What’s On travels to Kyrgyzstan
Unspoilt landscapes, yurt-dwelling shepherds, and unique homestays make Kyrgyzstan a must-do for intrepid explorers…
Welcome to a new series of What’s On travels to… Each month we’ll be bringing you a new destination from around the globe that we’re confident you’ll need on your travel bucket list.
This month, we head to Kyrgyzstan – unspoiled landscapes, yurt-dwelling shepherds, and unique homestays make it a must-do for intrepid explorers.
Things to do
The traditional starting point for any exploration of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek is often overlooked in the scramble to experience the country’s natural beauty. Yet it is a peaceful, almost serene, capital city peppered with grand squares and lush green parks. The majority of the city’s attractions are clustered tightly together and at the heart of it all lies Ala-Too Square. With its imposing Statue of Manas, it’s the city’s central rendezvous point and is awash with people during the warm summer months. Just behind the statue is the State History Museum and to the left of that is Panfilov Park. For those who appreciate literature, a monument to Chingiz Aitmatov, the man who penned Jamila, is situated across the street from Ala-Too Square.
As lakes go, Issyk-Kul is pretty impressive. The second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea, it is also the 10th largest lake in the world by volume and, just like Song Kol, is encircled by the majesty of the Tien Shan mountains. The road along the southern shore is fairly ropey but it provides the best route from Song Kol to Karakol, which is situated at the eastern end of the lake. From Karakol you can trek into the mountains (particularly to Ala-Kul lake), which is what most people come to the country to do, or simply jump on a sunset cruise and immerse yourself in the local culture. Further along the northern shore lies Cholpon Ata, a resort town popular with Russians in the summer, but arguably best known for its ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings).
Ala Archa National Park
Within easy reach of Bishkek, Ala Archa National Park is suitable for either a quick day-trip or much longer and harder trekking tours. Covering 200 square kilometres, it’s crammed with more than 50 mountain peaks and includes the impressive Ala Archa Gorge. The park’s altitudes range from 1,500 metres to 4,895 metres and you can choose from a number of set trails (varying in difficulty) or simply hang out and picnic in the cool, refreshing mountain air.
Burana Tower is not necessarily a destination in its own right, more a short detour on your journey to elsewhere. Historically, the minaret is all that remains of the ancient citadel of Balasagun and stands majestically, if not slightly crookedly, in the Chuy Valley. An extremely steep, narrow, dark and taxing set of stairs takes you all the way to the top, from where you can enjoy panoramic views of the mountains before you.
Song Kol Lake
For the more remote parts of the country, you’re going to have to choose between organised tours and hiring your own 4×4. If you value flexibility and spontaneity, opt for the latter. You’ll see why when you get to Song Kol, an alpine lake 3,000 metres up in the Tien Shan mountains. The journey off-road to Song Kol takes about two hours from the main highway and it will take you between four and five hours in total from Bishkek. The off-road stretch of the journey is not necessarily for the fainthearted, but it’s worth it. Song Kol is one of the jewels in Kyrgyzstan’s crown and the lake’s tranquil blue waters are circled by snowcapped mountains all year round. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more peaceful or more serene landscape anywhere in the world. With Kyrgyz herdsmen grazing livestock between June and September, only yurts are available as accommodation.
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Where to stay
A yurt camp
You can’t visit Kyrgyzstan without a yurt stay. Try doing this on the shores of Song Kol. Accommodation is extremely basic, with a mattress on the floor, no running hot water, zero phone signal, and a rudimentary communal toilet. Your Kyrgyz hosts may not speak English, but the food is hearty and costs little more than $10 a night.
Within easy walking distance of all of Bishkek’s main attractions, the Umai Hotel usually only caters to organised tours, but does make exceptions. The rooms are spacious, there’s a garden and outdoor bar, and dinner is available upon request. The owners and staff are friendly and also run ecotours if you’d rather go down the organised route. Rooms are $35 a night.
Otel Issyk-Kul, Karakol
This former Soviet hotel in Karakol won’t win any style awards and could do with a lick of paint, but it’s cheap, cheerful, and does an amazing, if basic, breakfast. It’s also a novelty for those with a fondness for Soviet nostalgia.
Where to eat
A huge, cavernous venue on the main road through Cholpon Ata, Barashek serves both local and international cuisine but it’s the latter you should concentrate on. It serves a wonderful selection of shashlik, but opt for the cherry kebab or the dumplings with cheese. A truly mouthwatering experience.
Shashlik, or shish kebab, is the go-to dish in Kyrgyzstan and one of the best places to experience this is at Dastorkon in Karakol. Set back slightly from the road and in an uninspiring part of town, it nevertheless serves a delicious selection of skewered meats and other local specialities. It also offers the opportunity to eat horse and yak if you’re so inclined. For the former, Issyk-Kul Beshbarmak is a dish of finely chopped horse meat, onions and noodles served in a rich soup.
Do’s and don’ts…
DO: pack winter wear
Take winter clothing. It may be hot and sunny in Bishkek, but up in the mountains it can get bitterly cold, even at the height of summer.
DO: double check
Check if the roads to Song Kol and other isolated areas are open. Sometimes they are not clear of snow until late May/early June.
Traffic police are everywhere and the fines can be hefty.
DON’T: forget cash
ATMs are fairly common in Bishkek but are rare in rural areas and credit cards are not always accepted.
Double daily flights to Bishkek are operated by flydubai, with return economy fares available from Dhs1,525 and business fares available from AED5,495. The airline also offers Kyrgyzstan packages, including flights, hotel, transfers and tours. Check online at flydubai.com for details.
Citizens of the UAE and most EU countries can now get visas on arrival.