I’ve recently returned from a ten-day trip to northern Kyrgyzstan after a friend invited me over to check out the World Nomad Games – a celebration of central-Asian culture, history and sport. It was an awesome short trip and, despite only just scratching the surface, has given me a taste of what ‘the stans’ have to offer. I definitely plan to return there and explore more in-depth in the future.
The past few years have seen an increase in the number of travellers preaching about how great Kyrgyzstan is but – searching for blogs or articles – there’s still not much traveller info out there. So, in no particular order, here’s my five reasons you need to visit!
It’s Super Cheap. Like, Really Cheap!
The Kyrgyz currency is the ‘Som’ and you get real ‘bang for your buck’ out there. 100 som is roughly equivalent to about £1 GBP ($1.30 USD).
Visa: If you’re one of 45 listed countries you don’t need a visa at all; simply turn up and get an entry stamp for free. There’s a further 20 countries that can obtain a visa on arrival and, even if you don’t fall into either list it’s not impossible to get in, it just might cost a little more.
Food: A substantial meal with a soft drink in one of capital Bishkek’s soviet-style cafeterias will set you back about 150-180 som, or a more western-style pizza and soft drink in a shopping mall costs about 500 som. Ramen is pretty popular in the malls and, with a soft drink as a standard gauge, the cheque comes in at about 250 som. Sometimes service in the malls can be slow or convoluted – often your freshly-cooked pizza might arrive before your bottled drink or, if you order an appetizer, everything comes out at once. However, at that price it didn’t particularly bother me. One night I went to a pretty nice restaurant down the road from Ala Too Square where a large pizza, meat solyanka soup, bread and an iced coffee came to just 800 som… pretty good! If you’re really on a budget you can swing by a roadside bakery and get a large meat pie and iced tea for just under 100 som.
Transport: The most common mode of public transport is the Mushutkra – a minibus service not dissimilar to a Turkish Dolmus. Pretty much any journey within a town or city costs just 10 som! You simply hop on, jostle for position somewhere, and send your money forwards to the driver. There’s a really good app – 2GIS – that tells you exactly which mushutkra to catch for anywhere you want to go. You can also get almost anywhere nationally on mushutkras for a little more money. I only completed one ‘national’ journey from Cholpon-Ata (home of the Games) back to Bishkek and the five-hour journey cost me just 300 som. Taxis are pretty cheap too; you can expect to pay about 150-300 som for a journey anywhere within Bishkek or about $20 USD to get out towards Cholpon-Ata or the Kazakh border etc. (They prefer dollars for bigger payments).
Alcohol: Booze is ridiculously cheap as long as you drink the regional stuff. A pint of national beer – Arpa was my favourite – costs around 100 som and a 500ml bottle of regional vodka in a store is as cheap as 100 som. The cheapest stuff will turn you blind, but it only costs between 300-500 som for a bottle of a famous brand like Smirnoff, Belvedere or Ciroc. Just don’t buy any exotic imports: in one bar I ordered a Malibu Coke and they stung me with a 700 som cheque, making it almost equivalent to Dubai prices.
Accommodation: When conducting personal travel I only ever stay in either a hostel, homestay or some variation of camping (hammock, tent, floormat etc.), and I’d say Kyrgyzstan hostel prices tend to fall on par with many of the cheaper backpacker destinations. You usually pay $6-10 USD per night for a dorm bed in most hostels. All the hostels I stayed at were clean and relatively friendly. Don’t expect them to be alcohol-or-cannabis-fuelled party hostels like those of SE Asia. Despite the extremely cheap alcohol and Kyrgyzstan being the genetic home of wild-growing cannabis, hostels are usually family-owned and adhere to pretty stringent curfews and rules. There was a real party atmosphere out in Cholpon-Ata and people stayed up drinking until whenever they wanted but loud noise or generally disrespectful behaviour weren’t considered acceptable like they can be in some parts of the world, and I mention this under the ‘cost’ category because the hostels advertise hefty fines for breaking the rules! Some friends went for a night in a traditional Yurt which only cost them about $30 USD each including a taxi transfer. I opted to stay and watch some more of the Games, under the argument that when I return to Kyrgyzstan I can trek between Yurts whereas the Games may never be there again.
Tourist Fees Don’t Exist: The best thing about the cost right now is that the Kyrgyz haven’t started adding ‘tourist charges’ onto everything. Tourism is still a pretty new concept out there so you pay what the locals pay. Even at the height of the World Nomad Games prices barely fluctuated on anything except transport, where travellers and expats familiar with the area told me prices were about 1.5x higher than usual. Just be wary in any restaurant or bar; the one area they will sting you is the 15% Service Charge that gets added to any sit-down drink or meal. A bonus whilst we were there was that the Games were almost-completely FREE. However, Turkey is hosting the next tournament and I don’t think it’ll be long before they start ticketing everything.
The People Are Really Friendly
Despite reading about aggressive Russians, corrupt police or cold and uncaring locals, I didn’t find any of that in my short stay in the country. Perhaps the police were under orders to behave because of the Games; I witnessed one taxi driver paying off a traffic cop for some fake charge but I was never stopped and I didn’t hear of any other traveller being charged either.
It’s no secret in the backpacking world that, sometimes, Russians can be quite loud or pushy. However, this trip completely changed my perspectives. I found every ‘ethnic’ Russian (Kyrgyz citizen of Russian descent) I met to be very friendly, welcoming, and excited to see western tourists finally visiting their secret central-Asian haven. The same can be said for the ethnic Kyrgyz, who were really keen to talk and extremely welcoming. English really isn’t prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, except for maybe the younger generations in Bishkek, but lots of loud shouting and big smiles from both parties meant the friendly message usually got through. I strongly recommend adding the Cyrillic keyboard to your phone and using google translate; if you’re trying to speak locals will usually want to write something into a translator and vice versa.
On visiting the World Nomad Games Ethnovillage in Kyrchyn Valley I made friends with a great group of locals who invited me to join them for lunch. Despite my protests they kept putting food on my plate, then simply would not accept any money in return. They were extremely welcoming and had an incredible sense of humour.
I was told that hitchhiking is acceptable and a common, safe practice. I didn’t try it out on this trip (though I’ve previously enjoyed hitchhiking in the Middle East) but plenty of people seemed to have got around that way and enjoyed long conversations in broken English/Russian with the drivers.
Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is one of the oldest bazaars on the ancient Silk Road and is well worth a visit. Unlike the soukhs of the Arab world, traders in Osh Bazaar aren’t pushy at all. In fact, you pretty much have to call them over to make a purchase! You can spend hours exploring the winding passages and alleys, each divided into sections such as spices, fake-brands, meats, electronics etc. and traders seem keen to pose for photographs and/or talk about their wares and products.
It’s Absolutely Stunning
With more than 85% of the national landmass being classified as mountainous and boasting the second highest and second largest alpine lake on Earth, Kyrgyzstan is pretty damn aesthetically pleasing. There is literally hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres of fascinating scenery and, despite pretty good soviet infrastructure, most of the country is still pretty-much untouched. Fans of mountaineering will be keen to know that more than half of the country’s mountains are still unclimbed on record! So if bagging first ascents is your thing it’s an absolute playground. In the near future I’m planning to return for some first recorded summits.
Fans of soviet architecture or cool cities will love Bishkek. Built in block-format and flanked by snow-capped mountains it looks like a city straight from a John Le Carré novel and many people are still getting around in old Lada cars and 1970s buses. There’s plenty of statues too, with statues and monuments of national heroes seeming to be a pretty big feature of Kyrgyz parks and roundabouts. The national warrior-hero Manas takes centre-stage in Ala Too Square.
It’s Easier To Reach Than People Think
When people think of ‘the stans’ they usually think of thousands of miles of trekking or overlanding to reach some distant, icy nowhere-land. However, we live in the 21st century and times have changed. I caught a Pegasus Airlines flight from London Stansted, transferring in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot are the two other main providers to Bishkek, or you can fly into Almaty (Kazakhstan) and either transfer onto dozens of smaller regional carriers, or take the short journey over the border by taxi. Due to the excellent transport system mentioned earlier, extensive travel in the region seems pretty easy and I met many people that had visited Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and even Turkmenistan using exclusively public transport.
It Won’t Stay Secret For Long
This year saw a huge surge in travellers heading to the World Nomad Games compared to previous years, and even with the Games going to Turkey in 2020, the increase in tourism is bound to continue. Kyrgyzstan already seems to be the most-famous secret on the backpacker trail, with more and more people adding it to their bucket lists. Lonely Planet cites The British Backpacker Society in rating it Number Five on the list of top backpacking destinations (no, Thailand didn’t make the list), and everybody I spoke to out there shared the mentality that we were riding the early stages of a wave that is gonna pick up a lot of energy in coming years.
Whilst Bishkek probably won’t replace Prague or Warsaw in the list of former-soviet Bachelor Party destinations, and Lake Issyk-Kul isn’t going to suddenly replace Italy’s Great Lakes for a landlocked beach holiday, Kyrgyzstan is certainly going to become a known name in the edgy travel sector. The backpacking community is starting to talk about how great the sightseeing and partying is, mountaineers are starting to talk about how many potential first-ascents there are, and global business is starting to realise there’s a big market potential for expansion there. With every blog or article – just like this – that hits the internet, there’s somebody else already booking their ticket. I’d strongly recommend beating the crowds now and seeing what the place has to offer before the Kyrgyz realise they can add big tourist prices to everything and everywhere gets too busy. Admit it or not, we can all be guilty of travellers’ snobbery at times, and in Kyrgyzstan it’s pretty nice to know you’re not just another tourist drone visiting the same old hotspots (ironically the area is historically the definition of an ‘old hotspot’, being the centre of the notorious Silk Road!).
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