Everybody told me the same thing. The ride from Almaty in Kazakhstan, to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan goes smoothly. Crosing the border is easy and quite fast, which is logical. The two countries are neighbors, same culture, they were both part of the same country not that long ago, a lot of people make the trip daily… You go through customs on the Kazakh side, fast, then a quick checkpoint with a military man, very fast, and the customs on the Kyrgyz side, again it’s only a formality. This is in theory…
I passed the customs on the Kazakh side without a hitch. But I couldn’t go any further, I was stuck on step 2, the checkpoint with the military man. He saw me coming, he took my passport, and he just decided to break my balls. Actually he thinks I’m an idiot “Do you know what is a dollar? Do you know what is a tenge?” All right all right, I forgive you if you don’t know what a tenge is, that’s the currency in Kazakhstan! Then the dumbfuck said “Give me 100 dollars!“. Of course, I refused. He insisted. I didn’t back down. One thing you need to know. While we were arguing, dozens of people passed by us to go to the customs on the Kyrgyz side. Locals but also the tourists who were with me in the marshrutka (mini van). Needless to say, he didn’t ask them anything.
“Ok give me 20000 tenge (50 euros)!“. Since he saw I was responding in a firm tone, he said “All right… 4000 tenge (10 euros) and I’ll let you go!” How can I cross this border without giving him any money…? Oh yeah! When I passed the customs on the Kazakh side, I remember seeing a sign in Russian, but completely understandable thanks to the explicit picture next to it “Do not give money to a customs officer if he asks you so!“. All right good. I’m watching the dude from head to toe, I stared at his name tag, then checked his facial features. He’s looking at me watching him, a bit confused. Then I said “All right, I’ll be right back!“, turning around and going back to the customs on the Kazakh side. He immediately ran after me, gave me back my passport and said “Ok ok, it’s all good, you can go!”
Here I am in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, another region which was part of the ex-USSR. Bishkek is only 4 hours away from Almaty by van, therefore both cities are quite similar, but still with a few differences (same same… but different!). First off physically. In Kyrgyzstan, they look a lot more like Asian people (slanting eyes…). There are still some locals looking like Russian people, but a lot less than in Kazakhstan.
In Bishkek, they ask a lot less to get pictures with me, however I still have “Hello!” in the street quite often, and like the previous countries I visited, they keep staring at me. There are many stray dogs, something quite uncommon in Central Asia but more frequent in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, but also Myanmar). Admittedly there are some bars in Bishkek, but nothing compared to all the bars and cafés I saw in Almaty. By the way, it seems that the locals have dinner early. From 6pm, you’ll see full restaurants and the locals enjoying their meals. And many restaurants close at 9pm. One evening, I was hungry and just went for dinner at a restaurant at 8pm. On the menu, almost all the dishes were not available anymore…
Apart from that, many similarities with the other countries from Central Asia. They love to eat plov (rice, meat, vegetables), like in Uzbekistan. People don’t really speak English, like anywhere in this area of the world. Some of their cars have the steering wheel on the right-hand side, others on the left-hand side, like Kazakhstan. Many internet cafés where you’ll see teenagers playing online, just like what I saw in Almaty. And there’s also several parks and green spaces in the city.
I kept asking myself “Is Bishkek really the Kyrgyzstan capital!?” Because it’s so quiet and let’s face it, there are no tourist attactions. However, people told me that I had to check the Osh bazaar. But to be extremely careful if I go “Oh ok… Why that…?” “There are many pickpockets, scams, but mostly corrupted cops or even fake cops, asking for your passport. If you hand them this precious document, they’re gonna ask for money to give it back to you. If they ask for your papers, give them a copy and don’t back down. Ask to see their police badge and if needed, ask them to go to the police station together. They shouldn’t bother you after that.” The fake cops, another common scam…
A local girl even recommended me not to go “because you’ll get in trouble for sure“. Since four or five people told me to be careful, I kept an eye open. Nothing wrong happened, but this is something you should know, just in case… And for your information, this bazaar is nothing special compared to other ones I’ve seen before, this is “just” a bazaar… Anyway, I signed up to a travel insurance before hitting the road. Think about it! Since there’s not much to do in Bishkek, I decided to spend a day in the Ala Archa National Park, with a couple from Portugal I met at the hostel.
Ala Archa National Park
The Ala Archa National Park, from what I heard, is very famous in Kyrgyzstan. Many locals, young, old, couples, friends… go there to spend some time to chill, have a walk, hike, picnic… Tourists passing by Bishkek also go to this park, but mostly to camp. I only spent one day there, but I met tourists who stayed a whole week, even ten days in the park! Stop by the park if you’re in Bishkek, but I’m not sure ten days are necessary…
Wanna go there? The marshrutka (mini van) 265 leaves Bishkek from the Osh bazaar, and goes to the park. Again, be careful! At the bus station, some locals came to us “You can go by private taxi for 1500 tenge (almost 20 euros!)“. Just decline and tell ’em you’re going to the park by marshrutka. “Ok 1000 soms (12 euros) by private taxi!“. Stay strong! “All right 200 soms (2.50€) by marshrutka but you’ll have to wait, the next one is leaving in one hour!”
We knew the real price, what the locals pay, so we just said “Let us know when the marshrutka is ready to go, and we’ll negotiate then“. Ten minutes later (not one hour!), the van is ready to go… The bargaining kept going. From 200, they finally said 50 soms (0.60€), then 40 (0.50€), the good price! Thus do not pay more than 40 soms to go there! 45 minutes later you’ll (almost) be there, and you’ll have to pay 80 soms to access the park. I said “to access” and not “to get in” the park, because after paying your 80 soms, there’s a one hour walk waiting for you, to actually get in the park. Or you can get in another marshrutka (I don’t have the price!). We hitchhiked, and a car picked us up. 10 minutes later, we were finally in the park.
Bishkek, not necessary to stay for weeks in this capital. I stayed there for a few days, because I had to go there to horse ride along Song Kul…
Info to visit Bishkek
- Check the visa policy here! Most western countries can go to Kyrgyzstan visa-free for stays up to 60 days! It’s the easiest country in Central Asia to visit!
- Do not go to Kyrgyzstan without a travel insurance! You never know what could happen…
- Read this article about the best things to do in Kyrgyzstan.
- I stayed at Bishkek Homestel, and I loved it! Friendly staff, great breakfast and there are often activities! I recommend staying there!
- From Almaty, it takes 4 hours to go to Bishkek by marshrutka, and a ticket costs 1500 tenge (3.75€). Marshrutkas leave from the Sayran bus station in the morning only. You don’t need to buy a ticket ahead of time, just show up there!
- If you go to Bishkek, download the bus.kg app. Point on the map where you are, where you want to go, the app will give the numbers of all the different marshrutkas you can take. Handy!
- A bus ticket costs 8 soms (0.10€). Peculiarity in the country, there are 3 soms coins!!!
- I was there during the summer, but I heard going there in winter is also great!
- If you want to go to Osh, the starting point of the Pamir highway in Tajikistan, some marshrutkas go there for 1200 soms (15 euros). It’s a 12-13 hours ride. Otherwise you can also take a 40-minutes flight Bishkek-Osh for around 30 euros.
- If needed, get a travel guide.
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