Kyrgyzstan travel guide
Often referred to as the “Switzerland of Central Asia”, Kyrgyzstan certainly lives up to this moniker with its soaring mountain ranges, glistening glaciers and vertiginous pine forests. If it feels like you’re on top of the world, that’s because you’re not far off.
Despite its ubiquitous natural beauty and considerable size, few people can point to this landlocked nation on the map let alone pronounce its name (it’s Kur-gi-stan, by the way). Even fewer actually visit.
This is due largely to Kyrgyzstan’s geographical isolation, but also because it has been out in the cold politically – since gaining independence from the USSR, the country has remained well under the influence of neighbouring Russia.
Visitor numbers are increasing, but a short tourist season, an underdeveloped infrastructure and poor air links remain obstacles for all but the intrepid traveller. However, those who do make it here are guaranteed an experience they won’t have to share with the crowds.
Although mountains dominate, Kyrgyzstan’s landscapes are surprisingly varied: snow-capped peaks eventually give way to open plains and shimmering lakes. It really does look Switzerland in places, but elsewhere the countryside can conjure up images of Scotland, Kashmir and even the Middle East. The mountain vistas alone are reason enough to visit and no trip to Kyrgyzstan would be complete without trekking up at least one of its impressive summits.
For less active visitors there are a handful of beaches to speak of and, in the small window that passes as summer, holidaymakers can be found bathing on the shores of lakes such as Issyk Kul. Located in the Tian Shan mountains, this is a summer resort for the brave – the water here is bracing to say the least.
It’s not all about the landscapes, though. In fact a big draw for tourists is the prospect of staying with the country’s semi-nomadic shepherds, who live in yurts and eke out traditional lives in this harsh, unforgiving and unremittingly beautiful country.
199,951 sq km (77,201 sq miles).
6,033,769 (UN estimate 2016.
28.3 per sq km.
President Almazbek Atambayev since 2011.
Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov since 2016.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Demonstrations on political and socio-economic themes occur both in central Bishkek and in other parts of the country. You should avoid all demonstrations.
Independent Kyrgyzstan’s first two Presidents were deposed: Akaev in the 2005 Tulip Revolution and his successor Bakiev in a bloody coup in April 2010. In June 2010 inter-ethnic violence erupted in southern Kyrgyzstan, leaving more than 400 dead and over 100,000 displaced. Interim President Roza Otunbayeva oversaw a constitutional referendum and parliamentary and presidential elections before handing over power following open elections to President Almazbek Atambaev in December 2011
Muggings (sometimes violent) and theft occur regularly. There have been incidents involving criminals, mostly after dark. Take care if you go out after dark.
Large amounts of money should not be on show and be wary of strangers offering help or being over-friendly. Be particularly aware of your surroundings when using currency exchange offices and visiting the bazaars in Bishkek, particularly Osh Bazaar, where tourists are regularly targeted by pickpockets.
Take care if you travel to the Oblasts (Provinces) of Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad. While there has been no widespread violence since 2010, underlying tensions continue to exist.
Tensions exist over recognition of the Kyrgyz/Uzbek borders. There have been a number of security incidents in this region and several gunfire exchanges. You should only use officially recognised border crossings in this area; there is a risk that uncontrolled Kyrgyz/Uzbek border areas may be land-mined. Check in advance which border posts are open.
The Kyrgyz-Tajik border has not been agreed along its entirety. Localised violence erupts occasionally and the border can be closed at short notice, particularly near the Tajik Vorukh enclave. Tajik and Kyrgyz security forces clashed in this area in January 2014 leaving 8 wounded, and a Tajik civilian was killed in an exchange of gunfire in July 2014. There’s a risk of further localised violence and border closures at any time.
There are frequent power cuts throughout the country.
You can drive in Kyrgyzstan using a UK driving licence or an international driving permit. Petrol stations are limited in rural areas and diesel is often unavailable. Make sure you take all you need for your journey. Take extra care when driving, particularly over long distances. You should avoid giving lifts to hitchhikers given incidents when drivers have been robbed by people they picked up. Many roads are poorly lit and poorly maintained with road works or damaged roads often not clearly signposted. Roads outside the capital are often blocked by snow in winter. There is currently no MOT and no legal requirement for vehicles to be insured. Pedestrians often have a low awareness of road safety
You should avoid flagging down taxis. Use telephone, SMS, or taxi services, which are more reputable and have English-speaking dispatchers. Wherever possible use main roads when travelling in and around Bishkek and avoid large crowds even if in a vehicle.
Avoid using local buses and mini-buses as they are not always properly maintained and are notorious for pick-pockets.
All Kyrgyz airlines are banned from operating services to the EU because they don’t meet international safety standards.
Where there’s a clear business need to travel internally within Kyrgyzstan, British government staff may use Air Manas flights (formerly known as Pegasus Asia).
You can see a list of recent incidents and accidents on the website of the Aviation Safety Network.
The International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe.
In 2009 the International Civil Aviation Organisation conducted an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Kyrgyzstan.
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan often involves travelling to very remote areas. There is a high risk of avalanches, landslides and rock falls. Adequate insurance, including for any activity at high altitude, is essential. If you’re trekking or mountaineering, be vigilant and be prepared to adapt your plans to reflect local conditions and advice. Use a reputable trekking agency, let someone know your estimated return time and don’t trek alone. In remote areas, mobile phone coverage is extremely limited, and any medical facilities basic.