Another passing dynasty?

Arriving in Almaty

In 1995, there were no direct flights from European airports to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, so I flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, 150 miles by road from Bishkek.  As we walked down the steps from the plane, another passenger surveyed the dimly-lit terminal building. “Just like Sofia,” he said. “All these Soviet-era airports were built the same.” 

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

We tramped across the tarmac. Snow was in the air, and I was regretting having packed my woolly hat and gloves in my checked bag. At the entrance we passed a line of uniformed cops, their peaked caps seeming to sit unnaturally high on their heads.  They eyed us suspiciously without speaking. The interior décor of the terminal was, if anything, more depressing than the outside—hard, wooden benches and walls lined with faded plastic panels broken by occasional examples of Soviet realism, an oil painting or bas relief of heroic peasants or factory workers gazing towards some misty socialist nirvana, with a uniformed commissar looking on approvingly. My driver from the US embassy in Bishkek was waiting, holding a “Professor David” sign. His name was German (in Russian, some “h” sounds become a “g,” so we would translate his name as Herman). It was too late to make the drive to Bishkek that night.  We would stay overnight at the Hotel Almaty, at that time the only “business hotel” in the city where foreigners were allowed to stay.

A business hotel?

At 11:00 p.m., the lobby of the Hotel Almaty—a massive structure, with all the trappings of ostentatious Soviet public architecture—was deserted.  There was no one at the reception desk. German banged on the counter and shouted.  After a few minutes, a clerk dressed in his robe emerged from a back room, yawning. German helped me complete the registration form. In Soviet hotels, the reception desk does not hand out room keys.  These are the jealously-guarded property of the dezhurnaya, the “floor lady” who serves as the queen of her one-floor domain, handing out and receiving keys, fetching blankets and pillows and, if you’re lucky, rustling up tea.  Olga was snoring in front of her TV when German and I emerged from the tiny elevator on the 8th floor. I handed her the ticket from reception and she found the key in her desk drawer.  “It’s the only key,” she warned. “Don’t lock yourself out of the room.”

Because it was the only “business hotel” in town, the Hotel Almaty could charge ridiculously high prices and get away with it—$90 a night for a small room with a hard bed, rickety furniture, noisy plumbing and AC outlets loosely attached to the wall by electrical tape.  (Over the next few years, more hotels opened in the city, and when I next stayed at the Hotel Almaty in 2001, I paid $40 for the same type of room).  I flicked through the 50-plus channels on the TV remote, but only two had signals.  The image and sound on the old Russian movie were breaking up, and the other channel offered color bars, so I gave up on TV watching.  A switch on the wall activated the wired radio system, which offered muzak versions of American country classics, including some Hank Williams favorites.  There were two phones. One was a rotary dial, presumably for local calls. The second, the white “international satellite line” came with a “buyer beware” warning on a card. “After the 35 seconds, irrespective of the fact that whether you have succeeded in getting through or not, the computer starts counting the elapsed time, which you will have to pay for. Which means that after the 35 seconds it will not matter whether you have talked to your opponent or not, you will have to pay as it for conversation.” You were instructed to pay in cash within one hour of the call. I didn’t relish the thought of rousing the clerk or dezhurnaya again that night, so resolved to call Stephanie in the morning.

I woke up early as the sun streamed through the windows.  I walked out onto the balcony and was rewarded with a panorama of the snow-covered Tien Shan Mountains, shimmering in the morning light. Not worth $90, but still a spectacular view.  I called Stephanie, paid at the front desk, and joined German for breakfast. Hank Williams was still on the radio.  Surreal.

The Soviet Union—another passing dynasty?

The rickety furniture and electrical system in my room at the Hotel Dostuk in Bishkek was apparently inspired by the vision of the Almaty Hotel’s interior designer.  The bed was too short for my six-foot frame.  There was a closet, but no drawers for clothes.  The light switches hung from the walls at odd angles.  At least the TV worked.  It offered CNN International and BBC World Service, along with entertainment channels in Russian and Turkish, TNT, and MTV.  The Indian music video channel featured high-energy, choreographed Bollywood dance scenes, the men dressed in white suits and the women in brightly-colored attire sweeping their long dark locks in front of the camera.  At 9:00 p.m., Kyrgyz public television was offering what appeared to be a lecture on macro-economics, complete with equations and graphs for short-run marginal cost curves. Riveting television.

I spent Saturday at briefings at the United States Information Service. On Sunday, the day before I flew to Osh to begin my project, the embassy public affairs officer, Bruce McGowan, took me for a day out to the foothills of the Tien Shan to see some archaeological sites, with Bakhit, a Kyrgyz historian, as our guide.  Soviet archaeologists began excavations in the 1930s, removing their prize discoveries to museums in Moscow and Leningrad; since independence, Kyrgyzstan has been trying to get its history back, with little success.  The archaeological digs have stopped because the government has no money for excavations or restoration, and most sites are unfenced, with sheep grazing on them.  The most-visited site, 50 miles from Bishkek, is the Burana Tower, the 11th century monument on the site of Balasagun, one of the capitals of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty that ruled a large region of Central Asia for almost 200 years from the early 10th century until they were overthrown by another Turkic dynasty, the Seljuks.  Archaeologists excavated the citadel of Balasagun and restored the Burana Tower in the 1970s.  At another site, sculpted stones mark the burial places of those who fought in the dynastic wars; by nomadic tradition, a warrior was buried with his horse.

We ended our trip with tea at the Issyk Ata (Warm Father) resort, where hot springs from the mountains are piped to baths. In the Soviet era, factory workers and their families came to these resorts, called sanatoria, for their annual break, to enjoy the clean air, walk the mountain trails, play sports, and relax their tired joints in the steam baths.  Since independence, the only tourists have been local. Many buildings have fallen into disrepair, with stucco peeling and sagging wooden porches.  The lobby of the main lodge features a brass replica of the Kremlin and a sign boasting that “The Collective of the Resort will struggle to uphold the highest quality standards.” It will be an uphill struggle without new investment and an improved economy. Apart from the staff and a few village boys who were sledding in the snow, we were the only people at Issyk Ata on a Sunday afternoon. Near the lodge, an image of Buddha etched on a large rock had been almost obscured by graffiti of the “Sasha loves Irina” variety.  In the driveway, a small statue of Lenin in one of his standard poses, his right arm outstretched, looked out over the resort, a scene of post-Soviet decay.  Like other dynasties that had ruled this region, the Soviets had come, and they had gone.  In the large scheme of historical time, they were really passing through.  The Qarakhanids ruled more than twice as long.

Camping indoors in Central Asia

I don't deliberately stay in rundown Soviet-era hotels so I can write about them later. Sometimes, there's just no alternative.

Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and other online retailers. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ or view readings and interviews on YouTube

                From the mid-1990s onward, my teaching, training and consulting work in Central Asia has taken me to places where the accommodation choices are, well, pretty limited.  If possible, I rent an apartment, if only for a couple of days.  But often, I have to take my chances at whatever establishment in town displays a gostinitsa (hotel) sign.  

                The municipally owned Hotel Molmol in Djalalabad in southern Kyrgyzstan had probably been a decent enough place in Soviet times, when party bosses came to town to roll out the latest five-year plan, cook up inflated statistics on the cotton harvest, relax in the hot springs at the local spa, and dine in the hotel ballroom. There also used to be tourists—factory workers and their families who came to the spa and walked in the walnut groves. But few officials (and probably no tourists) had been there for almost a decade, and the place was in sorry shape.

                In July 1997, I paid the foreigner's price of $10 for a "luxury room" that consisted of a dormitory-style bed, a chest with broken drawers, and a few cockroaches. There was no running water. The staff-- cheekily described by Lonely Planet as "breathtakingly rude"—told me the electricity would go off at 10:00 p.m. By 8:30, I was sitting in the dark, feeling hungry. The hotel restaurant was closed—for renovations, or so they said. At breakfast the next morning, Buffet No. 37—the sign was a throwback to communist times, when all eating establishments were state-owned and numbered—offered cold piroshki and tea. 

                Most Soviet-era hotels reflect the ostentatious public architecture of the Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras with their high-rise apartment blocks, massive squares, and government buildings with colonnades and cavernous lobbies. The impressive facades often conceal dark and drab interiors, with poor heating and ventilation, dangerous wiring, and leaky pipes.

                The Soviets built their hotels large, and even small cities boasted establishments with several hundred rooms. Of course, the number of rooms bore no relation to the expected number of guests. In an economy based on artificial production quotas, not on demand for products and services, there was no place for market research.

                So there they stand today—large, and largely empty. Hotel occupancy rates may still be a state secret in some former Soviet republics, but my guess is that most government hotels in provincial centers don't fill more than 20 percent of rooms most of the time. And without guests, they don't have the money to modernize.

Hotel Almaty, slightly refurbished since my first stay in 1995

Hotel Almaty, slightly refurbished since my first stay in 1995

In capital cities, Western-style hotels (with Western prices to match) have been built for business travelers and tourists. But in the provinces, the only hotel is usually the old government one.  This gives them a monopoly on accommodation, and the chance to charge exorbitant prices to desperate travelers. On a trip in 1999, I checked into the Hotel Ordabasy in Shymkent in southern Kazakhstan. There were two room rates--$25 and $100. What's the difference, I asked? Is the $100 room larger and more comfortable? No, said the clerk. The $100 rooms have hot water, at least in the evenings. I went for the budget option. Seventy-five dollars seemed just too much to pay for a shower.  My interpreter and I were the only customers for breakfast in the 200-seater restaurant, with its dark velvet drapes and chandeliers. All that was on offer was cold grichka (buckwheat). I found myself feeling almost nostalgic for Buffet No. 37.

                These hotels have one saving grace—the dezhurnayas, the floor ladies.  The dezhurnaya sits at a table opposite the stairs or elevator (if it’s working) and discreetly monitors the comings and goings of guests.  You hand in your room key to the dezhurnaya, not at the front desk.  Even in Soviet times, the dezhurnayas were not very busy, except when the hotel was full.  Today, they while away the hours reading magazines and watching TV.  But in hotels where room service is not an option, they keep things running, rustling up late-night cups of tea and retrieving linens, blankets and toilet supplies from secret stashes.  

                 On a later trip to Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, I learned that conditions in other former Soviet satellite states were similar. I asked my friend Susan Roe who had traveled to the provinces to rate the hotels. "Pretty grim," she said. "Rather like camping indoors."

                I've learned three valuable lessons about camping indoors. If you're six feet (as I am) or taller, sleep at an angle because the beds are short. (They must all have been manufactured at the same Soviet factory from standard lengths.) Carry a few tools so you can fix the furniture and, if you're handy, the plumbing, too. And tip the dezhurnaya on the first day of your stay.


                My favorite place to stay in Central Asia did not have a gostinitsa sign outside.  It was a house in Osh owned by a Russian couple, Yuri and Nina.  In the Soviet era, Yuri had worked as an engineer.  When independence came—and with it unemployment—the couple saw a business opportunity.  Foreign consultants were frequently coming to Osh for anything from a few days to a few weeks and no one wanted to stay at the gloomy Hotel Intourist.  Why not open a bed-and-breakfast?

                The house was in a mostly Uzbek neighborhood about a 10-minute marshrutka ride from the center.  The street was the usual mix of single-story homes and small shops, with babushkas selling fruit from blankets on the sidewalk; a few hundred yards away was a small bazaar where used auto parts were sold.   Sheep and goats grazed on patches of grass, and chickens ran in and out of the back yards.  People sat out on the street in the evening, and children played.  It was a long way from the grim formality of the Hotel Intourist.

               Word soon got around the expat community and you had to book ahead to make sure you could get a room.  Word also spread about Nina’s skills in the kitchen.  Russian domashnaya kukhniya (home-cooking) at its very best—sumptuous pilomini, golopsi and borsch, pies and cakes, home-made jams and juices with fresh cherries picked from the tree in the yard and apricots and plums from the bazaar.  Yuri rigged up an emergency lighting system, powered by a car battery, so that when the power went out (as it did on several nights) we had light.  There were never more than three or four guests, and we often got together in the living room in the evening to talk and watch TV. Nina did everyone’s laundry.  Once she fixed the hem on my jacket (I didn't ask--she just grabbed it and started sewing.)  


                When Stephanie and I lived in Bishkek in 1996-97, most foreign visitors stayed at the Dostuk near Victory Square.  It was in a convenient central location, the phones and TVs worked (although the choice was limited to Kyrgyz and Russian-language stations and one Turkish satellite channel) and the two restaurants actually served what was on the menu.  The single elevator was standard Soviet issue—just large enough for two people and a couple of bags—but at least it worked.  I had little sympathy for visiting USAID contractors who complained about the short beds and the mutton stew served at breakfast.  This was luxury compared to most hotels in Central Asia.

                The Dostuk’s monopoly on foreign guests was soon challenged.  On the south side of the city on Prospekt Mira, Bishkek’s first international hotel was rising from the concrete rubble of the old city airport.  The 14-storey Ak-Keme Hotel, built by Turkish investors, soon eclipsed the Dostuk as the upscale option in town, offering conference facilities and, it was rumored, a French chef.

                Stephanie and I visited the hotel only once (for a fashion show) but I stayed there twice on later visits to Bishkek for conferences   By 2009, Bishkek also had a Hyatt downtown and an even more expensive boutique hotel, so the Ak-Keme had competition at the top end of the market.  It was comfortable, if not exactly well suited to business travelers.  All the flat surfaces in the room were about two feet from the floor, so there was nowhere to sit and work.  The business center charged $7 an hour for Internet service.   I could get a faster connection down the street at an Internet café for $1 an hour.  

                I’m not sure when the Turkish investors backed out, but the Ak-Keme was now officially a “Joint Kyrgyz-Malaysian Venture.” Because English is widely spoken in Malaysia, you’d expect the new foreign partner to have tidied up the English grammar and spelling on the room service menu.  The Ak-Keme’s varied from the mildly pretentious—“On green meadow” veal and “Romance” soup—to the simply careless—stewen rice and humburger.  And the laughable—domestics pie.  “Domestics” is a translation from the Russian domashniye which means home or home-made.  I guess the menu writer felt that taking the second meaning from the dictionary would be a classier option. Downstairs, the restaurant served “beef language” (in Russian, as in English, the word yazik, translated as “tongue,” can refer to either the body part or the language, but you need to think about what you’re describing).  Instructions for the hotel phone included a wordy, if mathematically precise, warning: “After telephone conversation it is necessary to press the button of interruption.  While the button of interruption is not pressed the telephone station doesn’t fix the end of the conversation.  After 53 seconds it will start to charge price.” 53 seconds.  The Soviets were always better at math than at English. 

                By 2009, Kyrgyzstan was at last seeing a steady stream of foreign tourists, and many stayed at the Ak Keme for a night on their way to and from the standard visit-Issyk Kul- mountain-lake-eat-in-a-traditional-Kyrgyz-yurt-see-traditional-dance-and-drink-kumys package tour.  I helped an Australian couple load their bags into the elevator—a hazardous task because the elevator doors stayed open for approximately 2.3 seconds before attempting to sever human limbs.  They had enjoyed the mountain scenery, but didn’t like the city.  “Bitofer rathole, mite,” said the man.  I told them I loved the city, despite the traffic and inconveniences. “It ain’t Sydney,” he replied, stating the obvious.