After my horrible experience at the Dushanbe airport in Tajikistan, I am glad to finally arrive in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan which is the final Stan left to visit on my journey through Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan is also my 100th country visited! Yay! 🥳 Can’t believe I have visited more than half of the world (according to Google, there are 195 countries in the world). I am truly blessed and grateful for the experience and the opportunity! Seeing the world has for sure changed me and as my tagline says, “Travel far enough and you will meet yourself.” I’m not sure if I will ever get to all 195 countries but for sure there are another 40 or so already on my list. 😀
Kyrgyzstan borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest, and China to the east. It is a very mountainous region with pristine alpine lakes and beautiful steppes where the Kyrgyz yurt-living and nomadic traditions are kept alive. The name Kyrgyz translates to “We are forty” in Turkic and is said to refer to the 40 clans of Manas who united 40 regional clans against the Uyghurs in the 9th century. The 40-ray sun on the national flag is also a reference to these 40 regional clans and in the sun’s center is depiction of the top of a yurt which is a traditional tent used by these semi-nomads. The Kyrgyz people have over the centuries been ruled by the Gokturks, the Uyghurs, the Khitan, the Mongols, the Kalmyks, the Manchus, and the Uzbeks until becoming part of the Russian Empire in 1876. Even though Kyrgyzstan declared independence from Moscow in 1991, Russian remains widely spoken and an official language. There is now visa free access for many countries such as the EU, Canada, USA, Singapore, Japan to name a few. Otherwise, there is a simple e-visa application process. Most people come here in the summer to hike and experience staying in a traditional yurt in the rural areas and along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kol. I came a bit late in the season and it has supposedly started snowing already in the Issyk-Kol Lake area. But I was told by friends who have visited that Kyrgyzstan reminds them of Mongolia mainly because of the traditional yurts and horses and steppes outside of the main city.
Once again, the people here think I am a local. I am not sure I see the resemblance but that is what I am told again and again. As I exited the customs area at the airport, I noticed that all the guides and drivers put down their signs because they are convinced I could not be their client. I had to ask people with signs to let me see the name and most of them gave me this weird look. I finally found my lovely guide who was surprised that I was her guest. She apologized profusely and explained how she saw me and decided I was not her guest, let alone a tourist. I told her not to worry because I am already used to this reaction. 🤓
Bishkek is the capital and largest city of Kyrgyzstan and is mainly used as a transit point to access the mountains and alpine lakes or the rest of Central Asia due its liberal tourist visa regime. Like Dushanbe in Tajikistan, it has few historical sites and that is probably why visitors often bypass the city altogether. Bishkek now is a relatively new city with wide boulevards laid on a grid with large marble buildings and Soviet apartment blocks. It was originally a rest stop with caravanserais along the Silk Road and was fortified in 1825 by the Khokand Khan and named Pishpek. In 1860, the fortress was destroyed by the Russian forces in and in 1868, a Russian settlement was established here and in 1926 renamed Frunze. In 1936, Frunze became the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic. Not until 1991 did the name Bishkek come to be. I stayed at the Hyatt Regency Bishkek which is the first 5 star hotel here and located in the center of town. It is a bit rundown now but still ok for a short stay. Compared to the Hyatt Regency in Dushanbe, it is much better run.
Ala-Too Square used to be call Lenin Square until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and is the main square of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan. Ala-Too means “great mountain” in Kyrgyz. Other than the name change, the Lenin Statue here was subsequently replaced by that of Manas, the Kyrgyz national hero. Next to the statue of Manas is the official flagpole of Kyrgyzstan. The square has seen frequent political demonstrations as well as regular festive celebrations. Surrounding the square are buildings in the Brutalist style characterized by the massive blocky appearance with rigid geometric designs and the use of poured concrete. In the north of the square is the State Historical Museum and behind which is the Oak Park where people come to take walks.
I visited my fair share of local bazaars these past few weeks thru Central Asia. I have to say Bishkek’s central and main bazaar, Osh Bazaar, is definitely one of my favorites. It is not as architecturally interesting as the domes of Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent, nor is it as clean and new as the Green Bazaar in Almaty. For me, Osh Bazaar feels much larger, more to see, and more alive than the other bazaars. I thoroughly enjoyed my couple of hours here photographing locals going about their lives. You can find all things Kyrgyz on sale here. You can buy all kinds of farm products, cooked local foods here as well as traditional Kyrgyz clothes and handicrafts and souvenirs.
Visiting the popular Issyk-Kol Lake is not entirely out of the question but definitely a bit late in the season, so I decided to save it for another time. Instead, I went for a pleasant walk in the Ala-Archa National Park as well as visiting the Burana Tower archaeological site. Stay tuned!
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