5 minute guide to Bishkek: striking Soviet mosaics and architectural gems in this modernist garden city

5 minute guide to Bishkek: striking Soviet mosaics and architectural gems in this modernist garden city

30 January 2019
Text and image: Samuel Goff

For a good time away from the crowds: You’re unlikely to encounter too many tourists even in the centre of town, but if you’re looking to stretch your legs away from the main avenues, then go hunting for mosaics. Bishkek’s range of communist-era stonework is as good as any former Soviet capital can offer, and with decommunisation efforts having already decimated similar works in cities such as Kiev, these public artworks shouldn’t be taken for granted any longer. Many of Bishkek’s mosaics demonstrate an unusual, painterly style that adds a distinctive edge to familiar Soviet tropes. You can find some prime examples in this guide.

An important but little-known moment in the history of this city is: To the west of central Bishkek is an overgrown park named after the interwar Czech anti-fascist journalist Jan Fučik — a pretty nondescript reminder of a pretty remarkable period in the city’s history. In this dusty suburb, between 1925 and the Second World War, a group of over a thousand workers, mostly from far away Czechoslovakia, travelled to Kyrgyzstan to found Interhelpo, a utopian housing and work commune with its own sports clubs, newspaper, orchestra and factories. You can still visit the commune’s old House of Culture, though it’s hard to imagine, standing now in its modest theatre, just how radical this place once was.

The most notable building in the city is probably: The effects of perestroika were felt across the Soviet Union, as Bishkek’s Central Mosque proves. By most accounts this was the first and last new mosque built by the Soviets, an acquiescence to religious sentiment that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier. Nowadays it’s perhaps more striking for its blend of architectural styles, with concrete, quasi-Brutalist modernism combined with Persian-influenced Islamic forms with stark brick and metal detailing. Confusingly, a shiny new ‘Central Mosque’ has since been opened elsewhere in the city, but the original, at 55 Gogol Street, is much more intriguing.

The best green space is: One of Bishkek’s biggest perks is the sheer amount of greenery that abounds in the city centre. The Kyrgyz capital is a modernist garden city laid out along a grid of easily navigable avenues (though look out for the potholes). Taking in the sights on the main thoroughfare of Chuy Avenue will lead you to two parks: Oak Park, with its array of sculptures depicting everyone from Buddha to Marx and Engels, and Panfilov Park — home in the summer to an enjoyably naff funfair.

Must-try local delicacy: Kyrgyzstan, like much of Central Asia, is big on horses. If you don’t fancy trying equine tripe for dinner, then you should at least make the effort to try kumis — a vaguely alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk. Locals will tell you that it has a whole array of health benefits, and the importance of kumis to Kygryz culture is such that many claim the very name “Bishkek” derives from the word for the paddle used to churn the fermenting milk. It would be rude not to have a sip.

Tian Shen mountan range. Image: Chen Zhao under a CC licence

The best day-trip is: The majestic Tian Shen mountain range to the south of the city can occasionally be glimpsed through the low rises and clouds that ring Bishkek. If you fancy an idiosyncratic day trip, then head into its foothills to one of the many Soviet-era sanatoria which make use of the area’s plentiful natural springs. Particuarly convenient is Issyk-Ata, about 90 minutes by minibus from Bishkek’s East Bus Station (263 Jibek Jolu Avenue). You can stroll through the grounds of the sanatorium, including its grand dining hall, but if you don’t have time for a lengthy stay then head back to the village, climb the overlooking hill and pay the equivalent of £1 to spend an hour bathing in the hot, sulphurous spring water public swimming pool. The water is pungent, the facilities are rustic and the view is breathtaking.

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