Moving to Kyrgyzstan is Easy: Part One

Just a week into our adventure in Kyrgyzstan, it’s already apparent that this transition is going to be far easier than expected.

First, there’s a near absence of the bureaucracy–all too common in the overdeveloped world–that puts hours of waiting rooms and stacks of paper between visiting a place and living in it. Then there’s a fully integrated system devoted to making it easy to pay for pretty much anything, from cell phones to gambling debts, at any of hundreds of ATM-like machines around the city. Not least, there’s an easy visa system that welcomes foreign visitors rather than treating us with suspicion (though I am admittedly wary of the visa-extension process I will go through in a few weeks). In the U.S., I felt like I was applying for college when I signed up for Comcast. Even more ridiculous, my American bank still sends paper statements to my parents’ address. I’ve never even lived there, but the bank doesn’t seem to care–“It’s policy,” they said. “We need to send these somewhere.”

Why is the wealthy and high-tech West fixated on antiquated communicative tools? Why do we still insist on leaving miles of paper trail behind every transaction? Why does my cable company need to know my social security number?

Compared to Kyrgyzstan, I can think of enough cultural points of departure to at least partially explain these differences–but no matter what the reason, we’re glad to be able to keep the logistics in the background and focus on experiencing Kyrgyz culture–and eating lots and lots of manty.

Getting a Cell Phone in Bishkek

Everyone in Bishkek–and their grandma and their 4-year-old nephew–seems to have a smartphone, tablet or both. In fact, people here are so enthusiastic about mobile technology that I’ve even seen a few kids wearing iPhone t-shirts–I’m not sure if they’re properly licensed, but I’m sure Apple still benefits somehow. Fresh out of the plane, we needed to get our devices online ASAP.

TSUM Center in Bishkek

Tsum Center in Bishkek

A quick forum search led us to three main companies (though I probably could have guessed the same, based on their ubiquitous billboards and booths throughout the city): Megacom, Beeline, and O!. Megacom’s web site had an English section and their fees seemed straightforward, so they won the battle and we visited their store in the Tsum Center (155 Chuy Avenue). At first we were confused because it seemed like there were 20 different lines and we couldn’t tell which one was for us, so we asked someone and it turned out that, yes, there were 20 different lines–but they all served the same purpose and we just had to choose the shortest-looking one.

Soon we were face-to face with a cheerful–possibly teenage–service agent who spoke only Russian. We did our best to dance around unknown vocab words, but she offered to bring over an English-speaking agent to help us. Bonus. The young gentleman arrived and basically saved the day, walking us through the process of buying and registering SIM cards and explaining our plan options (how much comes out of our prepaid balance per second of talk-time or MB of data). Ten minutes later we walked out with two phones and an iPad blasting unlimited 3G data straight into our faces.

What to Know About Cell Phones in Bishkek:

  • SIM cards cost money, but not a lot–between 9 and 25 som (15 and 40 cents) each.
  • SIM cards have to be registered. You can buy them anywhere, but you have to go to the provider’s service center with your passport and a local address (hotels/ hostels work fine) to register the SIM card. As of March 8th, 2015, all unregistered SIM cards will be disabled.
  • Kyrgyz phone companies–Megacom, Beeline and O!–charge for data by the MB and talk-time by the SECOND, meaning that voice calls can get expensive. Unlimited data plans are available by the day (around 20 som) or by the month (200 to 1500 som), but be careful–talking on the phone can cost upwards of $3 per minute.
  • You can top up your prepaid account at the aforementioned ATM-like machines located in banks, convenience stores and along the sidewalk in the city center.
  • If you bring your own phone, make sure it’s GSM-compatible and unlocked.
  • You don’t NEED to bring your own phone necessarily. The Tsum Center and many other locations offer a cornucopia of new and used phones in every price range. Plus, this is the first place I’ve been where brand-name electronics are cheaper than in the USA.

Getting an Apartment in Bishkek

Still riding the high from our mobile-tech success, we needed to pause all the app downloading and focus on the next challenge: finding an apartment in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Fortunately, a merciful post from Ivory Pomegranate (the queen of Bishkek bloggers) turned us onto KG’s own Craigslist: Diesel.kg. The site is only available in Russian, but get the Google Translate browser extension and even the linguistically challenged will have no trouble navigating through hundreds–OK, maybe just dozens–of up-to-date classifieds. We found about six places that seemed to fit our requirements, and we started calling the landlords (yes, at least elementary Russian is necessary).

Call it luck, intuition, or just playing the odds, but the first number we called belonged to a real-estate agent who had posted several of the apartments on our list. She suggested that we stop by the office to talk further. For a bit of background, we’ve never used a real-estate agent–not in New York, not in Budapest, not in Krakow, not in California–but we were glad to have the support in Bishkek. We figured, at worst, we’d have to pay a month’s rent to the agent, but we’d find a place much sooner and would save on short-term accommodation. More than anything, we just wanted to finish with the practical stuff and start living our lives again–so with that in mind, we shuffled through the new snow to the office.

Located on the third floor of an inconspicuous shopping center, the real-estate agency consisted of a small room with blank walls, two agents and about six chairs. We took a seat and explained that we wanted to find a moderately-priced two-room (the Kyrgyz version of a 1-bedroom) apartment in the city center. She immediately started calling. It took a while–more than half an hour–but she managed to set up six meetings at six different apartments. She even went with us to the first meeting because it was just around the corner from her office. We liked the place well enough and the location was perfect, but the agent thought it was too expensive given the well-worn state of its furniture and appliances.

Long story short, we moved into the second apartment we saw that day. Listed at the same price as the first apartment, this one has new appliances and is 1.5 times the size. It’s located on a high floor with a city view on one side and a mountain view on the other. There’s a flatscreen TV, broadband internet, and amazing wallpaper that looks like something from a David Lynch dream sequence. The landlord asked for two months’ payment in advance, but no security deposit. She also drew up a nice contract, explaining that she’d heard that foreigners appreciate such things. Indeed we do, and especially Americans. We moved in bright and early the following morning and have lived happily ever since.

I forgot to mention the agent’s fee: 600 som, or $10, to work with us until we found a place. Definitely a bargain.

What to Know About Getting an Apartment in Bishkek:

  • Landlords and agents don’t communicate via email, and you won’t find many pictures online. Plan to find a place after you get here–but don’t worry, it doesn’t need to take long.
  • Several online resources are available if you want to go it alone: Diesel.kg (general classifieds site), Salut.kg (like a regular agency, but with all their listings online in English–fee still applies), several Russian-only real-estate sites: elita.kg, doska.kgdomik.kg.
  • Rental agents are ubiquitous and, as mentioned, very cheap compared to elsewhere. They’re hard to find online though, so get a recommendation from a local, or contact us and we’ll give you the number for the one we used (Russian speaking).
  • Apartments are rented in U.S. Dollars. You can pay in Som, but the number will most likely fluctuate based on the exchange rate. Nearly every ATM in the city dispenses both currencies.
  • A 1-bedroom apartment in the city center usually costs between $300 and $500, depending as much on the whim of the landlord as on the apartment’s condition and amenities. Be sure to check a couple so you know what to expect. For $400 we landed a 70 sqm flat with a nice view, soviet-style furniture and bombastic decor that would literally make Martha Stewart cry.
  • Apartments should come fully furnished, with all utilities (including internet) already hooked up and ready to go.

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