Bishkek, Where Soviet Relics and Silk Road History Collide
Bishkek, Where Soviet Relics and Silk Road History Collide
Bishkek is a sprawling, Soviet-style city that on the first inspection seems to hold little but grey concrete and communist-era statues. In many ways, Bishkek is just like any other large city to be found across the former USSR, but being the gateway to the scenic mountain scenery of Kyrgyzstan and having a long history at the heart of the Silk Road, I soon discovered that the city has an intriguing character hidden beneath the drab apartment blocks and brutalist monuments.
Bishkek was founded as an outpost of the Russian Empire in the 19th century and during the Soviet-era it grew to the size and stature you find today, before becoming the capital of an independent Kyrgyzstan when the Union collapsed in the early 1990’s.
Although the city’s history is recent, the surrounding area has long been home to both nomads and other civilizations that have left their mark in some way. Just down the road from Bishkek, I found the Burana Tower, the last remnants of a lost civilization. This ancient minaret still stands but at a fraction of its original height.
At the Osh Bazaar back in Bishkek, I found the most impressive fusion of history and culture, all the while seeing a vibrant display of local life as it is today. Although the old vestiges of the Silk Road that passed through this land are long gone, in the market stalls I could find for sale the food and produce that would have been traded here even centuries ago, while the recent Soviet legacy was inescapable. This was the modern Silk Road, a product of empires and cultures through the ages merging here in Kyrgyzstan, and I realised that Bishkek, despite its grey demeanour, is undoubtedly a fascinating place to uncover.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Bishkek is the capital and largest city of Kyrgyzstan, found in the north of the country just a short drive away from the border with neighbouring Kazakhstan. The country’s main airport, Manas International, is the gateway to both Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan and is located just under an hour’s drive from the city centre. There are prepaid taxi stands in the arrivals area or an irregular Marshurtka service from the airport to Bishkek.
Although international destinations served by the airport are limited, the options are ever expanding. Airlines offer direct flights to Istanbul, Almaty and Dubai, from where you can connect to the rest of the world. There are regular flights across Central Asia and to a vast number of Russian cities.
Overland travel to Bishkek is possible from Almaty, which is just a three-hour drive away. Regular local Marshrutkas run from the Osh Bazaar throughout the day and late into the evenings. Marshrutkas can also take you to many destinations within Kyrgyzstan. Issyk Kul Lake, a popular resort area amongst tourists is just a three-hour ride away while the second city, Osh, is a mammoth 14-hour drive away across rugged, winding mountain roads – or just a simple half hour flight.
Getting around Bishkek is fairly easy due to the simple grid system layout of the city. Buses and Marshrutkas run set routes, but the city centre itself is compact enough to navigate on foot. If you need a taxi, be sure to agree on a price in advance, or where possible order a taxi through your accommodation. Namba Taxi is a reputable company to use.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Ala-Too Square is the centre of Bishkek, a huge plaza where you can find a dramatic statue of the national hero, Manas. The square is surrounded by pleasant parks, you can see the changing of the guard and enjoy lovely evening strolls here when all the locals are out and about.
State Historical Museum
The State Historical Museum is the very grey, concrete building on the edge of Ala-Too Square. It’s a quintessential Soviet-style museum but it’s full of interesting information about Kyrgyzstan.
Every Soviet city has a Victory Square, and Bishkek is no different. This is one of the largest open spaces in the capital and you can find a moving memorial to fallen soldiers alongside an eternal flame.
Osh Bazaar is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Bishkek, but an attraction that is far from touristy itself. This is a huge, sprawling marketplace, where you can really begin to experience local life and where you can buy anything from local food to souvenirs.
The Frunze Museum is a dedication to one of the most famous generals in Russia, a man for whom the city was named for many decades. Before independence, Bishkek was known as Frunze and at the museum, you can find out why his role was so important and controversial in local history.
The Burana Tower is found outside of the city and makes for a great day trip from Bishkek. This ancient, crumbling tower is all that remains of a civilization that once ruled much of Central Asia and the Silk Road.
Bishkek is a great base from which to explore Ala Archa, a scenic national park that’s just a short drive away from the city and is a wonderful introduction to Kyrgyzstan’s epic mountain scenery. There are plenty of hikes through the beautiful area.
Stay – Accommodation
Accommodation in Bishkek ranges from cheap backpacker hostels to more upmarket international chains. If you are looking to travel independently around the country from Bishkek, it can be great to stay in the hostels, as the staff and other travellers can be a gold mine of information, while the hostels are of a generally excellent standard. Try Interhouse Hostel, for a solid base while staying in the city. Cheap Soviet era guesthouses can be found across the city too, however, these can be of very mixed quality. International hotels are kept to high standards, but prices are of course much higher.
Eat – Restaurants
Kyrgyzstan’s cuisine takes influences from across Central Asia and Russia and you can find all of the staple regional food in Bishkek. Standards can vary from restaurant to restaurant, but for some excellent local eats, there are some great ‘national’ restaurants selling fantastic food. There’s an increasing international presence in the city too and there are more Italian, Korean and American influenced restaurants here than ever before. There is a surprisingly good coffee scene and plenty of cafes – with fast wifi too – that are great to spend a few hours lounging in.
For local food, a top quality national restaurant to visit is Navat, where you can find everything from Plov to Shashlik, while every evening you are treated to national music and dance while you eat.
An interesting international option is Chicken Star, where you can get fantastic Korean fusion food and – supposedly – the best chicken in Bishkek. A great cafe to try is Sierra Cafe, where you can get cakes, sandwiches, coffee and fast wifi in multiple locations across the city.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
Bishkek, as a city destination, can realistically be visited all year round, however, most travellers to Kyrgyzstan will want to combine a trip to the capital with a wider trip across the country and due to the mountainous terrain and high altitude this can be very dependent on the seasons.
Winters in Bishkek can be bitterly cold, while much of the country can become essentially snowed in anytime after October and long into March. The best time for hiking is from April through to September, and this makes for the best time of year to visit Bishkek.
Safety – Possible risks
Bishkek can on the surface seem to be a rough city and many areas do have a reputation for crime. The city centre is perfectly safe during the day but at night be careful on the streets even here, as there can be lots of drinkers about and there is little street lighting.
Osh Bazaar is a busy and crowded place and the market has a reputation too for pickpocketing and theft. Try not to take any valuables to the bazaar and just be careful when wandering around.
Although the situation is improving, particularly in the capital, Kyrgyzstan as a whole has a problem with corruption at official levels. In the not too distant past, it was common for travellers to be stopped by corrupt police, even in the city centre of Bishkek. This problem seems to have been alleviated somewhat, but if you rent a car for instance then you can still expect to be pulled over on very trumped up charges of speeding or similar. This is not just a problem for foreigners though, but for all locals too. If you get into trouble with the police, try not to hand over any bribes and ask to see identification.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Bishkek is an exceptionally cheap destination to visit by western standards. The local currency is the Kyrgyz Som, which you can withdraw from ATM’s at the airport and in the city. US dollars are also widely accepted and can easily be exchanged.
A meal at a local restaurant will cost as little as 1-2 USD, while a large beer will also cost 1-2 US in a local bar. The best restaurants in Bishkek charge more, around 4-5 USD a dish, however, it is still fantastic value and often worth the small extra cost for a more enjoyable experience. Hostels in Bishkek will cost no more than 10 USD for the most popular option, while a private room in a mid-range hotel will cost around 20 USD per night.
Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Kyrgyzstan has had increasing success with community-based tourism across the country, and money from visitors is trickling down into the local economy. Although homestays and trekking aren’t necessarily a thing in the city, you may look to prepare your onwards trips across Kyrgyzstan while staying in the capital, and you can contact the CBT organisation in Bishkek to help you. This is an excellent way to ensure your money actually helps the locals and helps to develop the country for future visitors too.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Kyrgyzstan is very much a developing country and since its independence from the Soviet Union, the nation has struggled immensely with inflation, unemployment and multiple coups taking their toll on the economy and on people’s lives over the last two decades. Bishkek is by far the easiest destination to travel to in Kyrgyzstan, it’s the most affluent, with the most amenities and it makes for a good introduction to the rest of the country, but by Western standards, tourism is very much in its infancy in the city.
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