Where is Bishkek-Kyrgyzstan? (And why would you want to visit?)
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. If you’re traveling the silk route it’s about 240 km southwest (ish) from Almaty; 270 km east of Taraz, and about 600 km northeast of Osh.
If you’re not coming by road, you can fly into ‘Manas international Aeroport’ Bishkek, or take one of the Silk Route trains between Moscow and Beijing
Bishkek is often used as a stopping-off point before heading to the beautiful mountains and lakes in the east, or south to Osh. But the city itself is pleasant enough with enough cultural and historic sites to keep you occupied for a day or so such as the Supparo-Ethno Complex, State Museum of Fine Arts, and the Dordoy Bazaar. It’s also a pretty easy city to walk around with several grand plazas and green-leafy parks with cafes where you can get a hot meal and a cold beer.
Back in the day, it was the logical place to stay and get your onward visas to the rest of the Stans or China if you were headed the other way. That’s not such a big issue nowadays with several of the neighboring countries no longer requiring visas for many nationalities.
Almaty’s Little Brother
It was an easy matter to pick up a cab down to the bus station and then book a seat on the Marshrukta going to Bishkek. However, to preserve the peace, we willingly purchased an extra seat for our packs so that the driver didn’t have to keep pulling them in and out when others departed.
The trip itself was nothing to write home about, unfortunately. Most of the way the scenery is flat, fallow fields baking under the harsh sun. The border crossing was infinitely easier and quicker than our previous one. Stamp out, walk a short way, and stamp in. Yay! 👍
Probably the most memorable thing about the trip was the number of times our Kazak number-plated van was stopped by the police. Inevitably the driver would hop out, give them a big hearty handshake (we think with a transfer of notes) and hug, then jump back in and drive on. It was never obvious why we were stopped or why everyone was so happy about it but we figured it was a revenue-raising activity by the Kyrgyz police. We found out later, it wasn’t the only shakedown around.
About three hours after crossing the border we were at the Bishkek bus station. We wandered past the taxi drivers quoting ridiculous prices to a guy who appeared to be more honest-looking than the rest. How do we judge that? I guess it’s a mix of gut feel, an abundance of caution, and hard-won experience. As it turned out he was a great pick as he knew where our guesthouse was which isn’t as easy as it could be.
The Sakura hostel is located in a back lane behind Sovietskaya (a main street) but you have to enter a specific way to be able to get the car up close. Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were sorted in a lovely clean room with access to spotless bathroom facilities, good wifi, and a small meeting area in the garden where we would spend most of the next 9 days.
Bishkek is a bit like Almaty’s little brother. Similar architecture, boulevards, and parks made walking around, even on the hottest days a pleasure. They have a great “Gourmet”/Turkish supermarket where you can buy all those things you miss from home. Beer is sold in every street corner shop, and there are a number of excellent café-restaurants in their parks where you can while away a few hours over a coldie.
Our main reason for staying so long was to collect a couple of visas. In the end, those were easy. We got our Tajikistan visa in 15 min, and the Uzbek one in 20 minutes, once we had our Letter Of Invitation through Stantours.
But it was the people we met at Sakura and the comfortable digs that saw us stay at least three or four days longer than intended. I still shake my head when I think these encounters in Bishkek, Kyrgystan of all places, changed our future travel plans for the foreseeable future.
You see Bishkek is a favorite rest stop for long-distance touring cyclists, and Sakura was one of the most popular hostels for this intrepid band of travelers.
At the time we’d booked a 10-month overland expedition around Africa for straight after we were scheduled to finish the Silk Route. But after that, we had only loose plans. Our thoughts at the time were to head north to Cyprus and stay there while Tim finished one of his regular annual contracts. We would then plot a route up through the Balkans and Eastern Europe as long as the weather stayed bearable and then get a job somewhere to wait out the winter.
The expense of Europe precludes traveling around for too long without your own transport – like our campervan we had for 2 years in the late ’90s. But as more and more cyclists told us of their travels on touring bikes we started to wonder if we could do something similar and solve that transport issue without buying a vehicle.
Many a night was spent over a couple of beers quizzing them about bikes, gear, and training regimes. It soon became obvious that while a lot of planning (in some cases!) had gone into equipping their bikes, many of them had just gotten on them and started riding, gaining fitness, and losing weight as they went.
One Japanese girl and her Greek boyfriend had bought a bikes in Kashgar, and then ridden them over to Kyrgyzstan. Two couples had come from the UK and one from Germany. Martin and Alex from Melbourne Australia, and Sergei and Adrienn from New Zealand and Hungary had ridden all the way from Britain, clocking up over 12,500kms to date. They took time to show us their bikes and explain some of the reasons why they had kitted them the way they had. They also enjoyed a cold beer at day’s end and knew how to shout in turn – a trait not common amongst many backpackers, unfortunately!
We were also lucky to meet Eireen and Michael from Berlin who were cycling with Lucia, a tiny Yorkshire terrier who commanded center stage every time we sat down. Their adventures on the road with Lucia should end up in a book. They also took time out to show us their bikes, which looked fantastic.
And then there was the crazy Japanese crew, including our now good friend Wataru who eventually rode across every continent except Antarctica and clocked up well over 100 000 km!
It would take pages to relate all the stories they told of human kindness, hospitality, challenges and triumphs. But needless to say, we were enthralled. Sakura rapidly became a hard place to leave as we got to know these adventurous, like-minded people.
And not long after we made a life-changing decision. Once we’d finished our African trip we would fly from Egypt to Perth, get some touring bikes and gear, and ride over to the East Coast and back to Brisbane, catching up with our many friends and family along the way. 🚴♀️🚴🏽♂️ 🇦🇺
We figure that will give us a good idea if we are cut out for bike touring. We could then get some work somewhere and plan a trans-Europe, trans-North America, and parts of South America over the next 5 or so years.
It was a perfect plan, and if it all worked out, a far cheaper way of traveling overall than trying to buy cars or campers to get us around.
We’re were (kind of! 🤪 ) realistic about our age and state of health, and realized it wouldn’t start happening for another 12 months. But we didn’t want to die wondering and hopefully would add the extra challenge I think we are both looking for since the world of back-packing became so easy.
Well, we all know how that turned out…You can read some of the stories HERE.
Handy Hints for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
While we were there, there was a bit of a scam where fake “police” would try and shake visitors down for cash. They ask you for your ID and belongings to search and then either accuse you of some crime or steal your stuff. This was particularly prevalent at the Osh bazaar. We didn’t experience this ourselves but a couple staying at the hostel did. Never hand over your original passport. Ask for their badges and insist you will only comply with their requests at the police station.
Take time out to visit one or more of the cafes in the shady parks to enjoy a meal or just a cold, refreshing beverage. There’s plenty of people watching to keep you occupied.
GPS My City has half a dozen or so self-guided walking tours that will help you see all the main sites in a logical order.
Intrepid Travel has 10 or so trips that visit Bishkek including their Central Asian Explorer (17 days), Bishkek to Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) (26 days), The Great Silk Road (32 days), Tajikstan Discovery (17 days), Ultimate Silk Road: Beijing to Ashgabat (41 days), Explore Kazakhstan (14 days), Explore Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan (26 days), Nur-Sultan(Astana) to Tashkent (30 days), Central Asia: Five Stans Adventure (39 days) and Best of Central Asia(30 days)
If you’re not into hostels and would like something a bit more luxurious then you’ll find a number of international standard hotels available. The best known probably being the Hyatt Regency which is well-located and surrounded by parks and museums. Way back then it was the closest atm to Sakura, so we can confirm it seems just like any 4-5star chain hotel around the world. If you want to see the other accommodation options then head HERE to start.