mercedes phenomenon) and downtown streets are always being blocked for the construction of new luxury apartment buildings. Go to some of the city’s upper-market clubs (like Bar 12) and you’ll see plenty of young things dressed in designer wear. There are several shopping centers filled with foreign brands like Mango and Pierre Cardin, and western-flair restaurants seem to line every street in the city center. I wouldn’t quite agree with one of my co-workers that “Bishkek is the Paris of Central Asia” just because it has a few new shopping centers and white marble-esque gated flats, but there is far more of a high-end Western-leaning scene in the city than one might expect for a small country in Central Asia more famous for pristine mountains and yurt-dwelling nomads.
9. There’s An Extreme Emphasis on the Trappings of Wealth. One’s vehicle is often viewed as an extension of their social/economic status. Personal fiscal priorities can be quite different than in the west; there are plenty of people who have a decent salary and choose to have a flashy car and no furniture in their flat or a dilapidated flat lacking reliable utilities, rather than a decent flat and a decent car.
10. Racism isn’t Just About the Color of One’s Skin. Despite the US’s long history of intra-Caucasian prejudice (anti-Irish/Italian/German sentiments), I think recent discourse has shifted us into thinking of racism in terms of skin tone. Here anti-Uzbek sentiments seem to be far stronger than any misgivings about local Russians, Germans or Koreans, despite the Uzbeks being close ethnic cousins and millennium-long neighbors of the Kyrgyz. If you happen to be female and relatively young and look possibly Russian, expect some unpleasantness as well, especially in the outskirts of the city. Many Kyrgyz men from the countryside haven’t necessarily come into contact with a great many Russian women and may have certain fixed unpleasant presumptions about them and their characters.
11. There are No Public Toilets. Anywhere. Though there are walled-in slits in the ground at most gas stations outside urban centers. Just don’t drink before a long car ride, and head to the shopping centers in Bishkek.
12. There Is No Such Thing as a “Monthly” Gym Pass. Either you pay per time (200-300 som), or you buy a 12-time pass valid for one month (usually 2000-2500 som). But wait – not only can you only visit the gym 12 times – many gyms will actually specify what time of day, which days of the week, and which parts of the gym you can use. And it’s still as expensive as an all-inclusive any-time-is-fine as-much-as-you-want YMCA pass back in the states.
13. Plenty of Water, and Plenty of Electricity/Water/Gas Cuts. There may be water flowing out of the drainage holes on the street and flooding the sidewalks, but that doesn’t mean your water (or electricity) isn’t cut at home. While Kyrgyzstan certainly seems to have enough water resources to provide power and water to residents, decaying infrastructure, poor management, and complicated water deals with Russia and other Central Asian states mean that resources aren’t always distributed as one might expect.
14. People Don’t Actually Live in Yurts. Some do, for the summer. But more often even the summer high-pasture semi-nomads live in outfitted old railway cars.