Kyrgyzstan's humble and sometimes bumpy progress in recent years has come with investment from Turkey, which is viewed favorably and gratefully here, and from China
Youths wave Kyrgyzstan national flags as they take part in a procession to commemorate State Flag Day in Bishkek / Reuters
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Kyrgyzstan is the low-hanging fruit of Central Asia. Its leaders are not eccentric buffoon-monsters, as Presidents Niyazov and Berdimuhamedov have been in Turkmenistan. It does not have any significant stores of oil like Kazakhstan (or natural gas like, again, Turkmenistan). It is not famous for torture, massacres in the street, or hosting ethnic boogey-terrorists like Uzbekistan. And it was not the sight of a horrifying civil war, like Tajikistan. No, Kyrgyzstan is just Kyrgyzstan -- small, humble, sort of functional, but still maddeningly Central Asian.
What's most striking about this place, even on the 30 kilometer drive from Manas airport to downtown Bishkek, the capital, is the sharp disparity between the relatively small enclave of well-off people in this city and the truly appalling poverty in the countryside. The famously beautiful Kyrgyz countryside is also desperately poor: no electricity, rundown shacks for houses, muddy ruts where there should be a road, and sometimes-extreme isolation. Bishkek, on the other hand, is leafy and dense; downtown is an endless parade of Mercedes Benzes, Lexuses, and Audis. The buildings are newer, mostly, despite a few Soviet-era monstrosities.
Bishkek is gearing up for the October 30 presidential election, the first since April 2010 protests ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. The hotels are filling up with Europeans who've arrived to monitor the election. The streets are crowded in by gigantic billboards featuring a half dozen faces of presidential candidates, with their websites (and, occasionally, their twitter feeds) listed underneath.
The city is a remarkable blend of stereotype-breaking images. Kyrgyzstan is 80 percent Muslim, but the girls wear skinny jeans and absolutely vicious heels. One American here told me that she was amazed, even after nearly two years in the country, at how some Kyrgyz women walk on top of wintry, ice-packed streets in four-inch stilettos. Forty percent of the country may be under the poverty line, but in downtown Bishkek the streets swarm with smartly dressed young people jabbering on their smart phones. There's even an authorized Apple reseller pitching iMacs, iPhones, and MacBooks to the locals.
Bishkek is in many ways a very modern place, even if the architectural legacy of the Soviet Union overshadows much of the skyline. The city's infrastructure can feel like a competition between the monumentalist old Soviet planners and the new Kyrgyz politicians: big, empty squares filled with statues to official cultural heroes, workers, and peasants, strung with wide streets teeming with cars. Many of the cafes, restaurants, clubs, and other hang-outs offer free wifi; there are Persian, Lebanese, Italian, and even Mexican restaurants. Friends here tell me they are mostly new, and quality varies considerably.
Surprisingly, though China is one of Kyrgyzstan's biggest trading partners, there is very little Chinese influence in the city. China's few companies here are run much like those it has in Africa and Latin America: from top-to-bottom by Chinese, with little spillover into local society. Turkish companies, on the other hand, are everywhere. In department stores, washing machines and stoves are advertised, in English, as being "Made in Turkey," and the biggest bank in town is Turkish-owned DemirBank.