Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan
If I were to recommend only one thing to a newly-arrived expat to Bishkek that wanted to meet people and explore Kyrgyzstan a little bit, it would be to join the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan and tag along on some of their weekend trips.
In winter they organize regular ski trips (both as one-day trips to the bases near Bishkek or weekends out to the Karakol Ski Base beyond Issyk-Kol), and importantly they have all the equipment you will need for rent in the TUK office. A trip from Bishkek to ZiL, one of the most popular ski bases near Bishkek, costs about $13 US for transportation and gear rental from the Trekking Union and then $16 US for a lift pass at the ski resort. That’s about $40 for a full-day of skiing!
In the summer as well, they offer tons of trips out of Bishkek to explore the Chuy Valley. Oftentimes they will have three trips every weekend, so no matter your schedule or how much experience you already have in the area there will often be something new and interesting to head out on. One of the biggest problems of living in Bishkek without a car is that public transportation doesn’t always go quite as far as I might like, especially to trailheads where one would want to start hiking. You can usually hire a taxi or cobble together a combination of minibuses and hitchhiking, but this generally works better for a several day trip where you have more time to play with. For a quick one-day out of town, though, TUK is about as good as it gets.
What you gain in simplicity of transportation, of course, you lose in that you’re tied to the arrival and departure schedule of the group. As a photographer, especially, I’m always bummed that these trips tend to arrive and get started around 10:30 or 11:00, and depart for Bishkek around 16:30 or 17:00. Even in the most beautiful of locations, then, we’re always missing the best light of the day!
As far as the hiking, I’ve found that the groups tend to be pretty mixed. A handful of solid walkers will take off way ahead of the main group, and most of the hikers will be in a loose string that might drag over a kilometer or two. You’re generally free to choose either option, though without trail knowledge this can lead to some missteps if you leave the guide behind.
Interested in joining the Trekking Union for one of their trips? Check out their monthly calendar to see what will be happening soon. If you expect to go on more than just one or two trips, consider paying the 420 Som membership fee to jion the TUK. With discounts on their trips and gear rental, even just a couple of uses of the membership makes it a good value.
On one last note:I had trouble finding the TUK office the first two times I went over there, but these photos should help.
Though the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan is listed as 168 Kievskaya, its actually easier to find if you look for the sign for 51 Turusbekova. This is on the corner of Kiev/Trrusbekov right across Turusbekov from the Narodnii Supermarket (which is, by the way, open 24h and a great place to pick up food for a TUK lunch). Turn left in front of the Chinese restaurant, and just through the gate immediately to your left is the Trekking Union Office. They’re open 9:00 – 17:00 on weekdays, usually without exception though the sign says they close for lunch from 13:00 – 14:00. This area is also where all of the trips I’ve taken with the TUK have started, so remember the quickest way to get early so you can sleep in a bit longer!
If you’re in Bishkek as a tourist, the Hostel Inn is probably the closest cheap accommodation to the TUK office. Check them out – they’re also one of the cheapest city center accommodation options I know of. Slightly further away is the Bishkek Guesthouse, though one friend I sent there wasn’t crazy about the older of their two locations. If you’re looking more upmarket, the Hyatt is a bit further on Sovietskaya.