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.