…And how we ended up with the country’s only Audi S4.
If you’ve been in Bishkek for more than a week, you may have noticed something rather peculiar: there are no car dealerships in or around the city (in fact, I think the nearest dealership is in Almaty, Kazakhstan). So how do you buy a car? And how do you know it’s good to drive? Unfortunately it can be a rather tricky and drawn-out process.
First, I would not recommend unless you meet all of the following three conditions:
- You do not live and work in the city center, or you need a car for work
- You will stay in Kyrgyzstan for 2+ years
- You speak Russian/Kyrgyz well, are very familiar with cars and mechanics, and have a trusted mechanic in Bishkek, or you have a trusted associate who knows cars and Kyrgyz/Russian.
Why? Besides the matter of driving in Bishkek (corrupt traffic cops, insane traffic habits, inexpensive taxis), it can be quite difficult to locate a quality car. All cars in Kyrgyzstan are imported (at some point). There are almost no new (or nearly new) cars in the country, and none of the in-country cars come with garage histories. Finding a car that you are absolutely sure has no major problems and making sure you have all the right legal paperwork is often a rather long and stressful process. Selling a car can also be difficult, as most people want to trade cars rather than giving cash.
Where to find a car:
- Cars.kg Cars.kg is the Kyrgyzstan craigslist of cars. There are thousands upon thousands of cars listed in Bishkek, including pretty much every car at the auto bazaar (located on the main road W of the city, on the way to Osh). Most have pictures, stats and contact info, so you can check out cars and get an idea of what’s available in your price range before you head over to the Auto Bazaar. Cars.kg is a pretty representative shot of all the cars available in Kyrgyzstan.
- The Auto Bazaar – Like a regular bazaar, prepare to haggle. You can see cars, check out the insides, and possibly even test-drive. Known that none of the cars come with any sort of warranty.
- Internations (sometimes): Occasionally expats leaving the country will post cars for sale. These are usually slightly higher-end, but also [probably] of better assured condition.
- A friend of a friend of a friend – just make sure you actually trust the person, and they have some reason not to load you with crap car.
What you will notice shopping around is that there is a very limited selection of cars in Kyrgyzstan. Most cars are imported from Germany, Japan and the US. Basically all cars available fall into the following categories: “jeeps” (by which locals mean SUVs) for $10,000-30,000+, second-hand German sedans (Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus some VW), Japanese compact cars (Honda, Toyota, Subaru), and a few old Russian ladas. That’s pretty much it. If you want something else, you’ll have to import it yourself, which requires buying it overseas and working with a local company to arrange the shipping and import duties. Yesterday on the way from our house to town center (20 minutes in heavy traffic) I happened to notice that every single car was a Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Suburu, Hyundai, Volkswagon, Audi, BMW, Mercedes or Lexus. So those are your choices. Good luck finding anything else.
What to consider when buying a car:
Safety Size, Traction, Bouncability, Re-Sale, Parking Spot Size Compatibility, Brand
– Ideally, the perfect car would be a Toyota isit, Toyota Yaris or similiar compact car small enough to actually fit into parking spaces and having good city milage. However, the number of giant SUVs on the street, makes driving a low car actually quite dangerous. As the bearing of SUVs is so much higher than cute Japanese compacts, they are far more lethal in collision. While SUVs have been made safer for smaller cars on the road in recent years, keep in mind that most cars driven in Bishkek are 2000-2005 models, and thus don’t have those safety modifications.
– Lexuses (the 470s and 330s are the most popular) and other “jeeps” like the omnipresent Toyota Landcruiser are also completely impractical. They are bought for their function as status symbols – not their utility. While it’s probably nice to have a little more cushioning from the springtime bout of potholed streets, the city was not made for large cars, and thus they can be quite difficult to park. Our old car was an Audi A6 and almost everyday in winter we had to drive around the parking lot three times just to find a full space (crooked parking is also a big problem…)
– Thus, you probably want something with a little more weight, a little higher off the ground, and able to handle Bishkek’s potholed roads and winter ice. The perfect car would probably be a Jeep Wrangler, or small jeep like a Suzuki Jimny or two door Toyota RAV4 or Toyota FJ Cruiser. However, there are very few of those for sale in the city and a 10 year old Toyota FJ costs as much as a new one in the states. If you can find one, that’s great. If not, Honda Fits, Honda Accords, and Subaru Imprezas are both abundant and fairly city-suitable. Just make sure you get snow tires for the winter.
Prices will generally run $1,500-2,000 more than listed in the US or Germany (though sometimes much more); almost all cars shipped from Japan, Germany and the US, so you have to understand that the price you see in Kyrgyzstan is base price + shipping (~$1,000) + taxes ($800-1,600).
There are basically two ranges for cars in Kyrgyzstan: SUVs (which all cost $15,000-30,000), and everything else. SUVs are very popular now – but know that you may pay more for a ten year old SUV here than you would for a 2012 model in the US. Apart from a few German luxury/business-class sedans, there are almost no non-SUVs for sale for over $12,000. Cars imported from Japan will always be cheaper – but also have right-side steering wheels (which I wouldn’t want to try…).
Know that very few people will pay cash for a car; most want to trade, or trade + some cash. Locals with more money (and more actual cash to spend on a car) will be more interested in bling; you aren’t going to get $15,000 for an almost-new Honda Civic.
The Process (and why we sold our car)
Though the Audi A6 isn’t a big car by American standards, it’s not the most convenient car for Kyrgyzstan. We wanted a smaller car, and had to sell ours within 3 years. Why? Foreigners get special bright yellow licence plates that are like beacons of gold for corrupt traffic cops. You can buy a car with normal white licence plates as a co-signer with a Kyrgyz owner, holding all rights to sell the car for three years. If you do not sell the car within three years, you have to obtain the co-signer’s permission to sell. E bought his car in 2013, and thus we knew we had to sell it sometime in this year.
We looked at two cars at the university owned by two different men from Turkey. Both were dishonest (check price ranges on cars.kg!). Our car was worth (and eventually sold for) $7,500. One man was selling a right-hand minicooper that had some engine troubles he did not initially disclose (and that couldn’t be fixed in Bishkek due to lack of spare parts). He said he wanted to trade cars with us, but we knew his was worth less. He then said is was worth $5,500, but he could trade plus give us $1000. Somehow…even my math isn’t that bad. We later looked online – exact same car with exact same licence plates listed on Cars.Kg for $4,500… The second man was selling a 2003 BMW 530i M series with over 220,000 km. A former driver for the university and current fixer at an international construction company (who helped us through the entire process) estimated the car’s worth at $6,500. The seller wanted $9,500, but said he would be generous and take only $9,000. Again, whenever quoted a price, check against car.kg, and find a friend who knows car values in Kyrgyzstan.
E and the above-mentioned car expert went to the Autobazaar – three times. I was told this was “no place for ladies” (basically the men working there can be a bit more than a bit rough and rude). The first time they found a 2004 Audi A4 for $7000 they thought was suitable – but the inside wasn’t so clean. On a later adventure they found a 2005 BMW 530i that looked fine, had low milage, and was for sale for $9,500 (2,000 less than retail) because the seller needed immediate cash. The car looked great, engine only needed a little tuning up – but the underside was a mess, like he’d almost cracked it over a parking barrier. (Always bring a car to a garage for inspection before purchasing – it might cost you $20-30 now, but could save you a lot of trouble) The third car we found was an exact copy of our old car, but automatic (so I could actually drive it) and with a few extra perks like heated seats. But this car too had front damage that had been shoddily patched at a local garage (and was hidden in the online photos). Which brings me to…
Be Wary Of Cars from Japan and America. Insurance companies sell cars damaged in accidents to agents, and some of these cars are shipped over to Kyrgyzstan. There is no way to tell whether the problem has actually been fixed or if you’ll end up with a car you completely can’t drive two months later.
So…after two weeks of looking, finally, finally we found a car – someone who knew we were looking for a car called our car expert, and we found Bishkek’s only Audi S4. $6,200 (valued at $8,000 but cheaper because the owner -again – needed cash right away), in need of about $1000 of tune-ups and care, but otherwise perfectly fine. From Japan, but with a left-hand steering wheel (though the navigation system still greets us in Japanese every time we turn on the car), tiptonic, solid but small enough, and quite fun for E to drive. And thus…
Best Way to Buy a Car: Find an auto-expert friend. Have them let people know you’re looking for a car. Find someone who needs cash and (for that reason) needs to sell their car now. Because few people can pay cash for their car, they will probably accept 20% lower than the local value. Make sure you bring the car to a reliable garage before making the actual purchase. Get one or two estimates on how much it will cost to fix and tune up the car.
Next week I’ll try to write a post on the complicated process of registration, as this post is already getting a bit long…