I can’t stop going to Kyrgyzstan. It’s like a bizarre addiction. I’ve been eight times already and I’m planning to go back next Spring. Maybe I should join a support group? Is there a support group for ‘I fell in love with a country’?
I believe that anyone who visits Kyrgyzstan will find themselves similarly head over heels. How could you not? It’s untouched fairy-tale snow-capped mountains, rolling steppe, canyons and forests make it a nature lovers dream. It’s nomadic traditions with yurts, yak-riding, felt-making, eagle-hunting and goat polo make it the ideal holiday spot for the culture lovers among us. Adrenalin junkies can scratch their itch in Kyrgyzstan on winter heli-skiing sessions or climbing the towering peaks of the South. If stretching out by on a beach is your go-to holiday activity, then this land-locked country even has spots where you can grab a towel and soak up the rays for hours in peace.
The good news is Kyrgyzstan is becoming more and more accessible and many nationalities can now enter visa free! Whereas CBT- the Community Based Tourism Association– can now help you find accommodation, tours and transport to some of the remoter regions. Here are my suggestions for 8 must-do activities in Kyrgyzstan to inspire you to visit this beautiful country.
1) STAY IN A YURT ON THE BANKS OF ISSYK KUL
Issyk Kul is the third largest mountain lake in the world and as you dive into the refreshingly cold water in summer it feels more like being in the sea. There are many yurt camps on the tranquil southern shores of Issyk Kul but Bel Tam comes highly recommended. The yurts are fitted with brightly coloured felts, carpets and blankets. At night, you can listen to the lapping waves whilst taking in the expansive starry skies.
Travel Tip: Some of the yurt camps can be tricky to find. If you are driving to one, make sure you have satnav with the location set up before you leave. If you are coming by public transport, ring or email for specific instructions before you board your marshrutka (minibus).
2) TAKE A STROLL AROUND OSH BAZAAR
A far cry from a ‘tourist market’ Osh Bazaar in the country’s capital, Bishkek, is still used by locals for buying weekly groceries, picking up household items and finding the prefect herbal tea to help them overcome their colds. It’s weird, wonderful and is well worth a couple of hours of your time.
Travel Tip: Get lost! Try to wander around the Bazaar with no plan. You’ll be surprised to discover how interesting even the more seemingly mundane sections can be. I loved the kitchen section where you are faced with rows and rows of metal teapots with kitsch floral patterns.
3) HIKE THROUGH KARAKOL VALLEY
For any ‘Sound of Music’ fan, the mountains surrounding Karakol will quickly make you feel like Julie Andrews prancing through the meadows. Begin your hiking expedition with a day trek through Karakol Valley, it’s lush woodlands and panoramas are breath-taking and there are many variants of walk depending on your fitness or adventure level.
Travel Tip: Arrange for your taxi to collect you from a certain point at a certain time. You don’t want to end up walking miles to a main road to find a taxi after a long hike in the hills.
4) EXPLORE DUNGAN FOOD AND CULTURE
Whilst in Karakol, take a day away from nature and experience Dungan food and culture. Dungan people are originally from western China, but many migrated to Kyrgyzstan after experiencing persecution in the 19th century. The Dungan mosque in Central Karakol is a must see. You can also try some Dungan cuisine in the bazaar. The flavours of Dungan food are quite unique and it takes a while to work out what ingredients have been used to create the medley of flavours. The vegetarian dish, Ashlan-fu, is made from tofu and spicy noodles doused in vinegar.
Travel Tip: You do not need to worry too much about dress code when entering the Dungan Mosque in Karakol as you will be given a hooded cloak. However, it is best to have your legs covered as a sign of respect.
5) HIRE A YACHT FOR AN HOUR OR TWO
The northern side of Lake Issyk Kul is the livelier than the southern and is where many local people take their holidays. Near one of the tourist towns, you’ll recognise it by the pumping pop music and bright signage- Cholpon Ata- you can hire a yacht for the afternoon. Bobbing up and down on the gentle waves of the lake is the perfect place for a picnic and a courageous leap into the deeper waters.
Travel Tip: If the glaring music of Cholpon Ata is too much for you and you don’t fancy a boat trip; why not just stop for lunch there on your way to other parts of the country? There’s plenty of restaurants dotted along the main road which sell fresh fish, salad and chips.
6) WATCH NOMADIC GAMES
There are many traditional sports played in Kyrgyzstan today. Kok Buru is played all across Central Asia. It is a dangerous game where two teams on horseback attempt to grapple a goat carcass to the opposing side’s threshold. Hunting with eagles is also a valued skill in the country and you can watch special eagle hunting competitions in many regions.
Travel Tip: Plan which competitions you’d like to see in advance. Some of them are only played certain times of the year during festivals.
7) GO ON A HORSE TREK THROUGH THE STEPPE
The Kyrgyz people are traditionally nomadic and their culture is closely tied to horses. A popular Kyrgyz proverb is even “Horses are a man’s wings.” Riding a horse through the grassy meadows or rolling hills of the steppe, the sense of freedom makes it easy to understand the proverb.
Travel Tip: Many horse riding tours do not provide helmets. Either check before you agree to the tour that they do provide proper equipment or if you are eager to ride bring a helmet with you.
8) ENJOY KYRGYZ HOSPITALITY
Kyrgyzstan prides itself on its hospitality and no trip can really be complete without experiencing a homestay. Families usually spread out plentiful tasty food on a low table and sit on cushions for long slow dinners. If you can, try to request beshbarmak- the national dish of Kyrgyzstan- is made from flat noodles and meat. The name translates to ‘five fingers’ because it was originally eaten with hands.
Travel tip: Be prepared to eat more than you’ve consumed ever in your life.
Tempted to visit my beloved Kyrgyzstan yet? Throw yourself into these eight activities and you’ll be sure to come home with exciting stories and beautiful photographs of this untouched gem.
Have you ever been to Kyrgyzstan? We’d love to hear your advice and tips in the comment section below! Read Next > 10 Tips For Budget Travel In Southeast Asia