Kazakhstan: Almaty to Bishkek

Border crossings generally stress me out since I had my passport stolen at one in 2015. I was definitely a bit apprehensive about the Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan one since it was one of the most obscure I’d done, but it turned out to be relatively straightforward. Certainly, I’d take it over the Thailand/Cambodia border any day.

Marshrutkas (minivans) regularly ply the route from Almaty’s Saiyran bus station to the west of the city. Plenty of city buses head to the station and you can pinpoint routes using the brilliant 2gis app. Once at the station, I followed signs for ‘ъишкек’ where there was a marshrutka waiting to go. They depart from Platform 1, heading off regularly once full. I bought my ticket at the counter before going through (1500 KZT) and was the last passenger to get on.

The sign for Bishkek at Saiyran bus station

This was good in the sense that I didn’t have to wait around for ages but also meant I got the most cramped, stiflingly hot seat right at the back corner of the bus. Not so fun. It took about 3 and a half hours to make it to the border in this uncomfortable position. Luckily, the nice ladies next to me took pity on me and shared their food with me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Central Asia since I arrived here, it’s that food is very much the regional language.

One thing that’s good to do is make a note of your marshrutka’s registration plate and get familiar with your fellow passengers. You get dropped off at the border with your luggage and then have to reunite with your marshrutka after you’ve crossed over and I’ve heard stories of people getting left behind. Whilst this isn’t the end of the world as there are other minivans hanging round heading to Bishkek, it’s obviously much easier if you can get back on the same one. I spent most of the journey trying to memorise my fellow passenger who included (but were not limited to): ‘Red Bag Lady’, ‘Fat Man’, ‘Man with Warts’ and ‘Man Who Looks Slightly Like My Grandad’. This referencing system came in handy later.

The desolate Kazakh service station on the way to Bishkek

The crossing itself was pretty easy as it was fairly quiet. The immigration man stamping me out of Kazakhstan thought it necessary to establish I supported Man Utd before letting me leave the country. I decided to agree to his demands to save any diplomatic tensions. On the Kyrgyz side, I had to hand my passport to an officer who took it into a mirrored room to give me a stamp. It only took a minute or so and was very simple.

Now all I had to do was reunite with the passengers I’d so painstakingly catalogued. Some people do just alight at the border so your referencing system has to be quite comprehensive. For instance, ‘Man with Warts’ was long gone by the time I entered Kyrgyzstan but luckily ‘Red Bag Lady’ was dead ahead so I followed her until we reached the rest of the group. Since our marshrutka hadn’t turned up yet, there seemed to be a bit of a revolution going on with lots of frantic discussions. ‘Fat Man’ took control and went to find our driver.

Apparently it’s very common for the marshrutka to follow the passengers up to half an hour afterwards. We were soon on our way, with it only taking about another 40 minutes to Bishkek’s Western Bus Station where I exchanged money and headed to Bishkek Guest House, my hostel for the next few days.

Bishkek – I made it!

I was finally in Kyrgyzstan! My next mission was to learn how to spell it…

My absolute crutch in Central Asia was the free 2Gis app. If you’re visiting the region I’d really recommend getting it. You can download offline maps for many major cities including Almaty, Astana and Bishkek. It’s particularly invaluable for working out bus routes to various places in the cities. Travelling round this region would have been so much more stressful and infuriating without the help of 2Gis.

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