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KYRGYZSTAN

Last updated on April 12, 2001

What Kyrgyzstan lacks in gracious buildings and fancy cakes, it more than makes up for with nomadic traditions such as laid-back hospitality, a healthy distrust of authority and a fondness for drinking fermented mare's milk. Many travellers find Kyrgyzstan the most appealing, accessible and welcoming of the Central Asian republics, particularly as it contains the central Tian Shan and Pamir Alay ranges, Central Asia's finest mountains.

In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union left this tiny, under-equipped republic out on a limb, seemingly without the resources to survive on its own. So far it's getting by on pluck, a liberal agenda and goodwill from Western donor countries. It's doing more than any Central Asian republic to encourage tourism and streamline bureaucratic procedures for visitors - partly because tourism is one of the few things it has to sell to the outside world.

The downside is that away from Bishkek, Issyk-Kul and parts of the Tian Shan, tourist infrastructure is minimal or wretched, transport is limited, fuel overpriced, roads unpoliced and there is a growing crime rate, fuelled by alcohol and desperate poverty. There's a great temptation to hop off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hike into the hills but, except in the few places mentioned below, this is not recommended if you value your life.


Map of Kyrgyzstan:

Kyrgyzstan

Facts at a Glance:

Full country name: Republic of Kyrgyzstan
Area: 198,500 sq km (77,415 sq mi)
Population: 4.5 million
Capital: Bishkek (pop 670,000)
People: 57% Kyrgyz, 21% Slav (Russian & Ukrainian), 13% Uzbek
Languages: Kyrgyz, Russian
Religion: Sunni Muslim
President: Askar Akayev
Prime Minister: Amangeldy Muraliyev


State Structure:

The Government is the highest executive body of state power in the Kyrgyz Republic. It decides all issues of state governance, except for instructional and controlling powers vested in the President and the Jogorku Kenesh by the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic. The activities of the Government are concurrent with the term of office of the President of the Kyrgyz Republic; therefore, the assumption of office by a newly elected President of the Kyrgyz Republic is accompanied by the resignation of the Government of the immediate past.

The Government consists of the Prime Minister, Vice Prime Minister, ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic, Chairpersons of the State Property Fund, Social Fund, State Custom Committee who have the status of ministers.

The Government shall be organized as determined by the President (Article 46 of the Constitution of Kyrgyz Republic).


Hotels in Bishkek:

Pinara Hotel
Address: 93 Prospect Mira, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 720044
Tel: (+996 312) 54-01-43, 54-01-44, 54-01-45
Fax: (+996 312) 54-24-08, 54-23-65, 54-24-04
E-mail: pinara@elcat.kg
URL: www.pinara.com.kg

Hyatt Regency Bishkek
Address: 191 Sovietskaya St., Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 720011
Tel: (+996 312) 66-12-34
Fax: (+996 312) 66-57-44
E-mail: hyatt_bishkek@elcat.kg
URL: www.bishkek.hyatt.com
Hyatt Regency Bishkek is located in the heart of the business and government district and the central cultural area of Bishkek.

Dostuk Hotel
Address: 429-b Frunze St., Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, 720021
Tel: (+996 312) 28-42-51
Fax: (+996 312) 28-44-66
The Dostuk Hotel is ideally located in the center, close to the main square of the city, the Parliament House, museums and embassies.


Restaurants & Cafes in Bishkek:

Adriatico
219 Chui prospect (between Isanova and Togolok Moldo).
Tel.: 21-76-32

The American Pub and Grill
168a Chui prospect or 55 Turusbekova St. (SE corner of the intersection of these two streets).
Tel.: 21-76-65

Fatboys
104 Chui prospect (between Sovietskaya and Tynystanova on the south side).
Tel.: 68-08-15

Navigator
NE corner of Moskovskaya and Razzakova.
Tel.: 66-51-51, 66-45-45


Nightclubs in Bishkek:

Tequilla Blues
Turusbekova-Engelsa St.
Tel.: 21-18-33
Rock concert hall.

Carousel
138 Panfilova St.
Tel.: 21-58-63

Lucky Town
244 S. Ibraimova St. In the huge white building between the circus and the Dostuk hotel.
Tel.: 22-84-80, 22-84-87

Titanic
In the building of Philharmonic Hall, on the east side.


Cities:

Bishkek
Karakol
Naryn
Talas
Osh
Jalal-Abad


Regions:

Chui region
Area: 18684.4 square kilometers
Population: 763,400
Administrative center: Bishkek

Issyk-Kul region
Area:43144.0 square kilometers
Population: 427, 000 people
Administrative center: Kara-Kol

Jalal Abad region
Area: 33647.5 square kilometers
Population: 842 000 people
Administrative center: Jalal-Abad

Naryn region
Area: 46706.9 square kilometers
Population: 263 000 people
Administrative center: Naryn

Osh region
Area: 46189.0 square kilometers
Population: 1, 415, 000 people
Administrative center: Osh

Talas region
Area:11445.9 square kilometers
Population: 210, 000 people
Administrative center: Talas

Batken region
Administrative center: Batken
(this is a newly formed region. It used to be a part of the Osh region till last year).


Environment:

Landlocked Kyrgyzstan is slightly larger than Austria and Hungary put together. It borders Kazakhstan in the north, China in the east, Tajikistan in the south and Uzbekistan in the west.

Nearly 95% of the country is mountainous: almost half of it at an elevation of over 3000m (9840ft) and three-quarters of it under permanent snow and glaciers. The dominant feature is the Tian Shan range in the south-east. Its crest, the dramatic Kakshaal-Too range, forms a stunning natural border with China, culminating at Pik Pobedy (7439m/24,400ft), Kyrgyzstan's highest point. The southern border with Tajikistan lies along the Pamir Alay Range. Lake Issyk-Kul, almost 700m (2300ft) deep, lies in a vast indentation on the fringes of the Tian Shan in eastern Kyrgyzstan.

Though environmental pressures are as bad in Central Asia as anywhere, there's a reasonably good chance of seeing memorable beasts and plants, especially since Cannabis indica grows thick and wild by the roadsides. The mountains of Kyrgyzstan are the setting for high, grassy meadows - it's not unheard of to look out a train or bus window on the open steppe and see a rushing herd of antelope. Marmots and pikas are preyed upon by eagles and lammergeiers while the elusive snow leopard hunts the ibex amongst the crags and rocky slopes. Forests of Tian Shan spruce, larch and juniper provide cover for lynx, wolf, wild boar and brown bear. In summer, the wildflowers are a riot of colour.

The climate of this mountainous region is influenced by its distance from the sea and the sharp change of elevation from neighbouring plains. Conditions vary from permanent snow in high-altitude cold deserts to hot deserts in the lowlands. From the end of June through mid-August most afternoons reach 32?C (90?F) or higher, with an average annual maximum of 40?C (104?F). During the winter months, temperatures remain below freezing for about 40 days. The coldest month is January when winds blow in from Siberia.


History:

The territory of Kyrgyzstan is one of the ancient centers of human civilization. Archaeological research shows that primeval man familiarized himself here since the Stone Age. The Kyrgyz were known in Central Asia since the first millennium BC and have carried their name throughout the centuries.

The first state formations on the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan appeared in the second century BC. In the 4-3 centuries BC the ancient Kyrgyz were part of strong nomadic tribal unions, which proved to be a serious distress to China. It was at that time when construction of the Great Chinese Wall began. In 2-1 centuries BC a part of the Kyrgyz tribes moved to Enisey ("Ene sai" translates as "Mother river" from the Kyrgyz language) and Baikal ("Bai kol" in Kyrgyz means "Abundant Lake"). It was there that the Kyrgyz tribes organized their first state and the Kyrgyz Khanate, which became the center for consolidation of the Kyrgyz and formation of its culture. The Kyrgyz written language emerged here, but was lost after the state was dismantled by conquerors. However, the human memory was alive: an unprecedented epos "Manas" is a genuine encyclopaedia of the Kyrgyz history, society, habits and lifestyle of that time.

In the 5 century the nomads inhabiting northern Kyrgyzstan began to transform to a settled way of life. The first evidences of written sources about the Kyrgyz tribes inhabiting Tyan-Shan date back to the 10th century. The petroglyphs of Saymaly-Tash are widely known monuments of antiquity. These unique inscriptions illustrate a high level of civilisation of the Kyrgyz. The Burana Tower and Uzgen architectural complex strike one's imagination and testify to the artistic skill of architects and builders.

From the beginning to mid 10 century, the Great Kyrgyz Khanate encompassed Southern Siberia, Mongolia, Baikal, upper Irtysh, part of Kashgar, Issyk-Kul and Talas. This period was not only an age of war and conquest, but also active trade with the peoples of China, Tibet, South Siberia, and Central Asia. It was in this period that the Kyrgyz, after the conquest of the Uygur Khanate, entered the territory of the Tyan-Shan. However, in the 10 century, the Kyrgyz control covered only Southern Siberia, Altay and South-West Mongolia. In centuries 11-12, their territory decreased to Altay and Sayan only.

The Kyrgyz tribes, spread over a vast territory, actively participated in the historic events of Central Asia. They managed to preserve their ethnic autonomy and became a core of attraction of other ethnic groups. The last phase of ethnogenesis is linked with the Mongolian, Kalmyk, Nayman and other Central Asian peoples. In the 16 century, the ethnogenesis of the Kyrgyz people was mainly complete.

In 1863 the northern part, and in 1876 the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan were joined to the Russian Empire. After the socialist revolution in 1917, the Kyrgyz together with all the peoples of the former Tsarist Russia formed the soviet republics.

In 1918 Kyrgyzstan became part of Turkestan ASSR. After state demarcation of Soviet republics in Central Asia on October 14, 1924 Kara-Kyrgyz (since May 25, 1925 - Kyrgyz) autonomous region was formed as part of the Russian Federation. On February 1, 1926 it was transformed into Kyrgyz ASSR and on December 5, 1936-into Kyrgyz SSR.

The Kyrgyz people received national independence and sovereignty in a peaceful way after the breakup of the USSR. December 15, 1990 is the day of the Declaration of Sovereignty of the Republic, and August 31, 1991 - is the Declaration of Independence.

The first Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic as an independent state was adopted on May 5 1993. On May 10 1993, National currency, the Kyrgyz som, was introduced.


Economic Overview:

Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous country with a predominantly agricultural economy. Cotton, wool, and meat are the main agricultural products and exports. Industrial exports include gold, mercury, uranium, and electricity. Kyrgyzstan has been one of the most progressive countries of the former Soviet Union in carrying out market reforms.

Following a successful stabilization program, which lowered inflation from 88% in 1994 to 15% for 1997, attention is turning toward stimulating growth. Much of the government's stock in enterprises has been sold.

Drops in production had been severe since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, but by mid-1995 production began to recover and exports began to increase.

Pensioners, unemployed workers, and government workers with salary arrears continue to suffer. Foreign assistance played a substantial role in the country's economic turnaround in 1996-97.

The government has adopted a series of measures to combat such severe problems as excessive external debt, inflation, inadequate revenue collection, and the spillover from Russia's economic disorders. Kyrgyzstan had moderate growth in 1999 of 3.4% with a similar rate expected for 2000.


Privatization:

The ownership transformation process of the Kyrgyz economy started in 1991 and is still continuing. Privatization has brought important change into every sector of the economy: the private sector accounts for somewhat 70 percent of the GDP. Foreign equity participation is not restricted.

The current stage of privatization lays main emphasis on privatization and restructuring of the largest capital-intensive infrastructure and mining sector assets. As part of this stage, a major stake in the state monopolies is offered for sale.

The State Property Fund of the Kyrgyz Republic is responsible for carrying out the governmental policy on deregulation and privatization.


Translating Agencies in Bishkek:

Big World
Address: 207 Chui prospect, office 26
Tel.: 21-49-98, 21-69-23

Slang
Address: 166 Sovetskaya St.
Tel.: 66-36-29, 66-27-02

GMC Translating Service
Address: 96A Kievskaya St., office 101
Tel.: 22-18-16, 22-18-92


Culture:

Nearly everyone in Kyrgyzstan is Muslim, but Islam has sat relatively lightly on the Kyrgyz people. The geographically isolated southern provinces tend to be more conservative and Islamicised than the industrialized, Russified north. Ancient but still important tribal affiliations further reinforce the north-south differences. The Kyrgyz language has not been imposed on non-speakers in Kyrgyzstan (as Uzbek has in Uzbekistan), and the use of Russian persists, especially in the north.

Central Asian literature has traditionally been popularized in the form of songs, poems and stories by itinerant minstrels, called akyn. But the Kyrgyz are also associated with something rather more complex - an entire cycle of oral legends, 20 times longer than the Odyssey, about a hero-of-heroes called Manas. The stories are part of a wider, older tradition, but have come to be associated with the Kyrgyz people and culture partly because Soviet scholars 'gave' Manas to them in efforts to create separate cultures for the various Central Asian peoples. Although the oral tradition is pretty much dead, Manas is still a figure for the Kyrgyz to hang their dreams on. Kyrgyzstan has two well-known living authors - Chinghiz Aitmatov and Kazat Akmatov.

Central Asian food resembles that of the Middle East or the Mediterranean in its use of rice, savoury seasonings, vegetables and legumes, yoghurt and grilled meats. The food eaten in Kyrgyzstan has developed from the subsistence diet of the nomads - mainly meat (including entrails), milk products and bread. Kyrgyz cuisine is not particularly subtle - a bland meal of meat and potatoes may be livened up with a spicy side dish likely to burn a hole in your mouth. Tea is ubiquitous, usually served without milk. Despite their Muslim heritage, most Kyrgyz drink alcohol, at least with guests. If you don't enjoy hard booze (commonly vodka), make your excuses early. You may come across kumys, fermented mare's milk, a mildly alcoholic drink available only in spring and summer when mares are foaling. Bozo, a thick, yeasty concoction made from fermented millet, is available year round.


Museums in Bishkek:

Aaly Tokombaev Memorial House
Address: 109 Chuykova St.
Tel.: 66-47-56

Archeological Museum
Address: 265 Chui prospect. Third floor of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gapar Aitiev Studio-Museum
Address: Tynystanova St. and Chokmorova St.
Tel.: 22-14-05

Geological Museum
Address: 30 Erkendik prospect in the Geology Institute

Michail Frunze Museum
Address: 364 Frunze St.
Tel.: 22-77-00

Mineralogical Museum
Address: 164 Chui prospect
Tel.: 21-79-57

Museum of Fine Arts
Address: 196 Sovietskaya St.
Tel.: 66-15-44, 26-68-67

Museum of Graphic Arts of the Academy of Artists
Address: On the west side of Togolok Moldo St., just north of the Sports Palace, between Chui prospect and Frunze St.
Tel.: 21-05-57

National Historical Museum
Address: North end of Ala-Too Square
Tel.: 22-63-41

Toktogul Literary Museum
Address: 109 Kievskaya St.
Tel.: 22-76-93

Zoological Museum
Address: 78 Pushkin St.

Central State Archives
NW corner of Frunze St. and Orozbekova St.
Tel.: 22-78-43


Events:

Kyrgyzstan isn't exactly full of festivals. Public holidays include Constitution Day (5 May), a commemoration of the end of WWII on Victory Day (9 May), Armed Forces Day (29 May) and Kyrgyzstan Independence Day (31 August).

The spring festival of Navrus ('New Days') is an Islamic adaptation of pre-Islamic vernal equinox or renewal celebrations. It can include traditional games, music and drama festivals, street art and colourful fairs.

Important Muslim holy days, scheduled according to the lunar calendar, include Ramadan, the month of sunrise to sunset fasting; Eid-ul-Fitr (or Orozo Ait), the celebrations marking the end of Ramadan; and Eid-ul-Azha, the feast of sacrifice, when those who can afford to, slaughter an animal and share it with relatives and the poor.


Facts for the Traveler:

Visa

To receive a visa you should submit the following papers to the consulate:

  • A visa application form, obtained from the Consulate, travel agencies or visa services must be filled out in print letters or typed.
  • One passport size photo of the applicant.
  • Applicant's passport (not a photocopy).
  • (a) For those visiting Kyrgyzstan on invitation from Kyrgyz state organizations or with official government business for the period of up to one month it is necessary to submit a cover letter from his/her department/company head or letter of invitation from contact organization in Kyrgyzstan, summarizing the purpose of the trip, stating the dates of arrival and departure, the confirmation of contact organization or department for meeting, Kyrgyz or other within Kyrgyzstan, as well as the address and telephone number.

    (b) For those travelling to Kyrgyzstan with private, business or other purposes visa support is required from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (for those visiting their friends or relatives from the Ministry of Interior) of the Kyrgyz Republic (contact your partner/host in Kyrgyzstan).

    (c) For individual tourists staying in Kyrgyzstan up to 1 month it is necessary to submit a personal letter or letter from travel agency stating the dates of arrival and departure, contact organization or private host and the places of stay in Kyrgyzstan.

    (d) For group tourists it is necessary to submit a letter from travel agency indicating the exact dates of arrival and departure, contact tourist agency/travel agent from Kyrgyzstan, as well as the list of tourists with passports #.

    (e) For visas other than single-entry, double-entry or more than one month visa support is required from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic (contact your partner in Kyrgyzstan).
  • A business check, cashier's check or money order (no personal checks or cash) made out to the Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • Those applying by mail must include a self-addressed envelope with a pre-paid postage or a completed mail form.
Processing fees:

  • Entry visas
    Single entry visa (1 month) - $50; (up to 3 months ) - $90;
    Double entry visa for 1 month - $80;
    Multiple entry visa for 3 months - $120;
    Multiple entry visa for 6 months - $140;
    Multiple entry visa for 1 year and more year - $200;
  • Transit visas - $25
    Processing time - 5 days.
    Rush processing - 2 days (processing fee increases by 50% per each visa).
    Same-day processing (processing fee increases by 100% per each visa, apply by 10 am).
    Note: Forms and documents submitted in a manner different from that described above will not be accepted. Please, be advised that all foreign travelers to Kyrgyzstan must register their Passports with the Passport Department of the region in which they will be staying.
Time: GMT/UTC plus 5 hours.

Electricity: 220V, 50Hz. Bring a torch.

Health risks: Hepatitis A & E, diphtheria, undulant fever, altitude sickness, and tuberculosis. Play it safe and don't drink the water even if locals say it's OK to drink.

Weights & Measures: Metric.


Money & Costs:

Currency: som (S)

Relative Costs:

  • Budget meal: US$2-6
  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$6-15
  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$15 and upwards
  • Budget room: US$5-20
  • Moderate hotel room: US$20-50
  • Top-end hotel room: US$50 and upwards

In 1993 Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian state to introduce its own national currency. The transition from the Russian rouble has been rocky and Kyrgyzstan still has a shaky economy, a primitive banking system, high inflation rates and low wages. Foreigners often pay substantially more than locals for services, and there's not much you can do to avoid this.

Travellers looking for a safe hotel and dining establishments with ambience should expect to spend US$70 a day. Those with more moderate tastes and the occasional craving for an imported beer can get by on around US$40. Budgeteers relying on trains, streetside cafes and truckers' hostels may need little more than US$10 a day.

Kyrgyzstan is effectively a cash-only zone. The local currency is the only legal tender, though in practice US dollars and German Deutschmarks may be accepted or even requested for some transactions. There are currency exchange desks in most hotels and many shops. Most places accept only crisp, brand new banknotes, convinced somehow that anything older is worthless. Banks change US dollars travelers' cheques into som, though licensed private moneychangers in shop fronts have slightly better rates for US dollars cash.

Kyrgyzstan has a value added tax (VAT) of 20%. Tipping is not common, although a few top end restaurants automatically add a 5% to 15% service charge to the bill. Tipping runs counter to many people's Islamic sense of hospitality, and may even offend them. Shops have fixed prices but bargaining in bazaars is expected.


When to Go:

At lower elevations, spring and autumn are probably the best seasons to visit weather-wise - in particular April to early June and September through October. In spring, the desert blooms briefly, while autumn is harvest time when the markets fill with fresh produce.

Summer is ferociously hot in the lowlands, but July and August are the best months to visit the mountains. Cold rains begin in November and snow soon closes mountain passes. The ski season at the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base lasts from December to April. Note that winters are bitterly cold, even in the desert, and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season. Many domestic flights are also grounded in winter.


Attractions:

Ala-Archa Canyon

This grand, rugged but very accessible gorge, 40km (25mi) south of Bishkek, is a state nature park offering dozens of walking and trekking possibilities, including hikes to glaciers and, for the serious mountaineer, treks to the region's highest peak. There are basic shelters scattered throughout the park but the best way to enjoy the area is to bring your own tent and supplies. You can use the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base as a starting point from which to ski on glaciers, even in summer, though lifts only operate during the December to April winter season. Bishkek travel agents can arrange excursions to the canyon or you can make your own way there by car or by using the local buses. A small fee is charged at the entrance to the park.

Issyk-Kul Lake

Lake Issyk-Kul is a huge dent, filled with water, folded between the 4000m (13,120ft) peaks of the Kungey Alatau and the Terskey Alatau ranges. It sits 1600m (5250ft) above sea level and measures a huge 170km (105mi) long and 70km (43mi) across, making it the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. Health spas lined the lakeshore in Soviet days, but spa tourism collapsed along with the 'Evil Empire'. The lake was also used by the Soviet Navy to test high-precision torpedoes far from prying Western eyes. This was one of the reasons it was off-limits to foreigners until fairly recently, though the officially sanctioned opium poppy and cannabis plantations which once surrounded the lake may also have had something to do with it.

Today, the main reason to come here is to soak up the lakeside ambience, enjoy the thermal springs and remaining spas, explore some of the best hiking trails in Central Asia and try your hand at catching the local trout - allegedly bulking up to a prized 35kg (77lb). Mountain wildlife includes big cats, ibex, bear and wild boar, though a serious poaching problem exists, thanks to braindead Western hunters yearning to bag a snow leopard. Give yourself at least a week to explore this region and improve your leg definition.

Attractions in the lake region include the spartan Altyn Arashan hot spring development, set in a 3000m (9840ft) high postcard-perfect alpine valley; the immense, silent summer pasture of the Karkara valley; the extraordinary red sandstone cliffs of the Jeti-Oghuz canyon; and the excellent (and bandit-free) hiking trails into the Terskey Alatau, south of Karakol. The best time to visit is September, though trekking in the mountains is best between July and August.

Karakol, at the eastern end of the lake, is the principal town in the region, and is the best base from which to explore the lakeshore, the Terskey Alatau and the central Tian Shan. It's a low-rise town, famous for its apple orchards and Sunday market (one of the best in Central Asia), and its backstreets are full of Russian gingerbread cottages. It's best to bunk down with a local family (you'll be approached at the bus station when you arrive) rather than stay in an official hotel. Karakol is a seven-hour bus ride from Bishkek or a short hop by plane.


Off the Beaten Track:

Central Tian Shan

The highest and mightiest part of the Tian Shan system, the central Tian Shan, is at the eastern end of Kyrgyzstan, along its borders with China and the southeastern tip of Kazakhstan. It's an immense knot of ranges, with dozens of summits over 5000m (16,400ft), culminating in Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak), a 7439m (24,400ft) monster on the Kyrgyzstan-China border and the 6995m (22,944ft) Khan-Tengri, possibly the most beautiful and demanding peak in the Tian Shan, on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. The central Tian Shan is Central Asia's premier territory for serious trekking and mountaineering, and several Central Asian adventure-travel firms will bring you here by helicopter, 4WD and/or foot. July and August are the warmest months at these elevations but even then make sure you're fully equipped for the terrain, altitude and weather.

Bishkek to Kashgar via the Torugart Pass

Kyrgyzstan's primo trip for non-trekkers and the most exciting overland route in or out of Central Asia is the 700km (434mi) journey between Bishkek and Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, via the 3752m (12,307ft) Torugart Pass. The pass is open to all visitors, but ranks of officials on both sides still make it hard, occasionally impossible, for individual budget travellers. The trip is not for everyone, since it's a long, cold and uncomfortable haul and is plagued by uncertainties and officials with their hands out. But it's the sort of absorbing and grandly beautiful trip you'll never forget once you've completed it.

If you refuse to be sidetracked the trip could technically be done in 15 hours in a sturdy well-equipped 4WD. You'd be a mug to rush though, since this trip reveals so much about the region's history, geography, people and wildlife. And besides, officialdom will probably make sure that it will take a minimum of two to three days to complete the journey. Note that you cannot get visas at the border and that the pass is safe and snow-free only between May and September.

Bishkek to Osh & the Kyrgyz Ferghana Valley

When it comes to landscape, the Bishkek-Osh road is a sequence of superlatives, taking in two 3000m (9840ft) plus passes, the yawning Suusamyr Valley, the immense Toktogul reservoir and the Naryn River gorge before entering the Ferghana Valley. It's not to be taken lightly. The road is rough, hair-raising and occasionally blocked by rockfalls and avalanches. Snow fills the passes from October until March; the road is kept open to cars, but is dangerous during these winter months. No regular buses traverse the whole route, so you'll need to change buses, probably at Toktogul. Note that there are frequent police checkpoints along the route since this is a major artery for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan into Russia. The ancient town of Osh has a fantastic bazaar and is a good base for trekking and mountaineering in the Pamir range.


Activities:

You can arrange skiing, mountaineering, trekking and horseback trips with adventure-travel agencies in Bishkek. There are also excellent walking opportunities in the Ala-Archa Canyon and Alamedin Canyon, both rolling out of the Kyrgyz Alatau above Bishkek. Karakol on Lake Issyk-Kul is a good base for organising skiing and trekking in the Terskey Alatau. There are plenty of thermal springs, massage and mudbath centres around the lake. For serious adventure treks and mountaineering, the Central Tian Shan is your playground, but don't underestimate the hazards.


Getting There & Away:

Kyrgyzstan is not yet well connected by air. Kyrgyzstan Airlines connects Bishkek with Istanbul, Moscow, St Petersburg via Omsk, and Novosibirsk. Transaero connects Bishkek with Moscow and Kiev. It's probably easier to get to Bishkek by flying into Almaty in Kazakhstan and catching a bus for the three hour ride to Bishkek. Lufthansa and KLM even run their own Almaty-Bishkek ground shuttle. Trains run from Bishkek a few times a week to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Almaty and Krasnoyarsk (Siberia), and daily to Moscow. There are frequent buses between Bishkek and Tashkent and Almaty; a seasonal Chinese-run bus service links Bishkek and Kashgar via the Torugart Pass.

There has been a major rebuilding and upgrading of Manas International Airport. It now corresponds to international standards. A major investment has been made in a cargo terminal at the Airport. The project is now complete. The Manas Airport is now becoming an international transit point for passenger and cargo traffic.

The international Manas Airport is just a 30 minutes drive from the centre of the country's capital.

The National air carrier, Kyrgyzstan Aba Joldoru, flies to 21 foreign destinations and plans to enhance operations to Western Europe and Southeast Asia in the near future. Recently, a Kyrgyz-Malay joint venture "Kyrgyz International Airlines" has been established.


Getting Around:

Flying is the least edifying and arguably the most dangerous mode of transport in Kyrgyzstan, but in winter it can be the only way to beat the snow. Bishkek to Osh is a popular flight. Buses are the most frequent and convenient way to get between towns cheaply, and the best way to see what remains of the land of the nomads, though long trips can be tedious and cramped, and vehicles are prone to breakdowns.

Kyrgyzstan's trains are slow, crowded, grotty and increasingly crime-ridden. Taxis or private drivers are often willing to take travellers between cities. Most towns have public buses and marshrutnoe minibuses operating on fixed routes.


Major Travel Agencies:

AKC Kyrgyz Concept

AR-Track

IMC Pamir

Top Asia

Central Asian Tourism Corporation

Celestial Mountains

Horizon Travel

Shepherd's Way Trekking

Tien Shan Travel


Recommended Reading:

Only one good English translation of a representative group of Manas poems exists: The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff edited and translated by Arthur T Hatto.

Manas; the Epic Vision of Theodor Herzen is a dignified coffee-table book of illustrations of the Kyrgyz folk epos.

The novels of Chinghiz Aitmatov reveal Kyrgyz life and culture. Look out for Jamila, The White Steamship, Early Cranes and The Place of the Skull.

Frith Maier's Trekking in Russia and Central Asia is an unrivalled guide to the region's wild places.

Philip Glazebrook's Journey to Khiva and Geoffrey Moorhouse's Apples in the Snow; A Journey to Samarkand (published in the US as On the Other Side; A Journey Through Soviet Central Asia) weave history and contemporary observation around tales of travel in Central Asia on the eve of independence from the USSR.


Useful Links:

General Information:
Official site of Kyrgyzstan
Business Information Service for the Newly Independent States

Embassies, Consulates and Visa
Kyrgyz embassy in the UK
Kyrgyz embassy in the USA

Travel Agencies and Travel Tips
The Lonely Planet
Consular Sheet of the US State Department
Travel site

Miscellaneous
Information and links
Hotels
Elcat, Kyrgyzstan web resources

Last updated on April 12, 2001


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