Museums of Bishkek
Most museums have a small entrance fee of 100 som (2-3$) or less. Many are closed on Mondays and some close for an hour's lunch break in the middle of the day.
NATIONAL HISTORICAL MUSEUM
(North end of Alatau Square; open Tue-Sun 9am-5pm.)
Most exhibits are in Kyrgyz and Russian only so it's worth hiring an interpreter and museum guide for an interesting and informative whistle-stop tour of the history of Kyrgyzstan.
The story starts on the top floor where the fetching, colourful ceiling paintings celebrate the Soviet Union's cheerful ethnic mix, united as ever in their march towards socialism. Look out for the anti-US propaganda, including a skeleton wearing an Uncle Sam top hat riding a missile rodeo style.
Remains from Kyrgyzstan's history appear to have been swallowed up by the local equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. The paucity of visible archaeological and historical remains belies a rich and varied history, with civilisations of sophistication and international importance.
Though mammoth remains have been found in Kyrgyzstan, the earliest exhibits here are petroglyphs from Siymaliytash (west of Naryn) and the Chui Valley dating from 2000-1000 BC. Bronze Age axes, knives and huge cooking pots, found in burial mounds around Lake Issyk Kul, are displayed along with a ceremonial plate for animal sacrifices, which apparently transferred to men the strength and properties of the beast.
There are displays of Neolithic artefacts, including Saimaluu-Tash petroglyphs, which are well worth seeing if you're planning to go there, or even if you are not, and examples of Turkic stone culture and Talas burial stones. Also: coins, Bronze Age objects and musical instruments; golden artefacts from the Chui valley's Shushing tomb; beautiful blue pottery from the Talas valley; models of the buildings of the Karakhanid period like those at Ozgon; and a large ethnographic collection of Kyrgyz nomadic paraphernalia that includes traditional costumes and equestrian fittings like saddles and harnesses. The old black and white photographs of pre-Soviet Kyrgyz life are particularly fascinating. The top floor has a large yurt in situ.
Silk Road relics include a third century scrap of silk from Batken in southern Kyrgyzstan, 11th century glassware and glazed azure floor tiles from a medieval palace in Sadovoye, Chui Valley. Very little appears to have survived the destructive forces of Jenghis Khan. Burial pots, thought to date from the Sogdian period and decorated with leaves and sheep, contained the bones of the dead when excavated.
Displays from the 18th to 20th centuries include traditional Kyrgyz dress and marriage items, including jewellery (mostly silver, inlaid with turquoise) and a felt- covered belt for women who had recently given birth. There is also a fully furnished yurt, dolls woven from ribbons and nineteenth century photos of nomadic families.
Despite its new name much of this museum - all of the second floor and part of the third - remains dedicated to the life and works of Lenin. The huge statuary on the stairs is of Lenin leading the revolutionary masses; the inevitable sizeable collection of Soviet memorabilia is still on show on the middle floor. In a post-Soviet climate, yesterday's propaganda becomes today's history lesson, and so this unapologetic shrine to the man provides a fascinating window on the recent past.
There is a highly impressive mural on the ceiling of the third floor that depicts a wedding party attended by representatives of every Soviet nationality - Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tartars, fair-haired Russians - all gathered in complete accord alongside the man making the speeches, Comrade Lenin himself; an idealised representation of the ethnic melting pot that was the Soviet Union (another superb mural shows reactionary religious types and Cossacks confronting revolutionary soldiers). In addition, there are various statues and paintings of Lenin addressing assembled revolutionary masses and doing a lot of pointing. Other Lenin memorabilia includes photos, texts and books associated with the leader. Unusually for this part of the world there are occasional labels in English, although the vast majority are in Russian and Kyrgyz.
The ground floor houses a collection of gifts given to President Akaev by various heads of state, along with exhibits relating to the President himself, his family and politics. There is a shop selling Kyrgyz carpets, wall hangings and souvenirs. More attractive are the stalls set up twice a year by women from an artisan group in Naryn province, selling quality felt products at reasonable prices.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
196 Batik Batyr (Sovielskaya), just opposite the Opera. Open Tue-Sun 9am-4pm, and Fri 10am-4pm.
This museum, opposite the Opera and Ballet Theatre and sometimes referred to as the Gapar Aytiev Museum of Applied Art, is dedicated to displaying temporary exhibitions along with a permanent collection of Kyrgyz folk and applied art, and Russian and Soviet fine art. The permanent collection was originally kept in St Nicholas's Russian Orthodox church in Dubovy Park (which now houses the Gallery of the Artist's Union) but the museum was built in 1974 to house the collection. The museum was renovated a few years ago.
Amongst its permanent exhibitions are Kyrgyz folk and applied arts, including excellent wall hangings and vast carpets, some Soviet Realist paintings and a collection of propaganda art. Along with the obligatory yurt and a colourful display of shyrdaks, carpets and typical felt goods, there are several galleries of differing styles of Soviet-period art that include Soviet Realism and propaganda, and replicas of Egyptian, Roman and Greek statuary. Most captions are in Russian and Kyrgyz but some are in English. Women from a small village near Tokmak, site of the Burana tower, occasionally bring their felt-ware to display and sell. This felt-ware craft markets are held in the courtyard facing the entrance.
MIKHAIL FRUNZE MUSEUM
364 Frunze, at the crossroads with Razzakova. Open Tue-Fri
The Mikhail Frunze Museum is one of a dying breed: a eulogy to a Soviet hero. Don't be put off, though; it's well worth a visit, especially if you hire a well-informed (Russian- speaking only) guide at the museum, when the sense of paying homage at the shrine of Mikhail Frunze will be greatly enhanced.
Museum Mikhail Vasilievich Frunze (1885–1925) was born in what was then Pishpek and later moved onto Moscow where he commanded the Red Guards during the 1917 Revolution. He then led the Bolshevik forces that seized Khiva and Bukhara in 1920.
Within the building is Frunze's childhood home, a modest clay thatched cottage with period furniture, including a spinning wheel, rocking horse and high chair. The hut is most likely a recreation but it does give you an idea of pastoral life in Tsarist Russia.
Mikhail Frunze, born in 1885, is best known for his initial suppression of local resistance to the advance of Bolshevik socialism into Central Asia and for giving his name to Soviet-era Bishkek. He died in 1925 and a debate still rages over whether Lenin, feeling threatened by Frunze's successes, ordered his demise (though Lenin died himself in 1924).
The museum contains all the paraphernalia of Frunze's life and glittering career; depicting him as, at once, brave soldier, inspired leader, accomplished academic, family man and, above all, devoted exponent of Bolshevism. There are over 1,400 photos alone, in addition to a selection of arms and medals. Most notable are the triangular desks which he crafted while in a Siberian prison camp, his Order of the Red Banner and other awards for military activities. An additional room displays significant moments in the city's (and nation's) Soviet history, along with war posters with patriotic slogans such as 'Your motherland is calling!'.