By Eric Freedman
It’s a crisp late autumn morning in Bishkek as I write this. I’m sitting on a park bench within sight of the White House, the center of Kyrgyzstan’s national government. It’s a sunny Sunday, a bit before noon, and I can see the reflection of yellow leaves—soon to fall—on my iPad screen. A few people are strolling through the park now, although later in the day young lovers and would-be lovers will occupy these benches.
In the distance, there’s already snow visible on the nearby Ala-Too range of the Tian Shan Mountains.
The roses, a summertime pride of Bishkek’s parks, are dead, the bushes cut back and awaiting clean-up. The marigolds, too, are dead but the cold-damaged mums still hang on.
I love walking around this city that few Americans know about or could locate on a world map.
But even beneath the carpet of dead leaves, I can see the grass in the park hasn’t been mowed in a while. It’s just one of many indicators of the economic troubles that Bishkek and other post-Soviet cities in Central Asia face in maintaining public infrastructure—unmown parks but also crumbling sidewalks, potholed streets, broken marble steps.
Although it’s been 22 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and Kyrgyzstan became independent, the monumental heroic statues—tributes to the noble worker, farmer and soldier—still stand. So do apartment buildings that are horrendous tributes to the worst of Soviet architecture. There is widespread evidence of less appealing aspects of Western “civilization”—empty Red Bull cans tossed into drain gutters, billboards touting Coca Cola, Aeropostale sweatshirts.
Similar infrastructure failures are visible elsewhere in post-colonial countries whose occupiers and colonizers—British, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, American, French and others—imposed their own alien sense of architecture and design, a sense not always in concordance with local culture, traditions and economics. After independence, these newly free countries frequently lacked the resources or the will to maintain that infrastructure.
Overall, Bishkek is a city with green spaces and no skyscrapers, but its environmental problems aren’t limited to unkempt parks.
The 24.kg news agency reported recently that an international study ranked Bishkek 16th among the 30 dirtiest major cities in the world this year. Air quality was its major problem, and the burning of leaves in the fall is a major contributor to that problem.
Trees are cut illegally, even in city parks. Road and housing construction cause environmental damage. Non-native plants are used to replace native species.
“City hall has consistently reported that it does its best for protection of ecology and allocates millions from the budget for landscaping of Bishkek. But at the same time, specialists state that they lack money to return the capital’s previous fame as one of the greenest cities in the Soviet Union,” 24.kg’s Tatyana Kudryavtseva wrote.
I love walking around this city, and I also hope it again earns its green city reputation.