I’ve been excited to visit Kyrgyzstan for a long time – ever since high school, when two Kyrgyz counselors taught me Russian at a summer camp in Minnesota. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan for class and in my own studies. I left my apartment feeling nervous and excited all at once: What would the city be like? How do local languages play out in public space? How is Islam practiced here, how does it compare with Turkey?
One blog I followed pretty religiously for a while posted Kyrgyz music videos regularly; I loved listening to this song and thinking about how much fun I would someday have in Bishkek. Perhaps I didn’t mud wrestle in slow motion in my time in Bishkek, but here are some pictures and tales of my first adventures in the city.
My flight to Bishkek (about five hours from Istanbul) landed very early in the morning. The sun wouldn’t have been shining anyway, because of the rain, but I was a little apprehensive about getting a taxi downtown from the airport. I knew the price, approximately 500 Kyrgyz som, and was frustrated when a driver insisted on 2000 som. If I wanted to go for cheaper, I would need to find three other people to share the car with. “How am I supposed to do that?” I asked, beginning to feel frustrated and lost. After a few minutes of this back and forth, including the standard “Are you married?” interrogation, the driver gave up and offered the services of his friend, who drove an Express Taxi. It cost me 500 som and no arguing.
After falling dead asleep on the couch for a few hours, I woke up ready to go and explore the city. Sleety rain put a bit of a damper in those plans, though. Despite the rain, I walked around with two fellow lady travellers to Ala-Too Square, where we admired the Manas statue and watched the guards change positions; we drank real filtered coffee and slurped delicious pumpkin soup at Sierra Café; attempted and failed to visit the historical museum, which closed early for Eid; and took a bus to the Dordoi Bazaar (more on that later). It was a full day that ended with vodka-vişne drunk from bowls and watching Kyrgyz music videos.
We parted ways on Sunday morning following a delicious Turkish breakfast. “So now, I’m alone in Bishkek,” I told myself out loud in a way that didn’t seem crazy when I did it. I walked slowly through parks lined with rose bushes and past statues of musical men, ending my walk at Ala-Too Square with a much-needed liter of water. I sat on a bench, admiring the rainbows made by the fountains, when two young woman approached me, asking, “Do you speak English?” My immediate response was to switch to Russian, offering any help I could. They laughed, offered me candy, and asked to chat with me in English – they were thrilled to meet and talk with an American. I had nothing else to do until a 7:30pm flight, and so I walked with these girls all day around town.
They showed me the historical museum, taking it slowly on the third floor (which featured nothing but Kyrgyz culture, as imagined by the museum curators – jewelry, felt, and komuz players galore) and asking me at each glass box whether I’d heard of the man whose books or music was on display. After the museum guard berated me for photographing the murals on the ceiling, we hurried out and wandered through a few of Bishkek’s parks before they helped me hail down a minibus to the airport.