“The world is closing in.
Did you ever think that we could be so close, like brothers?
The future’s in the air.
I can feel it everywhere.” – Scorpions
I cry writing this, but you knew that. It’s damn emotional. Bishkek is a magnetic city. As my travel repertoire gained new momentum by reaching Central Asia in December 2015, I was convinced nowhere here could really charm or impress me. I’m a tough backpacker to impress these days, I’ve seen it all before. Bishkek hit my destiny to be just another city on another journey on this ball we are on. I was totally wrong. Bishkek re-ignited my travel spark and I fell in love with this city. It’s just too cool to not be found. Way too cool.
From my textbook border crossing from Almaty in Kazakhstan to my base at the superb Apple Hostel Bishkek, I started sightseeing early – on my second day I got up early and backpacked my way through all the main sights. Yes I banged them all out in one day, assuming, like most cities, I’d only be here for 2/3 days and needed to make the most of it. However on my first day here, within the first 24 hours, I knew I would be staying put just a little bit longer! It was in the air and a twist of fate.
Bishkek made a perfect base to get visas for elsewhere and because Kyrgyzstan borders 4 other countries (potentially 6 if you count Gorno Badakhshan and you entangle your way into Uzbek owned-Karakalpakstan as separate), it’s the easiest and best base when backpacking in Central Asia. And I lingered long, soon winter became the spring.
“Who’d have believed you’d come along.” – Neil Diamond.
My time in the city spanned 5 months in the end (give or take a few trips away) and as I left in April 2016, I jotted down my top sights in the city, and these are the ones that made the list. I felt like Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill cutting a squad down to 23 players, doing this, as I whittled 27 sights down to a textbook top 20.
1.Ala Too Square
The centre-piece of the city, of the nation, Ala Too is a calm and chilled out square from which to get your bearings in the downtown part of Bishkek. It’s rare for a backpacker to pass through the city without at least walking past Ala Too Square. Lots of major events take place here, it’s also the location of a few other sights on the list including the famous flagpole, the museum and to witness the changing of the guards.
2.Kyrgyzstan Flag Pole
My backpacking buddy Nate told me that the Tajikistan flag in Dushanbe is the world’s tallest flagpole but I mistook what he said for this one here in downtown Bishkek. As this flag was the biggest I’d seen since backpacking in Baku, Azerbaijan.
There’s a charm about seeing this flag as you tour the city. The thing that is great about Bishkek is that everyone is welcome. Old and new, it’s so diverse and so progressive. You mention a new idea to local people and they love it. They meet you for coffee, they take you out round the city. Locals nonchalantly chatted to me as I stared my Ulster eyes to their flag pole here.
“It’s all too beautiful” – Small faces.
3.Changing of the Guards
Every two hours the guards change below the flag pole. This is almost a must do activity for any backpacker in the city. I ended up seeing the changing of the guards 10 times or more as I would sometimes walk past and just happen to catch it. My friend Nadia, from Doubly Landlocked Blog, was particularly enthusiastic about this.
Ex-Soviet cities like Bishkek brim with wild squares and here there are a few. The Kyrgyz hero, Manas is featured here on a huge pole in the tranquil and happy Manas Square. I still get a shiver on my spine to think I was living and breathing this city for 4-5 months. I’d walk past Manas Square almost daily and it never got any less cheerful or joyous.
At night the Philharmonic Theatre lights up. Nightfall in the former Soviet Union has never been so rock’n’roll.
5.The White House
I didn’t go knocking on the door of the President of Kyrgyzstan as this building has huge gates around it and soldiers on duty. The Presidents Offices are here inside the White House. Such a nice building and name that the Untied States of America decided to pinch the idea!
As you walk down Chui Avenue, it’s a striking place though and was the flashpoint for riots in the 2005 Tulip Revolution. These days, at least on my visit, tulips are everywhere on the posters an Chui Avenue.
I told you there were lots of squares in Bishkek, each with their own delicate appeal, silently liaising their way into your touristic mind. I spent many moments at Victy’s Q pondering by the flame that never goes out.
And don’t be daft and ask me “victory for what?” I’m sure you can work that one out…
Bazaars in Central Asia and the Middle East have some flair and character and I never tire of whackpacking through them. Bishkek has a few bazaars in fact but I spent most of my time in Osh Bazaar.
From local bread stalls to sweets, to meat and fish. From winter attire to bikinis. From toys to fake sun to military uniforms, Osh is more eclectic than most markets.
8.Central Mosque (Gogol Street Mosque)
The popular Central Mosque can also be known as Gogol Street Mosque. I toured here with Aigul from Apple Hostel and got a guided introduction from a local Muslim.
Rather than being an actual “Park”, Bishkek Park is a swanky modern shopping mall. It also has posh flats and apartments for sale out the back. I spent a few days in here on WiFi cafes and trying different treats from the many food stalls on the upper floor.
Similarly to the city of Almaty, there is a Panfilov Park here. Amazingly, this park is in the shape of a star inside a circle from above. I loved the sheer Soviet era reminders within. There is so much beauty in backpacking in the former Soviet Union. I am really not done with that region yet, can’t wait to go back.
Yes, it’s another park and I promise this will be the last one on my hitlist, but I love how Erkindik Park is like a long leafy tree-laden boulevard running in between two roads.
Here, you can relax and feel some ex Soviet spirit. This was what I dreamed the USSR was like. All these leafy parks, cold in winter yet calming. It’s gorgeous and my highlight from Erkindik Park was watching live open mic music concerts here.
12.Fine Art Museum
In my first few weeks based in Bishkek, Aigul from the Apple Hostel and I went to the Art Museum. Initially they told us no photography, but as I was a blogger and writer, they let me take a few photos and gave us a guided tour. There are some excellent art pieces in here, many top Kyrgyz artists were banned under the Soviet era.
Distinctive by the fact that it looks like it hasn’t changed in years (it hasn’t) and the fact it sits in a tranquil square by the post office and an underground market, the Clock Tower is always on time.
It’s also a handy location, off Chui Avenue and near the Post Office if you’re ever dandering round town and don’t know what time it is.
I love how Kyrgyzstan is so progressive yet still loves the history they have and the locals see no need to hide it or pretend it didn’t happen. While bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan show barely a reminder of Soviet era Stans, Kyrgyzstan loves it. And they succeed!
The Lenin statue is a shining example of something historic that is respected, it reminded me of Tiraspol in Transnistria. Lenin sits loud and proud. I still have travel dreams left with Lenin though…having visited his tomb in Moscow in the past, I’m dreaming to go to Ulan Ude in Buryatia Republic to see the biggest Lenin head in the world.
15.Russian Orthodox Church
While Islam dominates religious proceeding in Kyrgyz cities and nomad beliefs, dominates the countryside, we forgot that there are still loads of Russians here. The blue and white Orthodox Russian Church was sadly looking a tad worse for wear on my visit on a cold winter day. But it’s worth a look for sure.
This is where it gets cool and spooky. With a gang from the hostel we headed to see if we could get inside the abandoned casino. The first time I went there, there were local police trying to usher me away. Second time, we were able to scale the perimeter but not get inside.
It’s an eerie place and did remind me a bit of Pripyat in Chernobyl. The craziest thing is that this abandoned casino has been totally left in the city centre, to ruin and wilt away. Some local entrepreneur ought to buy this place and do something with it.
I still have that big dream in my heart of an elaborate wedding somewhere, somehow in my life. It’s the ultimate dream, to get married and live happily ever after. Being at my cousin’s wedding last year in Galgorm, Northern Ireland made me pretty jealous and in awe of that life.
While most of my relationships fell apart so quickly and easily, I keep dreaming and looking for the new one. This wedding palace is fantastic, architecturally rich and worth a visit for a backpacker. Now to find that wife…
18.The New Mosque
I included the Central Mosque but during my time in Bishkek, they are building a massive new Mosque, not far from Victory Square. This is very reminiscent of Mosques I visited in Turkey and it should be open soon. When I was there it was boarded up for building.
You’ll know that I clocked up more football stadiums than David Beckmann, Allan Shearah or Lionel Messy down the years. I’m up to 100 national stadiums in 132 countries now. Weirdly Kyrgyzstan never had a home match in my 4-5 months in and out of Bishkek so I had to make do with a visit on non-matchday.
The Kyrgyzstan team have never been in the World Cup, and are still developing the side but they came mightily close to the World Cup next stage qualifiers this time round, even winning 1-0 away in Tajikistan and beating Jordan 1-0 at home. It was the double defeat to Australia that killed off the challenge.
20.Soviet Era Monuments
I’m including this as one “sight” even though they are scattered as otherwise I’d have to include every individual monument as a sight and there are over 10 crackers. My favourite of these was actually a faded monument on the roundabout near the hostel, but there are many. Take your pick!
As I mentioned I spent 4-5 months here on and off, because I also toured Central Asia and India in the same timeframe but I must have had at least 10 weeks in Bishkek itself. It’s a marvellous city and I can’t wait to go back. Here are some more photos from Bishkek, thanks for your magic…
Here are some of my videos from my time backpacking in Bishkek: