It’s easy! …as long as you have a smartphone, or a really good memory for bus routes.
If you are new to the country and/or perhaps not so confident in your Russian I wrote a guide to taking buses and marshrutkas (minivans) last year (though that certainly doesn’t mean it’s out of date…).
Basically: if you want to take the bus, either look online at bus.kg or download the bus.kg app (for iphone or android/googleplay!). It’s not the most sophisticated app ever (if you want to change your starting place, you basically have to close out of the app and then open it again). Most bus stops have bus-stop-looking benches; some don’t, so use the GPS on bus.kg to figure out exactly where the stop is. Marshrutkas will stop almost anywhere; buses only stop at designated bus stops.
A few other differences:
Buses are generally much safer and have better drivers.
Some marshrutkas are pristinely clean. Others smell like a men’s gym (especially, especially in summer).
Marshrutka fare is 10 som and you pay when you board; bus far is 8 som and you pay at the front door when you get off.
If you want to take a taxi: try to call a taxi company ahead of time. Most taxis you flag down on the street won’t use the meter, and will charge a lot more if you look foreign. Reasonable reliable taxi companies include SMS taxi (just text your location to 1236), 37, Udacha and…one other one. Honestly, I don’t take taxis that often. When we do, we usually use SMS taxi, as they’re fast and reasonably-priced. Some taxis are clean; some aren’t. Some drivers are good; some definitely aren’t (usually older Russian men are a good bet; all the insane taxi drivers I’ve had seem to have been Kyrgyz men aged 25-45). If your Russian is good enough, you can always call the company and complain if you have a death-defying ride. If you pick up a taxi off the street, don’t be afraid to bargain – they shouldn’t charge you any more than a metered cab, so let them know that you know the standard price. And finally – don’t attempt to flag down non-taxi cars within city limits. There are enough taxis in Bishkek that regular cars aren’t looking for extra passengers and most rivers would probably just be confused. This is different from the rest of the country (including village-suburbs a few miles out of town) where any car is a potential taxi. But in the city, stick to regular cabs with meters, and try to arrange to call a cab ahead of time rather than picking one up off the street.
If you want to drive: We budget traffic bribes into our monthly spending. Because police here can be pigs. (Update: we no longer have to do this, as the university-issued parking sticker looks like those issued for government employees and, since acquiring the sticker, our car has almost never been pulled over)
Know that most ‘violations’ you may be pulled over for are absolutely imaginary (a full list of traffic regulations in English here). It’s also illegal for police to take cash – all official traffic violation fines must be paid by bank card, and every official police car has a card-reader. So if a police officer pulls you over and asks for cash – he’s breaking the law. This is absolutely illegal. However, in Kyrgyzstan it’s your word against his (unless you want to video-tape the whole thing and bring up a three-month case against the police officer over a nine dollar fine), and most people just pay the paltry bribe rather than go through such a hassle. Yet another area the government definitely needs to tackle…
If you can deal with this annoyance, however, you may still want to hesitate before buying a car. It’s not just that driving your own car and taking a taxi costs about the same; it’s also that some drivers in Bishkek are just insane. If you are not every second a very attentive driver, or if you get really stressed out when stuck in traffic or almost sideswiped, then I’d recommend you let someone else take the wheel.