Kyrgyzstan is a country in central Asia formerly part of the USSR. The people are semi-nomadic and speak Russian and Kyrgyz. I speak neither of these languages.
In my six days I visited Bishkek, Cholpon Ata, and Ala Archa. I stayed with a Canadian friend (Lynelle) who is teaching at an international school.
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The capital of Kyrgyzstan. The city itself is flat but it has mountains to the south. The people are predominantly Muslim, although the religious majority is less apparent compared to countries like Turkey.
Public transit in Bishkek consists of regular buses and minibuses called marshrutka. A ride costs a mere 10 Kyrgyz som ($0.18). They can get full at times but are pretty convenient.
The Soviets built a lot of infrastructure during the days of the USSR, giving Bishkek a mix of Soviet and Kyrgyz styles.
My favourite part of Bishkek was the bazaars. In particular the massive Osh Bazaar. It’s a great place for aimless wandering.
It’s not all bazaars though. They have modern, western style grocery stores.
Bishkek tourist attractions also include the state museum with Kyrgyz and USSR history, and an old soviet amusement park (Panfilov Park).
And finally the second best meal of the trip:
Issyl Kul is a saline lake surrounded by a crown of mountains in Northeast Kyrgyzstan. It’s a popular Kyrgyz vacation spot in addition to being used for military testing and training. We stayed in a small resort town called Cholpon Ata on the north central side of the lake.
The easiest and most expensive way is to take a taxi for around $100, but we decided to take the marshrutka for 300 som each, or about $5.
We arrived at the Bishkek marschrutka terminal where a were greeted by taxi drivers literally running towards us shouting “TAXI! TAXI!”. Responding with “Nyet, nyet taxi” was enough to subdued then and we started looking for the Cholpon Ata marshrutka . It’s an easy Russian word to read even with limited Cyrillic knowledge (ЧОЛПОН АТА).
We boarded the marshrutka and Lynelle left to buy our tickets. Every few minutes someone would poke their head though the door trying to sell us snacks or something but all the seats eventually filled with passengers and we departed. Just in time too as the exhaust fumes were beginning to fill the bus.
Every now and then I stop and think “this is one of those magical travel moments” that’s unique to a certain country. The marshrutka ride was one of these moments. The gentle Kyrgyz folk music played as we sped down the bumpy road lined with 30 foot tall trees neatly lined up on either side that the Soviets had planted in decades past. The setting sun cast a red shine on the surrounding mountains and I spotted many herds of cattle being shepherded along narrow mountain paths.
For a while the road ran parallel with the border of Kazakhstan. Although it’s less of a border and more of a shallow stream next to the road. Occasionally I’d see a small lookout tower but overall I’d think crossing into Kazakhstan illegally would be a little too easy.
Now, we assumed the final destination of the marshrutka was Cholpon Ata, since that was the labeled destination. Nope. Out of the 10 passengers, only one disembarked at Cholpon Ata and the bus continued down the road with us still on it.
We waited for this elusive terminal for another 5 km before cutting our losses and jumping off at the next stop. Only now it was 7 pm, pitch black outside, and we were on a rural road in the middle of nowhere.
We started walking back towards Cholpon Ata and eventually spotted a small convenience store and went inside. Lynelle explained that we wanted a taxi to Cholpon Ata and the elderly women behind the till happily called us one. Close one!
Ten minutes later we were back on our way. We soon realized the hotel was down a narrow side street and we never would have found it on our own anyway. Especially since the taxi driver got lost and had to call the hotel to ask for directions.
We arrived at the gate where the elderly owner greeted us and took us to our room, which unfortunately was having the radiator fixed the following day, making it a cold night with the room averaging 5-10 C with a mediocre space heater.
After settling in we went out in search of food. Our attitude quick changed from finding a good restaurant to finding an open restaurant. Strange considering it was around 8 pm on a Saturday. Probably a cultural thing, or a result of Cholpon Ata having a population of only 12,000.
Anyway we found the only open restaurant and this is where Cholpon Ata really surprised me. The lone restaurant ended up being the best meal of the trip thus far! It included the most delicious borscht and pilaf I’ve ever had. And a $7 bottle of Kyrgyz vodka.
Near the end of our meal some local Kyrgyz entered and it was clear they were already a few vodkas deep. One came over and introduced himself with what I assume is the only English he knows:
Hello my name is Muhammad Ali
His friend came over and laughed as he apologized for his drunk friend. They gave us a few oranges and many hearty goodbyes when we left.
The rest of the night was spent drinking Kyrgyz beer (very tasty) and watching the stars.
The next day we finally got a good view of the lake and mountains. We walked to the closest beach and found a Soviet resort of sorts with playgrounds and swings along the water. Apparently during the days of the USSR the beach was a popular destination for tours from other parts of the union. Nowadays it’s showing its age.
The next stop was the cultural center. It highlighted….. wait for it…… Kyrgyz culture. And some famous and culturally influential Kyrgyz people. It seems they ran out of local people to make statues out of since we found Thomas Jefferson there.
After the beach and cultural center we wandered back down the streets to catch a marshrutka back to Bishkek. And yes we tried to go back to the same restaurant for breakfast but it was closed. And a few hours later we tried to go back for lunch. Still closed. The second place we tried may have been a private party. We got many strange stares and were quickly shooed out of the place. And the third restaurant couldn’t compare to the legendary borscht and pilaf from last night.
Ala Archa is a mountainous valley a short drive south of Bishkek. There are no marshrutkas to Ala Archa so we found a taxi that agreed to taking us on a round trip. As usual the driver got lost along the way (don’t these guys know their cities by now?). Fortunately there were two fellows on horseback just next to us on road and we asked them for directions.
We arrived at the park entrance to buy our tickets and it was at this point that smoke began pouring out of taxi. The driver pulled to the side of the road and it seemed that the engine was leaking oil (or radiator fluid? I’m no car person).
That was the end of this particular taxi. We paid the driver and started on the 12 km hike to the actual park (the scenic entrance was a long way from the actual valley). At least the road has a pleasant view with sheep on the mountainside and a glacier fed stream next to the road. The damp road eventually turned to slush and then to snow.
The sun was getting low in the sky so we decided to try and hitch a ride. Most people were leaving and there was only a car every ten minutes or so heading deeper into the park. After around 40 minutes of walking we finally got picked up by a young Russian family.
We arrived after 20 minutes of driving (we never would have made it walking).
We hiked around for a couple hours and called another taxi to retrieve us. Our Russian friends had left earlier and there was only one car left in the parking lot.
During our 30 minute wait in the parking area we saw the owners of the car approaching it. Clearly one of them had been drinking. We left the area to wander around a bit longer.
Eventually we made it back to the parking lot and the woman approached us. It was all in Russian but through body language I understood she wanted me to drive their car! The drunk guy was already in the drivers seat and seemed very agitated that his girlfriend?/wife?/friend?/relative? was even talking to us. Naturally he refused to let me drive. He continued yelling at her to leave but the woman refused to get in the car with him. The road ahead was slippery with a few steep hills and she was definitely making the right choice by saying no.
Eventually our taxi arrived and she came with us instead of the guy. Turns out she is a professional Kyrgyz ballet dancer! We dropped her off at her car, which was at the gate where our first taxi died. We never did find out what happened to the old guy.
But wait a minute, we dropped her at her car so she was able to drive. But obviously the drunk guy wouldn’t let her. So she must have thought that maybe he would let another MAN drive since Lynelle never got asked… Kyrgyzstan, you need to work on your gender attitudes…
Despite it’s odd quirks and bizarre communist relics, Kyrgyzstan is a spectacularly beautiful country full of friendly people and fantastic food. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes any of those three things. Just try and convince your Russian speaking friend to join you. Or befriend someone who lives there.
And one final surprise I got from Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz are surprisingly attractive people! Even the children made me feel under-dressed!
(All of these pictures only coincidentally contained a fashionable Kyrgyz or two, because taking candid pictures is rude)
Ways to save money
Kyrgyzstan is already inexpensive by North American standards. The marshrutkas cost $0.18, a decent meal is $2-3, and a metered taxi within the city shouldn’t be more than $3. Regardless, there are a few ways to save:
- Negotiate long distance taxis. Our ride to Ala Archa costed about $10 to get there, but closer to $40 return. We weren’t in a good situation to negotiate on the way back because we had no other options.
- Bargain for souvenirs. It’s hard to say how much discount you’ll get, but I got prices dropped from 4000 to 3000 som (~$70 to $50). This was for a Russian hat I ended up not buying.
- Take the marshrutkas or buses instead of taxis. Ok this suggestion is for the extreme people. I’m sure most of you reading this can afford the extra $2 and it will be worth however much time you save. But keep in mind that small amounts add up quick and in relative terms the taxi is over 10 times the price.
Besides the minuscule cost savings, the marshrutkas are valuable if you know where you’re going on a map but you can’t communicate it to a Russian speaking taxi driver. If anyone reading this ends up visiting Bishkek, download the Bus.kg app or use the website. It’s better than google for plotting your bus routes around Bishkek and it works offline.Spam your friends: