Stories about our first hitchhiking experiences in Kyrgyzstan
and useful tips for travelers who would like to do the same
Up until now it had been easy to hitchhike in the countries we traveled to. The concept of hitchhiking was understood by the people from Ireland all the way to Azerbaijan: giving travelers a free ride. We never encountered any problems, with the exception of North Italy, where we had to wait for hours before someone would give us a lift. Even in Azerbaijan, where the locals barely meet any tourists and where hitchhiking isn’t common, we always found a smooth ride. Hitchhiking had never been a real challenge for us, that is, until Central Asia!
When we arrived in Kazakhstan, we noticed a lot of locals standing on the side of the road, waving their arms up and down, a sign that they want to have a lift. We also noticed people doing the same thing in Kyrgyzstan. After doing some research and asking around, we heard that this is very common in Central Asia. It’s their way of ride-sharing, in which drivers give people a ride in exchange for money to share the costs of the petrol for the journey. It’s much cheaper than taking a taxi. So it’s not really that hard to hitchhike and find a ride in Central Asia, the challenge is in finding a FREE ride.
Before I continue this story, I want to make something clear:
Niko and I don’t hitchhike because we want to get free rides. Traveling by public transportation is in general quite cheap (especially in Central Asia) and more straightforward than hitchhiking. You can plan the journey ahead of time and you’ll know (kind of) exactly where and when you’ll arrive at the end of the day. And that’s precisely why we prefer hitchhiking over taking buses or trains: we never know where the road and the driver will take us. It’s an adventure on its own and we love to travel without a plan. We also love it because it’s a great way of meeting local people and learning more about the culture of a country. We love to exchange stories with our drivers and fellow passengers and our drivers often invite us to a drink or to meet their family in their house, so we get to see how people live and how they spend their lives on a daily basis.
With the knowledge that we would probably have to pay for our rides, we felt more or less ready to start hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. It had been a while and it was going to be the first time in Central Asia where we would wave cars down on the side of the road. Even though we had already spent 6 weeks in Kazakhstan and a few days in Kyrgyzstan, we hadn’t hitchhiked yet because we had constantly been in the company of other travelers, whom we had joined on road trips throughout both countries (you can watch the videos of our road trips here).
Our very first ride in Kyrgyzstan
Our first time hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan felt a little strange. We started in a small town just outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city and were aiming to go south, towards Jalalabad and Osh. We kept waving our arms up and down but except for the many strange looks from the drivers, none made any attempts to stop. Just when I started thinking that we were doing something wrong and Niko started doubting that his long hair and big beard were giving a wrong impression (it’s not exactly common in Kyrgyzstan for guys to have long hair and a big beard), a car stopped.
The driver was a young man in his mid-twenties. He was accompanied by his mother, who sat in the front passenger seat. The young man asked in Russian where we were going. Niko told him we were heading south. The young men told us he was driving home, about 30 minutes further down the road, and that we could join him until his town. When Niko asked how much money he wanted for the ride, the young man shook his head and said “bezplatna”, which translates to “it’s free”. Alright, that was a lucky start!
It was a very pleasant ride. It played a lot in our advantage that we had made the effort to study the basics of the Russian language. The man and his mother were so excited and curious to have us in their car. They bombarded us with the usual questions about where we came from and what we were doing in Kyrgyzstan. They both had a great sense of humor and even though we sometimes struggled to communicate fluently, we shared a few good laughs. The mother insisted to treat us to a coffee in a little road-house before our paths separated. She even gave us her phone number, just in case we ever needed some help. They left us at the start of the Taz-Ashu mountain pass with a warm and fuzzling feeling (it might have been the caffeine too). Our first ride was a great success! We felt more confident about hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a challenge after all!
Waving guns and singing traditional songs at 3300 m above sea level
We didn’t have to wait very long to get a second ride. After five minutes of hitching, a Toyota Land Cruiser stopped right next to us. The driver, a late 20-something guy, and his older brother told us to hop in. When we asked how much they wanted for the ride, the older brother told us the same as our previous driver, “bezplatna”. Waw, this turned out to be a very good hitchhiking day!
The guys were very laid back. As usual they asked us a lot of questions and they told us about their own lives. The younger brother was a lightweight boxing champion and the older one was going to be the new mayor of the city of Talas. We were in lofty company! Unfortunately I could only understand 20% of the conversations as the brothers were speaking way too fast for my poor level of Russian. I noticed that it also required a lot of energy and concentration from Niko to understand what they were saying. I got lost in thought until the older brother drew his revolver out of the glove box. Strangely enough, this didn’t startle me that much. After our hitchhiking adventures in Turkey, where everybody seemed to carry a gun, I must have gotten used to the sight. When I gave Niko a questioning look, he explained to me that they were talking about self-defense. Oh, okay, seems like a good topic to start swinging weapons around.
The higher we drove into the mountain pass, the more the world turned into a winter wonderland. Everything was covered in a thick blanket of snow. The road was slippery so the younger brother, who was driving, stopped participating in the conversations so he could fully focus on the road. The other guy however, burst out into singing traditional Kyrgyz songs. It was the first time we heard songs like this and with his deep voice, our entertainer surely got our full attention and appreciation! To hear the song, watch the video here (at 2.51 minutes). After his little performance, the future mayor of Talas told us that is was now our turn to sing traditional songs of our own countries to him. I had to dig deep into my memories before I came up with one. Even though I forgot most part of the lyrics, it didn’t matter that much as no-one, not even Niko, could understand a word of what I was singing. And so we continued driving through the mountains while singing songs in different languages. That’s exactly why I love hitchhiking so much. Every ride is a unique story or in this case, a musical!
Learn all the tips and tricks to hitchhike like a pro in our Hitchhiking Guide!
Cheeky cheeky, money money!
I could honestly say that our first day of hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan was a very successful one. Hitchhiking here seemed to be very similar to what we’ve experienced in any of the other countries we’ve visited so far, and the Kyrgyz people we met that day were very welcoming, kind and helpful. Not once did they ask us for money and we even got treated to some drinks and typical Kyrgyz food. Our hitchhiking future in Kyrgyzstan looked bright, but alas, not for long …
After a cold night of camping in the mountains we resumed our trip towards the south of the country. It was snowing and we were frantically waving our arms up and down, not only to draw the attention of the drivers but also to stay warm. Twenty minutes later, an old Niva Lada stopped for us. The driver seemed very friendly and in a good mood. He was going towards Lake Toktogul, which meant that he could take us out of the mountains to a relatively warmer area. As usual, we asked how much payment he wanted for the ride and he gave us the same reply as his predecessors: “bezplatna”.
It was another long drive along the winding road of the Utmek Pass. Slowly on we could see the snow making place for green patches of land. Our driver was a chatty guy and he seemed to be in a good mood. After a couple of hours of driving, we stopped in a small road-restaurant to fill up our bellies with a good bowl of warm soup. We offered to pay for his meal as a thank you for giving us a ride. He refused and we ended up splitting the bill. Looking back, I’ve got the feeling that this gesture caused him to become cheeky but I couldn’t tell with absolute certainty.
We continued our little road trip with this driver until we reached the shores of Lake Toktogul. The scenery was absolutely stunning. We asked our driver to drop us off there so we could have some time to enjoy the landscapes. We took our bags out of the boot, shook the driver’s hand and thanked him for the ride. But he didn’t let go of Niko’s hand. He looked him in the eyes and said “dyengee benzinee”, which means “money for the petrol”. We were a bit taken by surprise as he first had told us that he wouldn’t charge us anything. In our confusion we nodded and asked how much he wanted. “500 som”, he said. That was all the money I had left in my wallet but instead of arguing, I just gave it to him. He smiled (of course…), waved us goodbye, got back in his car and drove off.
I looked at Niko and asked “Did he just rip us off or was this an okay price?”. “I don’t know”, Niko replied. “I wouldn’t have minded paying him if he had told us right from the start but I don’t like the fact that he changed his mind like that.”. I nodded my head in agreement and was thinking that he might have decided to charge us after seeing the money in my wallet when I payed the bill in the restaurant. It wasn’t that he had asked us for much, 500 som is the equivalent of $7 and we had crossed more than 100km with him, but still, it didn’t feel right. It brought a bad vibe to the whole situation so instead of pondering about whether or not we should have given him the money, we decided to focus on what was around us. At least the ride had been nice, we got out of the cold mountains and were now in a beautiful location where we could camp without freezing our toes off.
Prepare your trip to Kyrgyzstan well. You can find everything you need to know about traveling in Kyrgyzstan here!
The following days were a mix of both situations. We couldn’t pay for our first ride further south as I had given the last bit of our cash money to our previous driver and the nearest ATM was about 80km away. Luckily we quickly found a ride where the driver didn’t mind that we couldn’t pay him. This is a very useful sentence if you can’t pay for your ride: “unas nyet dyenek”, which means “we don’t have money”. I can already tell you that some people will question this and will wonder how and why the hell you are traveling if you don’t have any or much cash. If you’re able to express yourself in Russian, tell them your story and that you’re traveling on a very tight budget. If not, well, it’s actually none of their business, right?
What can also happen, is that the driver will ask you how much you’re willing to pay before you get in the car. How do you know how much you should pay? That was a bit of a tricky one for us as well. Eventually we came up with the formula of paying 5 som per km. This is more than what you pay for a mashrutka (public mini bus) but less than if you would take a shared taxi. This seemed to work well, most of the time. Once we had a driver who first agreed on the price we offered but after he dropped us off, he suddenly wanted double the amount. We just gave him what we promised we would and walked away. My advice if you ever encounter a situation like this: stay calm, be confident and walk away, even if they start shouting at you. It sucks that there is always that one person who will say or do whatever to fill his pockets.
Don’t worry though, most Kyrgyz people are super friendly, helpful and genuinely interested in you (and not in your money). The contact list of my phone is filled with many phone numbers of people we met. They all insisted on us noting down their number, just in case we needed some help. I can’t count the amount of times that someone called out “hello” or “welcome to Kyrgyzstan” whenever they would walk by us. When you find yourself in a small village, you’ll feel like a celebrity. So many people will come up to you to say hello, ask where you’re from, invite you for tea and take a selfie with you.
Hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan was for us a fun but sometimes tiring experience. It required a lot of energy to explain what we were doing and to negotiate the prices, in comparison to countries where the concept of hitchhiking – giving someone a ride for free – is more known. One of the reasons why it was so exhausting, is also due to the language barrier. It’s really hard to explain ourselves in a language that we haven’t mastered yet! Despite these challenges, I would still say that it is possible to hitchhike in Kyrgyzstan and I can guarantee that you’ll have some awesome and positive experiences! It’s definitely way more entertaining and adventurous than taking public transportation!
Watch the video of our first days of hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan:
What you need to know about hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan – an overview
- Show drivers that you want a lift by waving your arm up and down. You can also use a piece of cardboard with your destination written on it. Tip: try to write it in the Russian language.
- Talking about the Russian language, I’d like to emphasize the importance of knowing at least some basic phrases in Russian. Learn how to greet someone (strazvweetie), how to ask and say “where are you going” (kuda vwee ye-di-tyee), “I am going to …” (ya sobirayus v …), “How much” (skolka) , and “I don’t have money” (uminya nyet dyengee) and other basics words you’ll need to have a basic conversation. Like, if someone says “at kuda vwee”, he/she is asking where you’re from. The question “kak vas zovut” means “what is your name”.
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- It’s a common thing in Kyrgyzstan to pay for a ride. If you don’t mind sharing the costs with your driver but you don’t know how much you should pay, use this little formula: 5 som x …km. This should basically be the correct price. If you want to hitchhike for free, you have to mention that you don’t have money (uminya nyet dyengee) before you get in the car! No matter what type of car it is (even trucks) and even when a driver seems to be very helpful, always (always!) mention that you can’t pay, to avoid unpleasant surprises. When the drivers says it’s free (bezplatna), 98% of the time it will be free. And what do you do with the 2% that change their mind and ask you for money after all? The choice is up to you: you can say again that you don’t have money – after all, you mentioned this very clearly before you got in the car – and walk away or you can pay the price (if it isn’t much).
→ Our friends from Timezone Junkies had a clever idea. They used a piece of cardboard on which they wrote their destination and a symbol that showed they didn’t have money.
- Waiting time for a lift is in general not very long. You can even hitchhike to remote places but that will depend on the season. Some mountain roads are hard to access from late October to late April, so you won’t see much traffic there during that time of the year.
- If you’re hitchhiking between the months of November and May, and you have to cross a long mountain pass, try to find a direct ride that will bring you out of the mountains. If you get stuck, know that there are barely any hotels and all the yurts are gone (the semi-nomads are only around from May to October), which means you’ll have to camp. Be well-prepared as it can be very cold during the night (even in summer). Read how to prepare for camping in winter here.
- As a hitchhiker, you probably won’t have many encounters with the police. But you never know and I’d like to warn you that the cops in Kyrgyzstan are very corrupt. They don’t only bother foreigners but also local people with their bribes. Unfortunately, they aren’t really your friend like the cops in Georgia!
- Always buckle up, well, if there’s at least a seat belt available in the car… We noticed that the driving style in Kyrgyzstan is very similar to the driving style in Georgia. Let’s describe it this way: a lot of drivers seem to be in a hurry, speeding along tiny windy roads and overtaking overtaking cars while there are two cars approaching from the other direction, very likely overtaking each other as well. Why only have two lanes if there’s space for four cars, right…? Though I have to mention that 80% of the drivers are very attentive, have excellent control about what’s happening around their car and drive efficiently. I think the other 20% is just there to test the driving skills of the others (and to fill the pockets of the cops with speed fines paid in cash).
If you enjoyed reading our hitchhiking stories in Kyrgyzstan, maybe you’ll also enjoy our stories in Georgia, Turkey and Europe. You can find them here.
Are you planning on hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan? Or did you already do it? What are your experiences? Please let us know in the comments below!