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Bishkek vs Almaty #1

As my blog is called “An Englishman in Almaty”, and I’m currently living in Bishkek, I felt it was about time I wrote a blog post about Kazakhstan’s biggest city and my future base. In July I spent twelve days in Almaty connecting with friends and new contacts, exploring how I could work there in the future. This blog is some initial observations about how Bishkek and Almaty compare to each other – there are things I love about both cities, there are other things I don’t love so much.

Almaty: More sights than Bishkek
Both Almaty and Bishkek are surrounded by beautiful mountains, and it’s relatively easy to get out into nature by car, taxi or marshrutka. However, in terms of in-city attractions, Almaty currently has the upper hand. Some of these attractions are actually in the mountains, but have connecting points in the cities, such as Medeu/Chimbulak and Kok-Tobe. The city also has a very nice art gallery and national museum which I visited on my first trip to Kazakhstan in 2014. One of my favourite places that I’ve visited this year is the beautiful President’s Park.

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Bishkek, on the other hand, isn’t a city with major sights to be seen (well from what I’ve seen so far, I plan to explore the city’s few museums in the autumn/winter months). Its national gallery is currently closed and there’s no definite open date. It’s got great parks and squares to chill out and go for walks in, but very little that defines it as a must-see capital city. That being said, I love Bishkek for the other reasons which I’ll be mentioning below. Most tourists when they come to the city come for visas to other Central Asian states and/or to book trekking in the mountains or at Issyk-kul.

Almaty: Every car is a taxi
When I was in Almaty in July, I didn’t really bother looking into the public transport systems because the city has a system which Bishkek doesn’t – every car is a taxi. Simply stick your thumb out and flag down a car, negotiate a price and get in. Taxis are relatively inexpensive (ranging from 50p for a 5 minute journey to about £3.00 for an hour’s ride), but you do need to be willing to haggle and not accept the first car that comes along. My rule of thumb when I was working out costs on Google was approximately 100 tenge per 3 minutes in the car, but locals can definitely get lower prices than that. Almaty does also have a metro and bus network which I’ll be looking to use when I move there as it’s considerably cheaper (20p per journey).

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Bishkek, on the other hand, isn’t a big city for taxis. If you want a taxi in Bishkek, you generally have to phone one up, and wait for 5-10 minutes for it to arrive. Sometimes as an Englishman they’ve put the phone down on me because they claim to not understand my accent! If you try to get a taxi on the street they’ll definitely be at least 30% more expensive than those that use meters through their mobile phone app (though don’t count on them to always be truthful either). Where possible I use the lovely marshrutkas and trolleybuses at just 10p a journey.

Bishkek: The better city for speciality coffee
Almaty is double the size of Bishkek, but I’m sorry, Almaty, Bishkek by far has the better choice of speciality coffee shops. I do appreciate the fact that Almaty has Starbucks and Costa, which Bishkek doesn’t have (the city only just got its first KFC in June 2017, the only big Western chain in the country). However as I roamed around the city I seemed to end up meeting people either at a Starbucks or at one relatively nice café called Nedelka – it had a nice atmosphere and good cakes, but the coffee was standard and offered in a wide variety of syrupy flavours.

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Photo credit: J. Dworak

Bishkek, on the other hand, has some fantastic specialty coffee shops and great baristas. The best place to buy ground or beans to take home with you is Vanilla Sky, who also offer a great selection of pastries including croissants, strudels and cinnamon buns. The best barista is by far Chihoon at Chicken Star, who is well-versed in different filters – my favourite that he’s made is an iced Ethiopian in a Canadiano filter. The best variety of specialty coffees is at Traveller’s Coffee, a Russian chain that has a whole menu of coffees that you can get in Chemex, French Press or Aeropress. I’m also a fan of Qcoffee and their iced drinks – it’s got a very relaxed atmosphere. I saw a poster yesterday that the Russian chain Shokoladnitsa are opening their first chain here – I’m interested to see how that will fare in this market.

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The Return of the City Boy

I grew up in London, one of the largest cities in the world, and in general I would consider myself to be a city boy. For those who like definitions, a city boy is “A male inhabitant of a city, or one who prefers city life”. Over the summers I was at home from university and in the periods of time after that I worked in central London, I thrived in the city, going out after work to international restaurants and independent cinemas, using my lunch breaks to explore local parks, food markets and museums, even in winter.

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Things changed however when I moved to South Wales in March 2013. No longer was I living in a city – I was living in a small town of 40,000 people. There was a small Odeon, a couple of nice cafes and parks, and of course the beautiful beach all within walking distance. People here preferred to go up mountains, go on countryside walks and traverse castles on their weekends. There were no craft pubs and very few good international restaurants, and Oscar-winning films rarely made it to the multiplex.

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But for the four years that I lived in South Wales, I became accustomed to small town life. It became my home. For the first year and a bit I didn’t even often go into Swansea, the nearest city, as my new friends enjoyed hanging out at the local beach, pub or round each other’s houses. And I liked that. I would welcome guests to South Wales and when they had a car we’d be going to the beautiful Pembrokeshire coast, Gower or Brecon Beacons rather than hanging out at Swansea Marina or Cardiff Bay. I look back on my time in South Wales with many treasured memories of walks along Three Cliffs Bay, hikes up Pen y Fan and cozy cafes in small-town Tenby and St David’s.

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My first experience of city life again was in Ankara, which you can read about in one of my previous blogs – though it’s a big city, it was navigable, and you could get around a fair amount of the city centre on foot. Bishkek is smaller than Ankara, and now that I’m making it my base for a year, is a good step towards the big city life that I’ve experienced on visits to Almaty. It’s been through making friends at my language school with a couple of guys called Chris and Shohei that I’ve explored a fair amount of Bishkek’s restaurant scene, which I’ll be writing about in a future post. I’ve also got a good understanding of the best coffee shops, which supermarkets sell which products, the best places for buying clothes, good places to work out and parks to relax in on summer afternoons.

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Bishkek is still a few years off from becoming as Westernised as Almaty. The malls here are influenced more by Turkey than by the UK and US. The first KFC opened in Bishkek in June, whereas in Almaty they have most of the big fast food, coffee and clothes chains at hand in brand spanking new malls. In Bishkek I mainly get around by 12p marshrutka journeys, whereas in Almaty the city feels more spread out (like a London or Moscow) that my recent experience has been flagging down taxis wherever I go.

 

How do I feel about becoming a city boy again? There’s a part of me that likes being the one in the know, so that when we receive guests I can take them to some of the best spots to eat local cuisine, drink speciality coffee, buy souvenirs and take in the sunset. On the other hand, I miss the proximity I lived to a supermarket, cinema, coffee shop and gym (all within five minutes walk), which are now more spread out and often involve a marshrutka journey to get to. I also miss being close to a beach – on the plus side, I’m only an hour away from snow-capped mountains, and in my personal opinion, Bishkek has better speciality coffee shops than Almaty, it’s big brother just four hours away.

My sincerest apologies for not writing sooner, but hopefully I’ll get a few more blogs out over this transition from summer to autumn here in Bishkek!

Street Art in Bishkek #1

One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve walked around Bishkek is how little street art I see. You often see graffiti, tags, poorly sprayed cartoon figures etc. But what someone has spent a considerable amount of time on, that’s actually any good, well it appears that Bishkek just isn’t a big city for street art. Interestingly, I was in language class just over a week ago, and my teacher was telling me about murals. There seem to be dozens of murals in Bishkek, most of them built in the Soviet times. Here’s a picture of one near to my language school:

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She then mentioned about street art, and where I could find some. In London this was one of my favourite weekend activities, to go down to Shoreditch and Brick Lane and see what was the latest pieces whilst drinking speciality coffee and eating artisan fare. Last weekend, along with my friend Chris, I went along Tolstoy street near the intersection with Panfilov to a street art wall. Apparently in 2013 there was an “official” street art festival here in Bishkek, and on this was there was located a number of fairly decent street art pieces. You can take a look at them below.

 

We also saw a random goat in the boot of a car – because why not! I’m hoping to go to more street art places in Bishkek in the future and once I’ve gathered further photos, will do a second blog on the subject.

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An Ode to the Marshrutka

I’m not much of a poet, but I decided to write an ode to the marshrutka, my daily form of transport here in Bishkek. If you like you can try to sing it to the tune of “Ode to Joy”.

Every day I end up spending
An hour on the marshrutka
A metal box with wheels
That takes me where I’m to go
There’s so many options
Routes numbered high to low
How on earth am I to work out
On which of these I’m to hop?

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Photo credit: thisisbossi via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Once I’ve jumped into the vehicle
Next it’s time to find a seat
First pay the driver my ten soms
No need for a receipt
Often simple, there’s few people
Other times I need to stand
Look that seat is free and close by
Yes I’ll grab it whilst I can!

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Photo credit: Konrad Lembcke via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Oh dear the marshrutka’s stopping
More people are clambering in
Looks like I will give my seat up
To the lady with the kid
Not a problem, I’m happy to do it
But it leaves me a little lost
Now I can’t see out the window
I don’t know when to get off!

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Photo credit: killerbass via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

So I’m standing in the middle
Of the aisle trying to hang on
The guy to my left’s quite clumsy
I can’t wait ‘til he gets off
When is my stop, have we turned left?
It’s all quite a mystery
Maybe I should move up toward
The front so that I can see

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Photo credit: nuakin via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The driver’s speeding forward
How do I tell him to stop?
I don’t want to have to walk
Five miles back to where I first was
Please sir «Здесь моя обстановка»
When you stop I’m out of here
Thankfully the door’s now open
I can give a little cheer!

Kyrgyzstan: First Impressions

Greetings from Bishkek! It might seem quite odd, after seven weeks of being in Kyrgyzstan to be writing a blog about my first impressions of the country, however, having been away in the mountains, and then been unwell, this is my first real opportunity to write in quite a while!

I arrived in Bishkek in mid-April, and have felt very welcomed by the family that I’m staying with here. I’m living in the north of the city, near to the old bus station, and I have a decent supermarket, a quiet park, and access to public transportation all within a fifteen minute walk of the house. For the first week, I was unsure how to get around by marshrutka (minibus), and was sometimes walking up to an hour to get to my destination!

In May, having spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my future plans, I decided to make Bishkek my base in Central Asia for the coming year. That means, that I’ll be writing a lot more blogs about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but here are three first impressions about the country.

The Cost of Living is Low, Except for Luxuries
How much does it cost you to get into the centre of your city by public transport? It costs me 12p. Yup, that’s right, 12p, which is 10 Kyrgyz som. If you go on the trolleybus, rather than the marshrutka, it costs 8 som, which is about 10p, however they’re more infrequent and don’t go to as many destinations. There are two good apps to navigate the city by marshrutka and trolleybus – 2GIS, and bus.kg. 2GIS is good if you know the name of the street/shop you’re going to, whereas bus.kg relies on your map-reading skills to help plot your route.

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Some luxuries, such as speciality coffee, are reasonably priced; my favourite place so far is Travellers Coffee, where you can get 500ml of Chemex-filtered specialty coffee for about £2.50 – great for a morning or afternoon of catching up on emails. Other luxuries, however, such as the gym, cost as much if not more than in the UK. My first experience at one gym here cost me 3000 som (£34.50) for a month, and whilst they had adequate facilities, there was one thing it was missing – free drinking water – you were expected to bring your own or pay for one of their bottles.

There Are Lots of Green Spaces
I like to be close enough to nature that I can go and visit it, but not actually live for example in the countryside. When I lived in Wales, I loved the fact that my office was a five minute walk from the coast. Here, I’m within an hour’s drive of mountains, and I can see them out of my window every day (unless it’s raining). I’m thankful for the fact that there are a number of beautiful green spaces in Bishkek. Just fifteen minutes’ walk from my house is Elm Park, which I’ve not fully explored, but looks like a great place to cycle around. I’m also a fan of Erkindik Avenue, which has a beautiful promenade that you can walk down.

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In May I went with my friends to a mountain village called Sosnovka. We were there to help with the development of a children’s home. Whilst there, we had the opportunity to get out into the mountains. They are so atmospheric, lots of dramatic twists and turns! One time we decided to ascend a rocky hill, which in itself was a challenge going up, but rather dangerous going down. Thankfully my friends had experience and were able to safely help me to return to level ground!

Bishkek – A Provincial, Soviet-Style City
When I was studying Russian at university, I spent three months in the Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl. Much of the architecture of the provincial city, whose population was about 600,000, was Soviet apartment blocks, lots of grey! The city did have one saving grace – beautiful Orthodox churches (the city is one of the founding places of the Orthodox Church). Bishkek reminds me quite a lot of Yaroslavl, though on a slightly larger scale (its population is about a million), just with mosques scattered round the city rather than Orthodox churches (though you can still find a few of those too).

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The city is still developing quite a lot, and I was thinking the other day, that I have yet to see any of the big Western fast food chains here – no McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no KFC, Burger King or Subway. In the malls here the biggest influence is from Turkey – we have clothes shops like Waikiki, Koton and Mavi which I saw on the main streets of Ankara when I was there in April. Close to where I’m living there’s a lot of construction work going on to develop pavements, which I’m very thankful of, as walking on the roads at night can be quite dangerous!

Much more to come from Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan in the weeks and months to come!

An Englishman in Ankara

Greetings from Bishkek! I’ve now been here for a week and a half, and I’m enjoying getting to explore this city and develop a new pattern of work and rest. I want to spend some time reflecting on my three weeks in Turkey’s capital, and share with you some recommendations of places to go, food to eat and specialty coffees to try. I’d been to Ankara twice before, so on this occasion I didn’t visit the Anit Kabir or Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, but both are worth visiting if it’s your first time in the city.

Ankara Sights
Most of my time during this visit was spent supporting the projects run by the charity I work for, or meeting up with friends who either live in the city or were visiting from America. My favourite place in the city by far, which I went to on a couple of occasions during this stay is Ankara Castle, an ancient fortification which has fantastic views of the city. You can climb all over the castle walls, though you might want to keep an eye out for the steep drops if you’re exploring with small, wandering children or have a crippling fear of heights! On the way up to the castle there are a number of souvenir shops with everything from statues of whirling dervishes to Turkish tea sets for you to purchase at reasonable prices, but you can also try your hand at bartering with the shop owners.

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One of the new places I visited which I’d highly recommend is the State Art and Sculpture Museum, which is free and has a great variety of 20th century Turkish art. I didn’t know what to expect from my visit, perhaps older pieces as there is also a modern art gallery in Ankara, but I was impressed by what I found. The museum doesn’t get very crowded, and you probably only need an hour to go around it – I particularly enjoyed seeing paintings that depicted the comings and goings of life in both rural and urban Turkey. It is right next door to the Ethnography Museum, which I have yet to visit, but you could certainly combine both in an afternoon. Another cultural experience I’d recommend trying at least once is the hammam, which is a series of steam rooms followed by a massage. We went to the original hammam in the Hamamonou district of Ankara.

Ankara Cuisine
I went to a number of good restaurants during my time in Ankara, both for Turkish food and international cuisine. You can find a lot of good places for Turkish cuisine on Selanik Caddesi – I’d highly recommend trying iskender kebabs at Meşhur Aspava. If you’re looking for something cheap to have on the go, I’d suggest picking up a durum from Morgi Döner in Hamanonou.

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We tried a few different international restaurants in Ankara – on one of my first nights in the city I was invited to Günaydin Steakhouse by my American friends – we shared a stunning tomahawk steak as a starter – it was the first time I’ve ever had steak done rare, and I loved it! For my main I had a very tasty burger; another place I’d recommend going for a burger is Big Bang Burger in Tunalı, where I was a big fan of the Smoke Bang. My final recommendation of food in Ankara is actually Uyghur food, specifically Urumçi, where I had a delicious noodle dish.

Ankara Coffee
There are a number of specialty coffee shops in Ankara, particularly around Tunalı, which I’ll come to later on. I’d specifically like to highlight Mavi Kapı Kafe Hamamönü which uses Coffee Haus coffee. The place has a relaxed atmosphere, highly skilled baristas and often has delicious cakes. On Saturday evenings they have an English-speaking club which is a great way to get to know new people in the city.

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In Tunalı, I tried both Crop Coffee and Koala Coffee, and had good experiences at both. Both serve Aeropress and V60 filters and have a variety of coffees including some from my favourite coffee growing regions, Central America and East Africa. However, on my last day in town, my friend and I found another coffee shop we became a big fan of called Kakule Kahve. It felt like a proper hipster, specialty coffee shop that you’d find in London; I had a tasty mocha and my friend had a really nice Chemex. It was also the only place in the city that I found original postcards, which was something that I had been on the lookout for in Ankara.

I’d suggest if you’re going as a tourist, to spend two to three days in Ankara, but there is also plenty of places to get to know should you choose to stay longer, or if you end up moving to the city.

Living Overseas With No Language

Greetings from Bishkek! I’m now living in Central Asia! I’ll be in Kyrgyzstan for the next two months before moving to Almaty in June. It’s great to finally be back in this part of the world, and in the coming weeks I’ll share further about my first impressions of this country and the culture that I’m looking to adapt to. On Sunday I left Turkey, where I’d been visiting friends for the past three weeks. As I wasn’t staying in the country for very long, I had no plan to formally learn the language, which made it challenging at times to get around the cities I visited.

In 2010 I had a similar experience, spending nearly three weeks in Mexico having learnt no Spanish, and somehow I managed to explore three different cities and two ancient pyramid sites in the country using only my Lonely Planet guidebook! From these experiences I’ve decided to write a post focusing on two useful pointers if you’re planning to visit a country where English isn’t spoken by the majority as a second language, and how you can get by for a couple of weeks without any formal language learning.

Make Friends Who Speak the Language
Having friends in Turkey who speak the Turkish language, both locals and expats, helped me to get by whilst I was visiting this country. They can order for you when you’re out at restaurants together, direct your taxi to the right destination and haggle over prices for you at the local market. If they’ve lived in the city for a while, they can also provide you with an orientation so that you know how to use local transport and buy groceries, as well as inform you of any cultural taboos when you’re out in public.

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If you don’t have any friends in the country you’re visiting, my best recommendation is to go out and make some! Many big cities have CouchSurfing events or Meetup groups that you can join. I’ve stayed with CouchSurfers over 50 times and I’d highly recommend it as a way to meet local people, learn about the culture and if your host isn’t busy, explore the city with them.

Get a Local SIM Card and Use Your GPS
As a frequent traveller, I knew that when I arrived in Turkey I wanted to get a SIM card, mostly so I could use the Internet. SIM cards are often cheap to get overseas, and many have set packages that need topping up once they’ve run out. As I only stayed in Ankara for three weeks, I opted for the cheapest package from TurkTelecom, which cost me 50 lira (about £11) and came with 250MB data. I managed to run on this for the first two weeks, by which time I knew the city centre fairly well. When it started to run low, I began to navigate around the city without using GPS to the best of my ability.

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GPS apps like Google Maps are generally very up to date with the latest routes to get around the city by foot, public transport and by car. If I was in a hurry to meet someone, I often checked to see how far it was by taxi, as short journeys in Turkey were relatively inexpensive and within my travel budget. I used to show my taxi driver the route on my phone, and they figured out how best to get me to my destination. The most important time I used Google Maps in Turkey, however, was when I was on a local bus in Istanbul. It was taking me to Sabiha Gökçen airport, however the bus was very slow and stopped far too often. From Google Maps I worked out that I’d miss my flight if I stayed on the bus, so I got off it as soon as I could and took a taxi. Thankfully it got me to the airport by the skin of my teeth to catch my flight!