They are Building a Road to the Mountains in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

“They are building a road to the mountains here,” the cordial local said optimistically to the three of us.  We were standing in front of a statue of two snow leopards and Sayakbay Karalayev.  I gazed away fixated on the street art on the side of the building across the street as the local continued speaking to my travel companions.  His enlivening words were a blur to me.  As they wrapped up the conversation, the man accidentally nudged one of them lightly and apologized profusely.  We started walking away from him and my Kyrgyz friend proceeded to tell us that the tattoo markings on him indicated that he had served time in a Soviet prison.  Whatever he did, he sure did exude bouts of optimism that seemed to be far-removed in those parts.

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan and its road to the mountains

<the road to the mountains is behind this>

I have read a few articles and opinions on Balykchy and they all present the same opinion on the city- that it is a depressing place.  Now, I am not one to argue this after having been there but… they are building a road to the mountains.  And if a local can portray positivity in an otherwise funereal place, who am I as a tourist to convey that there is absolutely nothing auspicious occurring in bleak Balykchy?

We set off for Balykchy a bit late on a Friday.  About a two and a half hour marshrutka ride from Bishkek, Balykchy sits at the western edge and start of famed Lake Issyk-Kul.  In fact, Balkychy means “fisherman” in Kyrgyz.  The city is home to around 42,000 people and has a reputation for being stuck in a time capsule.  Once we arrived there, we hopped off of our marshrutka and looked for the city center.  The bus and train station seemed a bit far from the “sights”, so we paid a taxi 50 soms to drive us to something he deemed worthy of visiting.  He drove us back in the direction we came from to an open-air museum.  We were greeted by a statue of Pyotr Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky and pretty much nothing else.  We wandered behind the statue to find a couple of closed off yurts.  I remember being conflicted over whether we had been ripped off or the locals just didn’t think much of their city.  Nevertheless, we hitchhiked back to the bus and train station to start walking in the other direction.

We strolled throughout the main drag of the city (aptly named Soviet Street by locals and the road’s signs) to see what was happening in Balykchy.  To no one’s surprise, the town was dead and completely derelict.  In an effort to explore something disparate from the decrepit, concrete structures pervading the city, we took a right on a road that led us to a Russian Orthodox church.  As we were all taking a quick photo of its exterior, a man stepped out of the church’s gate and invited us inside.  I wasn’t too keen as I feared we would get conned into converting to Russian Orthodox or something, but we obliged to be nice (my travel partners are clearly nicer than I am).  Once inside, we were given a thirty-minute spiel about the state of the world, what happiness is and isn’t, and of course, preached that we should be going to church and having a better relationship with God.  We fled the scene as quickly as we could despite having endured thirty minutes of it.  (FYI: I have no issue with religion but I think it is something that is personal to each and every person and I have a huge issue with people imposing their religion on others).

They are building a road to the mountains in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan #travel #lp Click To Tweet

Russian Orthodox church in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Russian Orthodox church in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

After the church drama and my Muslim friend having to explain the condescending Russian religion conversation to us in more depth, we headed back out to the main street to continue walking to the main part of the city.  Despite being located on a busy (by Kyrgyz standards) highway, Balykchy just seemed like a place stuck in a time warp suffering from little interaction with anything outside of it.  Everyone stared as we walked by… and many of them were quick to say hello.  Some drunk, some sober.

I contemplated a trip to lake’s shores to see the rusty boats and remnants of what was previously a prosperous steamboat manufacturing city, but the day had gotten ahead of us and we ended up hungry (we had received word that homemade plov was waiting for us at our next destination).  When the sun started descending, we knew our time in Balykchy had come to an end.  Once we passed Vladimir Lenin for the third time, we decided to hang on the side of the road and try hitchhiking to Cholpon-ata (our next destination as it is where my Kyrgyz friend’s family lives).

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan snow leopards on a yurt
Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan bus and train station

road to Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin statue in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan
Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Cow in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Cat in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Lenin statue in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Random bones in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan

<This is the road that is being extended to go to the mountains>

I don’t have much to say about Balykchy despite writing a post about it.  But I can say I have been to a few US cities that have been rather similar in nature.  The one thing that really stood out from my time there was that endearing stranger who informed us that they were building a road to the mountains in Balykchy.  In a city full of dust and despondency, he had hope.  And somewhere between his hope and my love for the country of Kyrgyzstan, a future trip to that exact road to the mountains is being planned in my mind.

Disclaimer:  There are probably like 100 roads to the mountains in Balykchy already.

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Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan was not the most colorful of cities but despite all of that, I left with a positive attitude and hope for the city's future.
Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan was not the most colorful of cities but despite all of that, I left with a positive attitude and hope for the city's future.

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Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan was not the most colorful of cities but despite all of that, I left with a positive attitude and hope for the city's future.
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Megan is a digital marketing strategist and world traveler based in Frankfurt, Germany but hailing from Richmond, Virginia. She has traveled to over 85 countries and 45 US states and has a special love for the Nordics and Eastern Europe. Her passions are animals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ohio State football, craft beer, coffee, and copious amounts of concrete. She is also an advocate for removing dill from all dishes globally.
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16 Comments
  • Nick
    Posted at 18:11h, 29 November Reply

    Great pictures and lovely description of a fallen place. I immediately thought of all the American cities that mirror Balykchy’s current state. I wonder if the hope they have is well-founded.

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:17h, 13 January Reply

      Yes! It definitely reminded me of certain cities in eastern Ohio where I was born that fell into depression at the decline of the US steel industry and have not completely found their way out.

  • kami
    Posted at 09:26h, 30 November Reply

    If I didn’t know what place you’re writing about I’d guess this is Karakol. Some pictures are almost exactly the same as mine from there!

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:16h, 13 January Reply

      I feel so bad I never properly explored Karakol. I had so much fun atop the mountains there that I never gave the city below much of a chance. Always next time!

  • Jure
    Posted at 23:45h, 30 November Reply

    Halfway through the post, I was also reminded of some economically depressed towns in the US.
    I am reading your posts from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan with great interest – one day I’d like to do a road trip from central Europe to these countries, and end the trip in Mongolia.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:15h, 13 January Reply

      Yes! It really is reminiscent of some depressed areas of the United States (eastern Ohio comes to mind as I was born there and have a lot of family there). Sometimes we forget that places like this exist even in economically rich regions.

  • Emily
    Posted at 18:19h, 01 December Reply

    Although the town itself is depressing, the surrounding mountains are beautiful. The church is also very pretty. I love seeing the older style Russian artwork (and how it contrasts with the rest of the modern world’s art from that time.)

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:14h, 13 January Reply

      It is a grey, rather depressing town in the middle of beautiful scenery. But despite that, I really loved it and am hopeful for the place.

  • Jasilyn Albert
    Posted at 10:15h, 03 December Reply

    I LOOOOOVE your pictures in this post. Kind of makes me sad thinking of all the people in America that have a false sense of hope that Trump is going to bring them what they need.

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:14h, 13 January Reply

      Thanks Jas!!! Yea, people have lost a sense of reality in certain parts of the world. Traveling keeps the two of us on our feet.

  • Mark
    Posted at 10:37h, 06 December Reply

    We considered stopping in Balykchy when we were travelling around the lake but in the end decided against it. Seeing your photos, I think we probably made a mistake, it looks like it would have been interesting for half a day or so. The thing that caught my eye was the huge factory at the end of town (as you head towards Cholpon Ata). It looked abandoned but I don’t think it was!

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:02h, 13 January Reply

      Balykchy is definitely not for everyone but I know you would have enjoyed it :)

  • Laura
    Posted at 16:09h, 07 December Reply

    Gorgeous photos, and I love the idea of the road to the mountains.

    • Megan
      Posted at 11:01h, 13 January Reply

      me too :)

  • Wesley Pechler
    Posted at 16:32h, 24 July Reply

    I literally just got back from my trip to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia about four hours ago, and already I’m feeding the fire of my wanderlust by reading all your articles on Kyrzystan. Pretty sure that + Kazakhstan will be my next ‘big’ trip abroad. Think I can catch a nice number of the highlights in 10 days in each country?

    • Megan Starr
      Posted at 11:21h, 26 July Reply

      I definitely think you can get a nice introduction to the area in 10 days. Obviously though, you will want to focus on certain cities and the surrounding areas. I think in 10 days you can see Almaty, Big Almaty Lake, and Charyn Canyon in KZ and then head down by a late marshrutka to Bishkek and see Bishkek and Issyk-Kul… or see Bishkek and Ala Archa or Bishkek plus any one other thing. Transport is decent, but can be time-consuming… that is your main challenge out that way! If you plan this trip, I will certainly help out the best I can with logistics, etc.

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