Abandoned Ferris wheel

IMG_0300Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

One of the enduring images from Pripyat, the main town in Ukraine’s Chernobyl disaster region, is that of an abandoned amusement park. A totem for the fall from innocence, here are rides that children once played upon but will never do so again. Rising above the park is an abandoned yellow Ferris wheel – a dejected structure that has fallen in grace from a onetime wheel of fun and joy to a symbol of nuclear catastrophe.

At one time Ferris wheels could found in most Soviet towns of a certain size. One former SSR state I know better than most is the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, a country named after the once-nomadic people indigenous to the region. With three revolutions now since its independence in 1991, it is classic example of a territory in transition, a new country of arbitrarily imposed political boundaries that is still trying to find its feet.

IMG_1250View of Manas Square from Bishkek Ferris wheel, Kyrgyzstan

To my knowledge there are at least four Ferris wheels that stand in Kyrgyzstan today, although there may be more. The one in Panfilov Park in the heart of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has been upgraded in recent years to replace the somewhat creakier Soviet-era one that stood before. Kyrgyzstan’s second city of Osh in the south of the country has another. This Ferris wheel is older (and a little cheaper) than its Bishkek rival and stands in a city park close to the rather desultory canalised river that flows through the city. Alongside the wheel is decommissioned Aeroflot Yak-40 that has been repurposed as a children’s playground. Both Bishkek and Osh wheels afford excellent city views for an outlay of just a few Kyrgyz som.

IMG_1254Panfilov Park, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

There is another wheel, said to be the largest in the country, in the resort of Bosteri on the north shore of Lake Issyk-Kul but the other Kyrgyzstan Ferris wheel that I have personal experience of can be found in the small town of Toktogul halfway between Bishkek and Osh. Skeletal and long abandoned, this one is found at the edge of a leafy park next to a crumbing sports stadium. Old-fashioned fairground rides can still be found in some of the clearings; the wheel, though, no longer turns. With its seats removed – for their scrap value presumably – and left to the attention of the elements, the wheel, framed against the blue central Asian sky, evokes an air of melancholia. Argumentative crows perpetually flock around the structure as if it had always been theirs to inhabit, taunting its immobility with wheeling flight. At one time this over-sized bicycle wheel delighted children and adults alike with its thrilling views of Toktogul Reservoir and the snow-capped peaks of the Fergana mountains beyond. Now it is a wheel that no longer wheels; a rusting reminder of a half-forgotten past unknown to the children who visit the park today.

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Crows and abandoned Ferris wheel, Toktogul, Kyrgyzstan

All photographs ©Laurence Mitchell

If you are curious to discover more about Kyrgyzstan you might want to try this…

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Osh Bazaar

IMG_9760The first thing to know is that it isn’t in Osh. Rather, it is in the capital Bishkek. Why this bazaar shares the name of Kyrgyzstan’s second city is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because it is here that you come to look for a shared taxi ride south to Osh; or maybe it is something to do with the shout of the porters as they work their way through the crowd asking shoppers to move out of the way – “(b)osh, (b)osh”? No matter, there is no confusion when you get here as the bazaar’s name is spelled out in big red letters on the large arch that marks its entrance. In Cyrillic script OSH looks more like OW, but there’s no exclamation mark à la Devon’s Westward Ho!IMG_9761Osh Bazaar, just west of the city centre near the main bus station is Bishkek’s best known market, although not its largest – for that you need to travel just north of the city limits to Dordoi Bazaar where you’ll find thousands of stacked shipping containers serving as shops. Osh Bazaar is more traditional – no shipping containers, just hundreds of small shops and a couple of huge hangars that have stalls selling everything that you might imagine along with a few items that you might not. Mostly though, it is food and drink – fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. This is the place to come for Kyrgyz specialities like kumys (fermented horse milk) or kuruut (sour yoghurt balls) but pretty well anything can be found here with diligent searching. If it is angels’ tears or unicorn ham that you need then Osh Bazaar is probably your best bet in the city.IMG_9763My last visit was early last summer on a scorching day with temperatures nudging 40 degrees centigrade. Osh Bazaar has something of a reputation for dodgy plainclothes policemen who home in on obvious foreigners to ask for passports and the handing over of foreign currency ‘to count’. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother that day – or maybe I just looked like an ethnic Russian local (unlikely) – but there was no sign of them. Just heat-frazzled shoppers and exhausted stall holders dozing between customers.IMG_9737IMG_9756IMG_9753IMG_9748untitled

 

The third edition of my Bradt Kyrgyzstan guide will be published later this week.

 

 

Metal Box

There are strange low hills in the vicinity of The Port of Felixtowe in Suffolk. Not the product of tectonic upheaval or Ice-Age earth shifting but man-made plateaus of painted steel. Around what is the largest container port in Britain vast acres of stacked shipping containers afford the local topography a distinct Legoland character. Ugly they may be, but containers can be piled high, safely and efficiently – this is really the whole point of them. Cross the Orwell estuary to the other bank and the mechanics of the terminal seem somehow easier to discern from a distance. Looking north across the water from Shotley Peninsula the enormity of the container ships becomes all too apparent, as does the immense volume of their gargatuan payloads. The juxtaposition of the tranquil saltmarshes, silent but for the piping of waders, and the distant metallic rumble of behemoths docking across the water strikes an oddly unsettling note.

There is something a little inhuman, sinister even, about shipping containers. Perhaps they are too much like a human-sized tin cans for comfort. They evoke fears of incarceration, claustrophobia – a living grave. Such fear affords them considerable dramatic possibilities.  A European shipping container was central to the plot of the second season of the acclaimed HBO production The Wire. In this, McNulty, the anti-hero cop who had been exiled to  Baltimore Docks, found himself involved in a case concerning a shipping container full of dead young East European women, the victims of a people trafficking scheme that had gone terribly wrong. Even the British soap Brookside once invoked a container for criminal purposes when top-dog ‘scally’ Barry Grant locked a business opponent in a shipping container at Liverpool Docks. We never learned of his fate – or if we did, I had stopped watching by then. Containers seem to fit snugly into the lexicon of crime pulp fiction and the threat of tinny incarceration provides a welcome alternative to hackneyed themes of ‘swimming with fishes’  or being concreted into flyovers.

Shipping containers can be found in the most unlikely of places, not just ports. Travel about as far as you can get from an ocean – Central Asia, say – and you’ll still find them in large numbers, not so much as moveable storage but more as make-do business premises. Both of Kyrgyzstan’s two largest markets make extensive use of them, double-stacked in parallel rows to create narrow shopping streets of easily-secured retail premises. In the capital Bishkek, you can find pretty well anything you might need at the Dordoi Bazaar north of the city. While the sellers are mostly Kyrgyz, many of the shoppers strolling the market’s metallic thoroughfares come from further afield – Kazakhstan or even Russia.

Larger still is the market at Kara-Suu right on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border close to Osh in the south. This one really is the largest market in all Central Asia. Kara-Suu is the grey economy writ large. Almost entirely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, this is the place to buy very cheap Chinese goods -clothes, electronic goods, household wares – just don’t expect a guarantee or 6-month warranty. The market is long-established and dates from Soviet times when the meandering Kyrgyz-Uzbek frontier really did not mean that much. These days Kara-Suu is closed down periodically by the authorities but most of the time shoppers from Uzbekistan are able to sneak or bribe their way across this the border to buy goods at much cheaper prices than at home.   Sometimes they even bring raw cotton to sell at a premium in Kyrgyzstan.

Bazaars like Kara-Suu are hardly typical. Away from Bishkek, Osh and a handful of small cities, Kyrgyzstan is by and large rural – wild, mountainous and very beautiful. The country may be very long way from any ocean but it does have some stunning high-altitude lakes like Issyk-Kul and Song-Kul (above). No container ships, though.