Even before you set off for Kyrgyzstan you get a sense of how remote and off the beaten track it is by the blank looks on the face of anyone who you tell where you are going. The consonant to vowel ratio of its name is enough to bewilder most people and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to practice how to pronounce it.
Nearly all trips start in the capital Bishkek, a fairly Soviet city with wide streets, plenty of parks and trees and of course its share of concrete monuments, but the mountains visible from everywhere in the city are a reminder of where the true essence of the country is. 93% of the country is mountains and 40% of it is over 3000m in altitude – this is paradise for those who love landscapes and big skies.
Here are a few of my highlights:
This busy village in the west of the country set in one of the world’s largest walnut forests, in an alpine landscape. A little like stepping back in time, the majority of the villagers are farmers and many use horse and cart to get around – although there are a number of Soviet 4wds dating from the 50s rattling around as well! The village have set up a thriving CBT scheme and there are a number of comfortable homestays with welcoming families. We stayed with Luisa and her family, after we had hiked in the walnut forests, cooled off under waterfalls and taken in the panoramas from the mountains we had a delicious dinner of vegetarian(!) plov and fruits from their garden. The next morning we enjoyed meeting the calves and puppies yomping around in the farmyard before Luisa provided a breakfast of home baked bread, their own eggs and home made jam.
One of the most isolated caravanserais on the Silk Route, Tash Rabat is am 18th century stone building in the south of Kyrgyzstan close to the Chinese border and at an altitude of 3200m. A caravanseri provided an overnight stop for traders travelling on the Silk Route with space for camels, horses and people indoors to keep them safe from animals and bandits. Tash Rabat lies up a hidden valley far from any settlement but there are now a couple of yurt camps nearby for modern travellers. The cosy yurts are an excellent base for hiking and horse riding and with no chance of any wifi or phone signal it is lovely to switch off and enjoy watching the stars come out (note: running water only to be found in streams and rivers – not taps!).
During the summer months thousands of Kyrgyz nomads head up to the mountain pastures with their herds and yurts and spend the months moving from area to area feeding their animals. But the ultimate nomad destination is Son Kul Lake, set on a plateau at just over 3000m, the shores of the lake are littered with yurt camps and nomads’ yurts. Mountains rise on all sides with high passes winding through providing routes to the rest of the country. In the afternoon we headed into the nearby hills to see the ancient petroglyphs etched onto the rocks showing just how long nomads have been passing through. The family we stayed with had a basic camp but there was plenty of hot water for the shower and a good fire lit in our yurt before bed.
The waters of Lake Issyk Kul are by no means a secret in the region with locals flocking to the shores every summer. The north shore hosts those looking for a beach resort and the south shore is dotted with villages. Having stayed in a lovely modern homestay in the village of Bokonbaevo we then visited a yurt camp in the village of Tosor – the direct access on the beach and the amazing boorsoq (small puffs of bread, fried and dipped in jam) made me long to stay there or return another time. Close by is the Jety Oguz Canyon and Fairly Tale Canyon for walking when you tire of swimming, kayaking and taking boat trips on the deep waters of the lake.
Over in the east of Kyrgyzstan close to Lake Issyk Kul is the town of Karakol. Here we visited the Chinese Mosque and an Orthodox Church made entirely from wood without the use of nails, cultural sights continue with a number of Soviet statues found in parks through the town. The town makes the perfect base for heading up in to the mountains, whether you take a scenic drive up to Altyn Arashan and enjoy the natural hot springs or embark on a serious trek in the Tien Shan. An unexpected treat in Karakol is to have dinner with a Chinese Dungan family, we had a delicious dinner (warning, don’t fill up on the first three courses as this is just the beginning…) and an interesting chat with the female family members about their lives and how things have changed for the recent generations.
We travelled through Kyrgyzstan with our driver Altynbek, an experienced and safe driver who nothing was too much trouble for, every morning the car was sparkling clean, he took the mountain passes carefully and knew all the best places to stop for photos. Our guides Javlon and Elena were fonts of knowledge, providing not just facts and history but also personal touches teaching us about life in Kyrgyzstan as they experienced it. We stayed at a number of homestays, rural farmhouses, yurt camps and modern houses and were welcomed at each by warm and friendly families. Throughout the country wherever we stopped the people we met were friendly and interested to hear where we were from and what we thought of their country.