May 6, 2021: Welcome to Bishkek
After six days on the road exploring Kyrgyzstan with my friend Sonia and our guide Aman in the Issyk Kul region, on a horse trek near Kochkor, and on a 2 day trek to Song Kul Lake, it was finally time to explore the capital of Bishkek.
Most published travel guides and people say that Bishkek offers little to the tourist. However, we needed to spend 2 days there in order to get the COVID PCR test to return to Spain.
Aman dropped us off at our private room in a hostel in the city center of Bishkek. The check in was easy and the staff spoke perfect English.
We then walked along Bishkek´s beautiful green avenues to reach a bar where a man was waiting for us. That man is named Talant and he is a friend of an IESE friend of mine.
Talant has worked at the World Bank in the US, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. His newest person project is an NGO he founded to increase cell phone and internet connectivity into rural Kyrgyzstan. He believes that increasing the cell coverage will not only help locals but will also improve the tourist infrastructure that will make Kyrgyzstan a more attractive destination. Speaking from experience, having cell coverage at Song Kul Lake would have helped us out immensely. It was the lack of cell coverage that caused our moderately sized near-mishap.
Talant took us to a traditional restaurant. Most of the items looked familiar, but Talant surprised us with a couple local delicacies including horse meat. It was surprisingly delicious; I would recommend.
Sonia and I enjoyed learning about Kyrgyzstan from someone with an international perspective. Talant is wicked smart and was so hospitable. He told us that it is not every day that he gets a visitor in Bishkek.
May 7, 2021: Ala Archa
Sonia and I started off the day with our COVID test at a clinic 600 meters from the hostel. When we arrived at 9:00, there was a small crowd outside. Luckily, most of the people there were trying to get other tests such as bloodwork, so it was only a 30-minute wait including the difficult task of talking to a receptionist who only speaks Russian and Kyrgyz.
We managed to get out tests and were told that the results would be available at a different building around 17:00. Now with the hard part of the day behind us, we got to decide how to spend our next 2 days.
Since the weather was nice, I decided to take a half-day trip to the nearby mountains in Ala Archa National Park. These mountains are very tall and steep.
To reach the park, we hired a taxi to take us there, wait and drive us back for about $30. This was definitely a rip of by Kyrgyz pricing but we didn´t have to try to find a taxi to take us down.
The ride took us about an hour by which point we reached a steep alpine valley full of pine trees. It looked completely different from all the treeless mountains we have seen so far.
From the parking lot, there are two trails. One is flat and the other has a steep climb. Having done more than our fair share of hiking, we opted for the flat trail.
We followed it for about an hour through the most amazing scenery. We turned around when the weather started to turn quickly and rain. Luckily, we made it out before getting too wet.
Once we were back in Bishkek, the weather was once again hot and sunny. Amazing!
With a couple hours to kill before our COVID tests were ready, I went to a Thai restaurant. My meal was about $5, by far the most expensive meal I have had so far in the country. I suppose there is a markup for foreign foods. The food itself was really good.
Next door to the Thai restaurant was a microbrewery. It had gotten a lot of press for being female-owned and run. Both servers said that Bishkek is okay, but too small. I understand that, especially when compared to nearby Almaty, Kazakhstan (just a 3 hour drive away), which is Central Asia’s most cosmopolitan city.
We then walked over to pick up our COVID tests, which were negative of course.
It was now dinner time. We visited a spot recommended by Aman in the city center. The restaurant had a Ramadan iftar special. The waiters had left out food for everyone and families were all waiting for the exact right moment.
At 20:09, a video played on all the TVs with Islamic music, a dramatic reading of a Ramadan prayer and pictures of both important Kyrgyz and Islamic sights.
After that, the food came very fast. Our dinner was spectacular. I really like the Central Asian food.
May 8, 2021: Bishkek (finally)
This was our final day in Kyrgyzstan and the goal was to see the actual city of Bishkek.
Bishkek, the largest city in Kyrgyzstan was founded in 1860 by the Russians on the location of an 1825 fortress. Before then, the Kyrgyz people were almost exclusively nomadic and did not have cities. One unusual benefit of having no cities or natural resources is that there was nothing for invaders to take.
The city expanded quickly due to Russian immigrants. During the Soviet Union, the city was renamed Frunze (which still lives on in the city´s airport code FRU). The city became the capital of the Kyrgyz SSR. Upon independence, Bishkek became the capital of the independent country of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek is known for having more trees and tree cover than any city in the Soviet Union (which is actually saying a lot). In the summer, this makes the city exceedingly green and bright.
Today was May 9th which is an important holiday known as Victory Day. It marks the surrender of the Nazis to the Allied forces in World War II.
The surrender actually happened on May 7th to the US in Reims, France. However, Stalin wanted his own surrender. That took place late in the night in Berlin on May 8th. Due to the time zone difference, it was May 9thin Moscow. So May 9th is the holiday.
The holiday is celebrated by nearly all the former Soviet countries. Most countries celebrate with a military parade. For big years, all the presidents of former Soviet countries will go to Moscow for a bigger military parade.
However, due to COVID, the parades were cancelled. Instead, people wore Soviet Union/Red Army outfits and carried pictures of their ancestors who fought in the war.
Our first stop is Bishkek´s most famous attraction, the Osh Bazaar. This market is one of the largest and liveliest in all of Central Asia. The market was very lively with lots of interesting sights to see.
In addition to food, there were also vendors selling clothing and household goods. I ended up buying a bag of apricots, a shirt and a bottle of kimis (fermented horse milk). I made a faux pax by offering an apricot to a man who was keeping Ramadan. He politely refused and I felt bad…until I saw a lady taking a swig straight from a vodka bottle.
Kimis (fermented mare´s milk) is a famous delicacy in Kyrgyzstan. It is also highly seasonal. It can only be obtained during the foal season, which goes from mid-May to July. I got a bottle of very early season kimis. It was purchased from a lady´s clothing store and came in a plastic Coca Cola bottle. I decided to record the tasting on video. The kimis was sour. It did not taste good, but could have been a lot worse.
For fun, I posted the video on TikTok and it went viral gaining over 25,000 views and 2,500 likes. All from Kyrgyz people. Pretty wild that I went viral in Kyrgyzstan.
We then took a taxi to the leafy city center to walk around. The city center has an incredible number of beautiful tree-filled parks. I have never seen so much green in one city.
Just behind the parliament (known as the White House), we stopped at an amusement park. We got great views from the top of the Ferris Wheel.
After a bit more strolling which included a visit to a museum about Frunze, the Soviet namesake of the city, we sat down for lunch at an upscale restaurant. The setting was in a beautiful garden with Russian classical music piped in. The meal was delicious with the highlight being a fake “Apple”.
Nearby was the art museum. The building was hideous but had an incredible display of Kyrgyz and Soviet art including shydak carpets. My favorite section had bad replicas of ancient Greek and Roman statues.
Our final stop of the day was the memorial to World War II. The memorial resembles a giant yurt with eternal flame underneath.
Since this was the Victory Day holiday, lots of people here to pay respect. Many people were dressed like Soviet soldiers, waving Red army flags, holding pictures of ancestors who fought in the war. Very cool.
Just as we were finishing up at the memorial, it was starting to rain. Sonia and I got back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening resting up for our 3 AM flight back to Istanbul.
Bishkek is absolutely lovely! The city is very beautiful and is a peaceful place to be. The parks and greenery are unmatched by any Soviet city I have visited thus far. Yes, this city does not have tons of museums, but that is okay.
It reminded me of Almaty, but smaller.
Nearby, the mountains are very nice and there are a few other sights that can be visited by car.
I think that Bishkek is certainly an underrated city when the weather is good.
Is the city better than the mountains? No, but it is worth visiting for a day.