Five Reasons You Need To Visit Kyrgyzstan NOW

Five reasons, in no particular order, why you need to beat the inevitable crowds and visit Kyrgyzstan before it’s too late!

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). 

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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.

10Transport: 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.

15Accommodation: 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. 

19It’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.

DSC_1285On 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.

 

25Osh 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

18With 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.

11Fans 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.

 
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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.

DSC_1720Whilst 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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Introducing Lions To The Rave Scene: A Revolutionary Idea To Reduce Human/Wildlife Conflict In Kenya

It’s 6am on a cool morning in Kenya’s luscious and green Nairobi National Park. I’ve just rolled out of bed and got ready for the day, sacrificing the morning shower in favour of an extra ten minutes’ sleep, still easing off the jet lag from my arrival in-country a day or so prior. My expedition team – a school group from the UK – are just starting to stretch themselves awake too, presumably still a little overwhelmed by their new environment. We’d transited straight from the airport to our small outpost camp in the heart of the national park and, for many of them, this will be their first taste of expedition travel.

Nairobi National Park is truly stunning. Sitting at about 1500m above sea level, it is considerably cooler and wetter than much of Kenya year-round and its landscape is somewhat peculiar; vast plains of savannah with the prominent city skyline on the horizon. On the periphery of the park, and not separated by fences or artificial barriers, is ‘cultural land’ – in other words, small settlements and lone houses, surviving through subsistence farming and little else.

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Nairobi’s modern skyline sits on the horizon with Nairobi National Park in the foreground. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Think of Kenya and you almost-certainly think of the country’s world-famous wildlife. The mind naturally gravitates to images of elephant, lion, zebra or giraffe roaming free under the hot African sun. A beautiful thought. However, ask a Maasai villager or local farmer what they think of these animals and you may be shocked by their opinion.

“They’re a huge pest,” our camp manager Tony explains, “if you plant a field of potatoes, wait months for them to grow and rest all of your faith in them, you may wake up one day to find an elephant has dug its tusks into the land and uprooted an entire row like a plough in a single sweep.”

The same can be said for lions. As fascinating as they are, they are a predator. Predators need a good, meaty feast. And why bother hunting if just outside the park you can find a herd of fifty goats or thirty cows enclosed in a flimsy chicken-wire and wood ‘boma’ (livestock pen)? It is an easy meal for the taking. Often the lions don’t even need to enter the boma – they simply vocalise their presence from a distance, wait for the livestock to panic and break free, then strike from the shadows.

Following a raid by lions, hyenas or leopards, locals take up arms. They don’t take pleasure in killing the wildlife but retaliation seems to be a necessity. In a country where many people survive on under $1 USD a day a strong cow can be worth $400 USD or a goat about $200 USD. As far as a farmer is concerned, killing the predators is the only solution.

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Children living on one of the small sustenance farms on the park periphery, curiously watching the peculiar group of ‘wuzungu’ (Europeans) undertaking project work on the family boma. (Rich Holt. 2018).
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A snapshot of life in the settlements on the cultural land neighbouring Nairobi National Park. (Rich Holt, 2018).

To try and protect livestock, which stops retaliations too, a cheap and simple system has been devised that has already seen a 99% reduction in lion raids on the farms that it has been implemented. LED Strobe Lights, charged throughout the day by a small solar panel, are fitted to the wooden fence posts of the bomas. As soon as day turns to night the lights begin flashing, turning the entire skyline into a scene not dissimilar to a busy Ibiza nightclub! The purpose of the strobes? To convince lions that a Maasai hunting party has been despatched.

“We found that lions don’t fear static light,” David Mascal, a renowned lion expert and joint-manager of the Lion Lights project, briefs us over breakfast. “They will scope out a static light like soldiers conducting reconnaissance on a target then nail the herd, either by raiding or by creating chaos and waiting for the food to run into them. But when the local boys go out on a retaliation patrol they carry torches and bright lights, waving them around, so the lions bugger off as soon as they see flashing or strobing.”

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Lion conservationist David Mascal briefs us on the assembly of the Lion Lights, a box of electrical parts in his hand. (Rich Holt, 2018).

For Mascal the project is mainly about protecting the lions. They are his calling in life and he has dedicated his entire career to their conservation. But what could be a better conservation project than one that benefits the local community too?

“The idea was first devised by a young Maasai boy called Richard Turere. When he brought it to me I couldn’t say no. Now I work in a partnership with another conservationist and a small team, mostly crowdfunded through a facebook page we run, installing the Lion Lights at as many farms as possible. Farmers can come to me to request my assistance and I record any raids they’ve suffered so I can feed back the evidence of the project’s importance to our donors. So far we’ve installed around a thousand sets and displayed a success rate higher than 99%. It truly is a win-win-win situation. The locals are happy their livestock survive, I am happy the lions survive, and the lions can still hunt freely in the park. I even give a twelve month guarantee to the farmers on the condition they don’t tamper with the system – some of them have diverted the solar power into their house to charge their phones then wondered why they’ve suddenly suffered another lion raid.”

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Mascal assembling one of the lighting units. (Rich Holt, 2018).

On seeing the lights in action right across the horizon at night one could argue that perhaps it is tampering with the natural environment to an extent that animal movement would be harmed or hindered but Mascal assures me there has been no evidence of this being the case in the years that he has been working on the project.

As part of our expedition project work we joined Mascal for a day assembling the system at a farm just a few kilometres walk from our camp. After his briefing we set out on foot whilst he drove the necessary materials over in his truck.

The first stage of the process was to dig a trench around the boma in order to bury the cable. The earth was solid like rock and tough to dig but we had to ensure the trench was at least 30cm deep – as soon as the rains come the fine soil turns into a muddy quagmire and cattle churn it up.

Next, we assembled the lights themselves, fitting them to each wooden post around the boma. Digging had taken most of the morning so Mascal continued to fit the lights whilst I walked my group back to camp for their lunch.

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One of our Camp Kenya in-country team and our guide from The Wildlife Foundation Kenya assist Mascal in demonstrating the installation process. (Rich Holt, 2018).

After lunch we returned to refill the trench and trample it down before Mascal demonstrated the finished product. Covering the solar panel with the cardboard box it had come in, the lights kicked into action, strobing about 1.5 times per second. Mascal explained that the system would probably last five years if not tampered with, though possibly much longer if termites don’t get into the wiring (he coats the cables in termite powder to reduce this risk).

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Camp Manager Tony poses with our guard from the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Armed escorts are provided to expedition teams and ecotourists to mitigate the risk of lion attack. They are issued automatic weapons and tactical equipment because the reality of modern Kenya is that the KWS is waging a counter-guerrilla war against ruthless poachers too. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Since inventing and patenting the Lion Lights concept Richard Turere has gone onto international fame as Africa’s youngest patented inventor, speaking at TED Talks and featuring in documentaries. David Mascal and partners continue to assemble Lion Lights on an almost-daily basis. Throughout summer 2018 approximately fifteen sets have been installed by volunteers traveling on school expeditions with Camps International, an organisation for whom I have the immense pleasure of working as an Expedition Leader.

If you’re interested in the Lion Lights project you can find more information HERE or HERE. When I find the donation link for the project I’ll attach it here too. Thank you to David Mascal and the entire team at The Wildlife Foundation (alongside Camps International’s Camp Kenya team) for their hospitality.

To see more of my Kenya 2018 expedition photos follow my Instagram right HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Struggle Of The Modern Maasai

The infamous Maasai tribe of East Africa is under considerable strain. Nearly gone are the days of roaming free across the plains and warrior culture. Many Maasai have chosen to abandon the traditional lifestyle; they want to ‘modernise’ and join common society, arguably at the detriment of their culture. But a few still fight to remain Maasai, keen not to forfeit their history.

Just outside of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya there is a traditional Maasai Village. It has modernised somewhat – corrugated iron being the material of choice for housebuilding now rather than mud – and the residents are aware of their position as a tourist attraction, selling their ‘curio’ wares (handmade souvenirs) to safari tours that stop to pay a visit and take photographs. But when every other visiting tourist is keen to avoid ‘ugly’ clutter in their photos, I found myself drawn to it.

China has invested in a super-railway linking Nairobi and Mombasa, cutting right through the middle of the Tsavo National Parks (it also cuts through Nairobi National Park). Now, rather than a seemingly endless expanse of savannah these Maasai Tribesmen and Women have a megalithic concrete structure as their backdrop.

After some persuasion I convinced this tribesman to pose for a portrait. He protested about the railway being in the photograph – not quite understanding that it was the contrast of his home and the railway that I wanted.

It is not my place to judge what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for Kenya, but I think it safe to say times are certainly changing.

 

Follow my Instagram Here for the full series of photographs from my recent expedition to Kenya, plus many more of my global adventures!

 

 

The (Blogging) Journey Begins!

So, after years of family and friends hassling me with “Rich, you really should write about your adventures”, I’ve finally caved.

As an outdoor instructor, field-studies tutor, expedition leader and general ‘wilderness educator’, I get to see a lot of the world for a living. Then I spend most of the earnings on my own personal adventures or snazzy camera gear to photograph them with.

Those familiar with my Instagram  will already be aware I’m fond of descriptive captions so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I expanded into storytelling too.

Thanks for joining me on the journey!