City of Little Adventures

Jamie Maddison

Arriving in the city

This is my personal, slightly quixotic account of our bumbling and - on at least one occasion - dangerously stupid adventures in the beating urban heartland of Central Asia.


We had come to Kyrgyzstan as part of a climbing expedition hoping to explore an isolated valley in a remote section of the Tian Shan Mountains. However, things did not quite work out how we planned when one member of our five-man team was suddenly taken ill up in the hills and had to be transferred back to the capital Bishkek.

I accompanied him, and so upon arrival we began a two-week alternating cocktail of exploration, waiting, boredom, excitement and Kafkaesque expeditions around one of the most interesting cities in the former Soviet Union. This is my personal, slightly quixotic account of our bumbling and - on at least one occasion - dangerously stupid adventures in the beating urban heartland of Central Asia.

First Night

The trouble starts before we’re even out of the taxi. Only a day off the plane and five of us are squashed inside a dilapidated old car, parked on some anonymous and unlit backstreet sandwiched between Bishkek’s worn hi-rise apartment blocks. We’re trying to locate our newly rented flat for the night but the driver’s once smiling features have grown increasingly angry over the argument erupting across the front seat concerning the fare. Not satisfied with my friend Mat’s 150som (£2) we had paid him for the journey - already twice the standard price - he makes a frustrated gesture for more.

It’s late, we’re fed up, tired and still suffering the ravages of jetlag and the five of us - two Brits and three Americans – have simply had enough. Emerging from the taxi into the blackness of a Kyrgyz night, we hand him one last note, still ignoring his Russian rantings and make to leave regardless. It would seem this was not the wisest choice of action; in the next instant an ear-splitting squeal of an abused engine makes my head pivot just in time to catch sight of Matt and Mike jumping down an embankment as the incensed cabby makes to ram his car across the very spot where we all just stood moments previously.

Now - barely 24 hours into our stay - all us are running in the dark; past sinister alleyways, past shadowy figures suddenly looming with threat in our paranoid minds, and through yet more streets with indecipherable Cyrillic names. Abruptly, almost unexplainably, we find the welcoming entrance our own old Soviet apartment block. Leaping up the flights of stairs two at time we gratefully reach our flat, marvelling all the while at what perfect idiots we are to nearly getting flattened before we’d even set foot near a mountain and any real danger.

Outside the Hospital

The long dusty trails


Two weeks later and we’re back in Bishkek; what will be the first stop - I hear myself ask - on our new grand tour of this capital city of a million people? As it turns out it was to be the Bishkek City Hospital. Outside the sun smiles upon the wide and spacious boulevards, brimming with greenery and the babble of the metropolis’s many irrigation channels. Inside, it’s dark with no windows, little light and less doctors; in retrospect it was like many not-so-modern medical establishments around the world today, but we’re apprehensive nonetheless.

Dan and I sit on hard wooden benches like we’re back at school whilst two white-coated doctors review his file, all watched over by a yawning nurse evidently bored stiff at what’s going on. Communication remains a bit of an issue and our ethnic German-Kyrgyzstani helper is midway through translating a particularly complex medical sentence when in bursts a very ugly sight. I’m looking up at a tall, blonde-haired Russian twenty-something, covered from head to foot with blood and with - to our horror - something obviously sharp and pointy protruding from amongst the bandages in the place where his right eye should be.

He’s not registering anybody of anything in the room but totters forwards next to me, steadying himself on the wall above my head, then pulling back to reveal a gleaming, vividly blood-stained handprint on the disinfected tiling. The foreboding print stares back at me like some otherworldly omen and then it was really time for us to get going, and so Dan is thrust four illegible packets of pills before we’re both unceremoniously shown the door. There’s a parting shot of advice for my friend to take the big pink tablets - of which there are thirty - once every six months. Six months? Later he phones the insurance’s doctor, the advice from home: don’t take the pills.

After spending a disagreeable hour one morning hacking off my expedition beard with a blunted straight razor, it was finally time to enjoy a lighter and brighter side of Bishkek. Venturing around the streets and sights at length the pair of us are soon found standing by the capital’s Eternal Flame. The city’s many daily newlyweds and their family processions come here to pay their respects to those who sacrificed their lives for the Soviet Union. And so quite by accident we are now sitting and watching this fascinating stream of matrimonial visitors who pour to this commemorative blaze in great numbers: pretty brides in their bright, white flowing dresses; little boys dressed in traditional Kygyz attire, a pointy kalpak hat atop their head; and groomed and educated men-folk who chat to us in perfect English about their time in Oxford.

And then strikes a rare moment of British national pride. “Jamie, could I ask you for a favour,” a new found friend called Jordan whispers to me in a hesitant voice, leaning in over his two caged white doves, desirable symbols for ceremonial release by paying brides and grooms. “Would it be possible to have a coin from your country, you know one with your Queen on it? Slightly taken aback, I rummage through the depths of my wallet before extracting a solitary and slightly tarnished one-pound coin, which I promptly give to him. The university student’s face lights up, revealing a row of much shinier golden front teeth.

“Thank you ever so much! To have something with your monarch on it is very special,” he said. Excited, Dan whips out his own wallet and goes to hand Jordan an American one dollar bill, something the student refuses with a shake of the head, saying with a hint of sympathy: “American money is everywhere; it is boring money.” I am to strut around with an inflated and probably undeserved sense of pride for the rest of the day.

The River

I collapse back onto the floor. It’s probably better just sleep off this peculiar mystery and wait for our friends to arrive, trying to ignore the pain of yet another quest of absentminded idealism without due thought for the practicalities of actual consequence.







Jamie Maddison

Jamie is a journalist and photographer by trade, an expedition-man and wannabe-adventurer by preference. His assignments have taken him far and wide: from the serene forests outside of Fontainebleau, France, to unexplored valleys in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan Mountains, through to adventurous climbing in South Africa’s Cederberg Rocklands.

Recently recognised as a finalist in the Travel Photographer of Year awards, Jamie is always looking to document or be part of the next big adventure, wherever it may be heading. Further information can be found on his website:

Details about Jamie’s upcoming 28,000km expedition to and around Central Asia – including 1800km on horseback - can be found at:


“Okay let’s get out of here today and go for a stroll around Ala-Archa national park.” It hadn’t rained since we’d been in the city, so being only a quick 40km drive south we had no expectations for it to rain today. As per our usual unfortunate selves we’re completely wrong. Big, bullet size drops fall alike on our scraggly frames and the alpine hills and meadows surrounding us. The hut we’re meant to be staying in is still three hours away but Dan and me have already had enough. The downpour continues unabated, soaking right through my probably asbestos woven Kyrgyz ranger’s jacket, one that I had erringly traded for a nice new waterproof a week earlier. “Still it could be worse,” I think, “Dan’s in shorts.”

“It’s really like being back in Britain”, I think for the umpteenth time to myself two and a half hours later. As on we continue; plodding away down a winding lonely road, ignored by cars that refuse to pick us up, drenched in the utter ridiculousness of yet another bumbling kafuffle we’ve got ourselves into. At length we arrive at the park ranger’s house. Alerted to our presence by a little bell attached to string wired across the road, he rushes out into the torrent, bringing us inside to a warmth of blankets, tea and a supper whilst he books us a taxi home. Trying to communicate with our saviour, it’s clear our Russian is not up to scratch for judging by his surprised expression and our own drowned rat impersonation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he thought we’d fallen into the park’s blasted river.


I wake up with the mothership of all headaches, spread-eagled out on the hard floor of our sparsely decorated and stifling apartment. Emerging to this sea of post-conscious hurting, I groggily assess the damage from the night before. Our friends come back from the wild today and so we had seemingly indulged in a celebratory night of beverages at Bishkek’s Metro Pub, haunt of American service personal based at their transit centre to Afghanistan at Manas airport.

Assessing the damage, throbs of aching alert me to newly acquired cigarette burn (I don’t smoke) on my arm and a badly stubbed toe. Blood (or possibly ketchup) is plastered down the back of my shirt, red paint across the front, with constant attacks of nausea distracting me from groggy realisation that I have no recollection of what actually happened last night. I don’t even drink normally. There’s a groan from the flat’s solitary bed. So Dan’s alive then. Also in a similar post-inebriated state he’s covered from head to foot in even more red paint, devoid of most of his money (spent rather than robbed we must assume) and with a possibly fractured foot.

I collapse back onto the floor. It’s probably better just sleep off this peculiar mystery and wait for our friends to arrive, trying to ignore the pain of yet another quest of absentminded idealism without due thought for the practicalities of actual consequence.


Out of the wild, three of my friends have already flown home, including my partner in mischief Dan. Now it’s just Mat and myself, sat in Manas Airport drinking the worst coffee ever tasted with innumerable crickets clambering all up and down us chirping away throughout this godforsaken hour of the early morning. It’s a sad time for me; through all the awkward experiences and near misses I have become quite attached to this city of little adventures. And like any satisfied (if completely inept) adventurer I can at least return home complete with a treasure-trove of new jokes, stories, friends and memories, all which promise to last on throughout the coming years. And so it’s now time for the final flight check in, no more mistakes, I’m going home.

“Excuse me sir; your backpack is way over the baggage allowance. It will cost at least $200 to check it in.”



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