Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan The Kyrgyzstani Two-Step

I didn’t make any of the obvious mistakes. A couple little things, yeah. I could have thought things through more. But mostly it came down to circumstances beyond my control.

Of course, you never want to land in an unfamiliar country in the middle of the night. This is doubly true if that country ends in the letters "stan." But planes land when they land, and in Bishkek, they don’t seem to land very often.

You’re rarely more vulnerable than when you’re walking out of the airport. As soon as you’re past baggage claim, you are fair game. A tout glommed onto me instantly and followed me around the terminal. This drives me absolutely bonkers.

In Asia, a ferocious disposition will usually spook touts into giving you some distance. In Africa, it has the opposite effect; it indicates that you’re close to breaking. In Africa I try to just ignore them. I didn’t know which method to use in Kyrgyzstan, so I alternated between barking in the guy’s face and pretending he didn’t exist. This was probably confusing. Nevertheless, he shadowed me right on up to the ATM machine and watched me withdraw cash.

It didn’t matter how many times I told him I wasn’t going anywhere with him, so when I got back to where the other touts were waiting, I was anxious to strike a deal with anyone else.

I asked the nearest guy how much into town. "Twenty-five," he said. I said "great."

That was a forgivable mistake.

The exchange rate in Kyrgyzstan is about 36 Som to $1 US. It was 2am and I was using a new currency, so my somnambulant calculation came out to $8. Outside of developed nations, a buck per kilometer is a pretty good rule of thumb, and it looked like just a bit more than 8k’s into town, so that amount sounded about right to me. If I’d done my math right, I would’ve realized that a cab ride costing 25 Som would be about $0.70, which is unlikely.

The first tout followed us out to the car and even attempted to climb into the back with me. The other cab driver shooed him away. It was about this time I noticed a third guy standing around and realized I’d thrown my lot in with a duo; two big young guys. This set off my spider sense a little bit, but not enough to abort. My main concern at that point was shaking off the first guy.

We took off for Bishkek with the two guys in front and me in back. One of them spoke English. He said his name was Eric. We’d driven for 10 minutes down a road with no other cars when Eric said they needed gas and pulled off into a station. He asked for the money up front.

I’ve had this happen many times. It’s annoying, but not uncommon for drivers to pick up fares with an empty tank. Okay, fine. What was that again? 25?

"No, not 25. 125."
"Excuse me?"
"125. That’s the price."

I read the look on his face and knew immediately what was going on. But my alarm subsided when I did some more quick math and realized I was all screwed up. 125 Som is actually not even $4.

"Oh. Right. 125 Som. Okay, no problem."
"No. Not Som. Euros."
"…"

I hope I’m not losing anyone here. Let’s review. The cabbie’s extra digit scam was overlapping with my currency confusion and, for a moment, they had almost cancelled each other out. But intentions were clarified and I was suddenly stuck in a car in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with two guys who were demanding $200.

I locked eyes with Eric, very disappointed. "Please don’t do this."

They became angry, as did I. The moment froze, and I realized I was still within that brief window at the start of a confrontation where circumstances haven’t quite solidified and small advantages can still be gained. Specifically, I was still able to grab my backpack and get the hell out of the car.

There was a shack in the corner of the station with an old couple inside. Another taxi from the airport was also just pulling in. I flagged down the taxi. The driver didn’t speak a word of English and neither did his passengers, but my situation was pretty obvious.

I pulled out some cash from my wallet and asked the passengers through gesture what the fair price into town was. They showed me that it was 400 Som, which is $11.

I turned to Eric and told him I’d pay 400 Som and that was it. He countered, not surprisingly, with 125 Euros.

I thought about imposing on the passengers to let me in the cab with them, but even in my dire situation it seemed awfully rude. And more importantly, my big bag was still in the trunk. That was the main bit of leverage they still had.

I made for the trunk as quickly as I could, but they pushed me away from the handle and blocked it. The other taxi drove off, but the owners of the gas station were still watching from inside, so at least there was that.

We started negotiating in earnest. He went down to 3000 Som, $83. He said if I paid him that, they would take me to my hotel. I told him I wasn’t getting anywhere near the inside of his car again and offered them 500 Som to drop my bag and take off.

After a tense period, we finally settled on 1000 Som, $28. Standing with about 5 meters between us, I took the cash out of my wallet.

"Take the bag out of the trunk."

They opened the trunk and pulled the bag out.

"Put it on the ground."

They put it on the ground.

"Step back."

They stepped back.

I moved toward the bag and reached out with the 1000 Som. They took the money. I grabbed my bag.

"Now fuck off!"

They fucked off.

I’ve gotta admit, the bag exchange part was pretty awesome.

And so they were gone, and there I was in a pitch black gas station, exhausted, miles from anywhere.

A door creaked. The old man emerged from the shack. We looked each other over. He pointed to a rust bucket car and then gestured into town. I gave him a pen and some paper and made the sign for money. He wrote down "300."

"300 Som?"
"Yes. Som."
"Okay! Yeah!"

His name was Alexy. He was Russian. He took me into town with only one minor incident; we were flagged off the road by a cop who shook us down for 50 Som. No big deal.

I made it to the hotel mentioned in the book which, praise be to Allah, had an empty room. The adrenaline subsided and I eventually got to sleep.

The next day I realized that amidst the excitement, I’d misplaced my guide book. This unfortunate error severely limited my ability to paint the town red. In some places it’s not such a big deal, but when there are no other tourists around and hardly anyone speaks English, having no reference information can really suck.

I had to wander blindly, so to speak.

There’s definitely a lingering Soviet vibe to Bishkek. Most everyone seemed to speak Russian, and the trademark austere/bland architecture is omnipresent.

They’ve even got there obligatory Lenin statue.

I understand the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan, beyond the mountains, are much less Russia-infused and Kyrgyz is the more commonly spoken language.

These pictures are mostly pointless, but they give a vague sense of what the city and it’s people look like.

Of course, ultimately, it’s the same as every place else in a lot of ways.

…but surprisignly sparse and manageable. One nice thing about Central Asia: it’s not very crowded. The city has enough people in it to feel like a city, but few enough that there’s room to breathe and even a few trees still standing.

Despite the pleasant vibe, I didn’t go out a lot. The taxi ordeal left a bad taste and there were clearly some real dangers to be wary of. The police are said to be fairly corrupt and prone to shaking down visitors with the threat of arrest. Also, once it gets dark, the streets thin out quickly and you kinda feel like you should go find someplace to hide.

By the way, you don’t ever want your hotel room door to look like this.

On my second-to-last day, the guilt about cowering in my hotel room started to mount. I was lucky enough to run into an English translator named Helen at a corner shop. I told her I wanted to get out to the mountains and she gave me some tips. She even went as far as calling a cab for me the next morning, telling the guy where to go, and negotiating a price.

People are nice.

She sent me off to Ala Archa gorge. I spent the day hiking.

It was nice to see Kyrgyzstanis out picnicking. In particular, there were a lot of teenagers — which is kinda surprising.

The air was clean and the mountains were swell. I set off to find a good dancing clip.

I spent a good hour trying to cross this stream. I’m not so good with balance and the prospect of leaping across rocks with a laptop and camcorder on my back was nerve-racking. There was also the lesser concern of my own safety — no other people for miles makes a sprained ankle even less fun.

I finally made it across. Found a nice view of a snow-capped mountain. Danced.

I usually try to find something a bit more unique and remarkable to dance in front of. Not to bash Kyrgyzstan or anything, but…it was the best I could come up with.

A group of teenagers caught me on the way down and found me fascinating.

They spoke a fair amount of English. Lots of questions about America and what the hell I was doing in their country.

I recruited them to dance with me. They didn’t really get it until I explained that it was going on YouTube. Then they were pretty excited.

Taxi back to Bishkek. Off to the airport at 1am for the bleary-eyed slog back to Istanbul.

29 Responses to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan The Kyrgyzstani Two-Step

  1. m. read

    It kind of looks like a cross between sordid and central Alaska…Scary story about getting a cab, and I’ll bet if things continue going downhill in the U.S. it will be that way here too in the future.

  2. tarina

    I’ve been in and out of Bishkek a fair amount for work reasons and I think it’s the place where all my best travel stories come from (the ones that leave people going holy crap!).

    Sadly, you’re taxi cab story sounds fairly typical. But there are some truly wonderful people there that do their best to make up for the thugs that seem hell bent on extorting everyone. I’m sorry that was your first introduction to Kyrgyzstan though.

  3. Taxi drivers. Scum of the earth. I refused to play their game and ended up walking for hours instead. Stopped putting bags in the trunk too.

  4. Rob

    You write, “These pictures are mostly pointless.” For me, they’re mostly invisible–only the picture at the bus stop appears. The others, when clicked, link to your Picasa album for
    Kyrgyzstan, but not to a specific image. Is it just me who’s having this problem, or have the other commenters just been too polite to mention it?

  5. Kelly

    Yes, for me 10 pictures are broken, including the first 3. Eight of them work correctly.

  6. Not fair to paint all taxi drivers as the scum of the earth. However, the ones that get the prime spots at airports and train stations are either
    a) scary enough to not get beat up by the other scary taxi drivers that compete for prime spots, or
    b) affiliated with organized crime.

    Or both. The fact is that the worst I’ve ever been shaken down for by someone I hailed on the street was “per person fare” instead of “per trip fare” (basically doubling the cost…about $1 usually). But airports, bus and train stations…outside of North America and western Europe, I think I’ve had one ride without some kind of hassle.

    If public transit isn’t an option, I try to make arrangements to have my hotel send someone to the airport. It’s usually more expensive than a taxi ride should be, but the price is always honoured.

    I’m sorry you couldn’t find any distinctive landmarks. For central asia, I’d hoped you’d head for Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as it’s got some really iconic architecture.

  7. Taxi drivers, in general, have questionable morals. But keep in mind they’ve probably gotten screwed a few times themselves. I’d still not let my belongings out of my site in a foreign country.

    I think PicasaWeb was having some issues earlier. Everything appears to be working now.

    Somehow I find the teenagers more interesting to read about and see pictures of than the kids from other countries. Maybe there’s the possibility of striking up an intellectual conversation with them, rather than just dancing and laughing.

    As much as we’d like it to be, there actually is more to life than just dancing and laughing 😉

    More pictures!

  8. I am a fan of yours for a while back ever since my friend posted you on her blog and then I posted you on mine.. I love traveling and your living it for real.. I just cant do some of the things you do.. I am more of a city girl and especially what scars me from going to places like this place is exactly what happened to you.. I am not that brave.. I love following your travels and great stories.. look forward to read and see more..

  9. The photos seem to be working fine for me now as well.

    I endured a similar experience in Santiago, Chile and now refuse to ride in a cab without my bags in my lap. I guess you could look on the bright side and be glad that the cabbies didn’t simply peel out of there with your bag in their trunk!

    And I agree that all cabbies aren’t bad. I’ve had more than a few go the extra mile to show me around or help me out. The scummy ones just seem to congregate around airports, train stations, etc.

  10. PLENTIOUS

    What surprises me most about this experience is that it has taken you this long to have it. Maybe you’ve had lots of these and this is just the first one you have chosen to document.

    If I were you I would be crossing all the “stans” off my list along with a lot of other intriguing yet potentially life threatening destinations.

    I realize the “exotic” destinations are a significant part of what you’ve created, but in my view better to be a washed up/out bad dancer than a brutalized/dead bad dancer.

    One could argue that these risks can be found easily in the US, but you can’t convince me that all risks are equal around the globe.

    I’m pretty sure any Marine in Iraq would choose the San Diego risk over the Baghdad.

  11. T I A G O

    Mesmo longe de sua cidade e longe dos pontos turísticos onde você visita,não deixo de acompanhar seus trajetos e gravações para seu novo video.
    Toda vez que acesso a internet visito seu site para novas informações de fotos e pelos lugares por onde você esta
    Seria seria muito legal se você colocasse algum link no site com o cronograma das viagens por onde você ainda irá e a data.

    Sucesso e que de Deus te ilumine em suas viagens.

  12. Glück Gábor

    Hi Matt! I am from Budapest, Hungary and I am an avid reader of your journals and hope to have you in Budapest again. Your case of almost getting stranded in the middle of nowhere reminds me of the Roald Dahl short story “The Visitor”… If I may, I cite here an excerpt..

    “When I looked up again, I saw that the Arab had raised the bonnet of the car on the right-hand side, and was bending over the engine. His head and shoulders were out of sight, and so were his hands and arms. What on earth was the man doing? The oil dipstick was on the other side. I rapped on the windshield. He seemed not to hear me. I put my head out of the window and shouted, “Hey! Come out of there!” Slowly, he straightened up, and as he drew his right arm out of the bowels of the engine, I saw that he was holding in his fingers something that was long and black and curly and very thin.

    “Good God!” I thought. “He’s found a snake in there! ” He came round to the window, grinning at me and holding the object out for me to see; and only then, as I got a closer look, did I realise that it was not a snake at all – it was the fan-belt of my Lagonda!

    All the awful implications of suddenly being stranded in this outlandish place with this disgusting man came flooding over me as I sat there staring dumbly at my broken fan-belt “You can see,” the Arab was saying, hanging on by a single thread. “A good thing I noticed it.” I took it from him and examined it closely.

    “You cut it!” I cried.”

    Source: link to 64.233.183.104

  13. Rich

    Hey, there are lots of good cab drivers. Yes, some are corrupt, but there are lots of honest ones too.

    Sorry to hear about your nasty experience Matt. You visit some pretty spooky places. Personally I think your overall luck has been pretty good. Hopefully you got a nasty experience out of the way and you’ll have smooth sailing for a while. :)

  14. Rory

    Haha, awesome story matt. You stopped by London and i was there dancing with you of course. Im really looking forward to this new video, not JUST because im in it. I swear you need to write a book, storys like your taxi ride are always interesting to read, i’ve traveled alot and met alot of people like that, but im hopeless at dealing with them, you had like a hostige stand-off for a bag. Awsome stuff.

    Keep it up.

  15. Great story! I had heard stories about traveling through Russickstan (my word) and this certainly confirms some of them. Never had a bad cab story myself. And now hearing yours, I don’t want to. :)

  16. Trygve

    Hmmm… what a terrible cab ride. I had a similar one from Batumi to the Turkish border one morning in the Republic of Georgia – it was the last time I ever use the trunk for my bag in any taxi.

  17. Jhon

    Sorry to hear that you got taken in by the Taxi driver scam. I lived in Kyrgyzstan for two years and am well familiar with this scam.

    Hope you enjoyed Bishkek, though. Too bad you didn’t make it to Osh. The ride is only $50, and the view through the mountain passes are incredible… and in certain places heart pounding as you brush up right… by… the… ledge…

  18. Asel

    Poor Matt! If you’re brave enough to go there again…call us, we’ll pick you up. Free ride and none of those jerks taxi drivers. They obviously scared you enough not to enjoy the rest of your time there.

  19. KeMA

    Hey Matt, I love your videos. Good job man. Sorry to hear about your cab story; it can be unsafe for foreigners to travel in Kyrgyzstan withouth guides or without local people who you know/trust; I never trust those taxi drivers at the airport myself. I’m kyrgyz by the way :), and I live in Seattle right now. If you knew any locals there, and if they could take you around the city, beginning from airport, you would have a much better impression of Bishkek. Let me know next time, if I’m in Bishkek I’ll show you all the beauties.

    Too bad you didn’t go to Issyk-Kul lake; it’s beautiful.

  20. Aliisa

    I’m a flight attendant for a charter company we layover in Bishkek occasionally. Having been to the museum or as I call it Lenin-palooza on my first visit I am now desperate for things to do there. How far was the cab ride to the gorge and how much did you pay?

  21. Erasil

    XXDD
    Not very good introduction to Central Asia though…..
    Probably you met not very right people, cause usually we are really hospitable, at least kazakhs are.
    Also, i think that those taxi drivers were just typical swindlers, who use tourists to take their money… So be carefull next time))))
    Sooooo…..Matt you should come to Kazakhstan(Almaty(+) or Astana))))
    Here is some info about Almaty : link to en.wikipedia.org
    An about Kazakhstan: link to en.wikipedia.org
    You should really see Charyn Canyon, Altyn Emel national park, Medeo skating., Kaindy Lake and etc. + They are not very far from the city))))))))))
    Come to KZ!))))))

  22. Azamat

    Dear Matt, and all who would like to travel to an unknown land. People are different. I am really sorry for you and ashamed of those shameless cab drivers. I appologize on behalf of all kyrgyz people.
    Just one advice that I always follow when I go to foreign countries: Before going or after arriving one must find the official, legal or authorized transportation companies to rely on. Ask for documents.
    Good luck, I liked your video.
    Azamat

  23. LJ

    Hi Matt, I am from Kyrgyzstan, I am soo sorry for the taxi drivers..
    bunch of idiots, coming from countryside.

    You should come again…and I will show you all the places…
    U should go to Issyk Kul, Osh, and many other places…

    Good luck!

  24. jhon

    this is a fucking country i am also living here i am a student of medical here people doesn`t know how to respect you can`t go anywhere in night after 10 just fucking countryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

  25. Altynai

    What a horrible experience, Matt! I stumbled upon your blog only now, after seeing your 2012 video. I am from Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Your unfortunate experience is very common for locals too. So, it was not something targeted on you, as a foreigner. But locals know how to deal with such scam cab drivers. I had similar experience in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Karachi, Pakistan, and Istanbul, Turkey and had to swallow but resist some racist slurs in Dusseldorf, Germany. I always go to the places with less expectations of humanity, more preparedness to scammers. But traveling is interesting because of diverse experiences. Otherwise, the landmarks, nice people, and picturesque landscapes are not as dramatic as the horrible experiences we will gain. So, good luck with trips!

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