Kyrgyzstan first appeared on my radar in a real and concrete way last summer as I learned I would be consulting on a research project in this Central Asian country. Having very little idea about Kyrgyzstan, I tried to orient myself by reading books and manuscripts about its cultural history and talking to friends from Kyrgyzstan and others who have spent time in that part of the world. And then after a lot of work, at the end of February I was able to travel to Bishkek — the capital city — for a handful of days to give a talk at a workshop. I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time, but thanks to posts like this one and advice from other bloggers (thanks Christie!), I put what time I did have to good use!
Traveling to Kyrgyzstan couldn’t have been more straightforward — Turkish Airlines took me from Bremen to Istanbul and then directly to Bishkek. Less pleasant was the fact that most flights seem to arrive and depart in the painfully early hours of the morning, so I arrived at 6:30am — and departed several days later at 4:30am — and had a half-an-hour cab ride into the city before the sun came up. When I did get to wander around during daylight hours, it felt like a super interesting mish-mash of old Soviet architecture, Kyrgyz buildings, and luxury hotels and shopping centers.
On my first free afternoon, I walked to Ala-Too Square in the center of the city, which required a bit of concentration thanks to the extremely varying quality of the sidewalks and the general lack of crosswalk signals for pedestrians. But I made it, and got to enjoy the unseasonal 70-degree F (21 C) weather too! Built in the mid-1980s to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, Ala-Too Square is quite a sight to behold. It probably goes without saying, but the scale of these Soviet buildings are absolutely massive! Thanks to living in the former East Berlin, I had some idea of this, but have to admit I was blown away by Bishkek. These buildings were very successful at making me feel very small. Incidentally, Ala-Too Square is also where the 2005 anti-government protest known as the Tulip Revolution took place.
State History Museum
The massive block-like building in Ala-Too Square is the State History Museum (or National Historical Museum), which I highly recommend for a visit. Unless you read Russian, you won’t understand a thing about the exhibitions (which have seen better days), but the architecture and the Soviet-propaganda ceiling murals alone are worth the visit! FYI, I wasn’t allowed to take photos with my DSLR, but they didn’t have a problem with iPhone photography.
Also in the neighborhood
Hidden behind the museum is the statue of Lenin that used to be located in the center of Ala-Too Square. While many former Soviet republics got rid of reminders of the USSR after independence, Kyrgyzstan was satisfied with simply moving Lenin to a less central location. :) Also worth checking out nearby is Panfilov Park, a small amusement park in the middle of the city. It is exactly what I imagine that Berlin’s Spreepark would look like if it was still functioning! On my way back to the hotel, I caught the changing of the guard in Ala-Too Square (on the hour), which is certainly worth trying to make happen if you can.
Ala Archa National Park
On my one full free day in Bishkek, my hosts arranged to take me to Ala Archa National Park, which is about 40 kilometers south of the city. Bishkek itself is already 800 meters (half a mile) above sea level, which you only really notice if you get on the hotel treadmill to try to keep up with your marathon training and then feel super sluggish and wonder where your fitness has disappeared to before realizing that the altitude actually might play a role — ahem. Anyway, this huge mountain range provides a gorgeous backdrop to the city and I was quite excited to get to visit it in person.
The drive there took about an hour, and although the temperatures in the city were in the upper 60s F (20 C), it was considerably cooler in the mountains and the trails were still covered in snow. I didn’t have the proper shoes along for trudging through the snow, so we didn’t hike for too long, but it was enough to enjoy the mountain air and breathtaking views. I was told that in the summer, the trails are swarming with hikers and backpackers. The park apparently also plays hosts to high level foreign guests and visiting government officials, showcasing Kyrgyzstan’s natural treasures.
Eating in Bishkek
I also tried lots of wonderful food — meat-filled pastries, noodles, dumplings, and rice dishes that I really don’t remember the names of — and would highly recommend trying them all if you visit! Sorry for the lack of photographic evidence, but I mostly ate out with colleagues that I don’t know very well and felt a bit awkward being that person taking pictures of every meal. (I’m clearly not cut out to be a food blogger.) I really enjoyed Navat, which is a gorgeous, upscale (but affordable) restaurant, and made use of the free wifi (and their chocolate milkshakes) a couple of times at Sierra Coffee.
Would I go back?
So my friends, that was my trip to Bishkek in a nutshell. (For more photos, here is my full Flickr album.) I definitely would have liked to have spent more time there and seen more of the country, so I hope that it’s not my last visit to Kyrgyzstan! Perhaps next time I would do some real hiking, or visit the lake resort of Issyk-Kul, or take a trip to the south of the country…
Do you have any favorite places to explore in Central Asia? What’s on your to-see list in Kyrgyzstan?