After being in the cosmopolitan Almaty, Kazakhstan for several days, the first thing that struck me about Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, was how stuck in Soviet nostalgia it seemed. The drab soviet-esque buildings, rusting playgrounds, and crumbling sidewalks signified anything but economic progress. It isn’t the kind of place that brings a smile to one’s face, and that was certainly apparent in many of the faces around Bishkek. Perhaps the cloudiness hanging over the city added to the drabness.
My arrival in the city brought with me the many apprehensions of being in a highly underdeveloped city, the lack of mutual languages, the fear of being spotted out as different, and the nerves of being hassled by police for money as I had read in so many wikitravel articles. Not to mention, my stay as the lone tenant USSR Hostel, a hostel in an apartment in one of the crumbling decades-old buildings, did not help raise my confidence. Yet, I was here, so I needed to make the most of it, and try to overstep those fears and discover the wonders of Bishkek.
The next day, I had planned to make my way up to Ala-Archa, the mountain range south of Bishkek with incredible trekking and hiking. After getting vague directions from an employee at the hostel, I was off. I first stopped by the Osh Bazaar and cautiously strolled through the narrow alleys of the market. I had read that it was here that police tended to corner foreigners and get them to give bribes, so terrified didn’t begin to capture the feelings I felt. If I glanced at any person that looked remotely like a police officer, I would swiftly change directions and hide. I put my DSLR underneath my coat, giving me an awkwardly pregnant-looking stomach. In my head I tried to make myself believe I was Kyrgyz, even though that was far off from possible. Regardless, my stealthy efforts paid off and nobody approached me, and I even came out with some Kyrgyz candies and felt hats!
As I left Osh Bazaar, I realized I had completely forgotten how to get to Ala-Archa, so I hopped in a marshrutka, the main form of transportation around Bishkek, hoping I had made out the handwritten Cyrillic characters right. That was another experience. The marshrutkas have just a few steamed out windows, however they were no use to me, as I was one of the many standing passengers. The busdriver would occasionally yell in Kyrgyz or Russian and let people on and off, and I just hoped there was some chance I would get off at a foot of some sort of mountain. When the bus driver yelled something that sounded like Ala-Archa, I pushed past the crowd of locals and descended from the bus, only to realize that the mountain looked just as far away as when I had first left. In the middle of Bishkek, with no sense of direction, I decided I would wait another day before heading up to Ala-Archa and trekked the other way back towards what I thought may be the direction of the hostel through the dreary streets of Bishkek.
Bishkek, on the contrary, is a completely different city in the sun. It is hard to take away the crumbling infrastructure of the city, but the sun casts an entirely different light and energy onto the city. My final day in Bishkek was filled with sun and I started to appreciate the large boulevards and green parks of the city. Rather than trying my luck again at the mad marshrutka, I decided to rent a taxi for the day (approximately $30) and head to Ala-Archa. Using my limited Russian, I persuaded my guide to take me to his favorite dive restaurant in Bishkek. Being too polite to join me, I enjoyed an entirely too cheap meal of Plov, or rice roasted in lamb fat with pieces of lamb, carrots, and onions, and Kyrgyz-style borscht, oh and of course зеленый чай (green tea), a staple of Kyrgyzstan and much of Central Asia.
It took about an hour to get to the foot of the mountains, a journey much further than the marshrutka had taken me the day before. We passed through small, dilapidated suburbs of Bishkek, which glistened in the sunlight. I decided to take the hike that took about four hours, as I felt bad for the poor driver, who would be waiting in his car during my hedonistic hike.
Hiking in solitude is a feeling everyone should experience. There is little to do except think about your life, and in a place like Ala-Archa, those thoughts are nothing but positive. That is, until a snake I had never seen before slithers out onto the path (look below). But alas, I passed safely and was joined by a family of horses for a portion of my hike (also below). The mountains of Ala-Archa bear resemblance to those of Colorado, but take up a massive percentage of the country’s landmass. I, unfortunately, only got scrape the surface of mountainous Kyrgyzstan.
On the way back to Bishkek, we picked up a Russian couple vacationing, and came across a unique array of gravestones. It was essentially a cemetery city with tombs that you can imagine would be dotting the silk road.
The simplicity of that sunny day and the close proximity of nature to Bishkek helped change my mind about the city.
That night, I left Bishkek to take a flight to Istanbul early the following morning. I never realized how much I am influenced into liking or hating a place based on the weather. Kyrgyzstan was one of those places. But nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan's fusion of a Soviet past and an ongoing Muslim culture, along with its sprawling nature makes it an intriguing place that I think about often visiting again.