Where do I even begin with the stories from this wild land of mountains? When we started telling people about our trip we were often met with "how-the-where-whatnow-stan?" I guess that was to be expected since it is still fairly unknown in the broad "tourist" community, despite offering rustic beauty, rawness and a sense of insane remoteness. Let me introduce you to the exquisite beauty that is Kyrgyzstan!!
Five countries together form Central Asia - Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. These countries have always been on my radar. They all offer something different for outdoor lovers and are still very much off the beaten path.
90% of this country is covered with mountains. Since this country is so close for us to fly to, I kept putting it off for a later time. Not this time though. The timing was perfect. The weather even more so. Not many people knew the country was open for tourism - result? We had every single mountain, lake and stream to ourselves. Oooh mama!
As I started putting together our itinerary, I quickly realized that the country is geographically diverse. How do I choose between towering peaks, the colorful deserts, lakes as big as oceans and alpine forests? We could spend a lifetime here. I found it overwhelming narrowing it all down to a week - we managed to do most of what I had planned. Consider this itinerary to only be a fast-track touristy guide to Kyrgyzstan.
Go here to live your wildest adventure dreams!
1. You will need a negative COVID test taken 72 hours prior to your arrival in Bishkek.
2. You will also need a negative COVID test to exit the country (the duration of the test will depend on the requirement for the country you are flying back to). We did ours on the last night.
3. There is no quarantine in place.
We got our tests done at AQUA LABS in Bishkek - open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for tests every day of the week. There are four labs in the capital, all within a few miles of each other but if you are using a guide, be sure to ask him to check about timings. We were told these private labs work their own times and sometimes even close before 4 p.m. The tests cost $20 per person; results back within 24 hours (we got our results in just a few hours but I would recommend getting it done as early as possible )!
Flights, Visa and Vaccines
Direct flights with Fly Dubai from Dubai and all of 3 and half hours. Hello happiness!
E-Visa. Many countries are eligible for on arrival but best if you apply ahead of time. You can easily apply here. Costs $50 per person and is no headache at all. Make sure you have the right travel dates for the trip before applying (these cannot be changed later). Our single entry visa took 9 working days to process. Got it via email.
Safety and hygiene
Is Kyrgyzstan safe to travel to during the pandemic? That is a matter of personal opinion. The country has been reporting 300-400 cases (mostly in the capital).
Having been to a fair few cities over the years, I did not expect the capital city of Bishkek to be as neat as it was. The traffic was not very chaotic, but not many people were wearing masks. You should absolutely wear yours every time you step out of your car and in all public spaces. Carry your own sanitizers as well. As you go further into the remote villages and stay with locals, you will not find anyone wearing a mask or practicing any form of social distancing. If this irks you, perhaps this isn't the place for you to go to right now. We are fully vaccinated, we wore our masks indoors and in restaurants, except for when we were eating.
Toilets - there are none!
If you have done any sort of research on the stans, you already know about the famous "pit toilets" - a small wooden closet covering a pit for you to do your business. We have experienced this in many countries over the years, so it was not a deal breaker. I prefer to go wild than use pit toilets (just be sure to cover up after). Always carry your own paper towels and plenty of deodorant (trust me, you will need it)!
Language and People
The people are really affable - even random strangers on the road don't hesitate to help you as best as they can. Though no one - not even in the city - spoke a word of English. Given we were only there for a week, we would have struggled to get by without a guide. Try to pick up a few local words as soon as possible!
It is important for me to stay connected with family in remote countries for emergencies. I recommend picking up a sim card in the capital city. You can easily pick it up at any of the malls. It only costs $3 for unlimited internet and calling minutes!!
Travel and Medical Insurance, Currency
Travel and medical insurance is always recommended when hiking. No card machines. anywhere. Carry local currency if you plan to eat or shop in smaller stores.
The cost is the highlight of this country. One of the cheapest places we have been to in a long time. The local food, accommodation and pretty much everything is cheap. A week with a private guide, accommodation and all meals should cost you no more than $700-800 per person. You can do it for much less if you don't mind sharing the car with others. If backpacking and wild camping is more your style, expect to spend no more than $50 per day for food + stay.
Best time to visit
Summers are HOT. Spring (April - June) or Fall (late August through October) are the two best seasons to visit. If you are doing long multi-day hikes, then summer (June-September) is the best. We went in the first week of May, not too hot during the day but very chilly in the high mountains. Our timing was pitch perfect though. Not many knew Kyrgyzstan was open for tourists, it felt like we had the whole country to ourselves.
How long to spend in Kyrgyzstan
All the guides I contacted mentioned it would be difficult to pull off the itinerary I put together. After all, Kyrgyzstan is the land of multi-day hikes. This is the best country to go wild camping and not have it cost you a kidney. Heaven for mountain lovers and people who enjoy slow travel. You can spend months exploring every corner. If, like us, you are always short on time, start off with a minimum of 7 days.
How to get around
Hitchhiking is very popular in Kyrgyzstan. I cannot tell you how many times we saw old people, kids and everyone in between waiting for a ride. I am not particularly fond of it, especially not when we are trying to maximize our time in the country but if you don't mind the long waits and want to save on $$, that is a viable option. There are also public buses and taxis in bigger towns like Kochkor and Karakol but they still seemed far and few. Best to either rent a car or hire a guide.
Picking a Driver/Guide
I am a big fan of having a local guide in places where English is not the first language, vegetarian food is hard to come by, distances are huge and good roads are nonexistent.
We avoid self driving in places where we are going to be go off the grid. Wwo weeks prior to our trip, I started searching for local guides. Since most people seemed to self-drive for months, there was not a lot of information about guides to the country. This process took longer than expected but I finally found Tilek from Pegas Adventures. I reached out to him with the itinerary I had in mind. We were initially going to this trip in the last week of April but after speaking to Tilek, I was advised to do it in May both for better scenic views and weather. He was quick, efficient and very helpful in his response - all his suggestions and arrangements were outstanding. From making sure we packed the right clothes to ensuring we had our warm milk for coffee and fantastic vegetarian food every single day, he was spot on. Not to mention the great rates. I could not recommend him enough. Cannot wait to be back to do the other four stans with Pegas adventures!
Safety for Traveling Solo as a woman
As with most countries, exert caution, dress modestly, don't flash around your wallet or expensive gadgets. The people we met and spoke to were all warm and welcoming. Definitely seemed like a safe country for solo backpacking.
Where we stayed
Unlike the luxury stays we did in Uganda, this trip was not a walk in the park. It was all about the homestays and small guesthouses in villages.
In Bishkek I chose the Garden Hotel and Spa. It was a little farther out from the main city but with great views!
The location of the Ala Aracha Hotel was outstanding. An unmissable tiny red hut, the vibes are straight out of a movie set. This is a government run lodge so the food was substandard. Luckily we picked up groceries at the market in Bishkek. I recommend staying for these views though!
Some of the places we stayed at were more comfortable - sometimes we also had no water. Some were also touristy guesthouses and had wifi. Two out of the four places had a pit toilet. No complaints whatsoever. The cutest Babushkas made doubly sure we were warm at night and slept with full bellies.
No trip to Kyrgyzstan is complete without staying at the Yurt. Though it was such a fabulous experience to stay in them, the honest truth is that they get extremely cold at night (yes, even in the summer). There was a fire burning but I felt that the yurt was too big for it to be warm through the night. Wear plenty of layers - pack thermal innerwear, if you have space.
This is a rarity in most of the country. Luckily we had an amazing guide to help us try the local delicacies minus the meat. You will be surprised to hear that are so many different types of bread - my favorite was the borsook bread (basically deep fried dough). Things I recommend you try - vegan Ashlan Fu (cold ramen bowl). Vegan Boso Lugman (chopsuey). Vegetarian Mandi (steamed dumpling)
Breakfast was usually a simple affair with hot tea, bread, jam, rice porridge and homemade biscuits. Apart from that food was warm soup, carrot pilaf, and potato stew spiced with dill and local flavors. If you have strict dietary preferences like us, I recommend picking up your own grocery and cooking, especially if you are planning to do home stays without a guide.
What to pack
Depending on the time of year you choose to go, pack light layers, wind jacket. If you go in peak summer, pack loose shirts and shorts/trousers, sunscreen and a top hat.
For the yurts - they get extremely uncomfortable at night (even in the summer), even with the fire. Wear plenty of layers - pack thermal innerwear, if you have space.
Day 1 - hiking the Ala Archa National Park
Waking up and smelling the air in a new country is a HIGH. I could barely get any sleep. After a warm cup of coffee, we started our road trip towards Ala Archa National Park.
A trip to this national park is one of the best day trips to do from Bishkek. A short 45 minute drive will take you to the entrance of the park. You park and make your way towards the different trails inside the park. There is a trail for every hiker - from small ones to the popular Ala Aracha Valley walk and the hike up to Ak-Say waterfall, which takes roughly 5 hours. In the summer, you can also do the full day climb to the Ak-Say Glacier.
Ala Archa is supposed to mean "juniper", which are the alpine trees that characterize the landscape surrounding this park.
The place was deserted. We were the only ones there on this rainy, moody afternoon.
The river walk is the easiest one to do - just walk along the river and follow the path to the higher mountains.
We continued on our two hour walk up to see the waterfalls but alas it was covered in thick fog by the time we reached the place.
Nevertheless, this alpine national park is a thing of pure beauty. The park covers roughly 200 sq kms, and its altitude ranges from about 1,500 meters at the entrance to a maximum of 4,895 meters at Peak Semenova Tian-Shanski, the highest peak in the Kyrgyz Ala-tau range of the Tian Shan.
It was incredible to see how much of a difference a short drive away from the city could make. The air was crisp, cold. The atmosphere tranquil.
TIP: You can easily drive to and from the city after the hike. You can arrange a taxi drop off with the hostel of hotel you are staying at. We decided to stay inside the park for the night. The sunset and sunrise views over the mountains were refreshing. Worth spending a night there.
Day 2 - drive from Ala Aracha to Burana Tower, Tien Shan Mountains
Started our day at 9 am. Today was going to be a long travel day with scenic pit stops along the way. It was a long travel day to reach Karakol Valley. Our first stop for the day was Burana Tower, a minaret in northern Kyrgyzstan.
What a fun spot for a picnic lunch, right?
Post lunch we drove along the most scenic routes passing the northern shore of Issyk Kul Lake which is not only one of the world's few remaining ancient lakes, estimated to be an incredible 25 million years old, but also the second-largest alpine lake on the planet.
What you see here was the highlight of our day- the golden hour at Tien Shan mountains, rightfully dubbed as the “celestial mountains” in Chinese!!!
Day 3 - Jeti Oguz Valley and kok jaiyk hike, Barskoon Waterfall and Skakza Canyon
After covering the northern Issyk Kul area, we head towards the South shore - which is known to be far better. It was indeed a sight to behold with some of the country's most diverse landscape on offer.
After a beautiful breakfast, we left the Karakol valley for Jeti Oguz - one of the most popular day trips from Karakol. Right as you enter the valley, you will find the very popular "seven bulls" on your right.
You can also hike up this mountain, best views at sunrise or sunset!
We decided to hike the Valley of Flowers instead. Also known as kok jaiyk, a place that can only be described as heaven on earth. The roads are rough, so if you are short on time, drive up half way and then hike for another 2 hours to reach the valley.
Way up in the dewy green fields hugged by a thousand pine trees, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stepped right into in the Swiss countryside rather than a remote valley in Kyrgyzstan.
The valley is characterized by blooming flowers, towering snow-capped alps and spruce forests.
We could have stayed there forever.
Our second stop for the day was a picnic lunch and hike at the Barskoon Waterfall, which was partially frozen when we went in May. It is a somewhat steep hike but doable. There are few different trails you can take. The first one being the easiest to do in an hour or so.
After your reach the first waterfall, you can continue following the edge of the gorge leading up to the second fall. The path is windy and rugged but the view over the valley and the surrounding mountains only gets with every feet.
The waterfall is scenic and relaxing on a warm spring day. Perfect for a picnic.
Our last stop for the day was the magical Skazka canyon aka Fairy Tale canyon in Russian. Like a surreal painting with every color imaginable becoming a part of the rugged canyons!
It is easily one of the most beautiful attractions on the southern shore of lake Issyk kul. It’s like Wadi Rum and Cappadocia packaged neatly into one giant Martian landscape, and feels like a world of its own. It is not very different to the American Southwest either. The landscape is formed as a result of thousands of years of water and wind erosion, which led to the formation of thousands of sculptures, where red spires of rock rise out of the earth and into the sky.
This canyon is easily accessible on foot (just wear shoes with good grip). The deeper you go, the more impressive it gets. The ever-changing greens, reds and oranges are simply spectacular. From a vantage point, you can even see the Issky Kul Lake in the background.
What was amazing to see was how much of a difference a short one hour drive from the mountains can make. This landscape is such a stark contrast to the green alpine meadows and snow capped peaks we had witnessed earlier in the day.
Day 4 - eagle hunting, archery and canyon
Today was a day filled with cultural experiences. We woke up bright and early on a cold morning for a hearty Kyrgyz breakfast in a luxury Yurt.
It was time to get an intimate look at the lives of the real nomadic tribe of Central Asia where we learn about their traditional sports. First we rubbed elbows with masters of eagle hunting, a tradition that has been passed through generations.