Fragments of Dikmen

My husband’s family has lived in Dikmen for over half a century.  His grandfather built the first apartment building (three floors, two flats on each floor) on the hill.  My mother-in-law recalls their flat being surrounded by old whitewashed houses with red tile roofs and vineyards when she was a child – a sunny hill of green and gardens.

dikmen houses.JPGDikmen’s now a city of cement, vineyards replaced with staggered layers of three and four story apartment blocks all almost identical in their ’90’s style, with a few taller towers rising here and there.  The roads twist and wind, some up the hills and flanked by firs, some roaring with traffic and lined by Burger Kings, chain grocery stores, and household goods shops with discounted wares spilling out onto the sidewalk.

Dikmen is a neighborhood of Fords and Fiats.  It’s primarily a residential area for mid-income office and government workers, a place people return to in the evenings and complete their grocery shopping at on the weekends.  It’s not a place non-residents visit – no great cafes or art galleries or museums or office buildings or trendy hair salons or shopping malls like Or’an to the south or Yildiz and Hosdere across the valley (the Dikmen Vadisi park).  Apart from access to the winding park that lights at night, the most exciting thing I’ve found is the Saturday bazaar.

Dikmen is middle class – but with pockets of poverty and the occasional nicer street with straighter sidewalks and well-trimmed front yards.  Like the rest of urban Ankara, there are very few detached homes – and those I’ve seen are all crumbling old houses.  In some of Ankara’s neighborhoods, around the castle and on the airport road, these dilapidated houses cover whole hills (See “Onek: Old Ankara Slums“); here they’re just scattered in pockets, one of two here and there in places too steep or narrow for new apartment buildings.

dikmen old houseNone of them have been restored, and all of them look like they’re just waiting to fall down and be purchased for larger developments.  For me (coming from a country where we cherish our older architecture) it seems a shame – why doesn’t anyone buy any of these older houses, restore it, and then live in a spacious villa with garden on a hill in the city?  But apparently few of these residences have complete legal building permits and land deeds, which means that they don’t actually fully own their homes and thus perhaps have little incentive to put money into remodeling them.

Anyway, after a week of residing in Ankara without plans (between the rush of getting my residence permit and the upcoming business of work starting next week), and a few too many walks through the neighborhood, Dikmen is decidedly boring.

11th Microrayon, Bishkek

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, 11th Microrayon

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. Continue reading

Soviet Nostalgia: Frunze

Today at the bazaar (after playing with the old cameras) we found a picture book of Bishkek when it was still called Frunze. Bishkek used to be beautiful, a green clean city (even if I can’t quite believe the brilliant soviet reds and skies tinted the same turquoise in each shot). The book must have been printed in the early-to-mid 1960’s, as it lists the population of ‘Frunze’ at “more than 350,000” (the population was around 262,000 in 1959 and 536,000 in 1979) and is priced at 60 kopek (60 cents of the Russian Ruble). And yet the city it shows is not so different from the one we see today. The opera house is the same, the heroic statues the same, the universities the same, even the buses the same.
Only now everything is worn down, beaten into
decay. But Bishjek used to be beautiful, and it’s parks used to not be cloaked with weeds and streets not full of potholes.

For anyone interested, the back of the pictures has an introduction to Soviet-era Bishkek and place descriptions in Kyrgyz, Russian, English, German, French and Spanish (I’m guessing this was printed as a promotional piece), and I can send copies of any of the print if you want.

Bishkek 2015

Bishkek Early Spring Jumble

Today it’s official: Spring has arrived.

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Southern end of Ataturk Park (off Axunbaeva), one of my favorite places for a city stroll (if you can avoid the couples corridor and the weekend crowds that come for the decrepit amusement rides)

Legs stiff from sitting with my computer all day (I edited a research article about VitaminB12 supplements for disease prevention in pregnant ewes today in addition to the normal projects…and I never want to read a scientific report on ewes again) I shut down my laptop and went out for a walk around four.  The temperature was 17C – that’s 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is fair short weather in Minnesota (shorts and a sweater…).  Having rather de-acclimated from my hometown climes I was in a longsleeve dress, a wraparound sweater, a leather jacket, and thermal tights.  Some people on the bus I took to the park were still in their full winter wear. It seems none of us fully trust the fickle Bishkek spring, expecting a gust to blow in with snow or rain.  But the weather outside was truly lovely – tender grass shooting out of snow-soaked ground, just bare branches against a warm blue sky, the earth smelling of mud (and strewn with candy bar wrappers and Popsicle sticks that had apparently been hibernating all winter).  Bishkek is not lovely – but I’m glad it’s spring.

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We once tried one of the amusement rides (the low-slung rollercoaster) at Ataturk Park (I think we both dared each other to do it); after the shaking and lurching and groaning of decades-old steel supports I will never set foot on any of them again. But, uh… try it if yo want a fun soviet story.

After wandering through the park I took a few back streets to E’s office in the university.  And it’s always in the backstreets that Bishkek gets weird, that it gives away it’s shell as a city.  The area south of Axunbaeva and west or Mira (along with a lot of the central city itself) used to be filled with quaint old Russian houses made of wood.  But the city has boomed in the past few decades.  Some of these houses have been knocked down for new apartment complexes, but most times the title deeds and planning regulations are so complex that they either stay, or get replaced with single-family homes for the noveau-riche.

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This actually is a *house*, not anything else. No idea where they found the design or just…why?

And (as very evident in the photo below), some of these new homes are weird.  There are imitation French castles, giant boxes with an odd jutting turret, ugly fabricated American McMansion-copies and a host of other strange, aesthetically-jarring designs half hidden behind unfinished cinderblock walls. Most of them look like they had very little architectural planning; oddly enough, almost all of them have the same red, brown or forest green metal roofing. And half of them are mixed in among cute quaint soviet grandmothers’ homes.

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Right next to the 1980’s space-age shopping mall/residence pictured above.

Which, I suppose, is partially why Bishkek as a city always feels so uneven, so broken and unblended, to me.

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Graffiti, broken tarmac and new apartment buildings rising out of Bishkek’s former Frunze airport

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Turkish Houses: The Toilet of Shame

Houses in every country, every community often have certain architectural quirks separate from any other culture. In Turkey, one of those is The Toilet of Shame.
Living quarters in Turkey have less space devoted to bathrooms in general. Bathtubs are rare, especially in dwellings over a decade old. We’re staying today in E’s friend’s house – he and his wife rent a two story + loft three bedroom house outside of the city center. Three bedrooms (plus loft), three balconies (plus terrace), one full bathroom.
But in their house, as in many others, there is actually a second bathroom. The door may always be closed, you may think it’s a utility closet or steps to the basement. But no, it’s there. I stayed in E’s family flat for three days last year and never knew they had a second bathroom.
Why? Because the half-bath, which is usually located near the kitchen and front entrance, almost invariably has a squat toilet. Which is, of course, not a marker of Modern Educated Turkish identity.
Guests and residents alike rarely use the half-bath; even if someone is in the kitchen, they’ll walk upstairs to use the full bath. It’s greatest function it to hold cleaning supplies.
Turkey, on the cusp of Europe, is a bit sensitive in discussions of civilization and development. There’s also a fairly large urban-rural divide in terms of markers like profession, education, and religious conservativeness (much like every other country in the world…). The urban educated seem at times both protective of their country and demeaning of their rural countrymen, nervous to be lumped together in one sum. In America there seems to be a sort of glamorized shock at rural and urban poverty. Here, E told me not to take pictures of the slums on Ankara’s hills, to not make outsiders think that all of Turkey was that disheveled and poor. It’s not denial, but a bit of fear mixed with defensiveness. After seeing their country so negatively portrayed, particularly in European Media, ever since the “Sick Man of Europe” cartoons preceding the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it’s no wonder people are a little afraid of lump generalizations, and why the urban squat toilet is relegated to the role of unmentionable Toilet of Shame.

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Önek: Old Ankara Slums

Most development has happened in the flats, as it’s harder to build apartment blocks on the steeper hills. As a result, some of the only re manners if old architecture are hilltop houses that have been falling into ruin since anyone who could afford it moved into the never apartments. This particular neighborhood is just behind the Ankara Castle/Fortress and historic old city center – prime location, but a pocket of extreme poverty. IMG_0971.JPG

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Moving along the Coast: Bodrum

..and staying with our friend’s psychotic cat.

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According to the New York Times, Bodrum is the St. Tropez ofTurkey. It’s also loud, brash, full of new money and fake gold. Fur shops line up next to restaurants that can rival New York in price, but down a side street you’ll find (slightly overpriced) toast stands and storefronts overspilling with discount brand-name fakes, all the prices in Turkish Lira and Euros. Russians strut in their finest gold glitter and highest hair; the monied and tanned recline in their newly washed yatchs anchored in the marina; old British couples wander around looking a little dazed, often dressed like they’re in their twenties (and it’s 1999), tending to cluster towards the many, many bars and pubs. Quieter streets offer classy cafes and romantic seaside restaurants with quirky or quaint decour. A cartoon-covered place with fake reviews from the likes of Obama and Paris Hilton that we visited last year has generous delicious dinners for under ten dollars; a modest meal for two at the restaurant next door could run up to two hundred. Everywhere people, nowhere parking, and everywhere the prices – even if “discounted” seem a little high. Unless of course you get on the main road, where box store follows box store and strip malls featuring Domino’s Pizza, home decour shops and mid-range clothing stores abound.
Twenty years ago Bodrum, with it’s pine-covered peninsulas jutting into the temperate sea, was a popular vacation destination for Turkish families. Many people retired to homes here, at least seasonally. A few feet from the marina nightlife will bring you up winding streets past quiet family groceries and two-story whitewashed houses where other locals live year round. A lot of the older developments are out of town,hills sloping down to the sea covered in a criss-cross of steep streets and near identical rows of split-level whitewashed houses encased by purple flowering trellises and pomegranate trees. In one of these villages E’s parents purchased a summer house years ago when his father was still alive, and we’re currently staying with two friends in a family summer home on another peninsula. Far from the bustle of Bodrum here it’s just wind, wild hills dotted with white summer houses and sea stretching out to Greece. These older houses are quite comfortable, and it’s not surprising that many British People are now choosing to retire here. Each row of houses is staggered so everyone has a view and the sea-side windows fill the houses with light. The front door opens onto an open plan entry, living room and kitchen with a balcony off of the living room; downstairs are two bedrooms with another balcony off the hallway; directly above the bedrooms is a good-sized terrace with 360 views of the sea and hills, and above the living room is another terrace which most residents have filled with potted plants or solar panels. Bodrum central (and all the big shopping centers in between) is a fifteen minute drive away; five minutes in the other direction will take you to the peninsula tip and village center with a few grocery stores, cafes and shops. Compared to rainy England, I too would take this any day.

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