Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a convenient hub for planning your trip around Kyrgyzstan. Most people spend a day or even less here, but nonetheless have to pass through en route to the various spectacular spots in Kyrgyzstan. Having already made it this far to Central Asia, here’s how you might want to spend a day Bishkek.
*Edit: Thanks to my friend Bola from Bishkek whom I met in Almaty for helping with details on items at Osh Bazaar!
My 2 week adventure in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan began at Bishkek, and was glad I did not miss it. One day is about enough to see the main sights within Bishkek, which are located within walking distance of one another. The State History Museum was closed when I visited and so I was done in about half.
Getting from Almaty International Airport to Bishkek
I arrived at Almaty International Airport from Singapore (via Hong Kong) in the afternoon, and had a smooth process through immigration. Dropped by the tourist information booth conveniently located in the arrivals hall to get directions to Bishkek. Last thing to check out, tourist SIM cards, which I decided to give a miss in the end since packages were by the week and I was only going to be in Almaty/Kazakhstan for a couple of hours before crossing over to Kyrgyzstan, and was only coming back to Almaty over a week later.
Almaty Internation Airport to Sairan Bus Station
(Thanks to the tourist information booth for directions). Upon exiting the airport, I took the road to the right towards the carpark entrance. The bus stop is about 400m down the road outside the airport entrance, on the right side (away from airport, towards the city). From there, bus 106 (150 KZT (~0.44 USD)) will go to Sairan Bus Station, beside Sairan Reservoir seen below, in about 2 hours.
Here’s where downloading the free 2GIS app beforehand would come really handy for its offline map. I didn’t had an offline map with me, and Google Maps didn’t work well. Desperately tried to ask a fellow bus passenger for indication of the bus station. It was difficult as I did not speak Russian or Kazakh, but she was very patient in trying to explain where we were. Without an offline map, the reservoir appearing on the left side of the bus after about 2 hours is the sign to reach for the door.
Sairan Bus Station to Bishkek
In the huge building, turn right and head to the far end. Somewhere in that far corner is the counter (Kacca) for tickets to Bishkek (1500 KZT (~4.35 USD)). The minibuses, or Marshrutkas, were waiting at the back and would leave when full.
The bus finally filled up after over an hour. Traffic in the city was bad and it soon got dark. There was a stop around the halfway mark of the 5 hour ride to get some hot food, snacks, or catch a toilet break (50 KZT).
Crossing the border
With visa free entries available for many countries now things are pretty convenient. The border crossing took awhile, guards were strict, but the process was otherwise smooth. There is a short bridge between the 2 customs to be crossed on foot. Remember to keep any pieces of paper that is passed to you at the customs as they will be required later on.
It is recommended to remember the number plate of the marshrutka you’re on (taking a picture) to be able to find your ride after the customs. I didn’t really know where to wait and blindly followed other passengers from the same marshrutka to find it. Depending on conditions you may have to wait for awhile before your marshrutka clears the customs.
I think it’ll be a good idea to be mentally prepared that you may not be able to find back your same marshrutka (though likely to be able to) and ensure that all your belongings are with you whenever you get off the marshrutka. Bishkek is about an hour after the border and hopping on another passing marshrutka to get you to Bishkek shouldn’t cost too much.
The streets of Bishkek were deserted (around 11pm) by the time I arrived but taxi touts were still out in full force, trying to get me into a cab even though my hostel was a mere 200m away! Really glad to have chosen a hostel next to the bus station though, the very reliable and friendly Apple Hostel Bishkek.
28 hours after leaving home for the airport, I finally settled down and was so ready for bed.
I had a good rest, filling breakfast, and was ready to hit the road. About 15 mins by foot south of the Western Bus Station, Osh Bazaar is a colorful place, where you’d likely be able to find almost anything you might ever need. From fresh produce to pickled salads to shoes and household goods, its all at Osh Bazaar. I’ve always been fascinated by local markets and Osh Bazaar, one of the largest bazaars in Bishkek, was very much a wonderland.
It can get very crowded and many sources warn of pickpockets here, so it’s a good idea to keep your valuables close and be on the alert of suspicious approaches. This despite Kyrgyz people being very friendly and helpful in general. Probably the toughest part, telling them apart.
Bread plays a big part of Kyrgyz cuisine.
And so does horse milk. And its derivatives.
The fresh meat section was a huge hall with row after row of identical looking stalls. This was on the outside.
At another side, under a huge shelter, was the dried stuff section, with grains, dried fruits, nuts and lots of different sweets.
Talk about perfect competition.
Stuff of dentists’ nightmares. Or fantasies?
Sugar, spice, and everything nice.
The pickled salads section. One nice lady gave me a sample of her various salads. And was predictably disappointed when I decided not to buy any.
And some weird colorful stuff.
Still in the same huge shelter, finally in the far corner of it.
Around that building there were many other buildings in that street block which made up Osh Bazaar. So much life and color, really interesting just to walk around and look about.
The huge gateway to Osh Bazaar, where I exited from onto a busy street.
There were drinks and snack stalls around, and I got an ice cream which was fast melting. With a generous helping of strawberry sauce.
From Osh Bazaar, I headed along Kiev Street to get to Ala-Too Square, my next stop. More sights of daily life in Bishkek along the way.
The heart of Bishkek, at Ala-Too Square, was built in 1984 during Soviet times. It was named Lenin’s Square then, with a statue of Lenin standing where the statue of Manas (on a horse) stands now. Between Manas and Lenin, a statue named Erkindik or Freedom, stood on Ala-Too Square.
I had intended to visit the State History Museum but it was still under maintenance, so I continued my self guided walking tour around Ala-Too Square. Kids were playing in the fountains at the side of the square and seemed to be having a lot of fun. Wasn’t in the mood to get wet though.
The statue of Lenin that used to stand on Ala-Too Square can actually still be found nearby. Now behind the State History Museum, on a smaller square, but still a beautiful spot.
Across the street from Lenin’s Statue, the Kyrgyz Republic Government building.
Just one block to the west of Lenin’s statue, down Abdumomunov Street, is Panfilov Park. This theme park was established early in the days of the USSR. The rides that are still operating seemed to have been from that era too, and some looked in dire need of refurbishment. Nonetheless it seemed like lots of local kids were having fun here. The park felt a little too silent relative to the terrifying looking rides at the park, not sure if it wasn’t exciting enough for the kids or they were too terrified by the prospect of breaking rides to scream.
With that, I was done with the main sights in Bishkek and spent the rest of the afternoon getting ready for the rest of the trip – stocking up on supplies at the supermarket, changing more cash, and getting more rest. I planned to visit Ala Archa National Park for a day trip the next day and did some planning for it too. More on Ala Archa National Park coming up in the next post!
Other Bishkek Information
Changing money in Bishkek
It is not too difficult to find a money changer in Bishkek. There is one outside the Western Bus Station too. So far the best rates I found was in the bank so great if you find one. If not, the rates elsewhere aren’t too terrible either, especially since things are relatively affordable in Bishkek, some businesses accept USD, and you aren’t likely to spend that much Kyrgyz som (written com in Cyrillic). I read that rates are better for 50 and 100 fresh USD notes so I got those and ‘freshened’ the notes up. I can’t comment on what rates you’d get for smaller or dirtier notes but I guess the banks should accept them.
If you had taken the route above (ending at Panfilov Park), you can find the bank I went to at 54a Togolok Moldo Street, one block down to the west of Panfilov Park, marked as ‘Moneygram’ on Google Maps. It is in a building surrounded by fence and with cash withdrawal machines along the fences facing the street. If you’re not in that area you should be able to do the same at any bank to get better rates.
Sample exchange rates in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan – June 2018
At border crossing with Kazakhstan:
- 1 USD – 67 SOM/ 69 SOM
- 1 EUR – 70 SOM/ 83 SOM
- 1 RUB – 1 SOM/ 1.3 SOM
- 1 KZT – 0.20 SOM/ 0.22 SOM
At money changer along main road outside Western Bus Station:
- 1 USD – 68 SOM/ 68.5 SOM
- 1 EUR – 77 SOM/ 81 SOM
- 1 RUB – 1.06 SOM/ 1.09 SOM
- 1 KZT – 0.195 SOM/ 0.204 SOM
At 24 hour restaurant beside Western Bus Station:
- 1 USD – 67.5 SOM
At bank near Panfilov Park:
- 1 USD – 68.20 SOM/ 68.45 SOM
- 1 EUR – 79.80 SOM/ 80.90 SOM
- 1 RUB – 1.08 SOM/ 1.096 SOM
- 1 KZT – 0.20 SOM/ 0.207 SOM
Outside Bishkek (Karakol):
- 1 USD – 68-68.2 SOM/ 68.4-68.5 SOM
- 1 EUR – 79-80 SOM/ 81-81.4 SOM
- 1 RUB – 1.07-1.085 SOM/ 1.095-1.104 SOM
- 1 KZT – 0.199-0.20 SOM/ 0.205-0.22 SOM
- 1 CNY – 9 SOM
Getting around Bishkek
The main sights of Bishkek are manageable to get around on foot. Within the city, buses are marshrutkas are popular options to get around. They can look a little daunting at first, as these are often crowded and hardly anyone speaks English. Google Maps wasn’t too helpful for public transport and I relied on my hostel for the right buses to take. A free app I used in Almaty, 2GIS, was immensely helpful with public transport and directions in Almaty, and may work just as well in Bishkek.
Buses within the city cost 8 som and you pay the driver when getting off.
Marshutkas/ minibuses cost 10 som (12 som after 9pm) and you can pay upon boarding.
Getting out of Bishkek
Here are the public transport prices for some of the popular destinations from Bishkek (June 2018).
- Bishkek to Karakol – 350 som by marshurtka from Western Bus Station, 5 hours
- Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata – 250 som by marshurtka from Western Bus Station, 4 hours
- Bishkek to Osh – 1500 som by taxi, 11 hours (according to Apple Hostel Bishkek)
- Bishkek to Almaty – 400 som by marshurtka from Western Bus Station, 5 hours
From the bus station, look for the right counter to purchase your ticket (different areas of the bus station serve different destinations). Then, proceed to the berth and show your ticket. There should not be any additional charges beyond what is paid at the counter.
Possible short trips from Bishkek
There are possible day/short trips from Bishkek, such as:
- Day hike or overnight camp at Ala Archa National Park (post coming soon), Alamedin Gorge or Kol Tor Lake
- Horse-riding and yurt camp stay at Song Kul
- Day trip to Issky-Ata to check out the sanatoriam (spa) and hot springs or for a hike
- Day trip to the Burana Tower
And of course, hiking near Karakol, which can be as short as 2 days to well over a week or 2. But as the trip to Karakol takes 5 hours, I’ll leave hiking near Karakol to a post in the future.
All from Bishkek
And that’s all I have from Bishkek! Decent city for a day or 2 (excluding trips out), but Apple Hostel might make it feel worth a couple more. Any more information you need for Bishkek? Been to Bishkek and have some tips to share? Let me know in the comments below. Meanwhile, come back soon for my next post on a day hike to Ala Archa National Park, including some nerve wrecking moments!