Essential information for visitors
(Prices in US$1=45 Som)
Population: 5 million
Ethnic Groups: About 60% Kyrgyz, 30% Russian and 10% mix of Dungan, Kazakh, Tajik, Tatars, Uygur, Uzbek and others
Religions: Muslim 75%, Russian Orthodox 20%, other 5%
Languages: Kyrgyz, Russian (official). Many people in the capital speak English
Visa: Kyrgyzstan is the easiest of the Central Asian republics for which to get a visa. Kyrgyz embassies issue 30-day tourist visas, with fixed dates, to 28 nationalities without letters of support. These nationalities can also obtain a visa on arrival at Bishkek’s Manas International Airport (US$35) although not at land borders. Most nationalities from the former Soviet bloc, as well as Japanese, Turks, Uzbeks and Kazakhs do not need visas. If there is no Kyrgyz embassy in your country, go through a Kazakh embassy instead, although a letter of invitation regardless of nationality is then required. Central Asian travel agencies can provide it. It’s illegal to enter Kyrgyzstan except at a designated border crossing, which makes cross-border treks (eg Almaty to Issyk-Kol) technically illegal. You’ll need a travel agency to help smooth over these problems if you intend to take these treks.
Currency: The som (sometimes transliterated as "sum" or "soum") is the currency of the Kyrgyz Republic in Central Asia. The ISO 4217 currency code is KGS. The som is sub-divided into 100 tyiyn. The som was introduced on May 10, 1993, replacing the Soviet ruble at a rate of 1 som = 200 rubles. Notes come in 1000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, five and one som denominations. Banks and licensed moneychanger booths (marked obmen balyot) exchange US dollars provided the notes are unblemished in near-mint condition and, if possible, post 2001. There are ATMs in Bishkek, Jalal-Abad and Osh that dispense both US dollars and som. Travellers cheques can be cashed in these places and in Karakol (3% commission). You will find that higher-priced items are generally priced in US dollars, although a few businesses in the hospitality industry fix their prices in euros. There is no black market for currency transactions. If you need to wire money, MoneyGram has services at main post offices and Western Union works through most banks. The Kyrgyz economy is basically cash-based.
Time zone: GMT + 5 hours
Internet: code .kg, Some internet cafes and hotels in Bishkek and elsewhere in the country charge a ‘traffic’ fee on top of your per hour use fee. This is a charge for each megabyte you use while surfing the web. The charge is reasonable if you are just checking email but rises steeply if you start surfing around different websites, upload photos or watch videos. You never really know what you are going to pay until you get the bill. If you need to do a lot of uploading and downloading of content, shop around for an internet cafe that charges a flat per hour fee. If you are using your own laptop make sure to quit any programs (such as iTunes) that might download content while you happily check your email.
Water: In cities, it is usually safe to drink tap water but bottled spring and mineral water is available throughout the country
Electricity Supply: 220 Volt, 50 Hz
Airlines serving Bishkek: Aeroflot, Altyn Air (local air company), British Airways, China Xingjian Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Uzbek Airways
Telephone codes: The international code for Kyrgyzstan is +996 then 312 for Bishkek
Shopping: Osh and Alamedin bazaars are both popular for food and handicrafts. The art galleries sell paintings and traditional Kyrgyz products (particularly popular are embroidered Kyrgyz felt hats (kalpak), felt carpets and chess sets with traditional Kyrgyz figures). Some souvenir shopping also can be done in TSUM (city center just across the main post office). TSUM is the biggest supermarket in Bishkek and offers everything from toiletries to new electronics. Souvenirs are located on the fourth level (some negotiation is expected). Beta Stores is on Chui Av. / Isanov St., intersection, and Dordoi Plaza supermarket (Ibraimov St. / Toktogul St., 5-minute walk from TSUM) also have souvenirs but they can be overpriced.
Health factors: The main causes of adult deaths in Kyrgyzstan are, in order of occurrence, cardiovascular conditions, respiratory infections, and accidents. In 1993 Kyrgyzstan suffered increasing cases of hepatitis and gastrointestinal infections, especially in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad. The cause of such infections is believed to be the use of open water supplies contaminated by livestock and improper disposal of waste. Although adults traditionally consume most of their water in the form of boiled tea, children have greater access to untreated water and foods.
Practicalities - The Times of Central Asia (www.timesca-europe.com) is the local English language newspaper, based in Bishkek. Popular radio stations include Kyrgyz Radio and Kyrgyzstan Obondoru (Kyrgyzstan Melodies). The two major Kyrgyz TV stations are KTR Kyrgyz State Television and Radio Corporation and KORT Kyrgyz Public Radio and Television.
Customs regulation - If you’ve bought anything that looks remotely antique and didn’t get a certificate saying it’s not, you can get one from the 1st floor of the Foreign Department of the Ministry of Education, Science & Culture.