Kyrgyzstan is generally safe for travelers. But, like any locale, there are certain situations you probably want to avoid. Customs and expectations (especially for female travelers) can also be wildly different between urbanites and in the countryside. So to stay safe and have a hassle-free trip, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Theft – Pickpocketing itself is uncommon; theft of items left unattended less so – last week a local friend had her cellphone stolen off a desk at her office, from one of two coworkers seen walking into the office on the security camera; last year a group of hikers had tons of electronics stolen from their tent while out on a hike (their post here). Don’t leave your stuff unattended. Take your valuables with you.
- As for pickpocketing, I’ve yet to hear of any incidents, but locals and local expats alike will warn you to keep your valuables in front while in crowded areas like the bazaar or a marshrutka.
- Fights – Don’t pick fights with drunk Kyrgyz men. For men – as in your own country, be a little more careful when around inebriated locals. Most just get more friendly, but some will fight. The most serious incidents I’ve heard about involve foreign gay men (generally not so popular here), foreigners trying to hit on Kyrgyz women (protectiveness), and former US service men at the [now-closed] Army base at Manas. In short, if locals around you have been drinking: don’t insult their country, flirt with ‘their women’ or mention it if you happen to be homosexual.
- Nighttime Safety – Don’t go home alone at night if you have been drinking; don’t take a random cab off the street at night when alone. Call a cab (like ‘199’), stick with friends, and you should be fine. Last summer a Swiss girl took a taxi off the street after leaving a bar. Instead of taking her home, the driver raped her. I couldn’t find the story, but this is equally harrowing. Don’t take taxis off the street at night. If you call a company, the your ride and driver are recorded; knowing that you can file a complaint with the company about anything aberrant, company drivers are far less likely to do anything of concern.
- If possible, don’t walk alone after dusk.
- Home Security Know your neighbors, change your locks. While American females rarely have trouble with the police/people bothering them at home (big embassy, small expat population), plenty of foreigners have had police or strangers come to their homes and attempt to either bother them or break in. If the police come to your door, it probably isn’t because they want to help you. Best not to let them in and call a Russian-speaking friend or neighbor instead. If you have befriended your neighbors, they may step out of their apartment and yell at the police to go away for you. If not, speak to the police through the door, and tell them you are calling your embassy. If they don’t have legitimate business, they will probably then go away.
- Also, if you move into a new apartment, it is advised that you change your locks – some people have had problems with previous renters entering with a copied key and burglarizing their home. Here again, it helps if you know your neighbors.
- Safety for Women: if you can, don’t live or travel alone.
- Sexual Harassment and Misinterpretation – For women: know that (thanks to Hollywood) your appearance and actions may not be interpreted as you intend. Even if you dress exactly like local females, know that you could be seen as forward or open simply because of expectations concerning American and European women (this is true almost everywhere outside the west, certain not just in Kyrgyzstan). Outside of the center of Bishkek you’re probably better off not wearing shorts or shirts with low necklines. This won’t completely ward off harassment – I’ve gotten catcalled while wearing my giant winter jacket – but it will ensure that you aren’t intentionally sending a certain message.
- Gender Relations – Likewise (for women), be reserved when interacting with newly-acquainted men, especially if you’re the only female in the bunch. While this definitely isn’t a problem with guys who have studied abroad or work in the tourist industry and are accustomed to the customs of foreign females, it can lead to uncomfortable situations with locals who are not familiar with neutral foreign female friendliness. If they come from a community that is more conservative in terms of gender relations, your friendly demeanor can definitely be misinterpreted.
- Street Safety – Bring a hovercraft; stay off the streets))). If that’s not a possibility, however, then exercise extra caution around traffic. Drivers in Bishkek (and other parts of Kyrgyzstan) do not always obey the traffic laws and especially do not always display a lot of respect for pedestrians (who they assume are walking only because they can’t afford a car, and thus are of lesser importance). According to (a bit dated) WHO statistics, “43 percent of fatalities resulting from traffic accidents were among pedestrians” While vehicles are supposed to stop at crosswalks, this does not always happen. If a car is racing towards a crosswalk wildly honking its horn – get out of the way, for it will not stop. Also note that road lighting may be poor, and it is especially hard to see pedestrians at night.
- Sidewalk Safety: Many Bishkek sidewalks (even in the city center) are old, cracked, and potentially dangerous (especially when walking at night). Don’t wear high heels, use your phone flashlight to light the way.
- If you do encounter a problem: Call your embassy, not the cops.
For more tips and scary stories, read here – just keep in mind that most people don’t have major problems, but the only anecdotes recorded are usually the negative ones. As with most other places, be sensible, don’t do anything that would seem inadvisable at home, and you should have a safe trip.