One of the most bizarre restaurants I have ever been to in Kyrgyzstan is called “Restaurant Hawaii,” a dining destination outside of Bishkek in a small town called Tokmok. For most people, this restaurant is one of three reasons to visit Tokmok, an otherwise sleepy, dilapidated, still-Soviet-looking town. The other two reasons to visit are to climb the Burana Tower, a Soviet reconstruction of an 11th-century minaret built by the Kharakhanid dynasty; and to do research on Kyrgyzstan’s Chechen diaspora, which at one time included the infamous Tsarnaev brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon this past April.
Restaurant Hawaii was first opened in 2005 by a Uighur businessman. In the last eight years it has skyrocketed to Tokmok (and Bishkek) fame for being a unique complex that offers an indoor and outdoor restaurant; a petting zoo that includes camels, eagles, snakes, and reindeer; a beach and artificial lake that you can swim in; a photogenic water-fountain-lined park to take engagement and wedding photos; and the opportunity to dine on floating huts on the lake, where waiters deliver your orders by boat.
The place oozes both charm and painful artifice, like a cute but obviously fake “town” in Disneyland — only this isn’t California, but one of the poorest countries in Central Asia. One of my dining companions said Restaurant Hawaii was more like Florida-meets-Las-Vegas-meets-Ashgabad, meaning that the idea of bringing Hawaii to Kyrgyzstan is almost as ridiculous as bringing a water oasis to the desert (which both Turkmenistan and Las Vegas did).
Another attraction at Hawaii is its live music. When my friends and I went on a Sunday evening around 7:30pm, there was a live string jazz quartet on the outdoor floating restaurant. There were also two singers/DJs in the main indoor restaurant, which is where we ended up sitting because of the looming, threatening weather. Very quickly, the family-friendly atmosphere turned into a sort of classy club… or clubby wedding. That evening, there was a Kazakh birthday bash that included a bunch of giggling, beautifully dressed, champagne-guzzling yuppies who danced and dined to Russian pop hits and Oriental music. On the dance floor, ladies in long, flowy dresses twirled their delicate fingers and macho men waved their arms and snapped their fingers. Meanwhile, little kids ran around the dance floor, while sober Kyrgyz babushkas in colorful scarves watched from the sidelines. Everyone was enveloped in a clubby purple hue, the flashing lights of a disco ball, and smoke and bubbles pumped from a machine.
The food is solid Kyrgyz/Central Asian fare at very reasonable prices. I ordered a skewer of lamb shashlik and a glass of French red wine, which only cost 200 som ($4.16.) My dining companions also seemed to be quite pleased with their ganfan, a Dungan vegetable and rice dish, and fish. The gem of the meal, however, was the lepyoshka, or round Central Asian bread. It was fresh, soft, and warm.
But you know what the best part of Hawaii was? Meeting a slice of the Ethiopian diaspora in Kyrgyzstan. A very small slice. Two ethnic Ethiopians work at Hawaii as meet-and-greeters and entertainers, and they have an amazing story to tell.
Hailu and Nassir are two Ethiopians who have lived in Kyrgyzstan for 23 years and have worked at Hawaii since it opened. They first came to Kyrgyzstan in 1989 as Ethiopian air force cadets, where they studied at a military training facility that specialized in flying combat aircraft. (At the time, the Soviet Union trained Ethiopian pilots for the Ethiopian Air Force under Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist regime.) After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the Mengistu regime in 1991, they remained in Kyrgyzstan out of fears of reprisals back home for supporting the brutal deposed leader. Though I am not sure where the rest of the former Ethiopian pilots have gone, Hailu and Nassir have told me that eight remain in Kyrgyzstan today, out of the original 80: five in Tokmok and three in Bishkek. Of the five in Tokmok, Hailu and Nassir work at Hawaii, two others work as taxi drivers, and one is a pastor at a Baptist Church.
Hailu and Nassir seem to have completely adopted Kyrgyzstan as their new home, for better or worse. They no longer speak Amharic with each other, but Russian. Hailu married a Kyrgyz woman, and together they have a son, who only speaks Russian and Kyrgyz. Hailu did mention visiting Addis Ababa once in 2004, and both Hailu and Nassir admitted missing Ethiopian food, such as the Ethiopian spongy bread known as injera, doro wat (chicken stew), tej (honey wine), and of course Ethiopia’s famous black, sweet coffee. (Ethiopia is known as the birthplace of coffee.) I’ve spent some months in Addis Ababa myself and fell in love with its rich, spicy food, so it was fun reminiscing over our favorite dishes.
But looking back, it was an odd conversation. If you think about it, I conversed with Ethiopians about Ethiopian food, in “Hawaii,” in Kyrgyzstan. Really, this country is one of the most diverse countries I have ever been to, full of endless surprises and fascinating personal histories. I think our experience at Hawaii was particularly strange for us that day because en route Tokmok, we passed by a small village called Rotfront, a historically German village where Stalin deported a lot of Germans during WWII, and met two of the last five Germans remaining there. They were blond-haired, blue-eyed, and spoke German, Russian, and English. The village had originally been founded by German settlers under the Tsarist government and Stalin had then changed its name to honor a paramilitary organization under the leadership of the Communist Party of Germany during the Weimar Republic. By the time we got to Hawaii, we were so deep down the rabbit hole we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.
So we danced. By the end of the evening at Hawaii, the three of us foreigners — a Filipina-American, a French New Yorker, and a Scotsman — let loose on the purple-hued, smoke-filled, bubbly dance floor, shimmying to a Brazilian pop song alongside Kazakh men in shiny black shoes and ladies in five-inch-heels, and our new Ethiopian friend, Nasir in his dreadlocks and Rastafarian garb. We must have been quite a sight. But then again, we were in Hawaii, Kyrgyzstan.
For tours and faculty-led travel, I would definitely recommend Restaurant Hawaii. You won’t find the opportunity anywhere in Bishkek to dine on a floating hut on a lake while lying out on a topchan. It’s a popular tourist and local dining destination. Prices are reasonable.