First Impressions of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

In this wee, short and sweet piece I am going to relate my initial impressions of Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan where I have been for two days, whilst they are still fresh, before they become normal and I don’t notice them anymore.

First, though, I have to answer a question I have been asked more than a few times by people both in Guernsey and in Kyrgystan:

“Why Kyrgyzstan?”

A popular Guernsey variant of this question was, “Why Kazakhstan?”

My personal favourite, though: “Kurdistan?! That’s next to Iraq and Syria!” Mums, eh.

There are two answers to this question.

Answer Number One:

It was one of two countries I identified in my frantic I-need-to-get-outta-here internet search that did not require special visa permissions and a quarantine upon arrival.

Answer Number Two:

What is not to like about the prospect of travelling to a country with a foreignness and mystique so strong that most people have never heard of the place?

What is not exciting about travelling to a country inhabited by a people descended from Genghis Khan, taming and riding horses, eating and living in yurts, living nomadic and wild lives, some still kidnapping brides, and the city dwellers revolting and holding their politicians to task?

What is not enthralling about flying into a capital, laid down upon a trading town by the Russians, with gigantic palatial squares and chessboard-like roads that stretch as far as the eye can see, sat in the shadow of the snowcapped Ala Too mountains in the distance, overawing the scene?

Very First Impressions.

I arrived into Bishkek’s Manas International Airport at 4am in the morning.

Passing my documents over to a lady dressed in full military garb in passport control, my passport is pored over in silence for five minutes, before she gets up and confers with another colleague, then another colleague, before coming back and waving me through, without a word uttered.

I enter into the arrivals lounge to a chorus of, “Taxi! Taxi! Taxi! English? Taxi! American? Taxi!”

It’s a funny cultural juxtaposition, leaving the English taxis waiting in a quiet and orderly queue outside the airport with their masked drivers, arriving in Kyrgyzstan to a small crowd of maskless drivers eagerly harrying people as soon as the automatic doors part to reveal them waiting.

I barter one fellow down from 2000 som (£17) to 400 som (£3.40) for the half-hour drive into Bishkek, which is no doubt still a very good price for him.

We hop in, and the driver takes to the long, straight road into Bishkek at an alarming pace, without his seatbelt. I don’t bother raising the small issue of my own seatbelt not working.

I arrive into the city before the break of dawn, to the much more agreeable chorus of blackbirds in the trees. (Did you know, or have you heard, that blackbirds have regional accents?) As the first fingers of dawn pull back the black of night, street sweepers pass me with their wooden brooms scratching dust up from the pavements, and as I mosey about the place a teenager comes up to me and says, “Taxi?”

The streets are in some glorious state of disrepair, with gaping, glaring potholes and health and safety hazards that would be a heart attack to many a European regulator. Nevertheless, with the long lawns lined by trees homing singing birds, the place has charmed me instantly.

First Bus Journey

The next day I tried my first trolley bus journey, which costs the equivalent of 1p, well, less in fact. En route, there is a massive crashing sound above us. The poles connecting the bus to the electricity wires criss-crossing the city came loose. The driver hops out of the bus, puts some gloves on, and without further ado climbs on top of it to reattach the power before we continue.

Later in that journey, we almost crash into a mashrutka, a kind of minivan, at which the bus driver honked his horn and gesticulated aggressively. I can’t stifle a laugh and see a young Kyrgyz lad smirk at me.

My friend said to me, “You see a crash everyday. Well, not every day, but definitely every week. We saw one yesterday. I think the guy was drunk, though.”

The City and People

Being a Soviet city, Bishkek is a concrete jungle, with the same cut-and-paste apartments I once saw in the Baltics and one can find across the former USSR. They did some things very well, like public playgrounds and trees and benches, though now the steel-spangled concrete is in a state of advanced decay.

On the flip-side to the cramped apartments, there are the outlandishly sized public squares and monuments.

The central square is complete with a flag the size of a sports pitch and is surrounded by empty water features, on the dry pipes and corners of which skateboarders show off their skills and socialise, BMX bikers riding their steeds under the statue of their national hero, Manas, who rides atop a horse.

I have not met a fluent or even confident English speaker above 30 here in Bishkek, it is all Kyrgyz and Russian.

A portion of the younger generation of Bishkek, like most capitals of most countries, speak excellent English, and are smart, sharp, industrious, open-minded and forward-thinking. Some wear headscarves, some wear trendy beanies, some have dyed-purple hair; there’s a mix, but without apparent divide. They are eager to have conversations with foreigners because they cannot often practice their language with native speakers, and relish the opportunity.

Both the Kyrgyz men and women I have met seem genuinely friendly, hospitable, and interested to meet a foreigner. They are not offended or exasperated by my total lack of Kyrgyz or Russian language, and try to communicate through other people, Google Translate, broken English, or failing the above, hand gestures. And they are really not afraid to stare and gawp at the foreigner, the older generation especially.

Kyrgyzstan is not a rich country.

For context. A cleaner can expect to be paid about £1.50 an hour. I paid less than £4 for a month of mobile internet. There are squat toilets in the cities and rarely running water outside of them. People steal and sell drain covers. Old women sit on street corners selling single cigarettes and tea in plastic cups. A street child approached me trying to sell a pen and a muslim gentleman pushing a disabled lady in a wheelchair asked me for change. There is tangible, dirty poverty.

Yet, all of that said, Bishkek is safe enough that you see children – primary school aged children, solo or in groups – walking the streets and catching public transport at all hours of the day unaccompanied by adults.


I mentioned our question above – “Why Kyrgyzstan?” – which has been asked of me as much by local Kyrgyz as by baffled Guerns. People seem genuinely interested to know if and why foreigners are interested in their home.

There is a clear national pride, love of country, and a healthy, informed distrust of government and officialdom.

The people take their stake in the destiny of their nation very seriously.

The most recent of Kyrgyzstan’s three revolutions in the last 15 years occurred last winter, when thousands turned out to protest rigged election results, dominated Ala-Too Square and stormed the White House. Politics is no picnic here.

There is still some aspect of unrest and uncertainty, with elections on the horizon. Quite a few establishments have boarded up, and I saw the security for my friend’s bar turn up in combat fatigues armed with assault rifles.

Things still seem to be aiming towards developing hospitality and tourism, though obviously this has now come to a grinding halt. My friend I just mentioned said coffeeshop culture has exploded in the last year, and in the last couple of years his bar’s competition has increased from a couple of establishments to double figures.


You forget the country is (nominally) muslim.

I will be sure to find far more observant provincial people, but here in metropolitan Bishkek it is a tame, toned-down religiosity, I suppose due to being a former satellite state of the God-hating Soviets.

I was reminded of its Islamic heritage when my taxi driver sneezed today, without a mask and without covering his mouth and nose, and said, “Hamdullah!” It was another beautiful cultural juxtaposition, but I couldn’t explain to him why I laughed.

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar reminded me of markets in Morocco and in Latvia, with its Muslim and Soviet influences.

Positively abuzz with sellers, buyers, hagglers, moochers, babushkas; meat and fish and organs lying out in the open, taking sun and flies and sneezes; astonishingly cheap and fresh fruit and veg, sold without regard to their symmetry or sheen; cloths, clothing, trinkets, watches – whatever your heart desires.

The street-food is jaw-droppingly cheap in the markets, though if you are not a meat-eater you will be hard pushed to explain that you don’t want meat.

I had a delicious, greasy, spicy pancake-type creation that trial-by-fired my palette and innards.

Final Thoughts

So far, I can say I am intrigued by the country and enchanted by its people.

Being from little old Guernsey, I am really not cut out for the smoggy clutter of city life, so I look forward to spending some time out of the city, nearer the mountains and the provinces and in the cleaner air.

Until then, stay classy, shags.


2 thoughts on “First Impressions of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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