A country bursting with wild and untouched nature, rich culture, and people that still live true to their millenia-old traditions.
Many people describe Kyrgyzstan as ‘The Switzerland of Central Asia’; and with more than half of the small country belonging to two of the highest mountain ranges in the world I can see why.
But Kyrgyzstan is so much more.
In my five weeks of discovering this stunning region, I was welcomed with open arms by some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
I was treated to delicious homemade meals whilst laughing and talking, all cosy amongst pillows and friends in a warm yurt.
I climbed mountains of dizzying heights and with panoramic views I will remember for the rest of my life.
I followed the ancient caravan trails of the Silk Road, still alive with echoes of the past.
And for the first time I felt what freedom really means as I flew across the endless steppe on the back of a horse, becoming one with the wind on my face and the earth beneath my horse’s hooves.
If you are looking for a destination that will take your breath away on every turn Kyrgyzstan is the right place for you.
In August 2018, my sister and I embarked on a six-week long journey through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In the next few months I will post exclusively about this trip. Don’t miss a new article and sign up for my newsletter:
In this post, I will give a brief account on our basic itinerary. You can see our main stops in Kyrgyzstan on the map below:
Our journey, however, didn’t start in Kyrgyzstan but in Astana, the eccentric capitol of Kazakhstan. From here, we made a two-day train journey through the barren and endless steppes of Central Asia.
The first time we saw mountains rise up in the distance we knew we were approaching Kyrgyzstan.
In the capitol of Kyrgyzstan you can still feel the lingering ghost of the Soviet era on every corner. Stalinist buildings mix with post-modern structures, communist apartment blocks house bars and clubs. A harmonizing blend that shows the slow evolution of a young capitol and a country that is trying to find its place in the modern world.
While most people immediately head out to see all that Kyrgyzstan has to offer, one should not overlook the vibrant city. The main sights can easily be visited in a day, and the many bazaars offer a perfect opportunity to buy souvenirs or to stock up on any equipement. Also, this will be your last chance to enjoy amenities such as spas, movie theaters, restaurants with international cuisine and a vibrant nightlife.
Once you’re tired of the hustle and bustle of the city, why not visit the nearby Ala-Archa national park or explore the Issyk-Ata Gorge. It just takes half an hour from the city to be surrounded by mountains, and there are plenty of opportunities to do day trips into the surrounding nature.
From Bishkek, we headed east to the small town of Tokmok. It is only another 20 minutes by car from there to reach a famous landmark: the Burana Tower. Build in the 9th century, the crooked minaret is the only remnant of a once thriving city. In spring, this area comes alive with color when the flowers are in full bloom. But even in late summer the sight was beautiful.
We continued onwards to Cholpon-Ata, one of the biggest towns around Lake Issyk-Kul.
The Issyk-Kul covers almost 8% of the whole country and is the second-largest saline lake in the world. A popular vacation destination for domestic and international tourists, the entire coastline is a concatenation of tiny cities and even tinier towns.
While most visitors spend their time on the beach we headed out to explore the surrounding area.
There is a nice little market offering all sorts of handicrafts, a very small but worthwhile museum about the history of the area and nomadic life, and, most importantly, one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest and best preserved collections of Petroglyphs — 4000 year old stone carvings.
With over 60.000 people Karakol is the fourth biggest city in the whole country. But except for some stores and restaurants in the centre there is not much you can do, really.
Nonetheless, Karakol is one of the most important destination you should visit on your trip to Kyrgyzstan. Why?
Because this town is the gateway to the great Tian-Shan mountain range; a true paradise for all hiking, skiing and mountaineering enthusiasts.
There are hundreds of amazing treks to choose from. Start easy with some short day hikes in the surrounding area or challenge yourself with a multiple-day trek into the mountains.
No matter which one you pick, breathtakingly beautiful scenery awaits you on every single one of them.
We decided to do the (justifiably) popular Ala-Kul Trek — a four-day circuit to Lake Ala-Kul, crossing over the adjacent pass at 3900m above sea level.
(More information about our trek will be posted soon.)
The small city on the southern shore of the Issyk-Kul is the perfect home base for day trips into the surrounding mountains.
From here you have easy access to highlights like the Skazka Canyon (or Fairytale Canyon as it is lovingly called), multiple waterfalls, the Terskei Ala-Too mountains, hot springs and beautiful, empty beaches.
If you are lucky enough to be here in mid-August you should definetely head to the annually held Birds of Prey Festival. Whilst very touristic (by Kyrgyz standards!), this event will allow you to glimpse at Kyrgyz nomadic culture with wonderful folklore shows, fast-paced horse games and spectacular eagle hunting demonstrations.
Kochkor — Lake Son Kul
If you are planning to visit Lake Son Kul on your trip (and you should) then you will most likely start from Kochkor.
The second-largest lake in Kyrgyzstan lies very remote in the middle of a ring of mountains. On its wide shores, many nomads have settled in large yurt camps with their cattle and horse herds.
The lake is accessible only by one 4x4 dirt road or on foot over the mountain passes. The best way to explore this area, however, is the traditional way — on horseback.
(More information about our 3-day horse trek will be posted soon.)
Even though it is possible to organize a trip by yourself, this was the only place we chose to go with a tour guide as the mountains are tough to navigate without local knowledge.
Naryn — Eki-Naryn
Naryn is the last big city on the road to China. From here, you have access to the whole south-eastern part of the country. Well, when I say you have access I mean theoretically. Practically speaking, this area has no working infrastructure. But that also means fewer/no tourists, more authentic local life and lots of adventures. Just the getting-around is a bit … tricky.
We took the opportunity to get a bit more hands-on with Kyrgyz culture and booked a cooking class for delicious Laghman as well as a felt handicraft workshop. The CBT in Naryn offers plenty of wonderful, authentic cultural experiences as well as guided treks and horse riding tours.
When we first planned our trip to Kyrgyzstan there was just on thing on our to-do list: to buy a donkey and experience the country the slow way — on foot.
After we hadn’t had much success finding donkeys anywhere in the country, we finally got lucky in the tiny town of Eki-Naryn. Here, we rented our three beautiful donkey ladies Baloo, Bagheera and Mowgli (yes, we know those are male names), and set out to explore the rural country side.
At-Bashy — Tash Rabat
Even further south of Naryn lies the small town of At-Bashy. There is literally nothing to do here but it serves as a great starting point for a day trip to Tash Rabat.
Tash Rabat is a caravanserai built in the 15th century and used to serve as a refuge for merchants and other travellers on the Ancient Silk Road. It is very well preserved and you can easily imagine what life must have been like in those days while exlporing the sparsely-lit hallways of the building.
If you are visiting the caravanserai you should definitely plan in some time to climb one of the surrounding mountains to enjoy spectacular views on the valleys below. Perhaps you get lucky and see a herder driving his animals along the ancient caravan treks.
From At-Bashy, we headed back to Bishkek. We had considered traveling further west to visit Osh and Arslanbob but due to the lack of infrastructre it would have been a very long, uncomfortable and expensive trip. Instead, we decided to spend some more days in the national parks around Bishkek, and do a multi-day trip to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s old capitol near the Kyrgyz border.
In my five weeks of traveling this amazingly diverse country, I came to one conclusion: If you love pristine nature (and culture!) visit Kyrgyzstan. Visit it now. The tourism is on the rise and I’m sure that in a few years time it will be a very different place to what I was able to explore now.
This place is perfect for every outdoor enthusiast and adventure seeker, with opportunities at every corner. Five weeks were nowhere near enough to see everything this gem of a country has to offer.
Will I go back there one day? Most definitely.