In the latest of our series of Survival Guides, E&M‘s Frances Jackson takes us on a journey to discover the delights on offer in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Here at E&M, our understanding of Europe has always been a broad one. We are very much aware that the continent’s easternmost frontier is difficult to pinpoint, but even we accept that including in our definition a nation that is nestled alongside China may be stretching things a little too far.
However, in the interests of adventurousness and of keeping an open mind, I ask that you forgive any geographical imprecision arising and allow me to present Bishkek, capital city of Central Asia’s most consonant-rich country, the Kyrgyz Republic.
Bishkek lies in the north of Kyrgyzstan, not far, in fact, from the Kazakh capital Almaty. The Kyrgyz are a traditionally nomadic people and the site of the city was only fortified in the first half of the nineteenth century under the name Pishpek. It later fell into the Russian sphere of influence, becoming part of Turkestan, and later the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic. Between 1926 and 1991, Bishkek bore the name Frunze, which was chosen to honour one of the city’s most famous sons, Red Army commander Mikhail Frunze.
The city also has a special connection to Central Europe due to the Interhelpo cooperative, which originated in interwar Czechoslovakia to help build socialism in the farthest reaches of the Soviet Union. The Slovak politician Alexander Dubček, an early member of the movement, was brought up in Bishkek, and there is even a park named after Czech journalist and literary critic Julius Fučík, who visited several times.
Visitors expecting the exquisite Silk Road splendour of the mosques and madrasas in neighbouring Uzbekistan may be disappointed by Bishkek. Owing to the city’s relatively recent foundation and long years of Soviet rule, a majority of its buildings bear witness to this heritage. Socialist realist murals still adorn the walls of institutions such as the Academy of Sciences and there is also an abandoned planetarium, a unique specimen in Central Asia. It is a compact city and obviously meticulously planned, with a grid-like road layout.
Strolling along Chui Avenue, Bishkek’s main thoroughfare, one is strongly reminded of the Albanian capital Tirana, especially the area around Skanderbeg Square. The two cities share the same wide, but dusty and dilapidated pavements, parched grass and bombastic style when it comes to museum façades.
For the overtly authoritarian regimes of Central Asia (looking at you Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), Kyrgyzstan is frankly a bit of an embarrassment. The country, which has had more than its fair share of political and civic unrest since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has the reputation of being something of a loose cannon in the region, a by-word, even, for instability and chaos. It has certainly been lauded in the past for its comparatively democratic credentials and has displayed a pro-Western outlook, but recent developments, including the rise of the term “Gayropa” to refer to Europe and Kyrgyzstan’s accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, seem to suggest a re-alignment towards Russia.
Although not directly caught up in the bloody ethnic conflicts that took place in the Osh region during 2010, Bishkek has played host to a number of fierce protests, resulting in not one, but two presidents fleeing the country. What’s more, tourists are advised to avoid all large gatherings, in case these turn violent, but personally – and I visited shortly before the October 2015 elections – I did not feel at all unsafe in the city.
Kyrgyz cuisine has a great deal in common with the food that can be found across Central Asia. So you’ll have no trouble tracking down pilaf or plov (also known in Kyrgyzstan as paloo), steamed manty dumplings or non, glorious and often beautifully decorated golden-brown discs of bread, on sale at just about every market. Even the national dish beshbarmak, made of boiled mutton and noodles with its own special ritual to boot, is also claimed by the Kazakhs too.
Non-meat eaters beware though: in my experience, meat-free manty tend to include fairly hefty chunks of solid animal fat or gristle and “vegetarian” paloo is likely to have had just the larger pieces of lamb removed. Safe veggie food is generally fairly heavy on the carbs; one evening, for example, I was served what was – rather aptly, I might add – described as a “bliny battle”: two separate stacks of folded pancakes, the first accompanied by marinated mushrooms and sour cream, the second drenched in honey. Delicious, if a little rib-sticking.
Beyond a handful of dimly-lit museums and the peculiar majesty of Ala-Too Square, the city’s central meeting place, which – for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom – also features a clothing factory, Bishkek is a tad short on major tourist attractions. However, you would be well advised to find your way to at least one of the city’s tea houses (such as the Chaikhana Jalal-Abad) and no trip to the Kyrgyz capital would be complete without a visit to the bazaar.
Bishkek has two of particular note on offer: the Osh Bazaar, in the west of the city, and the Dordoy Bazaar in the north east. The Osh Bazaar is, in many respects, just your standard market – noisy and exhilarating, with all manner of fresh produce and household goods, plus a healthy sprinkling of souvenirs. If you’re feeling bold, you might treat yourself to a Kyrgyz kalpak, a traditional felt hat, in the most unusual of shapes or perhaps a miniature toy yurt. The Dordoy Bazaar, on the other hand, is something that has to be seen to be believed. Made up of streets of two-tier shipping containers stacked alongside one another, it runs for more than a kilometre and is the regional hub for Chinese goods heading west. Whether you’re in the market for a fridge, construction supplies or just a few spare parts for your car, Dordoy is the place to go. It is worth having at least a smattering of Russian though, otherwise your haggling will not get you far
If, like me, you arrive at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport in the wee hours of the morning, your first view of the Kyrgyz countryside will, quite possibly, take your breath away: the sight of the just-risen sun cresting the snow-capped peaks of the Ala-Too mountain range, its tentative rays suffusing the horizon with a warm, roseate glow. It’s no wonder that the country is trying as trying to relaunch itself as one of the world’s premier trekking destinations. Those mountains are positively crying out to be explored. A number of tour operators now even offer visitors the chance to sleep in a yurt on high mountain pastures.
But don’t just take my word for it: for a more literary introduction to the sweeping wonder of Kyrgyz landscapes, to the mountains and the steppes, look no further than the works of Soviet author and diplomat Chingiz Aitmatov. His famous novella Jamilia from 1958 is particularly evocative in its descriptions of local life and traditions.