Previously known as Pishpek and Frunze, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek is emerging as a Central Asian tourist destination full of attractions. Located along an ancient silk trade route in what is now the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek blends nomadic origins, Muslim heritage, and a 20th century Soviet legacy into an expanding urban center. Its ever-growing population is nearing 1 million, yet the city has ample green spaces which contrast with the dusty, craggy Ala-Too mountain range and the churning factories on the industrial outskirts. Although the Kyrgyz infrastructure for tourism is still developing, Bishkek is relatively modernized, making it fairly easy to visit popular tourist attractions. Whether Bishkek is your destination or just a stop on your way to mountains, the city may surprise you.
The following is a list of activities and attractions which visitors to Bishkek should consider. Many of these tourist stops are located near each other.
Statue of Manas
Every country, it seems, has a national epic. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the hero is Manas, and his story is encapsulated by the statue in Ala-Too Square. Said to be born in the mountains, Manas helped the Kyrgyz people fight for their freedom near the close of the first millennium. Because the story of Manas was passed down orally for centuries, it has a legendary, exaggerative quality. The statue depicts the hero slaying a mythical dragon while riding his horse-like creature Ak-kula. If you have the opportunity to attend a public recitation of the unbelievably long epic poem, you will see devoted Kyrgyz performers telling the story, accompanied by a lute-like instrument known as a komuz.
Performing Arts: Kyrgyz Symphony, Ballet, and Opera
The Manas statue is just outside the Philharmonic building, where the national orchestra plays. Tickets are still relatively inexpensive, and you may hear a range of Western music alongside traditional Kyrgyz selections. There is also an opera and ballet, housed in a pastel, columned building.
Freedom Statue / Changing of the Guard
Americans who’ve been to Washington and seen the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier will see a familiar sight here, with plenty of tourists snapping photos. Soldiers stand proud at this monument, day and night, protecting the Kyrgyz flag. A Lenin statue was moved from this location to make way for a statue representing freedom of the people.
Though there is a separate city of Osh, don’t confuse it with this large outdoor market in Bishkek, a must-see attraction. Any trip to Central Asia is incomplete without a stop at a local bazaar where locals interact daily. From colorful fruits and vegetables to second-rate American CDs, you’ll see everything being traded here. Remember to negotiate on prices if you decide to buy. Handicrafts are available, as many Kyrgyz women are known for embroidery and carpet-making. Inexpensive jewelry is also prevalent, making for a great souvenir. Though you won’t want to tote a pet home from Bishkek, the Osh Bazaar is also home to pet trading, usually on weekends. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll see many birds, popularly kept as inexpensive pets in Kyrgyz households.
For some irony, visit the Kyrgyz White House. Unlike the columned White House known to Americans, this slab-like, seven-story building is home to the republic’s government. During Soviet times, it housed the headquarters of the Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic. Don’t plan on going inside – it’s a sight to behold from a distance.
If you’re looking for evidence of Kyrgyzstan’s communist days, the Soviet-style apartment blocks may be enough of a reminder. However, Bishkek also features numerous statues and tributes to Vladimir Lenin. Since declaring their independence, the Kyrgyz people have moved a few of the most conspicuous Lenin monuments, but there’s no shortage of residual iconography in smaller squares and parks.
A relatively simple mosque, not especially ornate, is located near the city centre. Although the Republic of Kyrgyzstan is traditionally Sunni Muslim, the religious presence here is somewhat more subdued, which explains the smaller, less imposing mosque.
National Historical Museum
Near the Ala-Too square is one of the best museums in Bishkek. Starting with an excellent exhibit on the nomadic history of the country, visitors can move from ancient days through Soviet domination and into independence. Be sure to see the example of a yurt, a round, hut-like dwelling constructed by nomads. You’ll also find an extensive tribute to Askar Akayev, who led the country in its early post-Soviet days, as well as another heap of Lenin-related items.
State Museum of Art
If you’re more interested in folk art and hand-made crafts, this museum is an excellent repository for Kyrgyz specialties. You’ll also find traditional costumes, much like the one sported by the wife of Manas in the statue at Ala-Too Square.
Be warned that you should not undertake a game of chess with a Kyrgyz citizen unless you’re exceedingly competent. As is the case in many Central Asian cities, chess is a popular competitive sport, often played outdoors in the parks around Bishkek.