What is it like to teach and live in Kyrgyzstan?
Today I talk to Laura, who recently moved to teach in Kyrgyzstan and very kindly accepted my request to write a blog post about her life there! To see stunning photos of Kyrgyzstan and see what Laura gets up to there, be sure to follow her on Instagram @laurakircough or here.
1. How long have you been teaching abroad?
I first went to Sierra Leone in August 2017 for my first experience of living and teaching abroad. I was a bit of a late starter! I volunteered for a year running a local school in Freetown, then made a move to an international school while I was there.
2. How did you find your current job in Kyrgyzstan?
I used a really good agency called Teach Away. They listened really carefully to me when I talked about the kind of places I was and was not interested in, and when I spoke about my CV and what kind of roles I would like to go for. I made it clear that I wanted to learn the IB curriculum but had no current experience, but they assured me that most schools would be happy to employ me because I had 15 years of UK teaching experience.
3. Why did you choose that location?
Something about Central Asia just appealed to me! I felt that it was an area that wasn’t overly popular or too crowded, and I liked the idea of exploring countries with extreme seasons and incredible scenery. I also had the impression that the culture and way of life would possibly be somewhat more gentle than what I was used to before. I read a while back that there are no wrong decisions, only decisions that have different outcomes, so I thought I would go all in and give it a try!
4. What is it like living there as a (single) female?
To be fair, I have rarely felt unsafe anywhere I have travelled, but I think it may because I am 6 foot tall and I don’t look like an easy target! However, I would say that Bishkek (the capital city of Kyrgyzstan) is one of the safest places I have ever been. People are genuinely friendly, polite, hospitable, helpful and kind. Obviously, it’s always wise to take some precautions when you’re getting to know different areas of a new city, but I also think that carrying yourself with confidence and positivity makes you less vulnerable. I have been told that one of the bigger bazaars and some of the crowded mashrutka (public transport minibuses) can be places where pickpockets try their luck, but again, I would say that this could apply almost anywhere in the world, so just be sensible.
5. What are its advantages?
People are curious and respectful, kind and smart. It feels safe to walk around anywhere, and Bishkek is a particularly walkable city, built on a grid system. Fuel and vehicle hire is cheap, so it’s a great place to get away on road trips to explore some truly jaw-dropping scenery. The standard of living is pretty good - you can make it as cheap or as expensive as you wish, really! My housing allowance is pretty generous, and in fact, I’ve just moved from a large apartment in a very nice block to somewhere a little smaller but just as well-positioned. It's a lot cheaper, and I’m actually going to try and live just off my allowance for a few months, to really top up my savings. I would say that Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan have something for everyone, but is generally more geared towards an outdoor lifestyle, with winter sports and all-round hiking a big fixture. You can go horseriding too, although they are quite little but very placid.
6. Are there any negatives/ challenges to Kyrgyzstan? How do you deal with them?
SO I think the biggest challenge is when the weather gets extremely cold in the winter, which means that the air quality can become quite poor. The city is heated from large coal-powered plants quite close by, and this winter we did have a prolonged cold snap, so for about 6 weeks, the air quality was variable to poor. There is an app that records the coal particles in the air and gives you a reading and advisory based on that. People deal with this by wearing masks and using air purifiers in their homes and changing the filters regularly. YOu can also go to the national parks or ski centres which are about 45 minutes out of town, and the air is much better there. The city is in a little bit of a dip, so the pollution doesn’t always have a chance to dissipate, but it’s fine once you’re out of town.
Honestly though, once you’re past that few weeks phase, I can’t think of anything else very negative to say.
In general, I haven’t come across anything that has really challenged me, aside from running out of petrol somewhere very remote and thinking that there was none at the gas station due to a language malfunction! :o) Even when this happened, we found that we flagged someone down and they went into helpful mode right away.
7. What is normally included in a good teaching package in your location?
I can only talk about my school, but the Homeroom teachers are on between $2300-2500 USD, with a $700 living allowance and $1200 flight allowance.
8. Is there tax on your salary?
9. How did you find your accommodation?
My school were really helpful about finding accommodation, and I signed up for my apartment in two days. We filled out a housing survey before arriving, and then we were taken to see several options once we arrived. We never felt pressured into choosing anywhere, and in fact, a colleague had two dogs to consider, so they spent extra days finding somewhere for her. I figured I would treat myself for a few months while I got to know the city a bit better and make a more informed decision about where I would want to live long term.
I have used some Instagram accounts including this one to give me an idea about what rentals there are around, and there is a helpful Facebook group for Bishkek expats, and colleagues are always super helpful with agent names if you tell them that you’re looking for a place to rent.
10. Any insider tips? E.g. when applying for jobs, renting, living and working there?
Rental prices are always negotiable, especially if you are able to pay for a sizeable amount of time upfront. Try to get a place with a boiler, because if the government-controlled heating goes off at the end of March, and there’s a sudden cold snap in April, you’ll need it!
There are some great taxi and food delivery apps, which can definitely make life easy, if you want to get into all that city living. When you’re out on the highways, definitely stick to the speed limits because the traffic police have cameras and they WILL stop and charge you. If they do, be firm about getting an official receipt. In terms of applying for jobs, I had a really smooth experience - I was very honest in my interviews about my lack of specific IB experience, but they still hired me. I would just say be honest in applications and interviews and be ready to negotiate if you really feel like you’re being hard done by. It might not work, but then again, it might…
In summary, Kyrgyzstan is a place that I settled in to quickly, and within three months I was planning how I would extend my contract! Many days, especially in the Summer and Autumn, can feel like you’re on holiday if you catch an afternoon in an easy-going wine bar or a picnic atop some picture-postcard mountain scene. The winter sports scene is cosy and very cheap indeed! The mountains are visible from so many parts of the city, and are a constant reminder of the place you can go for peace and quiet, and a good recharge at the end of a busy week. My work-life balance is brilliant, and my school treat me with respect, and like a professional. I’m urging all my friends to come and visit as soon as they can, and I’m currently spending my Saturday mornings in a series of Masterclasses with a group of intelligent and funny women. What’s not to love!!
11. Where can we follow you to see more about your amazing life in Kyrgyzstan?
My Instagram is just a collection of poorly labelled pics of where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to - not particularly influency, but it does have some fab shots of the mountains! :o) I once told somebody that I found it pretty difficult to take a bad photo here. Follow me here on IG!
A huge thank you to Laura for her informative and interesting article about an expat location that we don't hear much about! My name is Sorcha Coyle and I’ve been teaching in the Gulf (Qatar and Dubai) for the past 9 years. I also run Empowering Expat Teachers, whose mission is to empower future and current expat teachers to lead personally, professionally, and financially rewarding lives. If you haven’t already, join the supportive EET FB group here and follow me on IG @sorchacoyle_eet for lots of research, CV, and cover letter tips! Last but not least, I also provide CV and cover letter support to future and current expat teachers with my range of services in Teach Abroad Academy- check them out here!