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Our ultimate guide to Kyrgyzstan

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Ancient and wild, the monumental landscapes of Kyrgyzstan have remained largely untouched by the modern world. Amidst vast steppe, stupendous mountain ranges and glassy Alpine lakes live a scattering of Kyrgyz nomads. Today, they go about their lives much as they have done for centuries, tending to herds of sheep, yak and horses, moving camp with the seasons and dreaming their nights away under star-filled skies, far from city lights. Offering so much to travellers, our ultimate guide to Kyrgyzstan aims to help when planning your next adventure!

An introduction to Kyrgyzstan

Bordered by China, along with another three Stans (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan), Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. This recent history is apparent in the architecture of its (few) cities, a sizeable population of Russian descent, and a penchant for fortifying shots of vodka.

Stepping back a thousand years or so, Kyrgyzstan was part of the Silk Road route between Europe and Asia. Caravans and traders crossed its mountains and steppe, carrying spices and silks between continents. Those looking for the dazzling architectural treasures of the classic Silk Road cities should head to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan’s riches lie in its glorious landscapes and centuries-old nomadic culture. You’ll find these treasures whilst riding across the steppe alongside traditional horse herders, hiking through the Tian Shan ranges, or sitting around a yurt campfire wrapped in the warmth of Kyrgyz hospitality.

For a snippet of Kyrgyzstan urban life, the capital, Bishkek, and the southern city of Osh are fun and engaging, and warrant a few days’ stay. But for most of those who travel to Kyrgyzstan, it is the mountains and the boundless landscapes that hold the strongest pull.

Kyrgyzstan Yurt camp

Deep-dive into nomadic traditions

Traditional life in Kyrgyzstan revolves around its horses, quite literally. Families move with the seasons from summer to winter pastures, as dictated by the needs of the herd. Horses are many things to the Kyrgyz people. Practically-speaking, they are a means of transport and exchange. But they are also deeply ingrained in their traditions and customs. With them comes the structure of life, and the Kyrgyzstan people have a natural affinity with these animals. From an early age, every Kyrgyz child will learn to ride, and horsemanship skills are practiced in games and rituals. The most famous of these is Kok Boru, a competitive game where two teams embark on a fierce battle over a goat carcass. Bravery and horsemanship are prized, and each game is a wild, exhilarating and somewhat dangerous spectacle. We advise you to stand well back. 

Another dramatic sight harking back to ancient times is seeing the nomadic eagle hunters in action. Few still practice this art, but a passionate minority have kept the tradition alive. Passed down through the generations, the skill of training an eagle brings a deep connection and pride in nomadic heritage. 

Kyrgyzstan yurts and horses

Kyrgyzstan’s most scenic natural landmarks to visit

The epic Tian Shan Mountains, meaning Celestial Mountains, offer incredible high-peak hiking, as well as plenty of gentler trails at lower altitudes. Amongst dramatic sandstone canyons and soaring mountains, visitors can swim in vast alpine lakes and sleep under the stars in community-run yurt camps. The remote north, close to the Chinese border, is the ultimate hiking terrain for the adventurous – sparse, bare and devastatingly beautiful. It is equally spectacular traversed on horseback. 

A little closer to civilisation, the Ala Archa National Park is a glorious realm of carved glacial valleys, tumbling rivers and steep hill trails. Don’t miss Kyrgyzstan’s largest lake, the beautiful Issyk-Kul, stretching just over 180km long and 70km wide. Known as the Pearl of the Tian Shan, its deep blue waters are fringed by beaches and forest with vistas of distant snow-topped mountains rearing up behind.

The Jety-Oguz Canyon, meaning Seven Bulls, is a set of hulking rust-red cliffs rising from fragrant wildflower meadows and pine-forested hills. This landscape is gentler than the stark Tian Shan, and enchanting for summer strolls and camping.

Kyrgyzstan Ala Kul Lake, travel guide

Local cuisine and experiences

The traditional diet in Kyrgyzstan is hearty, meaty, and carb-heavy. This is classic mountain food, ideal sustenance for high-altitude hiking and long days spent outdoors in the fresh mountain air. Meat does feature quite highly, which can make it tricky for vegetarians and vegans, especially when exploring away from the towns and cities. The national dish is beshbarmak, meaning ‘five fingers’. This traditional satisfying stew of meat, onions and thick noodles is often eaten with the hands (hence the name) and mopped up with hunks of non bread, a round, flat loaf with a glossy patterned crust. For snacks, look out for samsa, a fried stuffed bread filled with different meats or cheese.

The most memorable meals you have in Kyrgyzstan will likely be those you share with a local nomad family, sitting around the fire or in the open air. Building up an appetite from hiking, biking or riding in the fresh mountain air makes any meal all the more delicious. If you’re a foodie, taste your way through the country with a culinary trip!

Kyrgyzstan oriental spice market, travel guide

Must-visit cities: Bishkek and beyond

Those who travel to Kyrgyzstan will usually arrive and depart from the capital city of Bishkek. You might be itching to get into the mountains, but schedule a few days at the start or end of your trip to explore this unique city and meet its people. The best way to take it all in is on foot, walking its tree-lined avenues and spending time in wide, Soviet-era squares decorated with fountains, flowers, and impressive Brutalist architecture. Behind it all loom the Ala-Too mountains, offering a tantalising glimpse of the majesty of the Kyrgyzstan landscape.

For culture, art and history, head to the excellent State History Museum and the National Museum of Fine Arts. The Osh Bazaar, Bishkek’s central market, is a city landmark brimming with stalls and the bustle of life. Here you can buy scoops of dried apricots, nuts and spices, freshly-baked breads, honey, meat, cheap clothes and authentic handicrafts. Atmospheric and downright noisy, it’s a great place to experience local life. Bishkek has by far the most culinary diversity in Kyrgyzstan, so make the most of the choice and dine in some of the city’s international restaurants. Korean food is popular, as well as Asian fusion.

Beyond Bishkek, the southern city of Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s oldest and has some notable museums, along with a sacred mountain decorated with mausoleums and mosques. Karakol, on the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul, is an interesting mountain town with a colourful Sunday morning animal and car market, and the option for year-round skiing. 

Kyrgyzstan Bishkek capital city and mountains

Practical tips to start planning your trip to Kyrgyzstan

Before you plan your trip, it’s good to know the essentials such as weather conditions, the best time to visit, and the country’s currency. Kyrgyzstan is all about the outdoors, so it’s best to visit when the weather is kind. Summer is the ideal time, when bright sunshine lights up the landscape, flower meadows bloom, and glinting lakes invite you for refreshing dips. It is also the busiest time, with the lakes in particular drawing Kyrgyz holidaymakers from the cities.  

The late spring and early autumn months are also good times to visit. The countryside is quieter than in summer, and you’ll be able to enjoy either the freshness of the land emerging from winter or the golden tones of autumn. Come winter, the temperature plummets, and although Kyrgyzstan is beautiful under snow, winter is harsh and best avoided for most visitors. 

Kyrgyzstan is a hassle-free country to travel to, with very little bureaucracy to contend with. There is visa-free travel to Kyrgyzstan from the USA, the UK and most of Europe for up to 60 days, making it somewhat of a breeze for a Central Asian country. The currency in Kyrgyzstan is the som, divided into 100 tyiyn. It’s a largely cash-based society with few cashpoints outside of the capital. The easiest currency to exchange is US dollars in clean and undamaged higher-value notes.

Kyrgyzstan Tash Rabat Caravanserai

Make it happen

Are you feeling the call of the Kyrgyzstan? If our ultimate guide has inspired you, chat with our local experts on the ground and start planning your odyssey today.

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