For those who don’t know it, the city of Bishkek would seem like an unlikely location for an international hub. But because of Kyrgyzstan’s relatively open entry policy for most nationalities, it has developed a small but healthy expat community and has become a popular stopover for backpackers to load up on visas for other Central Asian countries.
I have enjoyed Bishkek as a welcome guest on a four-day vacation, and as a desperate foreigner on an eight-day trainwreck of an attempt to get a visa. And now I know a thing or two.
First thing: Always hook up with the Trekking Union.
Bishkek lies at the foothills of the Tian Shen mountains within easy and inexpensive reach of some beautiful hiking trails, but there isn’t a lot of English language information about where to go. Even information in Russian is not very descriptive in terms of what trails to follow and what landmarks to use. The Trekking Union is the solution. They run day trips to a ton of locations in the foothills and higher into the mountains, always with at least one experienced guide. Usually booking a few days in advance is wise, but I’ve now shown up twice at the last possible second and gotten a spot. You pay the equivalent of $15 USD, they stuff you in a marshrutka with a dozen other foreigners (and very occasionally some locals), and off you go.
This is where you’ll make your expat and traveler friends. By the time the marshrutka pulls up to the trail head, your company will have split off into two camps: Fluent English speakers and fluent Russian speakers. A few lucky ducks will be bilingual. But almost everyone who ends up inside Kyrgyzstan after being born outside Kyrgyzstan has a good story to tell.
This time we tagged along on a day trip to Ala Archa National Park, an idyllic entry point into the “real mountains” from the gentle foothills that ripple through the northernmost slice of the country. Our only setback was an encounter with some terrible Chinese food the night before, which made it difficult to get any sleep between trips to the bathroom. Two of us were feeling better by the start of the hike but we still hadn’t eaten anything substantial that day and P continued to struggle with periodic stomach cramps. We stopped when we could, but we had to keep pace with the group because we didn’t know where we were going.
Ala Archa is my first national park in Central Asia that looks maintained. No one’s sitting in a visitor center handing out maps, but Ala Archa has everything you really need: Regular trail markings, the occasional sign post with kilometers to the next landmark, and a little cafeteria at the base of the park that sells light snacks on the cheap. Besides the transportation logistics, we could have done this one by ourselves, and in the end we sort of did.
We hiked with the group maybe 6 or 7 kilometers to the base of a still-frozen waterfall, and then told them to go ahead without us; that we’d return along the same trail at our own pace. We had reached the snow line and we weren’t dressed for it. We were running on empty. Our stomachs had stopped churning and we were thinking about lunch, but a picnic seemed easier to accomplish on the grassy, sunny face of the mountain than on the summit of the melting glacier above.
We beat the rest of the group back to the base by about two hours, but the day had only gotten warmer and sunnier in the meantime. We entered the small cafeteria in the parking lot and ordered some tea and chak chak to pass the time. Some of my most pleasant memories of Central Asia are turning out to be casual road stops with countryside views and pots of hot black tea.
The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (in Russian or English) offers day trips in all seasons. In the winter, most excursions revolve around skiing, and in the warmer months you can hike the mountains, raft the rivers, or try your hand at mountain biking, all within driving distance of Bishkek.
Ala-Archa can also be reached by taxi for about 1500 som ($30) roundtrip.