On a Friday night last August, a friend told me to be ready at the early hour of 05:00 the next day for a surprise trip. Naturally inquisitive, I asked where we were going. Naturally comfortable withholding information, she wouldn't tell me. I began to prod her with questions. First, I asked if I needed to fill my car's tank up with gas the night before. She said I didn't need to. Second, I asked what to wear, and she said comfortable shoes. Finally, I asked her what I should bring. She told me to bring my camera, the spare battery, extra memory cards and my kindle.
The next morning, she drove us to the Bishkek train station. Despite a lack of coffee and the early hour, I guessed our destination correctly, which is that we were heading to Balykchy for the day. Each time we drive to Lake Issyk Kul, we drive through Balychky. It's an interesting place, to say the least. Balychky means Fishermen in Kyrgyz. This is the first place on the drive where you get a glimpse of the Lake. When driving through Balychky, it looks and feels like a ghost town. There are many former Soviet-era factories lining the streets that appear to be shut down and houses that appear empty. No one is walking along the streets, and there are barely any cars. It can be sunny the entire drive to the Lake, and as soon as you hit Balychky, rainstorms and dark clouds appear. No markets or bazaars appear off the main road, which is uncommon for towns and villages in Kyrgyzstan. It seems like a place without any life. I was always curious about it, and after passing through so many times, I had added it to my list of places to explore and see before leaving Kyrgyzstan.
Train tickets one way were 110 Kyrgyz som each, which is about $1.80 USD. The train from Bishkek to Balychky is slow and one we always drive past when driving to the Lake. It is about five-and-a-half hours by train compared to less than three hours by car. The train only runs during the summer months, which means our trip was one of the last for summer 2014.
We hopped on the train as soon as we could to pick our seats. We were fortunate to sit with some female students and a male graduate student, as there were men carrying bottles and bottles of vodka looking for seats. Everyone's bags were packed for a weekend at the Lake, and people pulled out their snacks and cards and settled in for the journey. The ride was not dramatic or anything, but it was certainly beautiful and scenic. We drove alongside the mountains, through fields with sunflowers, and through Boom Gorge, part of the Chuy River, an area I had rafted the year before.
When we got off the train many, many hours later, we decided to walk to town. This gave us a chance to better explore our surroundings and get a feel for the place. We walked through a run-down neighborhood and past Soviet-period playgrounds, some old shops and even cows and horses. Fifteen minutes later, we finally stumbled onto the main road, which was familiar and the road we drive each time to the Lake. Standing on the road, I felt like I was in a war zone. I mean, there were no bombs overhead or gunshots being fired. I felt safe, but the town just felt deserted. I got up close and personal to the auto parts store, which we always passed, and it turns out, it has a New Jersey license plate on the front bumper. It was very cloudy and overcast, which added to the gloom. Every once in a while, among the monotone homes and very Soviet-style concrete buildings, we saw a turquoise fence, a bright blue Lada or a red gate. Seeing a little color made me wonder if there might be patches of life among all the gloom.
My friend then led us toward the Lake. During Soviet times, Balychky thrived as a fishing hub. Fish were caught in the Lake and then transported all over the Soviet Union from the train station. Ships were also built in Balychky during Soviet times. Neither industry existed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When we arrived at the Lake, there was a little more life -- kids were playing on the banks of the Lake, and horses were grazing.
We then arrived at the shipyard, which was more like a graveyard for old, rusted out ships. Apparently this was an old steamboat factory during Soviet times. Interestingly, Kyrgyzstan is landlocked, meaning Issyk Kul would have been good for building and testing these boats but probably not that great for exporting them. Soviet armed forces also used Issyk Kul to test nuclear submarines.
After walking along the train tracks by the shipyard, we decided to head back toward the main road to see some of the abandoned factories. At this point, it started to rain. We hailed a taxi, and he drove us around. It turns out that these factories are at least partially functional. You would never have known that by just driving by. Each time we drove through Balychky, I became kind of sad because of the gloom but could also imagine all the life there during the Soviet times. The buildings are run down, many windows are broken, no people are around, no steam is coming out of the smokestacks, but apparently the factories have been repurposed from their original intent and are quasi-functional. Our biggest assumption that they were all shut down was wrong.
After it stopped raining, we got out of the taxi and walked around a little more. We passed a couple of Lenin statues, a night club called Vision that had long been abandoned, and even a Kyrgyz man passed out at a marshutka stop from all the vodka. We randomly saw chickens in a coup next to an apartment building where half of the apartments were empty and abandoned but where kids, oblivious to the gloom, were playing outside. We even found a decent cafe with fresh food. A little life.
Finally, it was time to head back to the train station to head back to Bishkek. We arrived a little too close to the train's departure, and there were only two seats left. We sat down, and at first, we were a little disappointed not to have more space. However, as time went on, we realized we were in the best car on the train. There were mostly kids, mothers and babushkas in our car. It seems the men were getting drunk elsewhere while the ladies took care of the kids. However, there was an exception. There were two older Kyrgyz men sitting in front of us, and over the course of several hours, they got so drunk while doing vodka shots and chasing their shots with beer that their bottle of vodka fell on the floor. They were too drunk to bend down to pick it up. When they got to their stop, their sons had to come and carry them out. I was waiting to see if they would remember that bottle of vodka. Surprisingly, one of them sure remembered it, and he bent down to pick it up and of course fell over. Seeing these men drinking to oblivion kind of added to the gloom of the day, but then there was a really nice family with very kind children sitting next to us that made up for it.
While it certainly felt like the longest train ride home, it was an interesting day. After all, we found a little life among all the gloom.
To view a photos of my trip to Balychky, visit MyPlaidPants on Flickr.