What makes Kyrgyzstan a unique country to travel to?
The Kyrgyz Republic is a mountainous country of 5.5 million people. In April 2010, violence led to the collapse of the previous government and the subsequent formation of a provisional government. In June 2010, inter-ethnic violence killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands in the south of the country. The provisional government successfully held a constitutional referendum in June and parliamentary elections took place without violence in October 2010. A new government was formed on December 17, 2010. The country held competitive presidential elections in October 2011, and President Atambayev took office on December 1, 2011. Though the referendum and both elections took place without incident, unrest and ethnic tensions could flare up unexpectedly.
Despite recent economic growth and modest natural resources, the country grapples with substantial poverty, and the tourist industry is not highly developed. Air and land travel internally and to neighboring countries is limited and can be subject to delays due to infrastructure shortcomings and winter weather. Rural and urban areas are subject to power, natural gas, and water outages, leaving many homes without running water, heat, or electricity at times.
The U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to exercise caution in urban areas of the Kyrgyz Republic due to the high rate of violent crime against foreigners. There have been reports of violent muggings of foreigners in downtown Bishkek at night. Other common crimes include auto theft and pick pocketing in crowded places such as markets, internet cafes, and on public transportation.
After dark, travelers should not take public transportation or walk outside and should be extremely cautious in or near hotels, bars, parks, and all places that attract an expatriate clientele. The U.S. Embassy advises its employees to avoid the use of unlicensed cabs and recommends using only radio dispatched taxis. Travelers arriving at Manas International Airport should arrange their transportation from the airport in advance. There have been reports of U.S. citizens who were robbed by groups of young men who had followed them back to their residences from hotels and bars. In addition, U.S. citizens have been victims of rape, assault, and kidnapping in the past in the Kyrgyz Republic. Police officers rarely speak English and there are no victims’ assistance programs available. Medical care and counseling services for victims are limited.
Harassment and extortion by people who purport to be Kyrgyz police officers take place occasionally. According to Kyrgyz law, any person claiming to be a police officer must show identifying documents on demand. U.S. citizens should not act upon requests by people, whether in civilian dress or in police uniform, if they have no official identification. U.S. citizens also should not get into cars with anyone they do not know, even if the person claims to be a police officer.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, if you purchase them you may be breaking local law. You could be prosecuted under U.S. law for pirated goods you purchased in the Kyrgyz Republic.
While you are traveling in the Kyrgyz Republic, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. In some places, it is illegal to take pictures of certain buildings. In some places, driving under the influence could land you immediately in jail. These criminal penalties will vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States, and you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. If you break local laws in the Kyrgyz Republic, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not wherever you go. .
In the Kyrgyz Republic, you may be taken in by police for questioning if you do not have your passport with you. Driving under the influence of alcohol, no matter how little you consumed, is considered a serious offense.
Persons violating Kyrgyz Republic laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking in illegal drugs in the Kyrgyz Republic are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
While some countries will automatically notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate if a U.S. citizen is detained or arrested in a foreign country, that might not always be the case. To ensure that the United States is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as you are arrested or detained overseas.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical services in the Kyrgyz Republic are extremely limited. Elderly travelers and those with existing health problems may be at risk due to inadequate medical facilities. Medications such as insulin and pain medications that are commonly available elsewhere may not be available in the Kyrgyz Republic or may be restricted. The U.S. Embassy strongly recommends that travelers to the Kyrgyz Republic carry medical evacuation insurance in case of emergency.
Safety and Security
Bishkek is a large city of 1.1 million people. The greatest threats to tourists and travelers are traffic accidents and street crime. That said, the country continues to stabilize itself after the violence of 2010. Terrorism is an enduring threat, especially in the southern part of the country.
The Department of State suggests that U.S. citizens limit travel to the Batken Oblast where violence broke out several times in recent years. Ethnic, political, and socio-economic tensions continue to exist in southern Kyrgyzstan, including the cities of Osh and Jalalabad, the second and third largest cities in Kyrgyzstan, although there have been no widespread incidents of violence since 2010. As of December 2012, however, the immediate threat of violence appears to have subsided in the south, although ethnic, political, and socio-economic tensions continue to exist.
Travel of U.S. government employees to Batken is currently restricted. Land mines in Batken Oblast and near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border continue to be a concern. Areas along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders continue to have small, but sometimes violent and deadly, skirmishes between border guards on both sides, and often include civilians. Organized crime and narcotics trafficking are widespread in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In late 2010, Kyrgyz security forces carried out a series of operations against groups the government claims are Islamic extremists seeking to destabilize the country. These security operations resulted in the death or arrest of several suspects, and several members of the Kyrgyz security forces. These militants are blamed for carrying out a home invasion, planting a car bomb near a Bishkek police station, and detonating an improvised explosive device outside the venue of a large trial in downtown Bishkek resulting in some property damage and minor injuries.
In late November 2010, Kyrgyz Special Forces mounted an operation against suspected terrorists in Osh, resulting in the deaths of all four suspects and the wounding of two special-forces officers. In October 2012, the Kyrgyz government also arrested five individuals with alleged ties to terrorists and extremist groups. Additionally, Kyrgyz security officials found and confiscated large caches of weapons, including machine guns and explosive materials.
Though the situation is now relatively stable, demonstrations can break out without advance notice. During times of political unrest, demonstrators often gather in front of the Presidential Administration building (White House), the Parliament, and on Alatoo Square in Bishkek’s city center. The Embassy does not always have advance information regarding demonstrations. All U.S. citizens are reminded to avoid the vicinity of any protests, because even protests that are intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in the Kyrgyz Republic, you may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. Accidents involving severe injury and/or death are not uncommon. Drunk driving and hit-and-run accidents are significant problems and drivers should exercise particular caution and use defensive driving techniques, especially at night and on holidays. In the event of an accident where there is an injury, emergency medical assistance may be very slow to respond. Even if medical assistance does arrive in a timely manner, treatment and facilities available at local clinics may not meet U.S. standards.
Most of the Kyrgyz Republic’s road infrastructure consists of two-lane roads, many of which have fallen into disrepair and are poorly marked and lit. Many local drivers disobey fundamental traffic laws by not stopping at red lights, driving while intoxicated, passing vehicles when it is dangerous or prohibited to do so, or not stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks and intersections.
Drivers must exercise particular caution to avoid uneven pavement, potholes, open drains, and uncovered manholes. Night driving should be avoided, as roads are inadequately lit. In winter, roads are seldom plowed and ice and snow make the poor driving conditions even more hazardous. Pedestrians routinely walk in the road, often wearing dark clothes at night. Mountain roads in the Kyrgyz Republic are often narrow and treacherous, and may close without notice due to snow, ice, or rockslides. Guardrails and barriers preventing falling rocks are often missing. Driving through mountain passes in the winter can be very dangerous. The Kyrgyz Republic does not have a roadside assistance infrastructure. Towing companies do not exist. Although mechanics are available in cities there is little organized oversight or certification of their practices or abilities. Rest areas are infrequent and basic. Service stations are generally available in and near cities, but the fuel they provide may be adulterated or of poor quality.
The road between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, is especially unsafe at night or during poor weather. Travel on this route after dark by U.S. Embassy personnel is restricted.
The legal blood alcohol level for driving in the Kyrgyz Republic is zero. Generally, speed limits are 60 km per hour in the cities and 90 km per hour in rural areas. Kyrgyz law mandates that all automobile passengers wear seat belts and that motorcycle riders wear helmets. International driving permits are recognized in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Drivers may face harassment by traffic police, who have been known to demand payment of arbitrary "fines" for purported infractions. According to Kyrgyz law, payment of traffic fines must be made at local banks rather than directly to the traffic police.
Public transportation in the Kyrgyz Republic is limited to buses, taxis, and very few intercity trains. Travelers should be particularly careful when using public transportation. Buses tend to be very crowded and can be unsafe and unreliable. Taxis too can be dangerous. Due to the danger of theft or assault, travelers should avoid entering a cab that already contains passengers. Taxis are seldom metered, and travelers should negotiate a fare prior to entering a cab and be aware that cab drivers often try to charge foreigners a high fare. Drivers of vehicles that are not taxis are often willing to drive people for fares. However, U.S. citizens should avoid using these "private taxis" and unmarked taxis.