Kyrgyzstan's capital city, Bishkek, lies at about 800 metres above sea level, only 30 kilometres from the Kazak border, just to the north of the latitude occupied by Tbilisi, Barcelona, Rome and Boston, although its extreme continental position ensures that it differs dramatically from these cities in climatic terms, with short, sometimes fiercely hot, summers and winters that are uncompromisingly sub-zero. In a country that is mostly characterised by mountainous terrain, Bishkek's modest altitude is unremarkable, almost an exception to the rule. It crouches in the fertile Chui river valley on the banks of the Ala Archa and Alamyedin rivers, whose waters are rigorously siphoned off through the Chui canal to the Kazak steppe. The Chui river itself runs along the Kazak border. Always visible above the trees and the 1950s concrete housing blocks, the snow-clad peaks of the Kyrgyz Alatau hover to the south.
Also like the Kazakh former capital Almaty, Bishkek has a remarkable amount of green space, with swathes of parks and woodland dotted about the city to soften the traffic noise and freshen up the air (the city is said to have more trees per person than anywhere else in central Asia). The entire downtown feels like one big park, with trees sprouting from every crack in the concrete. It's hard to imagine that little over 100 years ago it was a barren, windswept, dusty backwater.
The neat grid pattern on which it was arranged by 19th century Russian designers makes it easy to navigate. The streets are arranged on a grid system, and as in many provincial Russian or ex-Soviet cities the boulevards and avenues that criss-cross the city are a tad wider than they realistically need to be to contain the traffic.
This is no urban jungle; in many aspects the city is almost village-like, with local communities focused around small markets and convenience stores. This village effect is heightened by the constant reminder of the alpine landscape that lies just beyond the city limits as, from virtually anywhere in Bishkek, the near-5,000m, snow-clad ridge of the Ala-Too is visible rising beguilingly to the south.
Its outskirts still resemble a Ukrainian village, whose Slavic houses with their carved caves are set in gardens of blossoming apricot and apple trees, surrounded by fragile fences interlaced with vines. In the centre, poplar trees shade the broad streets and avenues, and parks of ancient oak break up the city concrete.
Bishkek's population has risen dramatically since independence, when it was around 700,000 and predominantly Russian. In the year 2000 it was reported to be over one million and by 2004 some claimed it to be over two million, although this seems doubtful. In Soviet times the city was almost exclusively Slav, but thousands have left, giving way to a nouveau riche of 'new Kyrgyz', as well as to South Asian and Turkish businessmen and a growing tide of foreign aid agencies. In response, smart new restaurants, cafes and shops have sprung up, lending a prosperous face to the centre. Although the ethnic make-up of the city has changed dramatically over the past ten years, Bishkek still remains culturally a Russian city in comparison with the rest of the country. It is still host to sizeable communities of Russians, Dungan Chinese, Tartars, Uyghurs, Uzbeks and Ukrainians, some of which - elderly Russians in particular - are suffering quite visibly under the new economic order.
The green, quiet and laid-back Kyrgyz capital seems to be the perfect introduction to the mountain republic. The Kyrgyz Ala-Too range creates a magnificent backdrop and their glacial melt pours through the city centre in gurgling troughs. It is from the Ala-Too that the Ala-Archa, one of the range's main rivers, delivers much of the water needed to irrigate the city's impressive stock of greenery, the mountain melt-water channelled and distributed by means of a series of aryk canals. From the city, the mountains seem to be within a hand's grasp and indeed, they almost are: to go hiking in any one of the valleys that sever the Ala-Too range is an easily manageable day trip from the capital.
North of Bishkek, the landscape is far less dramatic, with the gently undulating, fertile agricultural plain of the Chui valley stretching modestly into neighbouring Kazakhstan. In such a vast geographical fastness as central Asia it might seem improbable that two capital cities should lie so close together but they do: Almaty, the Kazakh capital, lies just a few hours away by road.
The low-rise Soviet-era buildings and odd Lenin or Frunze statue lend a time warp ambience that is quaint, if not a little drab. Daytime commerce is brisk across Bishkek and you’ll find modern shopping malls, heaving bazaars and fast-flowing traffic. It’s a great place for walking, but apart from a couple of museums there are few headline attractions.
Nightlife is fairly tame, especially if you’ve just arrived from Almaty, with the only real action a PG-rated water fountain sound and light show in Ala-Too Square. Bishkek is not the sort of city you would travel halfway across the world to see for its own sake; it is not Samarkand, or Bokhara, or even Almaty. Bishkek may not thrill at first glance, but the main sites – its parks and the national museum – are easily visited in a day or two, making this is a good place to start or end the Kyrgyz leg of your Central Asian odyssey. It is also a necessary stopover in most Kyrgyz itineraries, and with a good range of places to stay, a fairly wide selection of restaurants and a few minor sights of its own, it is a pleasant enough place to relax and take stock whilst sorting out onward transport and visas.
Orientation - Bishkek sits on the northern hem of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains, an arm of the Tian Shan. Nineteenth-century military planners laid out an orderly, compass-oriented town and getting around is quite easy. East–west Jibek Jolu prospektesi (Silk Road Ave), just north of the centre, was old Pishpek’s main street. Now the municipal axes are Chuy and parklike north–south Erkindik. The busiest commercial streets are Kiev and Soviet (Abdurakhmanov). At the centre yawns Ala-Too Sq, flanked by Panfilov and Dubovy (Oak) Parks. Street numbers increase as you head north or west. Most street signs now indicate the new Kyrgyz names but many locals may still use the old Soviet-era names. Confusion reigns supreme and the only thing you can do is try to bear in mind both names when looking for an address or getting directions.