Bishkek to Shymkent… the Long Way Round

I was a bit apprehensive about my return to Kazakhstan from Kyrgyzstan. Since I wanted to explore the south-west region of Kazakhstan, close to the Uzbek border, I opted not to go back to Kazakhstan through Almaty, instead heading west from Bishkek through Talas to Taraz and then onto Shymkent, Kazakhstan’s third city. My issue was that I could find next to no information on this route. A couple of old articles mentioned marshrutkas heading to Taraz from Bishkek but the information seemed pretty vague and outdated.

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Shymkent’s Samal bus station, my final destination… eventually.

The one thing that travelling in this part of the world has done has made me less reliant on the internet as a source of information. As a solo traveller, the web can become a bit of a crutch. I always use it to double check any route I’m travelling so I know exactly what I’m doing and won’t become unstuck. In Central Asia, however, online information isn’t readily available. This doesn’t mean the thing I’m looking for doesn’t exist, it just means you have to find out the information on the ground.

Sure enough, I arrived at Bishkek’s Western bus station and instantly found the Bishkek to Taraz marshrutka at stand 7. It’s good to double check it’s going to Taraz (Тараз) in Kazakhstan since there is also one in Kyrgyzstan. The fare was 350 som. This marshrutka took even longer to fill up than the Bokonbayevo one. I arrived at the Western Bus Station at 8.30am but it wasn’t until after 10.30 that the minibus finally pulled away. Even the locals seemed pretty irate at how long it took. If it wasn’t for the terrible Kyrgyz movie playing while we waited, I’m not sure they’d have gotten through it.

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Bye bye Bishkek!

Once we finally set off it took about 2 hours to get to the Chaldovar border crossing with Kazakhstan. It was largely uneventful except for the lady next to me falling asleep and pouring hot tea all over my leg. At the border we all disembarked the marshrutka (though I didn’t have to collect my luggage from the back this time) to pass through immigration which was a pretty bizarre experience. It was a fairly quiet border and I get the sense they don’t get many tourists so I was somewhat of a novelty. When leaving Kyrgyzstan, a soldier gave me the friendliest interrogation ever though I think it was purely to practice his English rather than out of necessity. His taxing questions included, “What did you think of Kyrgyzstan?” and “Did you like Jeti-Oguz? I’m from there!”

After he cheerily waved me off, I was stopped by another soldier who barely spoke a word of English and decided to meticulously study my hat. He then repeatedly tried to ask where I was from despite me waving my British passport in his face. Eventually he let me through.

The Kazakh side was no less weird. The border official stamped me through but then seemed to have an “OMG! What have I done?” moment and proceeded to pass my passport around about 3 or 4 other people before it was returned to me. They seemed to determined to examine every single one of my passport stamps and visas. I’m really not sure why. It’s one of a few border crossings where I genuinely thought they might turn me away, if only because interacting with me was more hassle than they could handle.

Eventually I was through and luckily my marshrutka had waited for me, though the disgruntled passengers were even more irritated now.

From here it should have been about 3 hours to Taraz but of course things couldn’t go that smoothly. I had assumed that Taraz would be the terminus but, in what has to be the weirdest route ever, the marshrutka loops through Kazakhstan before heading to the town of Talas in Kyrgyzstan. The majority of the people on this minibus were having to pass through Kazakhstan in order to get back to their own country.

As a result of this, we passed through Taraz, didn’t stop as nobody was getting off and I suddenly found myself at a different border crossing. I was a bit annoyed the driver hadn’t let me know where to get off since I had let him know repeatedly where I was headed. Anyway, after a strained conversation with some taxi drivers at the border which included them phoning a friend to translate, I managed to get a taxi back to the Taraz bus station for 1500 tenge.

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Taraz bus station

If you’re heading to Taraz from Bishkek, look out for the bus station on the left hand side. It looks a bit like a train station with Taraz written on top in red lettering. The marshrutkas wait behind that building. At the bus station a marshrutka to Shymkent was waiting for 1000 tenge for the 3 hour journey.

I’d made it… just the long way round, as per.

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