I'm planning a trip to Kyrgyzstan for two weeks in May/June-ish 2015. There seems to be scant info online for this destination, and I was hoping some folks here might have some ideas. My partner and I were planning on renting a car/SUV and driving around the country, living out of the vehicle.
My travel style: I'm a pretty well-travelled, adventurous traveller. Safety and sanitation aren't high priorities. I'm pretty tolerant of "roughing-it" situations. I prefer authentic cultural experiences to museums and sightseeing tours. The farther off the beaten path, the better.
Advice on places to go, experiences to have, food to eat, booze to drink, etc. would be greatly appreciated. Any tips on navigating cultural situations and being culturally sensitive/appropriate would be highly valued as well.
I'd highly recommend avoiding renting your own vehicle, especially if you don't speak Russian. The local traffic police are very corrupt and WILL pull you over often, regardless of how well you adhere to local driving laws. You can get around the country cheaply and if you are up for, hitchhiking is an easy option anywhere too. You can camp many places and CBTs (google Kyrgyz CBT to find a lot of info) are cheap and helpful plus they are all around the country.
As for things to do/see, it kind of depends on how long you will be here. 2-3 weeks is enough to see most of the highlights. Issyk Kul and most of the other spots will be a little chilly still but you can find great hiking and other adventures. I'd also travel overland to the South. If the road is open (check when you arrive) you can rent a car to take you from Naryn to Osh, if not you can go back to Bishkek and drive through Jalal-Abad to Osh. Sary-Chelek and Arslanbob are nice places to look at in the South.
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While I don't completely disagree with Eric's comment (especially regarding places to see), I wouldn't be quite so negative about driving around the country on your own. His caution is well placed, but in my opinion, somewhat exaggerated. While it's true that you likely will be pulled over by the police, that drivers here are terrible and even dangerous, and that hiring a driver is a very affordable and helpful option, there certainly are places and experiences that you might miss if you couldn't set your own route and stop where you want.
First, the safety issues: yes, drivers are horrible, especially in Bishkek. The city is fun to visit, but definitely not fun to drive in. In general though expect drivers anywhere to cut you off, speed past you anywhere they can (even into on-coming traffic), honk constantly, turn left from the right lane (right in front of you) or vice versa, flash their lights to let you know that they intend to beat you in a motorized game of chicken, etc. Pedestrians here are also particularly good at jumping out in front of moving cars. Drunk driving is also something to be wary of, and several international organizations (especially embassies) have rules against their employees being on the road after dark as a result. I find this approach a bit over-cautious, but perhaps I've just been lucky. Essentially, if it is possible, and even if you didn't think it is possible, you will see it on Kyrgyz roads. One must keep one's head on a swivel. Another thing to keep in mind is that almost no one here has car insurance. It is possible to purchase here though, and I'd say that for a tourist its not a bad idea to look into this possibility before you head out onto the road. Jubilee Insurance is based in Bishkek and may have an option for tourists, I'm not sure.
As to avoiding the lawman, this may indeed be an impossibility. Some rules of thumb, though, to at least give you a fighting chance:
And of course, when you are pulled over anyway, whether it is justified or not, have small bills ready (100-200 som). Few tickets in Kyrgyzstan are more expensive than 200 som ($4) and you should not allow yourself to be taken for much more. The highest I've heard of foreign friends having to pay was 1000 ($20) and that sounded like quite the rip-off. One way that you might be fleeced for more would be to have the disputed issue settled at the station. This will often be a major time suck and often results in them holding your license, sometimes for days. Several people have been known to pay fines at their cars immediately to avoid such a situation, but of course this is bribery.
Lastly, I wholeheartedly agree with staying with CBT homes as Eric suggested. This is a great system of bed & breakfasts and the vast majority of the funds goes to augment the family with whom you stay. They pay only a small fee to be part of the network. It is a wonderful way to meet local people and have wonderful food. They take good care of you. If you choose to sleep in your car or in a tent near your car, I'd say this is likely fine too, though I'd try to get somewhere somewhat isolated before setting up camp. There seems to be little problem staying in a field just about anywhere, though don't be surprised when an inquisitive visitor on a horse comes to check you out in the middle of the night. Staying in a yurt is also a lot of fun. This can be done in many places (and arranged through CBT), but one of the most popular is Song-Kul, a high mountain lake/pasture area. The CBT in Kochkor can help you figure out where to stay at the lake and then help identify where you're staying when you get there.
In my opinion, the best thing a tourist can do in Kyrgyzstan is drive around and randomly stop and explore the mountains. We have been driving for the past year here and have found it sometimes frustrating but also highly rewarding. There are infinite routes and hikes one can take and the options for exploration are endless. While one does have to be careful (it is a poor country and this can result in crime), in my experience the people are for the greatest part extremely welcoming and interested to meet outsiders. However you make your trip, I hope you have a great one!
1. Though it is possible to rent some car in Kyrgyzstan it is very likely that it would be in bad shape and given that you are going to visit remote places you may end trying to repair it in the middle of nowhere
2. There are two main cities where travellers arrive Osh and Bishkek. Osh is better if you want to visit Uzbekistan and see one of highest points in the country Lenin Peak. Bishkek is closer to Issyk Kul lake - which is one of the main non-mountain touristic sites in the country.
I think that your desire of a road trip very well matches option to go from Osh to base camp under Lenin Peak. The part of road did not have pavement when I was there back in 2006 (but that might changed).
3. In terms of local cuisine main items are: shashlyk (grilled meat), kebab (pretty similar to Turkish), manty (it is like big russian pelmen or italian ravioli with meat inside), all kind of lavash (traditional bread), fruits and vegetables. To drink: try any local beer - they pretty good because of water quality, kumys (traditional drink made of horse milk), never try wine - it is disaster :). If you speak Russian good experience might be visiting local market were you can try your bargaining skills.
I suggest that you have antibiotics against diarrhea with you.
4. As for the stay: in Osh we stayed in mountaineers' camp (you may find some travellers there in summer months). In base camp you can stay in local Yurta (which is traditional big tent of nomads).
5. Locals are generally friendly but will try to have some money out of you at any good occasion.
Hope that helps.
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