Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a Soviet-built city of big boulevards and aging high-rises of around 1 million inhabitants. Despite its size, it’s a shabby, provincial town that offers little of interest to the average traveler, especially compared to the majestic sights everywhere else in Kyrgyzstan.
Nonetheless, its large green spaces, easy-going vibe, big student population, large American presence and low cost of living coupled with Kyrgyzstan’s liberal visa regime, have seen Bishkek emerge as the Central Asian hub for backpackers, cycle tourists and young expats in the academic or aid industries.
Bishkek serves as a jumping off point for day trips to nearby hiking and skiing destinations and as the main transport hub in and out of the country. If you are into nightlife or fine dining, enjoy it here; the rest of Kyrgyzstan has no such offers.
Quick links: Transport guide
Compared with many cities in Central Asia, Bishkek doesn’t have an ancient history or dramatic past lives to call upon. Although this part of the Chuy Valley was populated by Western Turkic nomads and Persian Sogdians from at least the 8th century, their numbers rising and falling with the fortunes of the Silk Route, this civilisation was destroyed in the 13th century when Genghis Khan passed through.
A town only came into being in the middle of the 19th century, as a small Uzbek settlement on a caravan route through the Tien Shan mountains. The name of the area in the Sogdian language, Peshagakh (‘place under the mountains’) sounded enough like pishpek, a wooden ladle used for stirring kymys, that in 1862 when Russian commanders arrived from nearby Verniy (Almaty) to capture the settlement, they called their military garrison Pishpek.
It is also said that Pishpek is an adaptation of the Kazakh besh kek, meaning ‘five chiefs’, or besh bik – ‘five peaks’, referring to the snow-capped Ala-Too mountains close by.
In the coming decades Russian peasants flocked to Pishpek, to take advantage of the fertile black soil of Kirgizia’s Chuy Valley, lured by the offer of free land. By 1926 the town was large enough to become the capital of the newly established Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.
Pishpek was renamed Frunze, after its most renowned son Mikhail Frunze, the Russian Civil War commander who had a big hand in securing Bolshevik supremacy over Central Asia against local basmachi opposition.
At the end of the Soviet era in 1991, the capital of independent Kyrgyzstan took on the Kyrgyz name for a kymys ladle: ‘Bishkek’.
Bishkek has only been a city for ethnic Kyrgyz in the last 3 decades. The town was built by and for Russians, to such an extent that in the first part of the 20th century only Russians were allowed education and healthcare. At the beginning of Communist rule there were only a handful of Kyrgyz, Dungan and Tatars living here; when naming the city Frunze, it didn’t occur to the Russians that the Kyrgyz don’t have an ‘f’ sound in their language.
The city lived through good and bad changes in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1930s the Soviet Union moved some of its heavy industries to the Kyrgyz Republic to keep them away from the Nazis, and this helped its economy to develop. But Stalin’s purges hit Frunze hard in these years, and intellectuals were being persecuted here up until the 1960s.
Many of the buildings that define Bishkek’s cityscape were built in the 1970s and 80s, when the first secretary of the republic, Turdakun Usubaliev, commissioned the impressive marble buildings that still dominate the city centre, including the National History Museum and the houses on Ala-Too Square.
Since independence, Russian influence over Bishkek has faded, allowing Kyrgyz to add their own flourishes to their capital, such as murals by Kyrgyz artists on many of the city’s newer housing blocks. But with its logical grid system of main streets, and attractive parks and green spaces, Bishkek still feels like a Russian city transplanted into Asia.
For winter sports, see skiing in Kyrgyzstan. For hikers, first port of call is Ala Archa National Park. Need to write more on this and the other hiking options around Bishkek, in the meantime, please see elsewhere.
Burana Tower, near Tokmok, is the main historical site outside of Bishkek.