So here I am in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. It is not often I will get to truthfully write that in my life.
And yes, it is surprisingly upbeat. I certainly did not expect to be writing that. A far more sophisticated place than any city I have seen in Central Asia thus far (although they say that Almaty in Kazakhstan is the most cosmopolitan of them all). Even cooler than Tashkent, which is about 3 times as large and likes to think of itself as many times superior.
Of course, Bishkek has a terrible Soviet layout. They only knew one size – big. As if they anticipated either massive population growth, or that humans would grow to three or four times their current stature. They say some roads in Moscow were built so that aircraft could be landed on them in the event of some military need. But surely that can not apply to every major street in every major Soviet city. Perhaps they got a bulk discount on concrete.
Bishkek is still graced by those other most Soviet things, parks and statues of the long-gone. The former are pleasant anywhere in the world (given minimum quality standards). The latter are an acquired taste specific to this part of the world. But still cool. In the same way that big soviet watches are cool.
Kyrgyzstan itself has more of an open feel. The first driver we met assured us that independence (early 1990s) had led to democracy and this had led to freedom. Anything is possible in Kyrgyzstan, he said. The second driver we met said that this freedom thing was not all good, although it was nice to have freedom of speech, of course.
In any case, the border is definitely more welcoming. Several countries don’t need visas at all. For those that do, the visa is simple to get, there is no stamp in or out, and no problem at all with customs or immigration. In fact the man was genuinely pleased to see us. Novel indeed.
Of course, along with the physical city layout, there are still soviet mindsets that take some time to change. As we discovered when the cleaners banged on the door at 7am on Sunday morning (surely waking the entire floor in the process) to retrieve the bucket that my next door neighbour had borrowed the night before. Were they worried she would steal it?
Bishkek is also a great place to take on some culture. They have not adopted the evil practice of charging foreigners more, so you can see a classic western ballet for a few measly dollars. And your cheapo ticket won’t get checked at the door so you can see in a more expensive seat. In fact, as happened to us, you may get ushered to a more expensive seat as a matter of course.
You may feel underdressed, especially if, like me, you are wearing the same clothes you have been living in for as long as you can remember. And you may have difficulty translating the story, which is written in an academic style using lots of words you do not know. Keep an eye out for the guy who was supposed to have a main role, but did not actually dance at all (he just walked around). Listen at the end for the annoying mono-clap that makes you think it is not genuine at all.
Bishkek also brought new taste sensations. Perhaps the escape (even if temporary) from the plov paralysis is another reason I like this place so much. Because, you see, there are only four or five staples in Central Asian cuisine: plov (rice with grease, veges and meat), shashlik (bbq lamb, beef or sometimes chicken or pork), pelmeni (dumplings in soup), laghman (veges and meat on noodles) and various sorts of soups. I think that is all of them.
I would go crazy if my diet was so limited. So I am slowly going crazy. Hence why we went crazy and spent $10 each on a fancy Chinese restaurant dinner.
Days here have been somewhat wasted, at least from the perspective of seeing the country. I have some errands to run, most importantly to secure a Kazak visa, and although I should be hurrying a little more (I have only three weeks before I must be in Moscow), I don’t feel like hurrying. I can not be late for my holiday.
Today we were supposed to leave Bishkek on our own tour. Taxi from here to valley. Horseback ride up to yurt. Ride over mountain pass to meet driver again who takes us to another place for more horseback riding and yurts. Sounded idyllic. Idylllic, but not cheap.
But we talked to the travel agency this morning that we had agreed this with (and paid our deposit to) and they told us the price had gone up by 50%. This was because the driver who was previously booked said his car had broken down, so we would need a new driver and he charged more.
Of course, the reason was of no significance to us. We agreed what we were doing. We agreed the price. The fact that the original driver was not available was not of any great interest. We wanted the tour, not the driver.
Our undoubtedly western point of view was lost on the travel agency. Their costs had changed. So our price must change as well. The fact that we had agreed was irrelevant (although they did not say what they would do if we decided to pay 50% less after going on the tour). How could we expect any different? At least they gave us most of our deposit back, I guess.
Which brings us to the driver of the taxi we took to get to the travel agent.
We did not agree the price in advance (which means that I did not, since I was doing the talking). There are, of course, no meters.
It was a five minute ride, so it shouldn’t have cost anything much. So we didn’t offer anything much.
The driver demanded two and a half times what we were offering and threatened all kinds of dire things when I held my ground. He said we would never get picked up again (obviously crap because every single car in Kyrgyzstan is a potential taxi – just stick out your arm and someone will stop). He said he would call the police (good, we said, let’s do that). He said we should have agreed the price in advance (yes, we said, why did you not mention it?).
The important point is the last one. Agreeing in advance. If people are reasonable on both sides, then agreeing in advance is not necessary. When getting out you proffer a reasonable amount and all is good.
Without agreement, if either side is not feeling reasonable, things get stickier. Taxi drivers see foreigners and think they can charge like wounded bulls. The sure-fire sign they are doing this is if they say ‘it is only a dollar more’, suggesting that local prices are not relevant, when clearly they are (although economists might disagree in theory).
Foreigners view taxi drivers mostly as rapacious vermin after a pound of flesh, and so can often see a ripoff merchant when the price is normal or close to normal.
In this case I thought he was being unreasonable. The price was twice normal (as I had learned from my experience in taxiing around Bishkek’s long, straight streets previously). And he would not listen to reason, or engage in conversation. He just kept saying ‘give me another 15 som’.
To get this in perspective, 15 som is about 75 cents in New Zealand. Not a lot of money there, but useful in Krygyzstan. A ticket to the ballet is 200.
Whether either the driver or the passenger raises the issue of price at the beginning is a function of perceived power. If the driver does not mention it, either a) he (they all are) is a reasonable man who will take a reasonable sum, or b) he thinks he can fleece you but does not want to let you know in advance. If the passengers do not mention it they either c) think the price will be reasonable, or d) think they can get away with paying less if they already have the ride than if they negotiate in advance.
I usually assume people are reasonable until proven otherwise. This makes me assume the driver is type b). My other problem is that I am not hard-arsed enough to just leave the money and walk away (which is the best strategy for being a type d passenger). Other travellers I have met definitely are. Type d) that is.
So mostly I just stand there with a smile or a stupid look, shaking my head at the demonstration of the limits of rational conversation. Am I too polite? Do the drivers detect this to start with and play a type b), knowing that I am type d)? Perhaps. Clearly I am the sort that would benefit from meters.