Writing about my experiences in Kyrgyzstan has been an intellectual challenge I’ve enjoyed. It’s a challenge because I had to start with the supposition that 1) most people know nothing about Kyrgyzstan and 2) most people don’t have Kyrgyzstan on their travel to-do lists. I say this not to judge, but because it also describes me perfectly until just a few months ago. Like many other writers, bloggers and photographers, I was approached by USAID to participate in a very unique project. The goal simply was to share with the world the many features of Kyrgyzstan that honestly make it a fun and exciting place to visit. Working with local partners, USAID over the last several years has been building up the country’s tourism infrastructure to the point where, today, they can accommodate visitors with relative ease, providing fun experiences along the way. One destination in the country though that I feel has been given short shrift is the country’s capital city, Bishkek. I think that too many visitors may see it just as a transit point; a place to fly through and maybe spend a night, but not explore in its own right. That’s wrong, and after having spent a couple of days in Bishkek I gained an appreciation for the city. Completely unlike the more rugged, outdoor activities found in the rest of the country, Bishkek offers something different yet needed in the Kyrgyz travel experience, which is why today I want to share what I think makes the city a fun place to explore.
Fiction: There’s Nothing to Do
Fact: Surprisingly enough, there’s actually a lot to see and do in Bishkek. More than that though, Bishkek was unlike any other part of the country I visited during my 10-days of exploration. Both Osh and Karakol looked like I had imagined. Some parts of the cities had been neglected, there were a lot of Soviet era-statues around and both cities seemed to be a mix of old and new. Bishkek though really is a gleaming capital city, and wandering through the leafy green parks I was more reminded of Europe than Central Asia. From museums to monuments or just quiet corners of the city, there’s not only a lot to see and do in Bishkek, there are also many reasons to love exploring the city.
Fiction: There’s Nowhere Nice to Stay
Fact: Believe it or not, but even a luxury traveler such as myself found plenty of opportunities to be pampered throughout my time in Kyrgyzstan. Tourism is still in its infancy there, but new hotels and experiences are quickly opening their doors, including those geared towards luxury travelers. In Bishkek this meant spending time at the truly exceptional Hyatt Regency Hotel. I was incredibly impressed by this, the best hotel in the city, from service to food and certainly the rooms, the hotel delivers. If you’re looking for a smaller property, then the Bugu is a new 4-star hotel that isn’t too bad. I enjoyed the rooms and overall design of the hotel, but its location and service leave a lot to be desired. But, if you want a locally owned and operated hotel with comforts one expects from a nice property, then the Bugu Hotel is a good option.
Fiction: Hard to Reach
Fact: When one first considers traveling to Central Asia, the last thing one expects is finding an easy way to get there. Luckily, Turkish Airlines offers fast and easy connections to Kyrgyzstan that makes this possible. Traveling from Washington, DC I only had to take two flights in order to reach Bishkek, all the while enjoying the exceptional service for which Turkish Airlines is so very well known. On the way home, I was even able to leave and arrive back home on the same day – a fact that still boggles my mind if we’re being honest. Central Asia may sound exotic, and it is indeed a very unique experience, but thanks to the many easy flight connections we as modern travelers enjoy, Kyrgyzstan is thankfully very easy to reach.
Fiction: The Food is Terrible
Fact: Food is always an important aspect of the travel experience, but in Kyrgyzstan it seems especially critical. It’s also an aspect of traveling around the country that I didn’t give much regard to before my trip. I didn’t anticipate anything great to be honest. Bland food made from meats I couldn’t identify filled my imagination, but immediately I understood how very wrong I was. Sitting at the crossroads of the great Silk Road, cultures from around the world have shuffled through Kyrgyzstan over the centuries and you better believe they brought with them their own culinary traditions and ingredients. Spices from China, recipes from Iran and traditions from Turkey all form the foodie subtext of what has become a very distinct culinary heritage in Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately those important meals shared with new friends became the backbone of my own travel experience in the country and, as such, will also form as the foundation of how I share the stories from the country. In Bishkek you’ll find the traditional cuisine, but it’s also a modern city in its own right offering just about anything you can imagine. It’s also experiencing an influx of hipsters at the moment, so if you are looking for quirky coffee shops with personality, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
The world is a big and beautiful place, a fact I’m reminded of on an almost daily basis. That’s certainly true in Kyrgyzstan and especially in the capital city of Bishkek, a city that may surprise visitors, but in the best ways possible.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.