Live Like a Local in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Statue of Manas on Ala-Too Square

You should probably know that, if anything, Pete is the least intrepid of his siblings. One sister is currently living in Santiago, after nearly a year in Bogota teaching English, and the other one, well… she’s been in Kyrgyzstan for the last 8 months.

Immy thigh deep in snow
Just so you know what to expect from Pete’s sister…

1. What took you to Bishkek?

I went to Bishkek for 7 months of my year abroad in order to improve my Russian (my degree is in Russian and Spanish). I decided to go to Kyrgyzstan because I had already spent a couple of months of my gap year in Yekaterinburg in Russia and wanted to go somewhere else. A couple of years ago I visited a friend in Bishkek for a few days while I was staying in Almaty in Kazakhstan and had a great experience there, so I really wanted to go back and explore it further. Not to mention, Bishkek is super cheap, so it’s a great place to work as an unpaid volunteer and go to language school, all the while living off my student loan and some grants from university!

Ala-Too Square, Bishkek
This is a statue of Manas on Ala-Too Square, the main square in Bishkek

2. What’s your favourite part of Bishkek?

I love Bishkek’s parks and green boulevards. It’s a fantastically green city thanks to some great urban planning by the Bishkek mayor at the turn of the 20th century. A particular favourite is the long Erkindik Boulevard which makes the trip to the centre of town from home a really pleasant walk.

Oak Park, Bishkek
Oak Park

3. Where are the best places to go out in Bishkek?

The best club I went to in Bishkek was one I actually only discovered in my last week there: ‘Klub Kvartira’, literally meaning apartment club, it’s got a cool East London vibe to it. I wish I’d found it earlier! Bishkek has lots of bars and pubs where you can spend a more relaxed evening and the guys at the language school developed a favourite called ‘Dim Vostoka’ (Smoke of the East). It’s just north of the railway bridge on Sovietskaya street, it’s a really nice local place to have a cheap pint and a shisha.

Ala-Too Square
Not a club, but something shiny and modern on Ala-Too Square

4. Any restaurant recommendations?

For traditional Kyrgyz/Central Asian cuisine then Navat is a great choice but my favourite restaurant has to be Pur:pur, a really delicious Georgian Restaurant. If you’re feeling fancy and the weather’s nice Bar 12 is a really nice rooftop bar for special occasions and if you like tango or live music the Chicken Star is owned by an awesome Korean guy, Chihoon, who doing great things to invigorate the Bishkek cultural/social scene and also prepare yummy responsibly sourced Korean dishes.

South shore of Lake Issy Kul
Taken from the south shore of Lake Issy Kul

5. Where’s your favourite place to go on a day trip from Bishkek?

As someone who enjoys the outdoors living in Bishkek is a dream come true and the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (TUK) makes getting to interesting walks virtually hassle free. They organise transport and guides at absolutely minimal costs ($3-4 for members and $5-6 for non-members) as well as trips to ski stations in winter and rafting outings in summer. During the 7 months I was in Kyrgyzstan I went on about a dozen TUK trips and I think my favourite was to an area close to Bishkek called Chonkorchak, we had fabulous weather (I got sunburnt and it was only March) and did a good hard walk up to a 360 degree view over the Ala-Too range and Bishkek itself. The walk to lake Kol-Tor is also lovely but sadly I only did it when the lake was still frozen, I’d love to go back sometime and see the reputedly turquoise lake in summer – it was good fun though trudging through snow drifts up to my waist (see above)!

Looking towards the Chong Alay
Yaks, looking towards the Chong Alay

6. What would you do with someone who only had a weekend in Bishkek?

If someone only had a weekend in Bishkek, I have to say the best thing to do is to leave the city! Kyrgyzstan is all about the incredible landscapes and untouched outdoors so you don’t want to waste time in a city, which whilst great to live isn’t fantastically exciting for tourists. When a friend came for a long weekend in June we went to a yurt camp on the south shore of Issyk Kul, which was fantastic. Issyk Kul is an enormous and very beautiful lake with nice beaches surrounded by snow topped mountains, but the north shore is a really popular holiday resort for Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Russians the south shore is much more rugged and interesting to visit. Another good weekend trip would be to Song Kul or in winter to the ski base in Karakol.

Kokmoinok Canyon
Kokmoinok Canyon, on a TUK trek

7. What’s your top secret local piece of knowledge?

Don’t be shy in Kyrgyzstan! The Kyrgyz are lovely people and will go out of their way to help you, so just ask if you need any help or advice. Chat to everyone and keep up acquaintances even if you’ve only met someone for 10 minutes on a ski lift – they could end up being your best friend there! (True story!)

Right now, the second World Nomad Games are being held over in Issyk Kul. I would have loved to be there for it and to see some more Kyrgyz nomadic traditions but unfortunately I’m home preparing for my last year at university. If you aren’t in Bishkek right now there are other opportunities to see traditional nomadic horse games.

Kok Boru at the hippodrome in Bishkek
Kok Boru at the hippodrome in Bishkek

I persuaded my host father and sister to come to the Bishkek Hippodrome with me on Nooruz (the Spring Holiday and Iranian New Year on the 21st March) to watch kok boru (it’s like polo as they’re on horseback, but without the sticks and with a 50kg headless sheep carcass instead of a ball!), horseback wrestling, bareback racing, archery on horseback and eagle hunting. It was a fantastic experience. Be prepared to stand out in the crowd and get cheering! It’s also something that my host father admitted he hadn’t done since he was a child in rural Kyrgyzstan and I was entertained to noticed that he went again later in the year! Kok boru can be seen all over Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries but in rural settings it often happens according to the whim of villagers, which is why the Nooruz competition is so good for tourists or events like the World Nomad Games as it is scheduled and organised. I have read that there’s an annual competition in Bishkek in September, too.

A friendly old man in the crowd at the hippodrome
A friendly old man in the crowd at the hippodrome

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