I arrived in Bishkek in a daze. I had just spent thirty hours travelling, and it hadn’t quite set in that I was actually in Kyrgyzstan. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I was really in Kyrgyzstan until I visited Issyk-Kul later that day. The excursion coordinator at the London School, Danar, picked me up from the airport and whisked me away to Bishkek. Once we were in the city, I felt extremely overwhelmed. I’m not from a city, and I was in the capital of Kyrgyzstan, a place where English is not commonly spoken. The school will give you an orientation about studying in Bishkek, but the orientation focuses on academics and they may leave out what might feel to some like key information about day-to-day life. (It was for me, and I was extremely stressed out during my first few days in Bishkek.) In this article, I intend to provide the information you’ll need to survive your first week in Bishkek with as little stress as possible.
One of the first things you may notice: the drivers in Bishkek are insane. Regardless of whether they drive shiny BMWs or dented cars from 1972, they have patience for nothing. For a girl who comes from the country, where roads are comparatively deserted, driving in Bishkek is a nightmare. Every day I think about how I am so glad I am not driving while I’m here . I’ve yet to notice a speed limit sign. Drivers zip around other cars with seemingly no fear of oncoming traffic. They blast their horns without inhibition and drag races can be heard on the street at night. In short, watch out for cars. Don’t ever cross the road when you don’t have a signal—you could get run over. You will see people jaywalking, but don’t risk it. When I need to cross the street, I never like to do so alone: there’s safety in numbers. A key to crossing the street (particularly at crosswalks that don’t have lights, or when drivers want to turn right) is to cross with confidence. Don’t look at the cars or drivers. Keep your eyes locked on your destination (while being aware of oncoming traffic) and don’t dawdle. If you’re still terrified to cross the street, look for a babushka. Babushkas are given the utmost respect here, and I think even a racing marshrutka [minibus] driver would slam on his breaks to avoid crashing into her.
Don’t plan to rely on the phone that the school gives you. The phone could die within the day. It is convenient that the phone comes with a couple of important numbers already programmed in, but you are also given a card for key contacts at the school, and you can keep the card with you. So, do you need a SIM card? It’s up to you. I bought one because I am not comfortable in cities and was terrified of getting lost. It gave me an extra sense of security. I could call someone or look up information (such as addresses, or calling a cab through Namba’s app) in the case of an emergency. I bought a SIM card from O! at the Vefa Center. I purchased five weeks of unlimited data, 60 minutes of talk, and free texting between other O! customers for a whopping $14.
A few tips: First, before you go to get a SIM, the small data card inside a phone that allows you to make phone calls and use mobile data, make sure your phone is unlocked. This is something you should do before you go abroad, because it can take anywhere from a few hours to several days (or more) depending on your carrier, and is not always possible. Some carriers lock phones, meaning that you can’t use your phone with a SIM card from a different carrier. Verizon’s smartphones are usually unlocked, but T-Mobile and AT&T have to be contacted for a code. So be sure to research beforehand if you want to switch to a local SIM card before travelling to prevent buying an expensive abroad plan or being left without the ability to make calls or use data.
Second, make sure to bring your passport with you because you will need it to register your SIM. Finally, be sure to bring a local phone number and address to give the mobile phone company. The London School’s address is Baytik-Baatyr 39 (if for some reason you are staying in a homestay and don’t yet know the address, you could use the school’s contact information for now). The number of the phone given to you by the school is written on the back. I had to pay for my SIM and phone plan in cash, but that may have been the result of a miscommunication. Regardless, paying in cash just gives you a balance that O! detracts from, so it prevents overspending on accidental charges that you may rack up.
If you don’t want to splurge on a SIM card, or think it’s too much trouble, then you can survive here without one. The dorms have WiFi (though it’s spotty sometimes), and many cafes do as well. There isn’t free WiFi everywhere, though, so be warned. You can also use What’sApp as a way to communicate with people or businesses, because everyone here seems to use it. You can also use Google Voice/Hangouts to make calls and text over WiFi. But I’ve rarely needed to call anyone in Bishkek while here. So far, I’ve used e-mail to contact the school and Facebook Messenger to stay in touch with the other students in my group, and that has worked fine. I’ve only used my phone for calling or texting to order cabs (using Namba Taxi, a local cab service recommended by the London School).
Figuring out how to navigate Bishkek was the most stressful part for me. Luckily, there is an app called 2GIS that is a godsend. It allows you to download maps for offline use, so you don’t have to use data to figure out where you are. What makes 2GIS better than Google Maps is that it shows you marshrutka and bus routes. Have no fear of catching the wrong marshrutka, because 2GIS tells you exactly which one to take. If you live at the dorm on campus, Vefa center will be your center for everything. If you live in the student house, you’ll want to get off at the orange bus stop. You are getting close to the bus stop once you pass McDoner’s and Ataturk Park. There is a tall, tan building with a karaoke club and a Nathan’s Hot Dogs that is on the corner of the street you need.
Marshrutkas and Public Transportation
So marshrutkas. Marshrutkas are crazy vans that are a primary mode of transportation here. They fly down the road and appear to be subject to no regulations. Some are very nice and comfy, while others are rickety and smelly. Rarely are there are plenty of open seats; more often they are stuffed to the gills. I’ve spent more than one marshrutka ride balancing on the steps by the door. It’s always a gamble, hopping on a marshrutka.
One ride costs 10 som ($0.14), and you pay as you get on. So it’s good to gather change for riding the marshrutka, because if you pay with anything larger than a 20, you’re going to get some glares. The price increases to 12 som ($0.17) after 9 pm. The marshrutkas also have different routes at night than during the day.his is when 2GIS comes in handy because the signs on the marshrutka windows may lie. Catching a marshrutka to the London School is easy, because it will say Vefa (Вефа) on it.
About etiquette: as a rule, everyone gives up their seat for older women. Unlike places I’ve been in the US, though, younger women (as well as men) are expected to give up their seats for older men. Marshrutkas may seem very overwhelming at first, but I prefer them to the buses. Marshrutkas are usually uncomfortable, but they are fast and frequent. You can hail a marshrutka from anywhere by waving at it, but they also always stop at bus stops with groups of people. If you want to get off somewhere that isn’t a bus stop, or if there isn’t anyone at your stop, you just ask the driver to stop. You can say “Вот пожайлуста” and that should work just fine.
The buses cost 8 som ($0.12) and are more likely to be more comfortable than a marshrutka. They are bigger, with ample room to stand, but they are much slower and run less frequently . The same seating etiquette rules apply as in a marshrutka, but unlike on the marshrutka, you pay as you exit at the front of the bus. The buses also stop running earlier in the evening than the marshrutkas do. But if you’re not in a rush and comfort is an important factor, then the buses are a good option when your destination is too far to walk to.
It took me a while to adjust to the classes at the London School. The Russian teachers know very little English, which means that the classes are conducted entirely in Russian. I enjoy the immersive learning-style because it has improved my listening and communication overall. However, it makes it difficult to fully understand definitions of new vocab or explanations of new grammar, since the teachers are unable to explain it in English. Explanations are sometimes hard to follow when they are trying to explain more abstract terms and you don’t have the vocab to talk about the situation or emotions where the new word is applied. (and at this level Russian explanations are hard for me to follow). The school says that each class focuses on different things—reading, writing, grammar, and listening—but in my experience that’s false. Each class covers reading, listening, and speaking, so the day can sometimes drag on because the class format is the same throughout the day. The homework, particularly the writing homework, can be a pain to get through because it’s entirely online and all multiple choice. Since everything is multiple choice, there is no flexibility when it comes to grading. On the weekly Friday tests, it’s normal to average 70-80 points out of 100.
My advice is not to dwell on the differences between your Russian classes in the US and Russian classes here. Take advantage of the opportunity of being in a fully-immersive classroom, and don’t get too discouraged if you aren’t doing as well here as you do at home. Also, take notes! At my university, I never took notes in class because the book provided everything we needed. That is not the case with the book the London School uses. You will need to take notes, particularly on the new vocabulary, which will be used throughout the lesson.
Food and Water
If you’re imagining that something other than a carb-heavy, bland diet is easily accessible at the school, you should change your expectations. The local food is rarely spiced, even according to Midwestern US standards. The school serves rice daily and never fails to have bread. Meals that consist entirely of brown and yellow foods is normal. Meals that consist of colorful dishes require finding a restaurant or, more likely, making your own food. That being said, I don’t think the food here is bad. I consider myself to be a bit of a picky eater, but I still always find something to eat. There are plenty of places to go out to eat, especially if you’re willing to travel to the Ala-Too Square area. If you have dietary restrictions (such as being a vegetarian or lactose intolerant) you will by no means starve. However, the contents of food are not advertised clearly, so it is not possible to always be sure what is in the food.
Not all of the water is safe to drink in Kyrgyzstan. The water from the tap should be safe from most places in Bishkek, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and buy bottled water or a water filter. Buying a water filter is cheap (about 400 som or $6), especially if you split the cost with roommates. When travelling outside of the city, always drink bottled water. Also, you’ll want to bring hand sanitizer. It’s crucial when going on excursions outside of the city because most bathrooms will be pit toilets, so no sinks!
As I mentioned previously, older women are at the top of the social ladder here. Beyond respecting the elderly, there are some additional social norms that I was not taught at orientation. The main one: don’t smile at people on the streets. This was really difficult for me the first couple of days. You don’t have to keep your head down or glare, but avoid smiling at strangers for no reason, especially if you’re a woman acknowledging a man.
Customer service is not as polite and friendly as in some places in the US. Some workers, particularly grocery clerks, can appear rude, while others greet you and smile. But don’t be mad if your waiter doesn’t treat you like an American waiter would. The service at restaurants is also much slower, so avoid eating out at a new place if you’re on a tight schedule.
Finally, what are people wearing? The dress here is more conservative than I’m accustomed to, especially in the sweltering summer heat. Men and women often wear pants as opposed to shorts, despite the heat. When going out on the weekend, many women wear low-cut shirts or tank tops, but they aren’t flaunting their legs. You can certainly wear shorts and a tank top, but most people won’t be wearing both. I’d avoid wearing crop tops that show any midriff if you’re concerned about fitting in. If you’re coming in the summer, don’t pack long sleeves and pants. While Bishkek is on the conservative side, girls don’t have to stress out about covering up, and you may not want to do so because in Bishkek the temperature is often in the 80’s.
Vefa Center and Currency Exchange
If you’re staying at the London School, the Vefa Center will likely be a frequent stop for you. It has clothing stores, restaurants, and a grocery store. It feels like a normal mall, and my favorite store, Terranova, is similar to stores like Forever 21, H&M, or Rue 21. The grocery store in the Vefa Center is bigger than the small ones you’ll find on corners, and it has everything from school supplies to hygiene products to vegetables. If you leave the London School and turn right, the Vefa Center will be on the opposite corner, just a few minutes’ walk.
When exchanging your money or using an ATM, try to stick to DemirBank. There are other ATMs that are scams and will steal your debit card information. Most places accept Visa and Mastercard, but I prefer to use cash, in part to keep track of how much I’m spending. The closest DemirBank to the school is about a 5-10 minute walk. You reach it simply by turning right, when leaving the school, to cross the street on which the Vefa Center is located (at the first stoplight). You’ll walk past a strip mall-type establishment, a freestanding honey store, and some secondhand stores. There are also currency exchanges in the Vefa Center if you have USD you want to exchange rather than using your debit card.
Ultimately, relax! You will survive Kyrgyzstan. It is very different from the US, but embrace it! You will quickly adjust to life here. Also, make friends in your program! The school organizes excursions, but you will also have free weekends to wander and explore the city. A great incentive to getting out of your room is going out with other people who also want to see what Bishkek has to offer. And you don’t want to spend every night doing nothing but studying. Go out and explore. How often are you going to be in Bishkek? Studying abroad is not just about learning from a textbook, but improving yourself by adapting to new situations. The only way you’ll learn about Kyrgyz culture and life in Bishkek is by experiencing it and seeing it at work. Not to mention, the best way to improve your Russian is by using it in everyday situations, such as ordering at a restaurant or chatting with the cab driver. There are plenty of beautiful parks, fun nightclubs, and all kinds of restaurants. Bishkek is a fun city, so go out and enjoy it!