Landlocked in the vast, mountainous region of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan broke free from a century of Imperialist Russian/Soviet shackles in 1991 and encourages visitors to come and see its spectacular beauty with its liberal tourist visa policy. Nomadic, unspoiled and stunningly, if forbiddingly, lovely, this sparsely populated land is a magnet for adventure buffs, eco-tourists and nature-lovers. From the glacial, polar wasteland of the northern Tian Shan mountain range to the sub-tropical Fergana Valley on the southern borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan is culturally vibrant, exotic and romantic to the extreme.
Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital is set in the Chui Valley of the Tian Shan range and is the gateway to towering heights and glorious alpine lakes. Czarist-planned, the city is too new to hold many significant sites of historic interest, but boasts wide, tree-lined boulevards canals, and lively nightlife. The 3,000-year old city of Osh lies in the fertile Ferghana Valley, overlooked by a sacred mountain holding ancient spiritual sites, and Naryn town on the Silk Road between China and Europe boasts a 15th century caravanserai. Unique outdoor activities include swimming, sunbathing and sailing in high-altitude in the saline Issyk Kul Lake, camping in a traditional yurt, hiking, mountaineering, trekking, and horseback riding along remote trails.
The Kyrgyz nomads are people of the horse from birth, and exploring this ancient land on horseback gives a unique perspective of the country’s tribal history and culture. Tourism is in its infancy, but local guides and people are warm, hospitable, friendly, and eager to share their knowledge and pride in the beauty and tradition of the land. The best hotels can be found in the capital and around Issyk Kul Lake, particularly in Cholpon Ata city and nearby Kurumdy and Bosteri, a premier visitor destination. From five-star resorts in the city center to guesthouse and mid-range lodgings, yurts and rooms in private homes, accommodation is found at all price and comfort levels.
Although Kyrgyzstan isn’t yet a destination known for upscale pampering, ultra-modern amenities and international fine dining, it’s the experience of a lifetime for those with an adventurous spirit and a love of the outdoors. However and wherever you travel, dramatic scenery surrounds you and the isolation of the remote, little populated regions sits in stunning contrast to the noise and crowds in many of today’s favorite destinations. Bishket and Osh, set on opposite ends of the country, are both central hubs for guided tours.
Due to its mountainous topography, Kyrgyzstan is tricky to navigate at best, with the option of marshrutka, shared minibus taxis, the most convenient transportation method. Amazingly inexpensive, marshruykas congregate at bus stations and leave when they’re full. A bus system exists, but routes are minimal and comfort is even less so. The only train in the country runs between Balykchy on Lake Issyk Khul to Bishkek and takes twice the amount of time as marshruykas, although it’s half the price and great for people watching. Renting a car is almost unheard of, for safety reasons which become apparent once you’re here, but hiring a driver along with a car is an option.
- Traverse the ancient Silk Road with its caravanserais set in unbelievable scenery
- Wander the traditional bazaars in Bishkek, Osh and the massive market in Dordoi, the largest in Central Asia
- Swim in the brilliantly-blue Issyk-Khul lake, surrounded by snow-capped peaks
- Explore millennia-old holy sites on Osh’s Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain, a UNESCO World Heritage site
- Join a traditional festival in the capital’s Ala-Too main square
- Browse the National Historical Museum with its adjacent massive statue of Lenin
- Stay in a yurt and sample the traditional, nomadic life of the Kyrgyz people
- Lose and find yourself on a horseback riding tour of the remote high peaks