16 Most Common Tourist Scams in Kyrgyzstan

Safety at Bishkek, Balykchy, Karakol, Kochkor, Naryn, Osh, Talas, Tokmok
Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Ala Kul Lake, Kyrgyztan

Ala Kul Lake, Kyrgyztan

 

Despite being landlocked in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is still a place of stunning, wild, natural beauty and a joy to explore.

Here, you see a landscape dominated by unspoilt mountainscapes, glaciers and high altitude lakes.

In fact, many flock here to see the majestic Ala Archa National Park, as well as the Lake Issyk Kul high up in the Tian Shan Mountains. Also known as the pearl of Central Asia, this crystal blue alpine lake is bound to amaze.

What will fascinate you even further, is the nomadic culture around this part of the world.

However, there are tourist targeted scams and crime around as well. So read on to learn how to protect yourself!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1.Fraudulent tour agencies

Animal ride in Kyrgyztan

Animal ride in Kyrgyzstan

 

How it works:

There have been many complaints of rouge / lousy / misleading tour operators, such as CBT and Jailoo agencies.

Common complaints include:

  • A promised English speaking guide who cannot speak English.
  • Cheap / underwhelming meals.
  • Much less time spent touring as promised with more time spent waiting or visiting shops.
  • Run-down / unsafe transport.

 

What to do:

Offline operators: ask – is the operator licensed? Is there a website, office and working phone number? Are there real online reviews? What does the price cover – is it too cheap?

Paying: avoid paying in full upfront (unless reputable operator) or off the (online) platform.

 

2. Fake police

Osh, Kyrgyztan

Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Source: Nihongarden / Wikimedia

 

How it works:

If you’re visiting Bishkek, be careful around the streets or at Osh Bazaar as a fake policeman may approach you and ask if they can check all of your belongings.

They will request to see your documentation and will try to extort money from you as a result.

While they do so, they will steal some of your valuables and money as they go through your belongings.

However, they will be so subtle that you will not notice them do it until much later.

 

What to do:

If you have not obviously broken the law, be very skeptical when a “police officer” approaches you.

Three steps you can use to shake them off:

  • Verify badges and identification. Threaten to call the police hotline (end of this article).
  • Never give your passport if asked. Show only a photocopy of it.
  • If they want to fine you or check your bags, insist to only do so at a police station (use your GPS to find it or check with a local) with a lawyer or someone from your embassy.

Next, you should have hidden your valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This way, the scammers may simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash.

 

3. Pickpocketing

Bishkek market, Kyrgyztan

Bishkek market, Kyrgyzstan. Source: Sofia Tscholakidi / Flickr

 

How it works:

This is a major problem in crowded markets, such as the Osh Bazaar, and also in other areas such as transportation hubs, on minibuses (marshrutka) and at internet cafes.

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected phone / jewelry / valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they surround you and then work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you an innocent question / survey / drop something and ask you about it).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Further, make it impossible for thieves to steal from you with these methods:

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Don’t look like an easy target: wallet in front pocket, small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in an anti-theft bag, most valuables in hotel safe.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – our review) which covers theft.

 

4. Drink spiking

Zavod club in Bishkek

Zavod club in Bishkek. Source: jakarta100bars.com

 

How it works:

There have been multiple reports of food and drinks (or gum, cigarette, etc) spiking which then puts you at risk of robbery or sexual assault.

 

What to do:

At a club / bar, do not accept any drinks that you have not seen made in front of you, or to leave it unattended.

Canned or bottled drinks are recommended as it is more difficult for someone to put a sedative inside.

Outside of such places, such as on a bus / train, do not accept any “free” food, gum or cigarettes from a local too.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. Driver intercept at airport

Manas International Airport

Manas International Airport. Source: Gleb Osokin / airliners.net

 

How it works:

There have been reports of travelers being intercepted by scammers who call out our name and pose as a private transport driver sent by your hotel.

We are not exactly how this works, but believe they may have been tipped off by airport staff.

If not that, then another modus operandi like in Argentina is to go around looking at names on placards, and then try to intercept you before you reach your real driver.

 

What to do:

If you have not obviously arranged for a private driver, then do not take one. Take the official taxis instead.

Should you have arranged for one however, make sure to get the driver’s photo, name and phone number before arriving at the airport.

With these information, you can verify if he is your real driver.

 

2. Airport taxi scam

Namba taxi

Namba taxi. Source: cars.kg

 

How it works:

Taxi drivers here are infamous for overcharging tourists, and those waiting outside the Manas International Airport (MIA) in Bishkek are ruthless at it.

To take an official taxi here, a flat fare, and not a meter is used.

However, the fares they propose to you are usually inflated.

 

What to do:

Take an official taxi, but do not be fooled by the inflated prices (should be ~500 som from MIA, ~300 som from Osh Airport to town).

The good news is that there are usually more drivers than tourists (though that may be change as Kyrgyzstan becomes more popular), so you do have some bargaining power.

Other options you can consider include:

  • Pre-arrange vehicle pick up through your hotel / hostel.
  • Use a taxi booking app like Namba Taxi.
  • A cheaper alternative is that at Bishkek Airport, you can take marshrutka #380 to the town center; at Osh Airport, you can take marshrutkas 107 and 142a for a fraction of the price.

 

3. Rigged taxi meter

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Source: kalpak-travel.com

 

How it works:

in Osh, there are drivers who have rigged their meters.

All they have to do is to switch on a button, and they tend to do this especially at night.

The meter will start on zero, but as you drive the meter screen will be switched off and when you arrive at your destination the screen will display again.

The fare will be at least 1.5-2 times more than it should have been, but as it’s tracked on a meter you must pay it.

 

What to do:

During the trip, watch the meter and for these red flags:

  • Tampered / missing meter seal
  • Only fare is displayed (without distance and waiting time)
  • Not being able to find taxi name, taxi operator number, taxi car plate number inside the cab
  • Driver clicking something, probably a hidden switch
  • If driver drives slowly at a high speed area to prevent the meter from jumping too wildly

If you suspect something is amiss, take a photo of the taxi’s license certification and car plate number and threaten to call the police.

 

4. Non meter taxis

 

How it works:

Note that not all taxi companies in Kyrgyzstan use meters.

For those which have meters, there are also some who choose not to use it.

They may also pretend that the meter is spoilt, or to forget to turn the meter on.

If you are a foreigner or if you are traveling at night, an inflated fare will almost definitely be demanded of you.

 

What to do:

You can call a company like Bamba which has fitted all its taxis with meters.

If you don’t mind negotiating the fare, you can estimate the fair price of any route by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Namba Taxi.

Take a photo of the car plate and also of the driver’s license in case anything goes wrong.

 

5. Car break-ins

Ala-Too main square

Ala-Too main square. Source: kalpak-travel.com

 

How it works:

There have been reports of car break-ins in open areas nearby places where tourists frequent.

 

What to do:

Ideally, park your car in a paid lot that has security cameras instead of in open car parks.

Also, back your car into the parking lot to make opening the trunk difficult.

Next, do not leave any valuables exposed in the car:

  • Hide small valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch.
  • Large valuables should be in an anti-theft bag with you / locked down in the boot (do this before driving / somewhere else, not when you are at your parking lot).

 

6. Hitchhiker turned robber

 

How it works:

There have been reports of hitchhikers turning into robbers once getting into your car.

 

What to do:

Avoid giving a lift. If you think someone really needs help, call the police instead.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Osh Bazaar money exchange scam

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar. Source: Nomubo / Flickr

 

How it works:

Do not exchange your money in Osh Bazaar and ignore all of the best exchange rate booths as they will be a scam designed to take your money.

You will not receive the right currency back or amount and will simply lose your money by using this service.

 

What to do:

Change your money at official money exchange bureaus.

 

2. Snatch theft

 

How it works:

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts.

The most common places this occurs at are nightclubs and surrounding areas, as there are usually many drunk victims to steal from.

Inside nightclubs, there are also careless victims who leave their valuables unattended.

Nightclubs to be wary at include the Fire and Ice Night Club and the Butterfly Nightclub.

 

What to do:

When seated / not moving:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Avoid carrying valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.

Other measures:

  • Leave valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – our review) which covers loss of valuables.

 

3. Corrupt police

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek. Source: neiljs / Flickr

 

How it works:

There have been occasional reports of corrupt police officers who demand to check your bags so as to steal any valuables he can find.

This can happen anywhere tourists frequent, though Osh Bazaar seems to be a favourite hotspot.

 

What to do:

Hide your cash and valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

If a bribe is demanded, this also allows you to negotiate the bribe down when you show that you have not much cash on you.

 

4. Rigged ATMs

Signs of a rigged ATM

Signs of a rigged ATM

 

How it works:

Generally, ATMs can be rigged in two ways.

First, the card skimmer and pinhole camera / keypad overlay set up:

  • A card skimmer is installed over the card slot to capture your card details.
  • The pinhole camera / keypad overlay is used to capture your PIN.

Second, the card trap:

  • The card slot can be rigged with cheap tools to trap your card.
  • When your card is stuck, someone will come over and tell you that if you retype your PIN, your card will be unblocked.
  • Obviously, your card will still be stuck, but the scammer will now have seen your PIN.
  • Should you head into the bank / somewhere to seek help, the scammer will unblock your card and escape.

 

What to do:

Avoid using ATMs at dark, secluded areas. Use only at controlled environments such as in banks.

Scan the area for suspicious looking characters, look out for red flags of a rigged ATM and cover your PIN when typing it in.

Also, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet.

That will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

5. Credit card fraud

 

How it works:

There have also been reports of credit card skimming in Kyrgyzstan.

When this happens, it’s difficult to tell how your information was compromised.

 

What to do:

When using your card (e.g. in a shop or restaurant), make sure it does not get out of sight.

If you see your card being swiped multiple times, that should be a red flag for you to check with your bank if any fraudulent transactions were made.

Finally, you can also consider using a RFID blocking wallet, which will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

6. Honey trap

 

How it works:

At nightclubs, you may be approached by attractive women who will want to come to your accommodation with you.

Once she gets to your room, she will get your accomplices (big males) into your room to rob, assault or blackmail you.

 

What to do:

Avoid bringing a stranger back to your accommodation.

If you do, limit any potential losses by keeping a separate bank account just for traveling:

  • Do not keep too much cash in there.
  • Only carry a bank card of that account so that even if robbed, you would not have much to lose.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not meant to be a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

 

1. Violent crime and terrorism

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Kyrgyzstan

Map of safe and unsafe regions in Kyrgyzstan. Source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: high incidence, though mostly happens at night in downtown Bishkek and also in rural areas.
  • Hazards: landmines in areas bordering Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders.
  • Hotspots:
    • Batken province (Oblast).
    • Southern corridors of Kyrgyzstan: drug smuggling.
    • Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders: skirmishes between border guards.
  • Terrorism: terrorist activity and violence armed violence reported in south and west of Osh.
  • Civil unrest: demonstrations may occur at Presidential Administration building, Parliament, Alatoo Square.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid hotspots and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Do not / avoid travelling to these areas – Kyrgyz-Uzbek and Kyrgyz-Tajik borders and Ferghana Valley.

 

2. Medical care

National hospital in Bishkek

National hospital in Bishkek. Source: fm.adam.kg / Adam University

 

How it works:

Medical care in Kyrgyzstan is limited.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever, leishmaniasis, Lyme disease, malaria (south and west of Kyrgyzstan), tick-borne encephalitis (forested areas from March to November).
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, typhoid, hepatitis A.
  • Animal borne disease: rabies, brucellosis.
  • Human borne disease: HIV, tuberculosis, meningitis.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travelers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travelers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travelers: Hepatitis B, rabies (if traveling outdoors or working with animals).

Prevent insect bites:                              

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:                                          

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes: in an active seismic zone with frequent tremors.
  • Avalanches: March to May, common in mountainous areas.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reports and weather forecasts.

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Traffic accidents are common. Some factors to watch out for:

  • Roads in poor conditions – potholes, uncovered manholes, poor lighting, road works not signposted.
  • Both drivers and pedestrians not adhering to traffic rules.
  • Mountainous roads are narrow and do not have guardrails and barriers.
  • Congested traffic on road between Bishkek and Almaty which also involves a dangerous mountain pass.

As for public transportation:

  • Buses are crowded, unreliable, poorly maintained and notorious for pickpockets.

 

What to do:

Driving:

  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

Public transportation

  • Using a taxi (call instead of hailing one off the streets) or a private driver is recommended.

 

E. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

Policemen in Bishkek

Policemen in Bishkek. Source: David Trilling / eurasianet.org

 

  • Universal: 112
  • Police: 102
  • Fire: 101
  • Ambulance: 103

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