With Russian and Mongolian visas to acquire and family soon arriving in Bishkek we ended up travelling this border crossing a total of five times. It’s easy enough to do, you just need to time it right.
From Bishkek a short drive bring you to the border and once you’re across the Kazakhstan side greets you with verdant green hills rolling into the distance and up to the foot of the mountains which form a natural border with Kyrgyzstan. During our visit in June the countryside is a canvas of flowering poppies and wildflowers beneath clouds skittering across a huge blue sky. Unfortunately we never got a chance to stop for photos.
Bishkek Western Bus Station to Almaty
Minivans for Almaty leave from the Western Bus Station which is easily accessible from downtown by several marshutka/minibuses. When you arrive locals will point you in the right direction where a van will be waiting for passengers, otherwise just take a seat beneath the big Almaty sign (Алматы in Cyrillic). When leaving Bishkek it’s best to do this as early as possible in the morning as it’s less than an hours drive to the border. The earlier you’re there the quicker it will be. The first time we made the mistake of arriving around midday with the blistering sun at its most savage. Being caged in a holding pen with no shade for over an hour with pushy old ladies at the end of their tether physically pushing you in the back and is not our idea of fun.
From then on we made a point of getting to the bus station to get the earliest minivan possible, for us usually 8am. For KGS400 each (USD$6) you get a reasonably comfortable seat though no air conditioning so in summer try for a seat with a window that opens or a seat just behind the roof hatch.
If you’re in a hurry to get across the border (as we were one day to catch a connecting train to Astana) and there are not enough passengers the driver might offer you a price to get going. He’ll pick up others along the way to make up the rest of the fares.
Almaty Sairan Bus Terminal to Bishkek
This way was a little more confusing the first time. The bus station is a fair distance from town so make sure you allow enough time to get there. There are local buses that drop you across the road or a taxi (some random person’s car as is the norm) from the east of town should cost KZT1,000 (USD$3). For us the best time to leave Almaty is around 1 or 2pm as this way you’ll reach the border in three hours, a perfect time as the heat has receded and the number of people has diminished.
When you arrive at the bus station ignore all the touts in the carpark telling you they have a minivan as they’ll put you in a taxi while telling you in perfect English that there is no minivans today and all that typical taxi driver bullshit, don’t trust ‘em. Go inside and on the right at the back of the room you’ll see a ticket booth beneath a sign that says ‘Bishkek’. Line up in some stupid system (just gesture as to who is the last in line when somebody else arrives) and show your passport to purchase your ticket (KZT1,300 / USD$4). Buses seem to leave every hour so you’ll be ok if you’ve just missed one. Sometimes there will be other people with a private van. If there’s more than one of you have one check it out and if it’s legit then go for it.
Visas / switching passports
With Matt needing to switch from his Australian to his British passport as he was fast running out of pages, we’d read that this border was an easy one at which to do it and to our surprise it worked. To do this you need to exit the country on the same passport that you entered on. When you arrive to enter the next country present your alternative passport for stamping. Matt swapped over when entering Kazakhstan no worries, no dramas and thankful that he didn’t need to go through the ordeal of acquiring a new Aussie passport.
Some countries (not all) are visa free for Kyrgyzstan (90 days) and Kazakhstan (15 days). Be sure to check out your own requirements before entering. If you are visa free for Kazakhstan they will question you ‘Visa?’ Just reply ‘No, visa free’ and they will stamp you in.