Where is Kyrgyzstan? I am not going to act like I was able to pick it out on a map with a high degree of certainty before Katy and I decided to go there. It is between Kazakhstan and China; not that that is a helpful description. With our frequent flyer plane ticket, we had to continue to fly in one direction, and the only flight west from Mongolia we could take was to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on Turkish Airways. The flight stops in Bishkek and then continues to Istanbul, but we decided to get off in Bishkek for four days. Our expectation going there was that we probably will never go back, and it will be nice to have a few low key days before heading to Turkey.
The owner of our AirBnB in Ulaanbaatar got us a cab at 7:45am to the airport, which was really clutch. We did not have a working rideshare app, and it wasn’t really easy to flag a taxi on the street in UB. The flight to Kyrgyzstan was an uneventful 4.5 hour flight. Immigration in Kyrgyzstan might have been the fastest I have ever seen. You did not have to fill out any paperwork; there was no line, and my estimate is that it took 30 seconds total. Customs took about three minutes since one of the taxi touts had to go and get the customs official to open up customs so we could leave the airport. After being approached by fifteen people for taxis we figured out our game plan, and the taxi driver charged us the correct rate, $9 for the 40 minute drive to our AirBnB.
We did have some issue getting into our AirBnB/connecting with the owner, but we went to Relax Coffee, which was across the street from where we thought the unit was, and got a coffee and some internet, and eventually he came to meet us (well, actually he sent his younger brother). This AirBnB looked great in photos but was a little worn on the inside (Katy says: Todd is wrong, it was very new, so new it felt sterile like it had never been lived in) and was lacking in basics (only 4.8 feet of toilet paper, no dish soap or rags, no salt or pepper, no laundry detergent, but it did have ample vodka glasses, enough for a small army). It did have air conditioning, a balcony, a washing machine, and a great location.
We then went out and stocked up on toilet paper (Katy bought the cheap stuff for $0.12/roll; it didn’t even have a roll in the middle. Her defense was it was more expensive than the $0.08/roll TP; my defense is that I enjoy $1.00+/roll TP) and assorted other culinary treasures. We then headed off to Save the Ales, an all-female run and owned microbrewery. On our way we noticed that Bishkek was not like we anticipated. The streets were clean, well maintained, and ADA compliant (in the technical sense, using all the ramps might be a tad tricky). There were a lot of people in the streets in a wide range of dress. I had asked the guy upon checking into the AirBnB how I said a few basic words, and he told me how to say them in Russian, not Kyrgyz.
About 20% of people in Bishkek are ethnically Russian (their family could have been there for 100+ years), and a little over 60% of the population of the entire country are actually ethnic Kyrgyz. This meant that we did not stand out 100% as tourists. It helps that there are less than 20,000 US tourists a year, and most tourists make a beeline for the countryside (like we did in Ulaanbaatar). The currency was the som, which Russian Google-translate showed as catfish, so we got to know how many catfish everything cost.
Our gradual wander to the brewery was peaceful, and we were the only people there at 4pm. They had 4 beers on tap, but they were out of their IPA. I take that as a win because it is 400% more than the singular microbrewery in Mongolia had. We split one of each brew and noticed that all the employees smoked (in Mongolia TK, who did not smoke, said that 90% of youths in Mongolia smoked, and he only had one other friend who did not regularly smoke). We then decided that dinner was in our future and went to a Georgian restaurant, which was pretty good. We then headed home.
The next day we had a lazy morning and cooked some eggs and then went out to the Osh Market. Osh is the name of the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, but is also the name of the largest market in Bishkek.
I had been looking for a phone store since we got to Bishkek, since our WiFi device doesn’t work in Kyrgyzstan, to get a local SIM card. Bishkek doesn’t participate in Uber, but Yandex Taxi (Russian) is essentially Uber, but you needed a Russian or Kyrgyz phone number to make it work. Our condo owner we didn’t trust to call a taxi for us, so we wanted to use it to call a ride at 4am when we left (and if we wanted to take a ride around town). We eventually found a shop that sold them and tried to buy one. Of course I didn’t know how to open my SIM card slot, so one of the guys ended up going up the road to get the tool to open the slot, and we worked our way though it. It ended up costing $2 for the SIM card and 4 gigs of data with calls and texts, not too shabby. We did see a store owned by the cell company about 100 yards down the road, which would have saved a lot of time, but this was a good adventure.
We then continued to the market. The market was huge, and like most central markets it had tons of different sections. Only two people in the market tried to get our attention, and there were not a lot of tourists in the market at all. It was really nice to be in a giant market and have very very minimal parts of it devoted to tourists.
After lunch Katy went to get a massage (1 hour full body massage for ~$20!), and I went and explored. I discovered a wine bar, so we went there after Katy’s rubbing. They surprisingly had about thirty wines you could get by the glass ($2.5-6, expensive for Bishkek), but none of them were Kyrgyz. We then went out for more Kyrgyz food for dinner.
Our third day in Kyrgyzstan we had booked passage on a hiking trip to a spot 30 miles from the city. One difference from Denver and Bishkek is that tall mountains are accessible close to the city, and there are a lot less foothills. We had an interesting mixed bag group through Kyrgyzstan Trekking Union ($5) with about half being Kyrgyz and the rest being tourists. Two of the younger people who were born in Kyrgyzstan said they barely speak any Kyrgyz, just Russian. It was nice to see some big mountains, and the end destination of our walk was a waterfall (seems to be a theme), so we ate lunch there instead of in the valley looking at the big mountains. Most tourists to Kyrgyzstan are there for the mountains or horse riding, and people normally leave straight to the mountain areas, spending a lot less time in the city than we did.
When we got into town we went to a brewery which just had IPAs on tap, win. This beer was actually decent, not just novel. We then went to another trendy restaurant with giant outdoor couches that served kebab and Azerbaijan food. Unfortunately we didn’t discover until after we ordered that if you ordered a full fish they gave you a fishing rod, and you had to fish it out of a pond in the restaurant.
One thing with a lot of the restaurants we have been to is that they are HUGE. You can fit five Boulder sized restaurants in some of them (Hoss’s Steakhouse size). We then went to the no name bar. Unlike true hipster establishments there was a sign on the door saying the name of the bar was the no name bar. Bishkek is different than Ulaanbaatar because they actually do hipster well. The establishment was decorated in eclectic hipster, and when we sat down we were only given a menu in Russian (almost all places that cost $4 or more for a meal had an English menu), but a waitress came right over and asked us if we wanted her to translate the menu, and it worked out way better than photo-Russian via Google translate. There are minimal requirements to brew and serve beer, so a lot of places have bad home brew (which is better than light lager) on tap; this place was no exception. Katy got a few mixed drinks, which were surprisingly good.
Our last day we had another wander around the city day, and it was great. Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan far exceeded our expectations, and now Kyrgyzstan is on our list of countries we want to visit properly.