Can I Use a Credit Card in Bishkek?

Again, yes and no. Bishkek is primarily a cash-based society, and many shops and stores don’t have credit card machines. Those that do usually only take Visa (No MasterCard, UnionPay, or anything else) Places where you can reliably use a credit or debit card include:

  • Most shops inside a mall (Vefa Center, Bishkek Park, Beta 2)
  • Most large chain grocery stores (Beta Stores, Plus Market, Narodnie)
  • Most chain clothing stores (Mango, Mavi Jeans, Kotton, MixX, Colin’s, etc…)
  • Most cafes, western restaurants, bars and clubs (rule of thumb – if they have free wifi for customers, or their own instagram or twitter account, then they probably also take credit cards)
  • Airline offices and travel agencies

And that’s it.  Everywhere else you go – bring cash (preferably in denominations of 200 som or less). Also, keep in mind that some credit or debit cards won’t reliably work in shops that take credit cards.  Our (Kyrgyz) Demir Bank Debit card, for example, does not work in Plus Market (but it does work at Narodnie and Beta Stores…)

Which brings us to the next question – where can one withdraw money in Bishkek?

Pretty much everywhere, as long as you have a Visa.  Demir bank has reliable service and good exchange rates, but most banks are probably OK and have English option on the ATMs (“Bankomat” in Russian).  Most Demir locations allow you to withdraw som or USD and convert from USD or Euro to Som.  There is, however, about $330 (or $340?) limit on how much in USD you can withdraw at one time. This seems to vary a bit by bank/ATM through – so just plan ahead. Keep in mind that ATMs also seem to frequently run out of USD at the beginning of the month.  If you want dollars, try to withdraw before people get their monthly paychecks, or just go to the bank (but don’t forget your passport).

If you have UnionPay, then you can take out money at Halyk Bank, PCK Bank, Росинбанк, and Commercial Bank of Kyryzstan/Коммерческий банк КЫРГЫЗСТАН (which I’ve found to be the most reliable; a list of ATM locations here).

If you have Master Card….uh… supposedly the Kazkommert Bank/KazKom is the only bank that takes MasterCard.  Look here for a list of locations, but I can’t promise all of them will work.  Your better bet is getting a Visa before you travel.

If you have cash and just want to exchange money, there are a number of exchange offices along Sovietskaya between Chuy and Gorkovo, and on Manas between Chuy and Moscovskaya, as well as an office in Beta 1 on Chuy and in Vefa Center.  It’s much easier to change from USD, though a number of places will also take Euro, Kazakh Tenge and Russian Rubles.  Good luck if you have anything else. Also, the exchange rates for other currencies will be terrible.

And on a random note, according to the Commercial Bank of Kyrgyzstan website, citizens of Japan can enter Kyrgyzstan visa-free for…forever? or, as states, “for an unlimited term”. Hmm…

I got a job! (AKA, Don’t Come to Bishkek Looking for Work)

After…ahem…seven months back in Bishkek I will (finally?) be starting full time work doing something that isn’t teaching English. Originally I planned to take three weeks to a month off to relax and recuperate after the stress (and frozen toes) of academia in an institution “where fun goes to die” (along with my hope of conducting research anywhere near my field of interest…). Instead I cobbled together a few part-time jobs (teaching ‘Talking Club’ at one university in April/May, developing English classes for executive assistants and office managers at the same university, interning at an NGO, teaching on italki; wrote a 300 page English conversation and grammar textbook for adult beginners, applied for a dozen jobs, studied Russian and Turkish, created a website for E’s cousin, vacationed, set up American College Guidance Counselors, and thought my way through post-academia.

Monday I’ll be starting full-time work, forty hours a week in an office at the same university. My job basically entails giving the university international visibility through re-vamping their English website, building and maintaining a social media platform, creating an archive of professional English correspondence document templates, and networking with other universities and academic organizations to grow international connections and recognition. I think I’ll style myself ‘International Communications Coordinator’ as I do not yet have an official job title. I actually met with the rector of said university last January and it was agreed then that I would start working in a position very similar to the one I’m about to take up…when I came back in March.

So why did it take so long? Why was it so easy for me to find employment in my five years in China, and so hard here? First, because things in Bishkek always take a long time. For example, it’s now nearly December, and yet not one of the four hundred foreign teachers at the university has yet received their work permit, due to some glitch/backup(?) in the Kyrgyz government bureau that is supposed to take care of these things. The school year started almost three months ago. Likewise, I had an American friend come to Bishkek last April expecting to find temporary work with the same ease as in China. She didn’t. More established institutions like The London School and AUCA (American University of Central Asia) were hiring for next fall.

Second, because there simply aren’t a lot of jobs for (non-Turkish) foreigners in Bishkek. The American airforce base is packing up, a lot of development projects are winding down, and there really aren’t a lot of international corporations here apart from Coca Cola and Kumtor. Even if there seem to be a lot of NGO and UN-related offices in the city, most  have only a few foreigners in their office. At first I thought that, only if I looked hard enough, I would find a good job. Then I realized that there really weren’t any jobs. Between LinkedIn, Indeed.com, UNJobs, donors.kg and company/NGO/Embassy websites, I would only see maybe 3-4 job openings a month. And I don’t mean 3-4 pertinent job openings – I mean 3-4 total, ranging from things like Software Developer to Cultural Affairs Assistant to Accountant. A lot of the jobs also prefer previous experience in the industry and at least intermediate skills in Russian – most locally-employed people I know have a MA and can speak some Russian or Kyrgyz.

Third, because salaries are often really low and a lot of local people/companies/NGOs don’t want to provide fair compensation for your time and work. This may be due to state-reliance under the soviet system and NGO/UN reliance during Kyrgyzstan’s period of development. I once worked in an international high school in China as a college guidance counselor, helping students find and apply for appropriate universities in the states. In China, that pays fairly well (three years ago about $2,400 a month in a city where I paid $400 in rent for a new three-bedroom apartment in a beautiful gated complex, lunch cost an average of $1.50, and a subway ride was $0.30). Here, people are used to getting this service for free through the government/the Soros Foundation, and thus aren’t willing to pay anything or very much for it. The last time I heard (June), The London School pays teachers $600 a month + dormitory accommodation for a full teaching schedule. Part time teachers I met from AUCA were making about $8-10 an hour. iLACA pays about the same for 75 minute classes. Other language schools around the city all offer similar compensation (an overview here). In short, barely enough to justify my time + commuting across the city. If I’m going to be earning only $20 a day, it better be for a good cause, or doing something I really enjoy and believe will help me develop professional skills.

If you don’t need an income, a lot of NGOs will willingly take summer or temporary interns. Some pay a stipend; most (like Eurasia Foundation and Helvetas) don’t, even if you are doing work you would be paid for elsewhere (or, as I did, doing work for someone else who is getting paid to do what I was actually doing…).

On a side note: to those planning on coming to Bishkek just to experience the culture and learn some Russian, The London School is probably your most solid option. I believe they offer Russian classes for their teachers, and they also have an intern-teach/experience Central Asia/learn Russian/work towards your TEFL program.

On a second side note: if you aren’t set on Kyrgyzstan, salaries are far more generous and job openings more plentiful in nearby Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan – look here, here, here, here, and here.

Fourth, because of the visa/resident permit/work permit problem. Kyrgyz visa regulations seem to change by the month. Basically, most foreign nationals can enter and stay for up to two months visa-free. Some organizations will arrange for work permits; some will not. People working part-time are not eligible for work permits, so I’ve met AUCA teachers who hopped across the border to Tajikistan or Kazakhstan every sixty days or paid an agency or…something. At the same time, certain employers (like a lot of the NGOs and the embassies) won’t even consider an application unless you already have a work or residence permit…which you can get by working full time for a legitimate organization in Kyrgyzstan (or – highly un-recommended – going through a quasi-legal agency that magically transforms your cash into stamps and documents otherwise un-procurable)…which requires you to have a work permit in the first place…which is basically a case of the snake eternally eating it’s own tail. This is also why many internships are unpaid – because, due to complex government regulations, organizations can’t have anyone in their accountbooks who isn’t legally employed in the country.

So – Yay! I found interesting, legitimate employment. But I wouldn’t recommend coming to Bishkek for the express purpose of looking for work. If you just want to be in Central Asia (and aren’t conducting sensitive research), then Kazakhstan is a much better bet.

Holiday Plans (Kind of Suck When You Live in Central Asia)

So the man and I are trying to plan a holiday vacation to somewhere not frigid. We should have about a week off from work, or at most be required to take off only two days. The problem is this:
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Or this:
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and this:
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Basically, if it’s within a reasonable flight it’s either (supposedly) unsafe, impossible to get a visa with my American passport, or frozen.
Our non-frozen non-politcaly-volatile direct (or quasi-direct) flight options seem to be limited to Dubai (a lot of people from Kyrgyzstan go there to work or to shop, so there’s a direct flight from Bishkek for $486 per person round trip) or Delhi (Routed through Almaty, $458 per person).
Delhi is still pretty cold in winter (I’ve heard), and travel in India would certainly be a little more chaotic than Dubai (where package tours abound), but…. but… history and architecture and authentic Indian food and the world’s most crowded public transportation system….
Another interesting thing: all the flight-inclusive online tours I’ve found for Dubai seem to be for people residing in India.
Any thoughts? Delhi or Dubai…

More Mountains

Last week we had an accidental, incidental couchsurfer from Ukraine who had traveled up from Osh and remarked that the whole country of Kyrgyzstan is like one giant national park – except the cities, which are awful. Which is basically true. Every morning and evening we gaze on the mountains which grace our view, just half an hour from the city. A wall of superb green and folds of grey lit gold in the dawn or receding into the hazy dusk. But here down in the city – it’s really an ugly place. Poverty and new money, corrupt police, a non-existent system of government services, broken streets, hopeless lives, a barely sputtering middle class – always the feeling that half the city is just hanging on by their claws, struggling to scrape by, survive.
It’s a very different city for different people. Last year in Urumqi I had a Canadian couchsurfer – one of those twenty-something guys who always seems to befriend the most hip-yet-ironic people wherever he goes – who later visited Bishkek and wrote a blogpost in which he described Bishkek girls as the most suave he’s ever seen, making me think that he spent his whole time in upper-crust cafes, driving from hip hostel to cafe in a cab with tinted windows. (See the original post here; to be fair he did capture some of the contrast of Bishkek, but I’m still not sure how he came to that assessment of ‘all’ the women).
For Bishkek has that sleek, cultured glamour present in bits and spurts -and yet that’s far from all. In essence it’s a poor city, without any really solid promise of encompassing development and uplifting lives. There is money, but most of it isn’t clean. There’s a growing middle class – out of a large pool of struggling hopeful, hopeless college graduates.
So Kyrgyzstan may be one big national park – except for the cities – but for those of us who live in one of the few cities, daily life is quite different. Weekends too. Summer options in Bishkek are limited, as is the population of the middle class. Basically we have eating out, buying cheap ice cream in the square, going to one of three swimming pools, drinking, shopping at one of two malls, watching movies dubbed in Russian at one of two cinemas, and going to the mountains.
So today we went to the mountains.

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Sometimes Bishkek is Actually a Beautiful, Green City

When I first escaped Urumqi’s desert dust and began to marvel at the [comparative] lush greenness of Almaty last July a local remarked that Almaty was a green city, but Bishkek was greener yet.
Almaty’s greenness is in its many trees, in its well-ordered parks and pleasant walks. This is what I was expecting in Bishkek. What I found instead was a wilderness: while Almaty’s parks were tamed and well-tripped, populated with neatly-spaced, clean park benches and functioning fountains, Bishkek’s are little more than a tangled wilderness of uncut grass, dust-ridden bushes, and unidentifiable weeds (which might have once been flowers?). Parts of the city lay unclaimed, almost vacant lots with gaping eyes of half-abandoned buildings peering over the arboral wreckage, like they belong to a city abandoned long ago. Less tamed, less evidence of human crafting, closer to it’s natural state – but certainly not what comes to mind when I think of “green”, especially as I was living in the dusty southwest corner, home to a hundred construction projects.
But last week it rained, and this Sunday the city burst into leaves. We now drive though tree lined boulevards of bouncing green, the boughs barely brushing the cars; walk down park pathways cloaked in fresh, rain-washed green; gaze out our windows at the rolling green foothills under skies of crystal blue. I know it won’t last – summer will come, and with it the sweat, the heat, the dust. But for now the city is finally, fully living up to its initial promise.

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