Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan Report of what it's like to live there - 08/24/18

Personal Experiences from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 08/24/18

Background:

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

Many other experiences in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

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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?

The US. Getting here is usually quite the challenge. The most common routing is via somewhere in Europe to Istanbul, and then on Turkish to Bishkek. It's also possible to go via Dubai on Emirates/FlyDubai, Air Astana via Europe and Kazakhstan, or on Aeroflot via Moscow. Figure a good 24 hours at a minimum. Almaty (Kazakhstan) is a 4-hour drive away, and has lots of options to Europe and Asia.

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3. How long have you lived here?

18 months.

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

US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

Most families are in large houses in the southern part of the city. There are a few apartments downtown, although the trend seems to be to move more people out of apartments into houses for seismic safety reasons. Apartments and houses are spacious, although with odd layouts and decor. Houses tend to have yards and ample outdoor space. Commute times range from 10 to 30 minutes.

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

For a small city that is far from the big cities of Europe and Asia, Bishkek has a surprisingly good selection of supplies. The brands are different (Russian, Turkish, Chinese), but the quality of most things are good. Western dairy products are about the only thing that is really hard to find, and expensive when you do. Fruit and veggies cost next to nothing in season, and are some of the tastiest you will ever try.

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

Cooking oils, including olive oil and peanut oil. Spices for cooking Thai, Indian, or Mexican food. The usual "homesick" items like peanut butter. Between what is available locally and the embassy commissary, we really can get nearly everything. And Amazon is always there to supplement dry goods as needed.

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

There is a decent selection of restaurants. Russian, Korean, Chinese, Turkish, Thai, Indian, Georgian are all available, in addition to typical Central Asian fare. Namba Food is a delivery service that will bring pretty much anything in the city to your door. We've found the food to be much better than anticipated here.

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

Nope.

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Daily Life:

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

Diplomatic pouch. Packages take anywhere from ten days to six weeks. Three to four weeks is the average, depending on timing of the cargo flights.

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

Most people hire a driver, at least for the first few months before their cars arrive. Pretty much everyone with kids has a nanny, and most employ a housekeeper part-time as well. US$300-400 monthly for drivers, US$400-700 for nannies, and around $2-3/hour for household help. Those that have a command of English usually make more. Many people really like their nannies, and most have worked for expat families for a long time. They know each other, and are good about organizing playdates, cooking classes, performances, etc for the kids. Most household helpers are kind and honest, but there have been issues. Being very clear with expectations is critical. There are more household help job seekers than expats.

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

In Bishkek, all nice restaurants and grocery stores take credit cards, and I've never heard of any issues with fraud. You'll need cash for small purchases, taxis, shopping at the markets, and for many places outside of Bishkek.

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

Russian is the language of Bishkek, and is the most useful for daily life here. Most expats learn enough to get by, and that is usually fine for day-to-day survival. The more Russian you can learn before arrival, the easier life is here. Kyrgyz is useful if you do lots of work in the countryside, and especially in Osh and southern Kyrgyzstan. Very few expats learn Kyrgyz, but local ethnic Kyrgyz very much appreciate it. Private language tutors are cheap, but the methodology is very soviet and therefore many expats give up after a few attempts.

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Transportation:

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

We aren't allowed to use local buses. Namba taxi is the local version of Uber, and is safe and affordable. The airport has a special airport taxi counter with fixed rates into the city. You'll never pay more than about 6 USD anywhere in the city, with 9-10 for the airport. You can charter a car and driver for very reasonable rates as well.

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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?

High clearance would be good given the state of the roads. 4WD if you are into hiking and exploring the mountains. Snow tires are essential in the winter as the roads aren't plowed and you will spend half of the year driving on sheets of ice. Note that pretty much every car known to planet earth can be found here, with left and right-hand drive vehicles common. Like everywhere, the big Japanese and Korean car brands tend to be the best.

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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?

Our internet was set up prior to arrival and has been fast and reliable. We pay US$80/month and can stream movies and call with Facetime with no problems. Some neighborhoods have more issues with internet, but on the whole it is far better than what we've had elsewhere.

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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?

Local SIM cards are dirt cheap and come with more data and minutes that we could ever use. Bring an unlocked smartphone Beeline and Megacom are the big providers, with a few new companies trying to break into the market.

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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?

Pretty much no entry requirements, other than the usual vaccines and a health certificate. Note that because of the difficult flight connections, getting a pet here is a challenge but certainly doable. Several decent vets are available for basic care, but bring you pet meds with you. Bishkek has many strays, especially outside of the downtown areas, so caution is needed when walking your dog. Traditionally, Kyrgyz people only keep dogs as guard animals, but this is rapidly changing especially among the upper classes of society.

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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?

The local international schools often need teachers. Working elsewhere would require fluent Russian at a minimum, and the pay would be next to nothing.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Plenty of organizations and plenty of need in the country.

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

Formal at work and for events.

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Health & Safety:

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

The biggest danger is the reckless driving habits. I would describe the driving and pedestrian behavior as incompetent at best. Thankfully, it's pretty hard to go too fast on the roads here, especially in the winter. We feel very safe here; you will see families out walking late at night. There were security issues many years ago in South Kyrgyzstan, but these areas are much safer than before.

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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?

Medevac for pretty much anything. Local health care is pretty bad for anything beyond the most minor issue. Some screening procedures (e.g. ultrasounds, x-rays) are ok to be done, and there are a couple of good dentists in town. Otherwise, you're headed at least to Dubai, if not Europe for anything more serious.

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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?

During the summer the sunny blue skies are the norm. In the winter, the coal-burning power plants kick in and toxic mist covers much of the city. Coupled with the tendency of people to burn trash and keep private coal heaters, the air can be just awful in the winter. Snow tends to clear out the air, but we can have days of fog/smog covering the city. It's not as bad as China, but as we don't have good air quality monitoring yet, we don't really know how bad it is. Everyone has air purifiers for the winter.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

It can get a bit dusty in the summer, but otherwise the dry air keeps pollen and other allergens down.

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

Four distinct seasons. The climate is similar to Montana, or like Denver but a bit colder. Hot, dry summers with the occasional thunderstorm. Beautiful spring with mild temperatures and occasional rain. Snowy winters, but not too horribly cold. Bishkek is in a valley, so we are always a bit warmer in the winter than other cities. Fall is pleasant as well. We are on the edge of a desert, so low humidity and dry conditions are common.

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Schools & Children:

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

QSI and ESCA (BIS) are the two most popular choices. ESCA currently gets the better reviews, although they actually filled up in certain grades. QSI has had some long-standing administrative issues, but many kids still go there.

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2. 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?

Hugh number of preschools, including at least two Montessori programs. Costs are low and parents seems pretty happy with them. QSI also offers English-language preschool, but it is much more expensive from what I hear.

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Expat Life:

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

Morale at the embassy is really good. People seem to really like it here and describe it as one of their favorite posts. The expat community is small, but friendly.

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

The Bishkek International Women's Club (BWIC) organizes a decent number of get-togethers, as well as several parties each year. Hiking and skiing are very popular, and given the massive mountains on our doorstep, lots of opportunities for trekking and exploring exist.

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

The embassy has a large number of families, especially with small children. Families love it because of the safety, cheap household help, and decent schools in the lower grades. Singles and couples do ok; there are social opportunities but the city isn't that large. Regional travel is challenging with few flights and visa restrictions. The happiest people without families are those that love the outdoors.

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

Most Kyrgyz are warm and curious about foreigners, and I've never encountered any hostility for being from elsewhere.

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

The beautiful snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains outside the window every day. Exploring the nearby hikes and parks. Skiing for a fraction of what it costs in the US/Europe. Yurt camping at Song Kul. Exploring the silk road cities in south Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

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

The scenery is amazing, the cost of living is low, and the people are friendly. It is a family-friendly post with high morale and a strong community.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

We anticipated life here being much harder. We didn't realize how pleasant and enjoyable this tour would be.

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

Yes, absolutely.

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

Surfboard, scuba gear, belief that lanes are necessary on a road.

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4. But don't forget your:

Skis, hiking boots, snow tires, and taste for mutton.

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