Kyrgyzstan (Кыргызстан, formally the Kyrgyz Republic (Кыргыз Республикасы) is a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. Annexed by Russia in 1876, it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Kyrgyz are descendants of tribes from the Tuvan region of Russia, which migrated to the area now known as Kyrgyzstan in the 13th century, during the rise of the Mongol empire. In 1876 the area was incorporated into the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. When that union disolved in 1991, Kyrgyzstan became independent. In March, 2005 a popular uprising known as the Tulip Revolution forced Soviet-era president Askar Akayev to flee the country. He was replaced by president Kurmanbek Bakiev. Current concerns include privatization of state-owned enterprises, expansion of democracy and political freedoms, interethnic relations, and combating terrorism.
Dry continental to polar in high Tien Shan; subtropical in southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone.
Entirely mountainous, dominated by the Tien Shan range; many tall peaks, glaciers, and high-altitude lakes. Highest point: Jengish Chokusu (Pik Pobedy) 7,439 m. The mountains are beautiful to hike on especially if you like to hike.
Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot offer direct flights to Manas International Airport in Bishkek (approx. 30km northwest of the city) from Istanbul and Moscow respectively. Additionally, British Airways offers a service (operated by BMed) from London to Bishkek, with a brief refueling stop at Tbilisi. In October 2007, BMed will be taken over by the UK-based airline British Midland Airways. In the short term, BMI intends to maintain a three flights a week schedule for the Bishkek-Almaty-London flight.
Driving in Kyrgyzstan is, by Western standards, dangerous. Obviously locals have become used to missing road drain covers, dry dusty roads (where water tankers sometimes sprinkle water to keep dust down) and generally bad roads that are not effectivly maintained.
Interesting usage of main and large roads: If your side is too damaged to drive fast then is quite normal to use the other side of the road.
If you get stopped by the police its likely to cost some money.
Watch out for mini buses pulling out too.
Kyrgyzstan's capital, like many places in the former Soviet Union, has an extensive network of minibuses, known as Marshrutkas. They typically have around 14 seats, with standing room for around ten extra people during busy periods. Marshrutkas are easily identifiable and display their number and basic route information (in Russian) on the front. To flag one down, simply hold out your right hand, parallel to the ground. Once you get on, pay the fare to the driver (typically five som; sometimes seven som for longer journeys). When you want to get off say, "ah-stah-nah-VEE-tyeh" (Stop!). Note that although there are bus stops, Marshrutkas can be hailed anywhere and will drop you off at any point on their route.
Bishkek also has a trolley bus system which is less extensive and generally slower. They only stop at designated bus stops. Travellers enter at the back door and leave at the front, paying the four som fare on the way out.
There are several private taxi firms in Bishkek that you can easily reach through their three digit numbers including: 150, 152, 154, 156, 166, and 188. Daytime taxis throughout the city are a flat rate of 75 soms and 100 soms past 10PM. There are also numerous "gypsy cabs" situated at nearly every intersection. While most travelers and long-time expats report no problems, you are cautioned to be aware , especially at night and near nightclubs.
The languages of Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz, a Turkic language related to Uzbek, Kazakh, and, of course, Turkish. Kyrgyz is more common in rural areas whereas Russian is the urban language of choice (in fact it's not uncommon to meet ethnic Kyrgyz people in Bishkek who cannot speak Kyrgyz). English, while becoming more popular, is still rarely spoken so in order to effectively communicate one must at the very least learn a few basic words (yes, no, please, thank you, etc.) in Russian or Kyrgyz, depending on the location.
Like most of the rest of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which can present a problem for Western travellers. However, the characters are not too hard to learn and once that is done you'll find that many of the words are familiar. For example, "ресторан" is pronounced, "rest-o-ran," which means, "restaurant."
See the Wikitravel Russian phrasebook for more information.
The official currency in Kyrgyzstan is the Som (written as 'com' or abbreviated as 'c' in Cyrillic, divided into 100 tyin). It comes in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 som notes. They began producing coins in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1 som, 3 som, and 5 som denominations the past year.
Exchange rates, as of December 21, 2008 are as follows:
Changing money is relatively straightforward. Banks will accept a variety of major currencies while the money-changing booths that are ubiquitous in urban areas will typically only deal with US Dollars, Pounds, Euros, Roubles and Kazakh tenges. Note, however, that neither banks nor money changers will accept any foreign currency that is torn, marked or defaced in any way, or is excessively crumpled, so be sure to carefully check any notes you intend to bring into the country for defects.
Credit Cards & ATMs
Like other Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is overwhelmingly a cash economy. Credit cards are rarely used. It is therefore advisable to enter the country with an adequate supply of cash in a major foreign currency - US Dollars are the most practical choice since they are more widely accepted.
There are a growing amount of ATM's connected the major services like Cirrus. Both Kazakkommerz Bank and Halyk Bank have several ATM's throughout the city. You can either withdraw USD or Kyrgyz Som. If withdrawing som, you will receive the interbank exchange rate, which is better than what the local exchange offices will give you.
and more locations coming; Halyk Bank- TSUM (Eastern Staircase)
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits or purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavorful is the rule here. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (“five fingers”) is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan. For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honor. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon.
Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Somsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable) pies that come in two varieties: flakey and tandoori. Flakey somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shishkebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions and vinegar.
Almost any Kyrgyz meal will be accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.
At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will normally perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.
Tea and vodka are the primary drinks of many Kyrgyz residents. There are numerous different varieties of teas and vodkas. In addition, you can find many western soda brands including Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all authentic.
Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being "Kyrgyzstan Cognac", which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning "our cognac".
No trip to Kyrgyzstan wouldn't be complete without trying Kumys, pronounced "Qu-mys" (don't mix it up with Komus, a traditional music instrument) made of fermented horse mare's milk. Many roadside stalls in the spring sell this sour beverage to passer-byers. Most Kyrgyz will claim outrageous health benefits to drinking it.
You can also find an excellent selection of local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder liquors. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connesseiurs. While being considered a common person's beer, it's style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than it's Indian counter-part).
There are also a multitude of bottled waters (carbonated or still) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slighly saline "Jalalabad Water". There are also numerous stands selling non-alcoholic fermented grain drinks highly popular with the locals, called Shoro.
Many private citizens rent out their flats to foreigners and a fairly luxurious flat can be had for $30 a week. Noting that the average salary is between $20 and $30 you may think you are paying excessively. Look for cable, toilet and bath, and clean quarters. This is the least you should expect for $30 a week. More adventurous visitors may wish to stay in a "yurta." These are boiled wool tents used by nomads. Some tourist agencies in Bishkek will arrange this sort of stay, but be prepared to truly live the lifestyle of the nomad which includes culinary delicacies which may seem foreign to the western palette.
For those who are interested in learning Kyrgyz or Russian languages - there are universities you can go and there is a private school called the London School. The London School in Bishkek offers pretty cheap individual lessons for about $4/hour and homestay/cultural programs.
While the US travel advisory tells foreigners that some attacks on Westerners have occured, the view of Kyrgyz people on this is varied. Fights and assaults generally focus around nightclubs and bars, just as in any other large city. There is to date no indication that Bishkek is particularly dangerous to foreigners. As for other cities in the Kyrgyz Republic, there is little evidence. Tourists will of course be drawn by Kyrgyzstan's amazing natural beauty although travel by car through mountain passes and villages is not advisable.
Some friction exists between the Kyrgyz people and ethnic Russians and travellers on these lonely passes may be mistaken for Russians and have their cars stoned. Villages are generally safe but are best avoided. Especially avoid driving in a rented car from Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan. The border area can be subject to roadblocks where carjackers impersonate security officials. The border zones are somewhat akin to a wild frontier and are best crossed in a tour bus. Even seasoned Kyrgyz travellers approach these areas with extreme caution.
On the other hand, lake Issyk-Kul is a well developed tourist area as is the nearby Tien Shan mountain range and they can be approached on standard byways with little threat of carjacking or rock attack or ambush.
Western norms of respect are standard. Though nominally a Muslim country the Kyrgyz people are highly westernized. No special dress codes are in effect. Although standards of dress in Bishkek are Western and often revealing, in the south of the country women would be advised to dress more conservatively or risk attracting unwanted male attention. Evenings can be charged as alcohol intoxication can be quite prevalent at this time. Proceed with caution.