When you travel to new places most of us tend to do some research, ‘the top ten places to visit ‘, ‘must do in Bishkek!’ and in doing so we connect with previous travellers and base our experiences on theirs. If somewhere is so alien then a ‘guide’ is a good idea but I like to wander explore and discover. I also like to find connections – usually historical: a street named after someone, a building that is a copy of another, a plant or animal that is familiar. Connections are what make the world smaller, gives a common bond and a discussion point to break down language barriers and the cultural divide.
But when looking for connections sometimes they jump out at you so much that you cannot believe they really exist and so it was with an old big red London bus in Bishkek, of all places!
Relaxing and contemplating life, the weather, and the surroundings I happened to glance up and through the trees, across the park there was the distinctive shape and colour of a double decker bus. Bright red and shining in the sunlight it sat there out of place and time. I was intrigued and made my way across the grass hoping it would not drive off before I reached it – fortunately it did not.
Sat onboard were three young Kyrgyz ladies, a Russian looking man with walrus mustache and two other young men. I told them I was British and their mouths fell open. The more confident of the women asked me, astounded, ‘What are you doing in Bishkek? . I replied ‘What is this doing in Bishkek?’ and so the connection was made!
The Red London bus or Route Master to give it its formal name is a design icon and when people think of a red London bus it is this version that instinctively comes to mind. In the late 1950’s it was an innovative design and used lightweight aluminium along with construction techniques developed in aircraft production during World War II. The buses served in London for over twenty five years declining after 1982 when conductor less busses became the norm.
But this is history and the bus I am sat on is now and how did it get here?
We sat and talked and it turned out they were waiting for a young photographer to join us – this was not their usual stop or route but they were doing a promotional video of the bus and the restaurant that it was advertising. I was allowed to wander and found the bus to be in almost pristine condition – there was some discussion as to it’s age but between 1963 and 1967 were the dates given by different passengers who seemed to ‘know ‘– but how it came to be in Bishkek was a myth and an enigma that no one could agree on. So I searched!
Kamilla the confident young Kyrgyz woman is now the proud owner of the bus and has a great idea – promoting a top chain of restaurants by taking customers to and from their nights out in a traditional British icon and the idea seems to be popular – customers can leave the car at home and enjoy themselves confident that they will be driven home in style. There is only one problem – that some parts of Bishkek are not accessible due to low bridges or tram lines but these high-end customers rarely live in those districts anyway! Kamilla is a confident 20-something Kyrgyz woman with a young family, intellect and a forward thinking mind will hop on with her for the ride. This demographic is increasingly common in this small but rapidly developing country. The bus was ‘found’ semi abandoned in a garage and that is where she saw the potential.
As I wandered through the bus I saw details that I had to explain to her, the rope cord pull to alert the driver (sadly no longer connected), the handles to wind down the windows and the meaning of the Number 12 route map still intact in the stair well. Some other clues: a patent plate and a brass plate proclaiming the ‘London Bus Export Company, Chepstow ‘ the company that had delivered the bus to someone, somewhere, some how and a clue.
After an enjoyable afternoon driving around Bishkek in the big red London bus while the photographer did his work and chatted with the young Kyrgyz people – the man with the walrus mustache was the driver but said little! I decided to investigate. I had little to go on with no original registration information, or data but surely the brass plate would hold the clue – a quick search and the London Bus Export Company, Chepstow was easily found and an email was sent.
Within a short time a puzzled reply came back from a wonderful person called Vanessa. Puzzled, because there were bits of the jigsaw missing. One of the young Kyrgyz women had mentioned that it had come over the border from Kazakhstan and indeed the Chepstow company did sell a Routemaster to a tobacco company in Almaty some years back, 2007, we think. But there was another problem.
“We were told that they were unable to register it in Kazakhstan and it was re-routed elsewhere, Austria I believe,” lamented Vanessa. “We can deduce from this that they did eventually manage to get the bus in somehow at some later stage or they bought a bus from somebody else later.”
I hoped this was not a dead end.
“Our vehicle was a 1966 Routemaster (RML model) registration number JJD 574D, fleet number RML2574. I’m puzzled on this issue because of the circumstances I mentioned earlier and the fact that the route number in the photographs is 12 when our bus worked on route 19!’ said Vanessa.
What is even more remarkable is that this Bishkek bus is already famous and a visit to the Routemaster Wikipedia page shows a picture of the bus in a different colour scheme – it was repainted after export.
I had to leave Bishkek the following day but stayed in touch with Kamilla, hoping that the bureaucracy of this country would mean she had documents telling us more about the bus.
Sadly over time the leads went cold and the elusive paperwork remains hidden but maybe some mysteries are best left unsolved, enabling other people to wonder how a very British product ends up in a very un-British place.
Bishkek is a vibrant developing city with the feel, in parts, of the old Silk Road. In other parts a Soviet past are found and in others strong hints of original Kyrgyz cultural identity but this is the last place you expect to find an old big red London bus!
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #25 SPRING 2017 text by Gareth Stamp