What is life in Bishkek really like? To help you stay up to date, we’ve asked our students to share what they found while abroad in Central Asia!
SRAS: First, think of the city – what was available in terms of culture, shopping, and services. Were you able to find things to do and the goods and services you needed? What was missing? Were there any pleasant surprises?
Camryn Vaughn (Fall, 2019): I was anticipating that a lot of comforts from home would be difficult to find, but I was surprised that I have had no troubles getting a hold of any products or services. The London School’s location is very helpful, too. The grocery store called Frunze located in the Vefa Center shopping mall a short walk from the school is generally the best place to purchase groceries and sometimes household goods as well. A great variety of frozen foods, produce, snacks, drinks, deli salads, etc. are all available. You can also find notebooks, pens, toiletries, dishes, and cooking utensils. Of course, all of these things and anything else you could possibly need can be found at the bazaars around Bishkek. Prices are cheaper than at a store and haggling is welcome. The bazaars are large and can be difficult to navigate by one’s self; make sure to bring a friend (preferably someone who has previously been) and read up on the several bazaar guides students have put together.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for at the Vefa Center or at the bazaars, the grocery store Globus has a lot of products and there are several locations in the city. Mia Home is my favorite store for buying household goods to make the dorms a little cozier. Things like candles, Christmas lights, and decorations can be found there.
Beauty services are easy to find and quite cheap. Treat yourself to a massages or manicure, which typically costs 1500 (21.57 USD) and 500 som (7.16 USD), respectively. There is a Google Drive folder created by a previous SRAS student with recommendations and contact information. Gym memberships aren’t necessarily cheaper but are easy to arrange. There are several located near the London School.
Many casual restaurants are located near the school. A meal at one of these usually costs less than 5 USD.
The Expats in Bishkek Facebook group has been a really great resource for learning more about what’s out there. WhatsApp numbers and Instagram handles are usually shared, which are used more commonly by businesses than websites to advertise and communicate with customers.
Mikaela Peters (Fall, 2019): Kyrgyzstan mostly has the same services available as any other city. The only difference is, I don’t always know where to find every single thing that I may be looking for. As an American, I am so used to being able to go to Walmart, or even the Dollar Store, for little things that I need, such as something like a vegetable peeler. While you can find vegetable peelers at the bazaar, it took me awhile to figure that out. I have always been surprised that clothes here really are not that much cheaper than what they would be in America, unless you buy them second hand. In terms of things like getting a massage, getting my nails done, or any other services, I generally just ask a local I know, and they recommend a place. I’ve been taking advantage of these services more than I would in America since they are significantly cheaper here by about four times the cost. These were services that I never bothered to look into the first time I was here, since I was here for such a short time period. Although services are cheaper, using sports facilities is actually more expensive than in America. While I would like to, for instance, get a gym membership, or go to the pool, I don’t think it is worth it to pay $12 for a day of swimming or pay $45 a month for a gym membership. I will save these activities for when I get home. For now, I am happy running through town while local people stare at me like I am crazy.
Despite Bishkek being a modern city, people are still intent on preserving their culture and this manifests itself in local people making sure that foreigners know about all local food and that they have tried each dish. I never feel at a loss for experiencing Kyrgyz culture. While the food, to me, is a large part of the culture, so are things like riding the marshrutka and buying your groceries at the bazaar. I try my best to participate in all of these activities and am usually successfully able to do so with the help of some local friends.
SRAS: How were the prices abroad? Did you find your host city affordable in terms of food and entertainment?
Camryn Vaughn (Fall, 2019): I imagine that Bishkek is one of the most affordable options I could have chosen for my study abroad experience. I treat myself to a lot of things that are usually a little too expensive to do regularly at home in the U.S., such as eating out, manicures, and massages. Transportation is really cheap as well. The marshrutkas (while not always necessarily comfortable) are functional and 14 cents per ride. Taxis across town are almost always under 100 som (1.43 USD) with the Yandex Taxi app. Mikaela’s food budget estimates have proven true for me as well. Weekly grocery trips are generally $14 or under for me.
Mikaela Peters (Fall, 2019): There is a very particular reason why I like Kyrgyzstan, aside from it being a great place to learn and practice Russian. It is incredibly affordable, especially for a student on a budget. While I strive to eat at home as much as possible while I am in America, I do not restrain myself from eating out very much while in Kyrgyzstan since you can get a meal for anywhere between $2 and $6. One of the best parts about life here is how cheap and delicious vegetables are and how you can buy them on the street in almost every corner of the city. I can go grocery shopping for a week for about $14 and that would include a half kilogram of an assortment of about five different vegetables. Locals often say that foreigners love it here because it’s cheap. I couldn’t agree more.
Depending on the entertainment, entertainment can likewise be fairly cheap. Going out and drinking alcohol can add up fairly quickly, just like it would in the States. But going to the movies, a dramatic performance, rock climbing, or even going skiing, will also be at least a third of the price of what it would be in America. Although Kyrgyzstan is not very developed, its low cost of living seems to compensate for that misgiving.
SRAS: How were the people you met? Were you able to generally complete transactions with any professionals you interacted with (at offices, cafes, shops)? Did you find local friends to share your free time with?
Camryn Vaughn (Fall, 2019): I never experienced any problems at businesses that I went to. I found Kyrgyz speakers difficult to understand when they spoke Russian and it has taken some time to get used to. I had to often ask my host family to speak much more slowly and enunciated to me and I sometimes have to ask servers and cashiers to repeat themselves as well, but everyone has been very patient and understanding, which I appreciate. The London School organized weekly conversation partners for the SRAS students, as well as monthly discussion panels with local students. I exchanged contact information with several people I have met. Additionally, I have met a few local friends in shared taxis coming back from horse treks and skiing. Young people are always eager to get to know you and are generally interested in showing you around or suggesting cultural experiences.
Mikaela Peters (Fall, 2019): There are rarely people I encounter in Bishkek that I don’t like. I have had a few instances, particularly at cafes, where due to my accent, which I hopelessly have not yet been able to get rid of, it seems to confuse servers and they order for me something that is like what I ordered, but not quite, such as getting a frappuccino instead of cappuccino or getting shrimp on my salad when I really said chicken. I have had people ask me if I understand Russian, or if I can even read and write in Russian. This sort of situation happens rarely, but it happens nonetheless. While Bishkek does have a considerable amount of foreigners relative to other places in Central Asia, that doesn’t prevent people from being surprised that you’re a foreigner, or in my case, from having people attempt to start talking to you in German due to the accent they hear. Once people start talking to me, they do still seem to perceive me as fluent in Russian, but the initial accent just seems to throw them off at times.
I have a lot of local friends, and I love interacting with them because it helps my Russian immensely. I try to make friends with people who either barely speak English, or speak English somewhat poorly so that they only really feel comfortable speaking to me in Russian. I am also at a point where I feel more fluent, so it is fairly easy for me to interact with my friends and hold conversations with them, tell them stories, and express opinions. Some of my local friends that I met two years ago are delighted to see that my Russian is already better than before. I have even spent time in groups of young locals who use a lot of slang, which has presented a new and interesting challenge for me, as trying to understand the way they speak seems to be about ten times more difficult than the average non-slang-ridden conversation. Nevertheless, it is my hope that I’ll continue improving by spending as much time with locals as possible.
SRAS: What modes of transport did you use? Did you generally find them convenient and affordable? Did you travel outside the city during your stay?
Camryn Vaughn (Fall, 2019): The marshrutkas are cheap and pretty fun, if you’re in a good mood and not in a rush. If you think practically standing on top of another passenger while an old man behind you breathing down your neck and there are children sitting atop the dashboard would make you a little irritated, opt for a taxi. Marshrutkas are naturally cheaper, but the comfort of taxis is generally worth it. Driving can be a little frightening in Bishkek, I think. I haven’t gotten into any wrecks but I pretty much expect it every time I climb into a car. Seat belts aren’t commonly used in the backseat. When I was riding somewhere with my host family once, my host mom actually told me I didn’t need it as I tried buckling in. Later I heard from someone that this may be a cultural thing; drivers might take offense if you think you need to protect yourself from their potential bad driving.
I have travelled outside of Bishkek frequently to explore the outdoors. A popular destination is Ala Archa and Raspberry Canyon outside of Kaska Soo, both about a 20 minutes’ drive from the city. Typically you can order a Yandex Taxi to these locations, but it’s not super cheap – usually around $14 one way. There are marshrutkas that go to both destinations, but we’ve always been carrying heavy gear that we didn’t want to bring into the already crowded marshrutkas with us. The worst part of going out of town is the lack of security in finding a way back. From Kaska Soo there are marshrutkas, but after 7:00 pm on two different occasions, several completely empty marshrutkas just drove past us. And you are pretty much guaranteed to have to hitchhike on your way back from Ala Archa. The taxi will drop you off at the trailhead which is 12 kilometers from the park entrance where you can find the marshrutkas. My friend (another SRAS student) and I have always had luck with hitchhiking. It’s much more normal and commonly practiced here than in America. We’ve done it four times now and even made friends with one group of young people who picked us up. (They then invited us out to a nice bar with them and paid for everything, so for this reason taking your chances with hitchhiking is definitely something I would recommend!) We have, of course, offered payment but have always been turned down, which is very economical.
Mikaela Peters (Fall, 2019): I was in Armenia last summer for six weeks, and when people would ask me what I liked best about Yerevan, I simply replied, “the metro.” To their perplexed expressions, I added, “You don’t understand. Bishkek doesn’t have a metro.” Transportation in Bishkek has been the bane of my existence ever since I came to this region for the first time. I believe in experiencing the culture in every way possible. In doing as the locals do, I try to take the marshrutka as much as possible, let alone it being significantly cheaper than a taxi. This is usually about twenty times cheaper than a taxi. But it is rare that you will ever get on a marshrutka and not, at some point during your route, feel as squished as a sardine. However, marshrutkas do get where you need to go. Since it is often impossible to see outside of the window to check where you are, you will most likely have your eyes glued to 2GIS for the majority of your ride. Marshrutkas, while definitely affordable – in fact, they are dirt cheap – are not the most comfortable, as I’ve expressed. If you are going for comfort, especially any time after 4 PM, take a taxi. While I don’t generally like to take taxis, I found myself falling into this habit more often than not – in part because they were more comfortable, but also because I felt that they saved quite a bit more time.
I have not traveled out of the city too much out of my own initiative this time around, but I had the first time I was here two years ago and, therefore, am aware of how to. I am familiar with the process of going to the avtovokzal and trying my best not to get ripped off for being foreign. Usually, I am successful. I have taken the marshrutka to and from Almaty alone twice. While other students have expressed issues with getting left by their marshrutka once they’ve crossed the border, I’ve never experienced anything of the kind. I usually make friends with at least one person on my marshrutka, talk to the driver, and make them feel accountable for me so that I don’t get left behind. Thus far, I have been successful with this strategy.
Best and Worst Things
SRAS: What was the best thing about your stay in Bishkek? What was the worst?
Camryn Vaughn (Fall, 2019): I really enjoyed how accessible everything in the city is, especially to foreigners. If I wanted to find out more information about services or experiences available, between the Internet and word of mouth, it was always easy to find out what I wanted to know. Locations were always easy to find and even if I wasn’t super confident with my Russian, I felt like I could trust locals to help me out if I asked. It’s incredibly easy to get around town. One of the reasons I chose to study in Kyrgyzstan is because of the incredible nature and the opportunities to be outdoors. Even without a personal vehicle, I had no problems finding public transportation options out of the city to explore the mountains. There are lots of hobby clubs and organizations that are easy to join; the Expats in Bishkek Facebook group is a great resource to learn more about those options.
The culture in Central Asia is obviously really different from the United States. I think there’s a lot of value in that I studied in a non-Western culture. For spending the length of a semester here, I felt like I had an easy time adapting and didn’t experience a lot of culture shock. However, a cultural difference that caused me some irritation was a lack of personal space awareness on public transportation. I was really happy that my host family lived close enough for me to walk to school because if I had to begin each day being squished like a sardine on a marshrutka I would have been significantly more irritated throughout my time here. People pushing around you and quite often right up against you is common on public transportation here. I never felt unsafe or as if someone had bad intentions, but I never felt super comfortable or got used to it and preferred to take an emptier bus or a cheap taxi when I could.
Mikaela Peters (Fall, 2019): When people ask me what I like best about Bishkek, I reply, without hesitation, the people. I have made some of the best friends that I’ve ever had in Bishkek. Some of them I met two years ago and have still been able to connect with during my current semester here. Locals alike will agree that Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan as a whole, have some of the nicest people around. Despite the trying economic situation in the region, I rarely have ever felt like people are trying to con me, unless they are a taxi driver. When I ask someone working at a convenience store which chocolate alternative is tastier, they tell me the truth, despite that meaning that they are selling me the chocolate that is half the price of the other one. Bishkek has been, and always will be, a second home for me. It is the first place I ever learned to speak Russian. It is the first place I ever lived alone abroad. I’ve had so many adventures here, have learned so much here, and have made so many good friends along the way. For that reason, Bishkek will always hold a special place in my heart, for as long as I live.
The only honest answer that I can give about what I don’t like in Bishkek is the public transportation system. I understand that the government has little funds to work with, but that still doesn’t prevent me from wishing that they could do something like Almaty has done and eradicate marshrutkas altogether and replace them with a majority fleet of buses. Bishkek’s population is gradually increasing. I believe that at some point in the future, this issue is going to come to a head. It will probably only be at that point that the government will finally start implementing a considerable shift to bus transportation rather than that of marshrutkas.