Can an American visit friends in Kyrgyzstan safely?
March 29, 2007 10:22 PM   Subscribe

Is it safe/practical for an American to visit Kyrgyzstan for leisure? And can their postal system be trusted?

Two Japanese friends of mine are going to Kyrgyzstan for a number of years to do humanitarian-type work. I admit, before they told me this I had never heard of the country. Now, I've read the Wikipedia and CIA Factbook pages about Kyrgyzstan, but they haven't really addressed my primary concern - is it practical/safe to visit the country? I don't like the idea of not seeing my friends for years, but at the same time I don't want to take any unwise risks. Does anyone have any insight?

Also, secondarily, I'd like to know if it's generally safe to send letters and gifts through the Kyrgyzstan postal system. Would my packages likely be stolen or lost? Are there any special customs issues I should be aware of? Again, any insight is most appreciated.

Thank you in advance, fellow Mefites!
posted by Vorteks to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I had a friend from home serve a term in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan; her parents went out to visit her without any problems. It's apparently doable, and beautiful, but expect to spent a loooooooong time traveling if your friends aren't in Bishkek or some other suitably major city. From her emails and letters, I get the impression that the country is fairly safe. I'll browse through and see if I can find some more germane tips.

As for letters, she recommended writing the address in red ink and/or placing a religious symbol on the outside, to improve the chances of getting through untouched. Heck if I know why--sounds sort of like a rumor-twice-removed, but there you go.
posted by Upton O'Good at 10:44 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: I've never been, but I keep up on central Asian news wia Registan. Maybe that could be of some use? The other thing to check is official travel advisories. Here's the US one, and here's the UK FCO one.
On preview: I like Burhanistan's idea better.
posted by Abiezer at 10:46 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: A salient quote from the emails home from my Peace Corps friend, on travel in Kyrgyzstan:
I’m not sure what I’ve said about the cars in Kyrgyzstan, but they’re all thirty year old Ladas held together with newspaper, string, glue, and spirit. It’s always both exciting and death-defying to travel anywhere in Kyrgyzstan, as the drivers push these cars beyond there limits as they hurtle down one and a half lane roads, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, cows, and horses. My latest move has been to take Marshutkas whenever possible. The Marshutka is a mini-bus ranging in size, shape, and color from a small, low-roofed six-seater (equipped with wooden stools for extra passengers) to a large white vehicle with handlebars on the ceiling so people can stand comfortably.

I guess comfortable isn’t the best word to associate with a Marshutka, as there is no limit on the number of people you can squash inside, but I have discovered that I much prefer this to the crazed speed and attitude of taxi drivers. Also, the people who ride in taxis are the wealthier citizens, who feel they have a right to annoy us foreigners. I’ve never been harassed in a Marshutka. The mini-buses are always full of ancient white-bearded men in tall felt hats, wrinkled old women in scarves, and women with babies. The boys and girls give up their seats to elders, and everyone is amiable and patient as the bus ambles a long, stopping ever ten minutes for someone to get on or off. It takes longer, but I always feel safer and more at one with the culture when I’m squished in the back of one of these buses. The only problem that could possibly arise is an awkwardly placed pile of beans.
(These are excerpted from longer letters on life in Kyrgyzstan that went in the town newspaper, and all due credit goes to her. I'd be happy to send you some of the other newspaper articles, if you want to know more--email's in the profile.)

As far as I can tell from her letters, it took ~36 hours to get from the US to her host village in Kyrgyzstan, using various combinations of bus and taxi. Expect to haggle for the taxi (and everything else), and, in her words, "the taxi drivers who wait at the airport are horrible to foreigners." The pace of life is very different--don't expect to work on a strict timetable. Most (not all) people seemed to be friendly, more so once she spoke to them in Kyrgyz. (Most people speak Russian, too--knowing some of that would be useful before you go.)

I never got a feeling, reading any of the emails, that she felt threatened or in any sort of danger. Heck, she was in the country during the Tulip Revolution--she heard about it from people in the US first, and nothing changed in her village. Especially since you know people in-country, I would think that this trip could be done. Hope this helps.
posted by Upton O'Good at 11:23 PM on March 29, 2007

Best answer: This paints a pretty grim picture. They should avoid getting sick (don't eat the white goat cheese). The postal system is described as inefficient.
posted by tellurian at 12:42 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: (for your most general travel safety/practicality needs, you're looking for the State Department's Consular Information Sheets, like this one for the Kyrgyz Republic. Keep in mind that the sheets tend to be rather conservative about safety and such (compare Kyrgyz' sheet to one for a country you do know, to get a feel), but they are informative about general trends and important things like visa requirements.)
posted by whatzit at 5:11 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: They'll be fine.

Its a beautiful country with amazing mountains and lakes and kind people. Go in the summer though. Going over the pass into Western China is especially beautiful. I'd encourage you to go visit if you have friends there.

However, tourist and travel infrastructure is rudimentary at best and speaking Russian would be a great help.

Its not any more or less dangerous - in terms of crime and health - than travel in any other developing country. The biggest risk factor may be crazy driving on the mountain roads. The marschrutki (from the Russian marschrut, meaning route, especially a military one, from the German Marschrut, one of many words in Russian absorbed from German) recommended above are a good way to meet people, though not necessarily safer. Political situation is unstable, but that shouldn't affect development work at all.

I bet something sent through the postal system would arrive, though I probably wouldn't trust them with anything of great value or timely importance. If you absolutely have to send something, I think DHL would reach most urban areas (some kind of head office?), but be very expensive.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:14 AM on March 30, 2007

MeFi user Meatbomb has spent some time there and would be worth getting in touch with, in case he doesn't show up here.
posted by jessamyn at 6:32 AM on March 30, 2007

If you go, do a podcast about it and put it on the projects page. I would be really interested.
posted by parmanparman at 7:43 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: I've been, and its a truly amazing place that I would go back to again in a heartbeat. Bishkek itself isn't that great, and the Fergana Valley supposedly has some safety risks - though I certainly didn't feel unsafe while I was in Osh. The rest of the country is just amazing. Incredibly friendly people and spectaular scenary. Send me an e-mail if you want to know more on the tourism side, I'm sure plenty of other people can help on the other stuff.

I only flew back from there, but if I remember correctly I flew Bishkek, LHR, JFK with a stopover in Yerevan and the total flying time was like 11 hours with a few hour layover in London. Not so bad really.
posted by JPD at 9:28 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: Its often easier to fly to Almaty Kazakhstan than Bishkek. There are direct flights from Amsterdam or Frankfurt and Lufthansa and KLM both had buses from airport direct to Bishkek, or make your own arrangements (in advance not at Almaty airport) with private vehicles (~$100), the above-mentioned marshrutki etc. Its about 4 hours drive and relatively easy border crossing.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 1:00 PM on March 30, 2007

Kyrgyzstan is amazing! Have a great trip.
posted by k8t at 11:04 PM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: People have already provided plenty of assurances about the safety of visiting, so not much to add there. Safety is a relative thing, but having lived there for five years I would say that yes, it is safe.

You will want to avoid hanging around unlit streets late at night, and you don't want to go off drinking with strange men. You will want to avoid any contacts with police or government officials. But these things apply to pretty much any place in the developed world you travel.

As to the postal system: very hit and miss. I would avoid sending anything of any real value. A lot of stuff gets through, and plenty of stuff also falls through the cracks.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:20 AM on April 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's help! I think I'm going to give it a go.
posted by Vorteks at 1:14 PM on April 2, 2007

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