After only one very busy day in Kazakhstan, we head to the airport at 5am with a packed breakfast from the hotel for our flight to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan. (Never fear though, we would be returning to Kazakhstan in a few days time.
Nur-Sultan airport was modern and efficient (for some reason I did not expect such efficiency from Kazakhstan, or Central Asia for that matter!) It was also really quiet, so everything went very smoothly and we were soon on board the Air Astana flight to ‘Stan’ number 2.
- Currency: Kyrgyz Som (US$1 = 70 KGS)
- Language: Kyrgyz, Russian
- Size: 199,900 sq km
- Population: 6 million
Bishkek airport was far less modern but no less efficient and I was out with my bag in no time. Oddly immigration asked no questions – not how long we’ll be here or where we are staying (lucky as I am already in group tour mode and my brain has completely switched off as someone else just tells me where to be and when 🥴).
At the airport we were met by our local guide Rifat before driving into the city. Kyrgyzstan (or maybe just Bishkek seems much greener that Nur Sultan, with fields of crops including corn and watermelon’s lining the road. We could see the mountains through the haze in the distant. (Apparently much of the ‘haze’ was from farmers burning stubble in fields.) The country is actually 93% mountains and proudly has Issyk Kul (Issyk Kul literally translates to Warm Lake), the second highest Alpine lake (after Titicaca), the 7th deepest lake, the 10th largest lake and the second largest saline lake (after the Caspian ‘sea’ – more about this in a later blog if I remember). What a record holder lol and one we will visit in a couple of day’s time.
The hotel we were staying at was celebrating it’s 5 anniversary so we were greeted with sparkling wine and nibbles (actually fairly substantial nibbles) which was nice way to start our time here.
One of the things I find most interesting about the region (and this rang true throughout the trip) was the huge range of people we meet. As I mentioned previously, Aijan, the co-founder of Kalpak Travel who was travelling with us was from Kyrgyzstan, but had a very nomadic heritage and was very Asian in appearance. On the other hand our local guide, Rifat, had roots in Azerbaijan and his grandparents from one side were forced to move to what is now Kyrgyzstan during soviet times. Another way the countries and people interact in the post-soviet era is that Rifat actually lives about 25km away from Bishkek … in Kazakhstan!! His family had lived there before the countries borders were created and just continued to live there, but he can cross the border each day for work!
We started our time in Bishkek with a walking tour around the city, which in stark contrast to the glitz of Nur-Sultan, seemed to have many more Soviet era buildings and wide tree lines avenues. Our first stop being outside the ‘Palace of Sports’ to admire the statue of national hero Baatyr Kaba Uulu Kozhomkul. Now, I am sure we have all seen plenty of statues of men riding horses, but have you ever seen one of a man carrying a horse???
Kozhomkul was born in 1889 and lived until 1955 and it is said that he was 2.3 metres tall and weighed 164kg! He exceled at sports, but became ‘infamous’ because of a legend which tells of him carrying his horse through snow! He is revered by the Kyrgyz people and symbolises ‘power, ambition and humanism’.
We walked past the very Soviet looking University of Mining and past the Philharmonic Hall which is surrounded by beautiful fountains and flowers gardens. Another theme through the trip is the beautiful public gardens, even down to hanging baskets lining roads. When you look closely at the detail, many of the buildings still show the Soviet star and/or hammer and sickle in their architecture.
Of course, as with the other ‘stans’ I will visit on this trip, Kyrgyzstan has a more recent history filled with Russians – Tsars, Bolsheviks and Soviets and even today, they have a good relationship with Russia. In fact, many of the older generation still believe life under Soviet rule was better – a time when everyone had jobs, food, health care and a good education.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, which many thought could never happen, meant the loss of most of those things for many. Most of the factories closed from one day to the next as they lost their markets and what were once free ‘borders’, suddenly were closed resulting in many people losing their jobs. Our guide Aijan’s parents were well educated chemist and engineer but neither could get jobs after independence. Still today her mother believes life under Soviet rule was much better. (To me, one of the best parts of travelling is having opportunities to speak to local people and get to learn about their life and it is such a privilege that there are so many people who are willing to share their stories with me.)
This nostalgia also means that they have kept their Lenin statues – he has been moved to less prominent locations but if you look around the city you can find him as tall and proud as ever. (Of course Stalin is not remembered with such fondness so does not remain!)
Today the Kyrgyz flag flies proudly over the Soviet buildings, bright red (a legacy to Soviet times) with a sun with 40 sunbeams (representing the 40 tribes). In middle of the sun is a tunduc – I will talk more about this important symbol in the nomad cultures later but it is basically the ‘window to sky of yurt’.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Kyrgyzstan has had a troubled political history with what really must be a record breaking 22 prime ministers and 5 presidents! There was also much corruption resulting in coups and revolutions in 2005 and 2010. Apparently, there are tunnels under the Parliament buildings which president/s used to escape to the airport!
There is a beautiful monument to those who died for freedom during both revolutions which symbols people pushing the darkness away. Records show over 2,000 lost their lives in the 2010 revolution alone and 400,000 displaced (mostly due to ethnic tensions during the revolution).
These days, 80% of the population are Sunni Muslims (though not so many are practicing) who are a legacy of the first Muslims that came to the region in the 8th century.
Let’s take a break from history to discuss something almost as important – food!! Lol It’s only day two and I am already addicted to borsok (same as the Baursak in Kazakhstan). They became know as my kryptonite as I lost all power (will power that is) when they were on the table, normally in very large bowls filled with them!!
Another similarity between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan was the language. Both are languages of Turkic origins and even today are similar – this made it a little easier on those of us who could not speak either language or Russian!! In Kazak, thank you is Рақмет, pronounced raqmet and in Kyrgyz it is рахмат, pronounced rahmat – certainly similar to make it easy enough to remember.
We also sampled some traditional road side drinks, sold from big barrels on street corners – one was cows milk with sparkling water, tasted similar to sour yogurt, one was a mix of grain and corn and the last was a mixture of bread and yeast which smelt a little like beer. None were that great 🥴 but I am always up to give things a try.
As we walked around the city we could see the snow capped mountains in the back ground – forming part of the Tian Shan (the Celestial Mountains). Apparently, they are home of over 50 glaciers and some of the best skiing in the country. Sadly, it was a little cloudy to see them clearly but we would be in them soon enough.
To break up the Soviets buildings, Bishkek has some beautiful tree lined avenues and parks filled with mature trees. One of the large ones is also filled with statues of Kyrgyz royalty and legend.
The final stop on another long day of sightseeing was at Victory Square, in memory for those who died in the Great Patriotic War (more commonly known in the west as World War II). Every man over 20 had to go to war for mother Russia, who fought against the Nazis on the Eastern front. Of course, as in the west, may of these did not come return. The Bishkek monument is in the shape of a yurt with a female figure (either mother or wife) in the centre.
Of course the day would not be complete without more food – there is definitely no shortage of food! This evening we had a cultural show during dinner with traditional singing, instruments and dancing. The performers wore beautiful costumes and the music was unique. One of the instruments had strings made of horse hair and a body made of camel skin – they definitely use all the horse!
Again, I ate way too many borsoks 🤦🏻♀️, seriously I will be a dough ball by the time I get back to England 🥴. To add to this, there was lots of fried meat, peppers and our first taste of plov, a fried rice dish we see again throughout the region and I will talk more about in a later blog.
First impressions are that Kyrgyzstan has a fairly similar culture and ornamentation to Kazakhstan and I can not wait to explore more.