When people talk about Kyrgyzstan as the Asian Switzerland, they refer to the vast mountain ranges of the Tian Shan, which are comparable in size, height, and beauty to the Alps. They also refer to the banking system. Kyrgyzstan has plenty of banks, exchange offices, and financial services. They do not create a centralized system, which is good for the safety of your information, but it makes transfers somewhat difficult. It is not easy to transfer money from one card to another in soms – it requires filling out a whole “sheet,” as if initiating a full payment account manually. In my opinion, the most practical way is to top up the wallet of the local mobile operator O! (besides it, there are Mega.com and Beeline of Russian origin) and then transfer through that wallet. In addition, it deploys a QR code payment system, including in stores, but the coverage of this system is a question. Kyrgyz banks’ cards are integrated into the global payment system, which has created a whole stream of “VISA tours” when economically active citizens wanted to have a card accepted in the world and in the world’s internet and, at the same time, this card would be tied not to a semi-virtual fraud company but to a physically existing institution with infrastructure.
I tried to personally repeat the routes of a VISA tourist, it was a unique experience.
Episode I. Currency in a regional city in Russia.
I find a bank that, according to old directories, exchanges soms. Without reaching the main entrance, I peek into an archway, behind which, in the depths of the courtyard, I see a vertical sign lying on its side with a broken edge. Judging by the footprints on the white yellowed background, someone spent at least 20 minutes purposefully kicking this sign with their feet.
The rectangular sign at the main entrance to the bank is torn off, with ragged perforations left from the screws. Surprisingly, the door opens. In the operating room behind it, some tables are on their sides, and bundles of wires stick out of the walls opposite the workstations. On those that are not on their sides, there is a multi-month layer of dust. The rooms are not lit with electricity. A floury-skinned guard sits sideways to the entrance and moves in a peculiar way – he does not change his position in space as a whole, but individual parts of his body move slowly but along several chaotic trajectories “do not stand still.”
“What do you want?”
“Is the bank not working?”
The guard looks around, simultaneously expressing exceptional phlegmatic absence of the possibility that the world around can present any surprises, and, at the same time, slight bewilderment.
“Of course not.”
Episode II. Currency at “the gates of the East”
In Kazan, I enter the most versatile bank.
“Can I exchange rubles for soms?”
“We only have dollars and euros.”
In principle, on large screens under an asterisk, it is indicated that you can get currency from the UAE, but only electronically.
Episode III. Building of the “Manas” airport
Very persistent taxi drivers before going outside. But if you ignore them and go in the opposite direction, go up to the second floor of the building, there are several tourist establishments and an exchange office with a not very profitable, but not extortionate rate. It is logical to change some of the cash there – for a taxi and accommodation, if you have not paid for the reservation in advance. There you see soms for the first time – medium-sized, colorful bills with historical figures, including an amazing governor from the Osh region for countries with Islamic culture – Kurmanjan Dotku (Dotka, the second word, is managerial status). Locals love cash, like in Germany, they prefer it to electronic turnover, especially in private transactions, although many people pay by card in stores.
Episode IV. “Mossovet”
Mossovet is a part of one of the vast, straight and geometric streets of Bishkek, serving as the financial center of the country. This street was called Soviet (in general, if you look at maps of Soviet times, the city was completely cleared of local names, all were “trivially-mid-Soviet”, like “Zemlyachki street”, “Figner street”, and so on), now it is called Baytik Baatyr. There are several major bank offices here, where you can, among other things, get a local card, and… lots of exchange offices. It’s hard to believe from Russia, but the positive side of the Kyrgyz market, economy is that it looks like a bunch of grapes in which a new emerging row of berries does not necessarily have to absorb, displace, or block the sun from the previous row. Even in the smallest exchange office, there is a whole series of currencies in use, some of which I have not heard of for several years now. Exchange rates differ from office to office. The goal of being on Mossovet is to find an office with the most favorable exchange rate for rubles to soms. This is if you have cash. If you have a “Mir” card, then there are no problems withdrawing soms from it, automatically converted from rubles, not only on Mossovet or throughout Bishkek, but also in regional cities and even in some large aiyils, that is, villages. The question is that the rate in this bank at the time of withdrawal may not be the most optimal from what Mossovet can offer. In addition, the bank charges a commission for each transaction – about 150 soms. Therefore, it is more rational to withdraw the amount for a long time rather than in small portions. In February 2023, the som was slightly cheaper than the ruble. But, given that most goods and services are cheaper, it seems that they are spent much slower than rubles in a large city in Russia. Payment terminals in many fashionable, modern establishments also work with Mir cards. But here, it will be the exchange rate of a specific bank at the time of withdrawal. Talking to well-settled relocator, I noted for myself that the peculiarity of the economy here returns the habit of using cash.
Episode V. “Card working in Play Market”
Yes, local cards work in all global systems. They can be obtained at any local major bank (it is better to order in the city where you plan to live, so as not to go separately for the card later), but registration at the place of residence is required. It can be done using a Russian passport or even a strange phenomenon for the world bureaucratic system called “internal passport of Russia” (in fact, a passport – it is also simultaneously foreign – anywhere, but not in Russia), but if you do not rent housing permanently, it will require a little more money, as obtaining temporary registration, for example, at a hostel, will be “not so easy within negotiations”. Some local banks have extremely advanced applications, even in terms of nominal ergonomics and aesthetics, some of which are not inferior to Sberbank Online. It is immediately apparent where there is a “living market trend” and where there is “work within a company closely linked to the state.”
The quest is complete. You can make an urgent card with a little overpayment. But isn’t it better to also spend good time while the card is being made with normal deadlines (3-5 days), don’t you think?
It’s not about the fact that most of the country is above a kilometer above sea level. In most administrative entities of the planet, which reviews interpret as “convenient for relocators” or extremely impressive taxes – as in the EU, or aggressive localism, extremely intolerant of the participation of any outsiders in the real sector, as in Thailand. Plus, an obvious language barrier.
In Kyrgyzstan, people are more businesslike than in Russia – it is easier to find employees, people are easier to lift, open to new initiatives. Here it is procedurally easy to register a business, receiving only registration. And locals, in general, have been accustomed since ancient times that active newcomers are more beneficial. And they all understand Russian. But I still strongly recommend that if you are especially going to be in the real sector but not only, start paying attention to dialogues in Kyrgyz. You will master the basic vocabulary in 6-12 months, and this will make your business communication much more beneficial.
Mobile communication, especially of the local operator, works practically throughout the territory – even in the mountains, including high-speed mobile internet. I only notice a loss of network with a device in remote and completely closed gorges from all sides. There are convenient unlimited tariffs.
And for the breadth and freedom of business thinking, it is very pleasant that there are no blocked sites here – or, say, TV channels that “undermine our foundations” – everything works without restrictions. It’s just nice to switch to a local SIM card, with which “everything opens up again”.
Not Quite Switzerland
The country is called the Asian Switzerland, and indeed, there is a lot in common: massive mountains – picturesque views, on which they rise as a snowy wall, walks along mountain plateaus with alpine meadows. There is also something in common in the diversity of the financial system and its essential role for neighbors. But when it comes to urban planning and overall “visual qualities of the urban environment,” more correct comparisons are more valuable: Bishkek is a city of the Istanbul or Athens class, with characteristic advantages and disadvantages. Cities of the vast high-mountainous Issyk-Kul plateau, surrounded by ridges from all sides (the main of them is Karakol) and Naryn in terms of aesthetics are closer to the rhythms of ancient urban centers of Central Asia, such as Samarkand and Fergana.
In such diversity – a huge value that it is important not to lose, adapting the resort to a massive tourist flow. In the desire to “make our own Courchevel” you can blur the most valuable part of the “merger of the advantages of the locality and the interests of people”, which with the right approach will bring the main part of household income and the budget.