North–South Highway Driving Tour

Visitors linking Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan's second city, Osh, must choose between a full day's drive on the M41 highway 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 shared taxi. But the Bishkek–Osh drive is worth considering (at least in one direction) for the sequence of landscape superlatives between Kara-Balta and Toktogul. Townscapes en route offer far less appeal than the scenery, though Uzgen (Özgön) near Osh is worth a quick stop and several other towns on the highway offer a relaxing place to break up the journey. Lengthy en-route detours could take you to regional beauty spots at Talas, Suusamyr and Kyzyl-Oi, Arslanbob, and remote Lake Sary-Chelek.

South of Kara-Balta the road heads straight towards the wall of the craggy Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range, weaving through a crumbling canyon towards the 3586m Töo-Ashuu Pass (toll payable). Before the top, there's a 2.6km-long tunnel through the mountain's upper reaches. This was the scene of a fatal 2001 carbon-monoxide poisoning disaster and cyclists might do better to flag down a truck and drive through.

Beyond the tunnel's southern end is the gravel road to Chaek via Suusamyr and Kyzyl-Oi – a charming rural, but little-trafficked, back-route to Son-Köl and Kochkor. Kyzyl-Oi especially is worth a few days' detour for hiking in the red hills that surround the little village, but access is difficult on public transport. The main Osh road continues across the yawning Suusamyr Basin, a classic example of Kyrgyz herding country, with plenty of summer roadside yurts offering fresh kymys.

After another 1¼ hours' very attractive rural drive, a large red horseback Manas Statue marks the side road to Taraz (Kazakhstan) leading over the bald, bleak Otmek Pass (3330m) and passing through Talas oblast (pop 219,615) – fabled as the legendary last resting place of Kyrgyzstan's epic hero Manas but also home to petroglyphs, mountain lakes, and national reserves that make excellent stopping points on an alternate route into Kazakhstan.

Half an hour's drive beyond the Taraz turning, the main Osh road climbs the long, broad Ala-Bel Pass (3184m) then descends into a beautiful valley that's part of the Chychkan state zoological reserve.

Vehicles take over an hour to loop around the vast Toktogul Reservoir, named for well-known akyn (Kyrgyz bard) Toktogul Satylganov (1884–1933), who was born near what is now the laid-back Toktogul town (population 16,000). Kara-Köl (not Karakol), site of the reservoir's 210m-high dam (essentially invisible to passing traffic), marks a significant change of landscapes as the road navigates the gorge of the lower Naryn River, with its sheer walls and towering pillars of red sandstone.

Scenery becomes less magical on reaching the urban ribbon of coal-mining town Tashkömür. The only reason to stop here is if you're gambling on catching the 1pm bus to Kara-Jigach for lakes Sary-Chelek and arguably lovelier, less touristed Kyzyl-Kul/Kara-Suu. Both are quite beautiful, so plan a multiday trek between them – contact CBT Sary-Chelek in Kyzyl-Kul village for homestays, guides and tent hire. However, the access logistics can be disincentives for those on public transport.

In comparison, appealing Arslanbob is pretty simple to reach and very well set up for passing visitors. The turnoff is at Sovetskoye (km543/121), north of Bazar-Kurgan. The scenery from here to Osh intersperses patchworks of sunflower and maize fields with dry grassy hills. Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan's pleasantly green, unassuming third city generally isn't worth a special stop unless you're cutting across country to Kazarman on a rough, summer-only mountain road towards Naryn.

An hour further, into Osh oblast, interesting Uzgen has a historic minaret and a three-in-one 12th-century brick mausoleum complex that's worth a stop: it helps put the Silk Road history of 'southern capital' city Osh into some context. From here, it's another hour to the city of itself.