Bargaining is extremely common, from bazaar stalls to CBT offices and more.
Dangers & Annoyances
Whatever news reports might imply during the country's very occasional riots and revolutions, Kyrgyzstan is a pretty safe place to travel. For those planning adventure activities in wild, open mountainous spaces, precautions should be obvious: before setting off, be aware of rapidly changeable weather patterns, extreme mountain terrain and the easily underestimated effects of altitude sickness. Always let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Driving If possible before engaging a ride, double-check the road-readiness of the vehicle and the sobriety of your driver. Reputable tour operators might charge slightly more but have an image to maintain.
- Theft Kyrgyz cities are generally safe but theft can happen, especially at night in Bishkek. Keep valuables locked in your hotel and consider taking taxis if venturing out late.
- Police trouble Although generally limited to a few annoying hotspots (Osh Bazaar in Bishkek is the major one), travellers continue to report shake-downs from corrupt cops wanting an excuse to fine you or simply rifle through your cash and appropriate some of it. The best approach is generally not to hand over your passport to plain-clothes officers until you have reached an official station, though in reality this isn't always as easy as it sounds, especially as legally you are supposed to carry your passport at all times.
- Flowers In rural areas don't pick flowers, especially not the pale-blue bell-shaped ones known as Issykulskiy Koren. Though attractive, this is in fact aconitum soongaricum, a highly toxic variant of wolfsbane that can cause fatal heart attacks if the sap is ingested.
- Ticks Recent research suggests that life-threatening strains of tick-borne encephalitis, already present in Kazakhstan, have recently become a potential danger in Kyrgyzstan. The first recorded human fatality was a person bitten at Ala-Archa in 2009. Tick-repellant and suitable protective clothing are thus recommended if walking and camping especially during June/July, in long grass at around 2000m.
Embassies & Consulates
For a full list of embassies, see the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Emergency & Important Numbers
|Kyrgyzstan's country code||+996|
|Mountain search and rescue||161|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Exporting antiques is heavily restricted. If you’ve bought anything that looks remotely old and didn’t get a certificate saying it’s not, you can get one from the 1st floor of the Foreign Department of the Ministry of Education, Science & Culture.
At least 60 nationalities can visit Kyrgyzstan without visas, including citizens of Korea, Japan, most major Western countries and former Soviet countries. Many visitors who do need a visa can arrange for one online (www.evisa.e-gov.kg), though these visas are valid for entry at a limited number of border points.
Many frontier areas and virtually any place within 50km of the Chinese border require military border permits. Peak Lenin base camp and the whole Khan Tengri area fall into such zones, as do large parts of Naryn oblast. For around US$30, CBT or trekking agencies can usually get one for you. Applications can take anywhere from two days to a month depending on the agent. If you're travelling to/from an open border crossing with a valid onward visa, you are generally exempt from the permit requirement, but special (easy to get, if pricey) permission is required for the Torugart Pass crossing.
If you're one of the unlucky nationalities to need a visa you might also need to register within three days of arriving in Kyrgyzstan. Ask your hotel or at OVIR.
Visas for Onward Travel
Some visa applications require a letter of Invitation (LOI), usually an expensive formality organised through a travel agency or online fixer.
Visa costs vary by nationality, starting from US$30/60 transit/tourist and going to US$160 or more. Issuance takes only a day or two, but seems to depend on your discussion with the consul about your ability to demonstrate you understand the security situation where you're planning to head, and sometimes requires a letter of invitation or a statement from your country's embassy indicating that they give permission for your travel to Afghanistan. Travellers planning to visit the Afghan Wakhan may have better luck applying in Khorog, Tajikistan.
Until late 2013 it was possible to get a Chinese visa through agents in Kyrgyzstan. However, for several years now China has been increasingly less willing to issue visas to any non-resident foreigners. Get this one from your home country.
Once you have a visa clearance code from Tehran the visa application takes two days and costs €50 for most nationals. Americans and Brits can only visit by organised tour. The sensible way to be sure of getting visa clearance is by applying online through a reputable travel agency like www.key2persia.com or www.persianvoyages.com, ideally allowing several weeks for the procedure; you can start from anywhere – you simply need to know which embassy you plan to collect it from. In principle such clearance can be arranged much more cheaply (US$10) in Bishkek through Persia Agency, but we have not tested the theory ourselves. Some nationalities report getting a five-day transit visa without supporting documents in around one week.
Kazakhstan is visa-free for a growing number of passports, including all EU countries, USA, UK, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and many more.
For those that do require a visa, one-month tourist visas are available from the Kazakhstan embassy, usually ready in five working days. Single/double transit visas cost US$20/40 and are generally available the next working day.
Providing that the consul is in town, 30-day visas (or 45-day visas on request) are painlessly available for US$55 to US$75, plus a 100som processing fee. A full GBAO permit is stamped in on request at no extra cost. One photograph; no need for a LOI. The process usually takes one day, but can last only 15 minutes if there's no queue. If the consul's away there's no visa issuance at all.
Call for an appointment before visiting – though at the time of research all appointments seem to be scheduled for 10am on the next working day. Fill in the online application form at http://evisa.mfa.uz, then turn up at the appointed hour with a 3 x 4cm photo and a copy of your passport including every page with any kind of stamp. Most nationalities pay US$90/100 to receive a single-/double-entry visa, but Americans and Japanese pay more and things can take considerably longer if the embassy is busy. Fortunately they usually allow you to keep your passport during processing so you can apply then head off to the hills. Alternatively, visas can be issued the same day if you have a pre-arranged agency LOI, but that requires advanced planning and more money.
- Bread Considered holy; never waste bread, throw it away or place it upside down on the table.
- Greetings Men will always shake hands upon meeting, though very rarely will women be expected to do so with men.
- Toasts When drinking alcohol, most often members of a group will take turns making short speeches before drinking as a group.
Local LGBTIQ organisation Labrys provides support and services for LGBT locals and travellers, and can provide information on local LGBT-friendly events. Though there is no law in Kyrgyzstan making homosexuality or homosexual acts illegal, in general Labrys' recommendation is to avoid dating services (often targeted by local police looking for extortion opportunities) and to remain discreet when in public (to avoid provoking negative reactions); social norms generally take a negative view of LGBT relationships.
Wi-fi is now easy to find in hotels and smarter city cafes, but speeds can be variable. Mobile 3G and 4G internet is also variable but increasingly widespread; if you have a laptop it's well worth investing in a dongle to allow you mobile wi-fi almost anywhere there's a phone signal. Dongles (around 1000som plus SIM card) tend to be company-specific. Beeline's work consistently well, and flat-rate plans are available, but in many rural regions only one carrier has a data network so verify beforehand if internet access is essential to you.
According to Kyrgyz law, international visitors should keep their passports on hand at all times. In practice, most make do with a photocopy. Bribery is relatively common for locals in many instances, but is something travellers should stay away from. If detained or arrested, contact your embassy or consular representative immediately.
TUK in Bishkek is usually the most reliable source of trekking maps, though numerous tour agencies through the country have begun to carry the same products. TUK's topographic maps include:
Ala-Archa (1:50,000) In English.
Around Karakol and Enylchek Glacier (1:100,000) Schematic map of Inylchek Glacier and the area southwest of Karakol.
Kyrgyz Range/Kungey Ala-Too (1:100,000) Topographical map covering the mountains south of Bishkek on one side, and the trekking area south of Tamga (Issyk-Köl) on the other.
Northern Issyk-Kul (1:100,000) Topographical map covering trekking routes between Grigorievka and the Chon-Kemin Valley.
OruxMaps (www.oruxmaps.com) is a very powerful map source and viewer for Android smartphones.
- Times of Central Asia (www.timesca.com) Bishkek's English-language newspaper, free from some top hotels and available online.
Banks and licensed money-changer booths (marked obmen valyot) exchange US dollars and other major currencies. Trying to get change for a 5000som note will likely be met with a look of horror, even in cities.
There is no black market for currency transactions and changing money back out of som is not problematic. We quote prices in the currency that the businesses themselves use. That's normally som, but can be US dollars or euros for some hotels and tour companies.
If you need to wire money, MoneyGram has services at main post offices and Western Union works through many banks.
ATMs are increasingly common in all major towns. Many dispense both US dollars and som and work with Visa, but for Mastercard and Maestro look primarily for Demir banks across the country.
For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.
- Restaurants and Bars Tips of 10-20% will be included in bills when appropriate.
Official offices and many business open from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday, often with a one-hour break for lunch. Official offices remain closed on weekends, though service-sector business will generally remain open.
Muslim festivals change dates annually. The most important, Orozo Ait (Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramazan) and Kurban Ait (Eid al-Azha, Feast of Sacrifice), are national holidays. Other dates are fixed, but might actually be celebrated on the nearest Monday or Friday:
1 January New Year’s Day
7 January Russian Orthodox Christmas
23 February Defenders of the Fatherland Day
8 March International Women’s Day
21 March Navrus (Nooruz)
1 May International Labour Day
5 May Constitution Day
9 May WWII Victory Day
31 August Independence Day
7 November Anniversary of the October Revolution
- Smoking Extremely common across the country, including many unsegregated indoor spaces outside of the larger cities.
Taxes & Refunds
Taxes are included in stated prices, and no tax refund allowances are available for visitors.
Mobile numbers are 10 digits; landlines have five or six digits. Central telecom offices usually offer booths with Skype-enabled computers for cheaper international calls, but the prevalence of wi-fi across the country means most travellers will never need to visit.
SIM cards are very inexpensive and are often given away to arriving passengers at Manas International Airport. No registration is required. Calls are only a few som per minute and a mobile phone can prove highly useful when hoteliers aren't home when you arrive.
All of Kyrgyzstan is located in Kyrgyzstan Time (GMT/UTC plus six hours), and the country does not observe daylight saving time.
- Sit-down toilets are common in major cities and at many tourist-focused hotels across the country.
- Squatters are the norm in rural regions and conditions may be distressing.
- Paper is often not provided.
Discover Kyrgyzstan (www.discoverkyrgyzstan.org) National tourism website.
Trip to Kyrgyzstan (https://triptokyrgyzstan.com/en/map) Useful interactive map of tourism destinations.
Travel with Children
Baby change facilities are limited to high-end tourism providers and pavements even in major cities are often not pram-friendly. However, Kyrgyzstan embraces the 'it takes a village' mindset wholeheartedly and very often strangers at hand will be happy to lend a hand.
Very few services in the country cater to any sort of disability, and those with mobility impairments may find the country hard to navigate. Even disabled members of the local community are somewhat cut off from wider society, with no legislation guaranteeing equal access to public facilities.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures The metric system is used.
Multi-entry business visas of up to 90 days are available online (www.evisa.e-gov.kg), though full work visas generally require a sponsoring organisation. Most short-term employment for foreigners is with language schools, though candidates with relevant experience have been known to find work consulting for international organisations based in Bishkek.