Just 60 km west of Bishkek - Kara-Balta (known as Pochtoviy in the Soviet times) is a museum under open skies. What is it a museum of? Of Sovietism, post-Sovietism and post-post-Sovietism. It is literally a secret gem. It was a closed city in the Soviet times, a place for processing uranium. Sadly, tailings still remain an unresolved issue. Nevertheless, Kara-Balta is a unique place to visit, here is why.
Being a closed city meant that its residents worked for the state and enjoyed special provision. You know, all those things some people are so nostalgic for - Stalin-era apartments with high ceilings, canned fish from Latvia, suits and shoes from Yugoslavia, and crystal from Czechoslovakia. All of the above can still be found in Kara-Balta, along with many other gems such as Soviet-era monuments, shady and quiet streets, and new generation local businesses.
Kara-Balta officially became a city in 1975 and is currently home to nearly 50,000 residents. From Bishkek, you can get here in a shared taxi for 150 som (around 1.7 euro). The journey will be roughly 1 hour. You could also take an older shared bus for half that price and travel with multiple stops for about 1.5 hours. Both of these options depart from "Shlagbaum" on the western edge of the city. Alternatively, you can hop on a train in the heart of Bishkek (it goes all the way to Kazakhstan and sometimes on to Russia) and pay 20 som (20 euro cents) on board. The train is so slow, you could literally run next to it. It will take 2 hours, but it is an experience.
Once you arrive in Kara-Balta, you need to take another shared taxi and head up toward the mountains. The locals still say to "Pochtoviy".
In the streets of Kara-Balta
When you finally make it, these are the streets you will get to walk. In the summer these trees provide the so-needed shade. In the fall they turn all kinds of colours, in the winter they stand dressed in silver and spring does its own magic to nature, of course.
Almost no cars. This is quite the change and relief after Bishkek where cars have taken over the city and as a pedestrian, you feel like an intruder. Many Bishkek dwellers fall in love with Kara-Balta at first sight.
Monuments: Lenin and more
You can find tons of Soviet-era monuments across Kyrgyzstan, but in Kara-Balta it all comes together in a homogenous atmosphere due to the lack of new "elite housing" and mega malls. A perfect place to shoot a movie. Should these monuments be knocked down? Or should they stand and remind us of the not-so-distant past? If preserved as artefacts, do they remind people of the horrors of the USSR though, or are people disillusioned by propaganda and nostalgia? These are important questions that need to be raised and discussed. After all, there is a country in the north that seems to be on the imperial mission of restoring the Soviet zombie.
Street art, architecture and public spaces
Again, Soviet-era artefacts can be spotted on houses here and there. This worn-off fresco says "Communism is the youth of the world".
Modern artists also leave their marking. Quite a few random and sometimes philosophical messages are scattered around town. "Peace to all the locals" - says the message below.
"People, come to your senses" - calls out another wall message.
Architecture in upper Kara-Balta is uniform, so-called Stalin-era two-story apartment housing notorious for high ceilings. Here is a typical communal courtyard in Kara-Balta.
Perhaps prominent members of the Communist Party would receive their apartments here? Would love to see one from the inside.
The sun is about to set over Kara-Balta. You can already hear the music and the smell of shashlyk coming from local cafes; the locals celebrate life every evening.
Yes, I do!
The "reconciliation bench". What a great idea!
Local business and entrepreneurship
Kara-Balta is a city of entrepreneurs. There are two large bazaars and numerous local shops for various services. They even have their own Kara-Balta Fried Chicken.
This barbershop "Fidel" is really something. I got a haircut, beard grooming, washing and styling for 700 som (roughly 8 euros).
The most amazing "non" bread, fresh out of "tandyr" clay oven for 25 som (30 euro cents) a piece.
There is plenty to see and do in Kara-Balta. If you make it into a day trip, be sure to depart before 6pm, otherwise, there might be no cars heading out towards Bishkek anymore. It's like Hotel California, in a way. But then again, shashlyk and music are there to enjoy.
P.S. Cruising through the city is a bit of a zigzag of emotions. On the one hand, you are in awe with the enthusiasm and energy of local dwellers who make something happen in such an economically tough environment. On the other hand, can't help but be sad that there is a hint of decline in a place that could have been a paradise.