A vast public square, crisscrossed with tiled paths, dotted with flower beds, decorated with a staggeringly-tall flagpole, a statue of a heroic figure, and a complicated public fountain that is no longer functional. Behind the square: an enormous, imposing, mausoleum-type structure; a government building, clearly designed to be grand, designed to connote the power of the state. Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, is filled with scenes such as these.
The founding of Bishkek
Bishkek began life as a caravanserai, a rest stop for those plying the Silk Road through the perilous Tian Shan mountain range.
In 1825 a mudbrick fort, referred to as Pishpek, was erected in this location by members of the Kokhand kingdom (who hailed from the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan) to tax passing caravans.
The fort was obliterated by Russian troops when they swept through and annexed these lands in 1860. Over the subsequent decades many thousands of Russian peasants would be re-settled in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek (or Pishpek) was made the capital of the Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Oblast of Russian Turkestan in 1925. The following year the city was re-named Frunze, after Mikhail Frunze, a much decorated Red Army commander who was born in the city.
The name reverted to Bishkek in 1991 following the break up of the Soviet Union.
Kyrgyzstan is often called the darling of the ‘stans’, as it is the easiest country in Central Asia to enter (no visa or Letter of Introduction is required) and Bishkek contains a variety of westernised cafes and restaurants – a rarity in the region.
Thus it is surprising to discover that it is the most Soviet in appearance of all the Central Asian capitals.
Ala Archa National Park
If your coming all the way to Kyrgyzstan then you’re going to want to see mountains. And Bishkek has its own mountains worth exploring just 40 kilometres outside of the city.
A trail from the park gate leads towards Ak-Sai Glacier where you can find the remains of a Soviet mountaineering base. You don’t need to walk all the way to the glacier though. A one to two hour hike along the Ala Archa River will provide sufficient stunning views keep you satisfied.
Is Bishkek worth a visit?
Yes. Bishkek is a charming, Soviet-planned city, without the downside of the Soviets. There is isn’t much in the way of sights (although a day-trip to Ala Archa National Park is well worth it), but if you’ve a fondness of – or are nostalgic for – Soviet architecture then Bishkek can’t be beat. And if you’ve spent a decent stretch of time in Central Asia then you’ll delight in the city’s westernised cafes and restaurants.
And if you are coming to Kyrgyzstan to go hiking at Song Kul or Issyk Kul, or to obtain your Tajikistan visa and GBAO permit for a journey along the Pamir Highway and Wakhan Valley, then you’ll be passing through Bishkek anyway, so might as well make the most of it.
If you’re really lucky you might be even catch a buzkashi tournament (headless-goat polo) while you are in town.
Manas International Airport (30 minutes outside of the city) has regular flights to Russia, Turkey, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. There are less regular flights to India and Iran.
Public transport in Kyrgyzstan is generally slow, infrequent, and inconvenient (and often non-existent). If you want to get around the city, or the countryside, then you’ll need to be prepared to use a mix of taxis, inter-city share taxis, hitch-hiking, and private cars.
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