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Modern Capital

The Three Modern Capitals, Alma Ata, Bishkek and Dushanbe
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

Bishkek, the capital of Kirghizstan, was until recently called Frunze, after the well-known Bolshevik general who was born there, but it originated as the native fortress of Pishpek. This had been built by the Khan of Khokhand in 1852, but was captured by the Russians in 1862 in the course of their expansion into Central Asia, and transformed into a military settlement. In 1878 Pishpek was declared a town, but being of little economic or political importance it hardly developed at all. Caravanserais, tea-houses and native dwellings clustered around the old fortress, which soon fell into disrepair. By 1913 it was still a conglomeration of mud-brick houses, roofed with cane-rushes and having a population of only 18,000. Its sole claim to fame was as the market town for the surrounding region. Most Kirghiz were still nomadic and lived in circular yurts, only riding into town to visit the large bazaar or the tea-houses.

But after the Bolshevik Revolution all this changed. Pishpek, by now renamed Frunze, became the capital of the Kirghiz Soviet Republic in 1928 and was connected to the Turksib railway. Asphalt streets were laid out in a neat grid, and water mains and electricity were introduced. The Kirghiz began to be collectivized, and by 1939 the population had risen to 93,000. During and after the Second World War the town became steadily more industrialized, and by 1992 the population had leaped to 670,000.

Like Alma Ata, 180 miles to the east, Bishkek is dominated by snow-capped peaks to the south (the Kirghiz Alatau) and endless steppe to the north. Its altitude is about 2,500 feet and its climate extreme. The Trotsky family, on their way to exile in Alma Ata, climbed down from the train at Frunze (then the end of the line) on a freezing January morning in 1927. 'There was a biting frost,' wrote Natalya Trotsky. 'The sun's rays pouring on the clean white snow blinded us. We were given felt boots and sheepskins. I could hardly breathe for the weight of my clothes, and yet it was cold on the road. The autobus moved slowly over the creaking snow packed down by vehicles; the wind lashed our faces.'

About 100 miles east of Bishkek is Lake Issyk-Kul - 2,230 square miles of salt lake which, despite its altitude of 5,000 feet, never freezes. Volcanic activity beneath the surface heats the water all the year round, and one of the translations of the name is 'Warm Lake'. On the south-east shore stands a huge memorial, surmounted by an eagle, to the great explorer Nikolai Prejevalsky. He died of typhoid there in 1888 during his last expedition to the Tien-shan mountains, aged only 49.