“The beauty of Kyrgyzstan for visitors is that it has a bit of everything: nomadic traditions, central Asian mystique, Soviet-era trappings, a few spectacular prehistoric and Silk Road sites and, above all else, a culture that can be best described as a palimpsest, and over the centuries has absorbed the influence of shamanism, Zoroastrianism, Sufism and communism to become something entirely unique.”
From: Bradt Travel Guides
This overland travel guide will be useful for any overlander who is planning to travel to Kyrgyzstan, as well as for travelers who fly in and want to do a road trip starting from Bishkek. Info on road conditions, road maps, guidebooks, gas stations, SIM & Wifi stuff – you will find it all here.
The Kyrgyzstan Travel Budget Report details our travel expenditures and focus on paperwork, workshops, sightseeing, and accommodation/camping!
Edited to add Aug 22, 2021: This overland travel guide doesn’t discuss covid rules & regulations because they change all the time. Caravanistan keeps up to date with the changes. Find their overview here.
Our start in Kyrgyzstan, or the Kyrgyz Republic as the country is officially called, has been unusual. We arrived in the heart of winter with a mere two weeks to prepare a long-distance hike in Turkey and an overhaul planned for this summer. On our return, last June, we stayed in an apartment for two months with our attention focused on getting the Land Cruiser back on the road.
Fortunately, we had a few weeks left (after a visa run to Kazakhstan) to start exploring this gorgeous country, ninety percent of which is mountains. Our Land Cruiser learned again what crawling was!
Read More: Busy in Bishkek – Overlanders and Overhaul
Do you not travel with your own vehicle but would you like to visit Kyrgyzstan? There are a number of options, such as:
- Arguably the best known place to rent a car is Iron Horse Nomad. They also do tours
- Nomad’s Land also organizes tours and ask for info if you’re interested in renting a UAZ for a self drive.
Index for our Kyrgyzstan Overland Travel Guide
1- Our Road Trip in Kyrgyzstan
3- Roads, traffic rules & police
4- Roadmaps & Navigation Systems
5- Guidebooks & Other Books for Kyrgyzstan
6- Water & Food
7- WiFi & Local Sim Card & Apps
8- Additional Overland Travel Information Sources
1- Our Road Trip in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest, and China to the (south)east.
Kyrgyzstan Country Stats
- Size/area: 198,500 square kms (about the same as the UK minus Northern Ireland, or Nebraska in the US).
- Climate: dry continental to polar (Tien Shan); subtropical in the southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone.
- Population: approx 5,8 million (2014 estimate): 72,6% Kyrgyz, 14,4% Uzbeks, 6,4% Russians, 6,6% other.
Travel Stats for Kyrgyzstan
- Time spent in Kyrgyzstan: 114 days (January / June – August 2019).
- Total days traveled in Kyrgyzstan (meaning not staying in an apartment due to the overhaul; see introduction above): 41
- Total kilometers driven: 2681 kilometers
2- Languages in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a bilingual nation, with national languages being Kyrgyz and Russian. Both use the Cyrillic Script. It took quite some time to figure out why my Google Translate didn’t work from Russian to English. Well, the texts turned out to be in Kyrgyz and not in Russian!
We don’t speak Kyrgyz but did pick up a few of the commonly used words such as rahmat (‘thank you’) and salam (‘hello’). As Russian is spoken by many throughout Central Asia, we find it very useful to speak a handful of Russian (no matter how limited that still is), which we learned during our overland trip through Russia’s Far East and Siberia.
Russian uses the Cyrillic script which isn’t hard to learn for those who are used to the Latin script. Only a few characters differ. When reading text out loud, you sometimes recognize words, e.g. видео may look complicated but when you read the characters, you realize this is exactly as ‘our’ word for video.
Google Translate is super useful to have. There are a couple of ways to use it:
- Google Translate on the web – online only
- Google Translate app – instant voice translation in a two-way setup – online only
- Google Translate app – camera translation – offline*
- Google Translate app – text typing translation – offline*
*Offline = you need to download the Russian language package.
Tip: It is wise to install a Russian keyboard so that the other party can type a text in Russian into the Google Translate app.
You can do the same for the Kyrgyz language, however, the translation English from/to Russian is much more accurate than Kyrgyz.
Insight Guides Phrasebook
We have an Insight Guides Phrasebook, which comes with an app for on your smartphone.
Read More: Overlanding in Russia’s Far East & Siberia
What else we tried to learn Russian:
- We practiced online using e.g. Russian for Free, or on apps such as Duolingo and Memrise.
- We tried a one-week course on arrival in Russia, Vladivostok but that didn’t help much.
Michel Thomas’ Method to Learn Russian
We are smitten with the Michel Thomas’ method! We used it in South America to learn Spanish and it worked great and it turns out that his method is available in a number of languages, among which Russian.
It was perfect to listen to and learn while driving those endless roads. We only wish we had known about this earlier. It is a super intuitive way of learning a language.
Live Fluent Method to Learn Russian
I recently discovered a new website to learn Russian: Livefluent.com. Whereas the Michel Thomas’ Method is very much a learning-by-ear method, Livefluent is particularly suitable for people who like to understand a structure of a language and see it written down (that would be me, for one).
The website offers different sections, e.g. Russian Verbs and Russian Spelling and next dives into that subject with through text and short video explanations that are super useful. Take a look at Livefluent and see for yourself.
Read More: Feeling Welcome in Vladivostok
3- Roads, Traffic Rules & Police
3a- Roads in Kyrgyzstan
In Kyrgyzstan people drive on the right side of the road.
From the Kazakh border Korday into Bishkek, the road is paved. From Bishkek to and around Issyk Kul is paved, as is the main road (M41) to Osh and the other main thoroughfares such as the road from Bishkek south to Naryn.
Paved or not?
Don’t rely on the color codes on your map. E.g. on our Reise KnowHow Map of Central Asia, for example, the road A367, north of Song Kol Lake going west via Kojomkul to the M41 is red, indicating a main road. However, it was an unpaved road in quite a bad condition.
It led through gorgeous countryside and good camping along the way, so we didn’t mind one bit, but it’s good to know a paved road on a map doesn’t necessarily mean it is paved in reality.
With so many mountains, nice off roads abound. A separate post will follow on the topic. Some are perfectly drivable in 2WD, others require 4WD and/or high clearance (or at least when the weather is bad).
Tips on stuff to bring for unpaved, possibly dusty or muddy roads:
- Put a dust screen at the back (we use Velcro to keep it in place).
- Carry an air compressor and pressure gauge to inflate/deflate the car tires depending on the road surface.
- Carry recovery gear.
3b- Traffic Rules & Traffic Police in Kyrgyzstan
A local told us people get mostly fined for:
- Not stopping for a zebra crossing when people are crossing, or about to cross.
- In front of a traffic light lining up to go straight ahead but on green, turning left.
Apparently, police officers lie in wait for offenders. And they most likely do for other traffic offenses as well. They stand along the side with speed control apparatus and often it’s not clear what maximum speed is, so stick to the slow-driving mode.
Tip 1: Watch your fellow road users. If they slow down for no apparent reason, be sure to follow suit as there is likely to be a speed trap coming up. Outside urban areas, oncoming traffic often flash their lights when there is a police check or speed trap coming up.
Tip 2: In the cities, get the 2Gis app and learn to use it, it will give you maximum speed limits, fixed speed control cameras and live traffic density when connected.
In and around Bishkek the traffic police are everywhere. We have been stopped twice and were asked the usual. As we were sticking to the rules, nothing but the curious and social talks happened. Some overlanders have stories of trumped-up charges or outrageous fines when they did break the rules (mainly speeding). Whether they paid on the spot or not depended on the situation.
We wrote a general blog post on how to deal with police officers based on tricks and experience during 16 years of overlanding.
4- Roadmaps & Navigation Systems
Our paper map is, as usual, Reise KnowHow. Hardly ever perfect as roads change all the time and we don’t mind. The Reise KnowHow maps give a perfect overview of the whole country, which is great for planning a general itinerary and getting a feel for how to get where and what the distances are.
Reise KnowHow doesn’t have a dedicated road map for Kyrgyzstan, but does have two good, general ones that include Kyrgyzstan:
- Reise KnowHow Central Asia Travel Map 1:1,700,000 (which we mostly use).
- Reise KnowHow Silk Road Travel Map 1:2,000,000
4b- Navigation Systems (Electronic Road Maps)
Our choice for offline navigating:
- Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)
Mostly used in big cities. In the latest version of MapsMe, it is a delight to see that the Beta option of Latin translation works for the Russian language (contrary to e.g. Korean or Japanese).
In cities we like the routing option of MapsMe.
This is a Russian application, which has detailed, offline maps of many cities in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia as well as a few big cities abroad (e.g. where Russians likely to go vacationing).
Although the app is in English, the addresses and names of things to look for are all in Russian. You will understand what the idea is and icons go a long way. A benefit is that if local people want to help you out, they can search and address or location in Russian in this app (note, it is handy to have Russian Keyboard on your smartphone installed).
What we like is the super handy, actual-traffic density option that shows traffic jams and slower-moving traffic by coloring the streets and indicating the overall traffic congestion with a large number in the upper right-hand corner (note, you have to be online for the traffic feature). MapsMe is trying something similar, but probably because not many people are using it here, this isn’t working at all in Russia.
It has a great option for seeing major bus routes as well as the smaller popular marshrutkas (public buses).
Maximum speeds are not at all signed properly in Kyrgyzstan, so this app will help you to remember the current maximum speed and will warn you when you go over it. It also warns you of any fixed speed cameras ahead of you.
Guru Maps (formerly: Galileo)
Galileo had disappeared from our phone since we first started experimenting and beta testing it in 2012. It appeared on our radar recently when they too offered offline routing. But that is not its greatest feature.
The gem is the fact that you can add your own offline maps. Although it is not easy to accomplish that, it is by no means impossible. E.g. we had Russian Military maps installed and are testing with some contour, hill-shaded sat maps. So far it has not resulted in the optimal solution, which would be vector-based maps with contours and maybe hill-shading. If you know where to access them, please let us know.
Apart from that, the base-installed OSM vector map shows nice detail when zoomed out (this is where it outshines MapsMe) and instead of routing there is the option of showing a bearing line that indicates the general direction to travel instead of turn-by-turn navigation where you lose any sense of control. This way it is more like our first old-school Garmin-eTreks with just a line on a very detailed terrain. You are free to choose which roads or direction you want to travel.
Additionally, it has a very nice tracking feature that just works.
5- Guidebooks & Other Books
5a- Guidebooks for Kyrgyzstan
There are way too few guidebooks out there on the Central Asian countries yet. Not one to be had in Dutch, and very few in English. Here’s what we’ve used:
- Bradt Travel Guides generally dives deeper into a country than any other guidebook we’ve come across. Bradt Travel Guides are about learning about the country, culture, sights, and less about the practical side of things.
- Lonely Planet Travel Guides are great for a quick impression of a country with the basics generally covered on culture, food, history, etc. Super extensive on the practical side of travel information, much of which is useless for overlanders who camp most of the time.
- We appreciate Insight Guides for their photo-rich travel guides. They are perfect guidebooks to get a feel for a place and to get inspired. It describes the highlights of places, has good maps, and is limited on practical information.
Additionally, we came across this book: Kirgihizstan, Tajikistan; Les plus beaux itinéraires en 4×4, moto, camping-car et vélo, by Laurent Bendel and Cécile Miramont.
Awesome if your French is good enough.
It’s full of details that exactly we overlanders are looking for!
Not sure where you can get it though.
Update: Check the comment section below where people commented where you can find this book.
5b- Other Books on Kyrgyzstan
I am aware of a few books specifically about Kyrgyzstan but I haven’t read them (yet) because they have been published only in paperback:
- Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track, by Jessica Jacobson
- Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin
- Jamilia, by Chingiz Aitmatov
I wrote a separate blog post listing books about Central Asia. Having said that, two books are ‘mandatory’ reads in my opinion to get a good understanding of the region’s history:
- The Great Game, by Peter Hopkirk
- The Silk Roads, a new history, Peter Frankopan (who recently followed up with The New Silk Roads, which talks about the politics and economics of the Silk Roads today and the future).
6- Water & Food
With all those mountains there is water in abundance. In Bishkek water is safe to drink from the tap (that is to say, that’s what locals told us and do, and so did we and never had an issue).
Outside Bishkek we use the water from the water tank installed under the Land Cruiser, which is filtered. We fill the water tank from water pomps in villages, or at people’s homes. Our water system in the Land Cruiser isn’t insulated so during winter we switch to five-liter water canisters that we also fill up at water pomps in villages, or at people’s homes.
Whether you hike, bicycle, motorcycle, drive a car or backpack around the country, there is never a need to buy bottled water. There is an amazing selection of small, handy, water filter systems out there, like MSR water filters or Katadyn filter systems. Or carry water purification tablets if weight and space really are a big issue (we do so on our long-distance hikes).
Maybe there is a lot to say about food in Kyrgyzstan, I’m not sure. This being a big meat-eating country and we being vegetarians (vegan-diet, mostly), our food choices in restaurants are extremely limited.
Typical places to eat:
- Stolovaya is the Russian version of a buffet-style restaurant. For little money you have a reasonable meal and generally we can find non-meat options such as salads, grains/potatoes and a vegetable dish.
- Chaikhana is a typical Kyrgyz Restaurant.
- Buy food on the bazaar and cook your own meal.
Tip: Take reusable mesh bags to stock up on legumes, grains, nuts and the likes. The vendors want to sell every product in a different plastic bag. Some are amused to see these mesh bags, and one asked if she could have one (of course), loving it and showing it to others. Spread the word through good example 🙂
Available foods for vegetarians / vegans:
Based on our trip in January and June/July (as some products may be seasonal):
- Mushrooms, especially oyster mushrooms (overlanding friends prepared this delicious dish with it)
- Among the legumes: mung beans, red lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas.
- Among the vegetables: tomatoes, cucumber, onion, potato, white cabbage, carrots, pumpkin, bell pepper, garlic, spring onions, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, and eggplant. Pretty much a full range albeit somewhat limited on leaf vegetables.
- Nuts/seeds: You have landed in paradise walnut, pistachio, hazelnuts (different varieties), peanuts, cashew, pumpkin seeds, sunflower (most often with shell)
- Dried fruits: Another paradise.
This is based on the bazaars in Bishkek. Note that the smaller the town/village, the smaller the selection, especially for vegetables.
Read More: Bishkek – A Place to Rest & Relax
No worries for plant-based foods in Bishkek, though. In Kyrgyzstan’s capital you can find Korean, Japanese, Indian food, etc. All have enough options for vegetarians. Good places to eat:
- Indian restaurant The Host
- Yusup Abdrahmanov Street, 104 / Bishkek
- GPS Waypoint: 42.880063, 74.611434
- Korean restaurant Seoul
- Yunusaliev Street, 137 / Bishkek
- GPS Waypoint: 42.843884, 74.622321
- On and around the Ortoi Bazar you can find places that sell sushi
- Yunusaliev Street (about 1 or 2 kms south of Tunduk Hostel)
- GPS Waypoint: around 42.834353 74.621388
- Sierra Cafe has vegetarian options on the menu
- Manas Avenue 57/1 / Bishkek
- GPS Waypoint: 42.874584 74.588565
7- WiFi & Local Sim Card & Apps
7a- Wifi & Local Sim Card
Sim cards are cheap and readily available in Kyrgyzstan. On every entry point, being it the airport or land borders, there are people who will give you a sim card for free.
For the best service head over to one of the major brand offices in the nearest town and register with your passport. We have used Oi and Vodafone. They will have affordable monthly or weekly plans with sufficient data to still your internet hunger.
For the most up to date information about a countries cell service it is wise to ask other travelers who have been in the region or find it on this website.
WhatsApp is super popular. Install it if you don’t have it. It’s free, fast, and easy to use.
8- Additional Overland Travel Information Sources
- The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
- WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
- iOverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
- 4ever2wherever is another site where overlanders contribute with practical information
- Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
- Caravanistan is an excellent, up to date online resource for Central Asia.
Tips, Suggestions, Feedback?
We hope you find this Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide useful. Do you have questions or your own experiences to add? Feel free to do so in the comment section below. Thanks!
The Kyrgyzstan Travel Budget Report details our travel expenditures and focuses on paperwork, workshops, sightseeing, and accommodation/camping!
Check it Out: the Landcruising Adventure Ga op Avonuur Collection
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