Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and is the most populous city. It was also our first destination, coming in via Manas airport. Manas is both an epic poem and a hero of the Kyrgyz people. As well as giving name to the international airport, there is also massive statue in the centre of town. But we will get to that later.
It was our first destination and also a very early one. Arriving at around 5 am the taxi dropped us of onto deserted streets, the sun slowly poking through the buildings on to a mixture of rubble and half tarmacked road. This was the centre of town, and nothing was open. We had decided to go directly to the hostel we had reserved for that night; even it was a bit untimely. Not only was there nobody about, it looked like we had the wrong address. Next to a closed gas station several unpainted houses looked down on us. By this point the taxi had already left in a cloud of dust, so all we could do was look around. Taking out the address we had written down, and searching a bit we finally found a gate that gave on to a side-door that gave into an entrance that had the hostel’s name on it. (Note: side-doors, hidden and obscure entrances or closed gateways are a must for any lodging in the country!). Once we had buzzed the number we were quickly let in to the hostel’s reception. The small and very nice receptionist quickly made us feel at home even though, as we soon realised, we had just woken her up. Having decided not to go to bed and try and cheat jet-lag, we organised our stuff and in a couple of hours were back on the street. Still deserted. Still sandy. We walked along Toktogul street , in the direction of the town centre, armed with a list of recommended sights. As we had decided not to bring a guide, a vague idea more than a real list. Starting first with the mosque, we moved along the large avenues, drifted around the parks and slowly backtracked towards Ala-too square.
Our itinerary meant we actually started off in some of the more depressing parts of the city, and slowly and climatically worked our way up to the better sights. So having set a pretty low baseline in the early hours, thanks to soviet style apartment blocks in various states of disrepair, rusty cars, and empty and half-finished streets, we gradually uncovered the rose gardens, the parks and statues, and finally the brutal but aesthetic centre. From here we moved on to the more commercial streets (Kiev street and Chuy Ave) which by then were quite busy.
My first impressions of Bishkek, previously known as Frunze, previously known as Pishpek were just that. Fist impressions. Then second impressions. Even during the first day, each new street gave us a better understanding of the city. When we got back from our travels around the country these perceptions were further changed. One thing is certain; it is a changing city, not just due to subjective feelings, but due to the sheer amount of bricks and cement that are being moved around. Complete roads that have been ripped up to be repaved, multiple construction sites all over town (including a massive mosque in the north-east) and dirt being shifted around give of a constructive buzz. This clashes with the state of disrepair of many of the buildings, abandoned and falling apart. It begs the question who will win; will everything be built before the rest has decayed? Kyrgyzstan is a paradoxal country. One of the clearest contradictions is its muslin roots coupled to a vodka habit. Or its nomadic nature paired to the amount of construction. On a smaller scale, the amount of paint shops and the lack of a single painted building. It makes you wonder…
One thing that is colourful is the roses. At least when we were there (September) they were everywhere. Big, red roses, decorating parks and avenues. These are looked after by middle aged women, armed with little clippers that snip away at the thorny plants. Something else that is also red and very big is the statue of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, standing way above us behind the museum. It’s one of the few left of its size in central Asia. Together with the hammer and sickles decorating many of the park monuments and entrances, the city keeps a very soviet feel to it. This to us was part of its charm and highlights the amount of historical influence of the county. But like any developing economy not all is nostalgia and there are recently finished malls complete with cinema and in-door ice-skating.
Making use of some of these newer shops we quickly bought our supplies for the days to come, and after inquiring were we could find the marshrutka for Naryn, soon turned in for an early night.
Although on the more expensive side of Kyrgyz lodgings for a back-packer (around 750 som) I’d definitely recommend the Interhouse hostel on Toktogul Street. The warm welcome and helpfulness of the receptionist was much appreciated, plus she can speak good English. It’s clean and equipped with showers and washing machine, as well as a small kitchen.
Although mentioned in several guides, we did hear some stories of police scamming people in the Osh market (we didn’t actually go right in). So to stay safe just carry the minimum money there. The rest of the city seemed pretty cool to us.
There are hardly any sport shops in the centre, with very, very basic kit. We couldn’t be bothered to go to the Red Fox as it isn’t very near the centre so take that into account if you are in a rush. To find the GeoID map shop (Kiev Street, 107) you need to go down the left side of the block. Remember the side door thing? They don’t have many maps (some 1:100.00’s), but it’s better than nothing. It closes at 5 pm. Sharp. An alternative is to pre-print the maps of the zones you will be going. See the preparation section here.