WARNING: As of July 2010, the political situation in Kyrgyzstan is improving and ethnic violence has subsided, but the country remains extremely unstable. A substantial risk for renewed political and ethnic violence exists, particularly in southern Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek and the Issyk-Kul region are currently calm and safe for travel. However, the situation in any part of the country could deteriorate without warning.
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.
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 the area was incorporated into the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. 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, Kyrgyzstan changed dramatically as industrialization took over and brought factories, mines, and universities. 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. In addition, Ouighur and Dungan Chinese Muslims settled in Kyrgyzstan. This mix of populations makes Kyrgyzstan one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Asia.
August 31st, 1991 marked a major event in the history of Kyrgyzstan. 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 U.S.S.R. Kyrgyzstan also saw during that time the election of the only non-communist party backed president in the Central Asian region, a physicist named Askar Akayev.
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 capitol, 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.
Dry continental to polar in high Tien Shan; subtropical in southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone.
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.
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.
Kyrgyzstan is by far the easiest country for Europeans, North American, Japanese, Koreans, to enter in Central Asia as it offers a 30 day tourist visa on arrival at Bishkek airport (not at land border crossings). This visa cost $70 (Aug 2010), so if possible, it's cheaper to obtain it in advance.
Citiziens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom and USA do not require letter of invitation.
Citiziens of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Singapore, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and USA (Aug 2010) with valid Kazakh tourist visa can travel also to Talas, Chui (including Bishkek) and Issyk Kul Oblasts of Kyrgyzstan. However if you have single-entry Kazakh visa and you cross the border from Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, you can't return back on this visa to Kazakhstan. Most customs officers don't know about this agreement, which can cause long obstructions at border crossings. The similar agreement applies reciprocally in Kazakhstan, but not for all abovementioned nationalities, see Kazakhstan#Get_in.
Bishkek's Manas Airport has daily flights to Istanbul, Moscow, and London (via Almaty). In addition there are several flights a week to regional hubs in Tashkent, Urumqi and a weekly service to Dubai. The airport is situated approximately 30 km north of the city center. The airport is not modern, but efficient and features a VIP Hall that facilitates entry and exit if you need more comfortable services. Air traffic control is provided by the United States Air Force as part of its agreement with the Manas Air Transit Center that support operations in Afghanistan.
A visa on arrival can be issued at the airport for nationalities of many countries.
A taxi to and from the city center can be arranged for approximately 500 soms, but prepare to negotiate from a much higher price. Note that most international flights arrive in the very early morning hours, so the taxi drivers will demand a higher price based upon the late or early hours.
Trains to Bishkek depart from Moscow (Kazanskaia station) a few times a week (3714km, trip takes more than 3 days) going through Kazakhstan (Kazakh transit visa is required for most of non-CIS travelers). Details can be found at poezda.net or rzd.ru (the second one available only in Russian and contains current ticket prices which were about 100EUR in 2008 for "plackartniy" class). On the train it is forbidden to carry portable stove fuel cans.
In the past driving in Kyrgyzstan was, by Western standards, dangerous. It still is! 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.
Interesting usage of main and large roads: If your side is too damaged to drive fast then is quite normal to use the other side of the road.
If you get stopped by the police it's likely to cost some money.
Watch out for mini buses pulling out too.
Minibuses between Bishkek and Almaty operate from many of Bishkek bus stations, including Almatenskaya Station. There is also a bus between Osh and Kashgar.
There are several daily flights between Bishkek and Osh. There are also a few flights a week between Bishkek and Jalalabad and Batken. The flights are operated on local airlines using 30-40 year old soviet planes. On the other hand, the mechanics and pilots are well trained how to operate these old beasts.
The only domestic rail link is between Balykchy (Western edge of Issyk Kul) to Tokmok through to Bishkek through to Karabalta and on to the Kazakh border. The trains take at least twice as long as a taxi, but are half the price and you get to meet a lot of interesting folks, mostly pensioners, that need the 40-80 soms they would save by taking a mini-bus or taxi.
Minibuses (marshrutkas) and shared taxis are the most common and accessible option for traveling within Kyrgyzstan. They're amazingly inexpensive and congregate at every village center or bus station. You can also arrange a private taxi by purchasing all the seats at the bus station or contacting a taxi firm directly.
The prices for mini-buses are set and straight-forward, but it won't generally leave until it is full and you may find yourself holding a child in your lap. With shared taxis you will be quoted a price for one seat and if you have significant luggage you should expect to pay for an extra or partial seat. You should negotiate prices, but as a foreigner you will likely pay more than a local.
Kyrgyzstan is popular with long distance bike treks, particularly around Issyk Kul and passes through the southern mountains to Tajikistan.
Heliskiing in Kyrgyzstan is a secret Tipp for Freeriders all over the world. Eurosolutions is organized by germans and provides different Packages of Freeriding. Heliskiing
The concept of free rides is not really understood here. Particulary if you happen to be a foreigner. Most drivers will expect you to pay a small sum of money for gas. Either you can try to explain that you do not want to pay, the russian phrase Bez deneg can be used. Alternativelyyou can just pay the sum.
If the driver is asking for too much money you can always haggle! As a rule of thumb you should either pay the same price you'd pay for the bus or lower.
This is the real way to see Kyrgyzstan by the saddle of a horse. There are several tourist agencies that can make it happen for you, as the Kyrgyz are famous horsemen dating back to the days of Ghengis Khan. It is said that all Kyrgyz are born on a horse, although with growing urbanization that seems to be less common.
Tourists renting a private car and driving in Kyrgyzstan is virtually unheard of and not recommended. The roads are in poor shape, police are 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.
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 (in fact 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" in latin is "restoran," which means, "restaurant." But be careful. They use it for Kyrgyz language as well!
See the Wikitravel Russian phrasebook and Kyrgyz phrasebook for more information.
The official currency in Kyrgyzstan is the som (written as 'сом' or abbreviated as 'с' in Cyrillic), divided into 100 tyin. Notes are available in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 5000 som denominations. Coins are available in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1 som, 3 som, and 5 som denominations.
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, Pounds, Euros, Roubles, and Kazakh tenges. Note that 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.
Like other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is overwhelmingly a cash economy. Credit cards are rarely used.
ATMs are common in Bishkek, but many more accept Visa than Maestro/Cirrus. you can withdraw US Dollars or Kyrgyz som at many ATMs.
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. And if we are saying overwhelmingly, it means really overwhelmingly. Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits, purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city, eat in Chinese restaurants or stay at bread and tea only. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavourful is the rule here. Same is valid for pistachios, almonds as well. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (“five fingers”) 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 honor. 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. Kyrgyz people like soupy food in general, those food that are served as kind of pasta in Russia (pelmene), they prefer it 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 rosins. 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: flakey and tandoori. Flakey 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.
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 aprox €2 you can have good kyrgyz vodka, ex. 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 zakushkas (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. Only alcoholics drink alone. 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 its not problem to skip round. They would just pour you a symbolic drop and when they are clinking glasses you have to use your right hand and slap sparingpartners 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 kymys, 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. Kymys starts off as fresh horses milk (known as samal), the samal is then mixed with a starter made from last year's kymys 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 counter-part). Due to the fact that Kyrgizes prefer more vodka than beer (actually, half litre of both 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 was $44 in 2004, now it could twice as big, you may think you are paying excessively. Look for cable, toilet and bath, and clean quarters. More adventurous visitors may wish to stay in a "yurta," for example in Bishkek it costs from 3 dollar a night in "yurtadorm". 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 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 $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.
If you come to Kyrgyzstan on a 30 day tourist visa, you will not be able to extend your visa. If you come to work or volunteer you should apply for a longer term visa. Also, Americans and Europeans on long term visas must register with OVIR. Information on this process is available on the websites of the US Embassy. It is an easy, inexpensive, straight-forward process not fraught with corruption or delays in most cases.
Kyrgyzstan is constantly engulfed in strifes and political turmoil, and several countries advise foreigners to not travel to Kyrgyzstan at this time.
While the US travel advisory tells foreigners that some attacks on Westerners have occurred, the view of Kyrgyz people on this is varied. Fights and assaults generally 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. Tourists will of course be drawn by Kyrgyzstan's amazing natural beauty although travel by car through mountain passes and villages is not advisable.
Although bride-kidnapping is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, it is still common, particularly in rural areas, so women should be very careful - it would therefore be preferable that women travel with male family members or other men who they can trust to keep them safe. According to the United States Embassy, two American women were bride-knapped in rural Kyrgyzstan in 2007 , and you certainly don't want to be one of them.
In the past there have been occasional reports of foreigners being approached by persons impersonating police and asking for documents in order to find an excuse to extort monies. These reports are uncommon, but one should always be on guard.
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.
Food and drinking water safety vary substantially by region. Kyrgyz claim the national drink, Kymys, is extremely healthy and will cure you of innumerable ailments.
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 would be advised to 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.