Tea in Bishkek is at a crossroads. But I mean that figuratively, so don’t start trying to find tea rooms at city centre junctions.
We tried two places and had vastly different experiences.
The Chaikhana Jalal-Abad is an old tea house institution in Bishkek. With its verandah circling round three sides of the building, a garden next door with more tables and places to sit inside, this was historically clearly THE place to go for tea.
But of course historically tea was a thing guys did. The chaikhana was the male domain, so you’d sit with your mates and while away the afternoon sipping tea, playing cards, putting the world to rights while the women in the households presumably got on with their domestic lives back home.
Walk past the Jalal-Abad tea house now, and you’ll see how mixed the clientele is today. We saw a few groups of men sitting there as they probably had for decades; but we saw just as many women there, too.
The tea room served basically the meat and bread style food that almost all restaurants in the Stans serve up, so on that level it’d count more as a place for a meal in the UK, the main difference being that it is still OK to sit and just have a pot of tea instead.
Having seen an awful lot of chaikhanas in other towns around Central Asia where only men go still, you can see that the Jalal-Abad has moved with the times to a greater extent than many (with the exception, perhaps of the tea rooms in more touristy towns like Bukhara).
It’d be interesting to return to Bishkek (or any other major city in the region) in five years time and see how many other chaikhanas have moved on in the same way.
One word of caution on the Jalal-Abad experience, though. The services was appalling. Lots of people running around but nobody able to take our order when we wanted it, or to bring us the bill at the end, or even to take our money (we waited at least 15 minutes for that, and almost did the old trick of walking out without paying, since that normally provokes a reaction at least).
But if you have time to kill, it’s a great place and the verandah, with its ceiling fans overhead, must be a great spot on hot days in summer.
A complete contrast to the Jalal-Abad was the Salon de Te. It’s a slightly bizarre name, which I guess was meant to be French, although the spelling was actually closer to Spanish – and that kind of says it all about this place, which I don’t think can quite work out what it’s trying to be.
You might think this will be a tea room specialising in tea, with maybe a bit of cake to go with it, afternoon tea style. But I guess there isn’t much call for that in Bishkek, because even though we went in saying we were keen to try their tea and cake (which they claimed they had), the waiters then tried to convince us to have a full meal there, saying that people came from all over the city to eat their best dishes.
We stuck to our guns, at least as far as we could.
Half the things on their impressive and lengthy tea menu were not available, so we went for a simple black tea and asked them what cakes they had. ‘Chocolate cake’ or ‘cheesecake’ came the reply, so we ordered one of each.
20 minutes later we’d drunk nearly all our pot of tea (not a bad brew in fact), but there was no sign of the cakes, and what we’d thought might be the cheesecake on the counter turned out to be the bread they serve with their ‘really very good meals’…
When our cakes did finally arrive, it became a little clearer why they had taken so long. They were works of art, but pretty minimalist on the portions, the chocolate cake in particular, which was almost too good-looking to touch, and tasted actually more like a chocolate sponge pudding than a cake.
So, basically, these were desserts for a restaurant that prides itself on its meals.
It was a nice experience, though the loud disco beat music gave the impression more of a night club than anything resembling a tea room back home. And that was the issue with the Salon de Te. It was almost as if the concept was dreamt up by somebody who wanted to run a tea room, so they chose the name and got a beautiful menu with lots of wonderful teas, only for nobody in Bishkek to take up the idea, resulting in the place really converting to a restaurant and night-life venue.
Maybe they tried to create a modern tea room in Bishkek before the town was ready for it. Maybe a better way forward is for the old tea houses like Jalal-Abad to convert into more modern tea places open to all.
It’d be interesting, again, to return to Bishkek in a few years and see which concept is still there, if either of them, how they’ve evolved, or whether the burgeoning coffee scene follows in the steps of some of the coffee shops in the UK and starts to offer quality tea too.
At the moment, though, it’s hard to put our fingers on the pulse of tea in Bishkek. And I’m not even sure which of our experiences I’d want to repeat or say to visitors they’re not to be missed.
I might even recommend, strangely for me, that you stick to coffee in Bishkek until tea knows what it’s up to in town.