Kyrgyzstan (Кыргызстан, formally the Kyrgyz Republic (Кыргыз Республикасы) is a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. Annexed by Russia in 1876, it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It has the most liberal tourist visa policy in Central Asia and one of the more progressive post-Soviet governments in the region. It is called the Switzerland of Central Asia.
Due to the presence of several mountain ranges, Kyrgyzstan can also be divided into northern and southern regions. The northern (and cooler) region consists of Chui, Issyk-Kul, Talas, and Naryn oblasts. While the southern (and warmer) region contains Jalalabad, Osh. and Batken. The southern half of Kyrgyzstan is also part of the Fergana Valley, a fertile agricultural region shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
|Bishkek and the Northwest |
The area around Bishkek is home to most of the country's population, and to the fabulous Ala Archa National Park, while the western part of the country is less visited and sparsely populated.
|Issyk Kul and the Tian Shan |
Any adventurous travellers heading to this remote country undoubtedly have these two names in their heads, the beautiful high alpine, saline lake Issyk Kul, and the imposing Tian Shan, Heavenly Cloud, Mountains.
|Kyrgyz section of the Ferghana Valley |
Culturally vibrant, diverse, hotter, and lower-lying than the rest of the country, the Ferghana Valley is exotic but unstable.
- 1 Bishkek – The capital and cosmopolitan center of the country, beautiful and interesting.
- 2 Balykchy – The gateway to Issyk Kul lake. A small, dying industrial center on the western shore, and a former fishing town, with a train service from Bishkek through a beautiful passant Chui Valley.
- 3 Jalal-Abad – A good bet for visiting a Ferghana Valley town, as it is significantly safer and easier to get to than Osh or destinations further southwest.
- 4 Karakol – One of the gems of Issyk Kul, this was originally a Slavic settlement with a wealth of hiking, outdoor and sports available, including the Altyn Arashan hot springs, Karakol Canyon, and the beautiful Ala Kul glacier lake.
- 5 Kochkor – A small village with a park containing various Soviet structures, and a local animal bazaar, as well as an entry of point for Song Kul and launch pad for treks up into the Tian Shan Mountains.
- 6 Naryn – A city right up in the Tian Shan, near Lake Song Kul, the gateway to the entire southeastern region, its ruins, mountains, and high alpine lakes.
- 7 Osh – Kyrgyzstan's second largest city, a fascinating, 3,000 years old, wildly diverse, Ferghana Valley market town home to Central Asia's biggest and busiest outdoor market.
- 8 Talas – A modern far off town with the popular Manar Ordo pilgrimage complex nearby, just north of Besh-Tash National Park.
- 9 Tokmok – Dwarfed by nearby Bishkek, but still large by Kyrgyzstani standards, Tokmok is a dull industrial center right by the ancient Burana Tower and the ruins of an ancient Silk Road capital, Ak-Beshim.
- Issyk Kul – Lake and pearl of Central Asia, an enormous, crystal blue high alpine lake up in the Tian Shan Mountains.
- Song Kul – Issyk Kul's little cousin, far more remote, and many would say more beautiful as well.
- Kul Ukuk lake
- Tash Rabat – A former well-preserved 15th century stone caravanserai near Naryn and must see.
- Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve – One of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan with a beautiful lake, excellent hiking, diverse flora and fauna, picturesque mountains and much more.
- Burana Tower – All that remains of the ancient Silk Road capital of Balasagun, a massive minaret standing alone on the step.
- Ala Archa National Park – Gorgeous Tian Shan high alpine landscapes within easy striking distance of Bishkek, hiking and skiing.
- Suusamyr Valley – A picturesque valley with yurts, beautiful colours, and impressive mountains around it.
|Currency||Kyrgyzstani som (KGS)|
|Population||6.2 million (2017)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Schuko)|
|Emergencies||101 (fire department), 102 (police), 103 (emergency medical services), +996-161|
|edit on Wikidata|
The ancient Scyths inhabited much of present-day Kyrgyzstan. With their disappearance the Kyrgyz people moved from Siberia. The Kyrgyz are descendants of tribes from the Tuvan region of Russia, which migrated to the area now known as Kyrgyzstan in the 13th century, during the rise of the Mongol empire.
In 1876, with the destruction of the Khanate of Kokand, the area of today's Kyrgyzstan was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The natives of the region were known to the Russians (and, through them, to the Westerners) as the "Kara Kirghiz", the name "Kirghiz" being used to refer to the people who are now known as the Kazakhs. At about the same time, a widespread Muslim Rebellion against the Qing rule failed in the northwestern China, and a number of Uighur and Dungan people (Chinese Muslims) fled to the Russian Empire, finding new homes in what is now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
With the tsarist annexation came numerous Slavic immigrants that displaced many of the Kyrgyz and planted crops on their pasture lands. During World War I, many Kyrgyz refused to support the tsarist troops and many were massacred.
Following the creation of the Soviet Union, the Kara-Kirghiz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established within the Russian Soviet Federative Republic. A small town, earlier known as Pishkek, was chosen as the capital of the republic, and renamed Frunze in honor of a Red Army commander. (This was not a name easy to pronounce, as there is no “f” sound in native Kyrgyz words!)
Two years later (1926), the Soviets tried to sort out the names of their ethnic groups, the Kara-Kirghiz Republic becoming simply Kirghiz Republic (and the erstwhile Kirghiz Republic became the Kazakh Republic). In 1936, the Kirghiz Republic was split off from Soviet Russia, and became one of the member states of the USSR, as the Kirghiz SSR.
Kyrgyzstan changed dramatically as industrialization took over and brought factories, mines, and universities. A Latin-based and, later, Cyrillic-based alphabet was developed to reduce the Kyrgyz language to written form; compulsory schooling was introduced, and the famous Epic of Manas was written down and published in a book form.
The Soviet influence on Kyrgyzstan was strongly felt and many of the pre-Soviet traditions and cultures were lost and are only being recently rediscovered. In addition, ethnic minorities were deported to Kyrgyzstan, including Germans, Kurds, Chechens, Poles, and Jews. This mix of populations makes Kyrgyzstan one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Asia.
On August 31, 1991, after unrest in various regions throughout the Soviet Union, a coup in Moscow against the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev failed. This move against the central government motivated the Kyrgyz power structure to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Also during that time a physicist named Askar Akayev was elected president of Kyrgyzstan, the only one in Central Asia not backed by the local communist party.
To assert its independence, the new country changes the spelling of its name in Russian and English (from Kirghizstan Киргизстан or Kirghizia Киргизия to Kyrgyzstan Кыргызстан, to be more in line with the Kyrgyz spelling), and returned (sort of) the indigenous name to the capital (although it now became Bishkek, rather than Pishpek).
As for President Akayev, it became evident that non-party affiliation did not guarantee honesty. The executive branch’s power increased through suppression of opposition, and the President secured immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. After several years of questionable elections, in March 2005, massive groups of protesters from around the country converged on the capital, causing Akayev to flee into exile in Russia.
The leader of the Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, formed an interim government and served as president and prime minister until later that July when emergency elections were held. Bakiyev ran for the office of President and won, but was unable to gain parliamentary approval of his cabinet until five months later. After several attempts to resolve a constitution, Bakiyev declared in 2007 that all previous versions of the constitution were illegal, and instituted a modified constitution from the Akayev era. He then dissolved parliament and called for an early election to reform the parliamentary structure. The President’s own party gained the majority and the U.S. State Department expressed deep concern about the conduct of the elections, citing several issues including widespread vote count irregularities and exaggerations in voter turnout. Some of the current problems that Kyrgyzstan faces today are universal throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, namely lack of political freedom, widespread corruption and negative influences on democracy.
The climate varies regionally. The south-western Fergana Valley is subtropical and extremely hot in summer, with temperatures reaching 40°C (104°F). The northern foothills are temperate and the Tian Shan varies from dry continental to polar climate, depending on elevation. In the coldest areas temperatures are sub-zero for around 40 days in winter, and even some desert areas experience constant snowfall in this period. The best time to visit northern Kyrgyzstan is from June to September, though the foothill cities like Bishkek are very hot (up to 35°C). Most beautiful for hiking in the low mountain areas is between April and June, when the mountain slopes are flushed with blooming flowers. March to October is ideal for southern Kyrgyzstan. From October high mountains passes can be closed.
Entirely mountainous, dominated by the Tien Shan range; many tall peaks, glaciers, and high-altitude lakes. Highest point: Jengish Chokusu (Pik Pobedy) 7,439 m. The mountains are beautiful for hiking.
Kyrgyzstan has a wide mix of ethnic groups and traditional cultures, with the Kyrgyz being the majority group. It is considered there are 40 clans that represent the 40 rays symbolized by the 40-rayed sun on its national flag. The traditional poem is the Epic of Manas, the name of the epic's eponymous hero, and is longer with 500,000 lines.
Citizens of all countries, including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, may apply for tourism, business and group tourist types of visa for 30 or 90 days online through the Kyrgyz Republic eVisa system. Evisa holders must arrive via Manas International Airport, Osh International Airport and Ak-jol checkpoint on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border.
The main hub for Kyrgyzstan is the Manas airport in Bishkek, but Osh Airport is increasingly well linked with great flight offers. Both airports have regular services to the international hubs in Istanbul and Moscow. In addition there are several flights a week to regional hubs in Tashkent, Ürümqi and a weekly service to Dubai. For more information see the Bishkek#By plane or the Osh#By plane section. Other destinations close to border include Almaty in Kazakhstan or Tashkent in Uzbekistan, each a 5-hour drive away.
Note that since 2018, a Russian transit visa is needed if changing plane in Russia, when travelling to or from Kyrgyzstan.
Trains to Bishkek depart from Moscow and other stations in Russia a few times a week (3714 km, trip takes more than 3 days). This train goes through western Kazakhstan (Kazakh transit visa is required for those who need it), and is useful as such, as you can use it to get Turkestan or Aral. Details can be found at poezda.net  or rzd.ru  (you can also buy the tickets on the latter). The journey all the way from Moscow cost around 150€ in the third class. On the train it is forbidden to carry portable stove fuel cans.
Driving in Kyrgyzstan is dangerous by Western standards. However, the government has invested very heavily in reconstructing a core network of roads that now rival the highways in many western nations. The principal highway from Bishkek to Osh is an engineering marvel through the mountainous region. Further, the highway from Osh to the Chinese border at Irkeshtam and from the village of Sary Tash to the Tajikistan border is being reconstructed in stages to international standards. Many other highways are likewise being rehabilitated as funding permits. In addition, the maintenance roads that feed into the core network are being improved as funds become available. Likewise, maintenance is being privatized on an experimental basis. This is not to say that driving in the republic is easy. But given the limited economic resources progress is being made.
In the cities and outlying areas locals have become used to missing road drain covers, dry dusty roads (where water tankers sometimes sprinkle water to keep dust down) and generally bad roads that are not effectively maintained.
If you are stopped by the police, it's likely to cost some money.
From Kazakhstan, the road from Almaty to Bishkek is the busiest. The border at Kegen may be more difficult to get across. Frequent and obvious smuggling happens in this border, and it's quite obvious that the immigration and the border guards are in cahoots with the smugglers. Visa on arrival is not possible here, and if coming from Kazakhstan, make sure you have a double-entry or multiple entry visa for Kazakhstan in case of troubles with Kyrgyz border officials.
Watch out for mini buses pulling out too.
- From Kazakhstan to Bishkek - from Almaty which takes 5 hours, and from Taraz which takes 5 hours.
- From Uzbekistan to Bishkek, the road goes through Kazakhstan and drive would take more than 10 hours, and to Osh in the south
- From Tajikistan to Osh the road from Khudjant (Tajikistan) and through Batken (Kyrgyzstan) further to Osh. The road is one of the most difficult to drive. The main road goes through the Uzbek enclaves but there is also an alternative way around the enclaves. If taking a taxi, remind the driver to go around the small bit of Uzbekistan. There is also a road from Khorog to Osh.
- From China there two passes - Irkeshtam leading to Osh and Torugart leading further to Naryn.
Marshrutkas between Bishkek and Almaty (4-5 hr) operate from many of Bishkek bus stations, including Almatenskaya Station—see Bishkek#Get in.
By bus or marshrutkaEdit
Minibuses, called marshrutka, in Kyrgyzstan are basically cargo vans (like Mercedes Sprinter) converted into buses with windows and seats. They are amazingly inexpensive and congregate at every village center or bus station. The prices for them are set and straightforward, but sometimes they will not leave until full. However, nowadays it seems that timetable are much more reliable and enforced than in the past.
Always get your ticket at the kassa (if possible), where you will pay a fixed and pre-determined fare independently of the season, mood of the driver, or fact that you are a tourist. If there is no kassa, ask some (uninvolved) locals to determine the proper fare for your destination and hand the driver the exact amount when paying. Often the drivers stack up the price a little when they see you are a tourist. Sometimes they say that it is extra for the luggage and so on. Do not believe them, just pay the normal fare and say njet or jok. Also, always demand your change right away. Sometimes they take your money, believing you do not know the right fare, or pretend to give the change later, just to make you forget about asking for it. Either way, if not starting from a bus station with kassa, always give the fare to the driver directly and no intermediate pretending to "help" you.
Marshrutkas can be hailed anywhere but in Bishkek it makes sense to stick to the bus stop where everyone is waiting.
Hitch-hiking, commonly called autostop in Kyrgyzstan, is the most undervalued form of travel in this country. It is the most efficient and authentic way to see Kyrgyzstan, equally popular with locals and travellers. You can see many locals, often traditionally clothed babushkas hitch-hiking without any fear. Almost everyone who has free space in his car will pick you up, even if you are a group which would never be picked up in western country, like four guys. Truck drivers will even try to fit up to five people in their cars, just for the sake of helping out. It shows the great attitude and friendliness of the Kyrgyz people. Also, it is faster and more economical than any other kind of land transport.
Contrary to Europe or other western countries, in Kyrgyzstan one does not hold up the thumb, which apparently has a different and less friendly meaning. Instead, you straighten your arm and point towards the road with 2 or 3 fingers, at about an angle of 45 degrees.
Often the concept melds with that of shared taxis. Thus, the fare (if required) is generally what you would pay for a marshrutka or shared taxi, depending on the region and the general availability of marshrutkas. Nevertheless, many locals are happy with taking a tourist for free. But it is always customary to offer to pay for the ride, which they will decline in case they are happy with taking you for free. Truck drivers for instance seem to often reject this offer. Thus, in about 50% of the time you will not have to pay for a ride. Either way, always have lots of 20s notes ready, especially for shorter distances.
Drivers negotiating at the start of the trip will most likely overcharge you, trying to make money out of the fact that you are a tourist. Bargain hard, or avoid them. If you feel you a being ripped off (at the end of a ride), stand your ground—other locals will most likely help you if you explain the situation. Any demanded price 50% beyond the marshrutka or shared taxi fare is a rip-off, and you should not pay it.
If you really intend to go completely free, you can try to explain that you do not want to pay, the Russian phrase Bez deneg can be used. This will cause the taxi drivers to go away. Otherwise, taxi drivers will tell you how much they want—you have to haggle this price down, especially if there is someone already in the car. When haggling, it is often sufficient just to say ochen mnogo (too much), so the driver will see you are not stupid and will offer you a better price. Because of this, it is better to reject offers to places that are only on your way and wait for a car that will take you directly to your destination instead. This does not apply to more deserted roads, which see only a few cars in a day.
A great read on hitch-hiking in Kyrgyzstan: https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Kyrgyzstan/blog-521774.html
Where marshrutkas become scarce due to region or time of day, shared taxis are the preferred mode of transport for locals. With shared taxis you will be quoted a price for one seat. If you have significant luggage you should expect to pay for an extra or partial seat. Nevertheless, you should always negotiate prices, as a foreigner you will likely be asked to pay more than a local. But of course, there is never the need to go with anyone. Just take a different driver or mode of transport if unsatisfied.
Taxis are abundant all over Kyrgyzstan, and are especially keen to transport tourists, due to high margins involved. They are relatively expensive for Kyrgyz standards, and if you are travelling on a light budget, they are mostly never worth the money—marshrutka and autostop are the better and more authentic options.
As in most other countries, if relying on the service of a taxi, never trust any taxi driver, solely use them for their taxi service, and always agree on a price (all incl.) upon entering. Taxi drivers will overcharge tourists without hesitation. It might not seem like much money, but you would not do the same thing at home, and it also corrupts the local system.
You can also purchasing all the seats of a shared taxi at the bus station for a specific destination, in case you do not want to wait for the taxi to fill up with people before leaving.
The only domestic rail link is the summer-only train between Balykchy (Western edge of Issyk Kul) to Tokmok through to Bishkek. It's a scenic route but the train takes at least twice as long as a taxi and it's half the price. You may meet a lot of interesting folks, mostly pensioners, that need the 40-80 soms they would save by taking a mini-bus or taxi. Otherwise, there is ca one train per day to the Kazakh border (and onward to Russia).
There are several daily flights between Bishkek and Osh. There are also a few flights a week between Bishkek and Jalal-abad and Batken. The flights are operated on local airlines using 30- to 40-year-old Soviet planes. On the other hand, the mechanics and pilots are well trained how to operate these old beasts.
Kyrgyzstan is popular with long distance bike treks, particularly around Issyk Kul and passes through the southern mountains to Tajikistan.
The tunnel at the Too Ashuu (Тео-Ашуу) pass on the highway between Bishkek and Osh isn't at 2,500 m as it is mentioned on most maps—the tunnel is at 3,100 m.
Bicycle on busesEdit
Unfortunately the public transport in Kyrgyzstan consists mostly of marshrutkas. However, it's usually possible to fit two bicycles inside the luggage compartment in the back of the bus if you remove front wheel, pedals and turn the handlebar. You may have to pay an extra fee of 100 som per each bicycle while transporting them by buses between Karakol and Bishkek, and travellers paying 500 som for each are not unheard of. The nightbuses are usually big buses with enough space for bicycles.
By (rental) carEdit
Tourists renting a private car and driving in Kyrgyzstan is virtually unheard of and not recommended. The roads are in poor shape, police is highly corrupt, auto insurance doesn't exist, and hiring a taxi is too easy and cheap to make this an option. Long-term foreign residents frequently drive, but many opt to use a driver.
Kyrgyzstan is an excellent place for hiking and trekking, providing many interesting and picturesque trails in the mountains or around its lakes. For reliable maps and comprehensive trails and map information, consult OpenStreetMap, which is also used by this travel guide, and by many mobile Apps like OsmAnd (complex with many add-ons) and MAPS.ME (simple but limited).
The languages of Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz, a Turkic language related to Uzbek, Kazakh, and, of course, Turkish. Kyrgyz is more common in rural areas whereas Russian is the urban language of choice, and it's not uncommon to meet ethnic Kyrgyz people in Bishkek who cannot speak Kyrgyz. English, while becoming more popular, is still rarely spoken, so in order to effectively communicate one must at the very least learn a few basic words (yes, no, please, thank you, etc.) in Russian or Kyrgyz, depending on the location. If you are lost completely, try to ask young people, especially students.
Like most of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which can present a problem for Western travellers. However, the characters are not too hard to learn and once that is done you'll find that many of the words are familiar. For example, "ресторан" transliterated into the Latin alphabet is "restoran," which means "restaurant." But be careful as Cyrillic is used for Kyrgyz as well as Russian.
One interesting minority language is Dungan. A Chinese dialect influenced by Turkic languages and Russian, it is spoken by the descendants of Muslim Chinese (Hui) rebels who fled from the Qing China to the Russian Empire in the late 1870s, after the defeat of the Muslim rebellion. Kyrgyzstan's Dungans live in a few villages, and are also active in commerce and restaurant business throughout the country. The Dungan language has an official writing system based on the Cyrillic alphabet (instead of using Chinese characters), but, in practice, is written fairly rarely.
- The capital Bishkek offers bazaars and Soviets monuments and architecture.
- Al-Archa National Park with mountain peaks of over 4,000 m is a half-hour drive from Bishkek.
- Kyrgyzstan's only World Heritage Site is the Sulaiman-Too mountain in Osh. The city of Osh boasts a bazaar, mosques and Soviet architecture.
- Issyk Kul in eastern Kyrgyzstan is surrounded by mountains and is the world's second largest alpine lake.
- Wander around Osh Bazaar – Traditional Eastern market in Bishkek selling everything from spices to dishwashers.
- Buy cheap Chinese goods in Dor Doi Bazaar – The largest market in Central Asia, 20 minutes north of Bishkek.
- Swim, sail and sunbathe in Issyk Kul – The world's second biggest high-altitude mountain lake.
- Stay in a yurt near Tash Rabat – Ruins of a Caravansarai in Naryn Oblast.
- Live like a nomad in Song Kul – High altitude mountain lake less visited than Issyk Kul and ideal for seeing traditional semi-nomadic Kyrgyz life in action.
- Fishing is popular with locals and if you are into it, there are many rivers where it is possible and successful.
- Heli-skiing – A secret tip for winter-sport fans and free-riders all over the world. Try Eurosolutions, or look for other operators.
There are many great hiking opportunities in Kyrgyzstan, ranging from easy walks to proper mountain climbing. The most popular destinations are Ala Kul near Karakol, peak Lenine (7,134 m) south of Osh, the Grigorievskoe Trail near Cholpon-Ata, the Alamedin Gorge high routes, the Kyzyl Suu River Valley high routes, and the eastern border region towards Kazakhstan near Jyrgalan.
The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan organizes one day or longer public treks or hikes, e.g. in the mountains around Bishkek, for just few hundreds som a day, including transport to/from the start of the trek and guide. Usually size of the group is 10 people or more, both locals and expats. They mostly have treks on weekends or holidays. Sometimes they have other outdoor activities like rafting. Their website has events schedule in English.
Likewise the Community Based Tourism (CBT) office will also gladly organise guides and treks for you. But you can also just rely on them for information. The maps of CBT are not very detailed and often out of date. So, it is important that you have a good map like OpenStreetMap, which has up to date trails and supports contour-lines, hillshades and GPS—see #On foot and navigation.
The classic way to see Kyrgyzstan is on the saddle of a horse, as the Kyrgyz are famous horsemen dating back to the days of Genghis Khan. There are several tourist agencies that arrange horse trekking. It is said that all Kyrgyz are born on a horse, although with growing urbanisation that seems to be less common. If you are hiking some trail which is also frequented by horseback riding tours and tired of walking, you can easily "hitch-hike" guides with empty horses for much less money that a tour costs. Before paying for a ten days horseback riding tour, it is better to try it for a few hours or a day—if you are not used to ride a horse, a longer ride might cause your body to be in pain for several days during and after a long ride. Many people complain about a painful experience even after just one day of riding.
Exchange rates for Kyrgyzstani som
As of January 2019:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The official currency is the Kyrgyzstani som (written as 'сом' in the Kyrgyzs Cyrillic alphabet or sometimes abbreviated as с). The ISO international symbolisation is KGS. Wikivoyage articles will use som to denote the currency.
Banknotes are available in 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000 and 5,000 som denominations. Coins are available in 1, 3, 5 and 10 som denominations.
Credit cards and ATMsEdit
What does it cost?
Like other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is overwhelmingly a cash economy. Credit cards are rarely used. ATMs are common in Bishkek, and there are a scattering of ATMs in other towns. Many only accept Visa, for Cirrus, Maestro or Mastercard you have to search for ATMs from Kyrgyzkommerts or PCK. You can withdraw US dollars or Kyrgyz som at many ATMs.
Some ATMs charge a fee locally for withdrawals, like PCK 150 som. Kyrgyzkommerts does not. Just try a few and you will find one without fee.
Changing money is relatively straightforward. Banks will accept a variety of major currencies, while the money-changing booths that are ubiquitous in urban areas will typically only deal with US dollars, British pounds, euros, Russian rubles, and Kazakh tenges. Neither banks nor money changers will accept any foreign currency that is torn, marked, excessively crumpled, or defaced in any way, so be sure to carefully check any notes you intend to bring into the country for defects.
Many larger cities have currency exchange booths in the center. However, the best rates can be obtained in Bishkek around the corner of Kievskaya St. and Manas Av., or on Abdrakhmanov Sr. between Moskovskaya St. and Bokonbaev St.. Exchange rates are barely 1% off the inter bank rates for US dollars and euros. But also tenge can be exchanged for good rates, it is probably good to obtain some here before heading to the Kazakh border (to pay the bus on the other side).
Bargaining on markets or for food in Kyrgyzstan is neither necessary nor common. Prices are often fixed and signposted. Only in places where mostly tourists shop or are around, you should be cautious—especially with taxi drivers. Either way, it is always best to have an approximate feeling for the prices and fares (see #Get around).
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based, which means that virtually all of the traditional dishes contain meat. If you are vegetarian you can, however, ask for vegetarian food and in many cases will receive a tasty vegetarian meal without much hassle, or you can purchase your own fresh fruit, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city. While some people from the West think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavourful is the rule here. The same approach is valid for pistachios and almonds as well. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (literally: five fingers, because the dish is eaten with one's hands) is the national soupy dish of Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhs would probably disagree). For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honour. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon. If you can land an invitation to a wedding, you'll most likely get a chance to eat besh barmak, although you can also find it in traditional restaurants. Kyrgyz people like soupy food in general, those foods that are served as a kind of pasta in Russia such as pelmene, they prefer as soup.
Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil, sometimes raisins. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Samsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable or cheese) pies that come in two varieties: flaky and tandoori. Flaky somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine, but you can find everywhere from Crimea to Ujgurs. Most of the time it is served as soup, sometimes as pasta. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shish kebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions, vinegar and bread
Almost all Kyrgyz meals are accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.
At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will in some cases perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.
Drinking is one of the great Kyrgyz social traditions. No matter if you are served tea, kymys, or vodka, if you have been invited to a Kyrgyz person's table to drink, you have been shown warm and friendly hospitality. Plan to sit awhile and drink your fill as you and your host attempt to learn about each other.
When offered tea, you might be asked how strong you want it. Traditionally, Kyrgyz tea is brewed strong in a small pot and mixed with boiling hot water to your desired taste. If you want light tea, say 'jengil chai'. If you want your tea strong and red, 'kyzyl chai'. You might notice that they don't fill the tea cup all the way. This is so that they can be hospitable and serve you lots of tea. To ask for more tea, 'Daga chai, beringizchi' (Please give tea again). Your host will happily serve you tea until you burst. So once you've truly had your fill and don't want to drink any more, cover your tea cup and say, 'Ichtym' (I've drunk). Your host will offer a few more times (and sometimes will pout if you say no), this is to make sure that you are truly satisfied. Once everyone at table has finished drinking tea, it is time to say, 'Omen', and hold your hands out palms up and then brush the open palms down your face.
Restaurants and cafés give free refills of hot water if you want to drain your tea bag once more. You usually pay per tea bag.
When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Introduced by the Russians, vodka has brought much joy and sorrow to the Kyrgyz over the years. Most vodka you will find for sale was made in Kyrgyzstan and can provide travellers with one of the worst hangovers known, mainly if you are stupid and buy one of cheaper ones. But for approx. €2 you can have good Kyrgyz vodka, e.g. Ak-sai. Some professional vodka drinkers say that this is because foreigners don't know how to properly drink vodka. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakuskas (Russian for the meal you eat with vodka). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. Quite common are sour or fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and of course meat.
First, find someone to drink with. Second, choose your vodka: the more you spend, the less painful your hangover. Third, choose your zakuska, something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat. Fourth, open your bottle... but be careful, once you open it you must drink it all (a good vodka bottle doesn't have a cap that can be replaced). Now, pour your shots. Fifth, you will toast! You must toast! Toast your friends, toast their futures, toast their sheep, toast their cars. Sixth, drink! Drink it all! Now chase it with a zakuska and repeat until you can't see the bottle or it is empty.
If you are drinking with locals it's not a problem to skip a round. They would just pour you a symbolic drop and when they are clinking glasses you have to use your right hand and slap sparing partners' glasses slightly instead of your glass.
The Kyrgyz for generations have made their own variety of beverages. At first, these drinks might seem a bit strange, but after a few tries they become quite tasty. Most are mildly alcoholic, but this is just a by-product from their fermentation processes.
In the winter, Kyrgyz wives brew up bozo, a brew made of millet. Best served at room temperature, this drink has a taste somewhere between yogurt and beer. On cold winter days, when you are snowed in, five or six cups gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.
In the spring, it is time to make either jarma or maxim. Jarma, a wheat based brew, has a yeasty beerlike quality but with a gritty finish (it is made from whole grains after all). Maxim, a combination of corn and wheat, has a very sharp and zesty taste. It is best served ice cold and is a great pick me up on hot days.
Summer sees yurts lining the main street selling kumys (Кумыс), fermented mares milk. Ladled out of barrels brought down from the mountains, this traditional drink is one of more difficult to get used to. It has a very strong and pungent foretaste and a smoky finish. Kumys starts off as fresh horses milk (known as samal), the samal is then mixed with a starter made from last year's kumys and heated in a pot. The mixture is brought to just before boiling and then poured into a horse's stomach to ferment for a period. A local grass called 'chi' is then roasted over a fire and cut into small pieces. Once the milk is finished fermenting, the roasted chi and milk are mixed in a barrel and will keep for the summer if kept cool.
Tang is another drink thought to be useful for the health and good for hangovers. It is made from gassed spring water that is mixed with a salted creamy yogurt called souzmu.
Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being "Kyrgyzstan Cognac", which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning "our cognac".
You can also find an excellent selection of not so excellent local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder spirits. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connoisseurs. While being considered a common person's beer, its style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than its Indian counterpart). Due to the fact that Kyrgizes prefer more vodka than beer (actually, half litre of each costs the same), beer is staying in tubes for longer time. Regular cleaning service is not common. Bottled beers are better, except their strange habit to pour all the beer into the glass at once.
There are also a multitude of bottled waters (carbonated or still) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slightly saline "Jalalabad Water".
Many private citizens rent out their flats to foreigners and a fairly luxurious flat could be agreed for quite low price a week. Noting that the average salary is US$200-300 in 2014, now it could twice as big, you may think you are paying excessively. Look for cable TV, toilet and bath and clean quarters. More adventurous visitors may wish to stay in a "yurta," for example in Bishkek it costs from US$8 a night in "yurtadorm". It is not that special to stay in a yurt in Bishkek, but it can be more interesting to do so in more rural areas. These are boiled wool tents used by nomads. Some tourist agencies in Bishkek will arrange this sort of stay, but be prepared to truly live the lifestyle of the nomad which includes culinary delicacies which may seem foreign to the western palette.
For those wishing to have home stays arranged in advanced there with the Community Based Tourism (CBT). They can organize home stays in most cities and villages in Kyrgyzstan. They can also arrange yurt stays and trekking. While many such organizations keep the majority of payment for themselves, CBT Kyrgyzstan claims that between 80 to 90% of payment will go to your host family. Amenities will vary between homes and locals, but overall some great travel experiences can be had such as, being invited to an impromptu goat feast, or enjoying fermented mare's milk with nomads.
Camping is possible virtually everywhere and anywhere. Just make sure to stay away far enough from any settlement or village, otherwise you will not get a good night's sleep due to the constantly barking dogs. It is also possible to put up tents at many yurts for a few som, where you sometimes have a shower and mostly a toilet. Also, they will be happy to prepare meals and dinner for you. If you want to camp wild but stick to the proven ones, checkout OpenStreetMap which has many camp sites for Kyrgyzstan in its database.
Hostels are beginning to open in the country, but many are still overpriced for what they are and might not meet your expectations. Of course, hotels can be found in most cities. Their comfort though can vary widely, especially where there are not many tourists, and you might be confronted with a 1-star Soviet "luxury" room with missing toilet seats and cheap Chinese synthetic and coloured bed covers.
If you intend to couchsurf, be aware many Kyrgyz are unaware what Couchsurfing is and may expect you to pay (why would a rich foreigner get anything for free?). Don't assume, ask! (It won't cost the world.)
For those who are interested in learning Kyrgyz or Russian languages - there are universities you can go and there is a private school called the London School. The London School in Bishkek offers pretty cheap individual lessons for about US$4/hour and home stay/cultural programs.
Kyrgyzstan's greatest export is its people departing for Russia, Kazakhstan, and even Europe for better opportunities. There are few opportunities for foreigners, except with development organizations, that generally hire off-shore. There are also few opportunities to teach European languages, as many Kyrgyz that studied abroad have returned with near fluency and will charge much less than you.
If you wish to volunteer, there is a very active and diverse NGO community that would appreciate your assistance.
Kyrgyzstan is a safe country compared to Western Europe.
Fights and assaults generally only focus around nightclubs and bars, just as in any other large city. There is to date no indication that Bishkek is particularly dangerous to foreigners. As for other cities in the Kyrgyz Republic, there is little evidence.
Corruption is a serious issue in Kyrgyzstan, and the locals are ultimately convinced that the police are not to be trusted. In the past there have been occasional reports of corrupt policemen searching tourists' bags in order to steal money. These incidents should be reported to the embassy. Since citizens of many countries do not need a visa anymore, tourists cannot legally be bothered by corrupt policemen stating that something is wrong with their visa or registration.
Bride kidnappings, or Ala Kachuu, are a common and traditional practice in Kyrgyzstan's countryside, whereby a woman is kidnapped and forced to get married. In 2007, the American Embassy reported that two American women were bride kidnapped in remote areas of Kyrgyzstan.
Your biggest risk in Kyrgyzstan are car wrecks and accidents while crossing the street or falling into a hole in the sidewalk. You should also exercise caution around stray animals and avoid approaching dogs. If dogs get too close, (pretend to) pick up a rock—most will understand this gesture and shy away.
Food and drinking water safety vary substantially by region. Water is mostly potable, especially in the mountains where it comes from clean rivers—just ask the locals.
Note that in some villages they don't have electricity all the day. Therefore restaurants there might serve you quick-heated, pre-cooked meals or the meat was not stored in a fridge before it was prepared. The latter can cause food poisoning or parasite-borne illnesses because they don't always cook the meat long enough. Therefore try to eat only meals that were prepared the same day.
Kyrgyz claim the national drink, Kumys, is extremely healthy and will cure you of innumerable ailments.
Tourism: More and more locals cater for tourists with horse treks, yurt sleeping, organised tours, etc. But it needs to be doubted whether this is actually authentic Kyrgyzstan, or just for tourists' provided convenience. If you are looking for the true nature and feel of this country, putting down €100 for a 1-2-day tour will not get you closer to this goal. Kyrgyzstan is a poor country, and the more money you pay, the less authentic your experience will be.
Western norms of respect are standard. Though nominally a Muslim country the Kyrgyz people are highly westernized. No special dress codes are in effect. Although standards of dress in Bishkek are Western and often revealing, in the south of the country women should dress more conservatively or risk attracting unwanted male attention. Evenings can be charged as alcohol intoxication can be quite prevalent at this time. Proceed with caution.
See the Connect section of the Bishkek article.