Travel to Kyrgyzstan

Djeti Oguz

When I planned to attend a wedding in Kazakhstan in 2018, I looked at the map and decided to travel to Kyrgyzstan as well. After all, it is very close to the old Kazakh capital of Almaty. I searched many travel forums and found some recommendations for a website called IndyGuide for Central Asia. My tour guide, Mirlan, was on this site (Contact: fixemerko at gmail.com). I definitely recommend him as an excellent, accommodating, informed, and well-connected guide. However, the IndyGuide site has changed a lot now so I am not sure if I can recommend it. Still, it is worth having a look to get ideas of itineraries and potentially find a guide.

Overall, I felt that Kyrgyzstan was a bit more wild and less clean than Kazakhstan. However, I had a wonderful time seeing the country and would just recommend that you are prepared to live very simply while on the road. For example, you should carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitiser! The guest houses were welcoming and served delicious local food. And the untamed natural landscape was incredible and varied. Even pre-covid most places were without many tourist crowds.

Yuri Gargarin, Barskaun Gorge
Yuri Gargarin, Barskaun Gorge
Kyrgyzstan Fairytale Canyon
Fairytale Canyon
Burana tower
Burana tower

Highlights

  • In Karakol, there are some cultural sites including Dungan mosque and the wooden Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church
  • Altyn Arashan gorge for peaceful hiking along the river. If you have time you can walk up to the hot springs and stay for a night.
  • Try the fresh fruit including watermelon which is in season in August
  • Djeti Oguz, a beautiful red rock formation – hike to the top for a beautiful view
  • Barskaun gorge to see two Yuri Gagarin monuments, Manas bowl waterfall and a larger waterfall. Yuri Gagarin, the astronaut, loved this beautiful area of nature
  • Issyk Kul Lake – amazing views of snowy mountains from the shore. We went to Kadjisai public beach where water was cold and fresh
  • Fairy tale Canyon (Kan’on skazka) – beautiful red rocks that are cut very jagged in some places
  • Chon Kemin National Park – horse riding (you need to be a strong rider to get the horses to obey)
  • Burana tower – expansive view from the top and interesting stone artefacts around the base
  • Bishkek, the capital to see some city life like Ala Too Square, Panfilov Park, and Osh Bazaar. You can also do some local shopping. I bought most of my gifts to take home from the supermarket since there were many interesting snacks and drinks to try.

Before you go

  • The road border checks can be time-consuming and not all nationalities can go through certain crossings from Kazakhstan, so check official websites and with your guide in advance. We had to take all luggage out of the car on the way back into Kazakhstan.
  • There can be large temperature variations from 30 C during the day to 10C at night so bring layers
  • English is spoken in the big cities but I recommend to get a translation app like Google Translate to make communication easier
  • For the UK or US there is a 60 day visa-free scheme to enter
  • Don’t be alarmed but the cars can be have the driver’s seat on the left or right side even though traffic is on the right side of the road like the US and Europe
  • Buy a Kyrgyzstan SIM card as they are cheap and some providers give Whatsapp messages for free (no photos)
  • If you are exchanging cash make sure bills are in good condition; some of mine were declined for being too old or creased
  • The general cultural rule is men first, not women
  • Marijuana grows wild in some fields in the countryside. I walked through some, only realising it at the end
  • Watch Kyrgyzstan MTV – it is like nothing I have ever seen! Some pop videos with the singer on horseback for example. I discovered two groups I like called Filatov and Karas, and Projekt Wug
Guesthouse in Chon Kemin National Park
Guesthouse in Chon Kemin National Park
Yurts near the lake
Yurts near the lake
Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol
Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol

Transport

  • I found my tour guide Mirlan (fixemerko@gmail.com) originally via Indy Guide. He was an excellent guide! He was knowledgeable, interesting, helpful, accommodating and reliable. He also had a separate driver, Janat, for the trip.
  • The countryside roads are bumpy and the toilet is called nature, so be prepared
  • Horseback can be fun in the countryside but the horses are often working horses and are used to being whipped to get moving. I was not harsh enough so mine would not move!

Accommodation

  • Guesthouse Jannat in Karakol was comfortable and clean. I had a toilet and sink in my room and a shared shower. Their dinner soup was amazingly delicious!
  • We stayed in a lovely farmhouse in Chon Kemin National Park owned by Kurlanbek and family but I do not know how to find it again
  • However, I must admit that I ended up not staying in an authentic yurt. The were too many mosquitos and flies around, and I feared being eaten alive by the bugs
  • In Bishkek we stayed in an apartment found through some local type of AirBnB that my guide knew about
Traditional Yurt
Traditional Yurt
Horse milk stand
Horse milk stand
Karakol Post Office
Karakol Post Office

Currency

The currency in Kyrgyzstan is called som and in 2018 the exchange rate was about 89 Kyrgyzstani Som to 1 GBP

I recommend to check the currency conversion just before you leave as this fluctuates

Kyrgyzstani Som
Breakfast at Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol
Breakfast at Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol
Noodle soup at Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol
Noodle soup at Jannat Guesthouse, Karakol with one giant round noodle
Samsa (meat pies)
Samsa (meat pies)
Beef lagman noodles
Beef lagman noodles

Food

There is a huge variety of local food. Even the breakfasts had a big selection with meat, cheese, dumplings, fruits and bread. Some of my favourite dishes were shashlik (grilled beef or lamb), manti (meat dumplings), beef lagman noodles, samsa (meat pies), and fried bread (boorsok). In addition, the local fresh fruits were very flavourful including watermelon and other melons.

Interestingly my guide was very careful about where to eat due to food poisoning risk, however he bought samsa meat pies from the side of the road. I think he knew the good places to go!

Vodka is very cheap! Quality is variable but usually quite good. On the other hand it was very difficult to find Diet Coke, and most places only had regular Coke

Local people tend to drink a lot of tea (chai). For juice and soda the cups look more like bowls.

Cafe Dastorkon in Karakol for live ethnic music and tasty local foods. We had a fun and lively evening for dinner.

Yuri Gargarin, Barskaun Gorge
Yuri Gargarin, Barskaun Gorge
Horse riding in Chon Kemin National Park
Horse riding in Chon Kemin National Park
Ala Too Square, Bishkek
Ala Too Square, Bishkek

FAQs

Q: Do I need a tour guide?

A: Yes I would recommend it for getting around to see the natural beauty. If you stayed only in the main city of Bishkek you may not need a guide but you would still benefit from having a driver.

Q: Do people speak English?

A: No, not many even at the guest houses. The guide helped to translate.

Q: Can I travel solo?

A: As a woman, I would not have felt very comfortable completely on my own. However, I met a French man who had been cycling around for weeks on his own. He said he was avoiding the border with Tajikistan because recently some tourists were killed near there.

Q: How easy is it to send postcards?

A: It is easy to find postcards though there was not a lot of variety. At the Karakol Town post office it was also easy to buy stamps in the local language. See Sending Postcards from Abroad for details on cost and the time it took to reach the USA.

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