BUDGET Travel Guide
This page about Kyrgyzstan is the fruit of 3 trips totaling over 3 months between 2017 and 2019. It is part of a budget slow travel guide collection.
Rather than giving you a list of popular sights and itineraries, we focus on practical information to help you prepare your own authentic and independent adventure. World-class adventures and trekking for 10-20$ a day!
“Kyrgyzstan is 90% mountains but 100% adventure”. If you like dramatic unspoiled mountain scenery, yurts and horses you have come to the right place. Yet laid-back locals and decent public transportation make planning your own journey remarkably easy. And mass tourism seems to have completely forgotten this part of the world. Need I say more?
Visas And Permits For Kyrgyzstan
Visas. Nationals of nearly 70 countries including most of the EU, the US, Canada and Australia can travel visa-free to Kyrgyzstan. You just get a tiny stamp in your passport. The permitted stay varies between 30 and 90 days. If you are not eligible, you can apply online for an e-visa, although you may need a letter of invitation from a local tour operator. The Caravanistan forums have the best up-to-date information on the subject.
You can enter the country hassle-free both at land borders and airports. If you need more time you can do a good old-fashioned visa run to a neighboring country. For many nationalities Kazakhstan and now Uzbekistan are visa free. It’s possible to come back straight away. The border guards don’t mind.
Border Permits. The border areas in the mountains generally require special permits. Particularly towards China in the Tien Shan range in the East and the Pamir-Alay on the Southern border to Tajikistan are considered sensitive areas. This only concerns trekkers and climbers. The permits however are cheap and easily arranged by local tour agencies and hostels. Shop around, it’s usually not more than the equivalent of 20 US dollars. If you plan on going there independently it’s best to arrange them at least a month in advance, as the bureaucracy is notoriously slow.
Entering The Country: By Air
Bishkek has a small but well connected airport, with cheap flights to Istanbul, Moscow, Delhi, China and beyond. Marshrutka (minibus) 380 connects the airport to the city for 50 KGS plus 10 KGS per piece of baggage.
As an alternative, you can easily head over to nearby Almaty in Kazakhstan. A frequent marshrutka connects Bishkek Western bus station (zapadnyy avtavagzal) to Almaty bus station (sayran avtavagzal). Another bus takes you directly to the airport. The ride and border formalities won’t take more than half a day. From Almaty airport you also have a good selection of low cost flights.
Entering The Country: Overland
Rail. If you want to keep your carbon footprint in check, a viable overland alternative is the train via Kazakhstan. It’s possible to take a direct train from Moscow to Bishkek twice a week. But it’s best to learn some Russian and book directly on the RZD website, otherwise it’s quite expensive.
Another option is taking a train to Almaty in Kazakhstan or Tashkent in Usbekistan first and then taking another train or marshrutka over the border. If you are coming from the Caucasus you could take the Baku Aktau ferry. From Aktau it’s possible to connect with the Kazakh railways all the way to Almaty. Remember to book in advance, seats sell out fast in the summer.
Road. The other option is to cross the border by bus or marshrutka. Bishkek has a comfortable overnight bus service linking it to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, via Kazakhstan. It’s also possible to take direct buses to and from major Russian and Kazakh cities from Bishkek. As mentioned above Almaty is only a short ride away.
From Kashgar in China, only the Irkeshtam pass towards Osh is open to independent travelers. At the moment it can only be done in shared taxis.
From Tajikistan, you can take a shared jeep to Osh from Murghab on the Pamir Highway. The cheaper option is via Khujand – Isfara – Batken – Osh by marshrutka. There are a few more less popular border crossings, with mixed results for foreign visitors attempting to cross them.
Public Transportation In Kyrgyzstan: General Considerations
There really aren’t that many options. The only local train you might consider is the Bishkek Balykchy line to Issyk Kul in summer. City buses only exist as rare trolleybuses in Bishkek and Osh. In Kyrgyzstan the marshrutka is king. Occasional shared taxis ply some intercity routes. But the minivans will be your most trusty ally.
Basically the country is split in two by the massive peaks of the Tien Shan range. North, the capital Bishkek is the main hub. To the South the city of Osh plays the same role. From each hub you can get easily to every other major city in the area within a few hours.
Public Transportation In Kyrgyzstan: Marshrutka
An excellent network of marshrutkas ply the streets of every major city and its surroundings. Bishkek has a handy app with all the routes. The destination is displayed in front. For this alone you should learn the Cyrillic alphabet. You always pay the driver upon entering the vehicle, although they usually let you sit down first if you have a big bag. In contrast, you enter the few trolleybuses through the back doors and pay upon exiting. Don’t ask me why. Prices vary by distance, but remain very affordable.
Inter city marshrutkas are more comfortable and usually have reserved seats. But are also very affordable. They start from their respective bus station or avtavagzal. Tickets are usually bought in the bus station or at a nearby booth. There is no need to book in advance. If you stand by the side of the road and want to flag down a marshrutka, just hold out your arm. Routes, destinations and even schedules are fairly reliable, but it’s always best to confirm with a local or at the station.
Bishkek - Osh By Public Transportation
Marshrutkas and buses are banned from the main highway between Bishkek and Osh for dubious reasons. Instead, you are left with 3 options.
Fly. Easy, fast and relatively cheap. But if you have more than 15kg baggage to check-in it can quickly get expensive. And anyway it’s terrible for the environment. Plus you are a hardcore traveler, right?
Shared taxi. They usually start when full from the Western bus station or at the Southern end of Osh bazaar in Bishkek. In Osh they depart from the new bus station and Kelecheck bazaar. Gathering enough passengers can take anything between a few minutes to half a day. Hint: get to the taxi stand real early like the locals.
The drive takes around 12 hours and goes through spectacular scenery. Get a middle or front seat! The price varies between 1000 – 1400 KGS depending on the season and your bargaining skills. A more relaxed option is Bishkek – Toktugol – Jalalabad – Osh over a few days, using a shared taxi for the first leg and then marshrutkas.
Cargo vans and trucks. Starting in the evening from Dordoi bazaar in Bishkek and Kara Suu market on the outskirts of Osh. They are slower (14-16h) and cheaper (around 700 KGS). You get a bunk bed. Some like it because you can sleep. But others hate it because it can feel claustrophobic, especially if there aren’t (m)any windows. Quite a unique experience!
Transportation In Kyrgyzstan: Hitchhiking
Hitchhiking is very easy in Kyrgyzstan. Schoolchildren do it regularly in some parts. You might even spontaneously get offered a ride while waiting for a marshrutka in the countryside. Some drivers expect you pay them as any vehicle can be turned into a taxi. If there is any doubt and you are not willing to pay, mention bezplatna (for free).
More generally, especially in more popular places like Ala Archa, thumbing is well understood. If you stick out your hand like you are hailing a marshrutka, it’s more common for drivers to expect payment. In any case, making the effort to learn at least some Russian will be of great help.
Transportation In Kyrgyzstan: Taxi
Taxis are affordable and often the only way around town after the marshrutkas stop running early in the evening. You could use the app Nanda Taxi in Bishkek, or get a local to call you a licenced cab. Alternatively, you can just stick your arm out and wait for someone to stop. Always agree on a price before getting in. As a guideline, it costs around 10 KGS per kilometer plus 40-50 KGS to get in (summer 2019).
For intercity rides, it’s best to enlist the help of a Kyrgyz host or friend. Prices will be around 5-10 times the marshrutka fare, depending on the vehicle. This would make sense if you are a small group.
Taxis become very useful beyond the realm of marshrutkas. For example for the final kilometers to and from the trailhead. City taxi tariffs can be used as a base, but expect to pay slightly more, especially if the road is bad.
Budget Accommodation In Kyrgyzstan
Bigger cities. In Bishkek, and to a lesser extend Osh, you will find a lot of budget options between Couchsurfing, booking.com and airbnb. The fortunes and ownership of a business can change in the blink of an eye in Kyrgyzstan. So don’t put too much weight on reviews. Kyrgyzstan has witnessed a steady increase of tourism in recent years. Some businesses with a good initial reputation are now shamelessly exploiting their status.
Around the bus station you can always find cheap local hotels (gastinitza). In Bishkek, just walk South of the western bus station (zapadnyy avtavagzal). As a guideline, you shouldn’t pay more than 1000KGS for a room. Be prepared to walk around to compare prices and bargain.
Summer is high season. There is a brief peak in tourism, but also many migrant workers are coming back home from Russia to visit their families. That drives up the prices significantly. Late spring and especially early autumn can be a wonderful time to visit the country if you don’t mind colder temps in the mountains.
Camping. Many locals still live a partially nomadic existence. In summer, they go to the jaylo, the alpine pastures. And the national flag represents the top of a yurt. Camping is at the heart of Kyrgyz culture. That also means that you can camp anywhere for free in the mountains and countryside that is not a house or a field. Bring a light tent and sleeping bag, camping is a quintessential Kyrgyz experience.
Typical Food. You will find local variations of the Central Asian classics. Such as manty, steamed dumplings filled with meat. Or lagman, Uyghur-style noodles with meat. The popular paloo, better known as plov in neighboring countries, rice with carrots and meat. And the street food snack samsa, fluffy pastry baked in a tandoor oven. Usually filled with, you guessed it, meat. Or just go for shashlik, bbq meat skewers. The national meal is beshbarmak, a horse meat stew with homemade noodles.
Kyrgyz cuisine is served in countless restaurants all over the country. But the real deal is sharing a meal with semi-nomadic shepherds somewhere deep in the mountains.
Drink. Kyrgyz are big green tea drinkers. Another favorite is fermented mare milk, kymyz. It’s an acquired taste, but worth a try. In the streets of Bishkek you’ll also find a lot of maksym sellers, a fermented non-alcoholic grain drink. The Russian connection means that beer and vodka are also highly popular among men, for better or worse.
Bazaars. It’s easy to get tired of the street food. Fortunately, the bazaars are overflowing with fresh local produce in summer and autumn. Heaven. Bustling Osh bazaar in Bishkek is easily a highlight of the city. This makes self-catering a very tempting proposition. Keep an eye for small stalls in the overflow section. There you’ll find the best prices. Indeed, established shops are slowly starting to get used to the deep pockets of tourists, especially in the nuts and dried fruit section. Besides, you can also help support private individuals who really need the extra income.
Supermarkets. In Bishkek and Osh you will find small supermarkets, especially the Russian chain Narodnyy. They are considered fancy places and tend to be more expensive than the bazaar. It’s a good place to buy some packaged goods though. And to get an idea of prices before heading to the bazaar.
Vegetarian. It’s a tough country for vegetarians, and even more for vegans. Often you can find kartoshka samsa, filled with potato. And very occasionally even with pumpkin. Otherwise you are better off self-catering. Bread or nan, is readily available, but not always fresh. Between that and the dried nuts and fruits there are plenty of healthy options. If you carry a small camping stove or have access to a kitchen, it gets even easier.
Independent Trekking: Popular Itineraries
Ala Archa National Park just South of Bishkek has some of the most accessible walks in all of Central Asia. Marshrutka 265 from Osh bazaar in Bishkek will drop you near the gate of the national park in less than an hour. From the gate it’s still a long 11 kilometers uphill. But hitchhiking is easy, especially on weekends when locals go for a picnic along the river. Don’t pay for an overpriced taxi. The hike up to the Ratsek hut is very popular with both hikers and mountaineers. You can stay at the hut for a nominal fee, but it’s best to keep going a bit higher and pitch your tent for free. There are also a few quieter trails in the park.
Ala Kul is another increasingly popular trek near Karakol. It can also easily be done without a guide. Maps.me has the entire trail, including the free hot springs. From Bishkek get one of the frequent marshrutkas to Karakol, followed by a local one to the bazaar and then to the entrance of the Karakol valley directly South. If you are lucky all the way to here. The trek goes up that valley, crosses the mountains via Ala Kul lake and pass (3920m), and goes back down the next valley to Ak-Suu village. There you can catch a marshrutka back to Karakol bus station. Again, you could easily extend your trek and hardly meet another trekker.
Trekking: Remote itineraries
Pamir Alay. There are some absolutely spectacular treks South in the Turkestan range of the Pamir-Alay. The most popular routes start at the trailhead in Ozgurush and go to the Karavshin, often dubbed the Kyrgyz Patagonia. But it barely sees a handful of trekkers and mountaineers every year. You need border permits for this area. Most use an agency to organize guides and mules, but it can be done independently by adventurous and experienced trekkers.
It’s best to go late in the season (Aug-Sep), with generally better weather, easier river crossings and more seasonal bridges in place. Maps.me and the Russian military maps have some trails, but you will have to confirm conditions and river crossings with the local shepherds. There is a daily marshrutka to Ozgurush from Batken. It’s possible to do linear treks towards the Tajik enclave of Vorukh, or better to Sary-Jaz to avoid a technically illegal border crossing.
Other treks. There are endless possibilities. Generally, the Tien Shan has more alpine landscapes, with green meadows and pine forests. It also receives significantly more rain. The Pamirs down South are much drier. As for the Pamir Alay trek above, the ideal time to go is August and September. Planning your own trek is a fantastic idea if you are flexible. You are almost never alone. Shepherd families spend the summer high up in the mountains and can give you vital information. They can also act as guides and provide extra food supplies and donkeys if the need arises.
Independent Trekking: Logistics
Maps. Trails are not marked. You will need decent navigation skills and maps. You can find topographic maps covering selected areas at the Trekking Union in Bishkek. But they are based on the old Soviet Military maps. The Soviet topos might be terribly outdated and not always accurate. But it’s still the reference. And conveniently now available as an app.
Supplies. You can find a basic selection of outdoor supplies in the hunting shop cluster in Bishkek. They sell screw-on gas cartridges for around 300 KGS among other things. There is also a limited selection of high-end gear in the Red Fox shops in Bishkek. But treat them as last resort. It’s best to bring what you need as much as possible.
Food. The Osh bazaar in Bishkek and to a lesser extend the bazaar in Osh (confusing, I know) have everything you need. Smaller towns like Karakol and Batken still have a reasonable market area. In Osh and Batken they seem far too used to expeditions throwing money around. Bargain hard for the more expensive items.
Favorites include dried fruits and nuts. Try the sesame coated peanuts, cheap calorie dense addictive snacks! Buckwheat, oats and semolina are cheap fast cooking staples. The pasta sold in the markets is of low quality and often turns into a goo at higher altitude. Best to go for the higher quality ones in the supermarket. The Kazakh Sultan pasta brand is great. It’s a good idea to carry sweets to share with shepherds and nomads inviting you for tea.
You can buy or barter with shepherds for fresh milk, dried salty yogurt balls called qurut and bread, sometimes even meat.
Donkeys And Horses. If you plan on doing longer treks, you can hire donkeys starting at 600 KGS a day. Although it gets harder and harder for visitors to obtain the local price. Horses are significantly more expensive, but better at fording deep rivers and can carry bigger loads. The price often includes the donkey man, which can also act as a guide. Agencies will try to charge you more. If you are not in a rush, you can always ask in the villages near the trailhead. There is rarely a shortage of donkeys and horses. Some areas like the Pamir Alay have been popular with mountaineers since the Soviet days, driving up the standard tariff.
An alternative is to purchase a donkey. Seriously. Prices start at around 5000 KGS for a smaller specimen. Locals can show you how to strap the load and give you a crash course in donkey management. Hint: they like to run away while off duty. Catching them is an art. A donkey theoretically shouldn’t carry much more than 20-25 kg, although they routinely haul heavier loads up the mountain.
Sustainable Travel In Kyrgyzstan
There are a few things that you can do to help keep Kyrgyzstan the pristine outdoor destination that it currently is.
- As tempting as it may be, avoid the Osh – Bishkek internal flights. Marshrutkas and shared taxis will keep your carbon footprint low as they almost always leave when full.
- The tap water in the cities tastes fine and usually comes directly from the mountains. Use a filter instead of plastic bottles, you’ll need one for trekking anyway.
- The plastic bags used in the bazaars and shops are awful. They are of such low quality that they regularly burst on the way out of the market. Beyond trying to cut their use in the first place, see if you can score a few of the higher quality ones. Amusingly, those are usually Morrissons bags, a supermarket chain from Northern England. Don’t ask me why.
- While trekking, minimize or even better avoid making fires, especially in slow growing alpine and sub-alpine forests in the drier South. Stick to dead wood and use it sparingly like the locals.
- Нет, спасибо (“niet, spasiba”): no, thank you (to politely turn down something)
- без пакета, пожалуйста (“bez paketa, pazhalsta”): without a bag, please
- пакета не надо (“paketa nie nada”): I don’t need a bag
- с собой (“saboy“): takeaway (litt. “with me”)
- налейте в мой стакан, пожалуйста (“nalieytsie eta v moy stakan, pazhalsta“): pour it into my cup, please
- положите сюда, пожалуйста (“palazhitsie siyuda, pazhalsta”): could you put it here, please
Water. The tap water is generally considered safe to drink by the locals. It’s still advisable to purify it. Conversely, in the mountains it’s an imperative. Streams often suffer from fecal contamination by the large herds of sheep and horses upstream. The shepherds have developed an impressive tolerance to this. Don’t be fooled, even seasoned India veterans are affected.
Food. The dairy products that shepherds will invariably offer you are delicious. And a serious challenge for your bowels. Carry a generous selection of charcoal tablets, immodium and ciprofloxacin in your first aid kit. Street food is generally ok.
Altitude. Know thyself if you intend on going high. If you have never been above 3000m before, make sure you have enough time to acclimatize for treks and other mountain escapades.
General Considerations. Kyrgyzstan has a pleasantly relaxed feeling. The driving is less suicidal than in neighboring Tajikistan. Locals are friendly without ever being overwhelming. Crime rates are low. There have been ethnic tensions in the Fergana, but they are unlikely to affect you. Beyond the usual precautions any sane traveler would take, there is not much to worry about. Corruption rarely affects visitors. If you are asked for a bribe, friendly but firmly holding your ground should do the trick. And even if you are a fluent Russian speaker, try a nyeponemayu (I don’t understand) with the worst possible accent.
Trekking. Some of the high mountain trails are very exposed. Be prepared for the whole range of climatic conditions. It can snow in summer. Treat river crossings with extreme respect. Loosing your footing in the middle of freezing cold rapids is not fun. If you are not sure about what you are doing, find the nearest local to assist you.
There is no phone reception in the mountains. You have to be 100% autonomous. If you are victim of an accident, a satellite tracker or phone would be the only way to call rapidly for help. And even that could mean having to wait a few days for an army chopper to be dispatched.
Dress. In Bishkek you can dress more or less as you want. Although you will notice that locals tend to be fairly modest in their clothing choices. In other cities and especially the rural areas of the Fergana, the dress code clearly follows more conservative muslim guidelines. It’s best to keep shoulders covered for both men and woman. Shorts and shorter skirts are ok in the bigger cities, but knees are best kept covered outside.
Invitations. In the mountains and country side chances are high that you get invited for a cup of tea, a meal or even to stay the night. A small gift is the most appropriate way, beside respectful manners, to behave. It doesn’t have to be much. Some sweets or (loose) green tea are always aprreciated. Giving some money goes against hospitality and rapidly changes the vibe.
Kyrgyz is the national language. Repressed under the Soviet regime, it is currently experiencing a revival. The younger generation often speaks at least some English. But Russian remains the lingua franca.
Kyrgyz is a member of the Turkic language family. If you know some Turkish you will recognize many words, such as the numbers. Learning basic greetings in the local tongue will go a long way in the rural areas.
Most travelers will want to learn as much Russian as possible. Especially since it is widely spoken across former Soviet republics. Rather than learning a phrasebook by heart, I warmly recommend a more intuitive method such as Michel Thomas. You can find it for free on YouTube. The RT website has also a decent interactive course. All you need is to put around 10-20 hours of effort to start being able to navigate bazaars and marshrutkas.
Last but not least, learn the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s mostly phonetic and will take little more than an hour to learn. That skill will be of invaluable help for navigating the country.
Wifi in the big cities is generally decent. Travelers arriving at Bishkek airport will be given free SIM cards in the arrival hall. The best coverage is currently with Megacom. Even if you couldn’t get a free SIM, you can get one at the bigger branches. Or for a modest sum from street sellers. You need however to register your SIM with your passport at one of the main branches, such as the one at Osh bazaar in Bishkek. It only takes a few minutes. Packages are cheap, speed is good, but coverage in the mountains is almost nil due to the topographic nature of the country.
Money & Budget
Cards & Cash. There are plenty of ATMs in Bishkek, and fewer in other cities. Make sure your card doesn’t charge you for foreign currency withdrawals. However, many reject foreign cards, malfunction or run out of money. Bring a good cash back-up. Good rates for US dollars are found around the bazaar in Bishkek and Osh. Euros and Russian roubles are also easily exchanged. In Bishkek you can also exchange more exotic currencies. The best rates are systematically found around the main currency exchange cluster.
Finally, don’t bother with Uzbek, Kazakh or Tajik currency. They are very difficult to exchange. Just get your currency needs at the border or in the respective country.
Budget. If you camp half the time, organize treks yourself, use marshrutkas, eat local food and buy supplies at the bazaar you can easily get by on 10 to 15 US dollar a day. At 20$ a day, you can start staying in nicer places, or buy yourself a donkey for your trek!