Why Six Weeks Wasn’t Long Enough in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek day trips

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ccording to most articles I’ve read, I spent way too long in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Six weeks too long. I’ll take an educated guess – less than ten people on this planet have ever come to Bishkek for a six week vacation. Ever. The maths is on my side – not so long ago, “Frunze” was just a b-grade city in the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic, and not so long before that, the capital was only a muddy outpost that barely existed. The thing is, there’s plenty of articles written about Bishkek. However, it seems that no matter what algorithm of ruthless tourist efficiency the content-farm hacks used to wrap up Bishkek into laconic click-bait – the point is, they missed, well, almost everything.

It may be the largest city in Kyrgyzstan, but tourism isn’t big here. There’s a growing band of trekkers arriving to conquer the stunning mountain vistas of the Kyrgyz Republic, but Bishkek firmly remains just a brief stopover. Even for these intrepid tourists, Bishkek is a tourism sideshow – not the main event. On top of that, tourism here is strictly seasonal – much like the local sport of Buzkashi, AKA goat-carcass-polo (literal translation, “goat bashing”). Coming to Bishkek in winter, brrrr, ayyyy, forget about it. Apart from grey-sky loving soviet-o-phile masochists and travel contrarians, there’s only one reason you would come to Bishkek in winter. It’s all about the visas.

Fact: Central Asia is a sordid arena of ex-USSR bureaucratic head-fuckery. In a landlocked region filled by the wasteful sounds of rubber stamping and paperwork shuffling, Kyrgyzstan is a shining beacon of wisdom – offering tourist visas on arrival to pretty much whoever wants one. Step right up, and come on in. Here, have a glass of fermented female horse milk. Then, now you’re in Bishkek, collect a visa to another Central Asian nation. Rinse, and repeat.

Sure, I know, I’m a freak, and a six week vacation in Bishkek is not for everyone. If you’re seeking something a little different, a city with a unique culture, and you don’t mind a little authentic grit, Bishkek may be for you. To be honest, Bishkek is a conundrum. On one hand, I would find it difficult to recommend Bishkek as a holiday destination to the majority of tourists. On the other, I’d put it straight onto my list of favourite cities, and would be happy to spend an even more extended time in the capital. Bishkek is an incredibly difficult city to summarise with any amount of justice – and that’s an indicator of just how interesting this place is.

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek Kyrgyzstan.
Osh Bazaar, Bishkek Kyrgyzstan.
soviet communist architecture bishkek circus
Soviet-era architecture – circus building in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
kalpak bishkek museum
The”Kalpak” – a traditional Kyrgyz felt hat, seen everywhere on the streets of Bishkek.
bishkek mig russian jet
Every good post-Soviet city has a downtown Russian MiG. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
kyrgyz fried chicken
Closest thing to KFC around these parts. Kyrgyz Fried Chicken, Bishkek.
punching strength test bishkek osh bazaar
Moments later, blood everywhere. This machine tests the power of your punch, they’re everywhere around Bishkek. Osh Bazaar.
marshrutka bishkek
Inside the Marshrutka – most common way of getting around Bishkek’s city streets.
Dom Torgovl soviet architecture Bishkek Kyrgyzstan
Dom Torgovli – House of Trade. Dream apartments. Soviet-era architecture in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

On paper, Bishkek may not have the history of many long established European cities. No big deal, considering so many “historical towns” of western Europe have been rebuilt, recreated, and repackaged specifically to attract the wholesale package tourist. Bishkek holds a refreshing air of historical authenticity – it’s deeper, more complex, and more stratified than the official founding date would suggest. Importantly – this really isn’t Europe. However, it’s not strictly Asia either. Bishkek has influences from Eastern Europe, most of Asia, Western Europe, America, and more than a pinch of Russia. But in many ways, the attraction is all about what Bishkek doesn’t offer.

There’s no Starbucks, McDonalds, or 7-11’s. The only Burger King is a Burger Kiйg. KFC means Kyrgyz Fried Chicken. The multi-nationals just aren’t so sure about Kyrgyzstan, and that’s a good thing. When franchises do spring up, it’s home grown chains like “Begemot” – hamburger joints whose name literally translate as “Hippopotamus”, a fully-loaded full-fat fast-food restaurant name that would make any Western marketing manager’s head explode. Or the cheap and cheerful Ben Ramen (“бен рамен”), a marinated Bulgogi hit with the younger Bishkek crowd. Even the military franchise of the United States has given up on Bishkek – after using the local airport as an Afghanistan-bombing staging point for more than a decade, they were peacefully asked to pack up and head on out.

The ties with Russia, both past and present, strategic and cultural, are clear. Bishkek retains a Soviet-era kiosk styled economy, combined with a nomadically forged array of small-menu family owned restaurants, packed convenience stores, and sea-container filled markets. A daily routine in Bishkek involves walking along pot-holed paths lined with grey and deteriorating communist-era architecture, picking up groceries from a family owned green market, buying meat cuts from the back of an old car, grabbing a home-made Russian “Piroshki” (deep fried meat and potato filled buns of oh hell yes) and carrot salad from any number of the impeccably dressed Babushkas that use old prams as a mobile shop counter. Yes, supermarkets are everywhere, and western styled malls have opened – but shopping with the rag-tag collection of Russian, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Turk, Dungan or Uyghur shop-keeps and customers, is how your grand parents would have done it.

Bishkek isn’t big, as far as capital cities go. Getting around is simple. Like all good former Soviet nations, aging Marshrutka vans and electric trolley buses ply the streets. Marshrutkas, in theory, are just a larger version of a shared-taxi. In reality every aging van is a micro-sliced biosphere of the diverse array of cultures represented in Kyrgyzstan. For a tourist, it’s a fun ride, normally packed, and made all too easy to navigate by using a very high-tech smart-phone app. Kygyzstan may be predominantly rural and semi-nomadic, but Bishkek is embracing technology.

I’m not so sure about the legitamacy of the word “Sovietophile”. In any case, Bishkek is basically a wet dream for lovers of the Soviet-era communist legacy. Giant Lenin statue(s). Cosmic and concrete Sov-Mod architecture. More than a smattering of stars, hammers, and sickles. The ceilings of the State History Museum are lavishly painted with Soviet propaganda murals that would be right at home in Juxtapoz Magazine. Russian people, Russian language, Russian Vodka, Russian food, even a Putin themed bar. Plenty of parks, wide boulevards, and a grid-like street pattern, as was the Soviet-era town planning style of the times. In some ways, Bishkek is the last remaining city-wide museum of the CCCP. It’s also far more.

 

bishkek food
Bread.
manis horse statue bishkek
Not your usual “man on a horse” statue. Bishkek, Kygyzstan. Little known fact – around the back of this building is a giant statue of Lenin.
dordoy bazaar street photography bishkek
Nobody is listening to him. They’re all looking at me. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
ashkana bishkek
One of countless canteen styled “Ashkanas” in Bishkek. The food varies from place to place, the price is always cheap.
Lenin statue Bishkek Kyrgyzstan
Lenin, Lenin, Lenin. He’s everywhere – this one in the mountains above Bishkek.

 

There are plenty of ways to spend time in Bishkek. Visit the many markets – including Dordoy Bazaar, an enormous semi-permanent market place constructed with thousands of sea containers surreally creating streets, plazas, shops, and restaurants (and you thought that sea container that serves expensive drinks in the pricey part of town was quirky and original). There’s so many parks – Panfilova Park is filled with Soviet-era rides and attractions and located downtown. Chat with the friendly locals, and practice your Russian (I was offered a shot of Vodka from the back of their car just for being a tourist). Sample the food highlights including local specialties like Lagman, Plov and the ubiquitous Samsas, or visit some pretty decent restaurants – which include a Japanese den that confused me into thinking I was back in Tokyo, and a basement bar filled with live music and pork ribs so good they left me speechless.

An off-beat idea, is to spend a little more time in Bishkek, and learn Russian – for many reasons this is the ideal place to learn what is an extremely useful language in this part of the world. More conventionally, take a day-trip into the one of the towering mountains and scenic spa towns that surround the city. I spent a morning lecturing students at a the American University of Central Asia on street photography (wassup students, is my honorary doctorate in the mail yet?), and many hours wandering the streets in search of incredible mid-century architectural gems. Flea markets here have an energy all their own, and haven’t been picked clean by tourists – yet – because there really aren’t many tourists here.

In hind-sight, a Bishkek Top Ten article would have been perfect click bait. And, that would totally miss the point. You really need to feel Bishkek. It’s hard to explain in words.

 

 

 

Most likely, if you do find yourself in Bishkek, it’s just for a brief stopover. Maybe, you’re considering moving more permanently – joining the adventurous bunch of ex-pats that call this city home.

Either way, count yourself lucky – this is a city that most people on this planet will never get to experience.

Nate

 

PS, right now I’m in Almaty, Kazakhstan – just a several hour drive from Bishkek. Bribes, scams, police cells, and corruption – and that’s just the first five minutes of Almaty (article, soonish). However, in just an hour from now I’m taking a 27 hour overnight train journey into Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Sign up for the free email list, and receive the next unpredictable semi-sporadic update directly to your inbox.




34 thoughts on “Why Six Weeks Wasn’t Long Enough in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

  1. You certainly have a flare for making people to want to go and visit cities, off of the beaten track.

    Add another one to the list!

    Great post as always, looking forward to the next one. Whenever “Bribes, scams, police cells, and corruption” are the main points – you know it must be good.

  2. Wow! I’m not sure if I could spend as much as you did in Bishkek, it surely seems an interesting place to visit mainly because it isn’t the usual destination, there isn’t mass tourism and I love soviet architecture.
    Thanks for sharing your amazing photos, your view and experiences, have a safe trip and enjoy your 27 hour overnight train journey :)

  3. Wow, like being transported back in time to the cold war era. Nice capture of the “feel” of the city. Enjoying all your posts, keep them coming :-)

  4. Really great post Nate! I’m so bored of reading blogs about backpacking in SE Asia. Yours is a breath of fresh air! Bishkek sounds exotic, strange and interesting, all the things I love about travel. Can’t wait to hear more about your time in the ‘Stans.

  5. Wow, 6 weeks…I admire your stamina! Interested to read what you will have to say about Tashkent. Now that is an interesting city, one you are sure to find appealing (no Americans like in Bishkek though, just locals).

    1. haha… cheers Steven, I needed the stamina this time (passport replacements/visas/etc… they all take time). I’m in Tashkent now, but it will need to be just a brief stop (this time), as I only have a transit visa. But, I’ll be back, after visiting Tajikistan. Thanks again for your amazing website – it’s been invaluable in this part of the world.

  6. What an amazing post! It’s so great to see a post about a place different than London, Paris, Italy or Thailand. I have visited only Turkmenistan so far out of the ‘stan’ countries but what an adventure it was! This summer I’m planning to visit all the rest!
    I know exactly how you feeling when people say you spent too much time there. I love to visit all ‘the shitholes’ of our planet and prove how awesome they are! When I went to Turkmenistan or Albania all I heard was: ‘are you crazy?’ ‘it’s dangerous!’, ‘why not Spain’? And, so far Albania is the most beautiful country in Europe for me with Maldives-like beaches and cozy little towns among the mountains. Good luck in all your travels! :)

    1. haha …Tom I think we have much in common, with regards to travel destinations. Isn’t it funny how all of these “shit holes” turn out to be such amazing places, we’ll have to start keeping it quiet, lest more people discover the secrets of the world ;)

  7. i agree with every point you have here. there was something about bishkek that had me yearning for more and not really wanting to leave. everything there just felt authentic (ok, aside from maybe the KFC and burger king ha) and real. despite being the central asia ‘hub’ airport wise, no one ever seems to hang around bishkek long enough to get to know the city or appreciate what it has to offer. it is a real shame. but, i guess, in a way, i kind of liked that because the city hasnt been tainted by outsiders yet. every person i met, despite it being december and january when i was there, was set to go trekking and to the mountains. not a soul was around just to see bishkek (except me).

    what i noticed about bishkek compared to some other central asian cities and post-soviet cities in general was that bishkek seemed to know who it was. i enjoyed almaty and the city came at the right time for me, but many of the residents didnt seem to know what they were supposed to be. with gucci and louis vuitton shops littering certain areas of the city, the city seemed, in many areas, to represent the small percentage of the population who had the oil money. while bishkek has a little bit of that here and there (and much less money, of course), it hasnt seemed to lose its identity yet. truthfully, that is why being there was a breath of fresh air from the US and western europe for me. i feel like there are very few ‘large’ cities around the world that dont have a sephora or h&m smack dab in the middle of the town center, or a mcdonalds or starbucks on every corner.

    given the ease of travel and visas there, i cant anticipate it stays this way forever, especially after seeing so many of the construction projects happening around the city. im glad we both had the chance to see it the way it is now. and im stoked to get back there on my next central asia trip.

    ps: love that top pic of phillipa

  8. Just so happens that I spent two days in Bishkek in early Nov. I hired a guide to get around so i didnt have to ride the sardine cans on wheels ( Marshrutka). I think six weeks is a little bit much, but i will admit my two days was a little short. loved the architecture, but my favorite part was the food.. street food was great but having mutton dumplings and mutton stew was fabulous. Would go back for the food and to tour the mountains/silk road.

    1. Hey Johnnie… yes, the food was great. Seriously, I think I had the best pork ribs I’ve ever had in my life! I also loved the street food – a Samsa I had at Osh Bazaar was so incredible I couldn’t believe anyone could create such a perfect meat/pastry treat. Glad you enjoyed your time in Bishkek.

  9. Very interesting, well-written post. I don’t think I’d want to go but it’s a good read.
    Never quite understood why you ended up there 6 weeks. But sounds like you got to know the place really well and you certainly have a unique experience!
    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Hi Frank.. it’s really simple… I needed a new passport, as my current one was completely full. No room for any more stamps or Visa’s. I had to apply in Bishkek, via the Moscow Australian consulate, who then had to deal with Sydney, get a passport printed, and send it back to Moscow, and then back to Bishkek. It took about four weeks altogether. THEN… I had to apply for a Khazakstan visa. Add that with my less than efficient haste, and it took about six weeks altogether!

      And yes, certainly a unique experience, and I’m really glad I got to spend so long in Bishkek.

  10. Great post! It’s mesmerizing to read about getting into the groove of a new place and learning its daily routines–especially if that place isn’t so trodden by tourists. If I ever wind up in Bishkek I’ll head straight to the streets and seek out all of the life you capture here.

    The photos are striking! I particularly enjoyed seeing the kalpak and the street scenes.

  11. “Bribes, scams, police cells, and corruption – and that’s just the first five minutes of Almaty (article, soonish). ”

    Did you write about that? I will travel this year from Bishkek to Almaty.. Is the border crossing difficult?

    1. Hey Niko… I’ve written it up, but it’s wayyyyy to long – something like 6000 words. Practically a novella ;) I’ll get it up soon, once I cut a bit of junk out of it. It covers everything – the entire journey from Bishkek to Almaty.

  12. In your comment about the statue of the legendary Koshomkul (man carrying horse) in front of the Sports Palace you write that there is a big Lenin statue behind this building. All I can find is a statue of Maxim Gorky.

  13. I first came to Bishkek in 2003 and left 9 months later–came back in 2007 and have lived and worked here ever since… It’s home now. :)

  14. Brilliant article and it is so true. I am English, working in London, and my wife is from Kara-Balta, just outside Bishkek. It is an amazing country and Bishkek is an amazing city.
    My wife and children spend the whole of the summer holidays there and I go for 2 weeks every August and I find something new every time I go. I can’t wait for my flight on the 19th, not to only be reunited with my wife and kids but also to experience the heat and the friendliness of a city that many people will never visit. That is so true and I feel privileged to go back every year! The town of Cholpon Ata on the shore of Issyk Kul is also a great place to go. The mountains, the weather and the food are all great!

  15. Hello Every time I read the “Travel Advisory” pages of most countries they sound terrifying, You mention very little about the “crime” scene. Is this something of general concern or is it like saying that Chicago is also a “Crime scene with organized crime”? Any comments on this? I would like to go but my girl friend is saying “Nyet” because she thinks it is too dangerous, Thanks

  16. Ami living in Bishkek and Osh for 5 years. Married to a local girl. Love it, people are great, only real complaint? Incredibly corrupt cops. Been shaken down for bribes by these a-holes three times since I;ve been here.

  17. Very nice description of Bishkek. I also found it as a pleasant city with a lot of parks and recreation areas.

    How did you find other parts of Kyrgyzstan? I really enjoyed Karakol, Song kol lake and the southern parts around Peak lenin and Sary Moghul. Kyrgyzstan is a paradise for nature lovers, trekkers and photographers.

    Thanks for sharing !!

  18. Thank you so much for your write-up. I’m planning to travel to Bishkek in October or November, and I can already tell that I’m going to love it. I’m sure the tourist traffic has increased since you authored your post, however the lack of typical, touristy schlock sounds perfect. I’m a little concerned about the corrupt police force about which I keep reading, but I’ll leave all my important papers at my residence. I’ll be traveling alone but will fortunately have a local to pick me up and guide me around once I arrive. I can’t wait!

    I’m trying to figure out whether it would be more useful to learn some basic Russian, or Kyrgyz before my trip. I read a recent article stating that Kyrgyz will endear a visitor with the locals to a greater extent, but you seem to think Russian is the way to go. My friend of course speaks Russian, Kyrgyz, and Ukrainian. Any advice?

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