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Exploring central Bishkek

Bishkek is a pleasant city but in terms of sightseeing there is little that might be described as a 'must see'. Nevertheless, there are a handful of worthwhile monuments, some pleasant parks and a few interesting museums and art galleries to seek out. All of those 'major' sights mentioned are in the city centre, which might be defined as the area circumscribed Jibek-Jolu to the north, Moskovskaya to the south, Molodaya Gvardiya to the west and Ibraimov to the east. Running east-west through this downtown area is the central avenue of Chui Prospect.

Ala-Too Square, BishkekBishkek's central area of streets and parks is a gallery of statues old and new, in a bizarre but comfortable merge of Soviet and Kyrgyz. In Tbilisi the people tore down Stalin statues, their once revered and feared forms smashing on the streets, as children ran off with a nose or finger; in Moscow they left the toppled figures to lie in the dirt for passers by to climb on. In Bishkek, however, most statues still stand, testimony to a philosophical decision on the part of the Kyrgyz not to obliterate their Soviet heritage but to grant it a place in their people's history. These symbols of Soviet power now loiter like the icons of a dead religion, witness to the rise of a culture they had sought to suppress.

The heart of the city, such as it is, is centred upon Ala-Too Square, which was previously known as Lenin Square up until independence in 1991. This large, rather anonymous, concrete expanse facing Chui Prospect is where most official celebrations tend to take place. There is said to be an underground complex beneath the square that is connected to the White House by a secret passageway. The large subterranean assembly room here is purported to have portraits of the Soviet politburo still in place, but it has not seen much use since independence.

Freedom Monument in BishkekThe square above used to have a statue of the eponymous Soviet leader as its centrepiece, but the monument was shifted in 2003 to a less prominent location just behind the State Historical Museum. Lenin has since been replaced by something that is more symbolic of the nation's newly minted Kyrgyz character, the Erkindik (Freedom) Monument. The statue, which was unveiled in 1999 to commemorate eight years of Kyrgyz independence, represents a woman holding a flame that is ringed by that most familiar of Kyrgyz symbols, the tunduk, the traditional wooden centrepiece of a yurt, the smoke hole in the centre of a yurt ceiling. Traditionally, a sheep's head is thrown in through the tunduk of a family yurt to bring good luck to newly-weds. The statue is a fine example of the inclination to look back to nomadic traditions in the search for new symbols to represent the Kyrgyz national identity. The statue was moved here in 2003 when Lenin was shifted a block to the north. Just west of the monument stands the national flagpole, erected in 1998 and attended by an immaculately dressed guard of honour that changes every hour and devotedly packs away the flag for the night when dusk falls.

Lenin statueThe newly located Lenin statue, which captures the man in 'pointing to the future' mode, dates from 1984 and stands around 10m tall, presiding over the paved square to the north of the State Historical Museum that was formerly home to the Monument to Labour Glory. This small square has since been designated as the replacement Lenin Square, although it is undeniably more low-key than its predecessor. In his former home, Lenin used to point south towards the Ala-Too peaks; now he has his back to the mountains and he gestures in the general direction of the American University, whether in righteous fury or in conciliation no-one can be certain. Perhaps it says much about Kyrgyzstan that Lenin was merely demoted to a less prominent location rather than destroyed outright, as was the case in less- forgiving neighbouring countries like Uzbekistan.

Start at the  Erkindik (Freedom) Monument in front of the Historical Museum. The facade opposite monument was built as a facemask to a now defunct knitwear factory. Walk west along Chui towards the White House, the seven-storey neoclassical marble edifice of parliament, completed in 1985, where the Kyrgyz president has his offices.

Not far from the historical museum is Panfilov Park, named after Ivan Panfiolov, who died leading a Kyrgyz regiment against Nazi tanks in WWII.Situated immediately behind the White House and its serious affairs of state is an altogether more fun-loving place - Panfilov Park, one of Bishkek's most popular green spaces. Naturally enough, Panfilov Park boasts a statue of its namesake, Ivan Vasilyevich Panfilov, the Russian general and commander of the defenders of Moscow who died heroically in battle against the Nazis in 1941. These days most Bishkek citizens visit the park less to admire the great-coated war hero than to enjoy the rickety fair ground and its pony rides, ice cream and shashlik stalls. There is a Ferris wheel here too, and for a mere 15som you can get a crow's-eye view across the concrete squares and tree-lined avenues of central Bishkek to the mountains beyond. The park started out as a municipal garden planted by horticultural students in 1879; later on it became known as Red Star Park, as its walkways trace the shape of the five-pointed communist star.

Friendship monumentBefore you reach the White House, the statue to your right is the Friendship Monument (a tall modernist study in concrete) built in 1974 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of what Soviet historians optimistically describe as Kyrgyzstan's voluntary entry into the Russian Empire. The trees around the monument were planted by key Soviet dignitaries such as Kosygin and Brezhnev.

East of Ala-Too Square is Dom Druzhby (Friendship house), which now serves as a community centre and zoological museum, but which in Soviet times was the headquarters of the Kyrgyz ASSR Central Committee. Behind this is another popular green space Dubovy (Oak) Park, which began as a grove of oak saplings in 1890. Like Panfilov Park, this is another good location for a quiet drink or a cool stroll among trees and away from the traffic. The park hosts the Memorial to the Red Guards, a red granite obelisk erected in 1960 that marks the common grave of the Bolshevik casualties of the Belovodsk counter-revolutionary uprising of 6 December 1918.

Marx & Engels in Dubovy Park in BishkekThe park hosts the Memorial to the Red Guards, a red granite obelisk erected in 1960 that marks the common grave of the Bolshevik casualties of the Belovodsk counter-revolutionary uprising of 6 December 1918. Oak Park also has a monument to Marx and Engels, who are depicted sitting next to each other on a bench deep in conversation. Their names have been removed from the plinth, which indicates some sort of compromise with the past in which out-of-favour ideologues may be depicted as long as they are not named - the same sort of logic that does not dethrone Lenin entirely but simply demotes him. The park also has a 2004 monument to Kurnianjan Datka, the Queen of the Alia, whose plinth formerly supported a statue of KGB-founder Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877-1926), the first director of the Cheka, the forerunner to the KGB, and an outdoor sculpture garden with representations of cities from all over the former Soviet Union. The park is also home to the Russian Drama Theatre and two of the city's best restaurants - Stari Edgar and the Four Seasons.

Tree-lined Erkendik (Freedom) Boulevard stretches due south of Dubovy Park all the way to the railway station, its twin avenues bisected by a shady pedestrian zone that is dotted with benches and an assortment of statuary depicting Kyrgyz poets and war heroes. A shorter section extends north of Dubovy Park too, linking it with the frantic thoroughfare of Jibek-Jolu Prospect. The promenade dates back to 1883 when it was created by planting poplars along a filled-up streambed.

Frunze statueIn summer there are always large numbers of people here taking advantage of the shade and welcome respite from the city traffic: cigarette vendors, office workers, students and exhausted Russian pensioners with carrier bags. The avenue has had several names before its present-day appellation was settled upon: originally it was simply 'the boulevard'; in post-Revolutionary times, it became Komsomolskaya; and then later, Prospect Dzerzhinsky, after the founder of the Cheka secret police, the forerunner of the KGB.

With independence from the Soviet Union and a political need for nation- building and a distancing from the past, 'freedom' must have seemed like an obvious choice for its new and, hopefully final, alias. Contrary to this new spirit of nationalism, and bolstering the city's former Russian identity, a monument to an existing Soviet hero has firmly remained in place. Right at the bottom of Erkendik, facing the railway station and constructed in 1938, stands an equestrian statue of the Bolshevik general Mikhail Frunze, who gave his name to the city in 1926 when it became the capital of the Kyrgyz ASSR.

Opera buildingHead for Batik Batyr (Sovietskaya) where you turn left. Continue north to the Fine Arts Museum, next to which sits a recent statue of Aaly Tokombaev, the renowned 20th century akyn (bard). Tokombaev helped to standardise written Kyrgyz in an amended Cyrillic alphabet and translated numerous works of world literature into Kyrgyz for the first time. On the other side of the road behind the pillared, elegant Opera building, stands a large bizarre-looking monument to famous Kyrgyz figures from all walks of life: President Akaev, the ballerina Bibisara Beshanileyeva and the celebrated doctor, Mamakaev. From here, head south back to Chui Prospect to Revolution Square, with the 1978 Martyrs of the Revolution Monument as its centrepiece; it's the work of local sculptor Tinibek Sadykov, for which he won the All Union Lenin Prize. The central figure here is Urkuya Saliyeva (1910-34), a young socialist organiser from southern Kyrgyzstan who was murdered by reactionary locals. She is surrounded by figures that represent the 'awakening proletariat'.

A little further east along Chui prospect and immediately north of the TsUM department store is the breezy plaza of Pobeda (Victory) Square, which until 1985 was the site of the city's central bazaar. More Kyrgyz symbolism takes pride of place here, with three massive curved arches that represent a section of yurt towering above a statue of a Kyrgyz woman waiting for her husband or son to return from the front (or, as some local wags say, for them to emerge from one of the nightclubs that surround the square).

Victory square in BishkekThe bulky monument was erected in 1985 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. An eternal flame burns here, a focus around which an assortment of the city's drinkers and nefarious characters sometimes gather like wayward moths. At other times the square is besieged by wedding parties seeking a suitable backdrop for souvenir photographs and video takes.

If this concrete symbolism of traditional jailoo life is not enough, then there are clear reminders of the alpine terrain that lies beyond the city: the square is broad and uncluttered enough to afford clear views to the south of the perpetually snow-clad Ala-Too range. The view in the opposite direction Statue of Kojumkol, Bishkekis altogether less romantic: the bland bulk of Hotel Dostuk faces the square to the northeast, while to the northwest stands the unmistakeable lime green and pink form of the Circus building, shaped rather like a 1950s flying saucer. Beyond lie some of the less savoury quarters of the capital, and after dark the streets around here become the home-ground of prostitutes and their pimps.

Returning to Ala-Too Square and heading west along Chui Prospect past the White House, the 'Rossiya' cinema is on your right at the corner with Togolok Moldo, which leads north to Jibek-Jolu past Spartak Stadium on the right and the humdrum Palace of Sports on the left. The sports palace has a statue of Kojumkol outside, a semi-legendary giant of a man who is depicted here lifting a horse - certainly a twist on the usual equestrian statue theme. Kojumkol, who hailed from the Suusamyr valley and lived from 1899-1955, was reported to have been 2.3m tall and would lift enormous stones just for fun and, if the mood took him, even his own horse.

Russian Orthodox Church in BishkekContinuing right down Frunze and then north down Logvinenko brings you to the thoroughfare of Jibek-Jolu and the nearby Russian Orthodox Cathedral with its sky blue domes. Back on Chui, two blocks further west is the intersection with Manas where the State Philharmonic concert hall stands set back from the road with a large area of paved walkways, fountains and flowerbeds in front of it. This is a popular meeting spot and a favoured location for street photographers to set up their equipment to tempt passers-by. In front of the concert hall, surrounded by spurting fountains, is an equestrian statue of Manas on his horse Ak-Kula, with his wife, Kankei, and Bakai, his faithful friend and counsellor, represented at the base of the statue. Around the square itself are a scattering of smaller statues of well- known Kyrgyz manaschi (traditional story-tellers).

The next road junction west along Chui, with Turesbekova, has a smaller but still grand building that was the original State Philharmonic building, which later became a puppet theatre and now serves as an American-style pub for homesick expatriates - the Metro Bar. Continuing west leads past the National State Academy on the right and then, on the left, the 'October' cinema, one of the city's best- appointed film houses.

This brings you to Molodaya Gvardiya, a tree-lined boulevard, which is now officially referred to as Mahatma Gandhi. The former name translates as the Avenue of the Young Guards and the section that lies immediately off Chui is referred to as 'Heroes' Lane'. Originally this was the course of a tributary of the Ala- Archa River, but it was filled and planted with trees to create the present-day boulevard. The busts that line it are Soviet-era military heroes, and there is a large Komsomol (young communist league) statue of Soviet soldiers bearing the legend: 'We went to war for Communism'.