Kyrgyzstan: First Impressions

Greetings from Bishkek! It might seem quite odd, after seven weeks of being in Kyrgyzstan to be writing a blog about my first impressions of the country, however, having been away in the mountains, and then been unwell, this is my first real opportunity to write in quite a while!

I arrived in Bishkek in mid-April, and have felt very welcomed by the family that I’m staying with here. I’m living in the north of the city, near to the old bus station, and I have a decent supermarket, a quiet park, and access to public transportation all within a fifteen minute walk of the house. For the first week, I was unsure how to get around by marshrutka (minibus), and was sometimes walking up to an hour to get to my destination!

In May, having spent a considerable amount of time thinking about my future plans, I decided to make Bishkek my base in Central Asia for the coming year. That means, that I’ll be writing a lot more blogs about Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan, but here are three first impressions about the country.

The Cost of Living is Low, Except for Luxuries
How much does it cost you to get into the centre of your city by public transport? It costs me 12p. Yup, that’s right, 12p, which is 10 Kyrgyz som. If you go on the trolleybus, rather than the marshrutka, it costs 8 som, which is about 10p, however they’re more infrequent and don’t go to as many destinations. There are two good apps to navigate the city by marshrutka and trolleybus – 2GIS, and bus.kg. 2GIS is good if you know the name of the street/shop you’re going to, whereas bus.kg relies on your map-reading skills to help plot your route.

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Some luxuries, such as speciality coffee, are reasonably priced; my favourite place so far is Travellers Coffee, where you can get 500ml of Chemex-filtered specialty coffee for about £2.50 – great for a morning or afternoon of catching up on emails. Other luxuries, however, such as the gym, cost as much if not more than in the UK. My first experience at one gym here cost me 3000 som (£34.50) for a month, and whilst they had adequate facilities, there was one thing it was missing – free drinking water – you were expected to bring your own or pay for one of their bottles.

There Are Lots of Green Spaces
I like to be close enough to nature that I can go and visit it, but not actually live for example in the countryside. When I lived in Wales, I loved the fact that my office was a five minute walk from the coast. Here, I’m within an hour’s drive of mountains, and I can see them out of my window every day (unless it’s raining). I’m thankful for the fact that there are a number of beautiful green spaces in Bishkek. Just fifteen minutes’ walk from my house is Elm Park, which I’ve not fully explored, but looks like a great place to cycle around. I’m also a fan of Erkindik Avenue, which has a beautiful promenade that you can walk down.

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In May I went with my friends to a mountain village called Sosnovka. We were there to help with the development of a children’s home. Whilst there, we had the opportunity to get out into the mountains. They are so atmospheric, lots of dramatic twists and turns! One time we decided to ascend a rocky hill, which in itself was a challenge going up, but rather dangerous going down. Thankfully my friends had experience and were able to safely help me to return to level ground!

Bishkek – A Provincial, Soviet-Style City
When I was studying Russian at university, I spent three months in the Golden Ring city of Yaroslavl. Much of the architecture of the provincial city, whose population was about 600,000, was Soviet apartment blocks, lots of grey! The city did have one saving grace – beautiful Orthodox churches (the city is one of the founding places of the Orthodox Church). Bishkek reminds me quite a lot of Yaroslavl, though on a slightly larger scale (its population is about a million), just with mosques scattered round the city rather than Orthodox churches (though you can still find a few of those too).

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The city is still developing quite a lot, and I was thinking the other day, that I have yet to see any of the big Western fast food chains here – no McDonald’s, no Starbucks, no KFC, Burger King or Subway. In the malls here the biggest influence is from Turkey – we have clothes shops like Waikiki, Koton and Mavi which I saw on the main streets of Ankara when I was there in April. Close to where I’m living there’s a lot of construction work going on to develop pavements, which I’m very thankful of, as walking on the roads at night can be quite dangerous!

Much more to come from Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan in the weeks and months to come!

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