Bishkek is an interesting car city: used Western and Japanese cars fill the streets, with many upscale SUVs mingling, and with an obnoxious Hummer making an occasional showing. On wedding weekends, (rented) luxury vehicles abound: decorated stretch limos and Mercedes lead the honking wedding convoys. Add to the mix the beat-up taxis (Unsafe at Any Speed comes to mind), the old Soviet and Chinese and the new city buses, the fleet of fast and furious Mashrutkas, and the old cars from the Soviet era -above all the Ladas- and Bishkek traffic as we know and fear it is complete. Then, there are the gems that stand out from the horse power pack. Like these:
Or, like the, no, THE, 1964 Volga.
I noticed the beautiful car on a warm and sunny Sunday last year, on a quiet street. Or maybe I noticed the owner first, who used a feathery household duster for touch-ups on the shiny and spotless vehicle, and who seemed to have stepped out of a Hollywood movie set, with his fabulous outfit matching his fabulous car.
There was already a photo shooting of the four-wheeled beauty going on, so I just joined the vintage Volga paparazzi and turned left and right, along with the car going back and forth for the perfect glamor shot at the perfect angle with the perfect light reflecting on the perfect, shiny surface. “What a beautiful car,” I complimented the owner. He asked me if there are such cars in my country. I am never sure which one that is, “my country”: Germany? The U.S.? No matter which: no, no such cars, was my answer. And that made him laugh and beam even more with pride.
Bishkek is, obviously, a great city for car talk, especially for a German. Nationality as a conversation starter (cars and soccer are the universal themes; in Bishkek, sometimes, taxi drivers talk about having been stationed as soldiers in the GDR, or about relatives living in Germany). I experienced the same in Lebanon, another country with many used German cars, some ancient, rolling along on the roads. After the standard nationality question that (friendly) Bishkek taxi drivers, especially those who drive an old Audi, Mercedes, or Volkswagen, ask me (“Amerikanka?” Answer: “Niet! Ya niemka!”), they go into long and passionate monologues about how fantastic German cars (and roads) are. That much I can tell, though not fully understand. Tom and Ray Magliozzi would be in heaven and among equals here. And then, after my limited ability to contribute meaningfully in Russian to expert talk about engine specifics, mechanical wonders, and engineering finesse, they tend to move on to the next favorite topic to be had with a German: soccer. Gladly.
Bishkek is also a city with visible traces of young male drivers testing their fast cars’ brakes, or, differently put, of insane maneuvers. Some abuse wide roads with little traffic as race tracks for burning rubber by breaking sharply and making extreme turns. Bad for your ears, bad for weak hearts and nerves, bad all around, but some may see a certain aesthetic in the visual manifestation of testosterone behind wheels:
But back to the cars. Here (in the photo spread below) is to the ordinary, old, and little Soviet cars that could. And to other curious things that roll, and some that rock, on Bishkek’s streets!