Looking for a unique destination that remains largely undiscovered by the tourist crowd?
Then look no further than Kyrgyzstan. Today, this Central Asian country piques the interest of only the most intrepid travellers (many on bicycles) – who come to explore the mountains, lakes and canyons, meet some of the world’s friendliest people – and try the infamous fermented mare’s milk!
So what is there to see and do in Kyrgyzstan? Read on to find out what first time visitors to Kyrgyzstan need to know.
Where is Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia bordered by Uzbekistan to the west, Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east and Tajikistan to the south.
It was formally part of the USSR until it gained independence in 1991.
When To Go?
The best time to visit Kyrgyzstan is during the summer months. July to September offer the most stable weather conditions, making it suitable for hiking. Go earlier or later in the year, and you’ll likely run into heavy snow in the mountains (making some areas impassable). Afternoon thunderstorms are also regular occurrences in the mountain areas in May and June.
Marshrutkas (mini buses) are the go to public transport option for backpackers in Kyrgyzstan.
If you’ve travelled in Central Asia before, or even in Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan, you’ll know what these are all about.
The buses leave when they are full (read jampacked) and are not air conditioned. But they are cheap. You cannot bargain for marshrutkas – they are a fixed price – but make sure you know the price because sometimes you will be given the ‘tourist price’.
If you want to travel in more comfort, you’ll have to go with a shared or private taxi. Prices are negotiable for taxis.
All roads lead to Bishkek and you can get to Karakol, Issyk Kul, Kochkor, Osh, Naryn and Arslanbob by marshrutka from Bishkek’s Western Bus Station.
Travelling by plane is also a viable option to get between Bishkek and Osh if you want to avoid the 13 hour marshrutka ride. Flights depart several times daily and cost around $80-$100 return.
Adventures in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is an outdoor lover’s dream. If you enjoy hiking, then you’ll have no shortage of opportunities to go exploring in the mountains and valleys.
Your Kyrgyzstan adventure will probably start in the capital, Bishkek. You don’t need to spend much time here but it’s a good place to get a nice coffee, stock up on snacks and the central Ala-Too Square is worth a look. You should also pay a visit to Osh Bazaar to pick up items like fresh bread, fruit and nuts. If you’re brave, try the hard cheese balls made from fermented milk – a speciality in Kyrgyzstan.
How to get there: Bishkek is serviced by an international airport with flights to Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
You can also get a marshrutka from Almaty, Kazazhstan to Bishkek. The marshrutka takes about 5 hours and includes one rest break. The marshrutka leaves when it’s full from Sairan Bus Station, located in the west of the city. The cost is 1950 KZT ($5 USD). The trip includes a border crossing. You’ll have to take all your luggage with you at the Kazakhstan border, and walk across to the other side. The marshrutka will wait for you on the Kyrgyzstan border.
The real adventure starts with the marshrutka ride to Karakol from Bishkek.
You can choose to go straight to Karakol or stay a night or two on the shore of Issyk Kul (Issyk Lake).
How to get there: Take a marshrutka from the Western Bus Station in Bishkek (near Osh Bazaar). Expect to pay 450 Som ($6.50 USD) for the 5-6 hour ride all the way to Karakol. The trip includes one rest stop.
Stay by the shores of Issyk Kul.
What to see and do: Karakol is all about the hiking – it can be used as a base for day hikes or you can head out on multi day treks.
I highly recommend basing yourself in Duet Hostel in Karakol. The hostel is very well set up with lots of hiking information available.
Unfortunately, when I visited the weather was too unstable due to regular thunderstorms to attempt the hike up to the famous Ala Kul (Ala Lake), so together with the fellow travellers I met along the way, I went on a day hike to Altyn Arashan. The hike covers about 26km and takes around 7-8 hours. The trail is along a dirt road.
Altyn Arashan is where most people spend their third night after hiking up to Ala Kul Lake. The town is home to a couple of hot springs inside guesthouses, and you can also camp in a yurt.
The trail up to Altyn Arashan
Fairy Tale Canyon
From Karakol, you can also head out to the Fairy Tale Canyon (Skazka Canyon) from Karakol. The colourful canyon is located on the south shore of Issyk Kul.
How to get there: Head to the Southern Bus Station in Karakol and take the marshrutka towards Bokonbaevo (#315). The cost is 150 KGS ($2 USD). The driver probably won’t speak English, but tell him Skazka and he’ll tell you when to get off. The canyon is located about a two-hour drive from Karakol, just after the village of Tosor.
The colourful landscapes of Fairy Tale Canyon.
Entry into the canyon is 50 Som ($0.70 USD) and you pay at the entry gate (cash only). Wear hiking shoes as the rocks are uneven and slippery. Allow about 3-4 hours in the canyon and then you can brave a dip in the cold waters of Issyk Kul. Flag down a passing marshrutka to get back to Karakol.
Other attractions near the Karakol area are the Jeti-Oguz rock formations and Barskoon waterfalls.
From Karakol, it’s likely you will head across to Kochkor – the gateway town to Song Kul (Song Lake).
Song Kul is one of the most popular attractions in Kyrgyzstan. The lake is located 3,000 metres above sea level and is far removed from modern conveniences.
For a unique experience, stay in a yurt camp run by nomadic locals who live on the shores of Song Kul during the summer months.
I stayed in a yurt camp for two nights and was provided with a traditional breakfast and dinner.
Camp in a yurt on the shores of Song Kul.
At night, I slept on a mattress on the floor inside the yurt, piled with blankets. The yur was lined with felt and heated by a stove fuelled by dried cow dung. Don’t worry it didn’t smell!
The nights were cold, even though I was there in summer – but they days were actually quite warm.
During your stay, you can hike into the mountains, walk along the shores of the lake, or go horse riding.
How to get there: First get to Kockhor by taking a bus from Kochkor’s Long Distance Bus Station. A bus leaves daily at 9am. It’s also possible to get to Kochkor from the Bishkek Western Bus Station.
Once you reach Kochkor, you can find your own shared taxi to Song Kul, but the most efficient option is to organise your yurt camp stay with one of the community based tourism providers opposite the Kochkor bus station.
I organised my stay through the Shepherd’s Life agency – but you can also organise your stay with the Community Based Tourism (CBT) office.
My stay cost 4500 Som ($65 USD) for the taxi to and from Song Kul (shared with two other travellers I stayed at the yurt camp with), two nights in a yurt, and two breakfasts and dinners.
It’s also an option to organise to horse ride to the yurt camp or even hike.
After your visit to Song Kul, there’s a couple of options. You can head down to Naryn from Kochkor via marshrutka or shared taxi and see the 15th century stone caravaneseri (traveller’s inn) of Tash Rabat and more lakes; return to Bishkek and head to Osh via plane (flights cost between $80-$100 AUD) or marshrutka (the trip takes about 13 hours); or head down to more mountains at Arslanbob.
Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city – but usually the attraction is not in the city itself but the many fabulous hiking opportunities around it. Osh is also a popular jumping off point into Tajikistan, China or Uzbekistan.
If you’re after hiking information in Osh, stay at the Community Based Tourism (CBT) Osh Tourist Info Office & Hostel. It’s both hostel (private rooms and dorm beds) and a tourist information office for all you need to know about hiking in the area.
Things You Should Know
- Kyrgyzstan is a cash economy. It’s best to exchange money or withdraw the local currency Som while you’re in Bishkek as ATMs are sparse elsewhere in the country. There’s dozens of money exchange counters in Bishkek. It’s best to change US Dollars. You can also withdraw Som or US Dollars from Demir Bank ATMs.
- Always carry toilet paper with you as you will often need it. Only minimal toilet paper is supplied at the yurt camps at Song Kul so bring some just in case. Be aware that there’s only outdoor squat toilets at Song Kul and no showers.
- Most public toilets will be squat toilets.
- It’s best not to drink the tap water in Kyrgyzstan but many hostels offered filtered water.
- Marshrutkas leave when they’re full and are not air-conditioned. They make rest stops about every three hours.
- Not many people speak English in Kyrgyzstan. If you know a bit of Russian, it will be helpful. Staff at hostels or hotels and in tourist restaurants are probably the only people that will speak English. Google Translate will be your best friend so make sure you have the Russian file downloaded to your phone to use offline.
- I hope you’re not vegetarian because you’ll find meat in most Kyrgyz dishes. Even rice dishes can be cooked in animal fat. The meat might be from a cow, sheep or horse.
- Be prepared for all seasons in Kyrgyzstan, no matter the time of year. During a week in Kyrgyzstan in June, it was hot, freezing cold and it rained and hailed. Check the weather forecast before you go hiking as the weather can change rapidly in the mountains.
- Kyrgyzstan is safe for solo and female travellers. I experienced no issues during my week in the country.