About the skies over Bishkek. And life on the ground.

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Bishkek’s Coffee Grounds (Coffee is Amazing)

It was one of the first things I was researching online when I decided to move to Bishkek for a year: the coffee situation in the capital city. Coffee: not to be taken lightly, though people in Kyrgyzstan prefer to take it light and sweet. My eyes are strangely conditioned to spot anything related to coffee and cafés. The mere written word that suggests a coffee connection attracts my attention, near and far:



Even in the partial sky of the skies over Bishkek, true to this blog’s name, I see the promise of coffee:


Depictions of coffee I like even more. My Bishkek favorite:


Kyrgyzstan is a tea-drinking country. Black or green, make your pick; tea is part of every meal. The most popular coffee drink: MacCoffee and Nescafe instant coffee, with the single-serve sachets available at the checkout of every food store: 3-in-1, cream and sugar included. For those who prefer to drink their coffee black and find a certain aesthetic in a plain cup of coffee: this is my favorite Bishkek coffee still life, taken at Johnny’s Pub. The sugar cube version of white cube, on a -yes, white- saucer. Not instant coffee, but instant coffee love:


I was lucky that Sierra had just opened a few months before I arrived in Bishkek in August 2012. Last summer, a second Sierra coffee shop opened at the other end of town, also on Manas. One of my first blog posts was -naturally- about Sierra. So now about the rest of Bishkek’s coffee universe. With the disclaimer that new coffee places have most likely opened since I left Bishkek last summer. Western-style coffee shops seem to be a rapidly growing market in Bishkek, popular especially among the young and affluent urbanites and expats. Like Café Nana, in the posh Bishkek Park shopping mall, which opened last spring:


Or Vanilla Sky, with its fancy glass terrace, which was also added in the spring of last year:


Sierra has opened several coffee kiosks, in front of the two Beta supermarkets and in shopping malls. Good for grabbing coffee, but for early risers with coffee cravings on the way to work -let’s say, if you teach an 8am class- no luck.


Coffee-to-go is obviously not popular in a predominantly tea-drinking country, but with the increase in coffee shops in Bishkek, it’s a practice that is also becoming more common. The downside: paper cups that are often not made for hot beverages, lids that don’t match the cups, and paper-thin napkins instead of sleeves (ouch). The upside: an endearing albeit impractical creativity. The favorite accessory for adding an artistic touch to a paper cup (or a Weizen beer glass) and a smile on the customer’s face: brightly colored twisted straws. This is the typical coffee-to-go, Bishkek-style:


The Coffee House on Manas scores with its interior decoration, especially the wall design and the cool chairs.


A fleeting thought of the Bauhaus at the Coffee House:



The delicious cakes are the highlight of the French Bakery, but the cozy place offers a table to sit down and coffee-to-go:


I found the perfect cup of coffee at At Bellagio’s Coffee&Pastry shop, right next to the restaurant. Tested and approved several times: consistently perfect.


A small, beautiful space, with matching perfect cakes. Makes for pleasant Sunday mornings or afternoons.


Chocolate pistachio cake&coffee happiness:


There is always something new and interesting to learn about coffee. Here is a Bishkek addition to the coffee fun fact sheet: a Kofenia coffee shop trivia about the curious aftereffects of a cup of coffee.


My point exactly: coffee is amazing.

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Eight Takes on March 8

Today, on March 8, yet another national holiday is being celebrated in Kyrgyzstan: International Women’s Day. It’s an important day, like it is in many former Soviet countries. Here are eight thoughts prompted by March 8 in Bishkek, told largely through 2013 photographs.

1.) Cake and Carnations instead of Bread and Roses

It was the day of flowers, of red roses and carnations. By the end of the work day, women left office buildings with bouquets of flowers. My university organized a reception to honor its female employees, a flower for each included. Colleagues, cab drivers, store clerks: all congratulated on International Women’s Day. Flowers in abundance, also on street corners and at markets. Sold out of buckets and pots.






Then there were the decorated cakes:


Many cakes…


How many? Vanloads of cakes…

2.) Eight in Bloom (and in Color)

In Ala-Too Square, colorful variations on a number. Make your pick (out of eight options, of course):








The eighth 8, off Ala-Too Square:

3.) What Women Want (Or Not)

In Ala-Too Square, vendors sold the “matching” accessories. Perfume, toiletries, stuff.


4.) March 8 Makes for Strange Encounters (Or: How to Meet a Princess on International Women’s Day)

Expect the unexpected on national holidays in Bishkek. Meet Princess Fiona in Ala-Too Square. She stands out from the crowd, really.


You can even shake hands with her. Not into Shrek? There are other curious creatures to meet and greet. No reason to be shy:

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5.) Wired: The Hardware of Visual Effects

A look behind the cardboards of Ala-Too Square:


Wood&wire for special effects:


6.) Fried Chicken and Fanta are for Girls

A special offer on March 8 by Coca-Cola and Begemot, with congratulations. Decorated with flowers, of course, because it’s all about women on March 8. Begemot is the popular fast food chain in Bishkek; you can spot the food stands from far away because of their distinct design (red and white stripes) and the lines of waiting customers. The local equivalent of McDonald’s in the absence of western corporate chains: burgers, fries, and soda. Only on March 8: buy fried chicken and get a Fanta for free! Does this mean burgers and Coke are for guys?


7.) The Party is On (Kyrgyz Hospitality)

The jolliest moment of March 8: at Dordoi market, in passing, a spontaneous invitation to eat, drink, and be merry in cheerful company. In the narrow and freezing shopping aisles, between stacked containers filled with goods from China, a sumptuous buffet and the generous offer -no, insistence- to dig in. Salads, meats, bread, pickles, chocolate, champagne, and cognac, spread on newspapers. And, in Kyrgyz fashion, many toasts. Here’s to you, friendly people, for including us strangers in your impromptu celebration.



8.) What it’s all about. And what it takes (Or: Women’s Rights and Courage)

March 8, told through a recent experience of feminist activists in Bishkek. A different use of public space; very different from the colorful spectacle in Ala-Too Square. A different story of March 8. One without photographs. Beyond the photogenic scenario that consists of sweet cakes, pretty plastic flowers, red hearts, and elaborate cardboard congratulations described above, an ugly and violent reality is lurking:

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Cupids of Bishkek

Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it: Valentine’s Day. Not even in Kyrgyzstan. I was curious about February 14 in Bishkek, having lived in the U.S.  -Valentine’s Day HQ- for many years, where I felt helplessly swept away by the merciless annual tidal wave of heart-shaped candy, red roses, endless Hallmark card aisles, coupons for romantic dinners for two, herds of stuffed animals, and all kinds of objects made in the shape of a heart. Consumption ad absurdum, feeding a gigantic industry in the compulsory name of love, all dipped in red and pink.

A year ago in Bishkek, Valentine’s Day took place on a smaller scale, but it’s an up and coming commercialized day. The good thing about Valentine’s Day is that it doesn’t sneak up on you and hit you over the head out of nowhere. There is a gradual build-up to it that allows you to brace yourself for the final onslaught. So, too, in Bishkek, days before February 14, street vendors sold red roses wrapped in cellophane. Heart-heavy ads filled the stores, cafes, and movie theaters. Beware of Bishkek’s cupids preying on you:


On Valentine’s Day, cocktails are for lovers:


More hungry for chocolate cake than for love? At the French Bakery, cake (Brownies, Three-Chocolate, and Sachertorte) is for chocoholics. Let them eat cake, too:


On the actual day, dressed-up young men with gigantic bouquets of flowers were hurrying to meet their dates. Couples were strolling through town, showcasing the symbolic markers of love: red balloons, stuffed animals, and flowers. The usual sights on Valentine’s Day.


But then there was the recurring spectacle of sight at Ala-Too Square. My favorite part of any holiday celebration in Bishkek is the display of the popular photo ops at Bishkek’s central square. On these days, public space transforms into a marketplace of photo motifs, often with more than a dozen different sets to choose from. It resembles a crowded fun fair without the rides. Instead, it attracts with a wild medley of bright colors and an eclectic mix (no match) of designs: themed cardboard decorated with hearts, doves, butterflies, cupids, swans, and plastic flower arrangements. Or a combination of all of the above. Against this backdrop, plastic cars and motorcycles, dolls in traditional clothing, rocking horses, and huge stuffed animals for children to sit on are carefully arranged for the perfect photograph. There’s a place for everyone in these photographs, for the toddlers as much as for the grandparents.


For those with butterflies in the stomach, butterflies in the heart:


For the more daring, Valentine’s Day at Ala-Too Square offers a probing preview of how it looks to stand under a wedding canopy:


Each set is a composition of its own. The markers of national and ethnic identity are never far from Ala-Too Square. Props also include the Kyrgyz flag and the komuz (the traditional Kyrgyz string instrument, similar to a guitar):



Part of the holiday displays are live animals. Fisher Price aesthetic with a county fair touch. On Valentine’s Day, not lovebirds, but pairs of doves and rabbits find themselves in a graceful though lifeless swan embrace:


Granted, it’s kitsch at its best, and it’s a commercial spectacle. But families love to have their photos taken on holidays in Bishkek. And they are serious about preserving the memories of a multigenerational trip to the capital city to participate in the celebrations. It’s a seriousness mirrored in photographic conventions: people look straight into the camera but usually don’t smile for these staged portraits, even though they are surrounded by a hilarious cast.

For the romantic couples who want to escape the crowded square, the Cinderella-inspired dream of a ride in a horse-drawn carriage may come true on February 14, even without a fairy godmother. Right at Ala-Too Square. No ol’ pumpkin carriage waiting for them in Bishkek:


No holiday celebration in Ala-Too Square without the street vendors selling the classic snacks (popcorn, pink&white cotton candy, and candy apples) and matching accessories, such as shiny foil balloons and teddy bears:





Sweets for sweethearts. Wasn’t there a whiff of something in the otherwise polluted Bishkek air? The smell of sugarcoated apples? Or was that the smell of plastic, the stuff the Valentine’s Day merchandise that flooded the bazaars and stores, is made of? Amidst this colorful tableau of larger-than-life swans, flowery hearts, white doves, and balloons with love messages from Barbie and Spiderman (P.S. I Love You) wrapped in sugary cotton candy clouds that is Ala-Too Square on Valentine’s Day, a Proustian moment of evoked memories of splendid 1980s disco nights.

Time for a public expression of affection for a city. Bishkek, when all the red hearts, balloons, and flowers are gone, and when you are back to your own grayish self: will you be mine?