Kyrgyzstan: a big guide to interesting places
In 2021 it is high time to explore former Soviet republics: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They are open for Russians, flights are available, and it is possible to “catch” bargain air tickets. Additional bonuses – almost everyone understands Russian, and prices are relatively low. From May to October lasts the season, in June, you can already swim in Lake Issyk-Kul.
We’re telling you what not to miss in Kyrgyzstan, 90% of which is occupied by mountains.
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You need to bring a negative PCR test no older than 72 hours in Kyrgyz, Russian or English. There is no quarantine. For Russians enter with their internal or foreign passports, without a visa.
Don’t miss it: since May 1, the PCR test will have to be taken twice upon return to Russia, as required by Rospotrebnadzor. The first test must be taken and uploaded to State Services within 72 hours of return to Russia, the second – within 5 days from the date of entry. The interval must be no less than 24 hours.
What to bring on a trip
- Cash in the local currency – Kyrgyz Som. For 1₽ they give about 1.13 soms (exchange rate at the end of April 2021).
- The Powerbank is an indispensable thing on a trip.
- A sanitizer and a mask are indispensable nowadays.
- Comfortable shoes: you will have to walk a lot.
- A bright blanket, sweater, raincoat, swimsuit or dress to match the weather – for memorable photos.
- Thermos – to drink tea with a view in the mountains or on the bank of Issyk-Kul Lake.
- Warm and windproof clothes – because Kyrgyzstan is 90% mountainous, it may be chilly.
And our handy checklists for packing for any trip – download here.
How to get there
Fly to one of the main centers: the official capital, Bishkek, or Osh, the southern capital. Consider flying to Osh (in May there are tickets from Moscow for 6,089 ₽), and then to Bishkek – by domestic airlines or by shuttle bus through the pass on the highways (from 1000 to 1500 soms).
If your goal is Issyk-Kul, you’d better fly to Tamchi (Issyk-Kul airport). On the spot it is convenient to travel by rented car. But keep in mind: there are no international rental agencies in Kyrgyzstan, only local ones.
What to see for inspiration before the trip
- The film-drama Suleiman Mountain (2017). Russia to Kyrgyzstan.
- “Kyrgyzstan. Born to Nomad.” Man of Peace. My Planet.
- “Heads and Tails. Back to the USSR. #15 Bishkek.
Bishkek: what to see and what to do
- You have to visit Bishkek for one day. It is quite enough because there is so much to see outside the city!
- Buy gifts and souvenirs at bazaars – in Bishkek at the Central market, Osh bazaar, or in Central Department Store.
- Rest in “Dasmiya” ethno-complex, which is built according to all rules with observance of Kyrgyz folk customs from traditional materials: wood and felt. People come here to taste national dishes, drink koumiss, look at the yurts brought from different regions of the country, as well as to listen to national music.
- From Bishkek it is easy to get to the nearest mountains – Ala Archa National Park, located on the northern slope of the Kyrgyz ridge at an altitude of 1600-4860 m. There are trails for trekking here: a simple 1.5 km long and a more difficult one going to a waterfall (4 km). A favorite vacation spot of the local population with mountain rivers, mountains and gorges.
- In 80 km from Bishkek there is Burana Tower, the most ancient building in Central Asia. There is a sad legend connected with the tower, 21 m high, about a khan’s daughter, who was bitten by a black spider. Go up the narrow spiral staircase in the structure to the observation deck, which offers views of the mountains and the ancient settlement. Near the tower, find the stone sculptures – balbals. The cost of a visit is 65 soms.
- From the capital is convenient to drive to Konorchok Gorge, Kyrgyz Grand Canyon with red walls more than 100 meters high.
- There are thousands of mountain rivers and beautiful gorges in Kyrgyzstan, on which rafting is organized. The Chu River is the closest river to Bishkek, it is the most popular place for rafting. Other places: Chon-Kemin, Naryn and Kekemeren rivers. Prices start at $30.
Lake Issyk-Kul: what to see and do
Lake Issyk-Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world, which is not frozen in winter, with a depth of up to 700 m. The northern shore of the lake is more civilized with well-developed infrastructure, while the southern shore is wilder.
- In summer, enjoy the beaches and water in Cholpon Ata, the main resort town. You can swim in the lake usually from mid-June to late August.
- Make a dive with a professional instructor to the bottom of Issyk Kul, where you can find many sunken settlements ($30-50). In Przewalski Bay offer kayaking tours. And be sure to take a boat ride on the lake, they leave from both the south and north shores, cost from $7-10.
- Stay in a yurt on the shore at special campgrounds. Look for near the canyon “Fairy tale” near the towns of Bokonbaevo, Kadzhi-Sai, Tosor. Yurts are put up for tourists for the summer period. The price for 1 person – from 1500 soms, for 2 persons – from 3000 soms.
- To visit the cultural center “Rukh Ordo”. – This is ten open-air mini-museums, including the house-museum of Chingiz Aitmatov and five chapels, each of which symbolizes one of the world’s religions. The ticket price is 400 soms.
- Relax with children in the village of Bosteri: there is the country’s largest devil wheel of 76 meters high (ticket price 200 soms), a roller coaster (1 descent – 100 soms) and a small water park.
- It is better to get to the mountains, gorges and waterfalls from Karakol. There you shouldn’t miss the Sunday “mal-bazaar”, i.e. cattle market with cattle, horses, sheep, goats and donkeys – colorful and memorable. It’s like being transported by time machine to another era!
- If you like digging through old things, looking for gems, then the Slavic Bazaar in Karakol is open on Sunday. At the Big Bazaar, you’ll find whatever your soul desires: food, things, and spices. It is open every day.
- In summer you should go paragliding with a paraglider in 15 km from Karakol, not far from the village of Teplokuchenka (Ak-Suu). In Kirghizia the paragliding is completely developed. How else can it be done in the country, which is 90% mountainous? Besides Karakol, there are organized flights in Chon-Tash and the Suusamyr valley. Flight prices start from 2,000 soms.
- You can have a rest at Ak-Suu Kench thermal springs at 18 km from Karakol. A few pools work all year round in the open air, the entrance costs 200 soms.
- There are thermal springs with pools of different temperature – Keremet-Suu – located in Chon-Oruktu village, 70 kilometers from Karakol.
- Karakol serves dishes unique to this place. Go on a walking gastro tour of the bazaar spots, visiting local family and restaurant chefs, with tours starting at 600 soms. And Karakol (despite the Sunday cattle market) is also the best place in Kyrgyzstan for vegetarian travelers.
- If the goal is trekking in the mountains, the appropriate time is from May to October. From Karakol a popular excursion to the area of Zheti-Oguz (Seven Bulls) with red rocks and Kok-Zhaiyk (Valley of Flowers) with wildflowers and the “Maiden’s Tears” waterfall. In spring and summer you can admire alpine daisies and asters, silver stars of edelweiss and elecampane.
- Wander through Martian landscapes among stone dragons and castles in the canyon “Fairy Tale” with rocks of bizarre shades of red, pink, orange, yellow. To enter the national park you have to pay about 50 soms.
- To visit Kyrgyzstan and not to ride a horse is an unfortunate oversight. In the valley Zhyrgalan throughout the summer you can choose horseback riding tour. During the trek guides will show you many stunning alpine lakes, peaks and passes. There are also horse routes through the Grigorievsky, Semenovsky and Barskoonsky gorges. An hour-long walk starts at 500 soms.
- Another attraction from the category of “the most” is the salty mountain lake of Kyrgyzstan – Tuz-Kul or Tuz-Kul. You can find it on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul, 73 kilometers from Balykchy. You can easily find a tour there or drive yourself in a four-wheel drive car. Depending on the season, salinity can reach up to 236 g/l – like Israel’s Dead Sea. The multicolored silt mud – black, blue and green – cures various diseases. The lake is privately owned and the entrance is 100 soms.
- If you want to experience esoteric tourism, check out the places where the “cosmic energy” is concentrated. For example, near the village of Ornok in the open-air museum there are more than 2000 stone boulders with ancient petroglyphs. Or the Tamga Gorge with the “Tamga-Tash” stones on which the Buddhist inscriptions of the VIII-IX centuries are carved.
- Dreaming of visiting the high mountain pastures – jailoo – and seeing how the nomads live? June through September is a good time. Jailoo tours are organized in the Semenovskoye Gorge, Kilemche, Zhaman Echki, and on the Son-Kul Lake. Shepherds will feed you with mutton, give you a cup of koumiss and tell you about their life high in the mountains.
- Another unusual type of tourism is astronomical. During the tour one observes stars through the telescope and listens to the guides telling about celestial bodies and their connection to Kyrgyz names like Cholpon (Venus). It’s quite a comfortable experience – with chairs, plaids, and a cup of hot coffee.
- The nature of Kyrgyzstan is so unique, that even in summer (in June) heliski tours are available on Terskei-Alatoo and Sary-Jaz ranges, 70 km from Karakol. Untouched slopes, each new ride is not like the previous one, and the views of the Tien-Shan are breathtaking!
Osh: what to see and do
Osh is considered one of the largest and oldest cities in Central Asia.
- 680 km of beauty along the high-mountain road from Bishkek to Osh through the mountain passes by car or by shuttle bus. Would you dare? One of the branches of the Great Silk Road passed through Osh.
- There is a blooming oasis, the Arslanbob tract, on the Bishkek-Osh highway at an altitude of 1,600 meters. There is information that it is the largest walnut forest in the world (about 60,000 hectares). Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old and 30 meters high! According to a local legend, Alexander the Great took the walnuts from here to the Mediterranean, where they got their name.
- Climb the five-domed Suleiman-Too Mountain, which became the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009. Locals come here to meditate and pray, and the sick come here to be cured of their ailments: the mountain is considered sacred. It is a must to visit the caves, in the largest of which is Sulaiman-Too Historical and Ethnographic Museum with the entrance-portal that stands out against the background of the mountain. The entrance to the walking trail is 20 soms, and to the museum it is 50 soms.
- bargain in Jaima bazaar and buy treasures such as nuts, dried fruits, carpets, jewelry, and Kyrgyz clothes.
- Wander with a guide through the “mahalla” – the Uzbek urban quarters around the bazaar and Suleiman-mountain. In Osh Uzbeks have long been the most numerous nationality. Lovers of beautiful doors will appreciate the elaborate carvings at the entrances to the Uzbek homes.
- From Osh you can start hiking in the mountains of any level of complexity and duration. For the experienced climbers will be interesting to climb the seven thousand meter peaks: Pobeda Peak (7439m) – the highest peak in all Kyrgyzstan, Lenin Peak (7134m) – quite easy to climb – or Khan-Tengry (with the thickness of the glacier – 7010m).
- Make an excursion to the Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve with the lake of the same name, which is considered sacred. It’s considered the second deepest in Kyrgyzstan after Issyk-Kul, and by its beauty it is compared to the Swiss lakes. However, one can’t swim, sail a boat, fish or stay overnight there. The reserve is the highest mountain ranges and blooming valleys, weathered rocks and violent rivers, deciduous and coniferous forests, snowy peaks and blue lakes, tall grass meadows and steppes. Nearby is the village of Arkyt, where you can rent accommodation.
- In just 40 minutes from Osh you can get to Aravan, a village in the Fergana Valley. There are many petroglyphs, pictures of domestic animals on the rock of Aravan and caves. The deepest in the country is considered to be the Fersman Cave. Another interesting cave is Chil-Ustun with stalactites, whose name means “40 columns” in Tajik.
More ideas of what to do in Kyrgyzstan
- To the largest glacier of the Tien Shan – Inylchek at an altitude of 4,000 m – take groups. There is a mountaineering base “South Inylchek”. Do not miss your chance to see the disappearing Mertsbaher Lake. It is interesting for its icebergs, which reach the height of a three-story house, and the fact that twice a year the lake disappears and then reappears.
- Son-Kul Lake, or Sonkyol, is located in the Tien Shan Mountains at an altitude of 3,016 meters. It is the largest natural fresh water reservoir of Kyrgyzstan. Here you can admire the rare flowers, watch the representatives of more than 60 species of waterfowl, live in a yurt and get acquainted with the life of shepherds.
- Go fishing on mountain rivers of Kyrgyzstan. Near Naryn city at the height of 2500 m above sea level to catch rainbow trout. Another fish places are Ala-Archa reservoir, Kekemeren and Susamyr rivers.
- One of the highest roads in the country, accessible to any car, leads to Arabel Plateau. It takes you only an hour and a half from Issyk-Kul to get to the kingdom of snow, glaciers and wind. A serpentine with 14 loops leads to the plateau! Nearby, gold is mined at one of the world’s largest deposits, Kumtor, and driving there is prohibited.
- Become a spectator of the rugged equestrian game of nomads – kok-boru (literally – “gray wolf”). The entertainment is still not very euphonious called “kozadran”. The aim of the game is to grab the carcass of a dead goat (its weight is about 32-35 kg) and throw it into a kind of gates of the opponent. The team that does it the maximum number of times during the game wins. Hundreds of riders come to the games, and among the prizes are horses, cars and cash.
- Hear the akyns, Kyrgyz storytellers of the epic – their songs are included in the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Akyns’ performances are accompanied by komuz or kyl-kiyak, the national stringed instruments.
- To experience the magical effects of koumiss cure. Koumiss helps to recover from traumas and operations, it is also drunk to improve health. The course of treatment costs $20-150.
- To live in a yurt, but also to bathe in a bathhouse – from 500 soms.
- Spend half a day in a teahouse, under the canopy of branches, by a mountain stream, not hurrying anywhere and enjoying the local dishes.
- Stroll through endless orchards. There is a lot to see and taste in Kyrgyzstan: apples, sweet cherries, apricots, figs and plums.
What to Try
May is the time of fruit season in Kyrgyzstan: first comes ripe strawberries, in June – sweet cherries and apricots, in July and August – the fruit expanses.
- Beshbarmak: minced meat with noodles, onions and strong meat broth.
- What can one do without plov, lagman and samsa?
- Beef shorpo soup and ermen shorpo of young goat meat. In spring and summer there is a chance to try green shorpo with lots of greens: sorrel, parsley, coriander.
- If dairy soups don’t remind you of your childhood in the USSR, try shurugan – a light milk soup sprinkled with green onions and crumbled tortillas.
- Tash kordo is the dish of warriors and nomads. The carcass of a lamb or lamb is marinated and cooked in a fire in a dug hole.
- The Uyghur dish Ashlan-fu is noodles with pieces of starch.
- Hoshans are dough-like dishes with minced minced meat.
- Sweets made of nuts, fruits, berries, and honey, such as jansak and balmanaz. And then there’s navat, halva, and parvarda!
- A local bal drink with the addition of ginger root, cinnamon, cloves and pepper, as well as tea, which is brewed here with salt.
- Dairy and dairy products: ayran, koumiss, cheese kurt.
What to bring from the trip
- A felt rug with a national pattern.
- A miniature replica of a yurt.
- Leather crafts: Shoes or a bag or a purse.
- Local jewelry. Pay attention to turquoise and opal jewelry.
- Wooden souvenirs decorated with carvings.
- Nuts, dried fruits, sweets and meat delicacies.
- Cognac “Bishkek” or “Kyrgyzstan”.
- Therapeutic balsam “Arshan”.
For gifts go in Bishkek to the central market, Osh bazaar or TSUM, in Karakol to the Big Bazaar.