The Cars of Kyrgyzstan

This is the second submission from long time reader Oliver Klose, a.k.a. Sjalabais. This summer he vacationed in Kyrgyzstan, which I think is the Bora Bora of central Asia. He submitted two articles, this first one of driving in Kyrgyzstan and this second one on the cars that he saw there. Enjoy. -KK
Central Asia has an interesting history. Often referred to as The Great Game, the saying goes that big powers – mostly Britain, Russia and China – have for centuries tried to influence these beautiful countries with varying degrees of success (Afghanistan, anyone?). That is reflected by an incredibly diverse carscape still solidly shaped by politics.
As a country that came into being by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan obviously has a great choice of Russian machinery still visible in traffic. The Moskovich above is a typical candidate, still very prominent in the countryside. But also the staple of Russian-sphere roads, the Lada, is everywhere in all possible iterations.

A Kyrgyz flag close to the windscreen is said to be a good investment to set the mood with traffic police and, really, anybody you might meet – or so we heard. Here’s our rental compared to some other tourist’s travel approach: Hiring a taxi to drive them around, not an uncommon strategy, as paying for a driver and his accomodation can even be cheaper than renting a proper SUV.

What do you get with a high density of Ladas? A whole Lada trouble.

We even spotted one of the most derided cars of the Soviet sphere, an Oltcit:

But a less selective look reveals another truth about the Kyrgyz car park: The popularity of Japanese imports:

What really hit me the first day, was that the two cars I chose on the ground of basically two variables for our household in Norway – reliability and rarity – are among the top 5 most popular cars in Kyrgyzstan: Honda Stream and Toyota Camry. Here’s a stream-lined intersection in Bishkek, the capital:

A quick look at and confirms my suspicion, even though I gravitate towards inherently more entertaining machinery instantly. The Honda Stpwgn, Spike and other utility boxes are common in wealthier areas.

An influx of RHD cars arrived in Kyrgyzstan when neighbouring Kazakhstan suddenly prohibited RHD cars, a political change that was a blessing to the Kyrgyz people: Relatively new, reliable cars were suddenly available cheap right at the border. If you park in a car park, there will be ticket machines on both your left and right hand side, so Kyrgyzstan has adapted to this. Some of the wild attempts at passing traffic we witnessed were probably just RHD drivers having to get far out into the opposite lane in order to see if they can pass. And why not proceed when you’re first out that far?

The Honda Aspire. It looks the more stylish, the more carved from one piece of Nippon steel, the closer it is parked to a Lada 4×4. This Honda V6 though leaves me a bit baffled: Is this a flavour of Accord?:

Vans in general are popular. Another Honda in the mountain hub of Karakol, a city with a vibe comparable to Jasper in Canada:

The Toyota Wish looks almost European, but like the Honda Stream/Jade, it is a bit lower, a bit sportier looking than our average MPV fare:

Yet, there are some cars that are the equivalent of white socks in sandals, screaming: «I’m all about utility», and Mitsubishi’s got you covered:

Getting out of the city again, the carscape changed a little to older cars. European cars were visible, but not too common, pretty popular though was this generation Passat:

Another car that truly was everywhere: The Chinese FAW Audi 100. It’s hard to tell if they hold up well or if there’s a supply that never dries up from China, but they all looked battered. It was also interesting for us that Gazprom and Rosneft were highly prestigious gas stations which could demand higher prices than everyone else: These chains don’t water down their petrol. You could buy petrol as low as 80 octane in Kyrgyzstan to begin with, so it’s no problem to get into trouble by picking the wrong pump.

Not sure if Lenin would have approved of all of this:

If you ever wondered what exactly the difference was between a Camry and a Windom, Kyrgyz roads leave ample space to study these super similar Toyota sedans right next to each other.

Another very interesting bit of car-political talk I was told was that Kyrgyzstan «being made join» the Russian lead customs union, designed for the car manufacturing motherland, had a massive impact on the carscape. Suddenly, import taxes on both used and new cars, made importing them prohibitively expense. So for now, sadly for the average Kyrgyz on their average monthly salary of less than $300, new, and especially fancy cars remain behind fences…

…while the time-honed tradition of recycling other people’s transport remains a reality. Just imagine freezing an entire car market in time like that – new changes should be on the horizon. People talk about a less strict import system for used cars from Russia; guess to whose benefit that would be?

The truckscape is still firmly dominated by Kamaz in all sorts of applications.

Note the «Kässbohrer» wheel cover:

Also the ZIl 130-series is a very common sight, one of the beefiest looking pieces of machinery I know of.

Its older cousins and other Soviet trucks become the more visible, the further away you get from big cities.


The trolley busses of Bishkek are pretty iconic:

…and they seem to hold up well. Much better, apparently, then some of the early 2000s Chinese models. A vast majority of them hump about in a way that leaves no doubt about the condition of the shocks and springs, and their panels look like hot dishwasher shrinked plastic. In accordance to that, here’s a really bad picture of one, in a typical Bishkek street scene:

The absolute #1 mode of transportation though are the so-called «marshrutkas»: Minibusses on a schedule, driving all over the country for a very low fare. Guide books are coloured by some sort of scared fascination for them, and tell tales of sharing seats with pocket thieves and chicken. Probably are very good way to travel if you want to get in touch with «the locals»:

Otherwise, used American and European trucks are popular, too. Mercedes, MAN, Scania, DAF and Volvo more often than not carry advertisement for German companies. Driving on the road to the Kumtor gold mine at 4000 meters elevation, trucks coming towards us were made all over the world.


You would also be excused to think that what’s in the frame here is a Mercedes, too. But, no, it is a Sinotruck. They have a range of models excellently copying the appearance of Mercedes, MAN and Volvo.

Something that the Uzbek toy industry wasn’t slow to pick up on:

But there are a lot of other Chinese truck makers, just one example:

Agricultural equipment we saw remains, for the most part, antiquated:

The wheels on the bus go round no more, round no more:

Of course, I saved my favourites for the end: GAZ cars are another regular sight. Many a Volga 24 and its cousins appear to be taken well care of:

Which can not be said about all of them, of course, and even the trusty M21 may end up like this:

All images copyright Oliver Klose/Hooniverse 2017.

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28 responses to “The Cars of Kyrgyzstan”

  1. Sean Kennedy Avatar
    Sean Kennedy

    I watched the documentary series “Meet The Stans” several years back, and this gives a neat perspective on the Kyrgyzstan episode. Thanks!

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      I finally got around to watch the series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Boy, that was dark! Simon Reeve focuses mainly on the thread of islamists, war on terror and radioactive pollution. I guess some things have changed for the positive in 15 years, but it’s just another row of bullet points on the list of Soviet legacy the world could have been without. Wouldn’t watch it as a preparation for vacationing… 🙂

      1. Sean Kennedy Avatar
        Sean Kennedy

        I’d still go, but I’m weird that way.

  2. tonyola Avatar

    Fascinating pictorial about a place that’s little-known here in the US. Do I spy a ZAZ Tavria in the fifth picture?

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      You might be right. I figured it was an Oltcit without checking, but it could have been any other Lada-Samara-ish (post-) Soviet product. I thought Oltcit had manufactured something else than just Citroën-copies, but can’t find the model I had in mind.

      1. Manic_King Avatar

        No Oltcits for USSR, never. Also, trucks labelled as ZIL 130 are actually GAZ 52/53 models and the older thing is GAZ 51, used heavily modified for rallying even now, in European part of ex USSR.

        1. Кирилл Тимошенко Avatar
          Кирилл Тимошенко

          That’s true, it was actually GAZ 53. A real ZIL 130 would look much beefier.

      2. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        Like a slightly scaled down, three door Renault 25, with that panel shutline treatment at the front and side. Was Robert Opron moonlighting, or did he have an acolyte?

    2. Manic_King Avatar

      Right you are, it’s a Tavria.

  3. Manxman Avatar

    Looks like a whole Lada shakin’ going on. But a FIAT by any oyher name…

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      There’s more to it than the name. You know this one?:

      1. nanoop Avatar

        That is amazing, too!

      2. Vairship Avatar

        And I have always heard (but don’t know if it’s true) that the Lada was made of slightly thicker sheet metal.

  4. JayP Avatar

    I love seeing the typ44 Audis.
    China’s version has all kinds of knockoffs… long wheel base, truck, hearse, needs a coupe!!

  5. Ramón Rivera Notario Avatar
    Ramón Rivera Notario

    Yup, that is a ZAZ Tavria (sold in Chile as a Lada, where that blue example on the comments was pictured).
    Also, I believe those are not Chinese Audis, but the real thing, brought second hand from Europe as are those Passat and many other cars.

  6. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    that Honda is what we North Americans got as the Accord from ’03 to ’07. one of my less-favorite Accords styling-wise, but it’s not too bad, and get a loaded-up V6 and it’ll do a pretty passable Acura impression.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      i should also mention that we got the rest-of-world Accord at that time as the Acura TSX sport sedan, a smaller, nimbler car with a bland interior. TSX is on my bucket list, though.

    2. Smaglik Avatar

      I had an 07 v6 sedan with the manual. Fun car, but was built on a Monday or a Friday. In 40k miles from new, I had more issues than any of the German cars I’ve owned.

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        I have a ’02 Honda Stream and it is definitely not my most reliable car. But, apart from the extremely needy brakes, everything that comes apart is small crap. That keeps the running cost down, and I love driving a car I can drive abusively without being concerned about preserving it for later generations and what not.

        1. Smaglik Avatar

          Are brakes a thing with the Hondas? That was one of my complaints with the 07. It needed rotors turned at 14k miles because of vibration, and the dealer had to be pushed to cover that. Needless to say at 30k, I was on the hook for new rotors and pads. It’s not me, your honor, I swear. In my defense, I present my 94 accord that received front rotors and pads once in 200k+ miles, and never needed rears.

          1. Sjalabais Avatar

            That sounds like something I can relate to. Bought mine used at 130k kms, with the need for four new rotors + pads. I’ve since changed two calipers, six pads, and, recently, two more rotors at 185kkms. In addition, I should be greasing the calipers every time I switch between seasonal tires to avoid the calipers getting stuck. Granted, I live in the countryside and can replace the foot brake with the motor brake in 9/10 deceleration cases – but I’m aware of that and try to take care of my brakes. This has never been an issue with any of my other cars.

          2. Smaglik Avatar

            That’s abysmal.

  7. nanoop Avatar

    Great stuff! So the German cars I’ve seen there twelve years ago were replaced by Japanese models, whereas the Soviet vehicles are still around…

  8. crank_case Avatar

    Odd to see so many RHD bread and butter Japanese imports in country that appears to drive on the right (so LHD).
    They’re popular in Ireland, Australian, South Africa and NZ but we drive on the same side (legacy of the British Empire)

    1. Sjalabais Avatar

      If you watch these Russian dash cam compilations you’ll find more Japanese imports the further East you get. But there are pretty many cars that came out of Japan used as far West as Moskva and St Petersburg, too.

      1. Manic_King Avatar

        I guess, ALL of the cars in RUS would be RHD cars from JAP by now, hadn’t putin or someone issued decree which limited possibilities to get those cars registered. It also boosted local LHD production as cheap second hand imports were limited only to very eastern part of RUS from certain moment in time. Those already in reg before deadline probably can be sold and used still in Moscow, but no fresh RHD import, I’ve heard. As I’m not Russian I could be wrong, too.

  9. Amoore Avatar

    The Honda pictured under the Inspire/Accord is the Avancier, basically a turn-of-the-millennium attempt at creating an Accord Crosstour. Looked a lot better, and it’s one of Honda’s unknown gems IMO as it seamlessly blended the Civic, Accord, Odyssey, and CR-V all into one streamlined package. No idea if it drives well, but it sure is big and plush.

  10. Sjalabais Avatar

    Just had to share this here: The Toyota RAV4 and its social stigma as a car for the 2nd wife: