The Cars of Kyrgyzstan


This is the second submission from long time reader Oliver Klose, a.k.a. Sjalabais. This summer he vacationed in Kyrgyzstan, which I think is the Bora Bora of central Asia. He submitted two articles, this first one of driving in Kyrgyzstan and this second one on the cars that he saw there. Enjoy. -KK
Central Asia has an interesting history. Often referred to as The Great Game, the saying goes that big powers – mostly Britain, Russia and China – have for centuries tried to influence these beautiful countries with varying degrees of success (Afghanistan, anyone?). That is reflected by an incredibly diverse carscape still solidly shaped by politics.
As a country that came into being by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan obviously has a great choice of Russian machinery still visible in traffic. The Moskovich above is a typical candidate, still very prominent in the countryside. But also the staple of Russian-sphere roads, the Lada, is everywhere in all possible iterations.


A Kyrgyz flag close to the windscreen is said to be a good investment to set the mood with traffic police and, really, anybody you might meet – or so we heard. Here’s our rental compared to some other tourist’s travel approach: Hiring a taxi to drive them around, not an uncommon strategy, as paying for a driver and his accomodation can even be cheaper than renting a proper SUV.

What do you get with a high density of Ladas? A whole Lada trouble.

We even spotted one of the most derided cars of the Soviet sphere, an Oltcit:

But a less selective look reveals another truth about the Kyrgyz car park: The popularity of Japanese imports:

What really hit me the first day, was that the two cars I chose on the ground of basically two variables for our household in Norway – reliability and rarity – are among the top 5 most popular cars in Kyrgyzstan: Honda Stream and Toyota Camry. Here’s a stream-lined intersection in Bishkek, the capital:

A quick look at https://autobaza.kg/ and https://m.cars.kg/ confirms my suspicion, even though I gravitate towards inherently more entertaining machinery instantly. The Honda Stpwgn, Spike and other utility boxes are common in wealthier areas.


 
An influx of RHD cars arrived in Kyrgyzstan when neighbouring Kazakhstan suddenly prohibited RHD cars, a political change that was a blessing to the Kyrgyz people: Relatively new, reliable cars were suddenly available cheap right at the border. If you park in a car park, there will be ticket machines on both your left and right hand side, so Kyrgyzstan has adapted to this. Some of the wild attempts at passing traffic we witnessed were probably just RHD drivers having to get far out into the opposite lane in order to see if they can pass. And why not proceed when you’re first out that far?


 
The Honda Aspire. It looks the more stylish, the more carved from one piece of Nippon steel, the closer it is parked to a Lada 4×4. This Honda V6 though leaves me a bit baffled: Is this a flavour of Accord?:


 
Vans in general are popular. Another Honda in the mountain hub of Karakol, a city with a vibe comparable to Jasper in Canada:

The Toyota Wish looks almost European, but like the Honda Stream/Jade, it is a bit lower, a bit sportier looking than our average MPV fare:


 
Yet, there are some cars that are the equivalent of white socks in sandals, screaming: «I’m all about utility», and Mitsubishi’s got you covered:


 
Getting out of the city again, the carscape changed a little to older cars. European cars were visible, but not too common, pretty popular though was this generation Passat:

Another car that truly was everywhere: The Chinese FAW Audi 100. It’s hard to tell if they hold up well or if there’s a supply that never dries up from China, but they all looked battered. It was also interesting for us that Gazprom and Rosneft were highly prestigious gas stations which could demand higher prices than everyone else: These chains don’t water down their petrol. You could buy petrol as low as 80 octane in Kyrgyzstan to begin with, so it’s no problem to get into trouble by picking the wrong pump.

Not sure if Lenin would have approved of all of this:

 
If you ever wondered what exactly the difference was between a Camry and a Windom, Kyrgyz roads leave ample space to study these super similar Toyota sedans right next to each other.

Another very interesting bit of car-political talk I was told was that Kyrgyzstan «being made join» the Russian lead customs union, designed for the car manufacturing motherland, had a massive impact on the carscape. Suddenly, import taxes on both used and new cars, made importing them prohibitively expense. So for now, sadly for the average Kyrgyz on their average monthly salary of less than $300, new, and especially fancy cars remain behind fences…

…while the time-honed tradition of recycling other people’s transport remains a reality. Just imagine freezing an entire car market in time like that – new changes should be on the horizon. People talk about a less strict import system for used cars from Russia; guess to whose benefit that would be?

The truckscape is still firmly dominated by Kamaz in all sorts of applications.

Note the «Kässbohrer» wheel cover:


Also the ZIl 130-series is a very common sight, one of the beefiest looking pieces of machinery I know of.





 
Its older cousins and other Soviet trucks become the more visible, the further away you get from big cities.



 

The trolley busses of Bishkek are pretty iconic:


 
…and they seem to hold up well. Much better, apparently, then some of the early 2000s Chinese models. A vast majority of them hump about in a way that leaves no doubt about the condition of the shocks and springs, and their panels look like hot dishwasher shrinked plastic. In accordance to that, here’s a really bad picture of one, in a typical Bishkek street scene:

The absolute #1 mode of transportation though are the so-called «marshrutkas»: Minibusses on a schedule, driving all over the country for a very low fare. Guide books are coloured by some sort of scared fascination for them, and tell tales of sharing seats with pocket thieves and chicken. Probably are very good way to travel if you want to get in touch with «the locals»:

Otherwise, used American and European trucks are popular, too. Mercedes, MAN, Scania, DAF and Volvo more often than not carry advertisement for German companies. Driving on the road to the Kumtor gold mine at 4000 meters elevation, trucks coming towards us were made all over the world.


 


You would also be excused to think that what’s in the frame here is a Mercedes, too. But, no, it is a Sinotruck. They have a range of models excellently copying the appearance of Mercedes, MAN and Volvo.
 


Something that the Uzbek toy industry wasn’t slow to pick up on:

But there are a lot of other Chinese truck makers, just one example:

Agricultural equipment we saw remains, for the most part, antiquated:




 
The wheels on the bus go round no more, round no more:

Of course, I saved my favourites for the end: GAZ cars are another regular sight. Many a Volga 24 and its cousins appear to be taken well care of:

Which can not be said about all of them, of course, and even the trusty M21 may end up like this:

All images copyright Oliver Klose/Hooniverse 2017.

About the Author:

East Coast Editor. Races crappy cars and has an unhealthy obsession with Eastern Bloc cars. Current fleet: 4Runner, Integra, Regal, Lada