There is nothing like traveling to a place that’s distinctly unique. Postcard-like scenery, a wide variety of landscapes, nomadic heritage, and the lack of tourism impact, Kyrgyzstan is a highlight for many travellers that head to Central Asia. Not to mention Kyrgyzstan is wild country full of off the beaten path potential, yet relatively easy to travel in and get about on the cheap. The Kyrgyz Republic, once a key transit city between China and Europe, sits smack in the middle of Central Asia at the crossroads of the ancient Great Silk Road. The entire country is a pretty mountainous land being dotted with the Tien Shan mountain range – in fact, 94% of it is 1000-meters or more above sea level!
Whatever the case that puts Kyrgyzstan’s lack of popularity, the country does offer an abundance of adventures and attractions without crowds of tourists – something that in this global age is becoming quite a rarity!
Getting in and out of Kyrgyzstan
The main international airports are Manas International Airport (FRU) in Bishkek and Osh International Airport (OSS). Direct international flights are available from China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Moscow and Turkey. If you’re coming from Europe or North America, usually the fastest and probably cheapest way is to fly Turkish Airlines or Pegasus Airlines through Istanbul to Bishkek. If you’re coming from Asia or Australia, China Southern Airlines, Air India and FlyDubai offers a good selection of flights.
Crossing borders overland is available twice a week by train from Moscow, whereas driving is possible from China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
- China – There are 2 open borders, Irkeshtam and Torugart. Crossing at Torugart requires having a special, expensive Chinese permit. Crossing via Irkeshtam is fairly easy.
- Tajikistan – The most common is the Kyzyl Art border crossing, which is the one that follows the Pamir Highway from Dushanbe to Osh.
- Uzbekistan – There are nowadays 4 borders but only 3 are open as of 2019. For more information, read the latest Caravanistan updates.
- Kazakhstan – There are like 7 border crossings, but the easiest ones are Karkara and Kordai. We took a bus from Almaty to Karakol via Bishkek which leaves at 9 pm daily. It’s an 11-hours overnight bus that cost 2000 KZT (US$5) per person.
Good news is Kyrgyzstan has the most relaxed visa policies compared to any Central Asian nation. Foreigners holding passports from Europe (except Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania), the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and many Asian countries can get a 30 or 60-day visa-free with zero hassle attached. You can even enter and re-enter on the same day as many times as you like. If you have been travelling around other parts of Central Asia, I am sure you will find this headache-free visa a welcomed relief.
Extending a Kyrgyz visa is possible in Bishkek, Karakol, and Osh. You will for sure need a copy of your passport and your visa, your passport, a confirmation from your accommodation or a flight out, a passport photo and of course, money.
DO NOT OVERSTAY! If you do overstay your tourist visa, you are likely to be fined up to a whopping US$200. Better to get an extension or leave the country before your visa is due.
Getting around Kyrgyzstan
- Rent a Car: Having your own transport definitely makes traveling around the country that much easier. Do take note that driving is on the right side of the road. Check here for a better idea how much a car costs for per day.
- Marshrutka: The most popular means of transport in Kyrgyzstan is the marshrutka, which is a shared public minibus. These are 15-passengers mini bus that leave when full and pick up people along the way. They are not the most comfortable transport but they are cheap and a good way to go between cities in the country.
- Shared Taxi: They are more comfortable ride than squeezing in marshrutka. However, do note that some drivers will try at every opportunity to rip you off. Always ask check with your hostel’s host so you can bargain your way.
- Plane: If you are in a hurry to head south, you can catch one of the daily flights from Bishkek to Osh. The tickets cost roughly US$30-35 one way.
- Cargo Van: There is a cargo-passenger minivan that runs between Bishkek and Osh for around US$10. In Osh, the cargo van start from Dordoi market in Bishkek, and from Kara-Suu market in Osh. These vans usually run overnight from 3 pm – 6 pm.
- Hitchhike: Mostly everyone, even the locals, hitchhike in Kyrgyzstan. It’s really easy and an efficient way of getting around. However, you are usually expected to pay for the ride.
- CBT: The Community Based Tourism company in Kyrgyzstan is the ideal place to visit if you’re feeling stuck on what to do and where to go. They’ll help organize trips, tours, and homestays around the country for you.
When to visit Kyrgyzstan?
July to September are probably the best months if you’re planning to do trekking, especially going high in the mountains. The weather during these months is warmer and the likelihood of raining is lower. Spring and Autumn are still possible to do some hikes but not high altitude areas due to unpredictable weather. Winter in Kyrgyzstan is a great option for travellers interested in skiing or snowboarding.
We were in Kyrgyzstan during mid-June and the trekking routes in Karakol region were still not fully opened yet. Nomads were not around the area means there’s no accommodation at all.
Money and Expenses
The official currency of Kyrgyzstan is the Kyrgyz Som (KGS). The current exchange rate as of May 2020) is US$1 = 75 KGS. ATMs are widely available in Osh and Bishkek. Many ATMs dispense both KGS and USD.
In Bishkek, there are exchange offices in absolutely every corner. The rates are too high to be true. It was at the bazaar in Bishkek that we first time experienced scam from money changer. Do really double check your cash before leaving the counter!
Estimated Costs breakdown:
- Hostels: US$5-10 per bed with breakfast
- Yurt/Private room in homestays: US$10-15 per room with breakfast
- Marshrutka Karakol to Bokonbaevo: 120 KGS (US$1.50) per seat
- Shared taxi Bokonbaevo to Kochkor: 300 KGS (US$4) per seat
- Marshrutka Kochkor to Bishkek: 200 KGS (US$2.60) per seat
- Shared taxi Bishkek to Osh: 1,200 KGS (US$20) per seat
- Food: 200 KGS – 500 KGS (US$2.60 – US$7) for 2 persons
- Horseriding 3d2n: USD188 for 2 persons inclusive meals, guide, accommodation
Telecommunication in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has the best internet in Central Asia region. In Karakol, we went to the O! (the top cellular company in Kyrgyzstan) store and picked a SIM card which is for 10-days providing 200GB data for 200 KGS (US$2.60)! It was unbelievably cheap with so much internet data to spend on.
Outside of the cities, there is not much in the way of Wi-fi or internet connection. Even the local cellular networks struggle outside of major cities. Large swaths of the country are undeveloped and have not yet been overrun by data towers.
Kyrgyzstan has a wide choice of hostels in cities such as Bishkek, Karakol or Osh. They are relatively cheap and ideal if you travel by yourself in the country and want to meet fellow backpackers. Of course, yurts homestays are one of the unique experiences you must try in Kyrgyzstan! They’ve been the homes of nomadic shepherds for thousands of years when they moved around the mountains and valleys.
- Karakol: Duet Hostel – US$6 per bed with delicious breakfast
- Bokonbaevo: Altyn Oimok Guesthouse – US$19 per room with breakfast
- Kochkor: Center Guesthouse – US$12 per room with breakfast
- Bishkek: Apple Hostel – US$8 per bed with breakfast
- Osh: Park Hostel – US$7 per bed with breakfast
Kyrgyz food is similar to it’s Central Asian neighbors, very meat-centric, and can be somewhat bland. Generally food isn’t a highlight of traveling Kyrgyzstan or the region, but that isn’t to say that there’s no good food in Kyrgyzstan. The most unique cuisine that different from the rest is Dungan dishes in Karakol. The Dungan people are Chinese who practice Islam. IF you’re interested, a popular thing to do in Karakol is joining a Dungan Food Tour.
- Beshbarkmak: Probably the most typical Kyrgyz dish. This dish is meant to be eaten with the hands, consisting of boiled meat and noodles with a medium-spicy sauce.
- Ashlam-fu: A spicy dish made with cold noodles, jelly, vinegar, and eggs. Popular in the summer, as a light and refreshing meal in hot weather.
- Oroma: Layers of handmade dough filled with cabbage and carrots (vegetarian version) or small bits of meat and onions (meat-eater version).
- Blini: Thin Russian pancakes rolled and served with meat, cottage cheese, or jam. Can be sweet or savory, and are popular snacks.
- Ganfan: A similar spicy meat and vegetable sauce as laghman, but it is served over steamed rice instead of noodles.
- Kuurdak: Usually mutton or beef, the meat is fried with onion and spices, and served on a plate with boiled potatoes and garnished with herbs.
- Kurut: Small balls made of dried sheep’s cheese or yogurt. Can be diluted with water to make chalap, a popular summer drink.
- Shorpo: A Central Asian soup of meat broth from mutton or beef, spices and various vegetables- usually potato and onion.
- Kumis: An alcoholic drink of fermented milk.
People and Culture
Kyrgyzstan’s culture started with 40 nomadic tribes who roamed the plains and mountains of Central Asia and western China. The tribes fought the Chinese and Mongol armies and defended their land. The 40-ray sun on Kyrgyzstan flag represents these tribes and today, many Kyrgyz can still tell you the descendant of their tribe family.
Like in most Soviet countries, religion is not a big deal anymore. Despite Islam being the main religion, alcohol is available everywhere and women of all ages will always come to you to start a conversation. Traveling in Kyrgyzstan is very pleasant, as the Kyrgyz people, who will always bless you with their smiles, are kind and hospitable by nature.
Nevertheless, 20% of the country’s population still practicing brides kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan. It is a crazy tradition whereby a man can take a random woman who is just walking on the street to his house and, if both parents agree, he can marry her and the woman can’t say anything. You may watch a documentary on brides kidnapping here.
Is it safe to travel to Kyrgyzstan?
Despite its stunning, practically untouched landscapes, rich nomadic culture, low prices, and hospitable locals, Kyrgyzstan is often overlooked by travellers. Most people feel put off by the “stan” in the country’s name, or quite possibly they simply have no idea what attractions the former Soviet republic has to offer. The term – Stan doesn’t mean a place is dangerous, but – Stan means land, so Kyrgyzstan means the land of Kyrgyz.
Needless to say, I would definitely agree that Kyrgyzstan is a very safe country to travel in. Crime is rare, people are helpful and corruption towards tourists is a thing of the past. The biggest risks in Kyrgyzstan are likely to be related to the crazy traffic and your health.
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