From the moment that my friend and I boarded the plane to Bishkek and we were the only non Kyrgzs looking passengers, I knew we were heading to the road less-traveled. When the plane landed, officers were at the bottom of the steps watching passengers deboarding and there was complete silence as we waited on the line for passport control. It was a tiny airport so it was quite the scene when the exit doors opened up to about 50 people shouting, “Taxi! Taxi!” at us, 6 o’clock in the morning. My favorite was a man that spoke English, “Do you need a taxi?”, “No”, “Do you have friends here?”, “Yes”, “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan!”, “Thank you!” ?
On the road to our friend’s house at 6am, the first thing I noticed was the empty streets and it was pitch dark the whole ride like the sun would never come up. There were plenty of trees on the road leaving the airport, it reminded me of tropical islands that I’ve visited before but seemed a bit out of place here. After a while a few gas stations came into view on the otherwise desolate road. I was starting to wonder if anyone even lived in Kyrgyzstan when I noticed a few people standing in small groups waiting at unlit corners for a ride to work. The sun hid until 9am and by then it was breakfast and nap time.
Our friends took us into the city and the first thing that I noticed were the people. It was quite interesting to see two major groups. Some looked very European with light hair and eyes, others had Asian features and dark hair, then us, not fitting in at all ?. Two tall black American women with natural hair definitely was not an everyday sight in Bishkek. Most people would look at us and smile but they were too shy to say anything, others would shout out any English words they knew but would run away before we noticed who was speaking. They would say things like, “hello!”, “how are you?” or my personal favorite, “I speak English very well” ?. I heard that last one several times, it all just made us smile.
There are two official languages, Kyrgz and Russian. Interestingly, everyone seemed to speak Russian but many didn’t speak Kyrgz. Street signs and restaurant names were written in Russian so it’s quite beneficial to have some knowledge of the language or a translation app readily available on your cell phone.
The architecture and life in general is a throwback to Soviet Union days although Kyrgyzstan gained independence more than 25 years ago after the break up of the Soviet Union. There are also several monuments dedicated to the Soviet era in the city center.
Ala-Too means “great mountain” in Kyrgyz and is the main square located in the middle of the city. It was built in 1984 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. In 2011, the statue of Manas, a legendary Kyrgyz hero, was built to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kyrgyzstan’s independence. Ala-Too Square is a great place for picture taking, especially in the summer when there will be fountain shows and flowers. We were able to catch the changing of the guards which happens every 4 hours. I recommend to get that on video if possible.
We stumbled upon an outdoor art gallery near the Ala-Too Square. I loved the style, beauty and theme of many of the pieces. If I had the space in my backpack some of it definitely would have come home with me.
Mikhail Frunze Museum
This museum is dedicated to the life and history of Mikhail Frunze, a Red Army commander in the Russian Civil War. The museum features what may be the actual thatch-roofed cottage where Frunze was born in Bishkek in 1885. There are also many artifacts including letters, paintings and documents, however, it was difficult to understand as little was translated into English. After his death in 1925 the capital was renamed Frunze for 65 years (1926 – 1991). Today, the airport still uses the code FRU (Frunze) and this explains why many shops still carry the name. If you are interested in the history of the Russian Civil War, learning in depth about Mikhail Frunze, and fluent in Russian or Kyrgyz you will not be disappointed.
National Museum of Fine Arts
I enjoyed this museum very much. Unfortunately, picture photography was not allowed but the art work was varied and striking. I believe that there was an option for a guided tour but we chose to walk through on our own. There was a large display of Soviet era art and monuments along with rooms hosting colorful modern art. Many of the textile displays caught my eye. It’s definitely worth checking out this museum. I even enjoyed chatting with the woman working at the coat check. She was excited that we were visiting and spoke to us about the importance of preserving Kyrgyz culture and sharing it with the world.
Anytime we told locals that we visited Osh Bazaar their reaction was priceless! They were as repulsed by the idea of visiting Osh Bazaar as native New Yorkers are to visiting Time Square. They asked, “what did you think?”, “why would you go there?”, and “did you know that it burned down 4 times? ” ? All that being said, my friend and I thought it was totally worth it. Its one of the largest bazaars in Bishkek and is named after a city in the south of Kyrgyzstan. You can find everything at the Bazaar including souvenirs, musical instruments, home goods and food. My friend even got her boots repaired in the market for $2!
There was a variety of reasonably priced and attractive souvenirs.
My favorite section of the market was where they had fresh bread, dried fruits, vegetables and spices. Walking through was not only a delight for the eyes but also pleasing to the palette as the vendors encouraged us to taste everything. We got hooked on борьбы (fried broad beans) and the sun dried cherry tomatoes. The fried beans were creamy on the inside and lightly salted, we were eating them like chips. I will be working on that recipe at home. The cherry tomatoes were sweet like candy, my brain could not process that it was a tomato. We purchased so many things in this section that did not fit in our traveler’s backpacks ?. This is definitely a must visit section of Osh Bazaar.
Its no secret that the air pollution is high in the city so after a few days it was time to escape to the mountains for some fresh air. Mountain ranges can be seen in the distance all around the city. Due to the generous nature of the Kyrgz people, friends of our friends volunteered their time to drive us to the mountains. It was a short trip less than 2 hours outside of the city to Чункурчак (Chunkurchak). Make sure you have an experienced driver like ours as the roads were narrow and covered with snow. We did some light hiking to get in touch with nature and admire the lightly snow-covered ranges. We discovered beautiful huts in the mountains that locals rent in the summer time. There was an ice skating rink and a ski resort nearby. Everyone prepared lunch that we enjoyed family style. Its a good idea to spend some time in the mountains enjoying the fresh air.
Everything that I ate in Kyrgyzstan was delicious. Meat is in almost every dish and dairy is also an important part of the culture. Just prepare yourself as some of that meat is traditionally horse and many dairy products come from mare’s milk. Dough plays a huge part as many dishes included noodles, and there was always bread placed on the table. Fortunately for us, we were able to experience traditional meals every day at home with our Kyrgyz friends. They made sure that we were properly fed during our stay.
Boso Lagman is a delicious dish made of fried hand pulled noodles with meat and vegetables. There is also a version of Lagman adopted from nearby cultures that features the same ingredients in broth.
Every culture has its own version of dumplings. Here we had Manty, large steamed dumplings filled with meat and onions.
Samsa was one of my favorites. It’s a baked pastry filled with meat, onions and possibly vegetables. We had meat and pumpkin inside our delicious hand pies.
Besh Barmak is probably the most traditional dish that we ate. In Kyrgyz it means 5 fingers as it would traditionally be eaten with your hands. The dish consists of boiled meat, most likely horse, on top of pasta and onions. It was quite tasty ?
Barsook was a delightful donut like snack that we fell in love with. They are tasty fried dough puffs cut into small rectangular shapes. It can be found at restaurants, cafes and street vendors, our hosts certainly had plenty on hand. I recommend trying these wonderful bites but be warned, before we knew it, we were eating them several times a day ?.
Varenye (Homemade jam) is the best thing to dip your Barsok into. From day one, our hosts served us their homemade strawberry jam and apricot jam and we were hooked. No store bought jam can compare to nature’s candy. Each jam we tasted was a perfect balance of sweetness, fruit and natural flavor. These jams are not only just good for spreading on dough products but I also discovered that they are perfect for sweetening your tea. Genius! The last couple of days that we were in Bishkek our hosts brought out raspberry jam. That was it, no turning back, hands down the best, most addictive thing that I tasted thus far. Barsok dipped in raspberry jam tasted like a jelly donut but 1000 times better. I was glad we didn’t discover that one earlier, otherwise, I would be in big trouble ?.
All modes of transportation seemed readily available in the city. Buses and marshrutkas seemed to run very regularly along with taxis. They were all very affordable around 20 som/30¢, that is, whenever our host actually let us pay lol. The marshrutkas were quite an experience, they are basically shared minibuses and some with more space than others. Most of the time we were able to get on one that was quite empty but the fun begins further into the ride when the minibus is filled but the driver is still picking up people. It is customary to give up your seat when an older person gets on. There were times when we subject to standing in the extra small aisles. Now picture me and my friend who is 6’2” (1.8m) and American sized, holding on for dear life when babushki ?? with grocery bags are pushing past us to get on or off. Not to mention its a fully crowded vehicle with nowhere to go. While we were not used to this in America, it seemed to be quite the norm to everyone else. I think every one should experience it at least once ?
The Road Less Traveled
Of all the places I’ve visited in my world travels, I have to say Kyrgyzstan qualifies as the most off the beaten path. When I told people I was going there, they either did not know where it was or confused it with the slightly better-known Kazakhstan. During our stay we only saw one other person who looked like us, he was a student at an international school and asked if we were the new teachers ?. I enjoyed my time Kyrgyzstan and the people enjoyed having us. We were met with kindness and the Kyrgz people are very hospitable. We felt safe while traveling, I hope you will consider Kyrgyzstan on your next adventure. All of our new friends said that its much better in Летом (Summer) and I would love to visit other cities especially Osh so that I can stay in a Yurt and run through the open fields. I can only imagine the reaction to my friend and I in the South of Kyrgyzstan where there are even fewer international visitors ?.