Marshrutkas are little vans that run in a standard path around the cities, or even between cities. Marshrut in Russian actually means "route". Each marshrutka will have a set route. Stand on the corner and wave them down. They are often crowded and most people will have to stand. If you are sitting and an elder person gets on, it is appropriate to let them have your seat.
They generally cost in the 8 som range. If you are not sure which marshrutka to take, it is easy to ask the driver and they will tell you if it is the correct one or not.
Marshrutkas generally have no working windows, so it can get quite hot in the summer.
It's not cheap to get to Bishkek. When I flew round trip from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Chicago it was $1700, and that was the cheapest I found. To get to Bishkek one way, it cost me over $1000 (Chicago to Poland $400, overland to Kiev, Ukraine, Kiev - Bishkek $800). I wrote up a Kyrgyzstan Flights page with some airlines to check out, too for anyone else that needs help: http://hubpages.com/hub/Kyrgyzstan-Flights
Buses to/From Almaty and Tashkent leave from Long Distance Bus station in Jibek Jolu Prospectisy 1,5 Km west of the city center. There are two convenient banks outside the terminal(but the better rates are to be found in Monechangers at the Corner Between Chuy Prospectisy and Manas.
Ticket office is Mafia-Like. They speak only english and they always say all the buses are full. Prepare to pay 30-40% more for the ticket. At least the service is reliable. Bus come nearly on time.
Buses to Cholpon Ata and Karakol leaves from the same building. It's no sweat getting a ticket for a fair price.
For Osh you should get to the Bus station around Osh Bazar.
Buses generally take 8-10 hours for 180 som.
Marshrutkas take 6-7 hours for 200 som.
Taxis take 5-6 hours for 350 som.
Times can greatly vary depending on the condition of the vehicle. I heard of one poor guy from Spain that paid for a taxi that had to stop every few kilos to do something to the engine.....got to Karakol in 8 hours!
I used Altyn Air to fly to Jalal-Abad and Osh, but domestic flights are also offered by Kyrgyzstan Airlines. Since the flights are not too long and those old, little planes probably can't fly too high (even if they wanted to), you can have some of the most beautiful views down to the beautiful mountain ranges.
When traveling around in Kyrgyzstan, keep in mind that roads are awful and thus, traveling between different cities can be a long and painful process. And I am not saying that because I don't love to travel by car. In the contrary, I love roadtrips, but some of those drives in Kyrgyzstan were even a bit too much for me. Another options is flying - you can get a *fun* experience by flying old Russian airplanes that (at least a few I saw) were handpainted blue inside. Even the seat numbers were handpainted!! I don't think I had seen anything like that ever since I was in Haiti some years ago.
What about a donkey ride.
Kyrgyz people are super horse riders and they learn riding at very early age. But young children who cannot handle horse, learn riding from donkeys.
Even if you dont know how to ride horse, it is not a bad idea of hiring a donkey.
Just want to share some practical notes if you - like me - want to travel by train from Moscow to Kyrgyzstan!
about the visas:
I brought only the Kazak & Russian from home. As I said, I arranged the invitation letters through agencies on the internet. I received them by fax.
For Russia, I used G&R International, very reliable, and payed by Credit Card: http://www.hostels.ru/visa/
For Kazakstan, I forgot the name, but it should be easy to find a proper ageny
that supports you for about $25. I paid this one cash after arrival (they had to do police registration as well).
If you don't stay in Kazakstan, you may take a transit visa, no invitation letter needed. But, it's a bit of a risk since it's valid only for 3
days and moreover the date of entry is fixed! In this case you need to obtain a Kyrgyz visa in advance becasue you probably have no time to make it in Almaty..
To be honest, I used a Dutch visa agent to get these Russian and Kazak visas proper, to take it easy for a start. But with the invitation letter it shouldn't be a problem, I guess, probably need only lots of patience and time.
The Kyrgyz visa I obtained at the consulate in Almaty, extremely easy - no invitation needed, $30 cash. I went there outside working hours (LP was wrong about them), but they still helped me and within 15 minutes I got my stamp!
About the trainticket. Got it in Moscow from the central booking office. Big hassle and took me all day. Moscow - Almaty (72 hrs.) was $100 in a cabin with 4 beds. It's recommended if you can book it in advance...f.e. by spending extra money and use an agency (like G&R).
Keep in mind that this was july 2001, things change fast so please doublecheck!
Heading up to the mountains around Jalalabad is not for the faint hearted. This old clacker was absolutely jammed to the rafters with people and produce for over 3 hours. The cost came to aound 1 dollar from memory which I think makes it a good deal. A second class ride is better than a first class walk.
When you are with a group I can recommend the way we traveled through this country. It's not very comfortable, but these trucks will bring you everywhere. By traveling with a local crew there is a spontaneous contact.
I just flew in from London on British Air. There are plenty of flights out of Moscow. A cheaper alternative to flying into Bishkek is flying to Alma-Aty and driving to Bishkek. This isn't very advisable because border crossings can be a real pain.
I live in Bishkek, and the best way to get around is definitely the vans. They're fast and sometimes they're not crowded; sometimes you'll find yourself sitting in someones lap. The only drawback is that if you don't speak Russian there's really no way to know which van to catch.
We travelled around with a old russian 4 x 4 Army truck which was converted in a sort of bus. And it was a good way to travel this rough country, that way we could travel off-road and see the real beauty of this country.
We had two trucks at our disposal. One was for own transport, the other one was a kitchen truck. We were accompanied by a Russian cooking team. They brought a lot of vodka and Russian champaign with them.
We went to the lake son-kul on old soviet army style vans. It was an interesting journey and we had to stop at many places to cool down the engines of these vehicles.
The Kyrgyz have a reputation as being some of the best horsemen in the world. I ride some but I didn't let them bruse my ego by challanging these guys. These people are definatly at home in a saddle.
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