From Bishkek to Tbilisi

From November 2016 to April 2017 I was working in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan as an English teacher. This was my second experience of living in a post-Soviet country as I had spent the third year of my Undergraduate degree studying in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Suffice to say that the contrast between Russia’s ‘window to the West’ and Bishkek, a city nestled in the foothills of the Tian-Shan mountain range, predominated by old, crumbling Soviet buildings, was quite striking.

However, what Bishkek lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in other ways. Being so close the mountains gave you easy access to skiing in the winter and trekking in the summer. Kyrgyzstan has the fourth-highest average elevation in the world (2750m above sea level) and 90% of the country is located at over 1500m. I don’t think I ever could have gotten bored of walking out of my door in the morning to be faced by an endless range of snow-capped peaks. If mountains are your thing, there are few better places to go! Kyrgyz culture, too, was like nothing I’d seen before. Historically, the people inhabiting modern day Kyrgyzstan were nomadic and a significant portion of the population continue to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle. For this reason, once you leave the hustle and bustle of the capital, you see hillsides scattered with yurt camps and men on horseback herding their livestock. No drive in Kyrgyzstan is complete without getting stuck in a crowd of goats and sheep, winding their way through the mountains towards greener pastures.

A yurt camp in Osh Region
A view of the mountains to the south of Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan was also an ideal base from which to explore the rest of Central Asia, so I was able to explore the other fascinating countries of the region: Kazakhstan, with its never-ending steppe and bizzare capital, Astana, that seems to have been designed by someone who reads too many dystopian sci-fi novels;  Uzbekistan, pocketed with ancient silk road cities characterized by their old, blue-domed mausoleums and madrases; and Tajikistan, as naturally astounding as Kyrgyzstan and home to the Pamir highway, an incredible road that snakes it way through one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Sadly, Turkmenistan remains on my ‘to-do’ list due to its highly restrictive visa regime. For such a relatively unvisited region of the world, Central Asia has so much to offer to the more adventurous traveler. Each country has something special, but Kyrgyzstan holds a special place in my heart after spending half a year there. After such a positive experience of living, working and travelling abroad, the bar was set quite high for whatever came next.

A Tajik family sat for tea in the Jizeu Valley
A blue-domed mausoleum near Termez, Uzbekistan

So, now I find myself in Georgia. On paper, these two countries share certain similarities. The geographies of both countries are mountainous, both are relatively small , both used to be part of the Soviet Union and, before that, the Russian empire. Kyrgyzstan and Georgia have also both suffered from tumultuous political situations in their post-Soviet years. Both countries experienced coloured revolutions (Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution in 2005), both have overthrown two of their previous presidents, and the most recent former presidents of both countries currently live in exile and are wanted on criminal charges in their home countries.

The capital cities of these countries, however, are worlds apart. Whilst you can still find plenty of typically bleak looking Soviet apartment blocks in the outer districts of Tbilisi, wandering around the centre you almost feel like you are in a Mediterranean city. The Old Town has sprawling, cobbled streets lined with small brick houses sporting wooden balconies. Unfortunately, as is typical of any beautiful European city, the area can be spoiled by massive throngs of tourists. Nonetheless, the architectural beauty of the area is undeniable. The city is also incredibly busy, walking through the centre at rush hour you can be overwhelmed by the noise and amount of people on the streets. Bishkek, however, had always been a relatively quiet city, even on its main road. Another striking difference is that whilst Bishkek had plenty of bars and cafes, Tbilisi is home to the kinds of trendy (and sometimes pretentious) places that would feel perfectly at home in one of London’s most hipster areas. One evening I found myself at a photography festival in a converted Soviet sewing factory, the inside of which was filled with various bars offering various elaborate cocktails and shops selling everything from skateboards and spray paint to handmade ceramics and vintage posters. I almost forgot that I was actually 2600 miles from Dalston! Tbilisi is also home to Bassiani, a club that is hailed by some as ‘the new Berghain’. Located in the Dinamo Stadium, it uses a disused swimming pool as its main dance floor. Last night I went to an affiliated venue underneath the Stadium to see Nicolas Jaar! Somehow, I can’t imagine that Bishkek is going to be on his tour schedule anytime soon.

A cable car passing over the Old Town
The Mother of Georgia standing over the Old Town

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the greatest advantages that Georgia has over Kyrgyzstan in my eyes is the food. As a vegetarian, I often struggled when travelling around Kyrgyzstan. Due to Kyrgyz culture being nomadic, their cuisine is particularly meat-heavy. Some of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous national dishes include Beshbarmak, a dish of boiled meat (either mutton or horse) served in a broth with noodles and onion, and Chuchuk, a hose-meat sausage. Travelling around rural areas often meant having to subsist on a diet of potatoes, cabbage and fried eggs, which got quite wearisome after a while. Another one of Kyrgyzstan’s culinary delights was Kumis – fermented mare’s milk, the taste of which I would liken to an acidic blend of yoghurt and salt. However, the Kyrgyz will down bowlfuls of the stuff one after another, particularly in the Summer when the quality of the grass the horses graze on is at its best. The Kyrgyz also attest to it having an improbably long list of health benefits! In Georgia, however, there are far more things that suit my pallet. The most famous of these is probably Khachapuri, a dish of cheese-filled bread which comes in a surprisingly wide variety of forms. A favourite dish of mine, which I actually first tried at a Georgian restaurant in Bishkek, is Ajapsandali, a mixture of fried aubergine, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion and spices. Instead of slightly alcoholic horse-milk, Georgia has a rich wine culture and is one of the countries with the longest histories of wine making.

A mural on the outside of one of the Old Town’s popular bars

It’s impossible at this point for me to give a comprehensive comparison of these two beautiful countries, especially considering I’ve only been in Georgia for two weeks and haven’t had the chance to see much outside of Tbilisi. Nonetheless, I can’t help but notice all these similarities and differences having left Kyrgyzstan so recently. Ultimately, I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about this country. Keep an eye on this space to see what the next three months have in store!

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