Bishkek: Three month update on life as a Fulbright ETA in Kyrgyzstan

As you can see, I’ve been doing a great job updating this blog every two weeks like I told myself I would before I left — two weeks = three months in Kyrgyzstan apparently.  I can’t believe I’ve already been living here for almost three months, this year is going by far too quickly but it has been incredible.  Now that I’ve settled down into a regular schedule and winter is setting in I hope to actually force myself to sit down and write since I won’t be exploring the city as much on my days off (Holy run-on-sentence Batman!).  This post may be a bit disjointed because it’s covering a few months of activities, but I’ll elaborate on some of the more interesting things in later posts.

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek

Now, let’s do a recap of what has happened during the last three months.  I flew from Chicago to Beijing to visit a friend for a few days, then went to Astana to reunite with some more friends from my time living in Kazakhstan before flying to Bishkek.  After I arrived, I moved right in to my apartment in the city center, had a day to unpack and buy a few necessities.  My first full day in the country was Independence Day in Kyrgyzstan, so I made my way to the square and ended up standing right behind the Kyrgyz president and his entourage, which was a bit of a shock when I realized it was him.  There were many song and dance performances going on, and of course a speech from the president.  I attended with the other two Fulbright ETAs and one other friend for the festivities and to plan for our trip to the other side of the country for the World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata.  This event will have at least one blog post of it’s own, but suffice it to say I am extremely glad that I chose to come to Kyrgyzstan early for the event because it was an incredible way to start the year.

Kyrgyz president on Independence Day
Dancers in Ala-Too Square for Independence Day
Independence Day Fireworks over the square

After the World Nomad Games came Fulbright orientation at the US Embassy.  This was my first experience visiting a US embassy in my five years of travel, and it was certainly a unique experience.  It was nice to hear about the programming that the US government supports here in Kyrgyzstan, especially relating to tourism and education.  After our orientation we also were invited to a welcome reception at the acting ambassador’s house, which is something I never would have dreamed of happening in my lifetime.  

Kyrchyn Jailoo at the World Nomad Games

Once finished with the two days of orientation meetings, I finally began working the following week as an English teacher at the International University of Central Asia in Tokmok.  This city is about an hour and a half drive from Bishkek with traffic, and I ride in a shuttle bus with other faculty to and from the university on my workdays.  The shuttle ride provides a nice opportunity to meet my coworkers and have forced listening immersion in Russian.  This semester I am teaching speaking-focused courses to first and third year students in the linguistics department.  My students are (usually) quite motivated and active in classes, and some of my first-year students have even came to Bishkek one weekend for extra English speaking practice.  I only go to the university twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and spend the entire day at the school.  I get picked up at my apartment in Bishkek around 7:30 AM and get home between 6-8:30 PM depending on the day.

“My Bishkek”

My average weekly schedule outside of work tends to make up for the excessive days off.  I have Russian and Kyrgyz lessons twice a week, though I should frankly put even more time and effort into it because I’ve been improving less than I had hoped.  I also volunteer with the American Corners in Bishkek and nearby Kant.  These are US Embassy sponsored places in libraries around the world that provide free access to all sorts of English language materials, games, talking clubs, lessons, and so much more.  In Bishkek they even have a technology lab with 3D printers and robots to get kids interested in science and technology, which I think is incredible.  Here in Bishkek I volunteer with a college preparatory program for high school students interested in going to the US for university, and in Kant I run a talking club once a week with a fellow Fulbright ETA for mostly schoolchildren, with a few adults who come by to practice as well.

Sunset in Ala-Too Square
Art Market in Oak Park

At least once every other week I make my way to Osh Bazaar to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and practice languages with the vendors (usually Kyrgyz), a few of which now recognize me and we have nice conversations whenever I stop by.  I’ve also been hosting Couchsurfers pretty regularly on the weekend, whether offering the spare bedroom in my apartment, showing them around the city, or meeting up at cafes to chat.  I’ve met so many amazing people hosting that I look forward to continuing long after I leave Bishkek. 

Osh Bazaar
Vendors in Osh Bazaar

On weekends (at least before it started snowing) I also go hiking with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan to some of the gorges outside of Bishkek, which I’ll also be writing about with more photos that I can fit here.  So far I have gone to a glacial lake called Kol Tor, camping in the valley below said lake, and an incredible canyon in Krasnyy Most.  Later in the winter I’ll probably join one of their winter sports trips to learn how to ski or snowboard at one of the many nearby resorts.  I also took a weekend trip to the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan, but again, I’ll save that for a later post.  

Hiking to Kol Tor with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan

That’s all for now; I hope to be caught up with the rest of my posts before Christmas break, when I have a fantastic trip set up that I know I will want to write about as soon as I get back, so if you don’t see a new post by next week bother me until it happens! 

Lenin wants you to visit Bishkek!

Dordoi Bazaar – haggling in Central Asia’s largest bazaar

Bishkek, like most urban centers in Central Asia, is a city of many bazaars. While Osh Bazaar is the most famous of them, Dordoi Bazaar is by far the largest.  Located a few kilometers northeast of the city center, this bazaar is built from thousands of old shipping containers.  Dordoi is the largest bazaar in Central Asia, and one of the top ten largest on earth.


Inside Dordoi Bazaar you can find literally anything you need.  There are dozens of sections for different goods: shoes, clothes, fur hats, military surplus, traditional clothing, toys, and of course a bunch of places to have snacks when you get exhausted from all the shopping.  I spent about 3 hours just in those few sections mentioned, which probably only comprise a third or less of the whole complex.  There are countless other sections of products I never saw because the bazaar is too large to see in a single day.


Clothes are far cheaper here than in Osh Bazaar or neighboring Kazakhstan, and high quality Chinese fakes can run for a 10th of the original cost.  For example, I bought two Under Armour shirts for hiking for less than $5 a piece, and I couldn’t see any difference from the original thing.  Souvenirs aren’t so prevalent here, unless you want some Russian military attire, in which case you have lots to choose from (the stereotypical fluffy black fur hats will set you back about $10).DSC_0409


Getting to the bazaar is fairly straightforward, with many buses and marshrutkas going there from the city center (look for Дордой on the signs).  I went by marshrutka with one of the employees at my hostel, who showed me around for a bit before she had to leave.  Be sure to visit in the morning, as everything starts shutting down around 12:30-1 o’clock.  It’s an incredible place to visit, even if just to see the magnitude of the place and  the amount shops clustered together in this huge area.

Osh Bazaar – getting lost in a maze of shops

With its crowded streets and wide array of goods, Osh Bazaar is one of Bishkek’s most popular attractions.  Here you can find an incredible number of spices, dried fruits, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and even an entire aisle of Kurt (a local dried/salted milk snack).  The bazaar doesn’t only include food though; you can get lost in the maze of household goods, Chinese knock off clothing (ranging from bad fakes to identical copies with the original tags), and military gear.

DSC_0375DSC_0377 2DSC_0379

While many people find this place unappealing, I visited twice and found it fascinating.  The salespeople are quite friendly, and many spoke some English. However, when I started speaking in Kazakh/Kyrgyz, they were always so surprised that someone from the US knew any of the language and wanted to chat even more.  Even crazier when compared to other markets around the world, when I pulled out my camera to take pictures, many vendors asked for their portrait to be taken with their products!  Walking through one aisle of the shoe section I had almost the entire row ask for pictures and then we chatted for almost twenty minutes.  In the fruits section, a woman explained to me in English all of the different products and let me sample them all since I had never tried them before.  Of course many people were friendly for tourists, but even those people who I told I was just looking around the bazaar were very talkative and nice.


One of the biggest things I read online before going was that there were many “police officers” (both fake and real) who would try to steal things from you if you followed them when asked for your passport.  During both visits (which were quite long), I never saw anything like this nor had anyone I met during my week stay.  While it’s definitely wise to be aware of the scams, they are not as common as they are made out to be in travel guides and online.  This place is a must see for anyone visiting Bishkek!


Ala Archa National Park

Ala Archa NP, located just outside of Bishkek, is the number one place to visit when in the city.  The park is accessible all year round and offers breathtaking views of the Tian Shan (天山 – “heavenly mountains”) range.  The mountains live up to their name, and the park provides an easy place to explore them on a day trip from Bishkek proper.

I went to the park with fellow Midwesterner and long term traveler, Karl (@wanderbadger on instagram, highly recommended), from the hostel and hiked around for a couple hours.  Right by the beginning of the trail we encountered the fluffiest and friendliest squirrels I’ve ever seen, that kept climbing or attempting to climb up us both.  Further along, the trail runs along a rocky river with a few haphazard bridges to cross it.  It was still really snowy everywhere but it was hot enough that even just wearing a T-shirt was too warm.  I stupidly forgot sunscreen and became a tomato (in case you didn’t know, eyeball sunburn is a thing and not a fun one), but it was so nice to feel the sun and be in the mountains after being in the frozen and cloudy steppe.  The walk to the marshrutka station was less fun, as after the park entrance gate it was just flat asphalt walking for kilometers.  The only interesting part of that return journey was meeting a bunch of middle aged guys parked on the side of the road taking shots to celebrate one of their birthdays.


To get to Ala Archa, the quickest, easiest, and most recommended way is by taxi.  For about 2-2.5k som the driver will take you round trip and wait for a few hours while you hike.  If you are cheap, there is a marshrutka stop about 10km away from the entrance that you can walk to and from.  Having done a combination of them both and feeling miserable because of it, take the taxi round trip and spend the extra few dollars.

There’s not so much more to say about the park, so I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.DSC_0139DSC_0107

Skyrim or Kyrgyzstan?