Kyrgyzstan is a small, mountainous country in Central Asia. Its landlocked territory is home to the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people as well as other ethnic groups. Summers here are hot and dry and winters can be cold and snowy, especially in the high elevation. My personal experience with Kyrgyzstan goes back 15 years when I lived in neighboring Uzbekistan. Then I came to Kyrgyzstan for a holiday and absolutely loved it. I recently returned and this visit to Kyrgyzstan re-stoked my love for this unique corner of the world.
Although it’s not on the main backpacker route and isn’t famous as a mainstream tourist destination, Kyrgyzstan gets a steady stream of travelers looking for adventure. Most come in the summer months when it’s warmer and hiking and horse treks are in full swing. Issyk-Kul welcomes swimmers and so do the semi-nomadic people living in yurts up in the pasture. There is a nice range of budget accommodation and community-based tourism is well-established. There are plenty of locally-based tour companies to help you with the finer details of your trip planning or with outdoor activities that require guides, equipment, or off-road transport. The food is good and the people are friendly. Infrastructure is basic in Kyrgyzstan but most travelers understand that before arriving. Overall Kyrgyzstan is an excellent place to get out into nature and experience a different culture.
Staying with a semi-nomadic family up in the hills is one of the most interesting cross-cultural experiences you’ll have. Many Kyrgyz move up to the jailoo (pasture) with their animal herds during the summer months. They live in yurts, take care of the animals, and really relish living in the open country. And some of these shepherding families even welcome travelers to stay with them. Hikers will almost always find shelter and warm hospitality from the Kyrgyz. You’d be amazed by how well people eat, considering the lack of refrigeration and cooking over a dung fire. This is not a country that lends itself to a big bus tour of inactive tourists looking at stuff out the window. It’s a get dusty and sunburn type of place. It’s a place for you to do the doing instead of watching somebody else.
Kyrgyzstan is a land of rugged dry terrain, green high-altitude pastures, pristine lakes, and soaring snow-capped peaks. The country is 93% mountainous and is mostly situated at elevations between 1,000 and 7,400 meters. More than 40% of the country is above 3,000 meters and three-quarters of that is under permanent snow or glaciers. Kyrgyzstan has about 600 glaciers! This land is home to the Kyrgyz people and the terrain savored by travelers who come here for trekking, mountain climbing, horse riding, downhill skiing, and other activities. Even if you didn’t come to get into the outdoors you can’t avoid the gorgeous scenery that this country offers year round. In the South are the snowy northern-most reaches of the mighty Pamirs, and stretching across much of Kyrgyzstan, the Tien Shan Mountains, the largest range on the continent. The country’s highest point is Jengish Chokusu (Peak Pobeda), at 7,439 m (24,406 ft) on the border with China.
Kyrgyzstan isn’t just about the mountains. I’ve already talked about staying with local Kyrgyz on the jailoo, but the southeast of the country is populated with an Uzbek minority. The Uzbeks are agriculturalists and this part of Kyrgyzstan produces wonderful fruit, vegetables, and walnuts. In fact, the village of Arslanbob is a village set among a giant walnut forest. It is outstandingly beautiful and has numerous home stay opportunities. Kyrgyzstan is also home to nearly two thousand lakes. The most prominent is the ever-popular Issyk-Kul, 180 km long, situated at 1,600 meters above sea-level and staying ice free in the winter. Other well-known lakes are Song-Kol, which attracts many travelers to its yurt camps in summer as well as scenic Lake Sary-Chelek and green Ala-Kul. Many other lakes are situated between 2,500 and 4000 meters and were formed by glaciers.
Kyrgyzstan is not expensive for travelers who benefit from a favorable exchange rate. The Kyrgyz som has devalued significantly in the past decade. A cheap local meal will cost only a couple dollars and a nice meal at a good restaurant can be enjoyed for less than $10 US. $13 will get you a night in a local family’s yurt with breakfast and $22 for a horse and guide all day. Figure about $45 for a midrange double room in the capital. Dorm rooms are less than $8. Many independent travelers come to Kyrgyzstan alone, but if you aren’t up for taking on the challenge of navigating this country on your own, plenty of tour company offer small group tours, including my own at Unquote Travel. We’ve designed a fantastic, well-rounded small group tour of Kyrgyzstan with plenty of insight into local culture and active outdoor adventures.
Although Kyrgyzstan is not a large country it still requires a lot of time to move about the country. The drive from Osh to Bishkek takes 10-12 hours. And much of the point of traveling here is to get off-road and explore some of the more remote regions. Driving dirt tracks takes longer. Many people enjoy getting up into the backcountry by foot or horseback and staying with locals. All these activities lend themselves to slow travel, not a whirlwind trip. Furthermore, Kyrgyzstan is in the middle of Central Asia, not exactly on the way to much else. Its remote location means you’d be best to come here for more than 10 days, preferably at least two weeks. And why not combine your trip with an overland connection to Uzbekistan or Tajikistan?
For more information visit DiscoverKyrgyzstan
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.