Many travellers opt to fly from Osh to Bishkek as they’re under the misguided impression that there is ‘nothing to see’ along the 10 hour drive. We say different. Taking a taxi out to the long distance shared taxi departure rank with Arthur our German mate,we find a driver keen to leave immediately and negotiate a decent enough price that we decide to pay for the whole car giving us plenty of space.
Why anyone would fly over this stretch of the country is beyond us. Maybe it’s being spoilt by the nearby Pamir Highway, laziness or deep pockets and wallets overflowing with cash. Maybe some just follow the guidebooks recommendations a little too closely. The gorgeous route takes us along a valley with a thundering creek that soon opens up into a dam and further along a pale blue glacial river beaming a dusty blue hue as it winds among the rolling desert hills.
The landscape changes, jaggered cliffs and verdant trees appear as we climb to the snowy 4,000 metre pass and our lunch stop for the day. We tear through long tunnels, wind up mountains roads and pass yurts dotted in the high green pastures.
After stopping at the drivers house about 20 minutes out of town so he can go to sleep, his son takes over the final leg and drops us off directly in front of Friends Hostel, located not 5kms from the centre though down what feels like a back country dirt road. Bishkek is going to be one of them strange capital cities.
Inside the newly opened hostel has a large secured courtyard (good for overland drivers) with covered seating, a large kitchen/dining area and a chill out room with cable TV showing mostly news channels in English. The dorm rooms are huge as are the beds, each with a privacy curtain and ample sized lockers big enough to hand out your entire backpacks contents.
We won’t bore you here with all the ins and outs of our time in Bishkek. We switched between here and Almaty several times to attain visas for both Mongolia and Russia whilst taking advantage of the visa free entry for both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (on Australian and British passports). But here’s some tips on where to get a cold beer and meet some great people while you’re in town as well as the useful visa stuff.
There’s not a lot of major sights to see or do in Bishkek city, but some of the places of interest we visited included the Central Mosque, Ala Too Square in the foreground of the Philharmonic Hall and the leafy Oak Park with its fountain pool that’s great to sit by and dip your feet into. Also check out the frantic and crowded Osh Bazaar, but heed the warnings of others. Don’t take all of your cash and keep a low profile if you’re a lone male. We heard many first and second hand stories of dodgy police robbing people here though we didn’t .
There’s plenty of options for a beer while you’re in town and if you want to stay in rather than head out you can find shops which sell and refill 1-2ltr plastic bottles from a wide variety of taps. But be warned, most of the local draft beer in Kyrgyzstan is probably sweeter than you’re used to.
24 Ibraimova St
Finally it’s back to some craft beer after a hiatus in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Blonder’s has six styles on tap, with the top choice for most being the unfiltered, and there’s an extensive menu too large to go into (though it may be a little pricey for a backpacker budget). We ate here one night when Sarah’s Uncle, Aunt and cousins from Australia were in town and everything we ordered was great. We then managed to entertain ourselves by feeding the rude security guard Vegemite after telling him it was like chocolate. Priceless. There is a great beer garden with a projector screen to show the big sporting events while the huge interior is an all timber affair with the vats behind the bar fermenting the amber stuff.
TIP: Try the green beer which is fermented from the a different grain the name of which we can’t recall. Also on Sunday all beer is HALF PRICE! BOOM! That’s probably why we can’t remember…
Str. Herzen 5
Another brewpub that prides itself on producing beer which adheres to the 1516 German Purity Law. With a large patio area containing some great street art murals and a large and hearty menu you could spend hours here in the outdoor shade or in the lofty beer hall. It’s a little harder to get to than Blonder though being tucked away from the street noise is a plus. Beer here is also more expensive, pours are shorter and it’s not as tasty as Blonder but if you’re craving a dark ale it’s not a bad option.
168 Chuy Ave
We ducked in here to escape the relentless rising of the heat from the pavement and stayed a little too long as the Formula One was on the television and they had cheap Metro draft beer on tap. Aussie Ricardo was chasing down UK’s Hamilton in the rain at Monaco in what turned into a disappointing race when Red Bull cocked up Ricardo’s pit stop (for the second week in a row) after ‘forgetting’ to get the tyres from the back of the garage. An old Soviet theatre, there’s plenty of aviation memorabilia, jazz club mood lighting and live gigs through the week. It’s a one stop shop for many expats and locals. One of the guys staying in our hostel, Thomas Dibb, even played a gig here. Click here for more on Tom Dibb’s epic adventure spreading his music from the UK to Australia in his VW camper Pickle and here for our video of his live gig at the Metro.
Food in the belly
We don’t remember how we heard about this place but passed it randomly one day and couldn’t resist the friendly welcome from the English speaking staff. The place is Korean based and the sticky spicy breasts washed down with beer and a shot of soju (a popular Korean spirit) did nicely for an afternoon snack. They also have live music on Friday, Saturday and some Sundays and loads of cool art adorning the walls, some of which comes out of the ‘art room’ at the rear.
Host Indian Restaurant
Address: 204 Usup Abdrahmanov St, across from the Hilton Hotel
We ended up here as we were intending to spend the day lounging by the hotel pool at the Hilton, though at KGS1,000 (USD$15) each we turned on our heels and headed across the road for lunch instead. There’s a buffet style lunch which is huge though a little bland in the taste department. For KGS245 (USD$3.50) each it’s not a bad option and we rolled out stuffed to the brim.
Getting a Mongolian visa in Bishkek
Bishkek is supposed to be the easiest city in Central Asia to get this visa. Or so we thought. With a regional political summit in town (not the first time for us, and it wouldn’t be the last…) every diplomat and his dog were busy. It took us three days or turning up and banging on the door followed by several phone calls just to gain entry into the consulate.
The usual process take three days though once we explained we’d been trying for three days the Consular General kindly processed it for us the same day at the normal cost of USD$55 each (British and Australian passports).
- Take all your documents to the embassy (you can download the visa application form online to save time).
- They’ll give you a bank deposit slip to pay the funds into their account.
- Head to the nearest branch of Russian Bank located on Moscow Street (42.520991N and 74.363199E) and pay the fee.
- Return to the embassy with your payment receipt and in our case they handed over the visas immediately.
We did meet a couple of Polish guys who paid USD$100, in cash, directly to the man issuing the visas and whilst they got their visas issued while they waited, we’re all sure there’s a high possibility that 50% of the money went straight to the bar that Friday night.
Where to stay (and where not to)
As we travelled back and forth between Almaty and Bishkek for visa reasons we stayed in a couple of places to mix things up and explore different areas. Here’s our view on the good, the bad and the awesome.
Address: Oshsky Pereulok 47
First up we stayed here and enjoyed it so much we ended up staying again a few weeks later. The newly built place has everything you need but most of all the best showers in Kyrgyzstan with waterfall shower heads that almost leave you waterlogged. The air conditioned dorm rooms are spacious, as too the massive beds and lockers. There is a lack of power sockets (one female dorm room had zero) though the super comfortable bedding more than makes up for it. A large kitchen/dining room, TV room with cable and plenty of seating and a patio/courtyard round out the pluses for this place. Our first tay we had the place to ourselves but the second time the place was filled with Irish, Dutch and Israeli travellers and an entire room filled with a weird Korean cult who sang hysterical Christian hymns on guitar every night. Friendly staff can help with travel information.
A night in a dorm bed will cost you USD$10, good value though it’s a short bus ride to the centre. A taxi from Friends to the bus station cost us KGS125 (USD$2) and there’s also buses a short walk away which will get you there for just KGS20 (USD$0.30).
Address: Chymkentskaya 1B
What a mistake it was staying here. The only reason we’d recommend it is for the convenience of the proximity to the bus station which happens to be just out the back door. When we arrived it was a building site and the advertised shared kitchen was closed to guests. We’d booked the 10 bed dorm which was full of backpackers, yet they didn’t honour this and instead shoved us into a room where they rent beds out by the half day/hour to locals who need a place to crash between buses. This left us venerable and our belonging insecure as there were no lockers and no apology. The beds and bedding were second, no, tenth rate crap and with a high turn over of clients and no air conditioning it all added up to a terrible night’s sleep. The common room was poor though for some reason travellers still flock here and we did meet some great people. Still, do yourself a favour and head into the centre where you can find much better hostels. The only plus is the cheap onsite Soviet style canteen.
A dorm bed at Apple Hostel cost USD$9. Still, we say skip it.
Address: 56, 258 Сыдыкова көчөсү
Lastly the third place we stayed (yep we went back and forth a lot) was Hostel 23. Located the closest to the centre out of the three we stayed it’s a small space compensated by the big atmosphere of the people that stayed. Being in close quarters means you can’t avoid on another though luckily it seems to draw a pretty fun traveller crowd. Everything is pretty average here, nothing great, nothing bad, and it feels a bit like being in a big share flat. The kitchen and dining space is small though we still managed to get a crew together for a bit of fun. Bonus: there’s a shop around the corner that sells 2ltr bottles of beer from taps wit about ten styles to choose from at an average cost of KGS180 (USD$2.60).
Dorm beds cost USD$7 per person, per night. It can be a little tricky to get in if there’s no staff about (which of an evening there isn’t) so make sure you arrange your arrival time and check your email for instructions.
Tips for taking a shared taxi from Osh to Bishkek
- A taxi from town to the shared taxi rank should cost around KGS100 (USD$1.50). Aim to get there for between 6am and 7am if you want to enjoy the scenery and arrive in Bishkek before it’s dark. Remember it’s a 10-12 hour drive.
- Try to find a driver that lives in Bishkek as this way the bargaining chips are with you as they’ll want to get home to their families.
- Bargain hard we got a full car for three of us for KGS4,000 (USD$60) which allowed us to stop when we wanted for photos, food and toilet breaks. As the car has two back rows you can have one in the front and one in either of the rows making for a much more enjoyable ride.
- If you do get into a car that has three rows and you don’t want to fork out for the complete car make sure you either get the front seat (sometimes paying a little extra to secure it) or get one of the first row window seats. The back row doesn’t have windows that open.
- If you can only get the back row make sure that they only put two people in there and don’t try to squeeze in a third. It’s a loooong drive to be uncomfortable.
- If you’re by your lonesome don’t worry, cars fill up rapidly. It also pays to ask around at your guesthouse for others travelling the same day or keep an eye out for other backpackers lurking around the taxi rank waiting for departure.
For more photos of our time in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia check out our Flickr page!