With a remarkable five-headed crag leaping out of the very town centre, Kyrgyzstan's second city certainly has a highly distinctive visual focus. While there's little of architectural merit to show for 3000 years of history, Osh's sprawling bazaar and hospitable citizens provide an atmosphere that is far more archetypically Central Asian than you will find in Bishkek.
A dusty grid of treelined streets, Karakol has limited sights but is a good base from which to access some of Central Asia's best skiing and most gloriously accessible Alpine treks. The town couldn't really be called beautiful, but does offer clear-day backdrops of snowy peaks contrasted against the old blue shutters and whitewashed walls of some remnant gingerbread houses.
The mountainous heart of Kyrgyzstan offers travellers unrivalled opportunities to explore jailoos on foot, horseback or by 4WD. At every turn you will find a family offering to put you up for the night or a group of herdsmen who will eagerly invite you into their yurt for a cup of tea and a bowl of fresh kymys.
Four competing community-tourism outfits make Kochkor (Kochkorka in Russian) an eminently practical base from which to visit Song-Köl and other Kyrgyz jailoos nearby. Do be aware that such activities are generally only practicable between June and August. The town is not an attraction in its own right, despite a distant backdrop of mountain peaks.
Bishkek to Osh
Visitors linking Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan's second-city, Osh, must choose between a full day's drive crossing two 3000m-plus passes, or a 40-minute flight. Both options have some memorable views when weather obliges. Given the cut-throat competition, flying sometimes costs little more than taking a cramped share taxi.
Well over a hundred hotel complexes are dotted along the northern coast of Issyk-Köl, but that doesn't mean the whole area is one long resort. Indeed, hotels are well spread out, most are rather discrete and visitors are often surprised by the extent to which many of the agricultural villages in between seem to have changed little in recent decades.
In mid-summer, Cholpon-Ata awakens from its long off-season slumber to become the epicentre of an improbable north Issyk-Köl beach scene: by day there's tanning bods, zipping jet skis and ice-cream licking tots; by night it's open-air cafes, thumping discos and young lovers breaking social mores.
The Babash-Ata Mountains form an impressive wall of snow-sprinkled crags behind the elevated 'oasis' of Arslanbob. Ethnically Uzbek and religiously conservative, the very large village sprawls almost invisibly along a network of tree-shaded lanes, and is surrounded by a vast tract of blossoming woodland that constitutes the world's largest walnut grove.
There's much dispute as to whether the northern or southern route around Issyk-Köl is the more scenic. Traditionally Western visitors have tended to err in favour of the less busy southern road, especially in summer when it is spared the heaviest tourist traffic en route to the Cholpan-Ata resorts.