You know it’s summer in Bishkek when refreshment stands pop up all over the city. At least, that’s how I understand it. What a welcome change from the gray, wintry Bishkek I first knew when I arrived in the dead of winter of January. Kyrgyzstan’s capital is now brightened with striped umbrellas, the chatter of vendors distributing refreshments to passersby, and blue and green coolers filled with a variety of chilled drinks, a welcome respite in what is already 90-degree-Fahrenheit weather (and that number is only going to creep up.) There must be at least one refreshment stand on each block — sometimes three or four — and like weeds, their numbers seem to be increasing. If you go to the plaza outside the main shopping complex, Tsum, you will see a whole congregation of them. It’s summertime, and Bishkek is alive, bustling, and thirsty.
Here is a quick guide to what locals are sipping right now. At this point I should also clarify that there are beverages, and then there are brands. Shoro, for example, is Kyrgyzstan’s largest beverage company that commercially produces national Kyrgyz drinks, but shoro is also a beverage. (It’s like how Fanta is a Coca-Cola brand, but Coca-Cola is its own drink.) On the streets of Bishkek, drinks are served non-alcoholic, chilled, and in three sizes (usually, 0.2 liters, 0.4 liters, and 1 liter).
Let’s start with my favorite, maksym. Maksym is a brown, slightly tangy, barley drink made from fermented grains. It is a Kyrgyz classic. Its ingredients include animal fat, wheat flour, cracked barley (talkan), water, and yeast. It is also healthy, rich in minerals and Vitamin B. Though maksym has originally been made in small quantities by women for family consumption, it is now popular known by its commercial product, Maksym Shoro, by the Shoro company based in Bishkek.
Chalap is a traditional Kyrgyz and Kazakh drink made of yoghurt, carbonated water, and salt. I would say this drink is an acquired taste, both because of its saltiness and pungent smell. You will find it here as Chalap Shoro (again, by the Shoro company), or Tan (by the Yenesei company).
Carbonated Water, With or Without Syrup (газ вода, с сиропом или без сиропа)
This is a fun drink to order on the streets because it comes from a rickety gray contraption that looks like the Great Gum Machine from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the one that makes Veruca turn into a blueberry). While they are not as ubiquitous as umbrella beverage stands, they still have a presence. I long wondered what these machines were for when I first saw them in their unused, abandoned, dilapidated state in the dead of winter, some of them stuffed with discarded cigarette boxes, and most marked with graffiti. But now that summer is here and vendors have taken them over again and cleaned them up, I see that these machines spurt out carbonated water, with your choice of “with syrup” or “without syrup.” I also like going to these machines because most of them offer proper glasses, which vendors will carefully wash and wipe for you before serving. (Sometimes chilled drinks just taste better from a sturdy glass.) Just don’t walk away with it. The vendor will need it for the next customer.
Green Tea with Lemon (зеленый чай с лимоном)
Now this is a summer drink Americans will be familiar with — chilled sweet tea — especially from where I come, in the southern state of Virginia. This drink is also popular with foreigners who still don’t understand why many in the former USSR drink hot tea in hot weather. Or if they do understand it (the biological explanation is that a hot drink causes you to sweat more, so therefore you cool down more), they still don’t like it. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz locals don’t understand why Americans are “obsessed” with cold tea. Me? I actually am used to drinking hot tea in hot weather now. I learned how to do this while enduring a hot summer spell in Kiev last year, and all my host mother offered me was scalding hot tea. But I will still enjoy a chilled sweet tea now and then.
Kvass is a fermented beverage made from black or rye bread. It is popular throughout Russia and the Slavic countries, as well as greater Central Asia. Though there is a mild alcoholic content, it is so low that it is often referred to as “children’s beer.” In Kyrgyzstan, it is often flavored with fruits or herbs such as strawberries, raisins, or mint. There is a kvass vendor near the London School, so I will usually get a small cup while I’m waiting for the mashrutka.
Last but not least, there is kompot, a natural fruit drink that is prepared by steeping either dried or fresh fruits in hot water and sugar, and then chilling in glass jars. Sounds simple, but it is ten times better than any manufactured fruit drink you will find in the stores; these are often too sweet and too full of chemicals. You will find kompot in many flavors, including apple, cherry, pear, and apricot.
Of course, there are other ways to keep hydrated in Bishkek aside from the sidewalk umbrella stands. There are pivnie bari (beer kiosks) where you can enjoy the ever-popular brews of Nashe Pivo (“Our Beer”), Zhivoe (“Alive”), and Baltika (for whatever reason, Bishkek prefers Baltika #7, so you will always find it in abundance in small neighborhood shops and supermarkets…one local says it’s because Baltika #7 is “not too strong, and not too weak”). There are many ice-cream and soft-serve stands, especially around the capital’s parks and squares. And of course, you can buy any of the drinks mentioned above by the bottle in most stores. The options for quenching your thirst are numerous.
So stay cool, Bishkek. And take a swig of summer.