Comparative Impressions Kyrgyzstan-Mongolia

By Julian Dierkes

Some posts this summer are taking on a bit of a travelogue character, simply because I’ve been travelling. But the Mongolia-Kyrgyzstan comparison has always been of some interest, as Kyrgyzstan is the most likely comparison country for Mongolia in Central Asia for two reasons: 1. Until recent political turmoil, Kyrgyzstan was the most democratic of the former Soviet republics; 2. Some focus on mining in Kyrgyzstan’s development.

It was those similarities that led to my involvement in a workshop on “The State’s Role in the Resource Sector” in Bishkek in 2016. A 2021 article in The Economist also pointed to this comparison and was the inspiration for some of my thinking on the fragmentation of political power in Mongolia.

In the comparisons below, I’m following up on a November 2016 post making similar comparisons. Similarly, I was in Bishkek for three days and then on a countryside excursion for another three days. Note therefore, that my comparisons below are very impressionistic.

Following that previous post, let’s start with a city comparison.

Bishkek vs. Ulaanbaatar

Even though Kyrgyzstan has a much lower per capita GDP than Mongolia ($1,300 vs $4,500), Bishkek feels more developed in some ways, at least during a brief downtown visit. With a population of about a million inhabitants it’s significantly less populous than Ulaanbaatar.

Some of the signs of developments are Soviet legacies, I presume, for example  the large squares and tree-lined streets in downtown. Perhaps these have also been preserved somewhat by an absence of the (mining) boom times that Mongolia has experienced which have led to the construction of many large buildings even though the need for office space is not always clear. Ulaanbaatar also constantly seems to be playing catch-up when it comes to traffic and city-planning, while the pace of development must have been slower in Bishkek.


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There are some funny urban similarities, however. Door locks seem to be an equal challenge in that they always seem to be loose and about to fall out of the door. This was the case in Bishkek even though I stayed in a very modern apartment and it remains the case for many Ulaanbaatar apartments.

There is also an equally dense infrastructure of notaries (Нотариат in Mongolian, Нотариус in Russian) and pawn shops (ломбард).

While there are some state-socialist statues in Ulaanbaatar’s cityscape (Sukhbaatar, Choibalsan come to mind immediately), there seem to be more of these in Bishkek.

The young urban elite that walks downtown streets seems equally cosmopolitan and elegant. In the professional context that I visited Bishkek in (a summer school for junior scholars) I was impressed how bilingual (Russian-Kyrgyz) conversations were. This contrasted somewhat with the sense in the street that it was rare to see groups of young people that included Russian-looking and Kyrgyz-looking faces.

Kyrgyz and Mongolian felt slippers seem to be similar construction, but they were quite colourful at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.


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My impression of the much greater variety of fruits and vegetables at Osh Bazaar compared to Narantuul, for example, was confirmed again.

Countryside Impressions

We drove about two hours out of Bishkek for a writing retreat in a guest house. The drive was in the direction of Issyk-Kul and it was interesting to drive along the Kazakh border and actually through a transit corridor through Kazakhstan for a couple of hundred of meters.

One of the most noticeable aspects of driving out of Bishkek was that we passed through vast cornfields and a generally much more agricultural landscape. While there are big cultivated areas in Mongolia’s north, they tend to be entire valleys dedicated to fodder, rapeseed or wheat which smaller plots appear to be much more common in the Chuy region.

We also saw hardly any animals and that continued into the countryside. Makes for much safer driving when there aren’t roaming herds crossing the streets, but also makes for a different landscape. I was delighted to see the occasional donkey, an animal that is largely missing from Mongolia save for some threatened wild asses, primarily in the Gobi. And there were some horses on the back of Porters or similar small trucks being transported.

We also saw very large bushes of apparently wild seabuckthorn growing along rivers and creeks.


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One of the unfortunate observations was that those really flimsy plastic bags are still prevalent in Kyrgyzstan where they are no longer in wide use in Ulaanbaatar at least. The worst thing about them is, of course, that they tend to turn into litter in the countryside.

I did not notice a single basketball hoop in Kyrgyzstan in the city, nor in the countryside, though there seemed to be some recently-constructed soccer cages.

Finally, it appears that Kyrgyzstan is the land where late 1980s Audis go to die, just like Mongolia used to be the final resting place for Hyundai Accent and the favourite stomping ground for Toyota Prius. I don’t think I saw a single Prius in 10 weeks of travel through Kasachstan and Kyrgyzstan.

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He toots
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