Kyrgyzstan, although the smallest out of five Central Asia’s former Soviet republics, is the highlight of travel through “The Stans”, thus receives the biggest number of visitors. Surely an important reason for this is the fact that Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the region that doesn’t require visas for citizens of many western countries. The second one is the accessibility of high mountains, mountain lakes and experience of nomadic life in yurts and on horseback. Kyrgyz people work slowly but consciously and steadily on development of tourism infrastructure, including local people in this process. Backpacking is rather associated with cycling, as there’re tons of bikers passing through this hilly land in warm seasons. To the extent that we, as hitchhikers, were often asked a question “Guys, where did we leave your bikes?”. Based on our month-long backpacking experience in this country, we have gathered some up-to-date information.
Who should go? Hikers, climbers, cyclists, people keen on horseback riding or wishing to try nomadic life or just spend holidays at the Issyk-Kul lake (last one however is the least recommended).
When to go? Best time to visit is between May and October, although hiking and camping is possible between June and October, as before June the mountain passes can be still covered with snow. Summer temperatures sometimes reach 40 degrees, which makes hiking on terrain without trees quite unpleasant, but not impossible. Winter in Kyrgyzstan is severe, with a lot of snow. In several places it’s possible to ski.
How to go? If flying from Europe or the US, the cheapest option is to search for connections through Turkey with the Turkish company Pegasus. From Europe you can find flights for 150-200 euro in one direction if buying your ticket in advance. For the luckiest one with no time constraints, a bicycle trip to Kyrgyzstan is a great option.
Visa. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the region for which visa is not required up to a 60 days stay for over 40 nationalities (see detailed info).
Currency. The only accepted currency in Kyrgyzstani som (1 euro – about 20 som). Information on the current exchange rate can be found here. In larger cities (Bishkek and Osh) it’s possible to exchange dollars or euros in exchange offices without any problems and the rate is usually good. In case you run out of local currency, changing money is possible also in smaller towns, on the street. However, getting money from an ATM is possible only in Bishkek and Osh (you can withdraw either soms or dollars at ATMs). Paying with credit card is not very popular in Kyrgyzstan.
Daily budget. Your budget will very much depend on your individual needs. In Kyrgyzstan we tried travelling on a possibly small budget also thanks to the fact that we spent most time in the mountains or regions and we had friends hosting us Bishkek. Sleeping in our tent, cooking food on a stove or eating simple food at the bazaars, hitchhiking and taking minibuses just when really needed, we ended up spending 460 som (5.5 euro) daily per person. If you plan to sleep in guesthouses, eat in restaurants and travel by minibuses or shared taxis, that amount may be at least three or four times higher.
Prices. In Bishkek, Osh and Karakol you will pay 350-1100 som for a bed in the dormitory.
Minibus inside the city costs 10 som, while the minibus ride from Bishkek to Karakol is around 450 som, and from Bishkek to Osh over 800 som. A piece of pastry (piroshok) at a street stand will cost you 20 som, while a solid lunch in a restaurant in Bishkek is around 250-500 som. Tomatoes at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek costs 30 som/kg, watermelon or sweet melon is 30-60 som/kg. It seems impossible to rent a bicycle for less than 500 som per day.
Accommodation. Guesthouses in Kyrgyzstan are disproportionately expensive comparing to the local living standards, which is why we recommend to bring your own tent and use it as much as possible. That will be useful also if you are planning trips into the nature, which is actually the best thing to do in Kyrgyzstan. We often slept by the roads, near yurts, in someone’s backyards and obviously in the wildness, all that was a beautiful experience. Kyrgyz people are used to travelers with tents, because most of the tourist who visit their country are cyclists or alpinists.
Transport. Like most of the post-Soviet countries, Kyrgyzstan has developed a system of minibuses (marshrutka) connecting towns and villages. The prices are quite low and the level of comfort is acceptable. If you wish to travel from Bishkek to Osh, Sokuluk, Tash-Bulak, Kashka-suu or Chong-Tash, you will find minibuses on the Western (new) Bus Station (Zapadny avtovagzal). The minibuses going to towns such as Karakol, Kant, Tokmok, Kemin, Issyk Ata and Kegeti leave from the Eastern Bus Station (Vastochny avtovagzal). The minibus 114 runs between these two bus stations. You can travel long distances also with shared taxis, which offer greater comfort and shorter travel time for a higher price. More information can be found here.
Bishkek has a well developed system of mini buses for only 10 som per ride. Pay as you enter. The connections (forget the timetable) can be checked here. The airport Manas, located over 25 km from Bishkek, can also be reached by the minibus number 380. It runs from the airport every 15 minutes between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to its last stop at the street Molodaya Gvardiya, at the intersection with the street Chuy Prospekt. From there it leaves to the airport between 6:40 am and 8 pm.
Hitchhiking. For travelers with a small budget, this is the best option for moving around in Kyrgyzstan. We hitchhiked most of the time and we didn’t experience any uncomfortable situations. However, before you sit in someone’s car, you often need to explain that you don’t want/ don’t have money to pay for a ride. Because of the scarce minibus connections in some parts of the country, locals tend to pick up people who wait for a ride by the road and charge them as for a shared taxi. Prices for certain routes are usually fixed, but its not uncommon for drivers to increase the price for foreign travellers. However, there is a little chance that you will wait a long time for a free ride unless you find yourself on a road where the traffic is minimal. Waiting can sometimes be unbearable because of the heat, which is why we paid for transport a couple of times (always after negotiating and fixing prices).
Food. The food in Kyrgyz stores is quite cheap. Best places to make good supplies, especially if taking your own camping equipment for cooking, are markets (bazaars). Here you can find everything from dried and fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, pulses, Korean salads, traditional Kyrgyz bread (lepioshka), to freshly fried donuts. Each city has its own bazaar and our personal favorite is Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.
If someone invites you into their yurt (or if you visit it on an organized trip), do not miss the opportunity to taste homemade butter and kumis (mare’s sour milk). Kyrgyz traditional cuisine is based on meat and it’s hard to find vegetarian meals, which was quite a problem for us. The best-known specialties are bishbarmak – cooked lamb served with noodles and onions, shashlik – grilled meat (usually lamb or beef) and kurdak – baked or roasted lamb. In a restaurant you will also find manty (dumplings), samsy (only by name recalling Indian samosas) and lagman (noodles). You will find meat in almost every meal and often the only vegetarian options is shopska salad (tomatoes+cucumbers+cheese). The only traditional vegetarian dish that we tried was Dungani specialty Ash Lian Fu, a soup with two kinds of noodles, eggs and pepper. There is a special section with this type of food at the market in Karakol.
Health. Recommended vaccines for Kyrgyzstan are:
– Hepatitis A and B,
Tap water in the cities is not drinkable and buying bottled water is a way to go. While staying in the nature, there’s no other option but drinking water from sources and streams. It’s good to have pills for water purification (difficult to be found in Bishkek) or a water filter, as sources are not always clean (eg. in the area of Song Kol lake) or might be contaminated by grazing animals. The food prepared on food stalls and in cheap restaurants is below the European standard of cleanliness, which can sometimes result in diarrhea or food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t have such experience.
Language. Kyrgyzstan has two official languages, Kyrgyz (deriving from Turkic family of languages) and Russian, but there is only one script in use – Cyrillic. A very small percentage of people we met was able to communicate in English so knowing at least the basics of Russian language can be extremely helpful.
Internet. In most towns there is no problem with getting Internet access, usually you will find an internet club on every other street. Omnipresent Wi-Fi is not that common.
CBT. Community Based Tourism is an organization that works to promote tourism through local communities, offering services including sleeping in yurts, tourist and mountain guides, transportation, horse tourism etc. In its offices spread around the country you can get information about interesting places and activities in certain region or get a full (including accomodation and food) or partial (just tours/trips/activities) package. In addition, the CBT office staff shoud assist and advise tourists who are not interested in paid services. CBT offices usually do not have geografical maps of the area for sale, but the staff allows to take pictures of the displayed ones. In some offices it is possible to rent a bike, but it’s advisable to contact them in advance and make a reservation.