It is said that if you rolled Kyrgyzstan out flat, it would have a greater land area than China. This tiny, mountainous Central Asian republic shot to (relative) fame as the host country of the Worldwide Nomad Games, but its appeal extends well beyond its nomadic culture. With dramatic landscapes; thousands of years of Silk Road history; local, Russian, and Soviet architectural styles; and a fusion of faiths, languages, and ethnic groups, Kyrgyzstan is an eye opening destination for adventurous travellers.
If you fly into visa-free Kyrgyzstan, the chances are that your first stop will be the capital, Bishkek. Historically there was a Silk Road caravan stop here, but Bishkek only grew into a city of any size once it was fortified in the 19th century. Most of what you see today dates from the Soviet period, or was built after independence in 1991.
Bishkek is centred on Ala Too Square, a grand statement in polished marble and granite with neo-classical buildings, and gorgeous fountains and floral displays. The White House — the office of Kyrgyzstan’s President — is here, as well as the State History Museum and a monument built in honour of the victims of the 2005 and 2010 revolutions.
A little outside the city centre is Osh Bazaar, one of the largest and most impressive markets in Central Asia. Filled with the sounds of stall owners hustling, the smells of aromatic foods, and corridor upon corridor of stalls selling local foods, household goods, clothes, souvenirs, car parts, and everything else you can imagine, this rich experience is not to be missed. Sunday is the busiest days, and can be overwhelming, so it is best to head to Osh Bazaar on Mondays when the crowds are smaller.
Ala Archa National Park
From almost any high rise building in Bishkek you can see the snow capped peaks of the Tian Shan Mountains. Heed their call and head out to the Ala Archa Alpine National park, 40 km south of the city. The 200 sq km park is formed of rivers, glaciers, gorges and tremendous mountain ranges, as well as a wooded valley with waterfalls, springs, and a wealth of trout.
The name Ala Archa comes from the Kyrgyz word for juniper, which is a prominent species in the park. Traditionally people would burn the plant to chase away evil spirits, and for that reason the places where it grows are still held in high regard. Hikes here are stunning in every season, though the flowers are at their most abundant in the spring. In the remoter valleys you can see wild goats, marmots, and roe deer, and now and then even snow leopards put in an appearance.
With its largely nomadic past, Kyrgyzstan lacks many of the historical buildings of neighbouring Uzbekistan. In the Chuy Valley is a notable exception, however: the remains of the 9th century city of Balasagun.
The dominant structure here is the brick built Burana Tower. When it was first made it soared to a height of 45m, though the centuries have taken their toll. You can still climb the spiral staircase inside, and from the top look down on the ruins of Balasagun’s fortifications, mausoleums, and graves. The grave markers (called balbals) are stelae with a human form, and somewhat eerie.
Tourists tend to talk of Issyk Kul, the seventh deepest lake in the world, as being a gem of Kyrgyzstan. But those who have spent longer in Kyrgyzstan recognise that the real treasure is Song Kol, a second, much more remote lake with none of the over-development of its more famous sister.
The unmade roads to reach Song Kol are rough, but all along the way there are things to see. Kyrgyz nomads live off the land while tending to their grazing flocks amidst the lush summer pastures. Now and then you’ll pass a village or a Lada limping its way to or from Naryn, the nearest town.
The yurt camps are on Song Kol’s shore. Staying here with a family you can experience rural life authentically. The matriarch will prepare food in a traditional style, demonstrate her felt making skill, and perhaps teach you to milk a cow or horse. The children will want to show off their horsemanship; however competent a rider you are, there’s no doubt that even the pre-teens will put you to shame.
Tash Rabat feels like the middle of nowhere, but in the 15th century when this caravanserai built, it was on an important Silk Road trading route between the flourishing markets of Kashgar (now in Xinjiang, China) and those further west in Central Asia. The fortified walls would have provided merchants with protection from wolves as much as bandits, and when you step inside the courtyard you can still imagine the stories which must have been exchanged here about the perils of the road ahead.
You can reach Tash Rabat by 4×4, and many visitors just stop here briefly on their way to China. If you have time, however, it is far more atmospheric to arrive on horseback and to camp for the night. The star gazing at Tash Rabat, so far from towns and cities, is second to none.
Peak Lenin sits close to the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It’s a major draw for climbers as it is considered one of the least technical peaks over 7,000m, but even those not intending to make it to the top will be struck by its beauty and impressive scale.
Trekkers and overlanders driving the Pamir Highway should stop first at Tulpar Kul, a high altitude lake in the Chon Alai Mountain Range. The turquoise lake is at the foot of the mountain, and we can arrange for you to stay the night in a comfortable yurt. From here it is possible to hike over Travellers’ Pass (4,100m) for incredible views of Peak Lenin and the glaciers which surround it. You do need a permit to visit this area; Paramount Journey can arrange it for you in advance.
Paramount Journeys’ Central Asia specialists create group and individual itineraries for Kyrgyzstan. Whether you want to explore the country on horseback, on foot, or by 4×4, we can create an unforgettable trip.