If you’ve read my posts on my experiences of travel in Kyrgyzstan I hope you’re all fired up to visit this incredible Central Asian country and see for yourself how wonderful it is. Here are some tips on how to travel independently in Kyrgyzstan.
Use the Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism Scheme
Kyrgyzstan has a fantastic community based tourism (CBT) scheme, which arranges homestay accommodation and various activities such as horse-trekking and yurt stays.
There is nothing like sitting in a Kyrgyz family’s front room, drinking a bowl of chai and trying to communicate. They may not have western-style bathroom facilities but everywhere I stayed was spotlessly clean.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorer countries in the world with few bankable natural resources or industries apart from tourism. They were left high and dry following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The CBT takes a small percentage for administration costs and the rest of the money goes to the local people, in other words your hosts. Support this scheme while you travel in Kyrgyzstan.
When to go to Kyrgyzstan
The best time for scenery and weather is September although spring (mid-April – mid-June) is lovely as well. In the mountains the best time is July to September although camping and trekking are possible from early June through mid-October.
Getting to Kyrgyzstan
Fly via Moscow with British Airways, BMI or Lufthansa and then fly Aeroflot-Russian Airlines (go on – you know you want to) to the capital, Bishkek. Or, fly via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines.
Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans all need a visa to visit Kyrgyzstan. The good news is you can get a 30 day visa on arrival at the airport for US$30 (the only country in Central Asia where you can do this).
Money in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan uses the Kyrgyz Som.
Language in Kyrgyzstan
English is rarely spoken, except by people working in the tourist industry. As well as the native Kyrgyz language everyone speaks Russian. If you learn a few words of both from the guidebook (especially numbers) you will get by with the help of hand signals.
Getting Around in Kyrgyzstan
There are some mini-bus routes but most people use the share taxi system for independent travel in Kyrgyzstan. You can travel 100 miles for a couple of dollars. Get to the town bazaar in the morning and find a taxi going where you want to go – the drivers will find you. Then you need to wait until the other seats in the taxi are taken before you can set off. The only potential downsides are smoking drivers and kind but fat old ladies who fall asleep on you.
Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan
There are hotels in Bishkek, although these are used mainly by business people. Cheap accommodation can be found in home stays or at the University Halls of Residence ($10 per night for a double room). Karakol has some backpacker accommodation. Outside of these, homestays arranged by the CBT are recommended.
Will I get sick?
Travel in Kyrgyzstan is no different to travel in other countries in that stomach upsets can generally be avoided by taking the usual precautions. Drink bottled or boiled water (no ice), eat freshly cooked food and wash your hands or use hand sanitiser regularly. Bishkek has a good selection of western-style restaurants for when your stomach tires of plov, laghman and mutton soup.
I’m a girl travelling alone, will I get hassled?
The Kyrgyz people, men and women, are very polite and helpful but as always you should be on your guard. Take care not to be out alone late at night, especially in Bishkek. Bishkek is half Russian and even for the Kyrgyz women anything goes dress-wise in the city. Outside Bishkek, it is a more noticeably Muslim country and you should show respect by dressing conservatively.
I am really gullible, will I get ripped off?
A lot of the taxi drivers are sharks, so catching a taxi is probably the main situation where you may have to do some tough negotiating. Having said that, it’s cheap and this is a seriously poor country so there’s no point in getting upset about a dollar here or there. Occasionally a corrupt policeman will try to “check” your passport in order to extract a bribe. Have a photocopy of your passport and visa handy to show him.
So what are you waiting for? Start planning your travel in Kyrgyzstan!
By Natasha von Geldern