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Let’s make a journey to a country, located deep in the heart of Asia. A country, which is far from the noise of the mass tourism, far from the crowded and popular destinations. But at the same time, this country is incredibly beautiful, full of breathtaking, fantastic landscapes. This is Kyrgyzstan– a kingdom of snowy mountains, gorgeous forests, grasslands, yurts, horses and nomads. Follow this First Timer’s Travel Guide to Kyrgyzstan and get some inspiration for adventures in this dreamland!
Basic facts about Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a small country in Central Asia, and its capital is Bishkek. About 95% of its territory consists of mountains. Most of these mountains are various subranges of Tianshan, and on the south are the northern subranges of Pamir. Both Pamir and Tianshan are some of the highest mountains on the Earth, and some of their highest peaks are located on the borders of Kyrgyzstan with the neighboring countries Tajikistan and China.
Kyrgyzstan is the farthest country on the Earth from any ocean. But it doesn’t mean that there is not a sea. If you look at the map of the country, you can see a giant blue eye-shaped lake. This is Issyk-Kul, the „sea” of Kyrgyzstan.
There are two official languages in Kyrgyzstan- Kyrgyz and Russian. And in general, many young people, especially in the cities can speak English. Kyrgyzstan is sparcely populated, and many local Kyrgyz people who live in the mountains still have a nomadic way of life. The country is peaceful, and the people are very friendly, so you don’t have to worry about nothing more than in every peaceful country with low crime.
However, Kyrgyzstan is relatively difficult to travel. There is only one highway between Bishkek and Issy Kul Lake. All other roads are smaller, narrow, often mountainous with many curves. So, traveling from Bishkek to the second largest city Osh, located in the far southwest of the country takes a long time for travel, unless you take a plane.
The best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan
If you want to explore Kyrgyzstan, you have to visit its most representative destinations, and taste the most typical of the country. So, let’s identify these destinations and areas.
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and its largest city. It is not a „modern mega city” like Shanghai, Singapore or Mumbai, and there is not too much history to see. But although it is a capital, it is a very quiet city, with nice parks and calm streets, and almost no high buildings. Yet I would still recommend to spend at least 2 days there, especially if you come to Kyrgyzstan for the first time. And here is what you can see and do in Bishkek.
The center- it consists of a large Soviet type of square, called Ala-Too Square, with its Manas Monument, some other monuments (including the monument of Lenin), and several parks, of which the most popular one is the pentagram-shaped Panfilov Park.
Osh Bazaar– the most colorful place in Bishkek, full of local life and culture, as well as a lot of local products to buy.
Burana Tower– a remnant of Balasagun- the capital of the ancient Karakhanid Kingdom, located 80 km east of Bishkek. It is a minaret, a site with historic significanse.
Ala Archa– a gorgeous valley in the nearest to Bishkek branch of Tianshan Mountains, located only 30-40 mins far from the center of the capital.
Now, let’s take a look at the northeast part of Kyrgyzstan- the area around the „big blue eye”- Issyk Kul.
This is one of the favourite places for locals to visit. The lake is located at around 1650 m altitude, and it is water is coor, even in summer. But when the weather is warm enough, many people go to swim. So, there are some nice resorts on its coasts, especially on its north side. All of this is combined with stunning views to the surrounding snowy ranges of Tianshan.
There are a lot of towns and villages on the coast of the lake. Of them, the largest one is Cholpon Ata.
This is the main town-resort in Issyk Kul region, located at the northern lake coast. The resort is far from the class of the luxurious resorts in the world, but its location, its calmness and its people make it an impressive place to relax and enjoy the fantastic panoramas of the lake and the surrounding mountains.
Karakol and Terskey Alatau Range
This is one of the most beautiful and popular areas in Kyrgyzstan, especially for hikers and adventurous travelers. The area is alpine, with stunning valleys and peaks, rising up to more than 5000 m altitude. What makes it different than the other areas is the gorgeous coniferous (spruce) forests, covered its northward opened valleys.
Now, let’s take a look beyond the southeastern end of Issyk Kul Lake. There is one of the larger cities in Kyrgyzstan- Karakol.
This is the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan. Most of Karakol consists of straight streets and village type of houses, with only several higher buildings. But there are some interesting places to visit. The first place is the center of Karakol- a colorful area with many shops and some restaurants with delicious local food. Not far from it is the Russian Orthodox Church, and in the north- the wooden Dungan Mosque- two important landmarks of the city. Don’t skip also the Historic Museum, and Przhevalsk Museum- two places with high educational valley.
Karakol is located on the northern foot of Terskey Alatau- one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the Earth. It makes the city a popular starting point for some amazing mountain trails. They pass through some of the northward alpine valleys, covered by fantastic coniferous forests, grasslands and glaciers in their higher parts.
Karakol Valley– this is the valley descending directly to Karakol City from south. Today it is turned into a national park with 250 KGS entrance fee for foreigners.
Jeti Oguz– another stunning valley, with some fantastic rock formations, such as The Seven Bulls and the Broken heart.
Altyn Arashan and Ala Kol- a gorgeous valley, famous for its hot mineral spring baths. Ala Kol is a lake between Karakol and Arashan valleys. There is a popular trail connecting these three valleys and the lake.
Now, let’s take a look to the central parts of Kyrgyzstan. There are again mountains and mountains, but amidst them, there is a splendid jewel, called Song Kul, one of the most beautiful lakes in Tianshan Mountains.
Song Kul Lake
It is an alpine lake in the middle of vast grasslands, surrounded by wild and desolate mountains. The grasslands around the lake are used by the local nomads, and you can see their yurts, horses and herds at the lake coasts. All this creates a fantastic landscape with fairy-tale atmosphere in „the middle of nowhere”.
Then, if you proceed southward, crossing more and more mountains, valleys and grasslands, you would reach Naryn, one of the large cities in Kyrgyzstan.
Naryn and its surrounded area include the southernmost ranges of Tianshan, to the borders of China and Tajikistan, where Tianshan links to Pamir Mountains. Again, this area is full of endless grasslands and wild alpine landscapes. And there, in one of the valleys, a mysterious stony caravanserai is hidden. It is called Tash Rabat, and it is related to the famous Silk Road, although nobody knows for sure who has built it, and what was its exact purpose. The whole area around Tash Rabat is a breathtaking wilderness, and if you proceed further to the border with China, you can reach another splendid jewel- the lonely alpine Chatyr Kol Lake, and the famous Torugart Pass.
But now, let’s take a look at the southwestern part of Kyrgyzstan. There is the second largest city in the country- Osh.
Osh is the cultural capital of Kyrgyzstan. It has a long history, which is presented by monuments, churches and mosques. But its most significant place to visit is Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain. It is a small mountain, hiding secrets from several thousand years till now, and is the most complete „sacred mountain” in Central Asia. Now there is a Cave Museum, presenting artifacts from the whole history of the region. For these reasons, this site is now declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now, let’s back to the north. Again, we would see endless mountains, valleys, snowy peaks and grasslands. And there is another jewel hidden in the western part of Kyrgyzstan, called Arslanbob.
It is a village and a valley in the mountains. But the most significant part of this area is its walnut forests. These forests are more than 1000 years old and were planted by a historical figure called Arystanbop, hence the name Arslanbob. In addition, there are gorgeous waterfalls in the area, making the whole landscape even more strange and beautiful. All this makes Arslanbob one of the most interesting places to visit in Kyrgyzstan.
But the whole picture of Kyrgyzstan would not be full without taking a look to the highest mountains in the country- the snowy giants of Tianshan and Pamir.
Khan Tengri Range
Tianshan is one of the highest mountain systems on the Earth. And its highest part is called Kakshaal Too- a range, shared by Kyrgyzstan, China and Kazakhstan. There is the highest peak of Tianshan- Jengish Chokusu (7439 m). But the prize for the most beautiful peak, considered by some „the most beautiful peak in the world” is given to the second highest mountain- Khan Tengri- a giant with perfectly-looking pyramidal shape, which rises to 7010 m with its snow cap.
This giant is located in a wild, remote border area, and even its foot is difficult to reach. But if you can join a trekking to the best views of Khan Tengri, it would be an impressive, unforgettable adventure.
Another high mountain area is Pamir. And the northern parts of Pamir are located in Kyrgyzstan, so let’s take a look there too.
Pamir and Lenin Peak
Lenin Peak (Avicenna Peak) is one of the highest mountains in Kyrgyzstan. It is known as one of the easiest to climb 7000-er, because most of its slopes are not steep and don’t require mountaineering skills. In other words, you can just walk to its top in a normal hiking. But of course, don’t forget its extremely high altitude. Don’t forget also about its location on the border with Tajikistan (which is border area)- as you can expect, its hiking requires a lot of experience, money and permits.
But you can enjoy its magnificient image from Alay Valley, which can be explored from the village of Sary Moghul. The wild and fantastic landscape is worth reaching and spending at least several days.
There are many more mountains, grasslands, villages, valleys and other fantastic places in Kyrgyzstan, so here I shared only about the most popular ones. But an important question is: how to reach these places, and how to build a Kyrgyzstan itinerary?
How to build your Kyrgyzstan itinerary
To build your Kyrgyzstan itinerary, you have to consider the transportation between the points on the map. And it is not so simple. First, 95% of Kyrgyzstan’s area consists of mountains. With some short exceptions near Bishkek, there are no highways, but only endless curving mountain roads. There are no trains too. So, how to travel around Kyrgyzstan?
This is the most popular vehicle, used for public transport in Kyrgyzstan. The word „marshrutka” is a Russian word, which means „route vehicle”. It is a van, traveling on certain route, playing a role of a bus, in other word- a small public bus. It is used within the large cities, and between the cities and villages around the country.
The marshrutkas are much more convenient than the big buses. They can run faster on the mountain roads And same as the big buses, they have „avtovokzal” (which in Russian means “bus station”)- just like any other bus terminals in the world, but instead of buses, there are these vans. They have their own timetable, own routes and own prices. You buy a ticket from the ticket counters in the „avtovokzal”, or directly from the driver if you get is in the middle of its route.
Other ways of transport
The marshrutka is good, but it doesn’t go everywhere. There are places like Tash Rabat, Song Kul or Altyn Arashan, that you have to use a private transport, your own vehicle or just… your own legs. You can rent a car, but if it is just a normal small car, it also can’t go further that the marshrutkas go. You would need a stronger SUV, 4×4 vehicle. Some yurt camps also offer transport from the nearest larger settlement (where marshrutkas reach) to take you to their site.
Another way to travel is by shared taxis. They are a bit more expensive than the marshrutkas, but more comfortable. However, you may experience some difficulties finding them, as well as to find more people with you to share the price.
So, let’s say that you want to visit all of the above places in Kyrgyzstan. To do this, you need at least 2-3 weeks, in order to fully enjoy it (and it would not includes trekking to Khan Tengri or Lenin Peak). You can make a circle route, starting from Bishkek. First, you can explore Bishkek and its surroundings. Then by marshrutka from the main Bishkek „avtovokzal” you can go to Cholpon Ata at Issyk Kul Lake. From there you can proceed to Karakol, again by marshrutka.
From Karakol, you can spend several days for a trekking through Jeti Oguz, Karakol and Arashan Valleys. Then take a marshrutka to Kochkor. From there, you can reach Song Kul Lake, but only by private transport (and if you contact in advance with a yurt camp at the lake, they can arrange it for you). After that, you back to Kochkor, and take the next marshrutka to Naryn, or they can take you directly to Naryn.
Naryn can be your starting point for visiting Tash Rabat and Chatyr Kol Lake. Again, you have to arrange a transport from a Tash Rabat yurt camp (Omurbek’s and Sabyrbek’s yurt camps are the best), and make a trekking to Chatyr Kol Lake. Finally, they would take you back to Naryn.
The most difficult part of the route would be the section between Naryn and Osh. There are no direct marshrutkas between these two cities, and the only way is to change 2 or 3 marshrutkas on the way, spending more than 2 days. You can take a shared taxi (usually for 3500 to 5000 KGS) to Kazarman, then a marshrutka to Jalal Abad. Once you reach Jalal Abad, it is easy to find another marshrutka to Osh. But, maybe a better option would be to reach Osh by domestic planes- first to Bishkek, then to Osh.
From Osh, you can reach Arslanbob by easily changing three marshrutkas- the first to Jalal Abad, the second to Bazar Korgon, and the third- to Arslanbob. Finally, from there you have to travel another 2-days journey by changing shared taxis and marshrutkas to Bishkek. Or, to back to Osh and take the plane back to Bishkek.
Other travel tips
What else would you need to arrange your Kyrgyzstan itinerary? The accommodation is an important part too. There are a lot of hostels, hotels and guesthouses in all these places of interest. You can book them in advance from Booking.com, but it is not so reliable. Some properties just don’t have a good connection with Booking, or there is another reason that I don’t know, but when we booked our hotels in advance and arrived there, they couldn’t find our booking.
But don’t worry, there are still a lot of other properties that you can find. In Altyn Arashan, and in Tash Rabat, we personally found their guesthouses and yurt camps straight from Facebook or their own websites and directly communicated with them. Finally, you have to know that there are many nomad’s yurts that would accept guests, and it would be good if you just give them some little money for thanks. And don’t forget something important: ALWAYS put off your shoes before enter any property!
If you are more adventurous, you can also bring your tent. There are not especially arranged campsites, but the whole mountain is „yours”- you can sleep wherever you want, and in general, it is safe. Just keep the nature around you, be careful with fire!
Internet is good in the big cities, and there is wifi everywhere. But when you go to places like Altyn Arashan- forget about wifi, and any kind of mobile signal. When you go there, you are just „out of the world”.
Finally, everything in Kyrgyzstan is very cheap. From the food to the transport, and from the clothes to the accommodation, Kyrgyzstan is one of the cheapest countries in the world. There are some bank machines in the cities, but again- when you go to the wild mountain, forget about it.
All of this should inspire you to plan a journey to this amazing country. Yes, it challenges you with adventures, but if you accept the challenge, you will remember this experience for the rest of your life.
Krasen is a travel blogger from Bulgaria and the voice behind the blog, Journey Beyond the Horizon. He is passionate about exploring Earth and enjoying our planet’s geography and history. He has traveled in Europe and Asia, mainly in off the beaten path regions together with his travel mate and spouse Ying Ying from China. They love sharing about their travel adventures in their blog by offering valuable information and first-hand experience.