Back in January, I was having one of my semi-regular, late night trawls through SkyScanner in order to find bargain basement flights to bizarre, uncharted destinations. Clicking through the usual promotional deals for long weekends in Prague and Barcelona, I found a flight to to Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek on offer for just £148. Despite being roughly 6,000 kilometres from London, this meant the fare was roughly the same as a single train ticket to Newcastle from King’s Cross. I booked it immediately… and here I now am.
Bishkek – Kyrgyzstan’s capital city
As with most destinations in the Caucasus and Central Asia, flights to Kyrgyzstan from Western Europe appear to almost uniformly arrive in the middle of the night. After a relatively smooth flight from Brussels via Istanbul, I touched down in Bishkek just before 05:00.
Even though the sun had only just begun to rise, I was greeted with sweltering temperatures as soon as I stepped onto the runway. Unlike the humidity that greets you when you step off a plane in South America or into the midst of a Flordian summer, the temperature in Bishkek was bone dry. And so it remained for the rest of my time in the city.
Driving from the modern, relatively efficient Manas Airport terminal roughly twenty minutes outside of Bishkek I was struck by how similar, apart from the elegant silhouettes of the Ala Too mountain range in the distance, the city looked to so many other parts of the Soviet Union. The concrete tower blocks, realist monuments announcing the names of small towns you were passing through and strategically-placed green spaces were reminiscent to me of the suburbs of Yerevan, Kyiv, St Petersburg and Riga. There’s a reason why; and that’s because Bishkek is an almost entirely Soviet creation moulded in the vision of the Russian communists who annexed Kyrgyzstan.
Despite my initial impression of Bishkek as an identikit Soviet city, it was not an unpleasant place to spend a few days – and it wasn’t without a certain sense of faded charm.
After a few hours of sleep, I hailed a taxi from my hotel (the over-priced and poorly-ventilated Grand Hotel on Frunze Street) and headed for Ala-Too Square, the city’s main focal point.
The square is home to some superb examples of Soviet architecture; from the imposing City Hall to distinctive home of the Bishkek Philharmonic. The gardens that line the square are immaculately groomed, with the long avenues of trees providing much needed shelter from the blistering Central Asian sun.
For me, though, the highlight of the city was the Osh Bazaar.
Wandering through the bustling mixture of low-quality sports merchandise vendors, spice merchants, prayer mat weavers, fruit and vegetable sellers and bakers, I finally felt that I was in Central Asia. The smells, the music and friendly spirit of the place contrasted pleasantly with the identikit nature of the rest of the city.
Even though I must have stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the regular shoppers, the only hassle I received was from smallholders wanting me to take photographs of their stalls. One gentleman, who appeared to specialise in the dried apricot trade, thrust a kilogram-heavy bag of his produce into my hands an announced “five dollar, da?” – an offer I politely declined.
Before coming to Kyrgyzstan, I has been told (warned?) about country’s national drink, kumis.
As I walked out of the bazaar, I spotted a sour-faced middle-age lady officiating over a vat of what looked like white milk. I concluded it must be kumis – and decided I had to at least give it a go, if only to confirm I hated it.
I approached her sheepishly, pointed at the plastic vat and, in a questioning tone, said “kumis, da?”. Her sour-faced expression (which I was about to learn matched the taste of the drink she was flogging), lit up. “Kumis, DA!”.
She dipped a mug into the vat and presented me with what roughly equated to a tea cup of liquid. I gulped down the first sip and was hit with a series of tastes. First came the the sourness of milk that was several weeks beyond its sell-by date. Secondly came a taste roughly akin to inhaling acrid smoke from a bonfire. Finally, I was left with the chalky aftertaste of goats cheese.
Kumis was foul, alright – but I couldn’t risk offending the poor lady by showing my true feelings. I grinned, gave a quick thumbs up and pretended to stage a ‘phone call; moving away from her stall into a side-ally where I found a drain where I could safely dispose of the rest of the cup.
Free of the mug, I found the nearest stall selling water that I could. I gulped down a full litre of the stuff; convinced that the small amount of kumis I had just consumed was certain to hand me a nasty bout of ‘Montezuma’s revenge’. (Thankfully, I was spared!).
After walking around the city for several hours and enjoying a hugely convivial evening with a friend who heads up an international NGO’s operations in Kyrgyzstan, I had crossed off nearly all the key sights. Bishkek is a perfectly pleasant place – welcoming, clean and safe – but it isn’t a particularly special or memorable one.
Kyrgyzstan’s real charm lies outside of its capital city.
Balykchy – and being realistic about the post-Soviet space
Aside from soaking up the atmosphere of the perfectly preserved monument to the Soviet Union that is Bishkek, the main purpose of my trip to Kyrgyzstan was to head to the small town if Cholpon Ata on the northern shore of Issyk Kul – the world’s second largest mountain lake.
The drive to Cholpon Ata from Bishkek is a fairly painless one. I had originally intended to take the bus but, when I reached Bishkek’s main bus station I was approached by a man with a people carrier who offered to take me all the way to me all the way there for the equivalent of about £20. Given that it was only a little after 10am and the temperature was already well into the mid-30s, the idea of making the three and a half hour journey in my own vehicle and without a sweaty armpit in my face was highly appealing.
It takes roughly half an hour to exit the environs of Bishkek, following which you find yourself driving through mile after mile of arid, rocky terrain. While you do spot the odd (usually abandoned) factory or small plot of cultivated agricultural land, very few people appear to live in this part of Kyrgyzstan.
After driving for roughly two hours, you reach the town of Balykchy on the western shore of Issyk Kul. I had read a lot about the place – and had received several unprompted apologies for the fact I would have to see it from locals in Bishkek – so was rather intrigued to see what it would be like.
In many respects, I think it’s important for westerners with an interest in in the former Soviet Union to see places like Balykchy – however fleetingly.
When one thinks of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the images that come to mind are of elation and liberation. It’s very easy to think about post-Soviet success stories – from the EU and NATO-aligned Baltic states to the Georgia’s glistening capital city Tbilisi – but the story has not been a happy one for everyone.
In Balykchy, all that was left in the early 90s by the departing Soviet administration was a tale of total and absolute social and economic collapse. Driving through the town, you are met with mile after mile of derelict factories, while the lakefront plays host to scores of rusting ships upon which peeling red stars are still noticeable, slowly sinking into the lake. Formerly the centre of the Soviet Union’s submarine testing operations, it has been a very long time since a sub trawled the crystal clear depths of Issyk Kul.
While there were many states in the former Soviet Union that already possessed their own distinct governments and infrastructure prior to being annexed by Moscow, Kyrgyzstan was not one of them.
A largely nomadic and pastoral people until annexation, then Soviet Union was solely responsible for the “modernisation” of the country we now call Kyrgyzstan – almost every building, metre of road, inch of railway track and factory. In the period of just a few short years following annexation, the Kyrgyz were uprooted from their subsistence farms and forced into collectivised enterprises, small fishermen suddenly found themselves accountable to targets and traditional cottage industries were supplanted by central plans handed down from Moscow.
Then, just a few short decades later, the Soviet Union was gone. The welders employed at the now-vacant smelting plant in Balykchy were no longer producing goods destined for pre-destined uses in Riga and Rostov, fishermen could only sell their salmon and trout to local consumers rather than seeing them appear on restaurant menus in Moscow and Magnitogorsk.
In short, the Soviet Union uprooted the entire Kyrgyz way of life – and left behind an unsustainable economic mess for those left on the margins, thousands of miles for Moscow.
Looking at the state of Balykchy today, it’s hardly surprising that some Kyrgyz still dream of the Soviet days when wages were paid, jobs existed and infrastructure properly maintained. For them, the relative political freedom that comes from being the most democratically progressive state in Central Asia means rather little when all it appears to have led to is poverty.
Cholpon Ata and Issyk Kul
Several days before departing for Kyrgyzstan, I received a email informing me that the hotel accommodation I had booked in Cholpon Ata had been cancelled. Rather than worry about it or attempt to sort out a new booking, I opted to try my luck when I arrived in town.
As we entered Cholpon Ata, I signalled to the taxi driver that I needed to find somewhere to stay. After a few moments of attempting to fathom what my hand signals and broken Russian could possibly mean, he grunted “da, da, da” and drove me to what, on the face of it, looked like a fairly unwelcoming compound on the outskirts of town. The place looked like a cross between a bordello and one of those heavily-fortified UN compounds you see on television in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the owners spoke a bit of English and was even happier when they handed me the keys to a large, immaculately clean room which cost only $20 a night. The place was a bit bleak but it was absolutely fine.
With the drive from Bishkek having taken a little longer than I would have hoped, the sun was already starting to set by the time I had dumped my bags and relaxed for half an hour. Nevertheless, I set off in the general direction of Issyk Kul, hell bent on having a swim to counter the stuffiness of the journey.
After about ten minutes, I reached the shoreline and a sturdy pier clinging to the edge of a stony bridge. Wasting no time, I jumped into the clear, clean water – and instantly felt more relaxed that I had done for months.
I was to come back to the shoreline several more times in the next couple of days, including at 06:30 one morning when I was lucky enough to be able to clear see the snowy peaks of the Tien Shen mountain range in the distance. I captured this short video of what it was like that morning:
Aside from seeing and swimming in Issyk Kul, I was keen to find out what the nightlife on Cholpon was like. The answer? Bizarre.
I had expected, being the country’s main tourist magnet, that there would be a thriving bar and restaurant scene serving the masses of people that pour into the town each summer. Instead, it appeared that the majority of tourists visiting the area preferred to remain in the resorts they were staying at; spending the day on their private beaches and eating all their meals at their restaurants.
The result of this meant that the centre of Cholpon Ata had a slightly depopulated feel. There were, though, a few decent restaurants which served good portions of hearty Kyrgyz food and cheap Russian beer.
One evening, I headed down to the town centre a little early in search of to couple of cold beers. I hadn’t bargained on it being live music night at each of the major bars in the town and was incredibly amused to hear “classics” such as ‘Viva Forever’ by the Spice Girls and ‘Sex Bomb’ blasting, in broken English, blasting out into the evening.
One of the best things about Cholpon Ata is the amazing scenery that meets you wherever you go. Waking up each morning, I was able to glance at the imposing Ala Too mountains looming over my shoulders, watch the reflection of the sun reflecting off Issyk Kul and see the distant peaks of the Tien Shen mountains in the distance. As a town, Cholpon Ata is nothing special – but the scenery does make up for it.
So, rather than just laze around at the lake or listen to poor imitations of ‘Sex Bomb’, I decided to go up into the mountains to see the scenery for myself.
Walking through the centre of Cholpon Ata, it was obvious that there were lots of organised tours to the mountains but I wasn’t keen to go on any of them. I always find trips of this kind to be overpriced, overly hurried and overtly tacky. As such, I walked down to the main road outside the hotel, stuck my hand out and hailed a taxi.
After some haggling, I agreed on a price of roughly £20 with a taxi driver called Bolot and we headed off down the lakefront road that led up to the entrance to the makeshift mountain pass, some 25 kilometres from Cholpon Ata.
Taking my own transport was well worth it. In the three hours or so we spent in the mountains, I was able to stop off and see numerous interesting waterfalls, canyons and stunning mountain vistas – something I don’t think an organised trip would have afforded me the chance to do.
On the way down, we stopped off for lunch in one of the small mountain settlements along the way. One of the families had turned their home – a traditional Kyrgyz yurt – into a makeshift restaurant serving freshly-caught fishy from the river running immediately below it.
Clocking I was a foreigner, they immediately led us into the spectacularly colourful surroundings of the yurt; plying us with sickly sweet coffee and home-made sweets, before beckoning us to the feast they had prepared.
It was all going so well – fresh fish, fresh bread, fresh air and the relaxing sound of the mountain river gushing behind me – until the father of the family walked in holding a small, ornate bowl with a white coloured liquid sloshing around inside it. “Kumis!”, he declared, with a proud expression on his face. “Oh shit!”, I thought.
I had no choice, other than to grossly offend my hosts, than to drink it. My hogs was clearly very proud of his home few. As I raided the bowl to my lips, my mind flashed back to the searing heat and sickening taste of the kumis I had sampled at the Osh Market. I had to drink it, though. I had to. Before I did, Bolot grabbed the bowl from my hands and sniffed the contents. “Ahhhh… goooood”, he said; emphasising that this kumis was something special.
Thankfully, the second time wasn’t so bad. Perhaps the mountain air and freshness of the surroundings played its part but I was able to drink three whole bowls of the stuff before feeling confident enough to politely decline a fourth.
The road back from lunch was similarly lined with spectacular scenery that will remain with me for a long time.
Fundamentally, visiting Cholpon Ata is an exercise in managing expectations.
If you are going in search of luxury accommodation and haute cuisine, you will not find it. Nor, unless you are lucky (and I was), will you find anyone who speaks a word of English. If you are willing to look beyond these creature comforts and embrace what nature has to offer, you will have an incredibly memorable trip.
About ninety minutes to the west of Cholpon Ata is the town of Karakol – a small, dusty settlement a few miles in land from Issyk Kul.
I arrived in Karakol at height of the mid-day sun and with the temperature nudging up towards 40 degrees. As such, I didn’t feel particularly inclined to go exploring, so hid in my air-conditioned hotel room for a couple of hours until the temperature dropped to a more manageable level of discomfort.
In honesty, there isn’t a huge amount to see or do in Karakol itself. Due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to do what most people visiting the town are there for and head up to the mountains that surround it. I was, though, able to see two of the most interesting religious buildings I have ever seen.
The first was the Dungan Mosque. Built in the early 1900 by a group of Muslims who had fled religious persecution in North East China, the mosque was constructed entirely out of wood and without the use of a signal metal nail. On the face of it, the building looked to me to more closely resemble a Buddhist temple than a mosque, yet its brightly-coloured interior was undoubtedly Islamic.
The second was the Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity; another entirely wooden structure that has recently been refurbished by the local Slavic community. Given the heat of the afternoon, it was incredibly relaxing to spend half a hour sheltering from the sun’s heat in its attractive gardens.
Aside from Karakol’s religious sites, I also spent some time in Victory Park towards the north of the town’s main promenade. For those with a keen interest in Soviet history, the park is a perfectly preserved monument to the USSR with numerous flattering statues of communist leaders (who all, curiously, appeared to be Caucasian rather than local Kyrgyzstanis) and hammers and sickles to be seen.
Aside from a few interesting sights, though, Karakol itself is no tourist destination.
From a political perspective, a huge amount of progress has been made in recent years. Unlike neighbouring Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan where the Presidents appointed under the Soviet Union remain in office, having merely transitioned from one from one form of dictatorship to another, Kyrgyzstan can just about be referred to as a democracy. Entering the country is easy; just arrive, present your passport, enter and explore.
The political progress in the country shows no real signs of being matched with economic progress. Travelling across the country, it appeared very much as if the place had been left precisely as it was when the Soviet Union had collapsed – from the crumbling edifices lining the streets of Bishkek to the outdated sanatoria on the shore of Issyk Kul.
Given the country’s landlocked nature and lack of valuable natural resources (in stark contrast to neighbouring Kazakhstan), I can see no realistic path for the country other than to remain reliant on Russia – both in terms of remittances from Kyrgyz working there or direct grants from the Kremlin.
Kyrgyzstan was described to me as mirroring how the Soviet Union looked thirty years ago – and that description rings true to me.
It isn’t a country of luxury – but it is a stunningly beautiful place which, against all the odds of probabilities, is an open book for western tourists. If you are in search of an adventure, give Kyrgyzstan a go. It won’t disappoint you.