Kyrgyzstan, a country you may not have heard before or know where it actually is on the map (don’t worry I was the same) but I can assure you, this country is a country you must see for yourself to believe that nature like this existed, and also before it changes due to the rising number of tourists in the country.
What is so special about Kyrgyzstan? Think Switzerland, but without the tourists, the Alps, without the high cost and Mongolia without long flight time. Basically, the entire country is off the beaten path and within this post, I will guide you through the country, suggesting on where to go and what to see in this small country in Central Asia.
Why Go To Kyrgyzstan?
First of, within Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has one of the easiest entry procedure of all the Stan countries with many nationalities being exempted from the visa, and even if not, you can easily get one at the Manas International airport with the options of 30 to 90 days, single and multiple entries. You can also use Bishkek as a base for you to get visas for the surrounding countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
Secondly, Kyrgyzstan has one of the best mountains and countless alpine lakes in Central Asia. You can trek, ride horses or spend sometime with nomadic families in traditional yurts. There is everything for all types of travelers here.
When To Go
Summer (July - August) is hands down the best time to visit Kyrgyzstan. Most of the hiking trails are open during this time with some trails having locals providing supplies and tents along the way so you don’t have to carry your own stuff. Also, during tehigh season, there is a higher chance for you to join up with other travelers, rent a jeep and go somewhere remote without having to pay the entire jeep by yourself.
How To Get Around
Like with all other post soviet states, marshrutka (minivan) is the cheapest way to get around the city or in between cities. You can easily go to a bus station in Bishkek and there will be people shouting the name of the city you want to go. Just tell one of the people there and you will be on your way. Although, keep in mind that they will leave only when the van is filled up and some roads are terrible so expect to spend full day traveling somewhere.
Within cities like Bishkek or Osh, you can easily find shared taxi or private taxi on the streets but do make sure to negotiate the price.
For traveling from Bishkek to Osh, you have 2 options. One, a 30 USD flight which takes around 30 mins or two, a 15 USD bus that takes around 15 hours. If you are short on time, I suggest going with the plane whereas if you have time to spare and want to see the countryside, bus is a better option for you.
Bishkek - Interhouse Bishkek - 10 USD/Night (Best hostel in Kyrgyzstan. New facilities and very clean. The people working at the reception were phenomenal. Highly recommended!)
Karakol - Duet Hostel - 5 USD/Night (Great information hub for trekking to Ala Kul or elsewhere around Karakol)
Kadji Say - Legenda Health Resort - 3 USD/Night
Kochkor - Hostel Jailoo - 5 USD/Night
Song Kul - Go to CBT office in Kochkor - they will quote a price for you including transportation to Song Kul lake, accommodation there and food.
Osh - Hostel “Osh Backpackers” - 5 USD/Night
Arslanbob - Go to CBT office in Arslanbob - They will assign you a homestay.
Sary Chelek (Camping or homestay in Arkyt) - Go to CBT office in Arkyt - They will assign you a homestay.
3 Weeks Itinerary
Bishkek (5 nights)
Bishkek is the perfect base to launch yourself into many of the mountains surrounding this capital city. First, spend the first day walking around the city, checking out the many brutalist architecture like the Manas statues and Ala Too Square. You can get a free audio walking tour app here to learn more about the city top attractions.
Looking for a place to take a break? Drop by Sierra Cafe to have a nice coffee. At night, if you are interested to experience the party scene, do check out No Name Bar for a nice beer or Tuman for a crazy psychedelic trance club. If you are looking for a roof-top bar, check out Bar 12.
The next day, take a taxi to Ala Archa national park and hike the valley along the river to immerse yourself in the amazing nature the country has to offer. The national park is only 30 mins away from the city so you can easily do it in a day.
The third day, take another taxi or a marshrutka towards Issyk Kul lake and drop off at Konorchek canyon and start hiking. The Konorchek canyon is considered a hidden gem since not many people know where it actually is. If you decided to hike the canyon, you will be rewarded with this beautiful orange landscape, a good change from the green you saw in Ala Archa National Park.
The fourth day, take a marshrutka towards the town of Tokmok and when you arrive, get a taxi to the Burana Tower and spend an hour there, climbing the tower and appreciating the surroundings. The trip should take half a day. Spend the last half of the day chilling out in the city and enjoy a selection of proper Kyrgyz food at Navat or Cafe Faiza.
Karakol (4 Nights)
Karakol is where you start one of the most epic trek you can do in Issyk Kul region, the Ala Kul trek. The trek will take you around 3 days of hiking starting from Karakol Valley and end in Altyn Arashan so spend your first day preparing for the trek, buying supplies etc.
If you are there between July and Aug, you might not have to carry a tent and food supplies as there will be stops where they rent these stuff out so you can keep your pack light. Trust me, you will appreciate it when you are on the trail. Be sure to check with the people at Duet Hostel on the latest information about these stops before embarking on the hike.
The trail can be quite tricky to navigate since there weren’t many signs along the trail but I have a solution for you. Get Maps.me app and save the region offline. This will come in handy when you are at an intersection and you don’t know which trail to take. The app will give you quite an accurate general direction you can take. Be careful as it is not uncommon to see people taking the wrong trail and wasting precious hours of daylight.
It is a tough trail that takes you up some crazy steep mountains and lots and lots of up in a few hours so do prepare accordingly.
That said, the view up on the pass (3800m) is one of the best view you can get in Kyrgyzstan.
Kadji Say (1 Night)
After a crazy trek you just did, don’t you wish you can chill out at a beach, dipping your tiring feet in the water? Well, this is the place to be. Kadji Say is a small beach-side town in a remote part of Issyk Kul. It is the best place to have a quiet evening watching the sun setting behind the Tian Shan mountain range and listening to wave crashing on the second highest alpine lake in the world.
The next day, you can take a taxi to the Fairy Tale canyon and hike around the beautiful jagged terrain for a few hours. You will see why it is named that when you get there.
Kochkor And Song Kul (2 Nights)
From Kadji Say, you can take a shared taxi to Kochkor where you can start planning your trip to Song Kul lake. There are a few options for you to get to Song Kul lake. Either go with one of the tourism organization like CBT (Community Based Tourism) and Shepherd’s Life or organize it through your hostel.
I went with the Sheperd’s Life as there were one of the cheaper one I found and I had a great time with them. The transportation is not cheap because you are climbing up to 3000m through a desert like landscape so don’t be surprised when you see the quote. I can assure you though that it was definitely worth the price.
Osh (2 Nights)
From Kochkor, you can take a marshrutka back to Bishkek and either take an overnight bus or a flight to Osh. Osh is like a different country when compared to Bishkek due to the amount of Uzbeks living in that region. Spend one full day hiking the Sulayman Mountain and eating all the tasty food they have in the city while paying half the price you would in Bishkek.
Arslanbob (2 Nights)
From Osh, you can take a 2PM marshrutka directly to Arslanbob and when you arrive, go directly to the CBT office and they will assign you a homestay. Spend your full day here hiking to the 2 waterfalls they have near the village which should take you an entire day. The trail is quite tricky to navigate so be prepared.
Sary Chelek (2 Nights)
Sary Chelek is a beautiful biosphere reserve and within the reserve there is a beautiful lake tucked away in the Chatkal mountains where you can camp and experience nature at its best, untouched by any kind of tourism.
It is quite a challenge to go from Arslanbob to Sary Chelek but not impossible. You have to take a bus back to Jalal Abad and from Jalal Abad to Tash-Komur and then change to another bus to go to Kara-Jigat. From there you will have to hitchhike 25km to Arkyt.
Another option is to arrange a transportation with CBT if you have enough people to share the cost with. This is definitely a much easier and more convenient option than taking multiple marshrutka.