Discovery Kyrgyzstan
 
Discovery Kyrgyzstan travel guide #10/2008
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Transport

TransportIt may not be surprising, given the role of the Great Silk Road in the history of Kyrgyzstan, that transportation has played an important role in the history of the region as a whole. The origins of most of the major roads etc. can be found in the routes traversed by traders many centuries ago.

During the Soviet period, there were major developments and improvements to the transport infrastructure mainly with a view to opening up the region and transporting goods and raw materials to markets in the Western part of the Soviet Union. Since 1991 there has been a general decline in facilities through inability to invest (for example in new railway stock or road schemes) although there are plans for improvements and the Kyrgyz Republic receives support for transport projects from a number of international organizations.

See also 'Transport Services Within the Republic' in the 'Practical Matters' section.

AIR

AIRThere are a number of airfields in the country which is not surprising when you remember that the republic was once used to train Soviet pilots and even former President Assad of Syria trained here in the 1960s.

There are two airports which have been upgraded to meet international standards Bishkek and Osh.

The main civil airport, is Manas airport in Bishkek, (although there are some international flights from Osh and Tamchi mainly to other CIS cities). Since December 2001, it has also served as a military base (Ganci Base) for American and other nations operating humanitarian flights to Afghanistan. Manas is capable of handling even the largest planes and has been used as a refueling base for long haul flights between Europe and the far east, (e.g. Japan) in 2003 there was a story in the local press about how the cast of 'Matrix Reloaded', “breathed the pure Kyrgyz mountain air whilst their plane was being refueled”.

There is more information about Manas in the Practical Information section.

There are 23 airports in Kyrgyzstan. Most of the other civilian airports are closed or operate on a restricted basis. There are, or were, airports at Cholpon Ata, Karakol, Naryn, Kazarman, Osh, Djalal Abad, and Talas. In 2003 work was undertaken to create a new airport at Tamchi, on Lake Issyk Kul.

The national airline (Kyrgyz Aba Jolduru) operates both domestic and international flights. Other international carriers include British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Aeroflot, Uzbek Airlines and China Xinjiang Airlines. There are a number of small, newly formed local companies that operate on a number of routes. There are also a number of special charter flights mainly for local people going on holiday, or on “shopping tours”.

One of the biggest problems facing tourists seeking information about flights has been the fact that, until recently, Kyrgyz Aba Jolduru was not listed on any internationally recognized booking systems everything had to be booked through local GSAs, (General Sales Agents), although a new management team and marketing strategy has meant that this should now be a thing of the past.

During the Soviet period, there were a large number of helicopters operating out of the republic and some of these are still here. Helicopter flights can be arranged for example, for heli-skiing or to Khan Tengri - but tend to be expensive.

Because there are no flights from Kyrgyzstan to America the FAA have not undertaken a rating exercise for safety and security of Kyrgyz airspace and operations. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office advise that “it is not known whether maintenance procedures used on internal flights are always properly observed …” although the only accidents that have occurred so far have been with helicopter flights … and seem to have been due to exceptional circumstances.

ROADS

ROADSThere are about 36000 kilometers of roads in Kyrgyzstan but not all of them are asphalt, (according to Wolrd Bank statistics some 91% of roads in the country are paved but sometimes it may seem difficult to credit this another source suggest that only 18000km are paved), and some of the mountain roads in particular may be rather difficult at times.

Snow can fall in the mountains in every month of the year and close a road for several days. Some roads are closed throughout the winter period. For example, he Kazarman-Djalal Abad road is closed for eight months of the year, but recent road works have been undertaken to cut this to just six.

The mountains divide the country up into several distinct regions and travel between them is limited by the number of routes available. In former times, many high mountain passes (e.g. Kegety or Sokoluk) may have been cleared by snow plow in late spring but this doesn't happen now, restricting the already limited number of available routes.

There are considered to be 22 “main” roads … but the really vital routes are: BishkekOsh; BishkekNarynTorugart, BishkekIssyk Kul.

Bus services operate between most of the major towns … but you might have to change. For example, to travel between Karakol and Kochkor, you would have to change at Balykchi. Buses tend to be cheap, but can be crowded, slow and uncomfortable.

There are often minibus services ("marshroute") following the same route and often going to different places. Minibuses may be more expensive than buses but they are still cheap. You can usually find minibuses at the local bus station but unlike the buses which depart according to a set timetable the driver usually waits until he has a full load of passengers before he departs.

Taxis also operate from bus stations. They are usually shared vehicles and take four passengers, three on the back seat and one “up-front”, next to the driver. You can, of course, pay extra for the other seats and keep the vehicle for yourself. Bradley Mathew, in the Lonely Planet “Central Asia” guide cites “cheap taxis in Kyrgyzstan” as one of his highlights of the region. Although local taxis can be cheap don't be surprised if you ending up paying more than a local person. It is a market and you need to barter … but don't be unreasonable … the driver may have spotted you for a foreigner but, although it is possible, it doesn't mean that he is going to automatically overcharge you.

In Bishkek and the larger towns, vehicles that operate as taxis can be found waiting for potential clients on many street corners, and almost any car can be flagged down.

Some embassies, however, advise against using local taxis … and although we (who live here) do take local taxis from time to time … we have to admit that they have a point. Remember, you often “get what you pay for …”, you don't know the driver, the state of the vehicle, there is almost certainly no insurance … and so on.

Although individuals and firms offering transport services have to be licensed, taxis do not, they are expressly excluded from this requirement in the current legislation and so there is no control over them.

A number of taxi firms in Bishkek will offer long distance services and there are a number of firms like ours which can also offer driver-and-vehicle services. These may be more expensive but offer greater “peace of mind” and be more reliable.

There used to be a Hertz franchise offering “self-drive” car hire but it has apparently closed.

Something like 97% of all cargo and goods traffic in the country is carried by trucks'.

RAILWAYS

RAILWAYSAccording to the Ministry of Transport the official figure is 424.6 km of railway line in the republic although other sources put the figure at 372 km.

The construction of railways in Central Asia began in the Russian Empire, and was consolidated in the Soviet Union. It was primarily aimed at the distribuition of coal and industrial output across the vast distances between the region and the markets of Western Russia. It also played an important part in the transport of passengers and was used to great effect to move troops and supplies by Mikhail Frunze during the civil war.

The main routes are from the Kazakh border, through Bishkek and onto to Balykchi at the Western end of Lake Issyk Kul, and from Uzbekistan into Djalal Abad and Osh.

In 1995, it was decided to extend the railway from Balykchi to the Kara Kechi coalfield just North of Lake Son Kul but the line was never finished, although there are plans that it should be and extended as far as Djalalabad.

The Chinese have extended their railway network with a line from Urumchi to Kashgar and there are now plans to create a link along the route of the “Silk Road”, which would create a Southern rival to the Siberian Railway. There are plans for a rail link between Kashgar and Djalal Abad (or Osh) over the Torugart (or Irkeshtam) pass but the final details have yet to be decided ….

In 2003, plans were also announced for a rail link between Almaty and Chalpon Ata on Lake Issyk Kul but if the history of the road linking these two towns is anything to go by it will be a long time before it is implemented. Even the official estimates suggest that it will take some 10 years to complete the project.

WATERWAYS

According to one source there are 576 km of waterways in the republic … but it would be true to say that there is no real water traffic the only navigable waterway is on Lake Issyk Kul and boats operate between the six jetties and other stopping points all year round.

In terms of leisure activities, yachting, and pleasure boats can be found on Lake Issyk Kul, and rafting is a popular pastime on several of the rivers. Scuba diving and jet-skis are also available on Lake Issyk Kul.

Discovery Kyrgyzstan #6

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