Bishkek

A rudimentary and ever-expanding guide to things and places around the city. More listings (most not written by me) can be found at The Spektator, though some of the places they continue to list may no longer exist, as the editors are now back in the UK. Note that there’s quite a bit of crossover between dining and nightlife, as many pubs serve food, and some cafes have music and drinks at night, but are quieter during the day.

Sightseeing
Most of the “stuff to see” in Bishkek is along Chuy. Start west at Osh Bazaar and walk East until you hit the theater (about a block past Sovietskaya). Yep, that’s everything.

Studying
Bishkek has a few universities and language institutions that accept foreigners. The most obvious of these are American University of Central Asia (AUCA) and The London School of Bishkek.
AUCA offers undergraduate degrees with accreditation from Bard College in the US, one MA program in Central Asian Studies, Exchanges, and (occasionally) accredited summer language programs.
They also have a short guide to Bishkek.

The London School offers language courses (Russian, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen) in private or group lessons. Private lessons run $5 an hour and group lessons are somewhat cheaper. In the summer, when there are more students (a lot of grad students from Canada and the UK in my experience) they tend to offer 10-hour-a-week or 20-hour-a-week options, though during other seasons they seem to be more flexible in offering classes only a few times or a few hours a week for “casual” students. They also offer dorms, homestays, weekend excursions, and “cultural programs“.
Here’s someone elses review.

Shopping
I don’t really recommend buying a lot in Bishkek. Local stuff is generally of higher quality in other parts of the country, and imported stuff is often expensive and of low quality.

For non-grocery items, the basic options are:

Inexpensive Kyrgyz and Chinese stuff: Osh, Dordoy and Ortosai bazaars. Expect to pay much more than you would for something in China, and get something of far lower quality.

Medium-quality western stuff: Vefa Center and Bishkek Park are pretty much the only two malls in Bishkek (though I think there’s a clothing outlet somewhere on the far eastern end of Chuy?). They are accompanied by a host of (mostly Turkish) shops like Mixx, Rodney Mood and Colin’s on parallel Chuy and Kievskaya around Bishkek Park/Beta Stores and on Sovietskaya, from Chuy south to Vefa Center. Selection is limited and slanted to the local market (think lots of leopard print), quality tends to be on the lower end, and prices are higher than they would be in Turkey or the US. Bishkek Park does have a Levi’s, a Mango and a Kotton, which is about as upper-end as you’re going to get.

Electronics: Osh bazaar, right across from the entrance (second hand cellphones and everything else cheap and slightly sketchy); the basement level of Bishkek park (cellphone cases, chargers, and a not-quite-authentic apple store with real apple computers); and Tsum, where you can find anything from adaptors to cellphones to hairdryers to LCD screen TVs and vacuum cleaners.

For Kyrgyz souvenirs and all things felt:
The Osh bazaar has a dozen stalls for felt slippers, wallets, hats, seat covers and toys hidden behind the clothes, opposite the main entrance, behind the electronics section. The selection is somewhat limited, and the designs basic, but the prices are generally quite low.
Most malls (Bishkek Park, Beta Stores) have some stores selling Kyrgyz felt things, but for a better selection, head over to the top floor of Tsum on Chuy and Sovietskaya – half the top floor of this electronics (and clothing and kitchen appliances) market is devoted to all things Kyrgyz. There isn’t much room for bargaining, but the stalls do offer a wide variety and a lot of intricate or novel designs you wouldn’t find at the Osh Bazaar.
For higher-end Kyrgyz keepsakes, TUMAR next to Bishkek Park on Kievskaya is rather renowned for one-of-a-kind (though somewhat less traditional/rustic) designs and designer prices. There are also some shops on Chuy, between Manas and Sovıetskaya.

For Grocery Items:
Narodnie has a basic monopoly on the country. Supposedly it’s owned by some high government person’s son, which would explain why they hold such a monopoly on the grocery market when the produce is rarely fresh but for two months in summer and prices are always a bit higher. However, there’s probably one ten meters from your door, open 24/7, and they should cover most of your dry-good needs. Harodnies also have deli bars, with half-fresh food.
For produce, the bazaars are your best deal, especially in winter. I usually go to the Osh bazaar, because its closer and has a bigger selection of fresh, local produce and a whole aisle of delicious cold Korean salads. Prices are also lower, and you’re putting money into the local economy, instead of the pocket of some minister’s son and his harem.

For Foreign Grocery Items:
Two Turkish chains,
PLUS Market (In Vefa Center) and Beta Stores (on Chuy and south of downtown), dominate the market. Of these, Beta Stores has a far superior selection, both of grocery items, and of stuff for the house and kitchen like toasters and coffee-bean grinders. Items (especially electronics) are definitely marked up but do come with warranties.
Ibramov and Tolktogoy boasts a tiny “European Market” right next to a Narodnie. The selection is pretty small, but they do have things like fresh mint and salad greens, European cheeses, jam and meat along with a large selection of imported alcohol. The German Grocery just west of Vefa Center on Gorky has a really limited selection of German imports, including cheese, jam, cereal, sweets, frozen cakes and (it seems) fresh-baked western bread.

Dining
A note: all cafes in Bishkek are overpriced to one extent or another. Plain black coffee is rarely under $2; sometimes it tops $3. And they charge extra for milk. And water. And everything else. Cafes and western restaurants usually have a service charge of 15-18%; tipping is not customary in local restaurants, though you might leave small change. Checking your receipt is always a good idea – sometimes prices change between the menu and the receipt, sometimes things appear on the receipt that you neither saw nor ordered.
When dining out, for a full meal (beverage soup/salad, main course) expect around 100-150 som/person in casual local places and soviet-era cafeterias (stolovaya), 200-300 som/person in mid-level local places, 300-500 som/person in Turkish restaurants, 500-700 som in cafes, and 500-1000+ som in western/international restaurants. Don’t take this as a definitive guide – there are definitely a lot of higher-end options in Bishkek, and non-locally-produced drinks will quickly bring up your tab.

Cafeteria
30 Erkindik; On the west side of the railroad park, three blocks south of Chuy
Don’t come here expecting a hearty meal of society fare; the overpriced dishes are dainty, but the comfortable couches and warm decor make it a good spot for a long dinner and discussion or an afternoon reading a book over a cup of coffee. This has been turned into a sushi joint, but I think they still have the same management and menu

Cafe Nana
First Floor of Bishkek Park
Overpriced but actually decent coffee complimented by comparatively-attendant waitstaff, a great location for people-watching, and professional (albeit really slow) hookah service.

La Vita Café
One block east of Bishkek Park, one block south of Beta stores, slightly off of Kievskaya
Nicely located in the center, but tucked away on a quieter side street. Tasteful interior, pleasant outdoor seating, and a menu full of fresh food and drinks with prices that are quite moderate when compared to Bishkek’s other cafes. Coffee for under a hundred som? It’s true, and espresso too.

Spleenka (or something like that)
I think this place used to be called the “newspaper room”. It’s just across from Beta 1 on Chuy. Surprisingly, for the nice decor, comfy couches, and decent waitstaff the prices are actually reasonable. Coffee drinks are god; food is disappointing.

Mir Kebaba
Third floor of Bishkek Park
Generally good-sized portions of decently-done (if sometimes somewhat oily) Turkish food. The kitchen is clean, and the patio over the street is a nice place to dine outside (above the dust!) in summer. Most main dishes are 200-400 som; dinner for two including tea, soup and salad 700-1000.

Friendly (Hong Fu Huo Guo)
NE corner of Sovietskaya and Tugolbay Ata
This may be Bishkek’s only hot pot place, and it’s pretty close to the real thing. Menus in Chinese and Russian; hot pot comes with spicy or clear broth.

Park Cafe
NE corner of Kiev and Erkindik
Solid Turkish fare done with care and precision in a venue that looks like a cross between a soviet cafeteria and a four-star restaurant. I don’t know why we would eat Turkish food anywhere else.

Cave Coffee
One block east of Vefa Center, above Bookingram
Cave Coffee wins for Bishkek’s best interior design (the woman’s bathroom is amazing). Coffee and food are generally done well (though again way overpriced, especially with the service tax added). It’s open 24/7, so a good spot for both afternoon studying or late night after-dinner coffee with friends.

Vanilla Sky
Mosckba and Ibranov
Nice seating and interior, somewhat extensive menu, including Bishkek’s largest dessert selection, but I’m not sure I would really recommend it. Things on the menu are randomly overpriced, randomly not – coffee is a mere 110 som, but the friend I went with paid nearly 200 for the “green salad” – which turned out to be a plate of lettuce, and nothing but lettuce. They also seemed to have different drink prices on different menus, which caused some confusion with our bill. The desserts were pretty, but the one my friend picked out tasted a bit like plastic. So…

Nightlife

Kremlin
Kiev and Kalyk Akiev
Tucked behind an Italian eatery and decorated like its Saint Petersburg namesake Kremlin has lost its classy sheen of the past despite the 500 som entrance fee. Go there only if looking for cheap and desperate Russian girls, or their male counterpart, the Russian Redneck. Drinks are cheap and dance music standard.
**Now closed and re-opened as “Guns and Roses”, which apparently has a “dress-shoes-only” policy for men, part of Bishkek’s strange ‘face control’. Don’t own wedding shoes? Go down the road to Osh bazaar and buy yourself a pair for four hundred som (or less)**

Ray Bar
Tel. +996 709 164000
South of Ahunbaeva off of Sovietskaya (turn onto a dirt road just before Beta Stores)
Primarily a summer venue, Ray Bar offers an extensive menu of drinks, sushi and appetizers for the late-night crowd who prefer to dine and dance the night away outdoors on Bishkek’s biggest open-air dance floor featuring a live DJ and perhaps Bishkek’s strangest light show. I haven’t been there since 2013, and am not sure if it’s still in operation.

Bar Suk
122 tinistanova/Pushkina, tel:0552 20333313
Primarily Kyrgyz clientele with heavy face control, but foreigners get in for free (unless they have visiting DJs or a ‘party’). Slick interior, decent drink list, live DJ, and girls dressed to the nines. Guys beware: around two in the morning most Kyrgyz men are pretty drunk and will defend “their women” with fists, so don’t shower too much affection on Kyrgyz girls after midnight.

Blonder Pub
Tel. :0312 20591-625
24 Ibraimova
A large German-style pub with an extensive beer menu, breezy outdoor seating for summer, and a warm log lodge for winter. Food is overpriced and ok – not a great deal, but not terrible either. On Friday nights after nine they have live music – usually really loud and…rather in need of vocal refinement.

Midpoint
About 2 blocks north of Tsum, on the East side
Sports-bar on one side, lounge bar on the other. We went here to watch a futbol game once; a bunch of people in our party ordered food and proclaimed it good. Because it’s also kind of a restaurant, drinks are cheaper than those in clubs. After ten or so on weekends there’s a live band that was actually quite good, and some people were dancing. The Turkish management keeps the place clean, and the waitstaff are prompt.

Chicago Pub
Gorky and Yunusaliev
More Chicago than the city itself, this smoky basement pub full of exposed pipes and Al Capone motifs lures local patrons in with cheap beer and live jazz performances.

Bar Kvartira (Literally, “Apartment Bar”)
On the east side of the circus, behind a Chinese restaurant
Like a soviet-era babushka redecorated a bar with ugly furniture and cute kitsch from her flat. The offbeat decor, warm atmosphere, and prompt service provided by women wearing hair curlers fills this place up fast, so come early if you want a table.

Brooklyn
There are are two establishments by this name. The one just north of Chuy and Manas, located in the basement of a government building, is the more popular. Kind of 90’s New-York themed, with lots of old-school R&B mixed in with the pop hits, eclectic interior and half-foreign clientele.

Garage 312
Located among some warehouses on the eastern end of the city.
I’d expect this place in a ‘gentrified’ NYC or San Francisco neighborhood. From the gym-salvaged bench-presses and old play-boy cut outs in the bathrooms to the licence plates and construction tape around the bar it’s a little too thought-out, a little too marketed. But entry is free, people seem to have a good time, and the music is varied.

Out-of-Town Excursions

Bishkek Non-Recommendations

Hoban
539 Frunze
This Korean restaurant brings shame upon the Korean diaspora of Bishkek. After reading a glowing review of the 250 som lunch buffet, we decided to go check it out. The lunch buffet is no more. We ordered two fairly standard dishes – one spicy pork and tofu soup, one stone rice bowl – and were more than fairly disappointed. Hoban is the first Korean restaurant I’ve been to where there is no obvious care in making the dishes, where things are just kind of slapped together. It is also the first Korean restaurant I’ve been to where the bathroom was too dirty to use. And at American prices. Don’t go unless you want to hate Korean food.

Black Rabbit Discount Bars
Not actually very discount, and certainly not very good (with terrible service too). We went there for lunch one Saturday afternoon – my ‘lapash’ soup was more expensive than in most restaurants, and yet tasted like watered-down lukewarm campbell’s. My cappuccino – like watery milk-powder, without a drop of coffee or a tuff of fluff. But apparently “that’s how they make cappuccino’s there” (a common response when a restaurant here makes something incorrectly or messes up an order; at Buddha Bar the staff once tried to convince me that the miso they served was actually the chicken tom yum soup I ordered…)

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