Kyrgyzstan (Кыргызстан) is a nation defined by its natural beauty. Joyously unspoilt mountainscapes, stark craggy ridges and rolling jailoos (summer pastures) are brought to life by semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherds. Add to this a well-developed network of homestays and visa-free travel, and it's easy to see why Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic), is the gateway of choice for many travelers in Central Asia.
As can be expected in a country where the vast majority of attractions are rural and high altitude, the timing of your visit is crucial. 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 – think twice about a winter visit unless you've come to ski or snowboard.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kyrgyzstan.
The two-day trek to stunning Ala-Köl is for many visitors a highlight of the entire Kyrgyzstan experience. Though less than 1.5 km², the range of massive peaks that backs the long curve of the the lake makes the view from the pass down to Altyn Arashan one of the finest and most accessible anywhere in the north of the country. The standard two-day route runs up the Karakol Valley to the Sirota hut campsite, though this can get crowded with tour groups in summer. Continuing up to the lake the next day, follow the rocky trail around the north side of the Ala-Köl as it climbs to an obvious pass and descends steeply towards Altyn-Arashan, making sure to cross the river before reaching the forested lower section of the valley. Upon reaching the Arashan river, head north around 3km to the springs or continue another few hours to the trailhead near Ak-Suu village for a return to Karakol.
This workshop became famous after one of its products won the 'most beautiful yurt' competition at the 1997 'Manas 1000' festival and had its work exhibited six times in the US at several museums and cultural centres across the country. However, it was almost bankrupted when a luxurious US$50,000 yurt ordered for President Bakiev was never paid for given the president's sudden ousting in the 2010 revolution. If you speak Russian, it's fascinating to hear more of these stories. If there are orders on ongoing, watch the workshop's machines for felt-cutting and wood-bending. Coming from Karakol, take the first Barskoön turn and the workshop (just before a turn signed 'Tegirmen') is 1km up the main road on the right. Ask for Mekenbek Osmonaliev. One-hour tours of the operation are available, but they also offer carpet-making and yurt-construction classes for visitors who want a hands-on experience.
Built into the hometown studio of Kyrgyzstan's national artist, Yuristanbek Shygaev, this delightful space is one of the most engaging museums in the whole of the country. Beyond works by the eponymous (and prolific) founder himself, look for mixed-media art from across Central Asia and Russia. It's located on the main drag of Kadji-Sai village around 3km off the highway. If the gate is locked, call the caretaker.
Collections of Kyrgyz embroidery and felt rugs, a splendid variety of paintings, and rotating exhibitions of local and international touring works all make a visit here worthwhile. Last entrance 5.30pm.
Osh Bazaar is one of Central Asia’s biggest markets dealing in everything from traditional hats and knives to seasonal fruit to horseshoes forged at the smithies in the bazaar. Many stalls are crafted from old container boxes and banal warehouse architecture, but there's a fascinating bustle nonetheless, stretching for about 1km astride the river. Most dynamic on Sunday mornings; partly closed on Monday. The eastern entrance section is the point most minibuses mean when stating simply 'bazaar' on their signs.
Hike the hour or two up from the village of Jolgolot (a suburb of Karakol) to take in stunning views of the city and Issyk-Köl to the north and the Karakol Valley to the south. Return the same way, or loop through the lush Ak-Suu Arboretum to catch a marshrutka back from Ak-Suu village.
This five-peaked rocky crag seems to loom above the city wherever you go. It has been a Muslim place of pilgrimage for centuries, supposedly because the Prophet Mohammed once prayed here. Its slopes are indented with many a cave and crevice each reputed to have different curative or spiritual properties; many are detailed on photo-boards in the Cave Museum. One such is fertility mini-cave Ene-Beshik, its rocks worn smooth by young women slithering in to aid their motherly aspirations. You'll see it right beside the path to the Cave Museum as you descend westward from Suleiman Too's main viewpoint. On that crag lies the one-room Dom Babura. Allow around 20 minutes' sweaty climb on the hairpin stairway to Dom Babura from Suleiman Too's main entrance, which is beside the strange silver-domed building that looks like an alien fairy cake, but actually formerly contained a photography salon popular with newly-weds.
Surveyed by a triumphant statue of Айкол Манас (Mighty Manas), Bishkek's nominal centre is architecturally neobrutalist in style but has a photogenic quality – especially when slowly goose-stepping soldiers change the guard beside the soaring national flagpole. In summer, the concrete of the square's northern half is relieved by attractive floral displays and fountains that double as swimming pools for local children.
Bishkek's most central bazaar has a certain compulsive interest and is an important city landmark. For traditional Kyrgyz clothes, including white imitation-felt ak kalpak hats (80som) and colourful shepherds' chests, find the stalls outside the south tip of the bazaar's Khial building. Mondays are quiet, but on any other day it bustles.
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Just back from: Kyrgyzstan