- By Aisulu Aldasheva
- Dec. 01 2013 16:41
Main industries: mining, agriculture, textile and electricity.
Mayor: Isa Omurkulov
Founded in 1825
Interesting fact: In 1926, Bishkek (originally called Pishpek) was renamed Frunze, after Bolshevik leader Mikhail Frunze. However, the sound "f" does not exist in the Kyrgyz language, making it difficult for the local population to correctly pronounce the former name of their capital.
Sister cities: Minsk, Belarus; Chemnitz, Germany; Qazvin, Iran; Tehran, Iran; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Kumi, South Korea; Colorado Springs, Colorado, U.S.
Helpful contacts: Marat Sharshekeyev (president, Chamber of Commerce and Industry; +996 312-61-3872; firstname.lastname@example.org); Temir Sariev (minister, Economy Ministry; +996 312-62-0590; email@example.com); Victoria Timayeva (director, Kyrgyz Universal Commodity Exchange; +996 312-62-0329; firstname.lastname@example.org); Aktilek Tungatarov (executive director, International Business Council; +996 312-68-2287; email@example.com).
The Kumtor Gold Co. (24 Ulitsa Ibraimova; +996 312-90-0707; kumtor.kg) is a subsidiary of the Canadian gold mining and exploration company Centerra. It operates the largest gold mine in Central Asia, Kumtor, and has produced 264 tons of gold since its operations began in 1997. The company accounts for about 10 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP.
Naryn (1a Ulitsa Kulatova; +996 312-53-0731; no website, just e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is one of the leading Kyrgyz construction companies.
Gazprom Neft Asia (+996 312-51-4444; gazprom-neft.kg) is a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned oil company Gazprom Neft and has operated in Kyrgyzstan since 2006.
BISHKEK — One of the first things that might strike you in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is the large number of cafes, boutiques and SUVs, seemingly contradicting the fact that more than one-third of the country's population lives below the poverty line.
It is as if this is what people here primarily do — eat and shop, traveling from one to another along roads that have more potholes than pavement.
Although there is a grain of truth to this, Bishkek is much more. It is a fascinating city where you get a taste of Kyrgyz nomadism, the country's Soviet past and an interesting blend of both that makes up the city, the country and its people today.
Located at the foot of the Tian Shan Mountains, Bishkek started up in the 1820s as a fort of the Kokand khanate, which was meant to protect caravan routes and collect tolls. After the defeat of the khanate by the Russian army and the area's annexation to Russia, the city's first outlines began to form.
Russia's role in the development of the city has been monumental. A lot of what you see in Bishkek now is the work of Russian city planners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the grid pattern of streets and boulevards, grand buildings with marble facades, Soviet housing and monuments of communist figures. The city proudly showcases its Soviet past. It is one of the few capitals of a former Soviet republic where you can still stroll down the streets named after Bolsheviks like Mikhail Frunze or Yakov Logvinenko, or take a selfie in front of a Lenin statue located in one of the city's most central spots.
But Bishkek's appearance has been changing rapidly in the past 10 years. Modern multistory apartment complexes, business centers and malls have begun to pop up at a frenetic pace, signifying Kyrgyzstan's very own property boom. Given high levels of corruption, people often ignore architectural coherence and city-planning norms. This results in bizarre buildings scattered around the city that, with time, nevertheless find a way to blend in.
Still Bishkek would not be Bishkek without its numerous parks and squares, which have managed to survive even the ongoing property boom. Arrays of old oak trees, lindens, acacias and poplars adorn the cityscape. In Soviet times, Bishkek was considered to be the greenest capital in the Soviet Union. This abundant vegetation can be credited to the rich Kyrgyz soil as well as the existence of small irrigation canals throughout the city.
A: After the Soviet breakup, many plants and factories closed down. People lost their jobs and had to master a new profession — the profession of shuttle traders, or chelnoki, to make a living. They brought in goods from abroad and sold them at various spots and markets across the city. We decided to unite these scattered markets into one. In December 1991, the Dordoi Bazaar was established. Since then it developed into a key trade hub in the region and is among the 10 biggest markets in the world, according to the World Bank.
Q: If you could name just one, what would be the key factor in the phenomenal success of the Dordoi Bazaar?
A: In any activity, the key to success are the people. It is the team of like-minded people, people with new ideas, technologies and goals.
Q: What are the most promising sectors Dordoi is expanding into?
A: The Dordoi Association has a very diverse profile, ranging from marble production and construction to medical services and charity projects. We plan to advance into agricultural processing. We would also like to expand into the energy sector, namely energy-efficient technologies, which are highly relevant for Kyrgyzstan. We are currently looking for partners from countries with extensive experience in this area, like Germany and Japan.
Yet it is the people that make Bishkek so special. Famous for their hospitality, the locals will usually chat happily with you and, language permitting, offer tips on where to go and how to get there. They will raise a toast with vodka to you and your family, even if you have just met them. Hospitality is an old and the most revered nomadic tradition in Kyrgyzstan, and there is nothing more shameful than rumors of being a bad host.
With a population of almost 1 million, Bishkek is home to Kyrgyz, Russian, Uzbek, Tatar, Uyghur, Dungan and other ethnicities, making the city a big melting pot. This has not changed after the 2010 revolution that ousted the ruling president and sparked ethnic tensions in the country's south, causing thousands of people to flee Kyrgyzstan in search of a safer home. And it was in Bishkek where people of all ethnic backgrounds collected humanitarian aid and sent it to their compatriots in the south, regardless of their ethnicity.
As time goes by, people move on. They forgive and forget. They try to live their lives as before in a city where nomadic fuses with modern, where tuxedos meet traditional Kyrgyz kalpaks, and where the old custom of stealing brides exists side by side with wild bachelorette parties. But most important it is a city where you always feel welcome.
What to do if you have two hours
Start at Ala-Too Square to get an overview of different architectural styles from different eras. The square is dominated by massive marble facades of the White House, the House of Friendship Among Nations, the Agroprom building, the previously state-run sewing factory Ilbirs, and the granite walls of the State Historical Museum, called the Museum of Lenin back in the day.
You will also see some examples of modern works, like the Independence Monument with an hourly changing of guards, and the monument of Manas, commemorating the hero of the Kyrgyz epic poem "Manas." If you look carefully, you will also discover ancient balbals next to the history museum. These small stone statues from the fifth to seventh centuries were placed at graves of glorious warriors and represented their defeated enemies that were to serve them in the afterlife.
This alone can keep you busy for a couple of hours. But if you have some time left, take a taxi, or a marshrutka minibus for an even more unforgettable experience, to the Osh Bazaar — main entrance located close to the intersection of Kievskaya Ulitsa and Ulitsa Beyshenaliyeva. Here you can buy anything from delicious fruits and vegetables to clothes and electronics.
What to do if you have two days
Although two days is not enough to fully explore Bishkek, it is nevertheless plenty of time to experience some of its highlights.
Do some sightseeing of Ala-Too Square, have a walk on Erkindik Bulvar and visit souvenir shops. Kyrgyzstan is famous for its felt, and the range of felt products here is mind-boggling. The most popular among foreigners are shyrdaks, beautiful handmade rugs with traditional Kyrgyz patterns. You can also take part in a workshop and create your own masterpiece (contact Central Asian Crafts Support Association; 162a Ulitsa Manaschy Sagynbaya; +996 312-62-0385).
Go to the Osh Bazaar to get a feel of a traditional Central Asian marketplace. Then continue to the Dordoi Bazaar — one of the entrances located close to the intersection of Ulitsa Ibraimova and Kozhevennaya Ulitsa — to see its contemporary counterpart. In nearly 20 years since the Dordoi Bazaar came into existence, it has developed into a major trade hub for Central Asia, connecting China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. With an annual turnover estimated at $10 billion — double the country's GDP — and more than 50,000 people working there, the Dordoi Bazaar is often compared to the Silk Road signifying the importance of its commercial activities for the region.
A: Bishkek is a very dynamic and rapidly developing part of the Kyrgyz Republic. The favorable geographic location, developed infrastructure and economy, transparent legislature and highly skilled human resources make it interesting for foreign investors. The most attractive sectors are mining, the service sector — real estate, finance and trade — and the processing industry.
Furthermore, the municipality plans to implement several large infrastructure projects that could be interesting for investors. These include modernization of street lighting using energy-efficient technologies, possible implementation of traffic and road-monitoring systems to optimize traffic management, and construction of multistory parking lots.
Q: What are the most visible changes that have occurred in the past 10 years?
A: Bishkek has witnessed a myriad of political, economic and social events. Despite two revolutions that resulted in civil unrest, looting and land seizures, the situation remained stable in the city, and people resumed work and everyday activities quickly afterward.
I would say that the most visible changes have taken place in the past four years. New bridges and roads have been built, while existing roads have been broadened and extended.
Q: What is the main priority for Bishkek's City Hall today?
A: The construction and repair of roads, street lighting, transportation, urban land improvements and sanitation.
When you finally want to get away from the city noise, visit Ala-Archa National Park and hike up to the Ak-Say Waterfall, which opens up an incredible view over the Ala Archa Gorge. If you go in winter and love skiing, there are ski lifts in the adjacent village Kashka Suu (contact the Kashka Suu tourist center; +996 772-22-2443).
Alternatively, visit the Burana Tower about 80 kilometers east of Bishkek. Dating from the 10th century, the tower is the only remaining construction of Balasagun, a town founded in 960 AD by the Karakhanid dynasty. Travel back in time by climbing to the top of the tower, visit the Burana museum and explore the great variety of balbals, ancient stone statues, around the site.
What to do with the family
Take a walk on Erkindik Bulvar. Nicknamed Derzhinka by the locals because of its previous Soviet name, Dzerzhinsky Bulvar, it is a place both adults and kids will truly enjoy. The two broad sidewalks flanked by massive oak trees will take you through a number of monuments representing important historical figures in Kyrgyzstan. And while your kids run around a playground or jump on a trampoline, try some of the local drinks from a barrel: the wheat-based maksym or the yoghurt drink chalap.
Another destination is Panfilov Park, located behind the White House. This small amusement park has various rides for all age groups, bumper cars and a Ferris wheel. It is also very representative of the city's strange Soviet-Kyrgyz mix with its predominantly Soviet architecture, numerous cafes and karaoke stalls.
Theater plays, music performances and opera are some of the many events you can attend in the evening. Check with your hotel or do a quick web search for details.
Many restaurants have live music. In places like Arzu (311 Jibek Jolu Prospekt, +996 312- 59-1205, arzu.kg) or Diyar (327 Jibek Jolu Prospekt, +996 312-69-4777, diyar.kg), you can dance to enchanting oriental melodies popular in Kyrgyzstan. If you would rather dance to current global hits, check out Bar 12 (32 Ulitsa Razzakova, +996 312-66-0012, 12bar.kg) or Barsuk (122 Ulitsa Tynystanova, +996 552-33-3313).
Where to eat
Kyrgyz cuisine is simple yet very delicious. Dough, meat and onions are the primary ingredients for dishes like beshbarmak (literally "five fingers," as it was traditionally eaten with hands), samsy and manty. But a Kyrgyz menu would not be complete without Uzbek plov or Dungan lagman and ashlyamfu. Do not be shocked, horsemeat is a local staple. It is considered to be a delicacy and is definitely worth tasting.
Try Supara (1a Ulitsa Karagul Akmata, Kok-Jar village; +996 312-46-5051; supara.kg), located on the outskirts of Bishkek. Here you can eat traditional Kyrgyz food, contemporary culinary inventions, and European dishes. No matter what you choose as your main course, order some boorsokon the side. An average meal will cost 1,500 to 1,700 som ($22 to $25).
The reason you do not want to miss Supara is because it is not just a restaurant. It is also an open-air exhibition of Kyrgyz heritage with traditional Kyrgyz utensils, yurt accessories and nomadic artifacts displayed on its grounds. And while you wait for your food, you can spin a potter's wheel and try to mold pottery.
You can also dine at popular, more central restaurants that serve both Kyrgyz and European food: Tyubeteyka (31 Ulitsa Turusbekova; +996 312-31-7878); Time Out (7a Ulitsa Togolok Moldo; +996 312-66-1139) or Navigator (103 Moskovskaya Ulitsa; +996 312-66-4545). Expect the bill to range from $15 to $25.
Where to stay
Given that tourism is one of the most promising sectors for Kyrgyz economy, you can find anything from fancy hotels to modest hostels.
The best hotels in the heart of the city are the Silk Road Lodge (229 Ulitsa Abdymomunova; +996 312-32-4889, silkroad.com.kg; $130 for a single room), Touristan (6 Ulitsa Koenkozova; +996 312-31-5102; touristan.kg; $60 for a single room) and the Hyatt (191 Ulitsa Abdrahmanova; +996 312-66-1234; bishkek.regency.hyatt.com; from $300 for a single room). Further away from the city center, Ak Keme (93 Prospekt Mira; +996 312-54-0143; akkemehotel.com; $160 for a single room) and Jannat (21/2 Ulitsa Aaly Tokombayeva; +996 312-90-9750; jannat.kg; $205 for a single room) are well known for their fantastic scenery and splendid views of the Ala-Too Mountains.
Although politics is a favorite topic of conversation in Bishkek, too many sensitive issues are involved. To be on the safe side, just show some enthusiasm about Kyrgyz nature or food, and you will win the hearts of the Kyrgyz people.
For more information on what to do in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan as well as help with travel arrangements in the country, consult tourist agencies Ecotour (46a Donskoi Pereulok; +996 312-66-0894; ecotour.kg); NoviNomad (28 Ulitsa Togolok Moldo Apartment 10; +996 312- 62-2381; novinomad.com); C.A.T. Travel (124 Prospekt Chui; +996 312-66-36-64; cat.kg); or La Maison du Voyageur (122 Moskovskaya Ulitsa; +996 312-30-0390; lamaisonduvoyageur.com).
If you plan to stay only in Bishkek, it might be useful to have telephone numbers of taxi services: Alfa Taxi (+996 312-57-9999); City Taxi (+996 312-44-2222); Express Taxi (+996 312-66-7089).
How to get there
Aeroflot offers direct flights from Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport to Bishkek's Manas airport; Air Bishkek and Ural Airlines depart from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. A round ticket for the four-hour, 3,000-kilometer flight costs about $470.
Citizens of CIS states as well as the U.S., Canada and most EU countries can enter Kyrgyzstan without a visa for 60 to 90 days. (See the full list of countries).