Our flight to Kyrgyzstan was finally booked! As we looked over our itinerary, we were eager to get a glimpse at all the destinations we would be seeing, but after digging through the web for 20 minutes, we didn’t come up with much. For the first time, we’d be going in blind, unsure of what to expect of our trip. It was going to be a true adventure.
Kyrgyzstan is still growing as a tourist location, especially to Americans. It’s currently more popular amongst Russians, Europeans, and Japanese tourists.
WHAT YOU MUST KNOW BEFORE VISITING KYRGYZSTAN
1. BEST TIME TO VISIT KYRGYZSTAN (HIGH / LOW / SHOULDER SEASON)
- High Season – Most people visit during the summer months. Between July to September, the weather is great for trekking, the days are longer, and there are many festivals held throughout the country. Some festivals to look out for are the national festival of arts and crafts, cuisine and folklore festival, felt festival, hunting birds’ festival and horse games festival. On the flip side, accommodations are heavily booked and the cities are incredibly hot unless you go to certain regions like the Naryn, Issyk-Kul, or Talas regions).
- Low Season – Between late-October through March, most rural accommodations are closed because hikes are inaccessible in the heart of winter, but people do still visit for skiing and winter sports.
- Shoulder Season – If you’re looking to avoid crowds, the ideal time to visit is between May and June, and September to mid-October. Flowers are blooming and tourists are much fewer in number, but a lot of the mountains may still have snow on them.
2. KYRGYZSTAN VISA REQUIREMENTS
If you are a citizen of one of the countries listed below, you can visit Kyrgyzstan up to 60 days without a visa. For visits over 60 days, you need to get 3 months visa via at the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic to the USA & Canada.
- North America: USA, Canada
- Australasia: Australia, New Zealand
- Asia: Brunei, Japan, Singapore, South Korea
- Europe: Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Vatican, UK
- Middle East: Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia
See the full list of countries that need to apply for a visa upon arrival or one month prior to arrival. US Citizens may be eligible for a 5-year visa.
3. ANY SCAMS / SAFETY CONCERNS
Out of all the “stans”, Kyrgyzstan is the most open to Westerners and terrorist attacks are rare. From what we hear, there aren’t many scams to worry about. Taxis can overcharge unless you use one with a meter. It always helps to have smaller bills.
In regards to safety, there isn’t much to worry about either. We spent one evening in Bishkek and locals said it’s safe to walk around in most of the city even at night. Like most places, there will be pickpockets in crowded areas. Watch your pockets on public transportation, especially mini busses-locally called “marshrutka”, and also at bazaars. You can read more about travel advisories from the US embassy.
4. RUSSIAN OR KYRGYZ? (BASIC PHRASES TO KNOW)
If you’re trying to get around the country only knowing English, you’re going to have a tough time. Even if you have a translator like we did, there are still plenty of moments that get a bit lost in translation. Depending on who you ask, and what region you’re visiting, you’ll get a different answer on which language is best to learn.
Overall, Russian will be most versatile for travelers, since you can use it in surrounding countries as well. You’ll also find that most cities have adopted it as the main language.
That being said, the Kyrgyz people have made a big push to hold onto their heritage and language in recent years. That means more and more people are learning Kyrgyz instead, so if you plan on living in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz is actually the better language to learn. If you’re in remote villages or in the Southern part of the country, you’ll find places that only speak Kyrgyz.
Here are some basic phrases to help you get started:
- Good Morning – Dobraye Ootro (Russian) + Kutmanduu tanyngyz menen (Kyrgyz)
- Good Night – Dobroy Nochi (Russian) + Tününgüz beypil bolsun (Kyrgyz)
- Hello – Zdrastvooyte (Russian) + Salamatsyzby (Kyrgyz)
- Hi – Preevyet (Russian) + Salam (Kyrgyz)
- Thank You – Spasibo (Russian) + Rahmat (Kyrgyz)
- What’s your name? – Kak vas zavoot? (Russian) + Sizdin atyngyz kim? (Kyrgyz)
- My name is… – Meenya zavoot… (Russian) + Menin atym… (Kyrgyz)
- Sorry – Eezveeneete (Russian) + Kechiringiz (Kyrgyz)
- Goodbye – Da Sveedaneeya (Russian) + Kosh kalyng (Kyrgyz)
- Bye! – Paka (Russian) + Korushkoncho (Kyrgyz)
Helps to learn a bit of Cyrillic. I had these images saved to my phone when I wanted to read signs.
The currency of Kyrgyzstan is the Som. When we were there (Sept 2017), one USD was roughly 68 KGS. Although most major hotels take credit cards, you need cash handy for just about everything else. As far as changing money, it’s almost impossible to get Som outside of Kyrgyzstan. When in the country, look for banks or licensed money changers. Jacob found it tricky trying to exchange money at a bank without knowing any Kyrgyz or Russian.
LOCAL TIP: Be sure to ask for a good mix of smaller bills.
6. BUDGET + TIPPING
For budgeting, everything is relatively inexpensive. Even when we forgot shampoo, we were able to buy a big bottle for roughly $2 USD in a remote village. Here is a guide for everything else.
- Hostel: 400 – 600 KGS (Shared Room) or 900 – 1200 KGS (Private Room)
- Yurt / Homestay: 400 – 850 KGS
- Breakfast or Lunch: 100 – 250 KGS
- Dinner: 150 – 500 KGS
- Horse (per Day): 700 – 1000 KGS
- Guide (per Day): 1200 – 2500 KGS
In general, tipping is not expected but always appreciated, especially in the tourism industry. In larger international hotels in Bishkek, the western style is the norm, so expect to pay a small sum to bell boys or cleaners.
For guides and drivers in Central Asia tipping is a part of their salary and, though not compulsory, tipping is an excellent way to show your appreciation of their services.
Tourism is so new here that there is no standard for tipping, but here’s what we did:
- Guides: $6 USD per person per day.
- Cooks / Porters / Driver: $3 USD per person per day.
- Taxis: Tipping is not normal
7. PACKING + HOW TO DRESS (FOR WOMEN)
We will put together an in-depth packing list, but here are a few things to consider. Being a woman visiting a Muslim country, I thought I would have to dress much more conservatively, but people were very lax, especially in the cities of Bishkek and Karakol. We saw people wearing tees and tank tops, similar to how we would back in the states.
We spent most of our time in the Issyk-Kul province, but if you head to more conservative parts of the country, like Osh, be prepared to dress accordingly. For us, the only places we needed to dress more conservatively in the Issyk-Kul province were at mosques and churches, and they had scarves or cloaks available at the front. When I’m unsure of the dress code, I always bring this with me. I usually wear it as a light layer or scarf when it gets cold, but it can be worn 6+ different ways including a headscarf.
Our main advice is to dress for your activities (hiking, skiing, swimming etc) and bring layers since it can be both hot and cold the same day. We went in late September, and it was warm in Bishkek and Karakol but cold in the mountains. Otherwise, here are a few things you should have with you wherever you go:
- Hand Sanitizer – it’s a tossup when you’ll find soap in bathrooms.
- Shampoo, Body Wash, etc – there weren’t any in some of our accommodations
- Toilet Paper – most places had toilet paper, but every once in a while, we ran into issues where there wasn’t any.
- Travel Towel – you’ll need your own outside the big cities. We use a PackTowl, since they dry quickly and pack down smaller.
KYRGYZSTAN TRANSPORTATION / HOW TO GET AROUND
Though we’re huge fans of road tripping, we don’t recommend road tripping on your own. The roads are very rough (although a lot of roads have been improved in 2017) and the rules are not always followed. Most the people we met were traveling via bus or hired guide and driver.
TYPES OF PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
- Buses – If you do your research ahead of time, you should have no problem getting around. Keep in mind that sometimes there are multiple locations named the same thing or have slight variations in spelling. We met a Dutch traveler who knew what bus to get onto for the Jyrgalan Valley, but when an earlier bus came, he asked if it went to Jyrgalan. The driver said yes, but he learned that there were was also Jergalan and another Jyrgalan. There was a lot of waiting around and backtracking involved before getting to the correct destination.
- Marshrutka (Minibuses) – For travel from Bishkek to Karakol, there are minibusses at the main bus station. The difference between this option and regular buses, is that regular buses have predetermined stops. Marshrutkas have a start and end point, but you can request a specific stop in between.
- Taxis are available for travel between Bishkek and Karakol or Osh. Within the city, taxis are cheap. You can use apps like Namba Taxi or Tez Taxi to call the cabs, although you do still need to pay cash.
- Flights are available from BIshkek to Osh.
There isn’t any good resource to find bus routes, but you can check out inobi.kg and bus.kg for info on trolleybuses, buses and marshrutkas. Also keep in mind that drives can take longer than expected, especially out in the rural regions. You may run into “traffic” consisting of cattle, sheep, or horses that will hold you up for a while.
IS THE WATER SAFE TO DRINK?
If you are in Bishkek, the tap water is generally safe to drink. If you’re in the rural regions, stick to boiled or bottled water especially if you have a sensitive stomach. We didn’t go as far as brushing our teeth with bottled water.
While we were hiking, they made the tea from the streams and rivers and our guide and porters always drank from it with no filters. All the dishes were also washed there. Since cattle and livestock are raised out in the mountains, there is fecal matter everywhere. We saw some in the streams as well. I suppose it gets diluted, but if you want to play it safe, boil your water or bring a water filter with you (we love this one).
FOODS TO TRY
We noticed that in Kyrgyzstan, they eat a lot of meat and drink a lot of tea. There aren’t as many vegetable options because they are traditionally a nomadic people. If you have any dietary restrictions, it’s really important to let your hosts know ahead of time since they generally would not make vegetarian or gluten-free options.
Here are some common traditional dishes in case you want to try ordering them on your own.
- Laghman (pictured above) – Meat, vegetables, and noodles served in broth. There are over hundreds of local Laghman varieties. The typical dish is in soup, which was how I liked it, but Jacob liked the Boso Laghman (fried noodles). If you want to try making your own, here’s a recipe.
- Borsok – Dough is cut into little squares then fried. The result is airy deliciousness. It’s the local donut… or more of a beignet. We dipped them in jam and sometimes nutella.
- Monty – A meat, onion, and fat filled dumplings. Usually, this is a steamed dish, but you can also order them fried.
- Plov – This is a tasty meat dish. Spiced rice with fried onions and carrots mixed in is topped with chunks of tender, boiled meat.
- Samsy – I like to refer to these as the local hot pocket. Meat, onions, and fat inside of a breaded pocket.
- Ashlyan-Fuu – A common cheap noodle dish that college kids love. This is a Dungan Dish so it’s not as commonly found.
- Kumyss – Fermented horse milk.
- Black or Green Tea – The Kyrgyz people have tea with every meal. I rarely see them drink water. Local Tip: Traditionally, they will pour the tea back into the pot three times before serving to make sure that it’s well mixed and steeped. They also mix jams into their teas.
Power sockets in Kyrgyzstan are type C or F (the two little round inputs). The standard voltage is 220 V and frequency is 50 Hz, so if you’re from the US, Canada, or most South American Countries, you will need a voltage converter. We always travel with this converter so that we have plenty of inputs to charge.
TOILETS + TOILET PAPER
Depending on where you go, you will find a mix of squatty potties and European toilets. Rural areas may have outhouses with a hole in the ground.
Also, just so you know, the local toilet paper reminded us of a wide roll of party streamers. Think about that texture in toilet paper form.
Local Tip: Carry around a small ziplock bag of toilet paper with you wherever you go. You never know when you might need some. Don’t forget hand sanitizer.
HIKING (THINK THAI HOT SCALE)
Kyrgyzstan is the hiker’s dream. There are mountains and alpine lakes, and you can hike in two amazing mountain ranges: Tien Shan and Pamir. The country is very mountainous. 90% of the country is over 1500 meters (4921 feet) and 41% is over 3000 meters (9842 feet).
We went to Kyrgyzstan thinking we were doing some moderate hiking, but instead, did some of the most difficult hikes of our lives. If you’re talking to any local there about hiking, think about it like the Thai hot scale since they live in the mountains. When they say it’s moderate, it’s difficult, and if they say it’s difficult, it starts getting into mountaineering.
Also, trails in Kyrgyzstan are not marked and because of all the cattle, there are trails everywhere. We highly suggest hiring a guide. I don’t think we would have found our way through on our own. You can contact Daniyar at Daniyaralymbekov@gmail.com, who was our guide.
SOUVENIRS TO BRING HOME
We usually try avoiding bringing home souvenirs. When we do, we try to bring back something edible or at least practical. We ended up bringing back a custom-made felt carpet.
- Honey – Kyrgyzstan has been well known for their honey ever since the Silk Road times.
- Kurut – stinky dried yogurt balls.
- Shirdak – traditional felt rug used by Kyrgyz nomads to cover the floors of their yurt. These are beautiful and useful.
- Kalpak – traditional Kyrgyz hat for men.
- Tea Bowls make great souvenirs since it’s practical and you end up drinking so much tea when you’re in Kyrgyzstan.
- Yurt – We are hoping to order a mini one and get it custom made for our cats!
- DIY Felt Carpet – We made one at Ak-Orgo Ltd, which was an experience + souvenir to take home.
Keep in mind that souvenir shopping isn’t easy in Kyrgyzstan like other popular tourist destinations. You will need to be much more intentional. If you’re on a tour, they will usually stop at a souvenir shop near the end of your trip, but if you’re traveling on your own try to shop where to locals go. Here are some suggestions on where to go.
Depending on your itinerary, you have different options on where to stay. When in the city, there are plenty of hotels and hostels to stay at.
Once you head out to rural villages, your options will be more limited. Besides hotels and hostels, Yurt camps and camping is popular during the summer. We really enjoyed staying in yurts, and one of our favorite spots was Happy Nomads Village in Karakol.
Local Tip: Keep in mind that during the offseason, late-October to March, a lot of the rural accommodations are closed.
- Kyrgyzstan: Mountains, Horses, but No Borat – Written by a Local
- Lonely Planet: Central Asia Guide
- Kyrgyzstan: A Climber’s Map & Guide (not as well rated, but the only one available)
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“Discovery consists not of seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes” – M. Proust