So, when I was offered the chance to attend the 2nd ever World Nomad Games in Cholpon-Ata, I was on it.
It was a great trip, but there were plenty of surprises to be had along the way, that was for sure. Here are some things I wish I’d known or done before visiting Kyrgyzstan.
I wish I’d learned some basic Russian
Those who speak English are far and few between in this part of the world. Kyrgyzstan’s two official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian. If you don’t speak a word of either, you may find yourself in trouble.
I was lucky, as I was travelling with a handful of people who could either speak both Russian and English fluently, or at least had conversational knowledge. I think without that, I would have been up the creek with no paddle.
You’d do well to learn at least a little bit of basic Russian before you go and even better to memorise some Cyrillic script. An app like Duolingo would help for those going for short trips. If I were to do some serious travel through the region of Central Asia, I would definitely take a few classes in Russian. It wouldn’t hurt to have some basic conversational skills.
The food would be delicious
I honestly thought that the food in Kyrgyzstan would be nothing all that special. How wrong I was!
As a big fan of fried noodles, dumplings and BBQ’d meat, I was pretty much in seventh heaven, where meals in this country were concerned. Everything was also so delightfully inexpensive. You could feast like a king or queen for a few dollars at the most.
Tea was on hand for every meal that we had and drunk pretty much by the litre. I also quite enjoyed Kumys. Made of fermented mare’s milk, it was particularly refreshing after a long day of horse riding.
The water was basically undrinkable
On the flip side, the water was pretty much undrinkable outside of the capital of Bishkek. I’d packed in a hurry and forgotten my filtered water bottle in a really smart move. I tried boiling water, but got a bit of a funny tummy. I eventually gave up and grudgingly reverted to bottled water for the last few days of my trip.
I’d have to get used to peeing in squat toilets and actually enjoy it
Kyrgyzstan is a bit of an odd place, because some influences are very much Russian (so many statues of Lenin, so little time) and other distinctly Asian… like the toilets.
It’s been a long time since I’ve peed in a squat toilet (here’s looking at you Japan). I’d forgotten how much I preferred it to the Western method. So comfortable and good for the thighs!
Some of the toilets didn’t have doors… or ceilings. It’s all right though – just sing loudly, so people know you’re there and all will be well.
The weather goes from one extreme to the next
Travelling in early autumn meant the weather was all over the place. It would shine, then rain without warning. The days were warm and the nights were freezing. It was hard to judge what to wear, at any given time.
I’d definitely pack some wet weather gear and bring a sturdy winter coat, particularly if you plan to go horse riding or trekking into the mountains.
It’s an excellent destination for budget travellers
Food, activities and souvenirs were all pretty decently priced in Kyrgyzstan.
As a budget traveller, you could spend a pretty long stretch of time there and not exactly burn through your money. I had plenty left over in the end and I can’t say I really budgeted all that much.
The good news is that visitors from the USA, UK, Australia, Canada and NZ are granted a 60-day visa upon entry to the country, making it the perfect home base for exploring other countries around the area, which are notoriously difficult to get into.
I reckon that as travel in Central Asia becomes easier over time, this region of the world will explode as a destination for budget travellers.
I’d need to have cash on hand, at all times
Kyrgyzstan’s local currency is the Som. $1 USD is around 70 Som and things are relatively inexpensive.
It’s virtually impossible to buy anything on card in the country, so make sure you have cash on your person. There are ATMs in the city, but once you start going remote, it’s obviously harder to access money.
Break down larger notes as soon as you can, to avoid any issues with them. Don’t worry too much if you have leftover currency – you can exchange it for a fairly decent rate at Bishkek’s airport.
That I’d enjoy sleeping in yurts so much
I like camping, but I also enjoy showering. I wasn’t sure of how I’d go, roughing it for two days in yurts in the regions of Kochkor and Son Kol.
Turns out yurts are way comfier than I would ever have initial anticipated. The beds consist of several mattresses, pillows and blankets, piled high, making them quite cosy and snug. Some of the more permanent yurts also have stove heaters.
My sleep was deep and easy and I didn’t want to crawl out from under the covers, when roused in the morning!
Kyrgyzstan was not what I expected, in the best ways possible. I would recommend it to all budget and adventure travellers and hope to return one day.
Our trip was organised in cooperation with Discover Kyrgyzstan and made possible by USAID. All opinions are my own.