Kyrgyzstan is a nation defined by its natural beauty: joyously unspoilt mountainscapes, stark craggy ridges, and rolling summer pastures (jailoos) are brought to life by semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherd cultures. Add to this a well-developed network of home stays and visa-free travel, and it’s easy to see why Kyrgyzstan 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. So think twice about a winter visit unless you’ve come to ski.
Kyrgyzstan holds visa-free regime with wide list or countries, including 60 days free entrance for the Canada, United States, Great Britain, Australia and France nationals.
Top experiences in Kyrgyzstan
Distantly ringed by a saw toothed horizon of peaks, the wide open landscapes of Song-Köl create a giant stage for constant performances of symphonic cloudscapes. Almost 20km across, and fronted by lush summer pastures, the lake’s water color changes magically from tropical turquoise to brooding indigo in seconds as the sun flashes or the storms scud by in a vast meteorological theatre. It’s a sublime place to watch the sun come up or to gaze into a cold, crystal-clear night sky heavy with countless stars. At 3016m it’s too cold for permanent habitation but between June and September, herders’ yurts dot the shore side meadows every kilometer or so. Since many are part of the community tourism schemes, the area offers an unparalleled opportunity for yurt stay visits or multi-yurt hikes and horse treks which can generally be organized at very short notice (though things can get busy mid-August).
Unpaved tracks, often little more than tire-tracks in the turf, loop around the lake linking the main concentrations of summer yurts. Each grouping is typically known by the name of the valley/stream that runs through it.
Beware that weather is highly unpredictable. Snow can fall at any time so plan accordingly and be aware that July to mid-September is essentially the only season. While diminishing, the area does have a population of wolves so if camping independently you’d be wise to do so relatively near to established yurt camps.
The lake is huge so before heading out, consider which is the most appropriate area for your needs. For travelers arriving by car from Kochkor, the easiest drop-in yurt stays to access are CBT Naryn’s south-coast yurts or the 10 yurt stays at Batai-Aral. If trekking without a guide, the Kyzart–Tuz-Ashu route is the easiest one-day option while the Klemche–Jamanechki–Batai-Aral route makes a good two-day alternative. With a guide, starting from Kyzart or Jumgal then looping around via Tuz-Ashu and Uzbek-Ashu makes a fine two-night out-and-back option. Horses can be rented for any of the above hikes but aren’t strictly needed if you’ve left your main luggage in Kochkor or Naryn and are travelling light between yurt stays.
In this grand, accessible Y-shaped valley south of Bishkek, you can sit by a waterfall, hike to a glacier or mountaineer up the region’s highest peaks. Around 30km from Bishkek is the Vorota zapovednika (park gate) where entry fees for the Ala Archa state nature park are payable. Another 12km beyond, the sealed road ends at the main trailhead known as the alplager.
GeoID’s 1:50,000 topographic map Prirodnyy Park Ala-Archa covers the area should you wish to go off-trail. Alpine Fund has an online climbing guide.
The Major Cities
Bishkek, formerly Pishpek and Frunze, is the capital and largest city of the Kyrgyz Republic. Bishkek is also the administrative center of the Chuy Province. The province surrounds the city, although the city itself is not part of the province, but rather a province-level unit of Kyrgyzstan.
Bishkek is situated at an altitude of about 800 meters (2,600 ft), just off the northern fringe of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, an extension of the Tian Shan mountain range. These mountains rise to a height of 4,855 meters (15,928 ft) and provide a spectacular backdrop to the city. North of the city, a fertile and gently undulating steppe extends far north into neighboring Kazakhstan. The Chui River drains most of the area. Bishkek is connected to the Turkestan-Siberia Railway by a spur line.
Bishkek is a city of wide boulevards and marble-faced public buildings, surrounding interior courtyards. Mostly outside the city center, there are also thousands of smaller privately built houses. It is laid out on a grid pattern, with most streets flanked on both sides by narrow irrigation channels that water the innumerable trees that provide shade in the hot summers.
Bishkek has a dry summer continental climate. Average precipitation is around 440 millimetres (17 in) per year. Average daily high temperatures range from 3 °C (37.4 °F) in January to about 31 °C (87.8 °F) during July. The summer months are dominated by dry periods, punctuated by the occasional thunderstorm, which produces strong gusty winds and rare dust storms. The mountains to the south provide a natural boundary and protection from much of the damaging weather, as does the smaller mountain chain which runs north-west to south-east. In the winter months, sparse snow storms and frequent heavy fog are the dominating features. There are sometimes temperature inversions, during which the fog can last for days at a time.
Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, located in the Fergana Valley in the south of the country and often referred to as the “capital of the south”. It is the oldest city in the country (estimated to be more than 3000 years old), and has served as the administrative center of Osh Region since 1939. The city has an ethnically mixed population of about 255,800 in 2012, comprising Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Tajiks, and other smaller ethnic groups.
Osh is a lively place with the largest and most crowded outdoor market in Central Asia which was a major market along the Silk Road and is now named the Great Silk Road Bazar in reference to its historical importance. The proximity of the Uzbekistan border, which cuts through historically linked territories and settlements, deprives Osh of much of its former hinterland and presents a serious obstacle to trade and economic development. Daily flights from Osh Airport link Osh – and hence the southern part of Kyrgyzstan – to Bishkek and the north. Like most of Kyrgyzstan, Osh has no railway connections, although the recent upgrading of the long and arduous road through the mountains to Bishkek has greatly improved communications.
The city has several monuments, including one to the southern Kyrgyz “queen” Kurmanjan Datka and one of the few remaining statues of Lenin. A Russian Orthodox church, reopened after the demise of the Soviet Union, the largest mosque in the country (situated beside the bazaar) and the 16th-century Rabat Abdul Khan Mosque can be found here. The only World Heritage Site in Kyrgyzstan, the Sulayman Mountain, offers a splendid view of Osh and its environs. This mountain is thought by some researchers and historians to be the famous landmark of antiquity known as the “Stone Tower”, which Claudius Ptolemy wrote about in his famous work Geography (Ptolemy). It marked the midpoint on the ancient Silk Road, the overland trade route taken by caravans between Europe and Asia. The National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex Sulayman is carved in the mountain, containing a collection of archaeological, geological and historical finds and information about local flora and fauna.
Under the Köppen climate classification, Osh features a continental climate (Dsa), with hot, dry summers and cold winters. Osh receives on average roughly 400 millimeters of precipitation annually, the bulk of which typically falls on the city outside the summer months. Summers are hot in Osh, with average high temperatures routinely exceeding 30°C. Winters are cold with average temperatures below freezing during a good portion of the season. Spring and autumn are transitional seasons, with temperatures rising during the course of the spring season and falling during the course of the autumn.
Karakol formerly Przhevalsk, is the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan, near the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, about 150 kilometers (93 mi) from the Kyrgyzstan-China border and 380 kilometers (240 mi) from the capital Bishkek. It is the administrative capital of Issyk-Kul Province. To the north, on highway A363, is Tyup and to the southwest Jeti-Ögüz resort.
Karakol is one of Kyrgyzstan’s major tourist destinations, serving as a good starting point for the excellent hiking, trekking, skiing and mountaineering in the high central Tian Shan to the south and east.
Przhevalsky’s grave, a memorial park and a small museum dedicated to his and other Russian explorations in Central Asia are some 9 kilometers (5.6 mi) north of Karakol at Pristan Przhevalsky, overlooking the Mikhailovka inlet of Issyk Kul Lake where the former Soviet torpedo testing facilities were located. Facilities themselves are still a closed, military area.
Karakol is famous among skiers and snowboarders from former USSR for its ski resort. Situated just 20 minutes from the town, the Karakol Ski Base provides services significantly better than those available at Shymbulak, a resort outside Almaty, and has cheaper prices. Unlike Shymbulak resort, the riding at Karakol includes forest areas as well as cleared trails.
Kyrgyz culture is rich and varied and has much in common with the cultures of other horse-based nomadic cultures. Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures have been described as mixes of Mongol and Turkish culture. On top of this, Kyrgyz culture combines the strong nomadic traditions of northern Kyrgyzstan with the more settled and agricultural lifestyle and Islamic conservatism of southern Kyrgyzstan. Such co-existence is unique in Central Asia, where the other countries have either been traditionally nomadic (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) or settled (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) not so much combinations of both.
Due to their nomadic lifestyle and lack of a written language, the Kyrgyz have not left behind much written literature or visual arts. Their culture has mainly been handed from generation to generation orally in the form of epics and legends and artisanship expressed in everyday items. The Kyrgyz poem and epic— the “Manas” — is Kyrgyzstan’s most well-known and indicative form of cultural expression. It is a huge work — regarded by some of the world’s longest poem and longest work of literature — passed down through the generations by storytellers called manas’chy. It was not written down until the 19th century and even today many Kyrgyz prefer to listen to it told by talented storytellers rather than reading it. The deeds of the hero Manas is the main focus of the epic.
Kyrgyz women produce a wide range of textiles, mostly from the felt of their sheep. Ancient patterns are nowadays adapted to the tourist and export market, but it is still a living tradition, in that all yurts and most houses contain hand-made carpets or rugs called shirdaks. Tush kyiz are large, elaborately embroidered wall hangings, traditionally made in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan by elder women to commemorate the marriage of a son or daughter.
Colors and designs are chosen to symbolize Kyrgyz traditions and rural life. Flowers, plants, animals, stylized horns, national designs and emblems of Kyrgyz life are often found in these ornate and colorful embroideries. Designs are sometimes dated and signed by the artist upon completion of the work, which may take years to finish. The tush kyiz is hung in the yurt over the marriage bed of the couple, and symbolize their pride in their Kyrgyz tradition. Flat cushions called tushok are usually made in shadow-pairs. These are seen on every chair, padding the seat.
Applied and Decorative art
Felt is the most popular material for several products in Kyrgyzstan, including ornamental carpets and other elements of the yurts. Shirdak carpets have beautiful repetitive patterns taken from the natural environment in deep rich colors. Ala-Kiyiz, another popular type of carpet, are variegated and have subtler, “washed-out” colors that leave less definition to the borders and have their own unique appearance.
Other handcrafts that you will find in Kyrgyzstan includes beautiful embroidery with a great variety of stitches creating different textures and patterns unique to the Kyrgyz. Jewelry is crafted with a combination of various decorative techniques, such as filigree, engraving, and coralwork. Leather is intricately patterned and tooled. The Kyrgyz also make beautiful braided screens, using reeds that grow in the foothills of the Kyrgyz mountains.
The traditional national sports reflect the importance of horse riding in Kyrgyz culture. Very popular, as in all of Central Asia, is Ulak Tartysh, a team game resembling a cross between polo and rugby in which two teams of riders wrestle for possession of the headless carcass of a goat, which they attempt to deliver across the opposition’s goal line, or into the opposition’s goal: a big tub or a circle marked on the ground.
Other popular games on horseback include:
At Chabysh – a long-distance horse race, sometimes over a distance of more than 50 km.
Jumby Atmai – a large bar of precious metal (the “jumby”) is tied to a pole by a thread and contestants attempt to break the thread by shooting at it, while at a gallop.
Kyz Kuumai – a man chases a girl in order to win a kiss from her, while she gallops away; if he is not successful she may in turn chase him and attempt to beat him with her “kamchi” (horsewhip).
Oodarysh – two contestants wrestle on horseback, each attempting to be the first to throw the other from his horse.
Tyin Emmei – picking up a coin from the ground at full gallop.
Kyrgyz folk music has developed over the centuries and oral traditions are still strong and reflect practically all aspects of nomadic life are, historical events and the relationships of the Kyrgyz with the natural environment which surrounded them. Modern folklore collectives or ensembles, draw on such rich material, and have great potential for creative development. In this section we give some brief information on some of these ensembles.
Aside from the komuz, Kyrgyz folk instruments include the kyl kiak (qyl-qyiyak), a two-stringed upright bow instrument (cf. fiddle), sybyzgy, a side-blown flute, chopo-choor and the temir ooz komuz (mouth komuz), also known as jew’s harp in some countries. The komuz is the national instrument of Kyrgyzstan. It is a plucked string instrument. The kyl kiak, however, is also an important symbol of Kyrgyz identity. It is a string instrument, related to the Mongolian morin-huur, and is associated with horses and the vital role they play in Kyrgyz culture.
Hunting with eagles is also called berkutchi by Kyrgyz people of the Bugu clan living around Karakol town.
Traditional Kyrgyz food revolves around mutton and horse meat, as well as various milk products. The cooking techniques and major ingredients have been strongly influenced by the nation’s nomadic way of life. For example, most cooking techniques are mostly aimed at long-term preservation of food. Mutton is the favorite meat, although it is not always affordable.
Kyrgyzstan is home to many different nationalities and their various cuisines. In larger cities, such as Bishkek, Osh, Jalal-Abad, and Karakol, you can find many options at any price range. On the road and in the villages, the cuisine tends to be standard Kyrgyz dishes, liberally flavored with oil or sheep fat, which are considered both delicious and extremely healthy by the local population.