From first-class treks to a very accessible nomadic culture, horse riding and hospitable people, Kyrgyzstan is the ultimate destination for those seeking an off the beaten track (but easy) adventure.
After spending two entire months traveling in Kyrgyzstan, I have compiled all the necessary information that will help you plan your trip, from visas and bureaucracy to accommodation, transportation and plenty of cultural facts.
What, still not convinced? Then read: 10 reasons why you should travel to Kyrgyzstan
75 Things you need to know before traveling to Kyrgyzstan
What will you find in this article?
Before starting: a few things to know
Visas and bureaucracy
Country, people, and culture
Food and alcohol
Internet & SIM cards
Before starting: a few things to know before traveling to Kyrgyzstan
1 – Kyrgyzstan is about nature and nomadic life – With very few Silk Road Heritage sites compared to its neighbor Uzbekistan, in Kyrgyzstan there’s not much to do besides wandering around its gorgeous mountains and experiencing the nomadic life.
2 – Kyrgyz towns suck – I know, it’s hard to say but this is the truth and everybody who has been there knows that. With the exception of Bishkek and, probably, Arlsanbob, the different towns in Kyrgyzstan are pretty boring as there is no distinctive architecture, soul and social life. When you travel in Kyrgyzstan, you will see that towns are merely used as a base to explore the mountains or take a rest from them.
3 – Therefore, Kyrgyzstan is highly seasonal – For this reason, Kyrgyzstan is a very seasonal destination as, during winter, it’s too cold to enjoy the mountains and nomads go back to their respective towns and cities. June to September is the best time to visit Kyrgyzstan.
4 – Travel insurance – If you visit Kyrgyzstan, travel insurance is a must as accidents do happen in the mountains. I actually fell off a horse in Tash Rabat and had to stay in bed for two weeks. I went to the hospital, where they carried out different kinds of tests on me which, in the end, turned out to be expensive. Luckily, I had World Nomads insurance, which is the best travel insurance company out there.
5 – Is it safe to travel to Kyrgyzstan? – It’s completely safe. However, in the capital of Bishkek, night crime is not unheard of. If you are leaving a club or a bar late at night, better take a cab. Nevertheless, apparently, the situation has improved a lot.
Visas & bureaucracy
6 – The most liberal visa regime in Central Asia – Most nationalities get a 60-day free visa on arrival, both at the airport and overland. If you want to renew it, you just need to cross the Kazakh border (1 hour from Bishkek) and come back on the same day. These countries are: EU/EFTA (except for Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania), Australia, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Canada, Kuwait, Monaco, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan, Vatican City. Malaysia and Turkey get 30 days. Mongolia and Ukraine get 90 days. Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cuba, Georgia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, North Korea, Russia, Tajikistan and Vietnam get an indefinite stay.
If you are not on the list, for further information on visas, read the Kyrgyzstan visa section of Caravanistan.
7 – Extending your visa does not seem to be possible anymore – My girlfriend has a Mexican passport, which means that she can’t renew her visa at the border. When her 1-month visa was about to expire, we went to extend it at the passport office in both Karakol and Bishkek, but they told us that, since May 2017, it’s not possible to do that anymore. Therefore, she had to travel to Almaty (Kazakhstan) and apply for a visa, which took one entire week.
8 – Overstaying can be expensive – According to what the authorities told us when we couldn’t extend our visas, if we overstayed, the fine could be up to 200USD.
Country, people and culture
9 – Kyrgyzstan used to be part of the Soviet Union – It acquired its independence in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR.
10 – The origin of the Kyrgyz – Kyrgyz people are an ethnic nomadic group which is believed to have come from a region within Siberia, during the 10th and 15th centuries. Originally, they used to have red hair but, over the centuries, they have mixed with all kinds of groups, especially Mongols and Turks.
11 – Kyrgyz make up 66% of the population – The biggest minority are Uzbeks (15%), followed by Russians (10%).
12 – It’s a Muslim country. Well, not really – Like in most Soviet countries, religion is not a big deal anymore, especially in the north of the country. In the south, people tend to be more traditional, so you may see more mosques or men with beard and Muslim hats, but nothing relevant. During Ramadan, I was in Bishkek and didn’t see any sign of people fasting. Alcohol is available everywhere and there is no sex segregation. You will see that women from all ages will always come to you to start a conversation.
13 – However, Saudi Arabia wants to reverse this – They are funding the construction of mosques across the country.
14 – Kyrgyz is the national language but Russian is widely spoken – Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, is the country’s official language. Russian is spoken by most of the population, except in the south of the country, which has a significant Uzbek population who, for some reason, don’t really speak it.
15 – English is a problem – Communicating with people is one of the biggest issues in Kyrgyzstan, as very few people speak English. I recommend you buy a Russian – English pocket dictionary.
16 – At least, you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet – Extremely useful, especially when it comes to reading restaurant menus and bus directions.
17 – Bishkek is surprisingly Westernized – When you arrive in Bishkek and discover all those restaurants and bars where local people hang out, who dress incredibly well, you realize that this is not what you were expecting.
18 – The rest of the country is more traditional – Outside of Bishkek, most people still live a traditional life, where people’s main life goal is getting married and having children as early as possible. I met several 20-year old women who already had two kids.
19 – Kidnapping brides is still a big deal – And what do I mean by kidnapping brides? In Kyrgyzstan, a man can take a random woman who is just walking on the street to his house and, if both parents agree, he can marry her and the woman can’t say anything. I know, it’s not a real kidnapping but it’s a crazy tradition and, even today, some locals told me that this is practiced by 20% of the population, especially in small, rural villages.
20 – The most hospitable people in Central Asia – In this region, the Kyrgyz are famous for their hospitality. When we went trekking in the mountains, I remember that there was not a single day when someone didn’t invite us to his or her yurt to have some tea and bread with home-made jam and butter. Traveling in Kyrgyzstan is very pleasant, as the Kyrgyz people, who will always bless you with their smiles, are kind and hospitable by nature.
21 – You can’t believe how clean they are – When you travel in Kyrgyzstan, you will realize that these people have a real obsession with cleanliness. Even in youth hostels, sometimes I could never go the toilet because there was someone cleaning it. In guest houses and home-stays, women spend the entire day mopping the floor and cleaning the kitchen. I don’t know whether it’s true or not but, a Russian man told me that, during Soviet times, Kyrgyz people had a bad reputation for being dirty. In order to change this general opinion, they became obsessed with cleanliness.
22 – Girls are pretty, very pretty – Kyrgyz women are stunning, especially in Bishkek. On the other hand, all foreign women say that, in general, Kyrgyz men are not very handsome.
23 – Always remove your shoes – You must always remove shoes when you enter any house, yurt and even hostels and guest houses.
24 – The most accessible nomadic life in the world – From time immemorial, the ethnic group known as the Kyrgyz have been a nomadic people who tend to move continuously throughout the mountains and valleys of the region with their cattle. Today, a large proportion of the Kyrgyz population still live a nomadic, traditional life, not very different from their ancestors. In summer, which is from June to September, you will find hundreds of nomad camps everywhere, either next to the road or in the remotest mountains, where they settle so their horses, cows and sheep can graze freely.
25 – It’s their summer job – During the summer months, Kyrgyz nomads move from cities to the mountains, so their herds of cows, sheep, goats and horses can graze freely. When the season is over, they sell some of these animals, as well as dairy products and meat. This is the only source of income most of them rely on.
26 – They live in yurts – Yurts are perhaps the most iconic symbol of Kyrgyzstan. These cozy skin-made tents, which can be seen all across the country, can be incredibly warm during the freezing nights.
27 – You can always stay with them, no matter where you go – Whether you just want to get a warm meal or spend the night, wherever you go trekking, the nomads will always welcome you, at least in my experience. But remember that, even if they don’t ask, they may expect you to pay something.
28 – Get off the beaten track because the touristic areas are too commercialized – If you go to popular places, such as Song Kul for example, most nomad families have spare yurts, which have been built for tourists. Whereas there is nothing wrong with staying there, the experience won’t be very authentic. If you have a chance, try to find yurts around the Alay Valley, the Pamirs or even in less popular treks around Karakol. In these yurt camps, you may sleep in the same yurt as the family and even join in with their daily tasks.
29 – It’s the land of horses – Horses are as much part of their culture as the yurts. From epic horse treks over 4,000-meter mountain passes to herds of tens of horses grazing in stunning meadows, if you like horses, you are going to love Kyrgyzstan.
30 – They learn how to ride a horse at the same time as walking – When you are in the mountains, you will see plenty of kids (including little girls) riding big horses.
31 – You must go horse trekking – Trekking over high mountain passes, riding one of those beautiful beasts is one of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan. Ah, in case you are wondering, no, you don’t need any previous riding experience. A guide will always come with you.
32 – But be careful! – Horses are no joke. They are dangerous so don’t try to gallop if you don’t have any experience. I actually had a pretty bad accident, felling off a horse in Tash Rabat when I tried to gallop (I am a stupid, inexperienced man). I got two hernias, had to stay in bed for two weeks and fully recovered after one month. I could have been much, much worse, so be careful
33 – Hiring a horse is cheap – It costs around 700KGS ($10) a day plus 1,000KGS ($15) for the guide, which can be split between several people. If they try to charge you more, they are ripping you off.
34 – But be aware that they eat them! – When you see a herd of horses grazing over a dreamy meadow, don’t get too much in love with them because many of them will end up in a butchery!
35 – Horse games – Horses are so rooted in their culture that they are also main protagonists in their national sports. Among many others, Ulak Tsrtysh is the most popular game, which is a form of polo where they play with a dead goat which is beheaded right before the game begins. Violence in any match is more than guaranteed.
36 – Around 90% of the of the country is above 1,500 meters – I’ve told you everything already.
37 – First world-class hikes – For decades, travelers with a slight sense of adventure, who wanted to savor some first-class hikes, used to go to Argentina, Switzerland, and Nepal. However, just a couple of years ago, the most intrepid travelers quickly realized that trekking in Kyrgyzstan could easily rival Patagonia and the Himalayas.
38 – Some treks I did – I trekked in the Tien Shan mountains around Karakol, in Tash Rabat, around Song Kul and the Lenin Peak Base camp. More articles coming soon.
39 – Trekking in Kyrgyzstan, everything you need to know – Article coming soon
Food and alcohol
40 – Food is not amazing but it’s OK to fill your stomach – You will not love it but, after traveling in Kyrgyzstan for 2 months, I was not especially bored of it.
41 – The typical food – Lagman (a hearty noodle soup), manty (meat dumplings) and shorpo (meat broth) are the staple food.
42 – But don’t trust mantys – While traveling in Kyrgyzstan, the only day I got slightly sick was after eating some street mantys. Be careful where you order them, as the meat they are filled with may have been outside of the fridge for days.
43 – In small towns and villages, only staple food – In bigger towns, you can easily find more choices, like salads, kebab or Western food. However, in villages, you’ll have to fill your stomach with lagman and mantys.
44 – You are expected to know what to order from the moment you enter the restaurant – It’s your first day in Kyrgyzstan, the first time you enter a restaurant, holding a menu written in an alphabet which you’ve never seen before. However, they will expect you to know what to order within 10 seconds of giving you the menu. If you tell them to wait for 5 or 10 minutes, they won’t really understand you and will stand next to you. It’s very weird but you’ll get used to it.
45 – If you are vegetarian, you are fucked – It’s said that Kyrgyzstan is the country with the highest consumption of meat per capita in the world. At most restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to find vegetarian dishes and, when you ask for something vegetarian, they kind of freak out. Even sometimes, when I ordered a salad, it came with pieces of cooked beef in it. True story.
46 – Even chicken is difficult to find – If you find chicken on a menu, just order it!
47 – Beer and vodka are available everywhere – Welcome to the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan! Despite being a Muslim country, the alcohol consumption is present everywhere, even in small villages and towns.
48 – Get used to people being completely smashed at 9am – You’ll definitely meet Kyrgyz men who are massively wasted, who can barely walk, quite early in the morning.
49 – You must try kymys – If you go to the mountains and stay with nomads, ask for kymys, which is fermented milk. Most people don’t like it, as it has a weirdly sour, strong taste. It has some small percentage of alcohol. However, if you don’t like it the first time, give it another chance. I tasted it in four different places and in two of them it was surprisingly good.
50 – Kyryt is the snack in fashion – Kyryt are some sort of cheese and yogurt balls which are available all across Central Asia but Kyrgyzstan is where they are most prevalent. Again, some people don’t like them but, like kymys, some of them were good, some of them weren’t.
51 – A fruit paradise – If you come during the season, markets are filled with all kinds of fruits, incredibly tasty and ridiculously cheap. In summer, you will find plenty of nectarines, watermelon, strawberries, raspberries and much, much more!
52 – Kyrgyz SOM is the official currency – 1USD = 68KGS
53 – It’s cheap, really cheap – You can easily find home or yurt stays for 10USD a day, including dinner and breakfast. Meals cost around 1-2USD in local eateries and between 2-4USD in mid-range places. Public transportation within cities costs 15c and buses between nearby towns, less than 1USD. You can live like a king for less than 20USD a day.
54 – ATMs are easy to find and you can withdraw USD – ATMs are available everywhere and, in many of them, you can select the option that you want to cash out USD, instead of KGS. In my experience, the maximum I was able to get were 200USD at a time.
55 – I’ve never seen so many exchange offices – In Bishkek, there are exchange offices in absolutely every corner. In the rest of the country, it’s also easy to exchange money.
56 – Except for taxi drivers, people don’t tend to rip you off – Perhaps, because mass tourism hasn’t arrived here yet but I didn’t feel anyone trying to rip me off, except for taxi drivers of course.
57 – Expect to pay 10-15% extra for service in any good restaurant – Except in cheap, local eateries, you will always pay an extra 10-15% for service when the bill comes.
58 – Everybody has a home stay – Kyrgyzstan has the peculiarity that, no matter where you go, locals offer their houses to foreigners for home stays. Whether it is a remote village or a touristic destination, as soon as you arrive, women will approach you, asking if you want to stay at their house.
59 – Home stays are superb – They are always comfortable, clean and nicely decorated. You will not want to leave!
60 – They always expect you to pay – Remember that, even if you are in a very remote village and you get randomly invited by someone to stay, even if they don’t ask you for money, they are expecting you to give something.
61 – Price is always per person – If you travel alone, Kyrgyzstan is a good place for you, as price is always per person, not per room.
62 – You must stay in a yurt – Go to the mountains and stay in a yurt with a Kyrgyz family!
Transportation – Kyrgyzstan travel guide
63 – Hitchhiking – Extremely easy and common among the locals. However, remember that, in Kyrgyzstan, everybody is a taxi driver so if you are looking for a free ride, you will need an extra dose of patience.
64 – Mashrutka is the way to go – Mashrutkas are some kind of vans and mini-vans that connect all cities and towns in Kyrgyzstan. They are extremely cheap and it’s very easy to move around with them, as you can find a station (or more) at every bazaar in absolutely every town. You just need to get on at the station and say which city or town you want to go.
65 – Shared local taxis – Late in the evening, for long distances or in very remote towns, marshrutkas don’t run that often, so you will have to take a local shared taxi. They are more expensive but, definitely, faster than marshrutkas. However, some drivers are completely nuts and may drive at over 120km per hour along narrow mountain roads.
66 – Old women have the power – In any bus, marshrutka or taxi you go, women can choose any seat they want, even if you arrived one hour before them. In city buses, always give up your seat to any women over 40-50 years old. If you don’t, they will tell you to stand up. When I fell off the horse and had to stay in bed for 2 weeks, I was sitting in a marshrutka on the way to the hospital. I could barely stand up and, when a woman entered and told me to move and I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t, I created a lot of trouble until she understood.
67 – At 40ºC, windows are still closed – Kyrgyz are afraid of air currents and no matter what time of the year it is, even if it’s the peak of the summer and 40ºC outside, they like to travel with the windows closed and the AC switched off. Sometimes, you can negotiate with the men but, if there are old ladies, forget about it.
68 – Remember to be patient – Ninety percent of Kyrgyzstan is composed of high mountains which means that, every time you want to go from town to town, you will have to cross them, making your journey particularly slow. In addition, in some more remote destinations, shared taxis and marshrutkas leave once they are full and, sometimes, it takes some time to fill them. Just keep in mind that traveling in Kyrgyzstan can be particularly slow.
Internet and SIM cards
69 – The best internet in Central Asia – High-speed Wi-Fi is available almost all across the country, even in high altitude towns such as Sary-Mogol and Sary-Tash.
70 – 3G also works pretty well – If you get a local SIM-Card, 3G is also quite fast.
71 – SIM Card – Get the mobile company called O! For just a few dollars, they offer weekly deals for both internet data and calls. This mobile company has street stalls all over the country.
72 – What is CBT? – CBT (Community Based Tourism) is a very popular tour agency in Kyrgyzstan that can arrange any kind of activity you want to, from yurt stays to trekking, taxis, permits and anything you can think of. CBT has offices all over the country and it is so popular because, despite being a tour agency, they offer very cheap and competitive prices. However, bear in mind that, of course, it will always be cheaper to arrange things on your own.
73 – Border crossings – You can enter Kyrgyzstan overland from China (read my border crossing report there), Kazakhstan (report coming soon), Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (report coming soon).
That’s all the information you need to know for traveling to Kyrgyzstan. If you think there’s is anything missing, kindly post it on the comments section below