Moving to Kyrgyzstan

Expats moving to Kyrgyzstan should keep an open mind for a unique living experience. The tiny, mountainous country in Central Asia first gained independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union, and is bit-by-bit disembodying itself from its communist past to embrace a democratic future.

Expats who come to Kyrgyzstan usually work in the development sector, for a range of international or local organisations and NGOs, or in the mining sector. Volunteering is also becoming increasingly popular, and there is always a high demand for English teachers. Despite two popular uprisings in recent years, Kyrgyzstan is considered one of the safer, more attractive countries in Central Asia, and is frequently used by various companies as a base for conducting projects throughout the rest of the region.

That said, Kyrgyzstan is not a popular expat destination, with few moving here for reasons other than an already-established job contract. The exact number of Western expats in Kyrgyzstan has never been determined, but it is likely to be about 1,000 people. Bishkek, the capital city, is where most Americans or Europeans settle for work, with much fewer in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city. Westerners are rare outside of Kyrgyzstan’s larger cities except for scattered Peace Corps volunteers.

The majority of Kyrgyzstan’s population is Muslim, but this is not an immediately apparent aspect of everyday life. Modern Kyrgyz culture is a blend of ancient tradition tempered with touches of Islam and Soviet-style habits (obvious when dealing with anything bureaucratic). In perfect demonstration of this careful balance, vodka is an essential part of any Kyrgyz celebration, though pork products may be more difficult to find.

It is inexpensive to live well in Kyrgyzstan. Many companies organise comfortable accommodation for their employees when they arrive, but if not, various options are easily accessible in larger cities. Within most Kyrgyzstan city centres, renting is limited to apartment buildings of varying size and age, while those willing to venture further into the periphery will find houses and more spacious accommodation available.

Medical care is also inexpensive, but the quality of Kyrgyz hospitals is questionable. There are some clinics in bigger cities that employ Western-trained doctors. Over-the-counter medication is widely and cheaply available in any pharmacy. Equipment is clean, but sometimes lacking, and a trip to the hospital will likely include a few bribes to get proper attention.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges for expats living in Kyrgyzstan is the rampant culture of corruption and bribery. Rumours of corruption, even at the highest level of government, are constantly circulating. Policemen frequently stop foreigners to check their documents, primarily for the purpose of collecting a small bribe.

But apart from dealing with these small inconveniences, expats can spend the majority of their time enjoying Kyrgyzstan’s stunning natural beauty. Endless opportunities for skiing and hiking present themselves on the nation's many mountains, and swimming and lounging on the shores of the idyllic Lake Issyk-Kul are popular pastimes.

Situated at the crossroads of Russia, China and Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan is a certainly a destination prime for expats seeking something a little less ordinary. It’s exotic enough to impress, yet easy to adapt to.

Kirstin Styers Our Expat Expert

I'm a 23-year old media analyst starting a research organization in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I previously lived in Jordan and Iraq, studying Arabic and consuming massive quantities of hummus, but gave it up to learn Russian and develop media projects across Central Asia. I try to tell some of Kyrgyzstan's untold stories through my photography and writing on my personal blog. I'm also working hard to bring the magic of cupcakes to Bishkek.