• THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOVIET BUS STOP

    The shell of an old bus, now part of a village wall in the Western Pamirs of Tajikistan
  • THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOVIET BUS STOP

    The shell of an old bus, now part of a village wall in the Western Pamirs of Tajikistan

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOVIET BUS STOP

Relics Of The USSR In Modern Central Asia

Public displays of art played an important role in the soviet propaganda machine. From towering statues to sparkling mosaics, the message of the party was disseminated to the people. Bountiful farmers, patriotic workers, cosmonauts, scientists and beaming youths all stand alongside the stereotypical emblems of the state: the red star and the hammer and sickle. I’ve long had an interest in these art forms and their functions, studying Soviet posters, statues, murals and even porcelain in my university days. But one curious manifestation had evaded me until recently. The Soviet bus stop.

  • A tourist sitting at a colourful Soviet era bus stop along the Pamir Highway
  • A tourist sitting at a colourful Soviet era bus stop along the Pamir Highway

A gem of a Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway



Not long before returning to Central Asia, I came across an article about the photographer Christopher Herwig. His work documenting Soviet-era bus stops across the ex-USSR immediately struck a chord. How had I not known about these? Are they less prevalent in Uzbekistan, Eastern Europe and Russia where I’ve travelled previously, or had I just never noticed them? Maybe I had, but didn’t realise their purpose? I was enamoured with his images and vowed to seek out Soviet bus stops at every opportunity.

Looking For All Things Soviet?

The Soviet Bus Stops Begin

Within minutes of leaving Bishkek Airport I’d spotted one. Then another. And another. The same yellow and cream concrete design – must have been mass produced at a nearby factory. On the outskirts of Almaty more whizzed by. But heading south from Dushanbe, Pamir bound, the real fun started.

With our own car and driver we could at last stop to admire these beauties up close. With the language barrier between us, our driver looked a little confused the first time I yelled, ‘Stop!’ But by the third or fourth time he’d got the picture.

A concrete half circle soviet bus stop near Kalai Khum in Tajikistan

One of the earliest and most quirky Soviet bus stops we encountered in Tajikistan,
a concrete and umbrella number outside of Kalai Khum on the edge of the Pamirs



A concrete half circle soviet bus stop near Kalai Khum in Tajikistan

One of the earliest and most quirky Soviet bus
stops
we encountered in Tajikistan, a concrete
and umbrella number outside Kalai Khum, the
western gateway to the mighty Pamir Mountains



The Western Pamirs

The GBAO, in the west anyway, is a hotbed of Soviet bus stop excitement. With every small village, a new design. Motifs and emblems are tweaked here and there, with Marco Polo Sheep and their enormous horns evidently a popular subject in the area.

A prominant Marco Polo Sheep on one end of a particularly large and dominant Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

A prominant Marco Polo Sheep on one end of a particularly large and dominant bus stop



A very non-Tajik looking church, done mosaic fashion inside a Western Pamir Soviet bus stop in Tajikistan

A very non-Tajik looking church, done mosaic fashion inside a Western Pamir bus stop



Marco Polo Sheep pebble design, the artwork adorning the wall of a well near Rushan on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

More Marco Polo Sheep, this time the artwork adorning the wall of a well north of Khorog



A prominant Marco Polo Sheep on one end of a particularly large and dominant Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

A prominant Marco Polo Sheep on one end of
a particularly large and dominant bus stop


A very non-Tajik looking church, done mosaic fashion inside a Western Pamir Soviet bus stop in Tajikistan

A non-Tajik looking church, done in mosaic
fashion inside a Western Pamir bus stop


Marco Polo Sheep pebble design, the artwork adorning the wall of a well near Rushan on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

More Marco Polo Sheep designs; this time the
artwork is on the wall of a well north of Khorog



This celebration of local themes is something we came to recognise in Soviet bus stop designs throughout Central Asia. In an era of uniformity, strict regulation and adherence to state ideology, the bus stops are refreshingly unique and individual. As minor architectural forms, architects had relative artistic freedom when it came to designing a new bus stop. Individuality was encouraged, with an overall objective to bring art to the people, improve the local environment and highlight regional aesthetics. While the Soviet Union may have been ‘one’, the diverse cultures, customs and geography of its republics were celebrated in these miniature forms of monumental art.

A sweeping and curved Soviet bus stop done in the style of the Tajikistan flag. This beauty is located at Ishkashim, very close to the border with Afghanistan

A Soviet bus stop done in the style of the Tajikistan flag. This beauty is located at Ishkashim, very close to the border with Afghanistan



A sweeping and curved Soviet bus stop done in the style of the Tajikistan flag. This beauty is located at Ishkashim, very close to the border with Afghanistan

A sweeping concrete Soviet bus stop done in the
style of the Tajikistan flag. This beauty is located
at Ishkashim, very close to the Afghan border



In the western Pamirs, pebbles and concrete are the media of choice, augmented by the occasional wooden pillar. With its bountiful supply of stones, the mighty Panj River is most likely the reason for such design features. Some are still in good condition, while others bear only the outlines of their once embellished stars, rockets, Marco Polo Sheep, or even the logo from the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

A concrete Soviet bus stop in good condition, with pebble and mosaic designs, as well as coloured wooden poles

A fine example of a Soviet bus stop in excellent condition. On the Pamir Highway just east of Kalai Khum, this concrete
structure is decorated with countless pebbles, and also features mosaics made with variously coloured rough-cut stones


Soviet bus stop Symbols of the state: a hammer and sickle placed in a globe and surrounded by rockets

Symbols of the state: a hammer and sickle placed in a globe and surrounded by rockets



An olympic flame in rings done in a mosaic of coloured rough stones and surrounded by pebbles

The olympic flame and rings in mosaic form



A concrete Soviet bus stop in good condition, with pebble and mosaic designs, as well as coloured wooden poles

An example of a Soviet bus stop in excellent
condition. East of Kalai Khum, this concrete
structure is decorated with countless pebbles,
and features mosaics using coloured stones


Soviet bus stop Symbols of the state: a hammer and sickle placed in a globe and surrounded by rockets

Symbols of the state: a hammer and sickle
placed in a globe and surrounded by rockets


An olympic flame in rings done in a mosaic of coloured rough stones and surrounded by pebbles

The olympic flame and rings in mosaic form



Why All The Soviet Bus Stops?

In this remote corner of Tajikistan, it may seem strange that such a prolific number of elaborately designed bus stops even exist. There are, after all, no buses plying the roads. But, during Soviet times this was a key supply route. Indeed, it was the Soviets who constructed the M41 (better known these days as The Pamir Highway) to connect Tajikistan with Kyrgyzstan, and beyond. The Soviet public transport network was vast, reaching even the most far-flung villages. This region’s position on the border with Afghanistan made it strategically important, too. Today, even though the buses are gone, these robust shelters largely remain. They have been repurposed in many different ways: as community meeting places, or even as convenient spots to tie up one’s donkey.

This Soviet bus stop along the Wakhan Valley is bursting with the remains of some fantastic imagery. The mountains rise behind and a donkey is tied up at the front. 

Two donkeys in front of an old Soviet bus stop, this one with prominent symbols from the 1980 Moscow Olympics

A donkey tied up in front of the symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympics



Soviet bus stop designs in poor condition. The rockets and flowers are now devoid of most of their decoration.

The rockets and flowers are now devoid of most of their decoration



This Soviet bus stop along the Wakhan Valley is bursting with the remains of some fantastic imagery. The mountains rise behind and a donkey is tied up at the front. 

This Soviet bus stop along the Wakhan Valley was
bursting with the remains of some fantastic imagery 


Two donkeys in front of an old Soviet bus stop, this one with prominent symbols from the 1980 Moscow Olympics

A donkey tied up at the bus stop in front of
the symbol of the 1980 Moscow Olympics


Soviet bus stop designs in poor condition. The rockets and flowers are now devoid of most of their decoration.

The rockets and flowers are now
devoid of most of their decoration



The bus stops also work perfectly well as shady refuges for weary travellers.

A Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. The bus stop is decorated with mosaics of Marco Polo sheep and an eagle. Three touring cyclists rest and three local girls wait in the shade of the trees

These touring cyclists certainly found this old Soviet bus stop to be the perfect rest spot



A touring bike laden with bags rests against a Soviet bus stop with an eagle mosaic on a Pamir Highway road trip

More pebbled designs, perhaps a bird of prey



A Soviet bus stop on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. The bus stop is decorated with mosaics of Marco Polo sheep and an eagle. Three touring cyclists rest and three local girls wait in the shade of the trees

These touring cyclists certainly found this old
Soviet bus stop to be the perfect rest spot


A touring bike laden with bags rests against a Soviet bus stop with an eagle mosaic on a Pamir Highway road trip

More pebbled designs, perhaps a bird of prey



On To Kyrgyzstan

Our bus stop spotting opportunities petered out along the Wakhan Valley and finally started creeping in again on the way to Osh. Having crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan, it came as no surprise that the predominant style was markedly different to that of the GBAO. These bus stops were simple concrete and brick cuboids, with colourful tiled patterns around the top. The name of the village was more often than not inlaid at the front with black tiles, one of the more practical design features we came across.

A more simplistic design of Soviet bus stop in the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, with a focus on geometric patterns cut out of the brickwork or inlaid with small tiles

A more simplistic design with a focus on geometric patterns



A Soviet bus stop in Kyrgyz village on Osh Road in the southwest, the village name inlaid with small tiles on top of a functional concrete block

The village name inlaid on the front with small tiles



A Soviet bus stop in Kyrgyz village on Osh Road in the southwest, the village name inlaid with small tiles on top of a functional concrete block

The village name inlaid on the front with tiles


A more simplistic design of Soviet bus stop in the southwest of Kyrgyzstan, with a focus on geometric patterns cut out of the brickwork or inlaid with small tiles

A more simplistic design in the southwest of
Kyrgyzstan, with a focus on geometric patterns



In Osh we said goodbye to our Landcruiser and driver, relying on public transport from there on. Leaving the city, Bishkek bound, we saw new designs emerging. One section of road was lined with concrete bus stops in a star shape, some plain, others with pebble inlays. We often saw this along a particular stretch of road or region; a number of similar base structures, each with a unique take on things. Presumably these all would have been designed by the same architect, perhaps different artists weighing in on individual bus stop patterns.

Then came a few surprises – a big blue metal A frame with a metal cutout of a Kyrgyz dancer on the front. A bold blue metal structure that looked more like a giant art installation than any form of bus shelter. Perhaps this region had a special affinity with the colour blue? Soon brutalist structures took over, hulking geometric patterned concrete shelters. Minimalist, but I liked them. Alas, we could capture them only with our eyes as we went whizzing past in our shared taxi, lamenting the good old days of yesterday when we had our own driver and could stop at every one we pleased.

MORE FROM CENTRAL ASIA

A house front in the village of Karakul in Tajikistan, shining in the early morning sun.
A Lada in front of Soviet bus stop with red stars and Marco Polo Sheep, on the Western Pamir Highway in Tajikistan
Yurts lined up at Tulparkul, in the shadow of Peak Lenin
Two small kids wandering the wide dusty streets of Karakul in northern Tajikistan
Fann Mountains Trekking Routes And Practicalities
Veniks & Hot Pots: A Morning at Almaty's Arasan Baths
Soviet-era art and architecture in Almaty
Independent Trekking In The Fann Mountains: Haft Kul To Alauddin
Our Favourite Places To Eat And Drink In Bishkek

The Obsession Takes Hold

The more we journeyed around Central Asia, the more attuned we became to spotting Soviet bus stops. But I’m not surprised that I had never noticed them on my travels through ex-Soviet regions before. After all, they look nothing like the bland, uniform bus stops I’m accustomed to.

Red stars and Marco Polo Sheep on a Soviet bus stop on the Western Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

The red stars, multicoloured poles and Marco Polo Sheep all helped make this a favourite



A Lada in front of Soviet bus stop with red stars and Marco Polo Sheep, on the Western Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Outside of the village of Barshor, between Khorog and Ishkashim on the Pamir Highway,
the dramatic rock overhang accentuates the striking characteristics of this Soviet bus stop



A Lada in front of Soviet bus stop with red stars and Marco Polo Sheep, on the Western Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

Outside of the village of Barshor, between Khorog
and Ishkashim on the Pamir Highway, a dramatic
rock overhang accentuates the bold characteristics
of this outstanding example of a Soviet bus stop


Red stars and Marco Polo Sheep on a Soviet bus stop on the Western Pamir Highway in Tajikistan

The red stars, multicoloured poles and Marco
Polo Sheep all helped make this one a favourite



With such variety, originality and tendency towards locally sourced materials and subject matter, they could easily be mistaken for a random piece of art. Not an everyday public amenity. Utilitarian, they are not. And it’s for this reason that a mild obsession has taken hold. A never ceasing urge to hunt down just one more. A compulsive desire to find ‘The One’. That perfectly curious, weird, outlandish bus stop that favours form over function, and tickles me pink. 

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that plans for further Soviet bus stop explorations are well under way…

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE SOVIET BUS STOP

Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little tour of Central Asian Soviet bus stops. If you share the same passion, have your own bus stop story to tell, or want to ask a question about anything in this article, let us know in the comment section below.

For now, here are the final few to cast your eyes over.
Click into them to see them enlarged and read a little bit about them.

Thanks for stopping by. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this little tour of Central Asian Soviet bus stops. If you share the same passion, have your own bus stop story to tell, or want to ask a question about anything in this article, let us know in the comment section below.

For now, here are the final few to cast your eyes over.

A Pamir Highway Soviet bus stop decorated with swirling geometric designs, on the banks of the Panj River between Kalai Khum and Rushan in Tajikistan

A Pamir Highway colourful Soviet bus stop in front of tall trees and high mountains, between Kalai Khum and Rushan in Tajikistan

A Pamir Highway Soviet bus stop decorated with interlocking triangles of different coloured pebbles, in a village between Khorog and Ishkashim in Tajikistan

A Pamir Highway Soviet bus stop decorated with swirling geometric designs, on the banks of the Panj River between Kalai Khum and Rushan in Tajikistan

A simple design but with interesting geometric
patterns, made with pebbled stones. This bus
stop sits on the banks of the Panj River, between
Kalai Khum and Rushan on the Pamir Highway


A Pamir Highway colourful Soviet bus stop in front of tall trees and high mountains, between Kalai Khum and Rushan in Tajikistan

Another simplistic one, but brightened up by the
poles reminiscent of a kid’s sweet. This bus stop lies
a little further down the road from the previous one


A Pamir Highway Soviet bus stop decorated with interlocking triangles of different coloured pebbles, in a village between Khorog and Ishkashim in Tajikistan

A simplistically appealing structure with
interlocking triangles of different coloured
stones. In a village north of Ishkashim, t
his
Soviet bus stop drew the eye and held it



Liked This Post?
Pin It For Later!

Share Logo

FOLLOW US

PLANNING A TRIP TO CENTRAL ASIA? GET ORGANISING



*Some of the links in this post are affiliate links – if you purchase a product or service via these links, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This helps offset the cost of running this blog and keeps us travelling so that we can continue to produce great content for you. We greatly appreciate your support!*

4
Leave a Reply

avatar
2 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
3 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
3 Comment authors
Sol SolntzeGoing the Whole HoggMiss Footloose Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Sol Solntze
Guest

I love the Soviet Bus Stop book, and I would gladly do a tour entirely based on spotting them. I believe there s a second volume out too for Russia!

Miss Footloose
Guest

Having lived in Armenia for 6 years (and Moldova for a couple) I loved your photos of these fabulous Soviet bus stops! I wish now I had paid more attention to the bus stops, but I did end up with a collection of pictures of former soviet statues. I do have one photo of an Armenian bus stop, but can’t share it in comments. PS: I understand your obsession 😉

423 Shares
Pin416
Tweet
Share7
WhatsApp