Travel Practicalities - Kyrgyzstan

Climate & weather in Kyrgyzstan
When to go to Kyrgyzstan
How to get there
Visas and travel documents
Costs & local spending
Health & safety
What to bring on a tour

Climate & weather in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is part of a mountainous region on the borders of Afghanistan and China with peaks rising to over 7,000 m. However, because of the distance from the sea and the shelter of the Pamir and Himalayan ranges to the south and southeast, it is a rather dry region considering its height. Rainfall is fairly low throughout the country but there can be heavy snowfalls during winter. The wettest area is in the mountains above the Fergana Valley; the driest, the southwest shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. March to May and October to November are usually the wettest months.

Freezing temperatures and snow dominate the country from November to February. Spring starts in April and May, though nights can still be below freezing. Mid-May to mid-June is pleasant, though many mountain passes will still be snowed in. From the end of June through to mid-August most afternoons will reach 32ºC or higher.

Kyrgyzstan has a continental climate with cold winters and warm summers. In the lowlands, the temperature ranges from around -6°C in January to 24°C in July. In the low-lying Fergana Valley, temperatures may reach as high as 40 ºC in summer. In the highlands, temperatures range from between -20° in January to 12°C in July, although some high mountain valleys can drop as low as -30°C in winter.

When to go to Kyrgyzstan
The best time to visit Kyrgyzstan is between May and October as getting around outside this period can be difficult. Trekking is best in the summer months between June and September, although July and August are the busiest times for foreign visitors (numbers remain small). The south of the country, and even Bishkek, can be uncomfortably warm at this time of year, so if these are the prime destinations to be visited, spring or autumn may be a better choice. Overall, the republic is best for scenery and weather in September, with occasional freezing nights in October.

How to get there
Most travellers arrive to Kyrgyzstan by air – the capital Bishkek is well connected to Europe, the US and Asia - or by road from Kazakhstan or China.

By air
Bishkek’s Manas airport is the main international hub. The national carrier, Air Company Kyrgyzstan (AC Kyrgyzstan) was formerly Altyn Air. International destinations connected directly to Bishkek are limited to Dubai (AC Kyrgyzstan, once weekly), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines, once weekly), London (British Airways, four times weekly) and Moscow (daily). Between June and September AC Kyrgyzstan also has a weekly flight to Hanover and Frankfurt.

Bishkek is connected to the following Central Asian destinatinations: Tashkent (Uzbekistan Airways, AC Kyrgyzstan), Ürümqi (Kyrgyzstan Air, China Southern, Esen Air) and Dushanbe (Tajik Air, AC Kyrgyzstan).

Flights to Russia include Yekaterinburg (AC Kyrgyzstan, twice weekly), Novosibirsk (AC Kyrgyzstan, thrice weekly) and Moscow (Aeroflot, AC Kyrgyzstan, Itek Air, daily).

Because flight choice is limited, many choose to fly to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Almaty (Kazakhstan) or Ürümqi (China) and connect from there. A transit visa will be required if you plan to leave these airports. Note that it’s only three hours by road between Almaty and Kyrgyzstan and KLM and Lufthansa run a free Bishkek - Almaty ground shuttle service for their customers.

Visas and travel documents
For stays for up to 60 days British nationals don’t need a visa. For other nationalities, it’s not possible to get a visa in Kyrgyzstan if you originally entered the country without a visa.

Passport validity
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 3 months from the date of entry into Kyrgyzstan and must have at least 1 full blank page if you are applying for a visa.

The languages of Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz, a Turkic language related to Uzbek, Kazakh, and, of course, Turkish. Kyrgyz is more common in rural areas whereas Russian is the urban language of choice. English, while becoming more popular, is still rarely spoken, so in order to effectively communicate one must at the very least learn a few basic words in Russian or Kyrgyz.

The official currency of Kyrgyzstan is the som ( 1 som = 100 tiyin). Current exchange rate is 1GBP = 90.30 som. Notes come in 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, five and one som denominations. Banks and licensed moneychanger booths exchange US dollars provided the notes are unblemished in near-mint condition and, if possible, post 2001. You should only change money at officially authorised currency exchanges.

Very few establishments accept credit cards and travellers' cheques. There are ATMs in Bishkek, Jalal-Abad and Osh that dispense both US dollars and som.

Costs & local spending
Due to its landlocked location, lack of natural resources, and underdeveloped manufacturing industry, Kyrgyzstan relies on imports for the majority of its goods, mostly from China, Russia, or Turkey. Generally speaking, daily expenses in Kyrgyzstan are reasonably priced, as food and transport are cheap. Public transportation in Kyrgyzstan is quite affordable. Taxis within a city should not cost more than 100 som, shared vans called marshrutkas cost 8 som, and buses and trolleys 3 to 6 som. Bishkek, the capital city, is more expensive than the rest of the country in every way, but also has the most diverse selection of food and imports. In larger cities there are Western-style supermarkets, convenience stores and department stores; but with 99 percent of items, if you can find it in one of these stores than you can find it cheaper in one of Kyrgyzstan’s many bazaars.

Health & safety
We advise all our customers to contact your doctor around eight weeks before your trip to check whether you need any vaccinations or other health advice. Country specific information and advice is published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre, and useful information about healthcare abroad, including a country-by-country guide of reciprocal health care agreements with the UK, is available from NHS Choices.

Medical facilities in Kyrgyzstan are not as developed as those in the UK. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.

Watch hygiene and take usual precautions – wash and peel vegetables and fruits and drink bottled water only.

Kyrgyzstan is safe for visitors, but take usual common sense precautions, such as not wandering alone in remote and dark streets, or do not flash your valuables. Be aware of petty theft and pick pocketing, especially in crowded areas and bazaars.

Keep large amounts of money hidden at all times and be wary of strangers offering help or being over-friendly. Be particularly aware of your surroundings when using currency exchange offices. Avoid walking alone at night and don’t travel in unofficial taxis.

There are frequent power cuts throughout the country. There are gas shortages in southern Kyrgyzstan. You should avoid flagging down taxis. Use telephone taxi services, which are more reputable and have English-speaking dispatchers.

Also be aware of drunks who can become aggressive.

While there has been no widespread violence, ethnic and political tensions continue to exist. You should avoid all demonstrations.

Safety while trekking. 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. In remote areas, mobile phone coverage is extremely limited, and any medical facilities basic.

Kyrgyz food is heavily influenced by traditional nomadic ways of life and is overwhelmingly meat and dairy based. There are few vegetables, but a great variety of fruits in summer and autumn.

Besh barmak (“five fingers”) is the piece de resistance of Kyrgyz cuisine and is reserved for special occasions. The ritual preparation is precise – from killing the animal until its presentation. A sheep or horse is boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honour and should be eaten with outmost respect – it is quite challenging, but if you fail to do this you will offend your hosts. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon.

Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are similar to the other countries of Central Asia. Plov is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil, sometimes raisins. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Samsa are meat pies (although sometimes vegetable or cheese) that come in two varieties: flaky and tandoori. Flaky samsa is made with a filo pastry while tandoori samsa is with tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine, but you can find everywhere from Crimea to Kashgar. Most of the time it is served as soup, sometimes as pasta. Shashlik (shish kebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, chicken or pork and are normally served with fresh onions, vinegar and bread.

Almost all Kyrgyz meals are accompanied by tea (either green or black) and Russian bread lepeshka or Kyrgyz naan. Bread is treated with the utmost respect and when offered you should always take and eat it at least a little - it’s a way of accepting hosts hospitality. Bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men. Koumys is a popular Kyrgyz drink made from fermented mare’s milk. You should also try Ayran (or Kefyr) – fermented yogurt drink.

At the end of a meal, many Kyrgyz will perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.

Vegetarians. This is one of the harder countries in the world to travel in as a vegetarian, but don’t let it stop you. Noodles, pasta, fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and fresh bread are ubiquitous in every city. Going meat-free in Kyrgyzstan is a challenge but it is possible.

What to bring on a tour
Travelling in Kyrgyzstan usually involves going through different cities, towns and across mountains and plains, with very varied weather conditions. In Bishkek, where the temperature in summer may reach 45 C is a stark contrast to mountainous parts with an elevation of around 3,000m, where the temperature can go below 10C during night. So you should come well prepared! The key to clothing is the layering system. Layers can be added or discarded with temperature fluctuations.

Following items are highly recommended on a tour to Kyrgyzstan:

  • Hiking boots
  • Windbreaker, waterproof/breathable
  • Raincoat
  • Sunhat
  • Fleece
  • T-shirts (short and long sleeved)
  • Gloves (for sleeping at higher altitudes)
  • Swimming suit (for Issyk-Kul)
Camping equipment
  • Day pack (around 35-40 litres)
  • Sleeping bag. The yurts are relatively warm
  • Slippers / sandals for inside the yurts
  • Water bottles / flask - 1 litre capacity
  • Sunscreen and lip balm
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses (100% UV)
  • Small towel
  • Tissues/toilet paper
  • Toiletries
  • Camera and memory cards
  • First-aid kit (please refer to our “First-aid checklist