Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide
Date Visited: August 2019
With an abundance of jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, friendly locals, fascinating culture, complex history, pristine nature, plentiful accommodation options and lots of quirky reminders of its recent Soviet past, Kyrgyzstan is the tourism darling of Central Asia.
If that’s not enough of an inducement, the country has the most relaxed visa policy of all the Central Asian republics, allowing visa-free travel to citizens of 69 countries, with everyone else able to apply for an e-Visa. This welcoming visa policy has resulted in Kyrgyzstan (officially the Kyrgyz Republic) becoming the gateway of choice for many travellers to Central Asia.
With 90% of its territory lying above 1,500 metres, winter time is not the time to visit Kyrgyzstan, unless you’re taking to the ski slopes. As can be expected in a country where the vast majority of attractions are high altitude, summer time is peak season. And while the capital, Bishkek, can be swelteringly hot in the summer, elsewhere temperatures can fall below freezing in the evenings.
No matter how cold the temperature, one of the country’s main attractions, lake Issyk-Kul, never freezes. During the height of winter, the water temperature of this salt-water lake – the world’s tenth largest lake – hovers between 2-3 degrees Celsius. While Issyk-Kul is a key attraction, there are almost 2,000 alpine lakes throughout Kyrgyzstan.
With so much of this alpine country inaccessible during the winter, summer time sees a migration of families and shepherds, who still practice the same nomadic lifestyle that has been an integral part of the culture of the region for centuries.
During the warmer months, whole families relocate to the jailoos (Alpine meadows), living in yurts while they tend to their flocks. In many remote regions, the only accommodation option available is with the nomads, who will happily accommodate you in one of their yurts. Welcoming and accommodating strangers is central to the nomadic way of life and staying in a yurt is an experience which shouldn’t be missed.
Of all the countries I visited in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan was the most rewarding. As a destination, the country has much to offer and, year-on-year, tourism arrival numbers continue to grow with 1.4 million visitors arriving in 2018. While 80% of visitors come from Russia, or neighbouring Kazakhstan, arrivals from elsewhere continue to increase.
If you’re looking for an adventure destination, somewhere off the beaten track which offers superb hiking, culture, history, nomadic culture, amazing cuisine, and so much more, then now is the time to visit – before the tourist hoards arrive!
There is much to see and do in this amazing country, as such, this report is twice as long as most of my reports. If you wish to read the report in its entirety, you should get comfortable with a big cup or tea or coffee. Otherwise, you can dip into those sections you wish to read by using the ‘Table of Contents‘.
Kyrgyzstan is located in the north-east part of Central Asia, in the very heart of Eurasia. An alpine country, there are more than 88 major mountain ranges in Kyrgyzstan, most of them forming the Tian Shan mountains which traverse the north and centre of the country, while the soaring peaks of the Pamir mountain range traverse the southern section of the country. These two mountain systems occupy about 65% of the national territory and are home to around 1,900 alpine lakes.
While the country is one of the smallest in Central Asia, extending 900 km (560 mi) from east to west and 410 km (250 mi) from north to south, poor infrastructure and impossibly mountainous terrain make most land journeys slow and arduous.
During the days of the Soviet Union, giant statues of Lenin were ubiquitous, gracing the main square of most cities and towns across the Union. On the 26th of December 1991, the USSR was officially dissolved and, in the days and weeks following, as each republic claimed its independence, statues of the revolutionary leader were quickly removed.
However, this ‘cleaning out of the Soviet-past’ did not happen in Kyrgyzstan and today, Lenin statues can still be found in most towns and cities. While many Kyrgyz look to the future, and a new era of national history, many still yearn for the Soviet-past, and consider Lenin a hero. Today, the many Lenin statues in Kyrgyzstan lend an anachronistic air to the country!
The grandest Lenin statue is located in downtown Osh, where a giant Lenin, striking a familiar pose, looks out over Lenin Avenue.
The most famous, and perhaps most controversial Lenin statue, is the one which use to stand defiantly in the main square of Bishkek. In 2003, a dozen years after his successors were knocked off their pedestals in the other republic capitals, the Lenin statue in Ala Too square was quietly relocated from the front of the square (where he use to point to the mountains) to the rear of the square (where he now points at the Kyrgyz government building).
Originally, the government wanted to remove the statue, but this caused an up-roar, so the decision was made to relocate him, 650 feet, to the rear of the State History Museum. Out-of-sight, but definitely not out-of-mind!
My favourite Lenin statue can be found adjacent to the main square in Karakol. Painted in gold, and looking like a character from Gold-finger, Lenin truly sparkles in the afternoon sunlight.
Apart from the statues, portraits of Lenin are still popular among the Kyrgyz. Artists, which can be found in the art market adjacent to Ala Too square in Bishkek, continue to churn out standard images of the revolutionary leader which are available for purchase.
In the Turkic language, Kyrgyz literally means “a collection of forty tribes”, a reference which is today included on the national flag, with the yellow sun featuring 40 sunbeams (please refer to the ‘Flag‘ section for more on this). The early Kyrgyz people originated from areas which today lie in the west of Mongolia.
Ancient Chinese texts describe the Kyrgyz tribes as fair-skinned, green- or blue-eyed and red-haired people with a mixture of European and East Asian features. With a current population of 6.2 million people, Kyrgyzstan is a cosmopolitan melting-pot which is home to groups of minorities from around the region. This is especially so in the city of Osh, which, for centuries, served as an important junction on the Silk Road. Today, Osh is home to a large Uzbek community but has been influenced through the ages by travellers from well beyond the region.
Adding to the mix, during the Soviet-era, and especially under the rule of Stalin, large numbers of Russians were forcibly relocated to Kyrgyzstan, which influenced the ethnic composition in the region.
As a case in point – in the ‘Cafe‘ section below, I have included a photo of the wonderful Evgeniia, who is the resident Barista at Karakol Coffee. While the photo looks like a scene from a cafe in Eastern Europe, Evgeniia is a native of Karakol, a city which lies a short distance from China.
The Kyrgyz are predominantly Muslims, with Islam being introduced to the region by Arab traders who travelled along the Silk Road in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The flag of Kyrgyzstan consists of a red field with a bright, yellow sun at its centre. The sun features 40 sunbeams, which symbolises the unity between the 40 different tribes which have traditionally inhabited the region.
In the centre of the sun is a stylised illustration of the roof (tunduk), which is to be found atop a traditional Kyrgyz yurt – when viewed from the interior.
The Tunduk forms the centre-piece of all traditional yurts in Kyrgyzstan and has important meaning for the Kyrgyz, symbolising the unity between the nation and the universe. The Tunduk also allows sunlight to enter the yurt, forming a connection between the interior and exterior worlds!
Issued by the National Bank of the Kyrgyz Republic, the som (international currency code: KGS) is the currency of the Kyrgyz Republic. Notes are issued in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 5000 som.
Coins, which were introduced into circulation in 2008, are issued in denominations of 1, 10 and 50 tyin and 1, 3, 5 and 10 som.
Like other countries in the region, travel costs in Kyrgyzstan are very reasonable.
Suggested daily budgets:
- Backpacker: Up to USD$40 per day.
- Flashpacker: Between USD$40 -$80 per day.
- Top End: USD$80+
- Coca Cola (0.33 litre bottle): 27 som (US$0.39)
- Water (0.33 litre bottle): 18 som (US$0.26)
- Cappuccino: 117 som (US$1.68)
- Car Rental (daily 4WD through Kyrgyzstan Tours and Rent-a-Car Service): 5,585 som (US$80)
- Litre of fuel: 39 som (US$0.56)
- Meal (inexpensive restaurant): 275 som (US$3.94)
- Meal for 2 (mid-range restaurant): 1000 som (US$14.32)
- Dorm bed in a budget hostel (Apple Hostel, Bishkek): 698 som (US$10)
- Room in a mid-range hotel (B Hotel, Bishkek): 5,373 som (US$77)
- Room in a top-end hotel (Hyatt Regency Hotel, Bishkek): 15,000 som (US$215)
The first thing I purchase whenever I arrive in a new country is a local SIM card. Why pay expensive roaming fees when a local card costs peanuts and provides so much?
A great bargain in Kyrgyzstan is the tourist SIM card which is offered by O! Telecom. The card cost me 370 som (USD$5.30) and included good network connectivity (nation-wide), and two weeks of unlimited data. A worthwhile investment, especially if you need to use a navigational device while driving.
I have to admit, when I first arrived in Bishkek (from Almaty), I was underwhelmed. A city full of drab, Soviet-era buildings and slightly down at heel was my first impression. While Bishkek does not offer the glitz and glamour of Almaty, it is a delightfully green, relaxing, capital which is easily negotiated on foot and full of post-Soviet anachronisms.
In the end, I stayed for almost a week, happily exploring the various cultural, culinary and recreational offerings. Most travellers I met stayed in town long enough to apply for a Tajikistan visa and make onward travel arrangements. However, if you stick around long enough to scratch beneath the surface, Bishkek will reveal its many charms.
Manas Statue & National History Museum
The main square of Bishkek, Ala-Too square is dominated by an equestrian statue of local hero Manas. It is said that Manas united the forty different tribes to create the Kyrgyz nation. The pedestal now occupied by Manas was once occupied by Lenin, who has since been moved 650 feet to the rear of the State History Museum. For more on the Lenin statue, please refer to the ‘Lenin Lives‘ section.
The architecture surrounding the square is in the typical Soviet-era ‘neo-brutalist‘ style. One building which sets itself apart, however, is the huge modernist, cube-shaped, State History Museum, which was formerly known as the Lenin museum. At the time of my visit, the museum was closed for renovations and had been closed for some time.
While the museum might be closed, the many fountains, which line the square, are definitely open and are a popular playground for local kids who use them to cool off on hot summer days.
One of the quirkiest sights in Bishkek has to be the well-guarded flagpole which dominates Ala-Too square. The flagpole is guarded, during daylight hours, by two honour guards from the National Guard of the Armed Forces.
A changing of the guard ceremony takes place hourly, which sees three goose-stepping guards approach the flagpole from their base, which is located in the basement of the State History Museum. The guards goose-step about 200 metres until they reach the flagpole.
Once at the flagpole, the two replacement guards mount the podium and replace the former guards, who goose-step back with the third guard.
Ala-Too Cinema and Surroundings
Don’t be fooled by its retro appearance! While the Ala-Too cinema is the oldest, and most famous, cinema in Bishkek, it houses four theatres with all projection equipment having been updated in 2012 to allow the cinema to show 3-D films. Located on Ala-Too square, this iconic institution is listed as a cultural monument of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Behind the cinema is a small, rotunda-shaped, cafe which features a painted ‘tunduk’ on its ceiling. Outside the cafe is the ‘Kilometre Zero‘ marker, from which all road distances in Kyrgyzstan are measured.
Next to the ‘Kilometre Zero‘ marker, is an art market, where local artists paint and sell fine, but very affordable, examples of folk art, portraits of Lenin (see the portrait in the ‘Lenin Lives‘ section) and epic, alpine landscapes, which Kyrgyzstan has in abundance.
Monument to Those Who Died for Freedom
Located alongside Ala-Too square, on Chuy avenue, the ‘Monument to Those Who Died for Freedom‘ commemorates those who died during the pro-democracy events of 2002 and 2010.
The monument is made of two large tiled panels, one black and one white, with a group of people pushing the black stone away from the white.
Statue of Kozhomkul
There are many monuments in Bishkek, but my personal favourite would have to be the Statue of Kozhomkul, a local strongman who apparently carried his horse home on his shoulders after it became mired.
Fittingly, this impressive statue stands outside the Sports Palace which is named after Kozhomkul. The statue is tucked away in a quiet side street (Togolok Moldo St) one block west of Panfilov park.
The capitals of all ex-Soviet republics feature a permanent amusement park and in Bishkek, Panfilov park is where local families congregate. Located next to Ala-Too square, Panfilov park, which is free to enter, is home to an assortment of amusements and carnival rides, and is especially popular in the evenings when locals come to relax, eat fairy-floss, try their luck shooting at balloons or bumping into each other on bumper cars.
Located a short walk east of Ala-Too square, Victory park commemorates the victory over Nazi Germany during WWII. The park was created in 1984, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the liberation of the USSR. At the heart of the park is a red-granite monument which is designed to evoke three yurt struts, which curve above an eternal flame. Standing under the struts is a woman, waiting for her husband to return home.
If strolling along Frunze street towards Victory Square, you might be forgiven for thinking a UFO has landed in Bishkek. This strange looking, other-worldly, structure is actually the Kyrgyz State Circus. Just like the amusement park at Panfilov park, each Soviet capital also had a dedicated, permanent state circus building.
Many cities claim to be ‘green’ but Bishkek really is a green city. You can traverse the downtown area by hopping from one park to another.
There are countless green ‘lungs’ in Bishkek, with each park offering plenty of shady bench seats, sculptures, fountains and colourful garden beds. Thanks to a constant supply of fresh water from the Tian Shan mountains, everything is kept lush and green.
There are a few shopping malls in Bishkek, including the ubiquitous TSUM department store, which can be found in every ex-Soviet capital. The best mall is the modern Bishkek Park, which is located at 132 Kiev street, one block back from the main street.
If you’re looking for quality souvenirs, there’s only one place to go – Saima, which can be found on the main street at 140 Chuy avenue.
The Art of Felting
Traditionally, sheep herding was the main activity of the Kyrgyz nomads. Wool was something they had in abundance, so the production of felt, which is made by matting, condensing and pressing wool (and other animal) fibres together, was a logical bi-product from their lifestyle.
Felt production has been an important part of Kyrgyz nomadic culture since at least the Iron age. During the days of the Great Silk Road, felt was among the products traded by the Kyrgyz. Felt has many useful qualities – it’s water-resistant and insulating. The main use for felt has been as a covering for yurts – it keeps the elements out, while keeping the heat in.
Today, artisans craft a variety of products from felt, including slippers, coats, hats, decorations, carpets and more. While products are sold country-wide, the Tumar Art Salon in Bishkek carries many fine examples of felt handicrafts.
Located 83 km southeast of Bishkek, on the outskirts of the town of Tokmok, Burana Tower is a 24-metre-high, ornately decorated, brick minaret which was once part of the ancient citadel of Balasagun, which was founded by the Sogdians. Located off the main highway, Burana is a popular side-trip for those travelling from Bishkek to Lake Issyk-Kul.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, today the minaret stands alone in the middle of a remote, grassy field. An internal, spiral staircase, leads to the top of the tower which affords panoramic views of the Tian Shan mountains and the surrounding countryside.
A short walk (100 metres) north of the tower, a pathway leads you through a cemetery where ancient Muslim gravestones, carved in Arabic text can be observed.
In a country bursting with amazing sites, the magnificent lake Issyk-Kul is a highlight. Located at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft), the statistics are impressive; Issyk-Kul is 182 kilometres (113 mi) in length, up to 60 kilometres (37 mi) wide, and has a surface area of 6,236 square kilometres (2,408 sq mi).
It’s the second-largest mountain lake in the world, behind Lake Titicaca in South America. By volume, it’s the world’s 10th largest lake. At a maximum depth of 668 metres (2,192 ft), Issyk-Kul is the seventh deepest lake in the world. While the lake has more than 118 recorded ‘inflows’, it has no ‘outflows’, with hydrologists hypothesising that the waters of the lake filter deep underground.
Despite being surrounded by snow-covered peaks, the saline waters of Issyk-Kul never freeze. During the summer months, water temperatures hovering above 20 degrees which makes the numerous sandy beaches a popular recreation choice for tourists and locals.
Relaxed and chilled Karakol (pop: 66,000) is one of the most important tourism hubs in Kyrgyzstan. Located at the eastern end of lake Issyk-Kul, the town itself has few attractions, but it’s surrounded by an array of incredible sights, which makes it a perfect base for day-trips into the countryside.
The town, which is laid out on a very logical grid, was founded in 1869 by the Russians, who built it to serve as an administrative centre on the caravan route from Chuy Valley to Kashgar (China). The town, which lies close to the Chinese border, boasts an eclectic mix of ethnicities, including Kyrgyz, Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars and Uighur’s.
One of the joys of exploring downtown Karakol is to walk the picturesque streets, which are shaded by rows of huge white poplars and lined with colonial-era, Russian gingerbread cottages. Painted in bright colours, the cottages feature shuttered windows, neat flower-beds, fruit trees and cute picket fences.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
Located downtown, the Holy Trinity Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church which dates from 1872, although the current version dates from 1895, after the original was destroyed by an earthquake in 1890. This imposing wooden structure is topped by five green towers which are crowned by golden, onion-shaped domes.
After the October Revolution, within the framework of the Soviet campaign against religion, the Bolsheviks removed the domes and turned the church into a children’s sport school.
Exotic-looking, incongruous and definitely out-of-place, Dungan mosque is an anomaly which looks more like a Buddhist temple than a mosque. Constructed in 1902, on the initiative of a local Muslim leader, Ibrahim Aji, who invited a famous Beijing architect, Chou Seu to design and build a mosque, the temple was built by a team of 20 Chinese woodworkers, who were skilled at building Chinese-style buildings. The end result was a mosque which looks, unmistakably, like a Chinese-style temple.
Karakol Historical Museum
The highlight of the low-key Karakol Historical Museum is the large taxidermy display. Taxidermy was a popular form of exhibit for the Russians, with most museums in the ex-Soviet world boasting impressive collections of stuffed critters.
One worthwhile day-trip from Karakol is to the stunningly beautiful Jeti-Ögüz, which translates as ‘seven bulls‘. Located in a quiet valley, 25 km west of Karakol, the seven bulls are a red sandstone ridge which rises up out of a lush, green valley, through which a powerful mountain stream flows.
The stream supports a rural village (which is worth exploring), a community of bee-keepers and yurt camps, where tourists can sip tea and pose for photos with impressive eagles. During my visit, the countryside was full of colourful, wild flowers, which contrasted nicely with the surrounding red sandstone.
Central Asia is the birthplace of the ancient tradition of eagle hunting. Today however, these majestic birds do less hunting and more posing for selfies with tourists.
As you drive through the valley towards Jeti-Ögüz, you’ll encounter young Kyrgyz entrepreneurs who, for a small fee of course, will let you pose with their impressive pet eagles.
The detox drink of choice in Kyrgyzstan is Kumis, which is made from fermented mare’s milk. Slightly alcoholic, Kumis is lauded by the Kyrgyz for its physical and mental benefits – so it must be good for you! In the village of Jeti-Ögüz, there are many mare’s which are milked by a team of milkers.
Bee Keepers of Jeti-Ögüz
The quiet road, which passes through the lush, green valley towards Jeti-Ögüz, is an ideal place for local bee-keepers to tend their hives. The countryside is full of wild flowers and the apiarists are able to produce their honey and sell it to passing tourists. If you’re lucky enough you might be able to observe a bee-keeper collecting honey from his hives.
This sequence of photos shows a beekeeper inspecting his hives to determine which frames to harvest. I should point out that I am allergic to bees and while taking these photos, I was surrounded by a warm of thousands of them, many of which kept flying into me! I’m pleased to report that I finished the shoot without being stung.
Located 100 km southwest of Karakol, the Barskoon valley is a remote area of incredible beauty, and has been used as the cover photo for this report.
The road through the valley, which is located a short distance inland from the southern shore of lake Issyk-Kul, use to serve as a Silk Road trading route, connecting Kyrgyzstan with the province of Xinjiang in north-western China.
While driving my rental car through the valley, I saw little transport. If you’re relying on public transport, you can (apparently) get a Marshrutka to the town of Barskoon then hire a taxi to take you into the valley. The Barskoon river flows through the valley, which is home to a couple of waterfalls, shepherds tending to huge flocks of sheep and a bust of the famous cosmonaut – Yuri Gagarin.
The face of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human to journey into outer space, is carved into a large boulder, which lies on the side of the road, deep inside the Barskoon valley. It’s said that Yuri visited this spot shortly after his historic spaceflight and even possibly stood on this rock!
Skazka Fairy Tale Canyon
Continuing west along lake Issyk-Kul from the Barskoon valley, the landscape changes, becoming more arid and sandier. It’s here where you’ll find the best (sandy) beaches and also the incredibly beautiful Skazka Fairy Tale Canyon.
The canyon, which is located between the Barskoon valley and the town of Bokonbayevo, is a short walk inland from the main highway which travels along the lake shore. A series of (unmarked) walking tracks leads you up and over eroded sandstone mounds which have been eroded into photogenic shapes.
The colourful soil, which result from minerals in the earth, contrasting against the blue skies make for amazing photography in the late afternoon.
There’s nothing much to do in the sleepy town of Bokonbayevo but, as the largest settlement west of Karakol, the town makes for a handy base if you wish to explore the attractions on the south shore of lake Issyk-Kul. I stayed overnight on my drive from Karakol to lake Son-Kul.
Issyk-Kul to Son-Kul
It could be said that, ‘around every bend in the road in Kyrgyzstan, lies another spectacular view’. This is especially true of the journey from lake Issyk-Kul to lake Son-Kul, where you encounter one breath-taking view after another.
Note: If you’re self-driving with the aid of a navigation app such as Google Maps or Waze, you will lose network coverage as you approach Lake Son-Kul. However, this is not a problem as there’s only one road to and from the lake.
A short drive west of lake Issyk-Kul lies the incredibly beautiful, Orto Tokoy reservoir. The reservoir is formed by a dam on the Chu river, with an impressive, bare-earth, mountain range forming the perfect background. Stunning!
Continuing west, the town of Kochkor lies 40 km beyond Orto Tokoy reservoir. Kochkor is a popular base for hikes into the nearby mountains, and thanks to an initiative from USAID, hikers can hike on marked trails from Kochkor to Karakol and beyond.
Kochkor is also a junction town, allowing you to approach lake Son-Kul from either the east (a much short route) or the west (a much, much longer route). I approached from the west. The following photos show the scenery from the westerly route.
Perched at 3016 m (9,900 ft), the serenely beautiful Lake Son-Kul is a truly special place. Inaccessible for half of the year, there are no permanent structures on the lake. Nomads from villages lower down the mountain relocate to the shores of the lake during the summer months, offering yurt accommodation to any tourist who finds their way here. While there are no shops, no network coverage for mobile phones, there is fresh air, nature, sublime scenery and basic yurt camps.
The lake is located in the middle of a remote, alpine meadow which is carpeted in white Edelweiss. I lived for a few years in Switzerland, and while “Edelweiss’ is the national flower of Switzerland, I saw very little of it there. However, the meadow surrounding lake Son-Kul is carpeted with it.
Access to the lake is via a rough gravel road which is open during the summer months. Although 4WD is best, locals do venture here in their beat-up Ladas.
If you enjoy horse riding, you can organise treks through the different families who own the yurt camps. During the summer, each family transports their animals up to the lake, where the summer pastures offer ample feed. As in other nomadic cultures of Central Asia, horse riding is a national pastime among the Kyrgyz.
While on lake Son-Kul, I stayed in a yurt camp owned by a family whose regular home is in the village of Ak-Tal, which is located further down the mountain. The family relocate each summer to the lake shore, where they offer comfortable yurt accommodation for passing tourists (see the ‘Accommodation‘ section for more). The family also included a US Peace Corps volunteer, which was wonderful as he provided translation services and could provide me with detailed information on the culture and lifestyle of the Kyrgyz nomads.
Son-Kul to Kazaman
As the crow flies, it’s 103 km from lake Son-Kul to the regional centre of Kazarman, which is located at the mid-way point between Son-Kul and Osh. However, by road, it’s a full day’s journey, along never-ending, windy, narrow, mountainous gravel roads, which traverses two spectacular passes.
The first pass you cross, after leaving lake Son-Kul, is Moldo-Ashuu which offers dramatic views to the south. You’ll know when you’ve reached the pass because you’ll see all the locals sitting around chatting on their mobile phones. This is the only place for miles with network coverage!
It’s important to note that the ‘highway’ which is indicated on Google Maps, and which Miss Google will direct you to use, has long been out of service. I know this, because I followed the road for 30 lonely kilometres before it dead-ended at a collapsed bridge which had fallen into a raging river. To reach Kazarman, you should take the, unmarked, gravel road, north of the river, as indicated on the map below.
There’s nothing much to do in Kazarman, although there are some petroglyph’s near to town. There are no hotels, but a CBT office can arrange a home-stay for you (refer to the ‘Accommodation‘ section below).
The Road to Osh
The road from Kazarman to Osh descends from the high mountains to the hot, dry plains of the Fergana Valley, a part of Kyrgyzstan steeped in history. From Kazarman, it’s a 6-hour, 550 km drive to Osh. On the approach to Jalal-Abad, you finally drive back onto a smooth asphalt road, the first such road this side of Kochkor.
After leaving Kazarman, the gravel road ascends, steeply, to the Kaldama pass (3,062 m / 10,045 ft), which forms the border between Naryn and Jalal-Abad oblast (region).
At the time of my visit to Kaldama pass, local sheep farmers had congregated with their large flocks of sheep, each awaited their turn to be shorn by a team of shearers, who processed hundreds of sheep, under the sun, using hand shears.
From the pass, its a downhill run to the city of Jalal-Abad, with the (still gravel) road passing through cultivated countryside.
Located in the heart of the, baking hot, Fergana valley, and with a history spanning more than 3,000 years, Osh is one of the oldest settlements in Central Asia and historically, served as an important junction town in the days of the Great Silk Road. After the capital, Bishkek, Osh is the 2nd largest city in Kyrgyzstan, supporting a population of 256,000.
Due to its location and history, the city is a melting pot of everything ‘Central Asian’. Located a short drive from the Uzbek border, Osh is home to a variety of ethnic groups, including a large Uzbek community. The city is a fascinating and engaging destination, which deserves at least a few days on anyone’s itinerary.
Rising abruptly from the plains of the Fergana Valley, in the heart of downtown Osh, Sulaiman-Too (translates as ‘Solomon’s Throne’) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which offers the best views of the city and surrounding countryside.
Historically, the mountain marked the midpoint on the ancient Silk Road, halfway between Europe and Asia. Named after Sulaiman (Solomon), who is a prophet in the Quran, the mountain contains a shrine that supposedly marks his grave.
Geographically, the mountain is a giant piece of limestone, which, over millennia has become slippery and polished by the trampling feet of scores of Islamic pilgrims and tourists. One attraction on the slope of the mountain is the polished rock, a smooth limestone boulder which is used as a natural slippery-dip.
Built into a cave in the side of the mountain, the National Historical and Archaeological Museum showcases archaeological findings from the area and explains the history of Osh.
Osh is famous for the sprawling Jayma bazaar, which has been in operation, on the same site, for more than 2,000 years. The huge market stretches for kilometres along the western bank of the Ak-Bura river, which flows through the heart of Osh.
Along with a steady stream of tourists, traders, and customers, flock to the bazaar from all over Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. If you are travelling on to either of those countries, the money changers at the bazaar offer competitive rates on Tajik somani and Uzbek som.
Soviet Murals of Osh
During the Soviet era, throughout all cities and towns, colourful and gigantic murals and mosaics were installed on otherwise blank walls to deliver messages of Soviet ideology and to inspire citizens with beautiful everyday surroundings.
While many cities, in a bid to modernise, have destroyed these reminders of the past, Osh still retains many of these retro pieces of street-art.
While some of the murals, such as ‘Fabric’ are easy to find, others such as ‘Aeroflot’ and ‘Misha’ are more difficult to find, being tucked away in quiet lane-ways. If you wish to easily locate the murals, a Google map, with all the murals bookmarked, on the timetravelturtle website is especially handy.
Osh to Tajikistan
From Osh, I joined a one week 4WD trip along the Pamir Highway to Dushanbe in Tajikistan – for more on this trip, please refer to my Tajikistan Travel Guide.
The first stop on the trip, and my last destination in Kyrgyzstan was Lake Tulpar-Kul, which is located at a height of 3,500 m (11,500 ft), in a remote corner of the country, in the shadow of Lenin Peak (7,134 m / 23,406 ft).
The lake is home to the Lenin Peak Yurt Camp (see the ‘Accommodation‘ section below) which is used as a base for climbers who use the camp to acclimatise prior to their ascent of Lenin peak. The camp is located at the end of a long, gravel road, which winds its way through the countryside for 35 km, south of the town of Sary Mogul.
The Road to Tajikistan
From the Lenin Peak Yurt camp, we had a short (one hour) drive south to the Kyzylart Pass which forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and located at a lofty 4,280 m (14,042 ft).
It was time to say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan and hello to Tajikistan.
Kyrgyzstan offers a multitude of accommodation options in the main centres of Bishkek, Osh, Karakol and around the shoreline of Lake Issyk-Kul.
Elsewhere, options are thin on the ground with home-stays filling the void. If you arrive in a town without any established accommodation options, you should seek out the local office of the CBT (Community Based Tourism) which can arrange a local home-stay. There are fifteen branches of the CBT, which can be found in most major towns.
In remote, rural areas, including the popular Son-Kul lake, Yurt camps are the only accommodation option. These allow visitors to experience life in a Kyrgyz felt tent and to sample the nomadic style of living.
Bishkek offers a range of accommodation to suit all budgets.
Rooms can be booked on Booking.com for around US$77 per night. The hotel is especially popular with visiting Arab families, who jet in on one of the regular flights from Dubai.
Located on the north shore of lake Issyk-Kul, the town of Cholpon-Ata is home to several accommodation options and, thanks to its close proximity to Bishkek, is popular with weekend tourists.
I spent one night at the Altyn Bulak Lakeside Resort, which is a Kyrgyz version of an all-inclusive resort, which is popular with local families. Despite the fact that there are currently no reviews on TripAdvisor, or that the resort doesn’t appear to have a website, this large, sprawling property offers a variety of accommodation, an onsite restaurant (there are no other dining options in the area) and a beach.
During my visit, new yurts were being installed, each of which offered panoramic views of the lake. Rooms can be booked on hotels.com for around US$50 per night, which includes breakfast.
As one of Kyrgyzstan’s main tourist hubs, Karakol offers plenty of accommodation options from cheap and cheery hostels to deluxe hotels. While in town, I chose to stay at the mid-range, Hillside Four Seasons, which is located on a hill, a few kilometres southeast of downtown Karakol. In a country which offers so many wonderful accommodation choices, Hillside was one of my favourites but is best suited to those who have their own transport (although taxis can be ordered).
Located a few kilometres south of the southern shore of lake Issyk-Kul, the small, unremarkable, town of Bokonbayevo makes for a convenient overnight base if you’re visiting the nearby Fairy-tale canyon or any of the popular beaches which line the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul. If driving from Karakol to Lake Son-Kul, the town lies at about the half-way point.
While there are no established hotels in town, the cosy Emily Guest House offers a typical home-stay experience with meals served in a yurt, which has been installed in the back garden. The guest house is located in a quiet, unpaved, suburban backstreet at Toigonova, 83 which, rather unhelpfully, has no signage to indicate that it is indeed a guest house.
A highlight of my trip to Kyrgyzstan was being able to spend time at a yurt camp on the remote shores of Lake Son-Kul.
Located in the middle of nowhere, at an elevation of 3016 m (9895 feet) above sea level, the lake is inaccessible for half of the year during the long, freezing winter months. Once the spring thaw melts the snow and ice, locals, who live in the lower village of Ak-Tal, relocate up to the lofty heights of the lake shore, where they setup yurt camps for the summer tourist season. Due to its seasonal nature, the lake remains free from any sort of development or permanent structures, which is its appeal.
If you’re planning on staying at the yurt camps, you should know that these are temporary nomad camps, which offer very basic facilities. What’s carried up the mountain at the beginning of the season needs to be carried back down the mountain at the end of the season.
There are no shops or petrol stations anywhere in this part of the country. You should carry extra fuel and any food or drinks you may need.
It’s worth mentioning that the lake lies in a giant WiFi black spot with the nearest signal available at Moldo-Ashuu, a high mountain pass which sits at an elevation of 3,346 m (10,977 feet) on the road between Son-Kul and the village of Ak-Tal.
While there are some bookable yurt camps listed on sites such as booking.com, it’s best not to book them as you cannot call anyone once at the lake and signage is non-existent. Rather than wasting your time looking for a yurt camp you have pre-booked, you can check into any number of camps which are dotted around the southern shore of the lake. I was the only guest at my camp!
The dusty, provincial, town of Kazaman lies along the long, meandering, never-ending, slow, gravel road which connects lake Son-Kul to Osh. The town, which makes for an ideal base after a long day of driving, does not have any established hotel options, but does offer a few comfortable home-stays which can be booked through the friendly, English-speaking, lady who runs the local Kazaman CBT office.
While the CBT office functions as a home-stay, I stayed with a nearby family who offer several comfortable rooms with traditional meals served in their kitchen.
Another favourite accommodation option in Kyrgyzstan is the wonderful Rayan Hotel, which is located in downtown Osh. The hotel is designed to cater to both tourists and business travellers, which is wonderful for those of us who occasionally need to plug-in and work on a laptop.
The well-designed, modern, comfortable rooms can be booked on Hotels.com for around US$60 per night, which includes a buffet breakfast with eggs freshly prepared to order. A laundry service is available with a full bag of washing costing me about US$5.
Like lake Son-Kul, the only accommodation option at Lenin Peak is the CBT-run yurt camp. Located at the foot of Lenin Peak – 3,500 metres (11,482 ft) above sea level – the camp lies 35 km south of the village of Sary-Mogol and is often used by groups of climbers as a base, allowing them to acclimatise prior to making their ascent.
The cuisine of Kyrgyzstan is very similar to the cuisine of the other Central Asian republics, with restaurant menus featuring steamed dumplings (known throughout the region as ‘Manti‘), noodle soup (known everywhere as ‘Lagman‘), Plov (a Central Asian version of Pilaf rice), barbecued meats (Shashlik) and salads which are based on tomato and cucumber – all of which are served with a basket of bread.
Eureka! After travelling the globe, I finally found a place offering Wine Therapy. Is it any wonder I found myself dining at the wonderful Cyclone restaurant more than once?
Offering the best of Italian cuisine, and a selection of amazing wines, Cyclone is located on the main street at 136 Chuy Avenue (just along from Ala Too square). We all need some wine therapy and I’m happy to share this discovery with you! Cheers!
Torro Grill & Bar
If you’re in the mood for a good steak, it’s hard to beat the Torro Grill & Bar. The beef medallions, served with three different homemade sauces, are divine. All the beef served at Torro is sourced from their own local farm and, judging by the flavour, and tenderness of the meat, it would seem the cows live a good life.
The restaurant features a white stretch limousine, which is parked inside the restaurant, into which a couple of dining tables have been installed. Located at 93 Shopokov street (opposite Victory Park), Torro also features a bar which is worth checking out on the weekends.
Owned by the Kaynar Group, a dynamic local catering and restaurant company, the spacious and opulent Restaurant Frunze serves as a restaurant and art gallery. Offering several large dining halls, each decorated in a different style, the restaurant combines fine dining (I recommend their Chicken Kiev) with art exhibitions which change on a monthly basis. The restaurant is located at 220A Abdymomunova street, around the corner from the M V Frunze museum.
I have to confess – on my first night in Karakol, I was directed to the restaurant Dastorkan by my hotel receptionist and, having being wowed on the first visit, kept returning each day to sample more of their amazing menu items.
The restaurant, which is a favourite of visiting tour groups, and offers a nightly entertainment schedule which features traditional Kyrgyz musicians, is a tourist trap, but the food is authentic and delicious. If you have yet to try a Lagman soup or Manti dumplings, this is the place to initiate yourself into the world of ‘national’ Kyrgyz cuisine.
If, like me, caffeine is an essential part of your day, you’ll be happy to know that there is a healthy cafe culture in Kyrgyzstan with excellent options available in Bishkek, Osh and Karakol.
Note: In Central Asia, the term ‘Cafe’ is used to refer to a ‘Cafeteria‘ where pre-cooked meals are served from a buffet and where you’ll definitely not find a decent cup of coffee. If you’re looking for a cappuccino, cafe latte or any other sort of Italian-style coffee, you need to ask for a ‘coffee house‘.
The best coffee house in Bishkek is Adriano coffee. The best thing about Adriano coffee? There are seven branches in Bishkek, so you’re never far from your next caffeine fix. The coffee at Adriano is the best I found in Bishkek, while the menu items make for a pleasant break from the usual offering of ‘national’ cuisine.
The main branch, which seems to attract every visitor in town, is located at 87 Isanov Street, a short walk off the main street – Chuy street – just look for the giant green ‘A‘ out front.
Another worthwhile branch can be found alongside Victory Park, in the modern Business Park complex on Sultan Ibraimov street.
There are a few wannabe coffee houses in Karakol but the only real coffee house is Karakol Coffee. Located downtown at 112 Toktogul Street, this is the kind of funky cafe you would expect to find in any cosmopolitan city in Europe, North America, Australia etc – but here it is, lighting up the cafe scene in tiny Karakol.
If you’re unsure whether you should make the journey to Karakol Coffee, the tempting photos on their website will probably win you over. The menu items are delicious but you should save room for their homemade cakes which are divine.
While Karakol Coffee is wonderful, I would have to nominate Coffee House Brio as my favourite cafe in all of Kyrgyzstan. Located in downtown Osh at 211 Kurmanjan-Datka Street, this cafe offers wonderful coffee, delicious food and a large dining area which is always full of local peace corps volunteers or travellers planning their next move.
If you’re looking to connect with other travellers, gain some insights from those who have just finished a journey along the Pamir Highway or who have recently arrived from Uzbekistan, this is the place to be.
Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, Kyrgyzstan, like other Central Asian republics, lived for many years under Soviet rule, where religion was banned and alcohol flowed freely. Due to its recent history, alcohol is available and bars can be found in all major cities.
While in most places standalone bars do not exist, almost all restaurants offer alcohol with your meal.
In Bishkek, the Torro Grill & Bar (93 Shopokov street) is very animated on a Friday night and is a good place to rub shoulders with locals and expats. If you’re in the mood to party, the Chebak Pub (213 Chuy Avenue) has live music most nights and a lively crowd.
Of all the countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has the most relaxed visa policy, allowing citizens of 69 countries to enter visa-free, while all other passport holders can apply for an e-Visa.
To check your requirements, refer to the Visa Policy of Kyrgyzstan.
Scheduled international flights to Kyrgyzstan arrive at Manas International Airport (IATA: FRU), which is the primary gateway to the country, located 25 kilometres (16 miles) northwest of Bishkek. The secondary gateway is Osh Airport (IATA: OSS) which is located 15 minutes north of Osh city centre.
Manas International Airport
Manas International airport serves as a base for no less than four small, national carriers (consolidation anyone?); Air Manas, Air Kyrgyzstan (website only in Russian), TezJet Airlines (website only in Russian) and the Avia Traffic Company, which has the unfortunate distinction of being banned from operating in the EU.
The following airlines provide scheduled flights to/ from Manas International Airport:
- Aeroflot – flights to/ from Moscow–Sheremetyevo
- Air Arabia – flights to/ from Sharjah
- Air Astana – flights to/ from Almaty, Nur-Sultan
- Air Kyrgyzstan – flights to/ from Osh
- Air Manas – flights to/ from Chelyabinsk, Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen, Krasnoyarsk–Yemelyanovo, Moscow–Domodedovo, Moscow-Zhukovsky, Novosibirsk, Osh, Perm, Tashkent
- Avia Traffic Company – flights to/ from Delhi, Dushanbe, Grozny, Irkutsk, Jalal-Abad, Kazan, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk–Yemelyanovo, Moscow–Domodedovo, Moscow-Zhukovsky, Novosibirsk, Osh, St Petersburg, Surgut, Voronezh, Yekaterinburg
- China Southern Airlines – flights to/ from Ürümqi
- flydubai – flights to/ from Dubai–International
- Pegasus Airlines – flights to/ from Istanbul–Sabiha Gökçen
- S7 Airlines – flights to/ from Novosibirsk
- Qazaq Air – flights to/ from Almaty
- TezJet Airlines – flights to/ from Batken, Jalal-Abad, Osh
- Turkish Airlines – flights to/ from Istanbul, Ulaanbaatar
- Ural Airlines – flights to/ from Moscow–Domodedovo, Moscow-Zhukovsky, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg
- Uzbekistan Airways – flights to/ from Tashkent
Manus Airport Transport
When using taxis in Bishkek, it’s always best to use the local version of Uber – Yandex Taxi. A taxi to/ from Bishkek to the airport will cost around 700 soms (USD$10).
The following airlines provide scheduled flights to/ from
- Aeroflot – flights to/ from Moscow–Sheremetyevo
- Air Kyrgyzstan – flights to/ from Abakan, Bishkek, Krasnoyarsk–Yemelyanovo, Surgut
- Air Manas – flights to/ from Bishkek, Dushanbe, Krasnoyarsk–Yemelyanovo
- Avia Traffic Company – flights to/ from Bishkek, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk-Yemelyanovo, Moscow–Domodedovo, Moscow–Zhukovsky, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Surgut, Yekaterinburg
- China Southern Airlines – flights to/ from Ürümqi
- flydubai – flights to/ from Dubai
- Qazaq Air – flights to/ from Almaty
- S7 Airlines – flights to/ from Moscow–Domodedovo, Novosibirsk
- TezJet Airlines – flights to/ from Bishkek
- Ural Airlines – flights to/ from Anapa, Chelyabinsk, Kazan, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk–Yemelyanovo, Moscow–Domodedovo, Moscow–Zhukovsky, Nizhnevartovsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Sochi, St. Petersburg, Tyumen, Volgograd, Voronezh, Yekaterinburg
Osh Airport Transport
- When using taxis in Osh, it’s always best to use Yandex Taxi. A taxi to/ from downtown Osh costs between 200-300 som.
- Marshrutka (mini bus) #107 or #142 serve the airport between 7 am and 7 pm.
Kyrgyzstan shares land borders with Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The fastest and most comfortable way to travel into and out of Kyrgyzstan is with shared taxis which run to and from most borders.
As with other countries in the CIS world, not all border crossings into Kyrgyzstan are multilateral (i.e. open to foreigners). Always check first, before heading to the border. Another restriction applies to those entering on an e-Visa. Currently there are 12 border crossings open to such travellers.
In the north, Kyrgyzstan shares a 1,211 km (753 mi) border with Kazakhstan. There are currently 4 crossings open, with the busiest being the Kordai crossing, which is on the main highway between Bishkek and Almaty.
For more on Kazakhstan, including its entry requirements, please refer to my Kazakhstan Travel Guide.
In the east, Kyrgyzstan shares a 1,063 km (660 mi) border with China. There are currently 2 crossings open with the Irkeshtam pass (accessible via Osh then Sary Tash) being the easiest of the two crossings.
In the south, Kyrgyzstan shares a 983 km (611 mi) border with Tajikistan. There are currently 4 crossings open with the remote, high-altitude, Pamir Highway crossing at Kyzylart – Bor Dobo (south of Sary Tash) being the most popular with tourists. If you are planning to cross this border, you’ll need a Tajikistan visa and a GBAO permit (Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast).
For more on Tajikistan, including its entry requirements, please refer to my Tajikistan Travel Guide.
In the west, Kyrgyzstan shares a 1,314 km (816 mi) border with Uzbekistan. There are currently 2 crossings open with the main border crossing on the road between Osh and Andijon (Uzbekistan) being the busiest. Land transport (road and rail) between Bishkek and Tashkent goes via Kazakhstan.
For more on Uzbekistan, including its entry requirements, please refer to my Uzbekistan Travel Guide.
In the mood for an odyssey?
Trains between Bishkek and Moscow run several times a week, completing the 3,714 km (2,307 mi) journey in 3 days, 18 hours, with a change required in Ekaterinburg. When will the Russians catch the ‘bullet-train fever’ which has changed the travel landscape in neighbouring China? Ticket prices, availability and route maps can be viewed online at tutu.travel.
Unlike most other ex-Soviet capitals, there is no metro operating in Bishkek. The main form of public transport is bus and mini-buses, known locally as Marshrutkas. While buses tend to operate within urban centres, Marshrutkas offer city and intra-city services.
If you wish to view the different bus routes in Bishkek, you can do so here.
Yandex Taxi is an online ride-sharing service which was launched in 2011 and is now present in most of Central Asia. In 2018, Yandex and Uber merged their operations in the region. The Yandex app can be downloaded onto a smartphone and, in terms of functionality, is very similar to Uber.
Within Kyrgyzstan, Yandex is currently active in Bishkek and Osh.
Car rental is becoming more popular in Kyrgyzstan, with more visitors wishing to be fully independent to explore the amazing scenery of this spectacularly beautiful alpine country. With the notoriously terrible roads being constantly improved, and the corrupt police (look out for all the roadside speed checks!) becoming more friendly towards tourists, the stars are slowly aligning for the car rental industry.
If you plan on driving around Kyrgyzstan, it’s essential that you have connectivity to the internet as you will get lost without a navigational app such as Google Maps or Waze.
Journey’s in Kyrgyzstan can be long and arduous, with most highways being rough, corrugated, pot-holed, gravel, narrow roads which wind up and down one mountain pass after another. While roads in the vicinity of Bishkek, Osh and lake Issyk-Kul are well maintained, elsewhere, they are diabolical. This is no place for a regular 2WD compact rental!
However, nowhere is off-limits to a local and his ‘go-anywhere’ Lada. From the middle of a paddock, to a mountain pass, to a river crossing, the tiny Lada can be found everywhere and are the work horses of Central Asia, being employed as family cars, farm wagons and freight carriers.
While car rental is becoming more popular, few rental companies exist in Bishkek, and finding an available car can be a challenge. The international rental chains have not made it to Kyrgyzstan, however agents in nearby Almaty (Kazakhstan), such as Hertz, will allow you to drive across the border into Kyrgyzstan. For more on rentals from Almaty, please refer to my Kazakhstan Travel Guide.
Adding to the challenge, most of the companies are locally run, have very small fleets (normally less than 5 cars in total) and don’t accept credit cards. Luckily, withdrawing cash on a credit card at a bank in Bishkek is a very easy process and took me less than 5 minutes.
After much searching, I found an excellent Toyota Land Cruiser, which I rented for US$80 per day through the amazingly entrepreneurial Almaz Alzhambaev of Kyrgyzstan Tours and Rent-a-Car Service in Bishkek. Almaz has a fleet of 7 cars, although he only has one amazing Toyota Land Cruiser.
If I thought US$80, per day, was expensive at the beginning of the trip, by the end of the trip – having driven on the longest and roughest of dirt roads, climbed the steepest of unpaved mountain passes, forded river crossings and driven, off-piste, many times, all without any mechanical issues, then $80 seemed to be a bargain. During two weeks of enduring punishment, the Toyota Land Cruiser never stopped performing and was always 100% reliable!
In addition to its mechanical reliability, the Land Cruiser was fitted with dual-fuel tanks, which is a great advantage in a country where distances, in remote regions, between petrol stations can be vast. While other motorists carried around containers full of spare fuel, I had a second tank, full of fuel, as a backup. I could have driven to Mongolia without refuelling!
Almaz allows one-way rentals, which gave me the flexibility to drive from Bishkek to Osh, where, two weeks later, he flew-in to meet me, then drove the car back to Bishkek, a 10.5-hour journey covering 611 km along windy, mountainous roads. For this, he charged me US$120.
Almaz advised that his cars can be driven across borders into neighbouring countries, once insurance paperwork has been completed. For this, he charges an additional fee of US$40. If you’re heading into Tajikistan, car rentals are non-existent, so it’s best to hire in Kyrgyzstan. I would highly recommend Almaz for all your rental car needs.
Contact details for Almaz:
Other travel reports from the Central Asia region:
Additional blogs, articles and information on Kyrgyzstan are available on the Indy Guide website.
Follow me on Instagram
Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide
Author: Darren McLean
Owner of taste2travel.com – an avid traveler, photographer, travel writer and adventurer.
I hope you enjoy reading my content.