how to make friends in Kyrgyzstan

July 18, 2012

I’ve received a lot of emails lately from those of you who are planning to move to Kyrgyzstan in the coming months.

First, that’s awesome!

Second, I probably won’t hang out with all of you. I’m just one person, and I’m a bit socially awkward, shy, introverted, and a homebody in general.

But, I have fantastic news for anybody planning to move to Bishkek. There are tons of expats here! (And, believe it or not, some of them are much cooler than me.)

How to meet us:
– Hang out at bars and restaurants frequented by expats. This isn’t an exhaustive list (because I’m not incredibly social), but some hot spots for foreigners are Fatboy’s (Chuy/Tynystanova; good for breakfast/brunches), Metro (Chuy/Turusbekova; more of a night crowd), the Aussie Butcher (aka Vis a Vis; Logvinenko/Chuy; brunches, sports matches and quiz nights), Stari Edgar’s (Tynystanova/Pushkin; great terrace for dinner), and Smokie’s (Donestskaya/Jukeeva-Pudovkina; American-style BBQ). Are there better places to watch a game, get brunch, or sit on a terrace and enjoy a lovely Bishkek sunset? Of course, but I think these are places where you’re more likely to run into a bunch of Americans/Europeans.

– Find out if your embassy hosts cultural events (or even if other embassies do, the French and Germans seem to put together a number of shows). If the American Embassy is sponsoring a rock concert on Ala-Too Square, it’s likely that you’ll bump into at least a few other Americans.

– Sign up for talking clubs. This is more for people looking to meet locals who have an interest in your native language and culture. If you speak a language that is not Kyrgyz and/or Russian, there are probably at least a few people who want to meet you and speak with you in that language. English, French, Spanish, and German are popular, but even my Belgian roommates were invited to attend Dutch talking clubs. And if you meet Kyrgyz people obsessed with meeting Spaniards, then you might be able to meet other Spaniards through them. (Yes, I do have groups of Kyrgyz acquaintances that I keep track of based on the European language they speak.)

– Get active. The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan organizes weekly trips to obscure parts of the country to go hiking, climbing, trekking, etc. You can sign up to become a member, meaning you’ll be informed of all upcoming trips. You secure your spot, rent any equipment (if necessary), and pile into a van with a bunch of strangers to set off to the desired destination. I’ve only attended one Trekking Union trip, and it was right after I returned from Dubai and much harder than I was led to believe and you know what? I’m just not really outdoorsy to begin with. But maybe you are. When I went, and it seems pretty standard from what I’ve heard from others, it was a pretty even mix of expats and locals. The best of both worlds, and you get to see Kyrgyzstan’s lovely landscapes without having to organize the logistics for yourself. Win win win win win!

– Sign up for expat groups. There’s a branch of Internations in Bishkek, which I was briefly signed up for. It wasn’t for me, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. I would suggest skipping the monthly membership fee and sticking with the “basic” plan. Farrell and a few other people I know attended a couple gatherings and found the crowd ratio to be skewed toward local women. We actually found a couple awesome friends through this, but I think we all bonded over not wanting to stay involved with Internations. But, like I said, maybe you’ll have a different experience. (Gosh, I really sold this one, didn’t I?)

– If all else fails, start a blog! For my first two or three months in Bishkek, my main friends were the girl that ran admissions at AUCA (lucky catch, she’s incredibly awesome and we’re still besties) and the Belgians, who Farrell chased down when he saw them in our courtyard one day. (Carl said, “Why don’t you come over for coffee sometime” [which is just a nice thing to say, not necessarily an invitation] and Farrell insisted, “Yes! Sure! How about right now?” And now they’re two of our closest friends.) But then, one day I received an email from Kurt, who said, “Hey, I also have an expat-in-Kyrgyzstan blog. Let’s hang out and I’ll introduce you to some other expats?” Yes yes yes and yes. Kurt has sadly left Kyrgyzstan for bigger and better things, but some of the people I met through him are people I still hang out with on a regular basis. And if the number of emails I get from other people in Bishkek, or people moving to Bishkek, is any indication, then a blog is a surefire way to get in touch with people.

You say, “But Kirstin, I’m moving to Osh!”
OUF. No, I’m kidding. I’ve only been to Osh once, so I don’t know the scene that well. It seems to me that the expat scene there is much more condensed, and considering there are fewer restaurants, cafes, clubs, etc, then I would think it might be easier to find some foreigners. If you’re in Osh, you’re probably there for a specific purpose (working for an NGO or international organization), so you can probably find people in a similar situation pretty easily.

A few things to keep in mind about making friends in Kyrgyzstan (or anywhere abroad, I guess) is that it takes time to cultivate relationships. Just because someone is an expat or they come from your home country, doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be best friends for life. The people I spend most of my time with here come from different countries, they’re different ages, have different careers and life plans, but we all have similar outlooks and opinions on key things (music, politics, ethics, humor, etc) that allow us to get along well.

And trust me, once you meet a couple expats, get invited to a party or two, you will meet so many people that you won’t know how to keep track of all of them.

Do you have any advice to add for future expats?

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