Culture in modern-day Kyrgyzstan is heavily influenced by its proximity and historical ties to Russia. Everything from language and clothing to the music played in buses and nightclubs bears Soviet influence.
Many new arrivals will find the mixture of unfamiliar Kyrgyz and Russian traditions and habits strange. This former Soviet Union republic was isolated for many years and, as a result, there are very few expats who will have encountered local behaviour. Foreigners therefore often experience a significant degree of culture shock in Kyrgyzstan.
Language in Kyrgyzstan
Like many former Soviet Union countries, the people of Kyrgyzstan were made to give up their native languages and speak only Russian. Today, Russian is more common in the northern region and in larger cities, while Kyrgyz is more common in the south.
Kyrgyz is a Turkic language related to Kazakh and Uzbek. It shares the Cyrillic script with Russian, but has three extra letters that reflect unique Kyrgyz sounds.
English speakers can be hard to come by in Kyrgyzstan, but much more so outside large cities or tourist destinations. The ability to read Cyrillic is a must for any expat, and knowing basic phrases in Russian is sure to prevent a few headaches. Luckily, it is inexpensive to study Russian (or Kyrgyz) in the country, and there are plenty of eager speaking partners looking for English lessons.
Etiquette and customs in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz people are generally warm and inviting, so it's likely expats will eventually find themselves invited to a traditional Kyrgyz dinner. Guests should take a small gift (alcohol or sweets work well) and be sure to remove their shoes at the door. Eating and drinking are taken very seriously, and guests at a Kyrgyz dinner will be overwhelmed with food.
Toasts are made frequently, usually with vodka. Men are expected to take part in every toast they are offered; women can sometimes politely decline alcohol, but are otherwise expected to keep up with every toast. It is common that if a bottle of vodka is opened, it must be finished in one sitting.
Bribes are an unfortunate custom in Kyrgyzstan. Police sometimes stop foreigners to check their passport and visa, and may threaten those caught without them with a trip to the police station before requesting a small payoff. Taxi drivers sometimes try to charge foreigners more, and bureaucratic tasks have been known to be facilitated with a few bills.
Food in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz cuisine can take some time to adjust to. Many dishes are heavy on meat and animal fat (usually mutton), and a variety of vegetables can be tough to find in winter. Kyrgyz delicacies include horse sausage, beshbarmak (boiled mutton with noodles and broth), and kumys, Kyrgyzstan’s national drink made from fermented mare’s milk. Many expats consider kumis to be an acquired taste.
Doing business in Kyrgyzstan
It is not unusual for a Kyrgyz businessperson to arrive late to a meeting, and it should not be seen as an insult nor should expats allow it to blemish their perception of the person's work ethic. Try not to plan meetings too far in advance, as they will inevitably be rescheduled at least once or twice.
When meeting any Kyrgyz person (even outside a business environment), it is normal that all men shake hands. Women sometimes offer to shake hands with men, but it is not typical and should not be taken personally if a woman doesn't extend her hand.