General information about Kirghistan
The roots of Kirghistan lie in a nomadic lifestyle and the rituals of the Moslem faith. Hardly any country shows the varied history and the heterogeneous nature of Central Asia better than Kirghistan: the differences between the different ethnic groups, the socio-economic and cultural divides, regional differences in the course of colonisation, Islamisation and differentiation between the tribes.
The 4.6 million inhabitants of Kirghistan, of which 80% are Sunni Moslems, include 80 different peoples and ethnic groups. As with Turkey, the State considers itself to be secular, and although Islam is the prevalent religion in the country, it does not count as the State religion. Since 1991, after the collapse of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), Kirghistan has been an independent state in Central Asia. The constitution of Kirghistan, from May 1993 is orientated to western models, above all to the German constitution. The enclosed geographical position, the legacy of decades of planned economy and an inadequate infrastructure are the greatest problems for Kirghistan and its economy. However, in the region, Kirghistan is considered to be a leader in economic reforms and readily accepts foreign investment and political support. Apart from natural resources, the main exports of Kirghistan are wool and electricity.
Kirghistan is bounded to the north by Kazakhstan, in the east and south east by China, in the south west by Tajikistan, and in the west by Uzbekistan. With a total area of 198,500 square kilometres, Kirghistan is only about half the size of Germany. Bishkek, formerly Frunse, is the capital city and also the largest city in the country.
Kirghistan is mainly dominated by high mountains. Large parts of the country belong to the Tian Shan mountain range. The border with China also runs across the 7,429 metre high Pik Pobedy, the highest mountain in the country and the second highest peak in the former USSR. In the south of Kirghistan are the Alai and Transalai mountains as well as the foothills of the Pamir. Overall, over 50 percent of the area of the country is at an altitude of over 2,500 metres. Glaciers and permanent snow cover over three percent of the country.
Over half of the land is drained by the Naryn and other tributaries of the Syrdarja. Many small and medium sized rivers rise in the north of the country, only to soak away in the desert and semi-desert of Southern Kazakhstan. The largest lake in the republic is the Issykkul, which is situated about 1,600 metres above sea level. In general, steppes and alpine vegetation are predominant in Kirghistan. 3.5 percent of the country is covered by forest. Kirghistan is the home of many rare species, including the Tian Shan brown bear (Ursus arctus isabellinus), the red wolf and the snow leopard.
The climate is continental with large fluctuations in temperature over the year. The temperatures include such extremes of heat and frost that average values for the climate are almost meaningless. The average minimum is in January, the maximum in July. In the mountains the temperature falls by 2 degrees for every 300 metres of altitude. The annual rainfall is usually low. At lower altitudes, 300 millimetres are only rarely exceeded. On mountain slopes exposed to the prevailing west winds, 1000 millimetres can be attained.
Due to the desert-like structure in Kazakhstan it can be relatively cool in towards evening, even in the summer months. Therefore, even in this travelling period you should pack warm, windproof clothing. It is important to pack a sun hat, suncream and a good pair of sunglasses with UV protection for hot sunny days.
The traditional cuisine in Kirghistan originates from a nomadic lifestyle and is characterised by a limited number of ingredients, simple preparation and high calories. Staple foods are different types of dough products such as bread and noodles, as well as meat. The ingredients are mainly left in their natural state. Seasonings only round off the taste. It should be noted that the dishes are very fatty. In spite of a variegated history and the immigration of various peoples, the culinary range is not very broad. The most common meat is mutton, which is appreciated most if it is served with lots of its own fat. For special guests, the boiled head of the animal is served, and individual parts such as eyes, ears or the tongue are served to the individual guests, accompanied with flowery suggestions. The traditional shepherds' drink, Kymys (fermented mare's milk) is served as a beverage, and large quantities of vodka are drunk. In the larger towns, Western cuisine has gradually become established.
Tourism in Kirghistan is still in its infancy. Except for the large hotels in the capital, the accommodation in the country does not come up to international standards. Hotels and hostels in rural areas are usually of "scouting" standard. For these, as well as for camping accommodation, it is therefore important to bring your own sleeping bag.
The currency of Kirghistan is the Som, which is divided into 100 Tiyin. At the beginning of 2007 the exchange rate was about 41 Som for one US Dollar and about 54 Som for one Euro. Before entering the country it is advisable to pack enough cash in Euro, and to exchange this for Som in Bishkek. This is difficult in the provinces, as the banks only have small amounts of cash. In Bishkek the currencies of neighbouring countries and Russian Rubels can also be exchanged without problems. It is advisable to compare the exchange rates and to avoid illicit exchangers, as these are very nimble-fingered. The few ATMs in Bishkek issue money with Visa, Master and American Express credit cards, however, a commission is charged. Travellers' cheques are only rarely cashed, and only with a large commission.
International telephone calls from Kirghistan cost approximately one Euro for two minutes. The dialling code to Kirghistan is 00996 and from Kirghistan to Germany 0049. The police number is 102 and the number for the emergency doctor is 103.
The local doctors and their diagnostic skills can be trusted. However, particularly in the provinces, the equipment of the surgeries, clinics or hospitals is very meagre. In case of serious illness you should certainly return home for treatment. If you need a doctor in an emergency, it is advisable to either call 103 or to contact a large hotel.
Pharmacies should be entered with caution. Even in the Central Asian metropolis of Tashkent, many pharmacists buy their medicines on the local flea market. All medicines are labelled in Russian, and often the sell-by date has expired.
As a precaution, tap water should always be boiled or disinfected, as the water mains are in a poor condition. Fruit and vegetables should be thoroughly washed or peeled, and washing your hands before meals is essential. You should note that many areas of Kirghistan are at a high altitude were in addition to the increased UV radiation, the air has less oxygen.
It is advisable to check your general vaccination status – diphtheria, tetanus and polio. We also recommend vaccination against hepatitis A and B, typhoid and possibly rabies. Travellers should obtain information about infection and vaccination protection in good time and seek medical advice. Please refer to to the general information available from health authorities, doctors experienced in travel medicine, specialists in tropical medicine, travel medicine information services or the Federal Centre for Health Education [Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung].
The electricity grid in Kirghistan is antiquated and unreliable. Therefore, there are often fluctuations in voltage, and there are occasional power cuts. The openings in the mains sockets are the same distance apart as in Germany, but they have a smaller diameter. Therefore plugs with thick pins only fit with an adapter. These can be obtained cheaply at the bazzar.
The mains voltage is normally 220 Volt, frequency 50 Hz.
There are no restrictions on the amount of foreign currency which may be imported. The customs declaration of currency and valuables which is filled in on entering the country must be kept and presented on leaving. For some souvenirs, a prior export permit may have to be obtained from the Ministry of Culture, for example for large carpets or objects which could be classed as antiques or fine art. According to the whim of the customs officer, large knives may be accepted as souvenirs, or confiscated as dangerous objects.
Kirghistan is a Moslem country, although the majority of the population practice a less strict form of the faith and veiled women and prohibition of alcohol are unknown. For men, shorts are only disapproved of in the south of the country. If a Kirghiz offers a traveller his hospitality and the guest does not have time to stay, it is considered polite to eat a piece of the bread offered in front of the door. The people of Kirghistan treat food with an almost sacred respect, and consider it important to share it with their guests.
Especially in rural areas it is not usual to greet women by shaking hands. Women should not be lightly dressed when visiting a mosque, and if possible they should cover their hair with a scarf. Sneezing and blowing your nose, particularly when at the table is considered to be unhygienic. However, many Kirghize smack their lips demonstratively if they like their food. Spitting in the street is not a taboo. Almost everywhere, people like to be photographed and filmed. However, permission should be asked first, especially if people in uniform are in the picture.
Photography is restricted at railway stations and airports, and generally forbidden with object of national security.
"Opportunity makes thieves". To prevent problems, various things should be noted: valuables and luggage should not be left in the car or otherwise left unattended. We recommend that you do not wear conspicuous jewellery and do not show large amounts of money in public. Valuables should be kept close to your person and you should keep your eyes open regarding what is going on around you. In addition, your cash should not be kept in one place.
As well as this, photocopies of all important documents should be kept separate from the originals.
This information has been compiled to the best of our knowledge, however this may be subject to change. We are not liable for the accuracy of the stated information.