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You Know You’re Traveling In Kyrgyzstan When…

Traveling in Kyrgyzstan - Jeti Oguz shepherd

You know what happens. You’re wandering around some region of the world, happily backpacking along, visiting endless destinations, meeting endless people, enjoying endless activities.

And then one day, in the midst of all your adventures, you suddenly wake up in a new land. You vaguely remember getting on a bus or a plane but the details are a little fuzzy, perhaps due to the exhaustion of traveling around nonstop for a while. You sort of recall checking into a hostel or guesthouse the night before but you’re completely unsure of what city it was located in or with what currency you paid for your room. You hear different languages outside but you’re not familiar with any of them. You really have no idea where you are.

Unsure if this is a dream or not, you stand up, put on some clothes and walk outside, determined to figure out where on this planet you have landed.

I know. I’ve been there too. Travel can get confusing at times.

And in case this does happen to you at some point, you might want to browse through the following checklist so that you’ll at least know if this unfamiliar country where you suddenly found yourself happens to be a small, mountainous Central Asian nation.

Are You Traveling In Kyrgyzstan?

This is exactly how you can tell…

Once you walk outside, what language do you hear? Perhaps some Russian, maybe some Turkish-sounding words? What do you see? A mix of ethnicities everywhere you look?

Are people playing ping-pong all over the place? Seriously, are there ping-pong tables set up in parks and on sidewalks, with people playing all the time, morning, afternoon and evening?

Speaking of sidewalks, are there punching machines set up every now and then where you can pay a small amount of money to see how hard you can punch the machine?

Are you smiling all the time in amazement that the entire country seems to be filled with such genuinely warm and friendly people?

Girl in Karakol

Driver to Altyn Arashan

Girl in Osh

And are an incredible number of people eating ice cream while walking down the street, regardless of the time of day?

Are you quickly learning Russian and how to read Cyrillic simply because you have no other choice?

Jeti Oguz Sign

Do you run into the exact same foreigner a dozen times while you wander the streets as you realize that there just aren’t too many foreigners here at all?

Are people living in yurts over in the mountains and valleys? Is there an odd three-level yurt/museum in the center of town for you to visit?

Three-level Yurt in Osh

When you take a short rest on a park bench, do university students approach you all the time, asking ever so politely if they can sit next to you and practice their English for a few minutes?

Do some of them invite you to their home for a meal and to meet their family? Do some offer to help you find whatever you may need to find in town and to actually walk you there?

As you continue, does it seem that there are far more females out and about than males? But are the men wearing what appears to be some kind of traditional, and quite tall, felt hats?

Traditional Hat

Are hundreds of over-crowded mashrutkas (mini-buses) plowing through the streets every which way, bringing people wherever they may need to go?

Do you come across sprawling outdoor markets selling all kinds of goods, markets in which you can get lost for hours while having a great time browsing what’s on offer and communicating with the vendors?

Osh Bazaar in Bishkek

Does it seem that there are more restaurants than people?

And once lunch time arrives, does any of the following occur:

  • the waitress brings the menu and then immediately waits at your table ready to take your order despite the fact that you are sweating profusely as you attempt to pronounce each Cyrillic letter like a 2-year old in order to form words that you probably won’t understand anyway but that you hope will give you some kind of clue as to what dish is being described?
  • you ask for vegetarian food and you receive a blank stare, followed by a most absolute “Nyet!”?
  • you ask for chicken, pointing to the photo of the chicken dish on the wall, and you receive a blank stare, followed by a most absolute, “Nyet!”?
  • the waitress laughs at you, then smiles, then asks if you speak Russian and when you say “Nyet!”, she continues to explain the menu to you in Russian?
  • you ask, in broken Russian, if this salad has meat and the waitress says, “Nyet!”?
  • you somehow order a salad and a soup, with some bread and tea and the waitress smiles, then walks away as you feel quite proud of yourself at having ordered successfully?
  • a few minutes later, does a big bowl of noodles mixed with a lot of greasy meat and a salad with a few tomatoes, cucumbers and plenty of more meat arrive at your table?
  • do you finally recognize the Russian words for carrot salad on the menu and order one of those too?
  • when it arrives, do you say ‘Spasibo!’ (thank you) as the waitress smiles and then you shake your head as you eat carrots and tea, again?

Lagman

Carrot Salad

Does every interaction you have with every single person you come across end with a smile, handshake, hug or laughter?

Can you see the occasional man on horseback riding through town, maybe rounding up some cattle, or just traveling to his next destination?

Is vodka being sold absolutely everywhere?

Do the streets sometimes seem eerily empty and quiet, even when you appear to be in a big city?

Central Bishkek

When your feet are too tired and you need a ride, are you able to just stick your hand out until the next car that passes by picks you up and then keeps driving, without anything being asked or a single word being exchanged, until you tell them to stop and let you out, at which point you’re requested to hand over a small amount of money for the lift?

Can you see towering snow-covered mountains everywhere? Are there so many spectacular views everywhere you stand that on the few occasions that you are not some place that offers another stunning view of nature, you get disappointed? Are you quickly getting spoiled by the endless mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys and canyons all over the place?

Mountains & Lake on the way to Jalal-abad

Jeti Oguz, Kyrgyzstan (hiking)

Have you discovered that everyone seems quite honest and that nobody has tried to charge you extra for anything, not for food nor transportation nor anything else that you’ve had to purchase?

Do you notice that some cars have the steering wheel on the left and others have it on the right? Do you see brand new Japanese and American cars alongside twenty-year old Audis and Mercedes-Benz, alongside forty-year old Russian Ladas?

Lada

Are you finding it difficult to decide how to spend your time between all of the activities available (hiking, hot springs, horseback riding, camping, biking, rafting, etc.) and just walking around, an activity that seems to almost always lead to the most rewarding moments of them all?

Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan

And every time you get into a taxi and the driver asks where you are from (Otkuda?), and he figures out you speak English, does he immediately pull over to the side of the road and phone everyone in his family and circle of friends until he finds someone who can speak some English so that you can talk to them and have a short conversation where you say “Hello” and the person on the other end of the line tells you to call them at anytime if you ever have any problems while in the country and then you all laugh for a while?

Taxi Driver in Bishkek

When you take a shared taxi to a different part of the country, and the other passengers in that shared taxi find out you are a tourist and that you, once again, speak English, do they call every single person they know to tell them about the foreigner in their taxi before passing the phone to you so that you can have a similar conversation as the above? Does everyone laugh and smile and shake hands and hug at the end?

Do you constantly feel high on life, high from the surreal views, high from the ridiculously long stream of positive interactions with the people you come across, high from the laid-back atmosphere and high from the sense that you’ve arrived in a land that you will never forget?

And do you have that rare feeling that, if all your travels came to an end this very moment, you could stop traveling with a huge smile on your face, fully satisfied with the experiences you’ve had and the lessons you’ve learned and how they have come together to change your life and your ideas about the world forever?

If you answer yes to these questions, my friend, worry no more. You are traveling in Kyrgyzstan, beautiful Kyrgyzstan.

Ready to travel here? Anything to add if you have been here already? Any questions about traveling in Kyrgyzstan?


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71 Responses to You Know You’re Traveling In Kyrgyzstan When…

  1. alayna says:

    Coolbeans! This is where I am going next spring when I backpack the middle east! I am going to favorite this post

  2. Ross says:

    Sounds like a super country and very friendly. Hopefully I will get myself in gear enough to go through the bureaucracy to get a visa!

    • Talgat says:

      Hi Ross,

      If you are a citizen of the countries listed below intending to visit Kyrgyzstan (by air or by land) up to 60 days you won’t need to obtain entry visa to Kyrgyzstan:

      The United States of America
      Canada
      Australia
      Republic of Austria
      Kingdom of Belgium
      Bosnia and Herzegovina
      Vatican
      U.K.
      Hungary
      Germany
      Kingdom of the Netherlands
      The Hellenic Republic
      Kingdom of Denmark
      Iceland
      Ireland
      Kingdom of Spain
      The Italian Republic
      Republic of Korea
      Kuwait
      The Republic of Latvia
      The Republic of Lithuania
      Liechtenstein
      Luxembourg
      Republic of Malta
      Monaco
      New Zealand
      Kingdom of Norway
      United Arab Emirates
      The Republic of Poland
      Portuguese Republic
      Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
      The Republic of Singapore
      The Slovak Republic
      The Republic of Slovenia
      Republic of Finland
      The French Republic
      The Republic of Croatia
      The Czech Republic
      The Swiss Confederation
      Kingdom of Sweden
      The Republic of Estonia
      Qatar
      Brunei Darussalam
      Kingdom of Bahrain
      Japan

      Talgat

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Ross – That bureaucracy just involves showing up :) Visa-free travel to Kyrgyzstan for citizens of about 50 countries.

  3. Andy says:

    Earl, thanks for your nice blog posts on Kyrgyzstan, I really enjoyed them. Once met an ethnic Russian girl from there and I asked her what the country’s like. She said: “Well, there’s mountains… and then more mountains!” :) Of course she was wrong, there is so much more – and you just proved it!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Andy – There are definitely plenty of amazing snow covered mountains though! But yes, so much more than that of course.

  4. Shirine: “Hey Rebekah, do you want to join us later this year when we’re cycling through Kyrgyzstan?”

    Me: “Eh….I don’t know.”

    [Read Earl's post]

    Me: “Hey Shirine? If the offer still stands, count me IN.”

  5. Alana says:

    …..
    I WANNA GO TO KYRGYZSTAN!!!!

  6. SLioy says:

    Glad you see why we like it so much! You should try to come back for one of the holidays in summer at some point; horse games and snowless mountains and lots moreof that vodka!

  7. Talgat says:

    Wonderful post! Glad everything went smooth for you in this time of season :)

    Please come back in summer too, as you will have more fun activities – like spending time with shepherds, sleeping in yurts etc.

    Thanks,
    Talgat

  8. Clinton says:

    There’s only one to say Earl. Sign me up.. You’ve absolutely made my day with this post. I long for a life like that.. I think it will be an amazing time to visit this country. Cant wait to travel there. Hopefully I will join you next year in returning to this unforgettable place.

    Thank you.

  9. Victoria says:

    I’m ready to visit the beautiful country of Krygyzstan and to witness such wonderful surroundings and welcoming people, for myself. Such a great post for this lovely country Earl. I like the fact that horses and cars seem to inter-mingle, and those lovely “men-hats”. Any idea why they are cone-shaped? Thanks.

  10. Robert Cooke says:

    Yeah so I now want to go to Kyrgyzstan

  11. Allie Cook says:

    You have beautifuly and honestly described your experiences in Kyrgyzstan. It seems it is a beautiful country with warm and affectionate people.

  12. Cheryl Sukenik says:

    Thanks for that post. I really enjoyed it and it makes me totally think “outside my box” as far as travel goes. I’m looking forward to seeing the dates of your tour next year.

  13. Joe Achman says:

    Oh, the ‘Stans. Che khub! This is one region of the world that really, really calls to me and has been at the top of my list for such a long time. This is such a great post, and it’s so cool to read about someone who’s pretty well-known giving this area it’s due. Thank you

  14. Interesting post, central Asia certainly is unique. Nice landscape shots BTW. I’ve heard so much about its otherwordly landscapes. I’ll get there some day hopefully! with a camera!

  15. Will says:

    Despite the supposed difficulties of getting a visa, you just sold me on this place Earl. Excellent article concept and amazing photos as always…!

  16. Osvaldo says:

    It would be great if you lead a tour to Kyrgyzstan :D

  17. Nita says:

    Just Wow! Kyrgyzstan really seems interesting and unique with simple and warm people. And what views! Such a beautiful post.. The last question gave me goosebumps :)

  18. Katie says:

    I’ve concluded folks in post-Soviet countries just love their ice cream. I was in Kiev in the dead of winter and everyone was getting ice cream cones at McDonalds!

  19. Have you had a go on the punching machines, and how do you compare to the locals?!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Dave – If you saw my arms, you’d understand why I didn’t try out the punching machines. I probably wouldn’t have even registered on the meter :)

  20. Grace Q says:

    Wandering Earl tour?

  21. Way to go on the food ordering. You’re a pro ;)

  22. Katie says:

    Ahhhh, this post brings back such good memories of my 2 weeks in Kyrgyzstan! Especially the ice cream, running into the same foreigners and ordering in restaurants and continually being shot down!

  23. What a beautiful post, Earl! I’d actually never thought to go to Kyrgyzstan, but it sounds like such a welcoming, friendly place to travel to. Sometimes you don’t need to speak the language, smiles and hugs can say a lot too :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Beverly – Exactly. Language helps but without it, you certainly can still have some incredibly rewarding interactions and experiences.

  24. Sugar Plam Fairy says:

    Beautiful post, Earl. Really enjoyed reading it and the pictures are just stunning! I must have been staring at them for quite a long time, since my most favorite one- the one with the rocks and the lonely truck driving along the meandering dirt road, started resembling giant scoops of rocky road ice-cream, topped with chunks of dark chocolate (mountains) and marshmallows (snow). Well, you know what that means when you forget to eat? Enchanted, indeed:)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      @Sugar Plam Fairy – Well, then you’d fit in over there in Kyrgyzstan since they all eat ice cream all the time. Perhaps they go through the same thing when they look at the beautiful scenery around them and then suddenly crave ice cream themselves, every single day.

  25. Nancy says:

    Kyrgyzstan is such a beautiful place! I loved the kindness and generosity of the people in and around Osh, as well as in Bishkek, and I do hope to return to see other parts of the country as well. My favorite memory is getting off the plane in Osh, and working my way through the crowd to meet my local colleagues. On the way, I saw three lovely young women in beautiful, colorful dresses, who were clinging together, looking quite frightened by all these strangers. I smiled at them and nodded, and they all lit up with gorgeous, silvery and friendly smiles. I wanted to stay with them, and get to know them, but work and obligations pressed . . . I envy your freedom, but truly appreciate the opportunities that bring me to such glorious places! Happy travels!!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Nancy – Glad that you had a nice taste of what it’s like to visit this country and hopefully you will get back there at some point!

  26. Carolyn James says:

    This post is a riot, I really enjoyed it. And I’m happy you are having such a good time in a country that is new to you. (There are probably a lot of negative ions there, don’t you think? … clean air, mountains everywhere, etc.) Myself, I am buying 2 acres on a river bluff, hoping for the same effect, as I can’t travel far right now.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Carolyn – Your 2 acres sounds quite good as well and yes, I think it’s difficult not to enjoy this country with all of those positive aspects around all the time.

  27. Paul says:

    I’ve enjoyed your very pleasant, upbeat tales of travel. Anyone with any interest or urge would enjoy reading about your journeys, seeing the pictures, and be inspired to want to go to these places.

    I took a two month trip to Turkey, Eastern Europe, Italy and Frances last Summer/Fall. It was amazing, the wonderful people, situations I encountered. I’m open and friendly and I am always being invited places and thoroughly enjoy meeting people in their own turf.

    I’m a Master NLP an Hypnotist and will never forget when a guy in Kadikoy (Asian side of Istanbul, Turkey) begged me to hypnotize him in a busy market restaurant right on the street. I did and he talked about that experience all day…as we toured around. I had met him through friends of friends. Also the couple in Brasov, Romania who had always wanted to try hypnosis so we did a session with both of them in the public park beside a little stream. I am still getting emails from these folks. It is a really interesting way to connect with people in a unique way.

    I am planning my next trips already…Las Vegas for a wedding of a couple we met in a Bed and Breakfast in Tuscany, Italy, and New York for a visit, then Portugal, Spain and the Basque country after that.

    Warmly,

    Paul

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Paul – Thanks for that and I see that your upcoming travels are unfolding quite nicely. Seems like another set of rewarding experiences on the horizon for you!

  28. Looks and sounds like such an interesting place!

  29. You are definitely right Earl, I did have those moments as well! At some point you wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing where you are, while dimly staring into a room that you have no recollection of. But to answer all the other questions, no unfortunately I have not been to Kyrgyzstan. Although I can somewhat relate, as I too had to learn Russian and more so Cyrillic rather quickly when travelling on the Trans-Mongolian Railway and I couldn’t even read the station names. But the rest of your questions simply sound so amazing that I am actually looking for my central Asia guide book, which I once bought, but never used… :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Dennis – I think it’s time to dust off that book and start using it…and hopefully you remember some of that Russian to help you connect even more with people in Kyrgyzstan!

  30. Alan Strickland says:

    A beautiful piece of writing. Really evocative like a magic carpet ride that took me to straight to Kyrgyztan.

  31. Eva says:

    Wow, that sounds amazing!!! Would love to see more posts about Kyrgyzstan, especially on tips on actually travelling there. Did you take a bus there from India? I’m looking at flights and they are incredibly expensive.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Eva – The only way to get there from India is by flight and it wasn’t too expensive, about $300 USD for the 5.5 hour flight on Air Astana. There is also Air Kyrgyzstan which flies 3 times per week from Delhi to Bishkek as well. More posts coming up soon!

    • Talgat says:

      Hi Eva,

      Reaching Kyrgyzstan has never become so easy by air. The low cost budget airlines have entered the market with one being – Air Pegasus (Turkish based) which offers flights from Europe via Istanbul to Bishkek and Osh. Flydubai is another low cost airline via Dubai. If you are near to Moscow, then there are plenty airlines flying from Moscow to Bishkek and Osh, all are very competitive prices due to severe competition.

      Welcome to Kyrgyz Republic!

      Thanks,
      Talgat

  32. Janet says:

    This is truly must be a wonderful place. Kyrgyzstan now is on my list of places because of this beautiful story of people I, too would love to meet.

  33. Dave K says:

    Kyrgyzstan sounds truly unique and amazing! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Incredible pictures! I wonder if the neighboring Central Asian countries would be quite similar for a wanderer or if it would vastly different.

    Your experiences as a traveling vegetarian brings back memories. I was vegetarian for several years while living in Belize and Mexico and traveling regularly through Central America. I eventually started eating meat again, because it was tiring (and because it tastes so good.) Every one wanted to have a philosophical argument with me about why I was a vegetarian and try to convince me to eat meat. It amazed me how strongly people felt about what I chose to eat or not eat. When I ate at other people’s houses, it really stressed the cooks out about what they were going to serve me. I tried to tell them not to worry because I would just eat everything except the meat. But they usually ended up cooking something special for me, oftentimes spending considerable more time and money. In restaurants, many times, there just weren’t many good alternatives. Also, as an American living and traveling abroad, I already felt so different. Being a vegetarian just made me that much stranger to people. I eventually couldn’t take it any more and started eating meat again. You, Earl, are a stronger man than me being a traveling vegetarian. Are you ever tempted to say “screw it”?

    Thanks again, I always look forward to your next post!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Dave – I’m actually not fully vegetarian as I will eat chicken and probably do so every couple of weeks. But because I ended up having to eat some red meat early on in Kyrgyzstan, which I almost never do but had no choice at times when invited by locals, I decided to go for full vegetarian for the rest of the trip as I felt quite off from the meat. In some places such as India, I’m always vegetarian and have no problem since there is so much vegetarian food. So, eating vegetarian with the occasional chicken dish seems to be a combination that works best for me while traveling.

  34. Glenn I says:

    It’s nice to be a source of pleasure for people – and in a friendly way.

  35. Kacie says:

    I know I’ve told you this already, a few times, but you should definitely go to Georgia. A lot of what you described here is reminiscent of my time there, except signs are in Kartuli instead of Cyrillic. It’s halfway between Kyrgyzstan and Romania, is all I’m saying…

    -Kacie

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Kacie – Believe me, I find it crazy that I still haven’t made it to Georgia. I was going to go now but unfortunately don’t have the time. But I will get there, I know I will!!!

  36. marsha ramsey says:

    YES, I am ready to travel there….when will you have a tour arranged ??

  37. Jen M. says:

    Sounds amazing! I love that they call everyone they know to find an English speaker for you to talk to.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Jen – Yeah, that was great and they would really sit there for 15 minutes sometimes until they found someone we could communicate with, even though the conversation almost always lasted about 2 minutes and that was it.

  38. Sounds like an amazing place! It will defiantly be on my list of places to visit next year.

  39. Louisa says:

    Ping-pong everywhere! Smiling honest people! My kind of country. It looks really gorgeous from the photos. Love this post.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Louisa – Ping-pong is so popular that I don’t think I ever saw an empty table where I could have played as well. They were always full of players and there were usually others waiting for their turn as well.

  40. Sam says:

    Hahaha, this is great! Reminded me instantly of Chris’ question on Amateur Traveler, which I had real difficulty answering the two times I was on his show, but you’ve answered so seemingly effortlessly here! I guess Kyrgyzstan is really just that unique.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Sam – I know that question well and it is difficult to answer…this country just has so much that comes together to make it its own special destination.

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