If you have a head for heights, the mountain kingdom of Kyrgyzstan is calling your name.
Kyrgyzstan is a masterclass in natural beauty. Known as ‘The Alps of Central Asia,’ this craggy little country more than lives up to its moniker. Blessed with an abundance of mountains, pine forests, lakes, rivers and impressive glaciers, there’s no shortage of eye-popping scenery. Outdoor action is the major draw: hikes or horse treks among untouched alpine meadows and peaks to isolated yurt settlements or sparkling lakes are the undisputed highlight of any trip. Kyrgyzstan is a proud trailblazer at turning tourism into a force for good at a local level, with thriving homestays and community tourism projects scattered throughout the nation.
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Top four things to do in Kyrgyzstan
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this mountainous nation. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top four things to do in Kyrgyzstan.
For a truly authentic taste of life in Kyrgyzstan, be sure to spend at least one night in a nomadic settlement camping out under the stars in a yurt. You’ll get right to the heart of what makes this country tick. Imagine spending a day riding the native horses through the mountains before settling down in a valley, filling up in front of a campfire on local dishes and homemade bread then snuggling down to sleep in a traditional yurt. No unnatural light will disturb your star-gazing and all you'll hear is livestock and the wind in the grass.
Ninety percent of Kyrgyzstan lies above 1,500 metres: heaven for explorers, trekkers and peak-baggers. Seek out the serene valleys around Karakol, or pit your wits against the 7,000 metre peak of Khan Tengri. There are endless opportunities to wear in your hiking boots no matter your level of experience. Our trusted local experts can plan the perfect tailor-made trekking trip whatever your ability, and knowledgeable guides will bring the environment to life.
Issyk Kul is the second-largest alpine lake and second-largest salt lake in the world at over 113 miles long and 37 miles wide. Boasting a beautiful snowcapped backdrop, glistening water and pretty beaches, it’s a slice of Kyrgyz paradise. The first three World Nomad Games were held on its shores, hosting several Central Asian countries for days of horse racing, hunting with eagles and numerous other weird and wonderful pursuits, keeping alive the ancient traditions of the nomadic people.
The Tien Shan Mountains
The peaks of the Tien Shan form one of the world’s largest continuous mountain ranges. They extend around 2,500 kilometres roughly east-west across Central Asia and are shared by China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. Their name in Chinese translates at the Celestial Mountains and many active glaciers exist at altitude. The Tien Shan’s highest peaks top 6,500m (20,000 feet).
Lesser-known things to do in Kyrgyzstan
While there are many well-known things to do in Kyrgyzstan, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative adventure.
Carnival time in Kyrgyzstan
There are festivals and events galore in Kyrgyzstan with all age groups and interests catered for. Everything from tulip and poppy blossom celebrations to skiing, national horse games and community-based events can be found. The Salburun Festival is a competitive display of traditional hunting prowess (with proceedings toned down of late) and Salburun as an activity remains an official discipline in the World Nomad Games. Independence Day celebrations engulf the country on 31 August annually, a great time to be in town.
Dungan’s Lego-like Mosque
The bright blue, red and yellow Dungan mosque is a true feat of nail-free engineering. The Dungan builders of this cheery building – a group of Chinese Muslims fleeing persecution in the 1800s – injected a bit of their homeland’s architectural tradition into the Karakol community at the time. Twenty Chinese master carvers worked on the design; the result features ingenious structural and carved components and took six years to build. The building escaped the Soviet purges and is now protected under Kyrgyz law.
Unique Propaganda at the Museum
Head to Kyrgyzstan’s National Museum for insight into the country’s archaeological and ethnological past, some exhibits languishing in dusty cabinets. Westerners in Bishkek often find more fascination with the Lenin-infused Soviet memorabilia in the Museum’s shrine-esque room devoted to the Kyrgyz Soviet Revolution. The style of the just pre-Soviet collapse murals captures a short-lived moment and the transition from typical Soviet propaganda to more modern art.
When is the best time to go to Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan’s altitude makes it very much a seasonal destination, and many visitors prefer to make the most of the milder months between May and October. Those keen on trekking should consider early July to mid September as the best season to explore on foot, whereas skiers should pack their bags in time for the best snow in January and February.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing Kyrgyzstan. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
A culturally open society
Kyrgyzstan is a relatively open and relaxed society. Though a predominantly Muslim country you only need to cover up and dress more modestly if entering a Mosque or Church. Shaking hands, hugging and kissing are normal greetings between friends and family members. It’s polite to take shoes off before entering someone’s home, as is accepting and tasting any bread, sweets or delicious edible treats that are offered. To refuse would be considered rude. Thanking your hosts profusely will leave a lasting positive impression.
Open-air petroglyph museum
Tack on a visit to the ‘Stone Garden’ at Cholpon-Ata if visiting the northern end of Lake Issyk-Kul. The local museum has a rather unusual add-on: 42 hectares of land that form a vast open-air museum with over 2000 examples of petroglyphs (rock art). The artefacts range from 30cm to 3m in size and date back millennia, depicting scenes of war, victory, hunting and everyday life. There are also stone circles and tombs leading researchers to believe the boulder-strewn surrounds used to be sacred grounds for various religious and star worshippers.
Learn the ways of the Nomad
While a ‘home stay’ experience with a nomad sounds like a contradiction in terms, it’s possible and they are immensely fun and educative. Soviet collectivisation led to the founding of many permanent settlements which caused many Kyrgyz to put down roots. Following independence from the Soviets in 1991, nomadic life blossomed again. Many nomads now live off the land once more where they herd, breed, ride and eat horses. While visiting a family, typical shared meals are dumplings stuffed with meat, onions and fat or Beshbarmack; finely chopped meat with boiled noodles and a spicy onion sauce.
Interesting facts about Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- The favoured number in Kyrgyzstan is 40. Even the word Kyrgyz is thought to come from the Turkic word for 40, a reference to the number of the great clans of national hero, Manas.
- The Kyrgyz flag features a 40-ray sun.
- Temperatures can top 40C in summer. In the mountains, winter temperatures can drop to minus 30C.
- If proper nouns were allowed in Scrabble, Kyrgyzstan would score 30 points.
- The Kyrgyz love long poems. The longest known version of one of them, the Epic of Manas, has an incredible 500,000 lines. Popularly believed to be over 1,000 years old, experts believe it’s actually from the 18th Century.
- Kyrgyzstan is a majority Muslim country and its national languages are Kyrgyz (a Turkic tongue) and Russian.
What to read before you go to Kyrgyzstan
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to Kyrgyzstan, we've gathered a couple of our favourite books to inspire you.
'Shadow of the Silk Road' by Colin Thubron
The Silk Road was one of the world’s greatest trading routes. In this epic overland adventure – one of Thubron’s most ambitious – the author covers seven thousand miles in eight months to explore China, Afghanistan, Iran, Kurdish Turkey and the mountains of Central Asia. Unearthing the histories of trading, travelling armies, ideologies and inventions, Thubron talks to myriad locals and gets them to open up to him, creating a travel classic in which The Silk Road and those along it come alive.
'Jamilia' by Chingiz Aitmatov
This first novel was originally released in Russian and is set in a WWII Kyrgyz village. Told through the eyes of a young boy, it tells the gradual falling-in-love story between his older sister, Jamilia, and sullen new arrival Daniyar with whom she falls in love. This short, powerful book is sparingly told yet leaves an indelible impression of rural Kyrgyz life with a nation at war.
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