Kyrgyzstan was a relatively peaceful place when we visited it in 2009 a year before political tensions resulted in riots and an uprising throughout the country. We spend some days on Lake Issyk Kul for some relax time on the beach, before heading to the capital Bishkek. The flight out of the country was from Manas Airport, a key US airbase for the War in Afghanistan.
"The Kirghiz, who are one of the most ancient peoples in Central Asia, came to these lands two thousand years ago. Right up to the great October Revolution of 1917 they were nomads without their own state and were completely illiterate. Lenin’s nationalities policy allowed the people of Kirghizia, like all other nations in the U.S.S.R., to develop freely and enjoy equal rights. In the almost sixty years since Soviet power was established in 1924 the Kirghiz have ceased to be nomads, built towns, and created industry and culture where there was nothing before."
Tourist Attractions in the USSR, Raduga Publishers, Moscow - 1982
Seeing the 2010 Bishkek riots on TV gave some extra debt to the experience of our stay in Kyrgyzstan while looking back. The tension was already clearly visible during our visit a year before the violence. Walking around in unlit Bishkek during the night, visiting the untouched Lenin museum, and stand face to face with the US Air Force on Manas Airport make Kyrgyzstan probably the most interesting part of our journey.
Almaty to Bishkek
Bishkek is located 200 km from Almaty, our last stop in Kazakhstan before we continued our Central Asia tour in Kyrgyzstan. It There is a road through the mountains from Almaty to Lake Issyk Kul, however there are no border posts so your Visa will not be stamped. Kazakhs often take the gamble when they go to Issyk Kul for short a break, however, Western tourists should not do this. Marshrutka's run from the main bus station in Almaty to Bishkek for a cheap fair, drivers wait until the minibus is full and then head for Bishkek. We decided to take a taxi to the border for $40 from where we took another taxi to Bishkek for $10. The border crossing procedures went smoothly and it only cost us a couple of hours to get to our hotel in Bishkek.
Bishkek (named Frunze in the USSR) is probably the former Soviet Republic capital where least has changed since Soviet times. The Kirghiz capital is a candy shop for Soviet history enthusiasts, almost every building dates to the Soviet period and the city is littered with Soviet era monuments. Two of the main highlights in Bishkek are the former Lenin Museum and the Frunze memorial Museum , both Soviet museums that have been untouched for decades.
Some of the architectural highlights of Bishkek are the disc shaped circus, Kyrgyz national opera and ballet theatre, museum of fine arts and the parliament building. The whole city of Bishkek was constructed by the Soviets, so these are only a view examples of the Soviet architecture that can be seen in Bishkek. No Soviet hotel in the city centre for Comtourist this time, we were in a small modern hotel in the outskirts of Bishkek. Walking back to the Hotel in the evening was not such a smart idea, there was no street lightning and the streets have many dangerous holes.
Most former Soviet countries (except Russia and Belarus) have removed most of the monuments honouring Lenin and other Soviet hero's, however, in Bishkek this is not the case. The Lenin statue that stood on the central Alaa Too Square was moved behind the former Lenin Museum, now National Museum close to its original location. Lenin may have lost his A location but he still stands proudly like many other communist statues throughout the city centre. Bishkek was named after Frunze during Soviet times and his statue, depicting him as a general on a horse is located on Freedom Boulevard (formerly Dzerzhinsky Boulevard). Other famous Soviets that still have a monument in Bishkek are Marx and Engels, Gorky, KGB founder Dzerzhinsky and Panfilov.
Ala Archa National Park is located in the Tian Shan Mountains 40 km from Bishkek and is a popular place to spend the weekend for city dwellers. Some of the highest peaks of the Soviet Union could be climbed from the base camp at Ala Archa where many mountaineering missions started. We had booked a lodge for two days from where did a couple of hikes in the mountains, enjoying the beautiful nature of this area. There are three fairly well marked trails that can be walked in a couple of hours. We had to do some climbing on one of the trails, so hikers should come prepared. A guide should be hired for longer hikes into the mountains. The flora of Ala Archa is absolutely gorgeous, Snow Leopards live high up mountains but are extremely rare and almost impossible to track down.
One special place we passed during one of the hikes was the Soviet era Mountaineers Cemetery where perished climbers are buried or remembered with a monument. There are also graves for the crew of an Aeroflot aircraft that crashed in 1986 and a helicopter that crashed after transporting climbers up one of the mountains. It takes around an hour to reach the cemetery from base camp.
Issyk Kul Lake
Travelling around for four weeks is intensive and some relaxation on the beach is always a welcome resting point in an otherwise busy travel schedule. Lake Issyk Kul is located in the Northern Tian Shan Mountains, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. The trip from Bishkek to Issyk Kul takes half a day by car. Some interesting sights can be seen underway including Tokmok, the main industrial city during Soviet times, Kemin, a mainly agricultural town and the Boom Gorge a beautiful mountain ridge close to the lake. Towns like Balykchy close to the lake still look very Soviet with plenty of Lenin statues and other typical Soviet remainders.
We stayed near the town of Cholpon Ata that used to the main tourist area of the lake during Soviet times with many Sanatoria, hotels and vacation houses. The tourist industry collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union, but is now starting to make a come-back, luxurious resorts are constructed for Russian and Kazakh tourist. We spend most of the time on the beach but also had some time to visit Cholpon Ata located close to our resort. The holiday resort has many restaurants, shashlick stands and bars were visitors can drink outside.
We passed the vacation house of the Kyrgyz president who just hosted a conference with the other leaders of the CIS countries. Some buildings in Cholpon Ata still remind of the Soviet era including the Bus Station and the Post Office with beautiful Socialist Realist wall paintings. The strangest place near Lake Issyk Kul is Ruh Ordo in honour of Atimatov, a spiritual theme park build by Kyrgyz millionaire Kereksisiv in 2002. Pavilions for each world religion depict the respective religion's symbols, saint and holy figures in a serene atmosphere.
Manas Air Base
One reason to fly from Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan , our next Central Asian destination was the opportunity to get a glimpse of Manas Airbase, a major US military installation supporting military operations in the on-going war in Afghanistan. Manas is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing supporting the war effort with tactical airlift and air refuelling operations. We saw a lot of US Air Force airplanes including KC-135 Stratotankers and a C-5 Galaxy landing and taking of while waiting for our flight and boarding our airplane. A bus drove us to the apron where we were only 100 meters away from the USAF aircraft being serviced. There was also a large collection of Soviet made aircraft parked around the airport. This was where our luck ended, the Uzbekistan Airways airplane taking us to Tashkent was an AVRO RJ85, rather than a Soviet made An-24 or Yak-40 as we had hoped.
Where we didn't go
We skipped the South of Kyrgyzstan, mainly because of time restraints, but also because there was ethnical unrest there at the time. However, visiting the South, including the capital Osh should be a great experience. Travellers describe staying in a yurt in the beautiful nature and 3000 year old culture as a not to miss experience, let's hope we will get the opportunity to do this at a later time!