Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Report of what it's like to live there - 12/17/11

Personal Experiences from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 12/17/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

Harare, Srimangal, Washington DC, Delhi, Brussels.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From the US East Coast it is 8 hours to London, then 9 hours to Bishkek. Alternatively, 10 hours to Istanbul and 5 hours to Bishkek.

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3. How long have you lived here?

15 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Overseas assignment.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The maximum commute would be 25-30 minutes, if you deliberately live far from your office and leave at the peak of the rush hour. But traffic densities are visibly increasing from year to year. Housing is easy to find: Soviet era apartments, modern apartments and modern houses are all on the market. The critical thing is to make sure that the utilities are working reliably, especially heating.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Two supermarket chains (Narodny and Beta) sell mostly Kyrgyz, Russian and Turkish groceries. There are specialised Korean and Chinese groceries. Clean and well-organised markets around the city sell fresh produce. Prices range from good value to dirt-cheap. Chinese and Turkish clothing and footwear are easily available.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

You can have a good Russian, Chinese, Indian or western meal for about $10/head. There are two fast-food chains (Begemot and Domino) which sell ok burgers and little else for $1.

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

There is no reliable certification of organic produce, but much of the meat, fruit and veg for sale is said to be organic anyway. Gluten-free products are not available; neither are manufactured meat substitutes, unless you count tofu.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

The insect life is surprisingly benign. Even in high summer in Bishkek, mosquitoes are not a problem.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I get friends to mail for me. Even a postcard home took about 2 months.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, though of course not to the standard of suburban America.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATMs are easily available in Bishkek. Some of them dispense US dollars. Most businesses do business in both dollars and local currency, and there is a free and extremely efficient trade between the two currencies, with money changers all over the city.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

The main cable TV channel offers a good enough selection of English-language channels. Books, newspapers, and magazines for sale locally are in Russian or Kyrgyz.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English does not take you far. Expats mostly learn enough Russian or Kyrgyz to deal with plumbers, taxis, markets, etc.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

This person would be dependent on their own resources. Local people with impaired mobility are often housebound as a consequence.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Some expats use local city buses, which run to clear, organised routes, but can get extremely crowded at peak times. Taxis cost $2-3 to go from one side of town to the other, and can be ordered by phone from some well-recognized companies. You can pick up a taxi on the street, but there is a very slight risk attached.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Bishkek is the final resting place for every type of vehicle known to man: Ladas mingle with American Lexuses, German station wagons and Japanese minivans. Take something rugged and simple that likes potholes and ice. If you buy a new car, it will soon get its first dent.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

The fastest consumer broadband, which can just about stream a YouTube video on a good day, costs about $55/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

A SIM card costs $3-5 and you're off. Beeline and Megacom are the biggest networks. For $10 you can get a "VIP" phone number.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Most expats with pets entrust them to a friend or gardener when away. There are good enough veterinary services in Bishkek. Samson clinic is recommended.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

To give an idea of the local job market, an executive assistant with a degree and fluent in English, Russian and Kyrgyz would earn about $7 an hour. For those without fluent Russian, the opportunities are limited to specialist assignments with international organizations, teaching, and volunteering.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Formal at work.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

It's fairly safe, so long as you're sensible. There are stories of drunks getting mugged coming out of bars and of policemen trying to get foreigners to turn out their wallets.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Road safety is probably the greatest health hazard. The health care infrastructure is rudimentary and underfunded. An expat with acute appendicitis, for example, was operated on in a public hospital and then medevaced to Istanbul as soon as possible to convalesce.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Mostly good, though there are parts of Bishkek that suffer from the combined heating and power plant's emissions in winter.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The climate is continental. Early morning in January might be -20 degrees Celsius. Mid-afternoon in July might be +40 degrees in the shade.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There is a QSI School which follows the US curriculum. It's small and the academic level is just about acceptable until age 13, after which the classes become tiny. Another US-model school is the Hope Academy, which has a strong missionary influence. There is a new European School, founded in 2011, which hopes to make a mark.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Not really.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

It depends what you count as expat. The western community is smallish and close-knit, unless you count the US base at Manas airport.

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2. Morale among expats:

Morale is high among those with a job. For those without it is important to keep busy.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

If you like making friends, you will make them, entertain, and be entertained.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Very few people complain about life in Bishkek. Morale is high. Single men seem not to remain single long in Bishkek.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Bishkek boasts a small gay scene, but the city is where it is.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Bishkek people are familiar with African-Americans from the US airbase, though there is some giggling and staring, mostly from teenage girls. Kyrgyz women have a reputation for feistiness, and have no problem speaking their mind, at least in Bishkek and the north. Women can dress pretty much as they like - and do. Relations are good enough between European Russians and Asian Kyrgyz. There was brutal fighting in 2010 between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, but expats are unlikely to meet anything more serious by way of ethnic prejudice than curiosity and the very occasional drunken outburst.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Learning Russian, fruit that tastes like fruit, surprising kindnesses, trips to the mountains, eating out, the state opera, and ballet.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Hiking, riding, skiing, opera, ballet, eating.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Vodka, furry hats and felt cushion covers.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Bishkek is one of the world's least expensive capital cities. In the summer months Kyrgyzstan's unspoilt mountain scenery is a paradise for hikers and horse-riders. There is a good choice of organizations that will arrange itineraries, guides and accommodation. There are beach-side resorts, ranging from Soviet to 4* quality, on Issyk-Kul lake. The people of Kyrgyzstan are generally open-minded and welcoming to foreigners. Visitors are unlikely to be hassled, and will make friendships if they are able to surmount the language barrier. The climate is pleasant from May to October, with an abundance of fruit and fresh produce. Summers are positively Mediterranean, but the less said about the winters the better. Bishkek is good for eating out on the cheap. Visitors from all other central Asian countries are jealous of our range of restaurants.

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11. Can you save money?

If you can't save money here, you never will. How much can a person spend on felt cushion covers ?

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Fear of cholesterol.

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3. But don't forget your:

Russian verbs of motion.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Still waiting to be written.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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