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.
Remote even by Kyrgyzstan standards, magnificent Köl-Suu lake stretches over 10km through a sheer mountain gorge that reaches nearly to the Chinese border. It's hard to grasp the true scale until locally run boat trips (from $200 per person) strike out for the centre of the lake, where they seemed dwarfed by rock walls on every side. At 3500m the weather here can change rapidly so be sure to pack warm and carry extra provisions.
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.
Though the full Unesco Biosphere Reserve includes seven mountain lakes and numerous rare flora and fauna, the star attraction for most visitors is the massive Sary-Chelek lake itself. Over 2km at its widest and over 7.5km long, the lush shoreline vegetation and dramatic crags facing the lake's accessible south shore make it a favourite local travel destination and it isn't hard to understand why.
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.
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.
Winding 10km up a dirt road off the Kazarman–Chaek highway, brilliant Ak-Köl lake reflecting the surrounding peaks and the village beyond are a real delight. Originally established as a psychiatric ward (the runs of which can be seen on the far lake shore) and later converted to a lead mine (sealed after WWII), the small Russian-style log cabins here are still home to around 15 villagers who use the area as a base from which to graze livestock in the surrounding valleys.
This turquoise-hued glacial lake is one of the most beautiful in Chuy oblast, and the surrounding peaks and verdant pastures certainly don't do anything to dispel that notion. It's two to three hours of often-steep hiking beyond the Kegeti Tour Guesthouse, depending on your fitness level, but the return trip should only take about half that. In summer, stop on the way to sample fresh kymys in one of the yurt-camps that set up along the way.
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.
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.
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Just back from: Kyrgyzstan