Three Days with a Kyrgyz Millionaire in Bishkek

This is the story of how I spent 3 days with my Couchsurfing host who turned out to be a Kyrgyz Millionaire.

The Meeting

Coming from Almaty, I had already secured a Couchsurfing host in Bishkek. We chatted through WhatsApp mostly in Russian (my Russian is limited to what I’d understand if it were Bulgarian, but Google Translate is a modern linguistical wonder, so…) and he indicated his place was right smack in the middle of the city and that he’d meet me there in the afternoon when I arrive.


I arrived in Bishkek around 4 PM and messaged my host, who told me to come to his place, just 5 minutes away, around the corner.

I do that and as I am looking around for the right place, he spots me, runs up to me, and gives me a tight bear hug. He then just rushes me inside the apartment building, shoves me in the tiny elevator that barely fits us both with little space for my backpack, and presses 4.

On level 4, still in a rush, he unlocks the door, welcomes me in, and tells me to chill until he comes back. How long? Two hours.

The Monument of Victory in Bishkek
The Monument of Victory – the first thing I saw when I arrived in rainy Bishkek

The Apartment

You read the title and now you’re thinking that it is an ultra luxurious apartment. Not at all. It’s a simplistic Soviet-style apartment. The bookcase is literally like the ones we have in older Bulgarian homes. There’s no TV, the wallpaper is a tacky leopard print, there are no beds, just a mattress on the floor.

The bathroom vaguely resembles the one in the first SAW movie. The bathtub is in the middle, battered metal. There’s no shower, just a bucket of water. I’m not writing this to complain, I’ve managed in way, way worse conditions.

But most striking were the hundred or so plants taking all the space in the 60 sq. m. apartment. In the living room, on the glazed balcony, in the kitchen, everywhere. And it was the exact same plant everywhere, no diversity.

When I later asked him why, my host said he just liked it like that. Go figure.

The Proper Introductions

When he eventually comes back two hours later, he brings Kyrgyz food – samsas, fresh vegetables, an indeterminate soup. His name is Rustanbek by the way. It means “strong nobleman“, although there are many people in Kyrgyzstan whose names end in –bek, and not all are noblemen, past or present.

He goes under the nickname Panki. When I point out that it’s like if you shortened the English word for pancakes, he laughs. He hasn’t thought of that before and nobody’s made that connection prior.

We sit down to eat and Panki is constantly recording messages on WhatsApp. This will be a recurring theme for my next two days with him – he’s constantly busy, constantly talking on the phone, recording messages, or organizing logistics.

Another thing about him is that he is incredibly loud. He eats loudly, talks loudly, and probably thinks loudly too. Every once in a while he explains “Oh Mamy!” like a Latin-American soap opera star. It’s quite amusing actually.

Panki has been to over 70 countries, he’s very well-traveled. His exact words were:
I’ve been everywhere. I don’t want to travel anymore, I want to help travelers like you see how beautiful Kyrgyzstan is.

The Trip

Panki invited me to see the hotel he was building in the mountains. That was actually my first sign he was rich. I mean, you have to be to build a hotel, even in Kyrgyzstan. Turns out his wife and kids are in California and he spends 4 months per year in Kyrgyzstan running his tourism business. How his English is still so poor though is beyond me.

Anyway, we’re in his car, going to his villa in the mountains. We stopped once for building materials, twice for an electrical generator, thrice for I don’t even remember anymore, but we stopped quite a few times “for business”.

Panki and I in his car

In the car, Panki was constantly on the phone again, making calls in Kyrgyz and Russian, recording messages, writing down stuff. Driving with a phone in hand is a rite of passage for drivers in Central Asia and any requests to put down the phone and focus on the road are met with a variation of “You don’t trust my driving?!

The car trip, despite the bad roads and the constant feeling of nausea, was quite fun. Panki sang me traditional songs (In the 5 minutes he wasn’t on the phone) and I taught him some English while practicing my Russian. Just listen to this wonderful voice!

Three hours later we were at the banks of the Kol Tor River, next to the construction site of the hotel.

Panki’s Yurt Camp

There is a very basic yurt camp already built there. I am quickly ushered into the cold entree to drink vodka. Anya and Ivan, Russians from Yakutia run the place when Panki is not around.

It’s so cold I can’t think clearly. The others don’t seem to mind it. People here are made differently.

The dinner is simple. Panki ushers me to eat every now and then: “Кушай, кушай!” (“kushay, kushay” / “eat, eat“, but usually told to children). The WhatsApp calls that haven’t ended and the random “Oy Mammy” are as surprising as always.

After dinner, we go inside the house. Nothing special either, but I was delighted to find out there’s heating. Not just any heating – it’s unbearable heat. Outside it was around 0 degrees, inside it was 35. I kid you not, I stripped down to my underwear in 10 seconds, panting from the heat.

In the basement, there’s a Russian Sauna. Amazing! The steam from the water boiler coupled with some herbs unknown to me created a very relaxing atmosphere, albeit one in which you can’t spend long. When you can’t endure more, you pour cold water over yourself and continue. Still, 10 minutes is a long time in this place.

I wish I had any pictures of the Yurt Camp, the house, or the Sauna, but I don’t. It was a combination of poor lighting, fatigue, cold, and my forgetfulness. Pardon.

The Next Day

When I woke up, Panki was already outside inspecting the progress his workers had made since the last time he was here. With a phone in hand, speaking in a mixture of Kyrgyz and Russian, of course.

I decided to do a short hike to Kol Tor Lake, some 3 hours away. It was early November and the trails were icy at some sections, but still traversable. The lake is magnificent. Simply breathtaking beauty.

I met plenty of other hikers on the train and a lot of them came on a day trip from Bishkek. Definitely doable, but I advise you to find a yurt camp to make it a 2D1N type of trip.

Anyway, when I went back Panki told me he had urgent business back in Bishkek and we’ll be going back in 15 minutes. The amount of logistical work this man does in a day is mindblowing.

Is This Clickbait?

I bet it’s not the story you expected. Panki doesn’t live in extreme luxury and is actually very down to earth. Just a very hard-working Kyrgyz man, who loves traveling and travelers. Thank you, Panki!

After I got back to Bishkek, I traveled to Karakol in the east part of Kyrgyzstan.

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