I wrapped up my first trip to Kyrgyzstan earlier this week. I spent fifteen days in the country, exploring the tiny Soviet resort town of Bosteri, walking the streets of Cholpon Ata, watching in awe at the athleticism on display at the World Nomad Games, and relaxing in the Russian banya and Korean Chicken oasis of Bishkek. However, my trip, while freaking fantastic, was not without a few boneheaded mistakes. Here are ten pieces of Kyrgyzstan travel advice I wish I could go back and tell myself before my trip.
Bring Your Own Sun and Dust Protection
Throw sunblock, a baseball cap, and a scarf to cover your mouth into your backpack, and try to have them available to you every day. Trust me, you’ll be grateful for them when you are the only one around not fried to bits and choking on dirt. Unless you’re going to stay in Bishkek, you’ll need to be able to keep your skin and lungs protected. The dry roads (and diesel engines) meant I was constantly coughing. And the only sunblock I could find outside of Bishkek had a whitening agent in it that destroyed the top layer of skin on my arms (rendering me ghostlike and covered in a layer of extra-thick sunblock sweat). Bring a sunblock that you know works well with your skin, but if you do end up picking one up in one of the smaller villages try to see if they have any without a whitening agent. As for your hat, it needs to protect your face, and your scarf should be light enough that you can wear it over your mouth comfortably. I got lucky, and I was given a baseball hat after I arrived, but if not I would have needed to purchase one.
I visited Kyrgyzstan in late August and early September. The mornings and evenings were cool to chilly, while the days were very hot (especially in direct sunlight). I was always thankful whenever I could make adjustments by adding or subtracting a layer of clothing. At night, I wanted a full jacket and a blanket on my lap, while during the day I wanted as few clothes as possible. If you’re going up to higher altitudes, you’ll need to make sure your clothes can handle the cold temperatures, but you’ll still want some cold-weather layers even if you’re not going too high. The team behind the World Nomad Games thoughtfully gave the members of the press an extra vest, baseball hat, blanket, and glasses cleaner, which helped me add a few layers of clothing and tackle the sun and dust, but I gladly would have purchased each of these as I ended up using them every single day in the country.
Watch Where You Step
Maybe this is a mistake that only I could make, but I sprained my ankle early in my trip by tripping on the world’s smallest pothole. Afterward, I started keeping my eyes on the pavement, and I noticed quite a few potholes and other tricky spots. If you sprain your ankles easily, you’ll be glad to pay attention to where you’re stepping. A sprained ankle slowed me down a bit, but it would have been much worse if I was planning on doing more hiking or any horse trekking on this trip.
Listen to Your Body
I had some nasty food poisoning, a sprained ankle, and the beginnings of a vicious cold while there. I thought I was slowing down and taking care of myself by sleeping in and ducking out early here and there, but after two weeks of pushing through, I was exhausted. It wasn’t until I left the country and settled down in Almaty for a week that I took proper care of my ankle and got the swelling to go down and the pain to subside. My body basically shut down in Kazakhstan and forced me to take care of it, but I wonder if I had paid better attention and care to some of these issues on the front end if I wouldn’t have crashed so hard at the end of my two weeks. Even if it’s your dream trip, stop and take care of minor aches and illnesses before they balloon into much larger problems.
Get Cash Before You Leave the Airport
This one isn’t as critical if you’re going into Bishkek (though you’ll still need some cash for a taxi). However, if you’re heading straight to a village (especially if you’re being picked up and transferred directly), this might be the only easy chance you have to get cash. While there are ATMs (bankomats in Russian) in the “bigger cities” like Cholpon Ata and in places like the Narodny supermarkets, there weren’t any in the smaller places I stayed like Bosteri or any at the Hippodrome where some of the major events of the World Nomad Games were held. I’m not saying you’ll never run into an ATM out in the wild, I’m just saying that I wish I’d grabbed cash at the airport. It would have saved me a lot of time. Since Kyrgyzstan outside of Bishkek is almost purely cash-based, you won’t make it far if you don’t have some Kyrgyz som on you.
Download the Yandex Taxi App ASAP
Negotiating with taxi drivers is a necessary evil in Kyrgyzstan. Every driver I had (except one), was extremely kind, polite, and thorough. However, I found prices on Yandex (a popular taxi app in countries of the former USSR) to be about half of what I could negotiate on my own. If negotiating stresses you out, then get the app ahead of time. You’ll need to register it with a local number (unless you register it ahead of time), but you can easily pick up a Kyrgyz sim card as long as your phone is unlocked. Also, data in Kyrgyzstan is super cheap.
Bring Your Own Seasonings
I found that I loved Kyrgyz cuisine, but after eating it for days on end, I was thrilled to pull out my emergency green Tabasco sauce and change up the flavors a bit. In Bishkek, you’ll find fantastic restaurants from a wide variety of cuisines (I loved the Korean Barbeque place called Chicken Star and the nachos at Metro Club). But in the villages, you’ll be eating more traditional food. I loved Lagman, borsht (technically Ukrainian, but who doesn’t love borsht?), and manti, but after two weeks I needed to mix it up. Other travelers I know who are regional experts have their own preferences, like Megan Starr will bring in her own cayenne pepper.
Have Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer with You AT ALL TIMES
The ubiquitous squat toilet may or may not have a sink next to it, and that sink may or may not have soap. While travelers worldwide should have a personal stash of toilet paper and hand sanitizer in case of emergency, I found mine came in handy more in Kyrgyzstan than most places. This is less true in Bishkek, but even in Cholpon Ata, I needed these with me most of the time. You might also want to make sure you have other basic toiletries with you since some hotels don’t provide shampoo or soap. You can pick up anything you’re missing at one of the magazines or other stores, provided you’re not going to be completely off-the-grid immediately.
Make Sure You’ve Got Your Prescriptions with You
I was running low on few meds, and so I popped into a Kyrgyzstan pharmacy to fill up. These meds are things that are prescription-only in the US, but over-the-counter in most countries I’ve been to, so I never worry too much about getting refills while on the road. However, in Bishkek, they didn’t have them in stock. After trying two more pharmacies, I gave up trying to get them, knowing that I could grab them in Almaty. This wasn’t a case of them being prescription-only, but just a situation where they didn’t have pretty common medicines available at all. I was able to pick them up in Almaty, but don’t get stuck in Kyrgyzstan worried about having access to your medicine.
Bring Your Own Tampons
(Obviously this is not unniversally applicable). I’m not saying that there aren’t tampons in Kyrgyzstan. What I am saying is that I couldn’t find them in the three pharmacies I went to, and who wants to spend any more time than that looking for tampons? Bring them with you ahead of time so you can avoid being the weird girl looking at every box of panty liners to see if you’re actually mistaken, and this is the magical box of tampons you’ve been searching for all over Bishkek. Like the prescriptions above, I found them easily in a pharmacy in Almaty the next day.
More Kyrgyzstan Travel Tips
- Learn Cyrillic ahead of time. I’ve been able to read Cyrillic since college, and it makes it so much easier to travel around parts of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. It’s also one of the reasons I love living in Bulgaria.
- Spend some time in Bishkek! A lot of people skip Bishkek in order to spend more time hiking and doing outdoor adventure sports. I found Bishkek a great place to relax after the craziness of the World Nomad Games.
- Don’t ONLY see Bishkek! Kyrgyzstan outside of the major cities is very different. You need to see both sides to get a better feel for the country.
- Wall outlets are the same as most of Europe (type C or F), and the voltage is 220V. You’ll need a converter if you want to use North American plugs.
5 Things You Must Have in Your Suitcase
- Lonely Planet Central Asia which is available as a paper copy or in a Kindle edition.
- Sunscreen before you get there to avoid the kind with whitening in it.
- Full Sized Travel Towel This is the best travel towel in the world. It’s pretty enough for the beach, large enough that you forget it’s a microfibre towel, and quick-drying, which is crucial if you’re going to be hiking or going from place to place. Even in hotels, I found I used my own travel towel often. Here’s a whole post about why I’m obsessed with my travel towel.
- Altitude Sickness Pills If you get altitude sickness (like I did in Quito), you’ll want to be able to take these right away. My altitude sickness in Kyrgyzstan was mild, but I didn’t go up too high. Even in Cholpon Ata or on Issyk Kul, I could still feel the effects for a few days.
- Trekking Poles Critical for anyone afraid of heights who wants to get out and see nature. I wish I’d had these with me in Kyrgyzstan and in Spain when walking the Camino.
Final Thought: Triple Check Your Travel Insurance Policy Information (Or Get One)
It’s not the most glamorous side of travel, but I always make sure to have a current Travel Insurance Policy because things happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any horseback trekking, hiking, or adventure sports while in Kyrgyzstan.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’re going to be doing any adventure sports like horseback trekking, hiking, or traveling off-road. Even in Bishkek, you’ll be happy when you’re able to replace your stuff if it’s lost or stolen.
More about Traveling to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia
- The World Nomad Games (podcast episode)
- How to Get a Kyrgyzstan Sim Card
- Things to Do in Bosteri on Issyk Kul
- Big Almaty Lake in Kazakhstan in Pictures
- How to Get to Big Almaty Lake by Taxi
- Tamgaly Tas: How to Visit Kazakhstan’s Enchanting Buddhist Rock Art Sanctuary
- Visiting Nomad’s Land: The Abandoned Movie Set in the Kazakhstan Steppe
Do you have any helpful pieces of Kyrgyzstan Travel Advice to add for future travelers? Are you planning a trip and looking for Kyrgyzstan travel tips? Leave any tips and questions below!
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