Maybe you’re tired of over-touristy places. Or you’re a nature photographer looking for unique shots. Or you’re looking for someplace that has spec-frecking-tacular nature like Switzerland but at a fraction of the cost. Good news: such under-explored places still exist in the Stan corner of the world. Welcome to Kyrgyzstan! This article will answer your question: what is Kyrgyzstan best known for? What are things to do in Kyrgyzstan? And what are the not-to-miss tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan?
Horse riding in Kyrgyzstan
If you heard one thing about Kyrgyzstan, I’ll bet it was horse riding. Kyrgyzstan is world-famous for its horse riding tours, be it a few hours trial or multi-day trips into the mountainous regions. The horses that are offered to tourists are docile and trained to follow the guide’s horse thus even the most inexperienced and children can have a pleasant ride without worrying about how-tos. Hold on, relax and enjoy the ride with some of the most magnificent views you’ll have a chance to see.
If you are booking horse riding separately, you’ll be quoted daily prices. Note that you’ll pay for your guide’s horse as well, and half-day trips are usually also possible to arrange.
Tip: wear gentle-to-skin long pants to avoid welts on your bum and bruises in the ankle area. You’ll thank me later!
Staying in a yurt like a nomad
It’s a perfect getaway from everything. Stay in a traditional yurt, located far from the usual civilization buzz and surrounded by nature. They’re run by nomadic families that come to the jailoos, the summer pastures, with their herds of horses, cows, sheep and goats.
You will have the unique opportunity to experience the nomadic traditions first hand. Some tours include one or two-day-long immersion programs where you actually live the life of the nomad. If you haven’t tried before, females will learn how to milk cattle, cook traditional dishes and bake the bread; in the meantime, men usually head out to watch over the herds during the day.
Where to stay? I’d recommend staying in yurt camp next to Song-Köl lake in the mountain pasture and at the Beltam Yurt Camp on the shores of the Ysyk-Köl lake, close to Bokonbayevo. Arrange your stay (and the immersion tour) at a local CBT group.
Hiking and trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Infamously dubbed as Central Asia’s Switzerland, Kyrgyzstan boasts stunning scenery and tracks suitable for all levels of preparedness: from easy walks in the mountain meadows to an ascension to the 7,134 metres high Lenin Peak.
Tip: You can also arrange mix tours with biking and horse riding.
Ala Archa Gorge National Park
Ala Archa offers a great introduction to the Kyrgyzstan mountains. From Alplager hut, follow the Waterfall Trail for really good views of the canyon and Ala Archa river; 3.75km later you’ll reach the Ak Sai waterfall. You can spend a couple of days there to access the Ak-Sai glacier (or 19 other glaciers) and climb the surrounding peaks or just make it a day hike. You can also opt for easier main trail along Ala-Archa River.
How to get to Ala Archa from Bishkek: only 40km away from the capital, this is the most accessible hiking spot in Kyrgyzstan. Take marshrutka (a local minibus) number 265 from the Osh Bazaar for an approximately hour’s journey. Alternatively, hire a taxi.
More short hiking opportunities
- Issyk-Ata, also accessible from Bishkek. Plan for two days.
- Ala-Köl: from Karakol, arrange 2-4 days hiking trip to the Ala-Köl lake, the Ala-Köl pass and a rewarding soak in Altyn-Arashan’s hot springs
- Jyrgalan: a still unknown destination for a 2-3 days trekking experience: Turgen-Ak Suu valley and river, alpine Boz Uchuk lakes, and Eki Chat Gorge
The guys from Uncornered Market have written a great review of their Jyrgalan hike, as well as a useful list of things to know before going on the hiking trip. You can also read Stephen Lioy journey to Ak Suu.
Admiring natural wonders
Kyrgyzstan landscape is highly diverse. If you have time, include other sites in your itinerary in order to get a better picture of Kyrgyzstan spectacular nature.
Skazka (Fairy Tale) Canyon: unreal landscape with red stone formations, shaped by the elements, that look like animals, fairy tale characters or castles – hence the name. What you see really depends on your imagination!
Barskoon waterfall: a pretty 24 meters high waterfall; there are smaller waterfalls in the surrounding area so I’d suggest you to take a short walk around.
Tuz-Kol salt lake: Kyrgyzstan’s own Dead Sea, located close to the Issyk-Kule Lake. Plus its mud is said to have healing properties.
Köl-Suu alpine lake: an secret trekking destination in the South of Kyrgyzstan, on the way for those who are planning to continue their trip to Tajikistan
Ferghana Valley: jaw-dropping landscape will make you stop every few kilometres. Make sure you have a patient driver!
Tasting Kyrgyzstan famous food
Kumyz is the fermented mare milk, also popular in the neighbouring countries. It does have an interesting taste and keep in mind that the older it is, the sourer and stronger it will taste!
Besh barmak (literally “five fingers”) is a traditional dish of horse meat with noodles that is present at any significant event. And you can find it with mutton or beef too!
Oromo – think of it as a lasagna but rolled with meat and vegetable filling, and steamed instead of baking. A simple but filling staple.
Kyrgyzstan tea is omnipresent at any Kyrgyz meal. The true way to take your tea is black with a spoon of a jam in it; milk is another option.
You should also try jarma (maksim), a wheat-based drink great for summer, and airan/kefir, a savoury drinking yoghurt.
Other dishes are not strictly Kyrgyz and are popular throughout Central Asia.
Observe Kyrgyz traditions
World Nomad Games: if you have a chance, do attend this annual event that showcases the historical-cultural heritage of the nomadic people’s civilization of the world: at least 28 sports including traditional horse games (wrestling on the horse and horse polo with a sheep carcass, anyone?), falconry and archery shows, scrumptious food and a colourful display on national costumes. The 2016 event was captured in splendid photos by Nomadasaurus – you must check their post!
Eagle hunting: until today, it’s a competitive sport in the country. It’s possible to see them in action, hunting the ‘prey’ that’s usually a piece of fur, and even hold them!
Petroglyph sites like Cholpon-Ata and Saimaluu Tash (the former is much more accessible than the latter). Carvings centuries-old allow us a glimpse into the past long gone: the daily life, beliefs & symbols, and animals of those times.
Buying Kyrgyz crafts
Felt: when you stay in the yurt, check the material it’s made of – it’s felt. Made by hands from natural wool, felt has played an important role in the Kyrgyz nomadic culture. Look out for shyrdak, stitched colourful felt carpet, and ala-kiyiz carpet, a pressed wool one; both of the carpet-making arts are inscribed by UNESCO on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. In Koshkor you can buy the original carpets and even attend a workshop of a local carpet maker (inquire at the local CBT group).
Kyrgyzstan clothing: A lot of Kyrgyz men in the countryside (i.e. outside Bishkek) still wear the traditional felt hats ak kalpaks, even nowadays when many exchanged their traditional garbs to Western everyday clothing. They have a special status among all the clothing pieces and demand much respect, and are given to boys when they reach the age of 6.
Other traditional clothes are usually reserved for the special occasions and celebrations.
Things to do in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
This unassuming (in our eyes) Kyrgyz capital offers a comfy stopover for the travellers. You should check:
- Osh market – the biggest capital’s market to stock your food supplies. If you’re looking for clothing and cheap Chinese goods, head to Dordoy Bazaar.
- State History Museum – for a journey back to Soviet times: colourful realist murals carrying explicit political messages and pastoral socialist scenes, and statues of Marx
- Gapar Aitiev Fine Arts Museum – for the Kyrgyz folk art and crafts
- Panfilov park – for a walk in the greenery
And of course, Bishkek offers a great variety of local and regional restaurants!
Tip: from here, you can continue your Stan journey to Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Exploring other towns
Karakol: this town is often used as a stopover for the trekking and skiing tours into Tien Shan mountains. However, it offers a few gems of its own: Dungan mosque, built in a Chinese style, a wooden orthodox church and a livestock market every second Sunday of each month that starts at dawn.
Tip: if you’re staying here overnight, ask your host to drive you to the sauna centre for a 1-2 hour steam session. Also order the homemade kompot, a drink from dried fruits, to rehydrate yourself.
Osh: while unremarkable by itself, the town of Osh has the largest outdoor market you might want to wander about, as well as offers a hike to Sulayman Too for panoramic views. The most popular stop for those who are heading to Uzbekistan.
If you’re looking for an arranged multi-day tour or help with finding a lovely homestay, a responsible horse riding tour or just some information about Kyrgyzstan attractions, I’d strongly recommend CBT Kyrgyzstan. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting community-based tourism. As they state:
The association’s objective is to improve living conditions in remote mountain regions by developing a sustainable and wholesome ecotourism model that utilizes local natural and recreational resources.
CBT Kyrgyzstan consists of 15 independent chapters (or groups) in major destinations. Check their website for the information and tours. You can also check Kyrgyz Concept, Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan and Ak-Sai; the latter offers serious trekking and mountaineering tours, including the Lenin Peak.
What blew my mind about Kyrgyzstan is that there is no mass tourism; forget the 50+ seat buses and alike. Any Kyrgyzstan tour package is likely to be private and feel like your own expedition into the land less explored.
Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan
You don’t like organized tours – we hear you. And while backpacking is possible, it is definitely not an easy task because:
- Language barrier: Almost no one speaks English. It’s great if you or your travel bussy speak and read Russian because without it you’ll be really lost, and grossly overcharged (expect double at least).
- Transportation system is under-developed and connects only cities. In order to reach Song Kul and similar locations, you’ll need to hire a driver with a 4WD. Car renting isn’t popular due to trust issues, in a nutshell; it’s cheaper to get a driver with a car than just a car. Even most of the taxis are illegal (and don’t forget to negotiate your ride price before you sit down).
- Citizens of some countries require an invitation (visa support) letter – and you need a local agency for this. Check the link in the visa section below to find out if you need it.
If you need information and any help booking bus tickets, accommodations and activities, I’d suggest you inquire at a local CBT chapter or your international hostel in Bishkek.
Also, make sure to check these informative posts:
- Wikitravel on Kyrgyzstan – do explore its wiki treasure of info!
- Goats on the Road on Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan offers some good tips
- Our suggested itinerary for Kyrgyzstan and other Stan countries
Bits to know before you travel to Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan tourist visa: Kyrgyzstan allows citizens of 45 countries to enter the country visa-free for 60 days, 20 more can obtain it on arrival in the Bishkek International Airport, while others need to apply for the visa from the nearest embassy.
Best time to visit Kyrgyzstan: May to September
Travel safety: Kyrgyzstan is generally a safe country – you know, follow the usual travel safety measures. And no, kidnapping is not a thing in modern Kyrgyzstan.
All in all, Kyrgyzstan has been one of the most memorable travel destinations I’ve been to, and I hope this post has convinced you it’s worth your time!
What do you think of our list of things to do in Kyrgyzstan?
Let us know in the comments!