Incredible beauty | Nomadic traditions | Landlocked mountains
Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined by its topography: joyously unspoilt mountain-scapes, stark craggy ridges, and rolling summer pastures (jailoos) are brought to life by semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherd cultures.
Add to this natural beauty a well-developed network of home-stays and the recent introduction of visa-free travel, and it is easy to see why Kyrgyzstan is rapidly becoming the gateway of choice for Western travelers to Central Asia.
Where the vast majority of attractions are rural and high altitude, the timing of a visit is crucial here. Summer is ideal with hikes and roads generally accessible. Midsummer also sees Kazakh and Russian tourists converge on the beaches of never-freezing Lake Issyk-Köl. From October to May, much rural accommodation closes down and the yurts that add such character to the Alpine vistas are stashed away. So think twice about a winter visit unless you have come to ski.
Things to do
Wander around Osh Bazaar, a traditional Eastern market in Bishkek, selling everything from spices to dishwashers.
Buy cheap Chinese goods in Dordoi Bazaar, the largest market in Central Asia, situated 20 minutes north of Bishkek.
Swim, sail and sunbathe in Issyk Kul, the world's second biggest high altitude mountain lake.
Stay in a yurt near Tash Rabat, the ruins of a Caravansarai in Naryn Oblast.
Live like a nomad in Son Kul – the high altitude mountain-lake less visited than Issyk Kul and ideal for seeing traditional semi-nomadic Kyrgyz life in action.
Hike or climb in Altyn Arashan, a secluded valley, for a 2-hr jeep ride from Karakol.
Ski in winter, with more than 20 ski resorts, and the list is growing, winter is an excellent time to go skiing in Kyrgyzstan. Heliskiing is a secret tip for free-riders all over the world.
Expedition to Lenine Peak, 7134m high, south of Osh city
Horseback riding near the Toktogul, is a 3-day adventure on horse. The real way to see Kyrgyzstan is by the saddle of a horse. There are several tourist agencies that can make it happen for you, as the Kyrgyz are famous horsemen dating back to the days of Ghengis Khan. It is said that all Kyrgyz are born on a horse, although with growing urbanization that seems to be less common.
Learn how to make a shyrdak (felt carpet), easily the country's best souvenir.
Motorbike tours in the mountains, on 1- to 14-day tour or long term rentals of Yamaha XT 600 E. Kyrgyzstan is popular with long distance bike treks, particularly around Issyk Kul and passes through the southern mountains to Tajikistan.
Waterfalls: With its layout, impressive setting and part-timbered older mud-brick architecture, the village's atmosphere at the signature waterfalls in Arslanbob is worth sampling. Just beyond the top of the smaller, more accessible Twin Waterfall, a footpath leaves behind a melee of souvenir stalls and crosses the stream to zigzag up for 15 minutes, cutting through a walnut grove, to emerge onto an upper bank with glorious views over the Babash-Ata peaks. The narrow 80 meter ribbon of the Long Waterfall can be made out in the distance.
Petroglyphs: Directly north of the former airport runway is an extensive field of glacial boulders, many with pictures scratched or picked into their surfaces. The Saka priests used this sacred site for sacrifices and other rites to the Sun god and they lived in the settlements that are currently underwater in the Cholpon-Ata bay.
Some of these petroglyphs date from the late Bronze Age, but most are Saka-Usun (8th century BC to 1st century AD), while the later engravings date from the Turkic era. Most are of long-horned ibex. In the most striking petroglyph, which directly faces the ticket booth, several ibex are being hunted with tame snow leopards. Late afternoon is a good time to view the stones, most of which face west or south.
Seven Bulls: South West Karakol is one of Kyrgyzstan's most photographed natural features, a lush valley of Jeti Oghuz – an abrupt serrated ridge of ferric-red sandstone cliffs that are vertically diced into a series of rounded bluffs – called the ‘Seven Bulls’ from which the valley takes its name. Approaching the valley, another rock formation which resembles a ‘broken heart’ can be seen. In the valley is the Djety Orguz State Zoological reserve. Nearby is the village of Jele Debe - where eagle hunting demonstrations are organized.
Slopes of Kyrgyzstan
When in search of some adrenaline-filled activity in Central Asia, make a somewhat brave attempt at skiing in Kyrgyzstan.
At Karakol Ski Base in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic with beautiful mountainous scenery bordering China, the country’s main attraction is Lake Issyk Kul, a glittering expanse of water that is the world’s second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, surrounded by majestic alpine scenery.
During the USSR, the lake was a popular holiday resort and saw the construction of sanatoriums and country houses along its shores. On the lake’s eastern tip lies Karakol, a pleasant little town with pastel colored wooden buildings. A twenty-minute drive from here is the Karakol Ski Camp, built during the Soviet era as a training area for the country’s Olympic team.
In this part of the world, awe-inspiring peaks reach heights of over 7000 meters, nearly twice the size of Mont Blanc. The Alps seem relatively insignificant by comparison.
Tour idea: Nomad life
Stay a day or two in capital city Bishkek for a taste of modern Kyrgyzstan: open-air bazaars near American-style cafes, and young couples strolling together under statues of Lenin and local folk hero Manas.
Then, head for the mountains to get back to Kyrgyzstan’s roots. This is the land of nomads, where yurt tents dot all but the remotest of valleys and the size of one's herd is still a legitimate way to judge a person's wealth.
Spend your days on foot or horseback crossing jailoo (summer pasture) mountain valleys that double as grazing ground, and by night tuck into a big pot of boiled horse cooked by your hosts at a yurt home-stay. These can be organized by one of many community-based tourism offices throughout the country – the most popular base is Karakol on the east edge of the Issyk-Köl Lake. Independent travelers with a tent and a map can also strike out on their own to explore the variety of trekking routes around Kyrgyzstan.
For a little extra time on hand, grab a few days' relaxation in one of the Soviet-era resorts on the south shore of Issyk-Köl or party with vacationing Russians and Kazakhs on the north shore.
Getting under the skin
Read the Kyrgyz novel Jamilla by Chingiz Aitmatov, Central Asia's best known novelist.
Listen to Music of Central Asia Vol 1: Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan, (Smithsonian Folkways), a playlist of Kyrgyz music from traditional ensemble Tengir-Too.
Watch Aktan Abdykalykov's Besh Kempir (Five Old Women)
Eat beshbarmak ('five fingers'), a traditional dish of flat noodles and mutton, cooked in broth and eaten by hand
Drink kumys (mare's fermented milk), sold along country roads in spring and summer
In a word
Ishter kanday (How are you?)
Horses; eagle hunters; Tian Shan Mountains; yurts; political demonstrations; community-based tourism; Soviet-era apartment blocks
The Kyrgyz oral epic, Manas, is the world's longest poem, 20 times longer than the Odyssey, and has been dubbed the 'Iliad of the steppe'.
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