In October 2016, an idea was born that aimed to encompass what it truly means to travel from a grassroots point of view. We had chosen Central Asia as our destination and neither of us really knew what we had gotten ourselves into. For the months that followed we felt that we could never be fully prepared. I mean, Kel had never even travelled abroad apart from the big move from the Philippines to Australia, how would he cope with the culture shock? I had been fortunate enough to travel all over the world yet I knew nothing of this corner of the earth. It was definitely going to be an experience we would never forget.
Hours of planning involved sifting through and gathering information from a handful of travel blogs and recounts from a variety of crazy individuals who had journeyed the roads before us. Yet, we still left feeling apprehensive of the unknown. Were these countries to be so far removed from the developed world that we would be all alone with no chance of help? Or would it open our eyes to nations rich in ancient and highly misunderstood culture? We were to soon find out that our perception of life and our western 'first world' issues would be put into a whole new perspective.
Bishkek, a city sitting 800m above sea level and surrounded by the Ala-Too Mountain ranges, the nation's capital was to be our first port of call. With a population just shy of one million, the city is comparatively small by Asian standards but large enough to satisfy the exploratory needs of most tourists for a good few days. It was also a base to gather supplies, pick up our car and prepare for the journey ahead.
There is not a country in Central Asia that is easy to fly to when departing from Australia, no matter which city you depart from. There are currently no direct flights from Australia to Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, meaning long layovers and multiple airline changes are necessary. The same is true when attempting to return back to the motherland. We had managed to narrow our initial journey down to twenty-seven hours and our return to thirty-six, with some flights reaching upwards of forty-five hours!
5:30 am, Red eyed and stinking of old socks, we met our friendly hotel transfer at the airport. It was here that Kel signed up for a local sim card with one of the nation's largest providers, MegaCom. The cost of 4G internet and data is ridiculous, and I don't mean expensive. For around $1.25 USD per week, we were getting a crazy 7GB of data, much cheaper that in Australia.
Chuy Avenue near Ala Too Square (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/1250 sec at f/4, ISO 400, 12mm
We had arrived with a healthy supply of USD as it was impossible to buy the local currency COM in Australia. As with most countries, it’s far more cost effective to exchange outside the airport with many hole-in-the-wall currency exchanges offering highly competitive rates.
There is a scattering of banks around Bishkek and many other larger cities in Kyrgyzstan, some with ATM’s and many without. We found that all would dispense the local currency, with some also dispensing varying amounts of USD. I highly recommend you have enough cash in both USD and COM to last you the entire trip if you are planning on venturing into the remote areas of the country. In our experience, most homestays and guesthouses accepted USD.
Mountainous views along dirt roads (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/60 sec at f/4, ISO 1000, 100mm
We found accommodation relatively easy to organise prior to leaving Australia, with many hotels, hostels and guesthouses advertised on the major booking sites. We had opted for a nice little hotel by the name of Soluxe Hotel in central Bishkek which was situated along a dusty and pot hole filled road. If you are visiting during the summer months, make sure wherever you stay has air conditioning, it was a saviour after long hot walks around the city. There is a healthy amount of Airbnb's scattered throughout the city as well, and we used these throughout other cities and towns during our trip.
Morning walk near Ala Too Square (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/1250 sec at f/4, ISO 500, 66mm
As with any new city, the best way to find your bearings is to lace up your shoes and go for a walk. Feeling somewhat hungry from our mile-high meal, we decided to quench our hunger with a decent coffee and breakfast from the only place open at 7 am, the Sierra Cafe. We ended up going back here a handful of times over the coming days as the food was tasty and quite filling. It was about this time that we both realised, Bishkek was far more developed and civilised than we had pre-conceived. It’s amazing to think how easily we stereotype people and places based on the little information we have from the media and the internet.
I've been fortunate enough to have visited Russia and many other Ex-Soviet nations over the years, and can confidently say that the unique style of architecture prominent in Bishkek stands true to the soviet style. Bleached, weathered and somewhat uninspiring to many, we often found it difficult to photograph the city in a way that captured the rich sense of history and culture.
Statue of Kyrgyz folk hero Manas (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/1600 sec at f/4.5, ISO 250, 61mm
I had pinpointed a number of key places around the city to visit on Google Maps. Our first point of call was Ala Too Square. This is the central square in Bishkek where state events are often held. A lot of people, usually families and children, can be seen spending time here and we were surprised at the sheer number of people that frequented here at night.
Central Bishkek (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/3200 sec at f/5, ISO 400, 12mm
Another notable area in Bishkek is Victory Square, which was completed for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of World War II. As explained by some locals, the design of the monument represents a yurt and the statue of the woman in the middle is Mother Kyrgyzstan waiting for her husband – the soldiers of war – to come home.
We spent the afternoon and evening at the square, shooting various angles and chatting with locals. I used this opportunity to fly the drone and gain a unique perspective of the city. This naturally brought me a lot of attention, with the local kids eager to inspect this strange flying machine. N.B. At the time of writing, there were no drone laws in Kyrgyzstan. All precautions were taken to ensure responsible flying in and around populated areas.
Victory Monument (Matt Horspool)
DJI Mavic Pro: 1 sec at f/2.2, ISO 200
Inquisitive local kids (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/30 sec at f/6.3, ISO 200, 14mm
There was only so much research we could gather on Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan as a whole during the initial planning stages. We had exchanged emails for months between various tourism operators and people who had ventured there before us, trying to map out our best travel options. We found though that the quality of this information varied so much that it was a case of ‘let's just go and see’.
After some further research upon arrival we found that Kyrgyzstan contained a fantastic network of tourism boards called the ‘Community-Based Tourism’ (CBT). The CBT provided us with invaluable information and suggestions on where we should visit and how to get around. They were also a great help in providing paper maps that are quite detailed in comparison to our online ones. The CBT deals with many of the local homestays around Kyrgyzstan and can organise special yurts and experiences free of charge. They were also handy to have on call, especially when we came to a crucial bridge crossing, only to find that it was barricaded off.
Central Mosque (Matt Horspool)
DJI Mavic Pro: 1/800 sec at f/2.2, ISO 100
Prior to leaving Australia, we had organised with Iron Horse Nomads to rent a Toyota Landcruiser Prado 150 for the duration of our trip. Whilst not cheap, they had a reputation for being indestructible and we wanted a car that would be secure for our camera gear. Ryan was super helpful as were both the lovely ladies who worked with him there.
Petrol is nasty, not just in Kyrgyzstan but throughout Central Asia. The major cities stock somewhat decent fuel at 95 RON (Research Octane Number) with many small community based pumps providing questionable 80 RON, which should be avoided whenever possible. Carrying a spare can of fuel is also a must when venturing further afield, not in case you run out, but so that you can replenish with ‘better’ quality fuel.
Heading down Boz Boltok Mountain with a view of Bishkek (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/320 sec at f/4.5, ISO 640, 12mm
Our last sunset in Bishkek was spent from the well-known lookout atop Boz Boltok Mountain. Here the largest flag in Kyrgyzstan can be found and is a popular spot for young couples looking to romantically “watch the city lights come on”.
It would be rude not to mention the local cuisine in this post. Whilst we struggled reading 99% of the menus without Google Translate, we did find that most places served up delicious, large sized meals with a heavy Turkish influence. Being a lover of saucy meals, I often ordered an Asian dish named ‘Ganfan’ which was meat and veg in a soy sauce. If you don't like rice you will find it quite difficult to eat when venturing into the small communities as the local dish 'Plov' is widely eaten.
A lone minaret and the Bishkek sunset layers (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 300mm f/4 Pro: 1/200 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200, 300mm
Kyrgyz flag atop Boz Boltok Mountain (Matt Horspool)
DJI Mavic Pro: 1/50 sec at f/2.2, ISO 105
Osh Bazaar (Kel Morales)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + MZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 Pro: 1/1250 sec at f/4, ISO 250, 12mm
Kel had his heart set on visiting the infamous Osh Bazaar during our visit to Bishkek.
The Bazaar is a maze of tight confusing alleyways selling everything from electronics and clothes through to fermented goats heads. The sprawling markets are home to a plethora of unique cultural smells, sights, and colours. I must admit the 40+ degree heat wasn't making for ideal market browsing conditions, however, it was unlikely that we could get back here at a later date so we hopped in the car and drove to see what the fuss was all about.
It was quite clear that we had reached the outskirts of the bazaar as the traffic became congested in true central Asian style. Unruly, unorderly but oh so exciting. There are many ways you can enter the vast array of markets that surround the main central area. We basically drove around until we found a carpark. Warning: If you are driving in your own car, there is a high chance of being parked in by one or more trucks, buses, taxis or animals. This happened to us on multiple occasions and required some driving finesse to reverse past the blockages.
Local kid running errands in the Bazaar (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + M 17mm f/1.8 Premium: 1/6400 sec at f/2.5, ISO 400
Waiting for customers (Matt Horspool)
OMD-EM1 MK2 + M 17mm f/1.8 Premium: 1/6400 sec at f/2.5, ISO 400
Despite what we had read on the internet, it seemed that the central markets were closed. Meaning the large spice and produce section was not to be seen. Whilst everyone was friendly and welcoming to having their photo taken, we agreed that two cameras were more intimidating than one. So, it was decided that we would split up and wander solo.
For lovers of history, the nation's capital offers an abundance of monuments and historical buildings. With the Ala-Archa National Park a short drive away, numerous bars and historical landmarks, there are plenty of recreational and touristic options to be had.