Sitting in a posh coffee shop in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's University neighborhood, my Kyrgyz friend and I were suddenly interrupted by a parade of shiny Mercedes-Benz speeding through traffic, all mercilessly laying on the horn. "Is that the President's motorcade," I naively asked. She flatly responded, "No, it's a wedding," as if I was born yesterday.
As I sat there looking confused, she went on to tell me that Kyrgyz weddings were ruckus affairs, involving alcohol and legendary late night parties. A paradox, I though. Certainly not what I had in mind for this Central Asian nation that seemed so disconnected from Western boozebag culture. "My brother's wedding was the same, although we rented an American stretch limo when we left the House of Happiness."
I almost spit out my coffee with laughter. "The House of Happiness? Are you joking?" Only seconds later, I felt bad for letting my emotions get the best of me. But something about the name "House of Happiness" struck me funny. She proceeded to explain that the House of Happiness was a non denominational church-like structure used for weddings. As the Soviet Union worked to marginalize organized religion, the state built improvised cathedrals to function as wedding halls. "Take me there. I have to see the House of Happiness!" In my mind, the name was a cross between a horror movie and Disney World attraction. To my delight, she responded, "It's only a 10 minute walk, we will go."
If you love to walk, Bishkek is a wonderful city to hit the pavement. Bishkek reminds me of New York because of the constantly bustling street scene. Even at midnight or 2AM, people are hanging out, shooting the breeze and patronizing the many newsstands selling cigarettes, soda, and snacks. While this is surely a symptom of a poor economy where most people cannot afford cars, it's rather comforting to be surrounded be people all the time. Just put on a fur jacket and some warm boots, and you'll blend in just fine.
My excitement grew the closer we got. Finally, only a few blocks past Bishkek's quirky Circus building, a concrete and glass behemoth emerged from the drab surroundings. It was everything I had expected, and more. All I could do was stare with amazement, trying to make sense of it all. The Crystal Cathedral came to mind, as did the Fashion Institute of Technology campus in New York City. Put them both together and you get the House of Happiness. Unique, ugly, modern? Who knew? Somehow, it worked well and I liked it. The building was clearly old and in disrepair, with several windows shattered and stonework in poor condition. I still felt a sense of euphoria as my friend and I walked arm and arm up the steps.
We opened the door, and an old Russian man sat at a check in desk. Apparently, there were weddings scheduled for later in the day and he was working to set the place up. My friend asked if we could take some pictures. "Only in the lobby," he answered in Russian. The lobby had a huge vaulted ceiling with marble walls. Roped off was a carpet that led to the ceremony area. "Please, just ask if we can go into the main church area," I begged of my friend. She relayed my message, to which the old Russian responded, "Only the beautiful lady in white is allowed to walk on that carpet."
Feeling shafted, we peered into the church-like area. A vast round stained glass window drew my attention; the glowing sunrays making the arched structure feel warm and comforting. While the place was never a church, it does have a strange spiritual feel about it. I liked it, and although a bit worn down, I was very happy to see it still in use.
Upon our exit, my friend asked some locals to take our photo. They happily obliged, thinking that we were contemplating a wedding at the House of Happiness. As we arrived back at the hotel, I immediately jumped on Google to do some research about this amazing building. It turned out that my friend's translation was a bit off. Officially called a "Wedding Palace," the Soviet Union started building them in the late 1950's. Every Soviet Republic had one, and many were modern and extreme designs. I read that an Oligarch had purchased the Wedding Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia and is using it as his mansion. Many others still seem to be functioning as Wedding Palaces, although they now face competition from organized religion. Whatever happens, I hope that the Wedding Palace buildings will be preserved and remain open to the public, as the one in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is.