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A Guide to Driving in Kyrgyzstan

Kamil Kaluski August 31, 2017 Featured, Submission Thursday 25 Comments

Today we have a submission from long time reader Oliver Klose, a.k.a. Sjalabais. This summer he vacationed in Kyrgyzstan, which I think is the Hawaii of central Asia. He submitted two articles, this first one of driving in Kyrgyzstan and an another on the cars that he saw there. Enjoy. -KK

Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous country wedged between Kazakhstan and China that is most definitely worth a visit for its stunning landscape, hospitable people and weird food. When preparing for a trip to Kyrgyzstan (and countries like it), you will encounter a lot of advice about driving yourself that only leaves one conclusion: Get a car with a driver, or face extinction at the hands of traffic chaos. But if you like to drive, you may choose not to listen to that advice, and here’s why.

Kyrgyzstan has some of the most amazing roads in the world. There are newly paved, silk smooth interstates as well as high standard mountain roads courtesy of a deal with China involving prison labour. You’ll find well maintained gravel roads as well as gravel roads that will shake your car’s interior to pieces and simultaneously greatly enhance your digestion. You can also find roads that will lead you to an elevation of 4000m (13,123 feet), making it possible to stretch a summerly 40C (104F) to fresh snow within one drive.

Driving in Kyrgyzstan can be a real joy if you manage to be attentive and adapt to the local driving style. But be aware that an ageing car park and a spirited approach of getting from A to B make driving in Central Asian countries roughly twice as dangerous as in the US or Europe, considering accident and traffic fatality statistics. Here are some observations from our week spent driving in the country and how to make it enjoyable rather than a knife’s edge experience.

Perfect driving stretch

Kyrgyz Drivers

Everybody will tell you that Kyrgyz drivers are the problem: Driver’s licenses are often bought rather than earned, drunk driving is an issue – countered with outrageous penalities if caught – and cars are maintained in a low-cost-fix-it-way that would make MacGyver blush. The first time you see three cars coming towards you on a two lane road, you’d be inclined to condemn Kyrgyz driving as well. But, as with most stereotypes, this is all a bit rich. 9 out of 10 drivers are very attentive, drive efficiently and have excellent control about what’s happening around their car. It’s the tenth driver that really taps the skills you earned playing GTA as a kid. A fair share of roads have no markings, and people exploit that for a sort of fluidity that actually just creates an efficient traffic flow. Why only have two lanes to an intersection when there’s space for four cars?, is a question I don’t really have a good answer to.

Older road without markings close to Naryn

From what we encountered, the worst drivers roam the capital. You’ll need to quickly learn to honk in suitable situations like going straight, going around corners, or trying to ram a stranger off the road. Be assertive! Going too slow or showing insecurity will confuse everyone and stop the chaotic, yet efficient flow of cars you’ll witness everywhere. Roundabouts for example are supposed to function as they do in Europe: Those inside have the right of way. But if you notice cars slowing down in the roundabouts, don’t linger and just grab the spot they open for you. The opposite is true if someone tries to squeeze you out of your lane: Apparently, drivers like to show intent and are prepared to brake anyway. Giving way often resulted in a “What now?”-situation where everyone just came to a standstill. Which leads to the next issue:

Gravel road near Kumtor, a gold mine that alone stands for 12% of Kyrgyzstan’s BNP.
4000 meters above sea level, with an Icelandic vibe.

Your Vehicle

As a tourist, it helps a lot to sit in a newish, heavy and powerful vehicle, like the 2003 235000km Mitsubishi Pajero we rented. The show-of-force driving style comes more natural if you can look down upon the sea of Hondas and Moskoviches. With Kyrgyzstan being a mountain hiking and skiing destination, a competent 4×4 is in any case a reliable choice. While wealthy areas are dominated by good looking Japanese used car imports, the average fare on the streets are cars that are pretty tired: Used up Chinese FAW Audi 100 without a single straight panel and – in the countryside – lots and lots of Moskoviches and Ladas must be an annoyance to rely on in any daily context. The amount of cars with open hoods along the road is crazy. If you’re used to stop and help due to a lifetime with voluntary crap car ownership, you’ll break your vacation schedule on day one. If you take a taxi or rely on being driven in any way, be aware that seatbelts are rarely used, and may even be removed in some cases. Ask about it before you get into the vehicle – after all, you’ll give up control being a passenger. More on Kyrgyz cars in the next post.

Our Pajero near Song-Kul, a summer pasture of legends.

The Police

Another major factor to account for when driving is the road police. When renting the car, it was natural to talk about the prospect of bribes in order to keep driving. People asking us about how we travel suggested specific amounts almost instantly they heard we were driving ourselves. The “prices” rise along the lines of ethnically Kyrgyz < Russian < Western tourist. The thing is, in Norway, I have been stopped by road police once in ten years, which is partly due to many communities not even budgeting for police. In Kyrgyzstan however, the police is everywhere, and they have a real impact: Spot a police car, and traffic will slow to about 2/3’s of the speed limit, everybody white knockling in the hope of not being stopped. In addition to random stops, modern handheld speed traps are in wide use.

“Can I see your papers?”

We were very lucky and got stopped only once. One of us speaks Russian and that helped a lot in that situation. Even though we were getting sucked into the regular scheme of having taken away our documents with an expectation of payments for their return to us, we managed to talk ourselves out of it. I have no experience with this kind of situation and kept insisting that our documents were fine, as was the car, and if anything was out of order, the police should call the rental company instead. Microphone and camera that some of the road police carry as an anti-corruption-measure are a great help, too. And the absolutely outstanding hospitality of the Kyrgyz people was even apparent in this situation: Us being stressed to cold sweat, the police officer and our Russian speaking mate were joking throughout the entire conversation, never uttering a hostile tone.

Chinese FAW Audi on a washboard road, ready to get shocked.

Nomad traditions and trucks with shot brakes

Something to be aware of around blind turns are herders and their animals, often deliberately choosing to walk along roads for ease of travel, even with speed limits of up to 90km/h. Several of the new roads appear to be new enough for people to not have adjusted to modern speeds, and a herder may drive his animals across the street right in front of you at any given time. Also, going on a limb here, there are a lot of trucks snailing downhill that barely exceed walking speed and our assumption was that they just don’t have much braking power left. Most of traffic seems to assume that trucks can’t brake quickly, and will give them a lot of space, so, again, do as the Romans and just don’t get in front of them.

Don’t Drive at Night

One thing we quickly learned to avoid was staying on the road too long in the evenings. A lot of drivers don’t turn on their lights, or they use the long distance beams together with fog lights and whatever illumination is at hand regardless of oncoming traffic. In either case, traffic comes out of nowhere, and cars will still be coming towards you in your lane – you’ll just have much less time to react, as do they. In addition, animals as well as drunk people might wander about or even sleep on the streets. Roadworkers who like to mark work areas with big stones are not always too preoccupied with removing these stones once they return home. In addition, secondary and definitely tertiary roads may lack road destination signs, so you may even miss your darkened exits. While driving during the day can be exhilarating and fun, driving at night comes across as exhausting and truly dangerous.

If you can read advice, following it becomes so much easier.

The sleepy town of Kochkor at dawn.

The road from the aiport to Bishkek is a fantastic new highway. Watch out for police every kilometer or so.

A pretty common vista, getting to the horizon is pure fun.

What looks like a Windows XP background is an actual, mapped road.

TL;DR:

Be attentive, be assertive, try to adapt to your surroundings, and you’ll be fine. Kyrgyzstan is blessed with heartbreakingly beautiful nature, incredibly kind people, and lots of roadside opportunities you’ll love to see and stop at from the driver’s seat.

Shaken, not stirred.

All images copyright Oliver Klose/Hooniverse 2017.

 

  • crank_case

    Sounds like an interesting if mildy stressful trip. Fair play for taking the time to put a full article together, I keep thinking I should write about some motoring related stuff from Ireland (if that interests anyone), but never quite get round to it.

    • Sjalabais

      Surprisingly, cough, I can get a bit too excited about good stuff happening. So, for me, writing this down was just fun – and a great valve to not pop the patience of the people around me with car-related travel stories. Interesting motor stories from Ireland are definitely something I’d read, too.

  • dead_elvis, inc.

    Excellent! I’m looking forward to seeing the cars of Kyrgyzstan, as well.

  • tonyola

    All this great advice was perfectly applicable to driving in Mexico in the 1970s. The only difference was no Russian vehicles.

    • Sjalabais

      Driving in Norway can be a bit like being awake among sleep walkers, driving in Kyrgyzstan was much more “alive”. Everyone seemed alert. There’s also a true feeling of time travel with this country, as a lot of people still live as herders and in semi-nomadic ways. That is sure to disappear soon. And as a former gender studies student, I find it fascinating that women in Kyrgyzstan are pretty “equal” to men in many respects, but among ethnic Kyrgyz women, about one third are still being kidnapped as brides.

      • We had several encounters where the wife was running the business, managing things, making decisions, whereas the husband started with vodka not before lunch, Mad Men style.

  • I_Borgward

    This is what I most hope to see when I come to Hooniverse: the less-trodden, off-beat paths of the automotive experience. A great post, and good work.

    I’ll take one article like this one over 10 reviews of megabuck supercars any day of the week. Reading about yet another rich man’s toy gets boring after a while, know what I mean?

  • Manic_King

    Did you try Kumis, the fermented horse milk? Mom took me to skiing trip to Kazakhstan 30 years ago and I still somehow remember how awful that drink was.

    • Sjalabais

      Yes, it is intense! All this fermented stuff…I bought something that looked like buckthorn flavoured milk, but it wasn’t. One of my friends was close to throwing up just smelling it, but I had to taste. Paid for it for three days…I’d love to hear more about your trip though. Kazakhstan must have felt like an entirely different planet 30 years ago.

      • Manic_King

        Tbh., it was very similar to vistas on your photos. Almaty was then capital of country, current capital city, fancy Astana, built from a scratch to empty steppe, is a much newer idea of their dictator. So we flew to Almaty (my longest flight during soviet times, IL-62 with impossibly glamorous crew, food was boiled chicken IIRC, god-awful). Had day there, during which horse milk was offered in central market….and we missed the tracked truck which should have taken us 20 km uphill to skiing place called Shymbulak (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shymbulak) from the semi-famous Medeu ice-stadium, so as truck was once a week transport, we had no other way but to go uphill, by foot. With the skis and other equipment. I was 10 yo. so my crazy mother had to carry everything, basically. Somehow we made it, alive, in the dark. There was 2 or so lifts and non-working rusty 1-person chairlift. Skiing was great and hut where we lived in was cozy. and truck took us back to city.

        • I was there ten years ago, and I confirm that the vistas hardly changed. I think that’s rather the expertise of Dr. Harrell.

          Kumis was, um, interesting, tastes like cardboard-imbued buttermilk.

  • JayP

    I think I’d like it there.
    As my inner redneck would say…

  • Gorgeous, good to see you back in one piece, and thank you for sharing!

  • Troggy

    I love stories like this. I feel that driving the roads in a foreign country is just as much a cultural experience as eating the local food or listening to their music. And far better than listening to a tour guide prattle on.
    Whenever a tour guide starts up, I’m instead watching the locals driving habits, the types of cars and bikes they drive and how they like to modify them. The traffic sometimes looks chaotic and sometimes downright terrifying to a tourist, but once you get into it things make a sort of sense.
    My favourite ‘cultural driving’ experience was the first time I got to drive a Ferrari. What meant more to me wasn’t the fact that I was driving one of my dream cars, it was that my passenger was giving me instruction on how they drive in France.
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Sjalabais

      When was that? I remember our first trip to France in 1990. Back then, it was really hard to find a car without battle scars. People would park tight and in order to get out of their spots, bumpers were used actively. On the three lane highways from Charles de Gaulle to the city, people would drive with up to six cars next to each other. Honking was the audio backdrop of every street everywhere. That is all gone today as Frenchmen actually are pretty polite and law abiding drivers today. Strange to witness that change in just…well 27 years. And thanks for the kind words, I figured the ‘verse was a great community to share this with.

      • Troggy

        It was 2014. I didn’t drive in any real traffic, it was in the hills somewhere between Nice and Monaco. It was also the first time I had ever driven a car on the ‘wrong’ side of the road (for me). I’d ridden bikes in RHD countries without trouble – the mirrors and controls are all the same, but a car was something else altogether, let alone a Ferrari F430.
        The traffic looked pretty chaotic in the built-up areas, but all I had to remember was that nobody checks their mirrors, and nobody expects you to either. So if traffic is converging or merging, whoever is in front pretty much gets right of way. It makes sense to me. Everybody is looking in the direction they are going in, not behind them.

  • dr zero

    Thanks to Sjalabais for the insight into what looks like an amazing trip around a pretty unknown country.

  • Absolutely fantastic. I love driving in challenging conditions, but Kyrgystan might well be pushing it.

  • Smaglik

    Great article. It’s amazing how less distracted the drivers are when there is so much to pay attention to. I’ve visited the Philippines a handful of times, and struggle to recall ever waiting behind someone on their phone behind the wheel of a vehicle. You snooze, you lose… Literally.

    • Sjalabais

      Yeah, it’s terrifying and amazing all at the same time. The thought of buying an old Moskovich for pocket change, then drive it across Central Asia and back home comes sneaking 20 times a day on a vacation like this. But there’s not enough of a safety net sitting in a 40 year old Soviet trap…a modern SUV is paramount.

      • Smaglik

        I would tend to agree. The times we’ve had rentals in the Philippines, they were mostly compact Toyotas…Vios was the model. On one trip down the side of the island, I over cooked the fuel pump, and we had to wait for it to cool down. Less than ideal. Speeds were overall pretty tame, since there really aren’t that many wide open spaces, so I didn’t feel that exposed. Plus, a 2012 compact Toyota is head over heels more safe than, well, any of the above choices.

  • alboalt

    Beautiful