Transport in Kyrgyzstan: How to Get Around Safely

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Planning a road trip around Kyrgyzstan? Find out about transport safety, plus tips on local customs before you go.

Hiking up to the Lake Ala Kol in Kyrgyzstan Photo © Getty Images/helovi

Getting Around in Kyrgyzstan

Driving in Kyrgyzstan

If you are planning to drive across Kyrgyzstan yourself, be ready for a challenge when navigating the underdeveloped roads and dealing with aggressive drivers who are largely ignorant of traffic laws. Accidents occur often, and are serious enough to cause injury or death.

Most roads here are two-lane and they often lack lighting and lane markings. Repairs don't happen often and drivers may encounter potholes and manholes without covers, uneven pavement and open drains. It is recommended you avoid driving at night, as the inadequate street lighting makes it almost impossible to see these hazards. 

Driving in winter is a serious risk as well, as ice and snow are left to accumulate on unplowed roads. Roads may be completely blocked by snow, and there are not always signs indicating road closures. The mountain roadways will be especially dangerous in winter, but pose risks all year-round thanks to their narrowness and landslide possibility. There are few barriers to buffer your car from falling rocks. Traveling between Bishkek and Almaty, Kazakhstan is particularly treacherous at night or in bad weather.

As you get further away from the major cities of Bishkek and Osh, you will have a hard time finding service stations. Fuel and water shortages occur, and you should take supplies of both on your trip in addition to other safety items in case you get stranded. You should take extra care when driving in Kyrgyzstan, as many cars are not safely maintained and lack rear seatbelts.

Drivers throughout Kyrgyzstan ignore red lights and illegally pass other cars. Some drivers may be intoxicated. If you are a driver, watch out for people walking in the road at night. They often wear dark outfits and are very difficult to see.

Some foreign travelers who drive around Kyrgyzstan report harassment by traffic police, who may try to bribe drivers or insist upon payment for some vague traffic offense. You are not supposed to pay these officials by law -- traffic fines are to be paid at local banks. Also remember that you are allowed to ask for a police officer's identification to prove he is legitimate.

There are no legal requirements for drivers in Kyrgyzstan to be insured and the foreigner is always going to be the one to blame in any road traffic accident, so always carry emergency cash if you are driving. Avoid large crowds, even when traveling in a vehicle.

Public transport in Kyrgyzstan

You do have public transportation options in the Kyrgyz Republic in the form of buses, a few intercity trains and taxis. However, buses may be in disrepair and can be unreliable. They are also crowded and rife with pickpockets, so know the risks if you board one. Keep your valuables with you and be especially cautious of falling asleep. While there are advertised timetables, generally buses will wait until they are full before they depart from the bus station, so be prepared to wait.

The five hour train journey Bishkek and Balychy may be worth it for those who want to experience a different form of transport in Kyrgyzstan, but most people will eschew the train for a two hour bus ride joining the towns instead. There is also a twice weekly service connecting Bishkek to Moscow which takes three days.

"Gypsy" taxi cabs can also be dangerous, as drivers have been known to rob or attack foreign travelers. Any cab that already has passengers in it is one to avoid, as these may be criminals waiting to rob you while the driver takes you to a remote location. Try to a book taxi service beforehand if at all possible to avoid hailing cabs from the street. Also, make sure to settle upon a fare with the driver before you start your journey. The cabs are usually without meters and many drivers will attempt to charge a traveler an inflated fare.

Shared taxis wait for passengers at most bus stations. If you pay the cost for all four seats, they will also act as a private one way taxi. Be sure to haggle over the cost. It should be roughly half of what you would pay at an agency as they most cover the cost of returning empty journey. However, if safety is paramount then agences offer better vehicles and a more reliable journey, but an English speaking driver is still not guaranteed.

Cycling around Kyrgyzstan has become a popular method of transport for a few intrepid adventurers. While this can be an amazing way of experiencing the country's natural beauty, there are few places that can cater to touring bicycles, so it's worth bringing your own tools and spare parts where possible. Traveling in more remote places can also be slightly dangerous, so it is best not to cycle alone especially through mountain passes.

Local customs

Kyrgyzstan might seem extra foreign in its customs depending on your home country. You will encounter differences in cuisine and mannerisms during your stay.

If you are vegetarian, bring some vitamins, as they might provide the bulk of your nutrition when on the road. The Kyrgyz people are big on meat... like really big. It is reported that the closest vegetarian dish you will be able to find is chicken, no joke. You can find fresh produce at food stands or bazaars; do make sure to wash it with clean water first. You will be happy that the country's proximity to China has shown in its array of Chinese eateries, which normally always have some selection of meatless fare.

If you are looking for a drink to accompany any of your meals, you will have no problem finding a handle of vodka. The drink is everywhere, but many a traveler has fallen ill trying to keep up with the rate at which the Kyrgyz drink it. There is a customary way to imbibe, especially if you are invited to a Kyrgyz person's home, that may help you ward off a hangover. You drink the vodka while noshing on zakushkas, which are usually small dishes of salty or fatty foods, like bread, fish and cucumbers. If you have brought the vodka yourself, it should be the most expensive kind. And if you are a guest, share it around! Ask someone to drink it with you, open it and pour everyone a drink. But before you actually knock it back, it is the Kyrgyz (thank the Russian influence) way to toast. You can toast to anything, really, but your lovely party or dinner hosts are a good start.

Don't like vodka? No worries -- there are plenty of other alcoholic drinks to choose from. Bozo is not just the name of a clown, it's the name of a Kyrgyz drink brewed from millet. It is said to have an interesting taste and texture somewhere between beer and yogurt. Yum. What makes it even more palatable is that bozo is served at room temperature, and it is not uncommon for locals to drink as many as six cups of it on really cold winter days. You will be certifiably smashed if you follow suit.

Once the spring thaw approaches, you and your Kyrgyz pals can drink jarma or maxim (not the men's magazine). Jarma is made from wheat and tastes like beer, but finishes rather grittily. Maxim is wheat- and corn-based and carries a zestier flavor. The Kyrgyz will drink this brew very cold. Cognac and imported beers are also available, especially in Bishkek and the bigger cities.

If you do party a little too hard and feel like death the next day, it is recommended you slurp some tang (not the American breakfast drink) to cure your hangover. Its contents include gassed spring water mixed with souzmu, salted creamy yogurt. If you are truly a teetotaler, you will delight in the fact that the Kyrgyz also like their tea. It is usually very strong.

Other interesting drinks you can try during your stay in Kyrgyzstan include kymys, which is fermented mare's milk. A note on this last part; the milk is actually fermented inside the mare's stomach. Thirsty yet? This is one traditional country drink, as it is literally served in barrels carried down from the mountains. No subtly here -- the taste is very strong and there is a smoky finish as you gulp it down.

After you've had a literal taste of the Kyrgyz culture, you may want to get in on the fun and games. A word of advice: stay out of the way of the mounted riders who play Kok Boru. The ball used in this game is the dead body of a headless goat. Football, anyone?

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