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

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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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Strange Babies

They are central to the buzzing bazaars in Bishkek and other Kyrgyz cities: the strange babies.

No cooing and smiling and waving here. No cuteness, and no compliments for parents beaming with pride. I am talking about the many baby carriages without babies that fulfill a vital function at the bazaars: people use them to sell food and beverages. Instead of babies, they carry trays with fresh pastries, dozens of bananas, rows of steaming corn on the cob, large thermos with tea,  stacks of round loaves of bread, buckets filled with maksym (a popular wheat-based drink, especially in the summer, when it is sold at every street corner), shoeboxes filled with sunflower seeds, and many other things that hungry and thirsty shoppers consume as they are making their way through the narrow bazaar aisles.

They serve as mobile food stands, equipped with plastic bags and cups for the goods to go, straight into the hands of busy shoppers. They are old and worn and show rust and repairs, such as replaced wheels that don’t match. Some have been modified, as many repurposed objects in Kyrgyzstan: instead of the bassinet, a wooden board sits on top of the steel frame, decorated with throws or blankets, now covered with baked goods and fruits. An object designed for infant transportation has become a vehicle for low-scale economic activity. An efficient transformation. Anything else would have been a waste of useful material.


These baby carriages are also a common sight during national holidays, when families celebrate, eat, and drink in Bishkek’s public places, and here they serve the same practical purpose: to hold, move, and sell food, drinks, and snacks.


Last summer, right after I left Bishkek, I spotted another strange baby. This time far away from Kyrgyzstan, in the German city of Wiesbaden, on a street lined with shops. This babyless baby carriage was not moving around with the flow of the bazaar traffic, but stood in front of a store that sells fancy fabrics for children’s clothes and accessories. No food here, and no wear and tear; it was shiny and filled and draped with trendy fabric samples instead. Same object, same original purpose, but different use and meaning: no practical, only aesthetic value, intended for an audience that reads, recognizes, and values this baby carriage as a hip fashion statement. This one, which must have been made around the same time as some models I saw in Bishkek (1970s), functioned as a prop with its stylish retro look. Vintage is in, in this part of the world.


What’s in a baby carriage? Here and there, in Kyrgyzstan and in Germany, not necessarily a baby, as one would expect. But a whole lot of different things and even more meanings.