Kyrgyzstan, the ancient land of the silk road and Mongols, where nomadic herders still live in yurts throughout mountain valleys. The scenery is beyond incredible, the people are friendly, it’s relatively safe, and not yet overrun by tourists. I was lucky to be one of those a few tourists on a recent trip and want to share my Kyrgyzstan travel tips with you.
How I Ended up Visiting Kyrgyzstan
Like many of my adventures, this one began while looking at a map and wondering where I could stop between two destinations. I had a week to get from Norway to the Philippines, and drawing a line between the two countries ran directly through Kyrgyzstan. This sounded unbelievably exotic. A quick search on Kyrgyzstan travel revealed it is safe, affordable, had cheap flights via Istanbul, and no visa is necessary for Canadians (and 44 other countries).
A few weeks later I landed in the capital city of Bishkek for my whirlwind tour. A number of companies offer 1 to 2-week tour packages, but finding a guide for a shorter visit in the offseason was very challenging. After multiple emails and Whatsapp referrals, I was put in touch with Ruslan. He was eager to show me as much of the country as he could in my short visit. I really lucked out as he was not only very knowledgeable about the history of the region and what to see and do but a genuinely friendly and an interesting guy to spend time with. Initially, I only booked him for 2 days but ended up spending most of my time there with him including adding on a day trip to Kazakhstan.
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How Long Should I Spend Travelling Kyrgyzstan?
Technically I had 5 days in the country, but the first day was mostly spent sleeping after my overnight flight from Turkey. One day was spent on a last-minute decision to visit neighbouring Kazakhstan. It really wasn’t enough to thoroughly enjoy the central Asian country but I made the most of my visit in constant awe of the incredibly wild scenery. If you want to truly explore the country, I recommend a minimum of a week visiting Kyrgyzstan.
How Do I Get to Kyrgyzstan?
Flights are available via Istanbul, Moscow, and a number of middle-eastern gateways. I flew Pegasus from Oslo via Istanbul, and for a few dollars extra got an exit row seat. I was quite happy with the airline.
Visa – no visa is required for Canadians and 44 other countries for up to 60-day visit. Visit the Kyrgyz government website for complete information. Customs on arrival was simple. After removing my glasses for a photo, my passport was stamped and I was on my way in a matter of minutes.
What Is There to See in Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan travel is full of diverse landscapes and untouched scenery, minus the odd yak or two. Here are my Kyrgyzstan travel tips on what to see while visiting the country.
The jagged snow-peaked mountain ranges, wide valleys with yaks, horses, and yurts, and one of the world’s biggest and deepest lakes are all a nonstop feast for your eyes. Everywhere you look is amazing.
This large alpine lake is also one of the deepest in the world at 660 metres (2100 feet). I wouldn’t recommend trying to circumnavigate the lake in 2 days as I did, but it’s certainly worth seeing. The lake is mildly salty and never freezes, and is warm enough to enjoy swimming in the summer. You will notice the western shoreline is quite dry transitioning to more farmland towards the east.
If you want a picture-perfect memory to show off to your friends, look no further than the striking red sandstone formations of Fairytale Canyon. You can hike up the ridges on unmarked paths but be careful, the amount of loose gravel under your feet makes it very slippery going downhill.
There isn’t really too much to say about the city and you can easily cover the sights in a day. You’ll want to walk by Ala-Too Square for the requisite Soviet-era monolithic government building and statue of the national hero on a horse. Just behind is the surprisingly verdant Oak Park, stroll through it on your way to the Gapar Aitiev National Museum of Fine Arts. There you’ll find Kyrgyz and Russian paintings depicting life in various styles, and some of the impressionist works are quite incredible. It was the highlight of the city for me, and well worth the visit. Entrance $1.50, free audioguide available as well as daily guided tours in English for $4.
What is There to Do in Kyrgyzstan?
Although my time was short, I did pick up a few Kyrgyzstan travel tips. Here are my do’s and don’ts.
Do Not Drive
I do NOT recommend driving in Kyrgyzstan unless you have significant experience in this part of the world. Cars drive very fast, many of the roads are in rough condition, and people pass on all sides including the shoulder. Cows, horses, sheep, dogs, yaks, camels, and children wander onto the roads and highways, so if you drive, be very aware.
Also, police checks are frequent. We were stopped 5 times in 2 days at routine roadside checks for license and registration. The police were friendly and professional, but without speaking Russian it would be challenging to handle.
Get a Guide
Getting a guide is the best way to go. I lucked out by finding Ruslan, a 29-year-old local guide who speaks English, Kyrgyz, Russian, and some French. He is very friendly, a good driver, knowledgeable with the history of the country, and was able to take me to a number of unique places.
The vehicle and guide cost $120 per day plus expenses. Fuel was $80 for 3 days, and his meals came to $24 for 3 lunches and 1 hot chocolate. Guides usually eat and sleep for free at yurt camps. He took me to and from the airport for no extra charge, and also let me crash on his couch for 2 nights. Contact Ruslan via his website at www.dreamtrip.asia. He can also take you on tours to other countries in the region including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
If you want to go it on your own there are private and shared taxis available. Bishkek Airport to downtown should cost you $7. Shared taxi to just about anywhere in the country is at most $10 per person, you just might need to wait for the driver to get enough people to go where you want to go. I didn’t attempt public transit but rides are about 30 cents anywhere in Bishkek.
Credit cards are OK in some larger restaurants in Bishkek but in general, you should rely on cash. There are currency exchanges everywhere. Bring USD for the best rate, and if you have leftover Som at the end you can sell them back with less than a 3% loss.
Get a SIM Card
Another good Kyrgyzstan travel tip for you is to ensure you stay connected. If you don’t speak Russian, Google Translate is very helpful as few people speak English. Pick up a SIM card with unlimited data for $2 per week from the many MegaCom dealers in Bishkek. You’ll need to show your passport. Free wifi is also available in many restaurants. 3G coverage is good in most cities and larger towns, but sparse in outlying areas.
Alternatively, take a wireless WiFi device with unlimited data with you!
Sleep in a Yurt
There are a number of yurt camps catering to tourists, but you can also find opportunities to stay with families for a more authentic experience. Expect to pay about $20-$30 night per person, plus $15 for dinner and breakfast. Your guide usually sleeps and eats for free or at least a discounted rate.
Ride a Horse and Watch Dead Goat Polo
The horses here, like the landscape, are quite wild. You might want to watch this rather than participate. My horse did not like me and made it known. My anxious 20 minutes going up and down the beach trying not to get thrown off was more than enough for me. I did get to see people practising the national sport of buzkashi, also known as dead goat polo, which is exactly how it sounds: teams of men on horses ride around to see who can drag a large dead goat into the goal ring. Makes watching soccer seem even more boring than it already is.
Although I was 2 weeks too early for the start of the ski season, the mountains near Karakol are famed to be amongst the best slopes in Asia. They look spectacular from the base, and you certainly can’t beat the price of a lift ticket – about $17. If planning on visiting over the New Year’s holiday, expect long lines.
What Should I Eat in Kyrgyzstan?
Here’s a Kyrgyzstan travel tip for the vegetarians out there – this is a carnivorous country. You’ll find a wide variety of cuisine in Bishkek, but if you ask for a vegetarian option outside of the city you will be given chicken.
You’ll want to try some of the local specialities:
Manty – boiled dumplings either in round pockets or a version more common in the country as layered rounds cut into wedges. Usually served with a yoghurt-type sauce.
Lagman – homemade noodles similar to udon served with meat on top.
Shashlyk – skewers of lamb, liver, and beef cooked over the coals served with raw sliced vegetables.
Bread – part of most meals, iconic round lepyoshka that looks like a small bowl and is torn into pieces and shared amongst everyone at the table.
Kebabs – Not unique to here but made with thin stretchy lavash bread and then grilled to a crisp that gives a very different texture over the thick pita bread I’m used to in North America.
What Should I Drink in Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan is a largely Muslim country but takes a very permissive view on alcohol. When someone asks you to drink with them it’s impolite to say no. Once it starts, be prepared for successive toasts and your glass being refilled until the bottle(s) are empty. Be smart like the locals and eat with your booze. Salted dried fish is a common drinking snack.
Vodka – Russia’s influence is strong here. Don’t go too cheap – for $4 you can buy a litre of premium vodka – such as Kyrgyz Sapaty. I had my first round as a shot and then had to endure some mild teasing when I mixed with juice for the rest of the night.
Beer – I had Tian-Shan, a decent mass-produced Kyrgyz beer but unfortunately didn’t get to taste the country’s top-rated Save The Ales, a craft brewery started by two women who liked beer and learned how to make it by researching how to do it on the interwebs.
Kumis – fermented horse milk with a bit of salt. It’s said to both prevent and cure hangovers. With the low price of vodka, you might need to keep some on hand. Mine came in a shot glass and was my welcome to the country.
Tea – served everywhere and with every meal, you’ll have no shortage of black and green teas. The taste difference in each town varies with the flavour of the local water.
Coffee – Not the place for coffee lovers despite the prevalence of shops and kiosks in the larger towns. Drip coffee doesn’t seem to exist so at best you’ll get a weak americano, and at worst it’s instant coffee. Tea really is the strength of this country.
Where Should I Stay in Kyrgyzstan?
There are a number of well-rated hostels in the city where you can get a dorm room for under $10. Private rooms start from $20. Hotels run from $30, and you can stay at the 5-star Hyatt for as little as $150 per night. A yurt stay runs $20-$30 per person.
From Yellowknife, NWT. I travel both for work and for fun. Usually, I take one long trip a year of several weeks but try to fit in as many short adventures as my schedule allows or tack on a day or two to a work trip to see family or friends. I also have a small plane and use that to go on some adventures around the country or into the US, and if I can fly myself to a meeting for work even better. I’m away from home about 90 nights of the year.
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