It took us a while to get in the groove of hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan, but in the end we got it! We still feel that it is not our favourite way to travel in that country, mostly because it is one of those places where nearly every kilometer is much too beautiful to be watched from a car window – we were wishing our bikes back one and a many times! Furthermore the paid ride thing (see ‘1’) didn’t help, sometimes we felt not completely welcome in the car as the drivers basically lost money for taking us freeloaders – but especially further south we enjoyed it greatly crossing the mountain passes in roaring trucks!
In some areas you’ll actually nearly be forced to hitchhike if you don’t want to pay for private taxis, as public transportation is scarce. But if you consider following five aspects, we are pretty sure that hitchhiking will be a fulfilling way to get around in Kyrgyzstan!
1. Every car is a taxi
Like in many other countries in this world with insufficient public transport and not everybody having an own car, it is absolutely common in Kyrgyzstan to wave down passing cars anywhere on the road. Sometimes you might have to compete with locals for a ride – the fact that you’d like to go for free won’t be an advantage. It is crucial to clarify from the very beginning, usually right after the car stops, that you are looking for a free ride, doing ‘avtostop’. Many people are aware that avtostop means free ride, but to make sure, say for example in Russian ‘bezplatnyi mojna?’ (‘Possible without paying?’) or like hitchwiki.org suggests in funny Kyrgyz slang: ‘Ach che djok!’
Don’t get frustrated if a bunch of cars just drives on as the driver might rely on the additional income. Sooner or later you’ll get lucky. Should you really get stuck or lack time, just consider paying. But be aware of the fair price, orientated on what a marshrutka (local minibus) would cost (very roughly 1 km = 1 som) – we sometimes were asked exorbitant sums of money for a few kilometers. When hitching out of towns, walk away a good bit from the conglomerations of waiting taxis!
2. Trucks are your (unhurried) friends
For us it turned out that the safest bet for a free ride were trucks, no matter if big, modern long distance trucks, or old Russian machines carrying goods to the next town. The drivers never asked for money and usually seemed pretty happy about some company, like it is in many other countries. Don’t count on them speaking anything else than Kyrgyz, Russian or maybe Uzbek, though. And most importantly: you’ll be slow! When fully loaded the big rigs suffer greatly climbing up the many steep mountain passes. What we really appreciated in many countries before is the amazing comfort, the modern trailer trucks are offering. After your repertoire of conversation is exhausted, you should be allowed to just have a comfortable nap on the beds in the cabin – more recreative than any cramped marshrutka! The opposite goes for the smaller, old soviet trucks. Sometimes we feared our boots would melt from the overheating engine and on the rougher roads you’ll bump around like a rubber ball in the cramped cabin – nevertheless tons of fun for a limited time and often enough the only real choice on very rough and remote ‘roads’.
3. Time and space – expect to wait
A topographical map of Kyrgyzstan gives idea enough why there are just 5,5 million inhabitants in those rough lands. Aside from some plain areas, most of the country is just not fit for continuous settlements. The most crowded area is definitely the Chuy valley around Bishkek, then the Fergana valley area around Osh down south and to a lesser degree the Yssyk Kol and Naryn areas. There are just a handful of major roads in the country, most notably the Bishkek – Osh connection and the Bishkek – Naryn road, branching off towards Yssyk Kol. Many of the higher mountain roads are open during the summer months only. Expect long waiting times on the smaller secondary roads but if a car passes by, it will stop almost surely. There is a scattered mining industry over the country, meaning some lonelier roads are plied by heavy old trucks good for easy but slow rides – we hitched with them and saw many on the useful Kochkor – Suusamyr road. Be aware that it is possible to get stuck in a place for a while, in worst case even over night – prepare yourself!
4. Language is key
Life becomes a lot easier if you learn a few words of Russian (more practical for the whole of Central Asia) or Kyrgyz (highly appreciated and more useful in more remote areas and the south). Especially to solve the mentioned money question it is important to explain yourself, in best case in simple words how it comes that a ‘western tourist’ doesn’t have too much money. It might also create additional motivation for some drivers to take a non profitable passenger if at least some conversation is possible.
Other travelers suggested to write a paper in Russian / Kyrgyz to explain the story of your travels in a few words, asking for a free ride. We tried it and some people reacted very amused and waved us in, but sometimes it was slightly awkward to have a driver reading the paper while you’re waiting expectantly in silence. But still good to have it just in case!
5. Beware of booze
Especially in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan, alcohol is a major problem and was cause for a bunch of less pleasant encounters with booze reeking drunkards. Matters can quickly get from bad to worse if the drunkard is your driver. Aside from the annoyance that could result in terms of interaction, it might be plainly dangerous! Roads are partly horrible, cars usually in dire condition and speeding a common habit. It has nothing to do with being bold to jump in such a car risking an early end of this trip or maybe even life – in short: No hearts for drunkards, stay away!