09 April 2014

Bishkek - Brutal & Beautiful

The capital of the Kyrgyz Republic, Bishkek, is a city of concrete on an Altaic plain - altitude 2,600 feet - just north of the Ala-Too portion of the Tian Shah mountain range, which boasts peaks over 15,900 feet. A dramatic setting for a time capsule of concrete Soviet Brutalist architecture.

The Kyrgyz Republic gained its political independence from the USSR in 1991. The White House, of seven storeys and faced with marble, was built just six years previously. Originally the headquarters of the Communist Party's Central Committee for the sometime Kirghiz 'Republic', it is now the presidential offices.

On Ala-Too (once Lenin) Square is the Historical (once Lenin) Museum, of 1984. The square is enormous, designed to both impress and intimidate, but the surface is subject to subsidence due to poor substrate. Out the back of the museum is the giant statue of Lenin that previously stood out front, but now points into history.

Appended to the headquarters of Kyrgyz Telecom, also the post office, is a tower that houses a clock presented by Armenia in 1984. This broke down in 2000 and was silent until 2013. It sounds exactly like the Great Clock of the Palace of Westminster.

On Togolok Moldo Street is the National Centre of Cardiology and Internal Medicine, the centrepiece of the republic's efforts to rebuild its healthcare system, which has suffered due to sharp cuts in expenditure since 1991. The UK's hospitals often look brutal unintentionally. This is the real deal.

Hand-in-hand with health often goes sport. The nearby Sports Palace (above) was built in 1974 as part of the modernisation of the city, and is Bishkek's largest indoor venue, with seating for 2,500. The statue is of Kojomkol, born 1889, seven feet five inches tall, and famous for his feats of strength.

Bishkek is a bustling place, without being manic, and there are plenty of signs of a café life for the well-heeled. Yet the residential areas are largely of Soviet bloc blocks, architecturally interesting, even beautiful, but not necessarily much fun in which to live. The Ala-Too Cinema, likely of the late 1960s, adds some colour.

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