This Weekend We Virtually Visited Bishkek
Updated: May 21
Former Soviet countries have struggled with tourism for many years. The first phase was about visiting the relics of the Soviet Union, also called “communist heritage” tourism. This was an important phase in tourism studies, as it suggested the broadening appetite of the everyday tourist, from “Soviet walking tours” in Berlin, to the “North Korea you have never heard of” nation of Turkmenistan.
However, these strategies did not engage with the post-communist identity these nations were trying to craft for themselves.
This post-communist identity was manifested in three ways:
The first was around the re-excavation of the pre-Soviet past through signs and symbols from their history. For example, in Kazakhstan, we see that the leader re-imagines ancient “Nomadic” history and integrates signs and symbols into the National Story. This is seen in the integration of Nomadic motifs across the architecture of the city- from the National Emblem to building motifs.
The second was around the embracing of “modernity and liberalism” through signs and symbols of “The West”. Azerbaijan has famously built new stadiums (the Baku Olympic Stadium), hosting the Euro song contest, and having Google dedicate its Google Doodle to the Heydar Aliyev Center, which in both form and content, stands against the “Soviet Style”.
The third was the transformation of their lands from being an anonymous asset - i.e. soviet testing grounds (close to a quarter of nuclear tests took place in Kazakhstan), or pipelines, to now being land with “authenticity and character”. This character is being leveraged by their tourism bodies, which are dialing up “Nomadism” and “Untouched Landscapes” to drive tourism.
We spent 36 hours as travelers to see how Kyrgyzstan was engaging with tourism to craft its’ post-Soviet identity. We looked at content on the internet: YouTube videos, Instagram posts, TripAdvisor reviews, Twitter posts, and travel blogs. Inspired by The New York Times’ ‘36 Hours’ travel column, we curated a similar itinerary based on what we found.
36 Hours in Bishkek
9.00 AM: Kyrgyz State Historical Museum
A great way to begin one’s journey in Bishkek is to travel back in time. Head to the Kyrgyz State Historical Museum to learn more about Kyrgyzstan.
The cubic, marble-lined museum displays a vast variety of elements ranging from murals capturing not only Soviet history but also objects from pre-Soviet times (including traditional costumes). They also have a regular changing of the guard ceremony:
11:00 AM: Kyrgyz State Circus
One of the oldest remnants of the soviet rule, this socialist UFO structure is memorable. It is certainly not unique in terms of design - many such buildings were created across the USSR. However, there are occasionally some shows that still play here - though not at the scale that took place during Soviet times.
There is emerging criticism about it though: “Classic Soviet circus. At times it will wow you. Then you cringe as you are transported back 100 years with dancing bears and other somewhat sad and very outdated circus acts. The building is charming and provides just the right amount of Soviet nostalgia to please the masses who don't care about cruelty to animals.”
1:30 PM: Чайхана NAVAT
Just ten minutes away from the state circus, Чайхана NAVAT is a perfect place to indulge in a hearty traditional Kyrgyz meal.
Don’t forget to try the following: Lepeshka is flatbread common throughout the region, Kumis is fermented milk, that some call “Champagne mixed with sour cream”, Lagman (a central Asian noodle dish, that you can also learn how to make), and the Samsa (which is baked in a “Tandry”) which has its impact felt all across South East Asia.
2:30 PM: Victory Square
Post-lunch, hop over to Victory Square, a peaceful square dedicated to the Victory over Nazi Germany. It was created in 1984, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Liberation of the USSR.
Importantly, its symbols are still uniquely from Kyrgyzstan. The shape is of a Yurt, the circular tent common to Nomadic cultures of Central Asia is held together by three massive ribs including the Tunduk - the circular ring above. This circular ring is an important part of Nomadic metaphysics - as it is both metaphorically and functionally a “support” that balances the beams, and also lets the light in from the sky.
3:00 PM: Ala Archa National Park
Ala Archa (meaning 'bright and colorful Juniper trees) is situated merely thirty minutes from Bishkek. Juniper has been used in traditional Kyrgyzstan rituals to protect from evil - especially inside Yurts.
While you can make a day trip, there are some challenging treks you can take.
7.00 PM: Dinner
9:00 AM: Issyk Kul lake
A morning drive of around 260km brings you to the second largest saline lake in the world. The lake is surrounded by snow-capped peaks but never freezes, thus the name Issyk Kul, Kyrgyz for “warm lake”. NASA calls it one of the largest lakes in the world, visible from the ISS.
Exhibitions have revealed that underneath the lake are the remains of one of the oldest civilizations, that was called by historians “a metropolis of its time”! It was a stopover during the time of the silk road and has sometimes been thought of as an infection vector (or source) for the Black Death that ravaged Europe.
More pleasantly, during the Soviet times, it was often used as a site for Sanatoriums. Most notable is the “Aurora Sanitorium” that resembles a ship.
The southern shore offers various ethno-cultural activities as well, reminding visitors of it’s pre Soviet Past: from the Skazka Canyon (Fairy Tale Canyon) to Yurt building workshops, and waterfalls.
1:00 PM: Lunch Break
All that activity! You must be famished. Before you head back to the city be sure to grab lunch at Café Zarina. It offers a nice mix of international and traditional dishes.
2:30 PM: Konorchek Canyons
On the way back to Bishkek, make sure to visit the grand red rock canyons. It’s a stunning place and home to 2.5-3 million-year-old dormant volcanoes. People often compare it to the American Grand Canyon.
This YouTuber has some stunning footage:
5:00 PM: Osh Bazaar
Situated on the west side of the city, Osh Bazaar is one of the largest markets in Bishkek. Visited by locals and tourists, the bazaar sells everything from traditional to modern food products, clothing, and souvenirs to take back home. It is easy to get lost, and there are many guides available on how to navigate through these Bazaars.
36 hours is by no means enough to explore Kyrgyzstan, especially its high mountains and alpine meadows. Make sure to visit for a longer period of time to enjoy horse rides, breathtaking landscapes, and a taste of nomadic life.
How to get there
Numerous flights fly to Bishkek’s Manas International Airport, which is merely 25 minutes away from the city center.
Where to stay
When to go Spring and Autumn are the best seasons to visit Bishkek when the average temperature is 25 °C. The trekking and hiking season is from April to September.
Travelers must apply for a visa beforehand as there is no visa on arrival. Some nationalities are permitted to enter Kyrgyzstan for tourism for up to 60 days without a visa.
The Kyrgyzstani Som is the currency in Kyrgyzstan (KG, KGZ) which can be divided into 100 tyyn.
The official languages in Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz. English is also spoken.
Bishkek is easy and inexpensive to navigate. Public transportation like marshrutkas (minivans) and buses/trolly buses run from 5:30-6:00 AM in the morning until 21:30-22:00 PM at night.