Soviet Pepsi and Alcoholism: How to drink in Central Asia
There is an old joke in the former Soviet Union that in the late 1970’s Pepsi opened its first bottling plant in the Crimea, then part of the USSR. A representative of Pepsi asked the USSR Minister of Food what the most popular drink in the USSR was. He replied honestly that vodka was the most popular drink. The head of the Pepsi corporation stated that they would soon see after one year of production, what the most popular drink would be. After one year, the Pepsi representative reminded his counterpart about their discussion and asked what was now the most popular drink. The Minister answered “Vodka and Pepsi”.
Central Asia, being part of the former Soviet Union, is a bastion of alcoholism and heavy drinking and as such has some great and not so great bars. Despite common misconceptions about alcohol in the predominately Muslim region, they love a drink and have even managed to make a delicious alcoholic drink out of fermented mares’ milk, called Kumis. As such, here are our ten favourite drinking holes in the region
Minara Restaurant – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Located in Independence Park on the outskirts of Ashgabat, this restaurant will give you an unforgettable night of amazing views over the entire city of Ashgabat, coupled with amazingly cheap drink and food, especially considering the quality. Located of the 5th floor of a building which in itself is spectacular as its shaped like some sort of Aztec Pyramid, from here you will see all the dizzying coloured lights, gold statues and marble high rises of the White and Gold Capital. To gain access to this little known gem, you have to first walk through the first level shopping mall to the central elevators where you’ll need to ascend to the 5th floor.
Basement of the Ak Altyn Hotel – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
I’m not even sure if this venue has a name. You arrive back to the hotel from a long day of touring the glorious capital of Turkmenistan, you’ve had dinner and maybe some drinks out, then as you’re heading to the lift you see a sign to the basement saying ‘Disco’. Intrigued, you walk down the steps with the music getting gradually louder and then through the door on which is hanging a printed A4 piece of paper reading ‘Disco’, and you head inside. When inside you find yourself in one of the seediest and yet most unexpected venues you might have ever found yourself in.
You’ll quickly find yourself approached by lots of lovely ladies, who unfortunately don’t actually find you irresistible but rather are working one of the world’s oldest professions. If you’re up late enough, they often move their business to the hotel lobby waiting for the last drunk businessmen to return home. The smoke, horrible music and staring locals might last a short time, but the memories will last a lifetime.
And if this doesn’t take your fancy, there are plenty of seats next to the pool table in the next room where you can just hang out with your own BYO alchohol. If you keep your eyes open you might even find a few remnants of the days when this was a Sheratin.
British Pub – Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Many people think this stereotypical British pub, aptly named the ‘British Pub’ is a little tacky, overpriced and outdated. But this is exactly part of its charm. It’s a mainstay of Ashgabat night life and attracts locals and ex-pats alike. It has been said in the past that the British Pub is often bugged, so it’s always best to watch what you say! I suggest the 2 manat shots of cognac.
Putin Pub – Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
In Bishkek there are two particularly famous venues, the Putin Pub and the Obama Bar. The Obama Bar is not a bar at all but rather a more expensive American style diner that caters mainly to families, but the Putin Pub is surprisingly fun and full of character. It’s actually a little out of place in Bishkek as it’s not as seedy and horrible as most nightclubs are in this city. Once you’ve taken some pictures of the huge Putin posters, actually take the time to have a drink or a dance because it also seems to attract some of the nicest and most interesting locals.
Pinta – Almaty, Kazakhstan
I fell in love with Pinta the first day I ever arrived in Almaty. It’s like the bar in the television show Cheers – go there more than once and the staff will remember who you are. The prices are awe-inspiring and the atmosphere is casual and comfortable. Pinta is actually a chain and have cashed in on the fact that some people just don’t want to drink at karaoke venues, nor do they want to be overcharged and annoyed by gold diggers at the ex-pat pubs.
Taj Bowling Alley – Dushanbe, Tajikistan
Nothing says fun like bowling and booze. This place has kitsch down to an art. The pins don’t always come down and your ball isn’t always going to return, but there’s a bar full of vodka bottles to ensure you don’t care anyway. It has four lanes, some awesome glow in the dark stickers and most speakers work.
Irish Pub – Tashkent, Uzbekistan
A list of Pubs would not be complete without an Irish pub. Like the imaginative British Pub in Ashgabat, the Irish Pub in Tashkent has been just as originally named. For an ex-pat bar they do things surprisingly well with really reasonably priced beer and some great food to get you away from the constant rotation of Shashlik, Plov, Manty, Shorpa and Lagman that you experience in this part of the world.
Sky Bar – Astana, Kazakhstan
Sure, it seems like a bit of a cop out, a sky bar. But the views of Astana at night are truly astounding. The views of Astana at any time of day are astounding. The architects have essentially been given carte blanche to design some of the weirdest and most wonderful building imaginable. Think of Dubai on LSD, this amazing experimental city in the dessert, an absurd concept and the world’s second coldest capital in winter. The Sky Bar itself is not the cheapest around but they have an extensive cocktail menu and someone who actually knows how to make them – a rare combination in this part of the world.
The small Cafes out the front of the Opera Hall – Dushanbe, Tajikistan
When in Dushanbe, do as the locals do. Out the front of the Opera Hall just off Rudaki Street, there are half a dozen or so little cafes selling great Shashliks, Salads and of course Draft Beer. On a warm summer evening in Dushanbe you can’t go past picking out a good table and watching Dushanbe walk past. The local beer is around 3-4 Somoni (50cents) for a pint.
Pioneer Pravda Bar – Almaty, Kazakhstan
Last but not least is the Pioneer Pravda bar in Almaty. This bar pays homage to the Young Pioneer Movement by having the walls adorned with flags, memorabilia, propaganda and other collectables in a tribute to the former socialist youth movement. The staff wear the traditional Young Pioneer uniforms even topped off with the red neck scarf. Like all good Young Pioneers, they know how to party and usually things get quite rowdy, and frequently very scantly dressed bikini models will be putting on a show of sorts. This place is certainly not for the timid or mild!
Special Mention: Gates of Hell (Darvaza) – Middle of nowhere, Turkmenistan
Possibly one the greatest places on earth to have a cold one. Unfortunately you’ll have to bring your own though. On your way to one of the most awe-inspiring man made disasters you can stop in a small town just 30mins south of the turn-off where they have a small grocery shop which sells beer and assorted spirits. There won’t be anyone at this venue calling last drinks, telling you you’ve had too much or holding up the queues at the toilets; it’ll just be you, your drink, the desert and the fire.
Sounds good? Join us this April or this Octoberin Central Asia.