I went on a tour last weekend here in Sydney to be shocked when one of the guides knew so much about Kyrgyzstan that we were able to chat about Bishkek. Being able to converse with others about one of the places in the world I get great joy in knowing is one of the little things I get excited about — and also perhaps a reason why I love my physio so much.
On this past trip to Bishkek, many things about the city as a travel destination stood out. Here is a list of some of the things I learned (or re-learned) during that adventure:
1. November is a shitty month to visit.
When it comes to seasons, I know not to try my hand at visiting in the dead of winter, but for some reason, I thought that November would be at least a little better. Instead, I was met with snow on maybe my third day there, followed by rain, followed by snow, followed by sludge that fell from the sky. I feared getting into taxis with balding tires, and I never wanted to leave the dorm room. Stick with non-wintery seasons if you can!
2. You can find a wide variety of decent restaurants to eat at.
I am one of the world’s pickiest eaters. Okay, well, I’m not that bad… but I hate seafood, I hate uncooked tomatoes, I push mushrooms to the side, olives are a “no” and lamb or sheep meat has a bad aftertaste. Still, I find Bishkek to have a surprising array of food that I absolutely ADORE. Turkish restaurants with pide and meat skewers, Korean BBQ, Georgian food (oh my god = LOVE), Kyrgyz laghman or manti, Italian wood-fired pizzas, and “gamburgers” (not horrible) are all options.
3. Life is cheap, but getting less so quickly.
It’s what happens when cities start to modernize: prices go up. But, it appears that people are making more money, dressing better, and shops and buildings are improving. Don’t get me wrong: It can still be dirt cheap to travel there. But, it’s not as cheap as 3 years ago.
4. You can get a visa on arrival fairly easily.
For $70 USD, I arrived at the Manas International Airport, filled out a simple (so simple!) form, and was granted a one month stay in Bishkek pretty much immediately. Take that, other Central Asian countries!
5. This country is not made for tourists.
It just isn’t. While a few more tour companies are popping up, and people are becoming more used to seeing foreigners, you may still find getting around a bit of a headache at times… especially if you lack Russian or Kyrgyz language skills.
6. Bishkek has a hectic nightlife.
Uhm…. hello? I know I mentioned in an old post about how I encountered flame-dancing strippers at a club in Bishkek, but I think the nightlife has just gotten even wilder (wild given the area, that is). There was one street that was literally lined with strip clubs (for those looking for that type of action) and more bars and clubs popping up here and there.
7. Marshrutkas are still the devil.
It’s a love-hate relationship… or maybe more like a hate-hate-but-I-need-it type of relationship. For something like 8 som, you can hop on a marshrutka and get to where you’re going. Oh, but, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. You will be packed so tightly sometimes that you can’t move or even look out the window for where you are. I hate marshrutkas, but they are just so damn cheap!
8. Bazaar shopping is fun, if you come prepared.
In November, the pathways were ridden with slush and puddles. In summer, it’s bloody hot. Still, the bazaar is a fun place to shop because the food is fresh and the clothes are cheap! I love going to the bazaars in Bishkek, and it’s even more fun if you get yourself into tri-lingual conversations. Just be prepared to have to haul your goods back home afterwards either in a crowded marshrutka or by springing for a more costly bus or taxi.
9. You can find Wi-Fi all over the city, but you’re lucky if it works.
I love the fact that Wi-Fi signs are located at establishments all throughout the city. Over a Vefa, there’s free Wi-Fi; at some cafes, there’s free Wi-Fi. For someone who’s been jaded by the lack of Wi-Fi in other places (*cough cough* Australia), it seriously is a pleasure to see. However, if the Wi-Fi connection actually works, chances are it is painfully slow!
10. You will now be spotted as an American and not a German.
I noticed a few changes in Bishkek since my last visit. In 2008, when I first arrived, I was asked repeatedly if I were German. This time around, people knew. They knew from the get-go that I was American, and a few people actually stopped to try and speak to me in English. English!
11. It’s safe.
Fairly. I know my story of the crazy taxi driver was a little frightening, but overall, I don’t feel unsafe in Bishkek. Obviously, there are things you shouldn’t do… like walk around drunk at 5 am, or go anywhere near a protest. For the most part, it is an easy place to adapt to and feel at home in, even for the female traveler.
Oh Bishkek, I’m looking forward to my return… THIS YEAR!