Before I decided on doing the border crossing between Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, I did a bit of research into it. The reason being, I was travelling alone, it was my first time in this region, I’m without a guide book and I wanted to make sure everything ran smoothly. In the winter time in the Stans, you also have to make the most of daylight as it gets dark early and slippy roads also cause huge delays. My plan therefore was to go direct from my hostel in Almaty (Almaty Backpackers) to the Apple Hostel in Bishkek while it was daylight.
Getting to Sayran Bus Station in Almaty
I started the day in Almaty Backpackers with a great bit of breakfast around 9 am and then had a bit of typing and writing to compile before I left. I would normally just get a bus, but I was running a tad late at 10 am so I decided to get a taxi from my hostel straight to the bus station. Buses in Almaty are so much cheaper by the way (80 Tenge per journey) but they are slow and make a lot of stops.
My taxi was sorted and I said a fond farewell to the Almaty Backpackers and straight into my taxi to meet my taxi driver called Kanat. When I got in, I had been busy on the laptop and wasn’t focused so I told him to take me to the bus station. Of course, this is when the confusion began…Almaty is a huge city consisting of 1.5 million people and therefore has more than one bus station. I remembered the name of the bus station was pronounced “Sigh something”. So on my map there was what I thought was the bus station I needed – Sayakhat!
But I was wrong, it was the other bus station in the city beginning with Say – it was Sayran that I needed to get to!! After a frantic discussion about it, it became clear that Kanat and I now understood each other and started heading to Sayran. The onyl downside was it would cost a bit more. Originally I thought a taxi would be 550 Tenge ($1.5 US), but it would now be 1000 Tenge ($3 US). Given that I felt I was running late and that Kanat was a good driver who spoke English, I was happy to pay him $3 US for the lift. By bargaining and speaking Russian I am sure you could get it cheaper.
Leaving Sayran Bus Station in Almaty, Kazakhstan
Having travelled on Marshrutky quite a few times down the years, I know what to expect from them. They are usually cheap and cheerful, cosy and usage is clear. When you get to Sayran station, make sure you head to the main bus station/marshrutky area for long distance marshrutky. It’s the big building that you can’t miss. If you are getting a taxi there like I did, you will probably be dropped off with the bus station on your right hand side.
Go into the main bus station and look for platform 1 on the far right. This should be the bus to Bishkek. Nothing will be written in English of course, but the writing for Bishkek looks like this, the words below are the local and Russian alphabet was of saying Bishkek: TOKMOK
There are toilets in the station if you need to go, there is a cafe and there are vendors selling drinks and snacks. Everything is relatively cheap and you do not have to watch about being ripped of. There are also currency exchange kiosks in the station so you can change Tenge for the Kyrgyzstani Som, it was about 4 Tenge to 1 Som when I went.
I got the last of my Kazakstani Tenge changed, you don’t really have to have Kyrgyzstani Som in advance, but I had heard horror reports of backpackers being left at the border unable to hitch-hike, so it seemed the best option for me to have them just in case.
Once you find platform 1 and the correct Marshrutka, you can drop off your backpack into the boot of the mini-bus. My Marshrutka was white and said Bishkek clearly on the front of it. It was half-full when I got there. If you know the craic with Marshrutky, you will know that no tickets are issued and you just pay up front and they leave when full. This one is no exception. I paid 1,300 Tenge (about $4 US dollars) and this price takes you all the way to Bishkek. Remember that.
I got to Sayran Bus Station by 10.30 am and our Marshrutka left, full at 11 am. It was now onwards to the border to Kyrgyzstan.
Almaty to Korday, Kazakhstan
The journey I made was in late December so it was snowy on the ground and sunny outside. The view of the mountains was magnificent, though I also grabbed some sleep. We headed west out of Almaty, keeping the mountains to our left all the way and at 1 pm we had our first passport check, some 25 minutes before arriving at the town of Korday, which is by the border.
It took roughly two and a half hours to get to the actual exit point from Kazakhstan.
Leaving Kazakhstan at Korday
When we arrive at the border town of Korday, we are all ushered out of the Marshrutka. I had heard stories before about other travellers being left behind, and that you shouldn’t exit the mini-bus. Those stories seemed like a nonsense to me, the driver was very friendly and understood what I was saying to him. We all get out and the driver tells me that a different Marshrutka will be waiting once we have passed through both immigration sides of the border. I believe him, he’s a good lad (and later we find, he’s true to his word).
Basically the reason you take your bags out of the Marshrutka is because they have to be scanned on exiting Kazakhstan. I head straight through to the immigration exit point for Kazakhstan. It’s pretty bunged full and busy. It’s around 1.35 pm. I didn’t need a visa for Kazakhstan on my British Passport (would have needed one on my Irish), so it was a simple exit for me.
But also, get talking to other people in your Marshrutka, as I did. Join the immigration queue with them, go through with them, this way you can be sure you are not being left behind – they need to get to Bishkek too don’t forget. Leaving Kazakhstan, the guy checked my passport (a British passport) and proceeded to stamp me out of the country. He didn’t ask me any questions, not even if I needed a visa for Kyrgyzstan (EU citizens didn’t in December 2015).
The border itself is picturesque and magnificent, over a small river. Photos are not allowed inside the units, but I could take a few here, at the bridge. The entire walk across the border is down a fenced in path. A beautiful walk.
Arrival in Kyrgyzstan near Konstantinova
When I arrive in Kyrgyzstan, there are two separate parts to go through. The first one is a door on the left which is where non-Stan passport holders must go. The other one is a place to check the passport/stamp is valid. So basically foreigners have to go to two places on the way into the country and locals (and those who have close bonds to Kyrgyzstan, like Kazakhstan and Tajikistan) have one. As of December 2015, holders of EU passports do not need a visa to enter Kyrgyzstan either by air or by land borders. So it’s a good time to go!
At the first check, a police officer opens a door on the left, looks at my passport “Irlandia” he says, I reply “yes”, he stamps it with two stamps and gives me 60 days in the country. He is polite.
While he is stamping my passport, I meet a girl who lives in Darwin, Australia. However she is originally from Kyrgyzstan and has dual nationality and is with her husband. She asks if I wanted a taxi share to Bishkek and I said I’d stick with her just in case my Marshrutka didn’t show up.
On the Kyrgyzstan side of the border, there is no bag check. The second lady who checks my passport, smiles, welcomes me and I’m in. Country 108 on my journey. I walk past the next gate and notice two people who were on my Marshrutka from Almaty, Kazakhstan. I ask them (in English) if they are waiting to go to Bishkek. They understand and nod and we wait. I signal to the Australian lady that I am OK to get to Bishkek now.
The border entry point to Kyrgyzstan is near a town called Konstantinova, though we do not see or pass through the town. The border point where we arrive has a restaurant and a money exchange place.
Within 15 minutes, my Marshrutka has arrived, we bung our bags in and off we go. I talk to two local lads at the back to confirm this mini-bus is going to the WEST bus station in Bishkek as advertised and they tell me it is. We have a good chat, take some happy selfies and in less than half an hour we arrive at the West Bus Station in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
The entire crossing was smooth and easy and I walked to my hostel, the Apple Hostel Bishkek within 5 minutes where I am welcomed by the lovely Aigul. It was around 3.20 pm, which means the entire journey took me around 5 hours 20 minutes, hostel to hostel. Pretty good!
Here are some of my videos from the border crossing: