A practical foreign exchange and currency guide on sending money and travel to Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgystan: Central Asia, west of China and south of Kazakhstan. Dominated by the Tian Shan (Heavenly Cloud) mountainous range with verdant green gorges, tall peaks and high altitude lakes. Add to this a well-developed network of homestays and visa-free travel, and it’s easy to see why Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic), is the gateway of choice for many travellers in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal visa regime in Central Asia. Travelers from North America, Europe and the Australian continent can all travel visa free, for varying amounts of time. If you want to stay for longer than your allotted visa free time, you’ll have to apply for a visa. Visas are usually valid for three months.
It’s a cash economy – soms, the local currency, is only available in Kyrgyzstan and it’s best to take US dollars. ATM’s are common in Bishkek, though available less in other towns and credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere. Bishkek is tree-lined town of parks and gardens, handsome houses and TsUM Department Store is your place to buy Kygyrz souvenirs.
The only train route of note to travellers is the five-hour link between Bishkek and Balykchy, but most travellers will prefer the two-hour bus ride joining the towns (or bypassing the town completely for other points in Issyk-Köl). You can find schedules on the Kyrgyz Rail website (in Russian), or at the train station.
Only a handful of routes employ full-size buses, but shared taxis and minibuses – some timetabled but more often departing when full – wait for passengers at most bus stations.Minibuses, called marshrutka, are the preferred mode of transport for most people in the region. They’re not the fastest or most comfortable mode of transport, but they are a cultural experience and get the job done.
If time is of the essence, or if there are no marshrutky, there will always be a shared taxi to your destination. Drivers hang around the bus stations, and at designated points in a city or town. Shared taxis leave when full, and are about twice as expensive as marshrutky.
As can be expected in a country where the vast majority of attractions are rural and high altitude, the timing of your visit is crucial. Summer is ideal with hikes and roads generally accessible. Midsummer also sees Kazakh and Russian tourists converge on the beaches of never-freezing Lake Issyk-Köl. From October to May, much rural accommodation closes down and the yurts that add such character to the Alpine vistas are stashed away – think twice about a winter visit unless you’ve come to ski or snowboard.
Yurts are the traditional dwellings of the Kyrgyz people, made of boiled wool, or felt, and tarpaulins strapped on a round frame. Hidden in a small valley and protected from the elements you’ll find Tash Rabat, a beautifully preserved 15th-century caravanserai. You can rent a horse and a guide from yurt owner and by nightfall view a cornucopia of stars in the great outdoors.
Although the majority of Kyrgyz people are Muslim, Islam doesn’t have a profound influence on daily life. Alcohol is omnipresent, and outside of small villages in the south, women can dress however they like.
The below comparison table makes it easy to find the best exchange rates and lowest fees when you want to make a Transfer or Spend Kyrgystani som.
24 Nov 2021
09 Sep 2021
08 Dec 2020
09 Dec 2016
11 Dec 2011
13 Dec 2001