Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful Central Asian country that was once a major feature of the trade routes of the Silk Road. It’s an adventure waiting to happen. Aside from its natural beauty, Kyrgyzstan is full of beautifully warm and friendly people that will try to help you in any way that they can.
If you haven’t thought of visiting yet, you should put it on your list right now! Keep reading to find out some interesting and quirky things about the country.
Most people speak Kyrgyz, alongside Russian. Both languages have huge similarities. For example, the word for cafe in Russian is кафе and in Kyrgyz it is кафеси. Both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. The Kyrgyz Cyrillic Alphabet has 3 unique characters not found in the 33 character Russian Cyrillic Alphabet.
While speaking Russian will get you through Kyrgyzstan with no problems, it’s also completely possible to travel the country relatively easily with no knowledge of Russian. You can find English speakers here and there, especially in cafes in Bishkek or Osh. There are also many Kyrgyz people using Couchsurfing, who speak English well and are eager to meet travellers.
If you can’t find a common language, you can always resort to hand gestures, body movements translation apps and using props. Kyrgyz people are a patient bunch, so they’re willing to spend time figuring out what you are trying to say.
Kyrgyz English speakers don’t have a strong ‘non-native’ accent when they talk, which means when they do speak English, they are very easy to understand.
I 💜 Signs
Every major city in Kyrgyzstan seems to have an ‘I Love’ sign. some even have 2. Locals love to hang out in front of these signs for crazy amounts of time taking selfies and ignoring everyone around them. Good times.
Hitchhiking is a completely safe and viable way to get around Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz people aren’t afraid of language barriers and will pick you up and chat with you regardless. You will of course, be asked the standard questions; “Are you a tourist?”, “Where are you from?”, etc. Once you answer, don’t be surprised if your new driver will tell you their life story.
Kyrgyz people are friendly and approachable. If you ask someone in the street for help, they will most certainly assist you. Even if you don’t share a common language, they will find a way. They will likely stay with you until your problem is solved satisfactorily
3 Som Coins
Perhaps the quirkiest cash denomination I’ve seen in all my travels is the 3 Som coin. It is worth approximately US$0.04. There are apparently no 5 Som coins. You will instead get one 3 Som coin and two 1 Som coins. Or if you get 10 Som change, it will be three 3 Som coins and a 1 Som coin.
Don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Many sites claim that the domestic water supply in Kyrgyzstan is not safe to drink, but those sites are mistaken. Locals and tourists alike drink the water with no problems.
Don’t waste your money buying one-time use bottles of water. Bring your own bottle and fill up from the tap. If you’re still a bit worried, you can simply boil your water before you drink it but that’s really not required.
Kyrgyz people seem to enjoy carnival-like atmospheres. This can range from the hiring of motorised toy cars and selling of light up souvenirs in a park, to permanent rides, carnival games and stalls set up in a reserve near a river. You gotta love people that just wanna have fun.
Transport in Kyrgyz cities is cheap and efficient. Buses cover many major routes in the cities and out to the suburbs for 10 Som/US$0.15. They run at intervals of 5 minutes or less. Bus information for Bishkek can be found here
Taxis around the city cost about 100 – 300 Som/US$1.40 – 4.30 depending on the distance travelled. Yandex taxis are also available in Kyrgyzstan and the cars actually have Yandex Taxi written on the side of them. You can use the Yandex Taxi Hailing app to order a taxi if you have data/WiFi access and a phone number that can receive messages in Kyrgyzstan. If you don’t have internet access, you can hail an unofficial taxi by standing on the side of the road. This should cost the same as an official taxi.
Mini-vans that work in a similar way to shared taxis, known as Masrutkas, are available for travel within the city, but the system is very hard to navigate unless you have a local with you, or you can read/speak Russian. There are many numbered Mashrutka routes that cost around 20 Som/$US0.30.
Mashrutkas are the main form of intercity transport. They operate out of bus stations in the cities and drop off on the side of the road in small towns. You can buy a spot in the van directly from the driver, although there does appear to be a ticket desk at the Western Bus Station. Mashrutkas leave when all their seats are filled. A Mashrutka from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek to the small town of Kadji-Sai near Issyk-Kul costs 300 Som/US$4.30 and takes around 3-4 hours.
If you’re a meat lover, Kyrgyzstan is the place for you! Meat is the main feature of most menus in the country, with popular dishes being Shishlyk (barbequed meat on skewers), kebabs and doners. The main meats used in these dishes are beef, lamb and chicken. Horse meat is also a popular dish in the area, given that other foods were often scarce in Kyrgyz nomadic history.
It might be hard to find vegan food in Kyrgyzstan, as even some salads have meat in them. unless you want to spend your whole time eating mushroom Shishlyk. Even salads in Kazakhstan can have meat, so it always pays to check what’s in the food you’re ordering!
Horse milk is a popular drink in Kyrgyzstan, probably owing to their nomadic history. These days, it is often sold from containers on the side of the road. There are different types of horse milk with different levels of sourness.
If you want a super local experience, you could stop at a yurt on the Silk Road and sit down for some horse milk and bread with a local family. Even if the horse milk is not to your taste, meeting locals is always nice!
Whenever you go to a cafe or restaurant, you’re almost guaranteed to only hear 80s or 90s English language music. Normally the songs playing are remixed into more mellow versions of the originals. You can actually be listening to a song for a few minutes before realising that it’s a song you know. When you’re in a car however, locals are likely to not be listening to any music, so that that can chat with you. Or they play Kyrgyz music at a decent sound level and just talk loudly over it.
In the major Kyrgyz cities, when you ask a local what the must-see places are, the first thing they will suggest is the local bazaar. The bazaars are seen as the one-stop place for everything you could ever want and some things you didn’t know you wanted. The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is huge and slightly confusing, but if you keep at it, you’ll find what you’re looking for.
The Jayma Bazaar in Osh is a little bit smaller and easy to navigate. I was able to find what I was looking for within 2 minutes.
On The Roads
While the majority of cars in Kyrgyzstan are left-hand drive, there are also a decent number of right-hand drive cars. Perhaps people drive the later for financial reasons, as they are much cheaper to buy than their left-hand drive counterparts.
Whether they’re on the left or right-hand side of the car, Kyrgyz driver can get pretty crazy. Lane markings are completely ignored at all times and overtaking on the most dangerous parts of bends on mountain roads is commonplace.
Pedestrians can’t escape the craziness either. While legally, cars should give way to pedestrians at traffic lights and designated pedestrian crossings, that’s not always what happens in practice. At traffic lights, turning cars will drive towards you, but will stop to let you cross. Although they may keep inching towards you slowly in a not-so-subtle attempt to get you to hurry up.
At pedestrian crossings, it’s anyone’s guess what cars will do. Most drive too fast to be able to stop for the crossing, while others do the right thing and stop. There is no simple way to cross a road in Kyrgyzstan and pedestrians need to constantly check for cars doing the wrong thing as they’re crossing.