Howdy all. Well, this I think will be my last ‘Essential Tips’ for quite a while, for this year at least as I think this is the last place I could possibly claim to know even vaguely well enough to offer advice on for this series of posts. And even then what I don’t know far outweighs what I do! Kyrgyzstan completes the quinella of ex-Soviet Central Asian countries too. Interestingly (or not) it’s one of the two I really want to get back to to explore the parts I am yet to – the other being Kazakhstan.
Of all the Central Asian destinations, this country is probably the most stunning. It is I believe the smallest of the CIS states, and like Tajikistan it is a very mountainous country indeed. In contrasts to its southern neighbour though, it is actually a very green and European country in many of its mountains. It’s capital city of Bishkek is actually really nice, perhaps the most pleasant of the Central Asian capitals and not one that is full of huge modern buildings which amaze and yet puzzle at the same time with a little, say we say, garishness like NurSultan, Ashgabat and to a lesser extent Dushanbe.
And so the first thing to know about the place is that it’s not as economically developed as its neighbours. It’s beautiful and rich in many many ways, but it lacks the infrastructure of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The main reason for that is the economy is not boosted by resources as it is many Central Asian nations. From gas, to gold to oil, the other four CIS states have been very lucky since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyzstan, however, just doesn’t have the resources (well as many) that brings money and infrastructure.
For example, half of the roads in Tajikistan (probably a slight exaggeration) were built by the Chinese. Or rebuilt. It’s not surprising that this has been done for Chinese interests rather than that of the Tajik people. It’s Chinese investment that has seen power connected to most homes I Tajikistan. Sadly, this is not the case for Kyrgyzstan. Having said that, China still amounts for over 30% of foreigner investment in Kyrgyzstan. This makes it the number one investor, with surprisingly Canada coming in second.
Kyrgyzstan borders China, along with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, so its position is certainly one that is strategic for China.
Position and Crossing borders
So yes, Kyrgyzstan is an entirely landlocked country, mountainous, with Kazakhstan to the north (Bishkek is only three hours or less (depending on the border) from the largest city in Kazakhstan, Almaty), Uzbekistan in the west, Tajikistan in the south and China in the east.
Crossing the border isn’t all that hard depending on which crossing you use. From Almaty to Bishkek I found it pretty simple and painless. There are other less-used crossings to Kazakhstan in the north-west of the country but they are often in the mountains and so information is best gathered from the number website for information on Central Asia caravanistan.com. but they are in the mountains so they are not open all year.
To Uzbekistan there is a crossing near the town of Osh. A decade ago this wasn’t really doable because the region wasn’t very stable, things have improved since then and now it is open and travellers pass through (pandemic restrictions excepted of course). Travelling from Bishkek to Tashkent it still seems the best way to do it is via Kazakhstan, there isn’t a convenient border open between the two cities. The journey takes a full day (I did it) and it’s quite an adventure!
With Tajikistan, well the two countries seem to intertwine in the south of Tajikistan. I don’t know much about these crossings but I think they are reasonably straight forward provided you have your visas.
China I think there are two crossings, the main one takes you to the road to Kashgar, in southern Xinjiang Province. This main one is known as the Irkeshtam Pass. The other is the Torugart Pass, but apparently it’s very hard to negotiate and you need a Chinese guide.
Crossing into China is probably slightly harder than crossing out of it. There are many reports of travellers being held up and questioned for hours as this part of China is so sensitive. They even go to the trouble of searching through all your photos, videos and media and your social media, and some have reported that they put spyware on your phone. Still, it’s the easiest way into Central Asia from Pakistan, if you’re trying that trip. The passes are both mountain passes to and from China but I believe the Irkeshtam Pass at least is open year round. Although I can only imagine that crossing in the winter is quite the very cold adventure!
Otherwise getting in and out of Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek is the capital and the largest city and the one where, if you fly into Kyrgyzstan, odds are almost 100% that this is where you will land. You won’t find a lot of well known airlines fling into Bishkek. Russian ones are your best bet coming from Europe. Aeroflot for example. Kyrgyzstan do have a couple of national airlines that fly internationally however they are banned form flying into Europe for safety reasons. For connections to Asia and beyond, Air Astana through Kazakhstan is probably your best bet. China Southern also to link through Urumqi if you want to fly through China. They are a solid airline I guess. Flying through Urumqi from domestic to international is always a bit of a pain in the backside though. Air Astana I really liked though and they are the best airline in Central Asia without a doubt.
Also, there are trains that will take you as far as Russia from Bishkek. In the old days of the USSR they built up a remarkable network of track, and although you can expect to take nearly a week to get to the Russian capital, I can only imagine it’s a brilliant experience! No, I’m not kidding but I do LOVE long rail journeys!
Visas and Climate
You’ll need a visa. It was a bit of a hit and miss affair back in the old days but today Kyrgyzstan has an e-visa system like Tajikistan which has made it so much easier, considering many countries don’t have a Kyrgyzstan embassy or any representation, like Australia.
Climatically speaking, well, yes there are mountains that have snow year round, and there are mountains which see snow melt in spring. The summer in Bishkek and anywhere that’s not well up a mountain is actually hot. Winter is always very cold and most places see snow. Bishkek is lovely in early summer before it really heats up, and late Autumn early summer should see enough snow melted to make hiking the mountains a great experience! Then there is the giant lake Issyk Kul, which is most popular at the height of summer.
What to Bring and Transport
Clothes for different seasons if you’re moving around the place. Motion sickness tablets if you get motion sickness because the roads are not straight and the marshrutka is not a comfortable ride between cities. Unless you are heading into some serious trekking territory you should be okay as far as altitude goes. But maybe pack some altitude sickness tablets too.
Not a bad idea if you’re staying in backpacker/cheaper places or homestays (very likely outside the cities) to pack a decent warm sleeping bag – I’ve had the same one since… well maybe for twenty years, three seasons, and although I do use it every night I have always had times when I’ve needed it and through the part of the world, in cheaper places the blankets are, shall we say, variable.
If you’re heading into the more remote places – for example I headed to a tiny spot in the mountains called Altyn Arashan which was a couple of shacks by a river, you may want extra batteries for your cameras and a spare battery charger sort of thing for phones and devices. 220V on the wall in Kyrgyzstan, European plugs for the most part. Surge protection for charging devices is probably not a bad idea.
Getting around you may find the options limited to the ol’ marshrutka, a regularly beat up old mini-bus/van where they cram as many people into it as possible, or shared taxis, which are a bit more expensive. Both wait to fill up before going, a share taxi waits for less people, and is faster. If you have the spare cash, well, you might be able to pay for the untaken streets and have more space. You’ll need to find a tour agency to get rides up the mountains, Kyrgyzstan has a lot of unsealed roads and tracks which will require a four wheeled drive. Yak Tours for example in Karakol. I found them fine but they don’t have the best online reviews, for what that may be worth.
The local currency is the Som, with 1USD equalling around 84 Kyrgyzstani Som as I write this post. I don’t remember it being in that range. So it’s one that fluctuates clearly. It’s probably the cheapest of the five Central Asian countries to travel. Food is similar throughout the region (ie Central Asia, which I’ve covered before). A basic budget for the backpacker of $40USD per day would see you right.
Well, thanks as always for popping by. Hope you found this one interesting, it’s a brilliant part of the world to travel, challenging in a good way I would say. Take care wherever you may be, and May the Journey Never End!