Only recently discovered – and immediately in love!
Kyrgyzstan combines many exciting aspects. Ancient nomadic culture had to change during the Soviet era, but fortunately never lost its roots. Every summer, many families set out with their animals and build their yurts on the best campsites. They are rather seminomadic, i.e. in winter they live in villages and do not move further afield. The mountains are uniquely beautiful. 90% of the country lies above 1,500 m in the Tianshan, Altai and Pamir mountains. This means that little agriculture is possible, but livestock farming thrives. Only 6.6 million people live on almost 200,000 square kilometres.
Kyrgyzstan comes from the word “kirkkyz” = forty. This means that it is assumed that there were 40 tribes that made up the Kyrgyz people. This is also symbolised in the national flag with the 40 rays around the yurt roof symbol.
Nature with its impressive mountains, numerous glaciers, many rivers, varied fauna and flora is a great treasure of Kyrgyzstan. However, the idyll is also threatened by earthquakes and glacier melt as well as other consequences of climate change. In any case, a trip offers a good chance to experience nature in all its many facets.
You can get along well with the people. Very little English is spoken (Russian, on the other hand, is very widespread), but people make an effort to understand and communicate. We definitely recommend an interpreter to accompany you.
Economically, Kyrgyzstan does not have it easy. After more than 120 years of Russian rule, the country has yet to develop its own economy with trading partners and self-organisation. A lot of money comes into the country through Kyrgyz living and working abroad; it is said to account for 25% of the GDP. Tourism is an emerging sector with enormous potential. Nothing is overcrowded and yet it has an incredible amount of beauty to offer, friendliness and plenty of space for discovery.
The tourist infrastructure is not (yet) very advanced, but in principle you can find a clean place to sleep everywhere – even privately if necessary. Great are the overnight stays in yurts (camps), mostly located in particularly beautiful nature. There are also guesthouses and small hotels in important tourist spots. Only larger star hotels are scarce.
Here, however, we mention a small snag for some travellers: Kyrgyzstan is an extremely meat-heavy country and vegetarians have a hard time. It’s not impossible, but you have to realise that there is no tradition of delicious vegetable dishes. Of course, we still try to provide good food.
The Kyrgyz have preserved their culture during the long Soviet period or brought it back to the surface afterwards. The nomadic culture plays the biggest role. During the nomadic season, you can definitely experience it very well. Eagle hunting has also been cultivated – in several places people are ready for a demonstration for the travellers. Also interesting is the Sunday early morning animal market in Karakol, one of the largest in Central Asia.
Regarding literature, Kyrgyzstan boasts two great works: 1. the Manas epic, one of the longest epics in the world with almost 500,000 verses.There are public performances and also a new record set in 2021 of 14 hours of recitation. 2. Tschengiz Aitmatov, whose literary work has been translated into many languages. The Museum of History in Bishkek has a large exhibition section dedicated to him.
Striking for many travellers are the countless statues and monuments. Be sure to hear the stories of some of them!
There is a kind of national men’s headdress – the kalpak. Have the customs and history of this explained to you as well.
On the kalpak are patterns/ornaments that can also be found on clothing, (wall) carpets and felts. The many patterns have different meanings and stories – it is worthwhile to delve deeper.
Kyrgyzstan offers a wide variety of trekking and hiking opportunities. Day hikes are possible from rather short walks to long days. Multi-day tours are available from 2 days to weeks. And then we also have choices of accommodation (take along tent or yurts and homestays on the way) as well as locomotion (on foot or on horseback). Luggage is either transported or you carry the necessities yourself and the large luggage is transported to the destination. Tell us about your experiences and expectations – we will find something suitable for you!
Kyrgyzstan has been Islamic since the 10th century, but still has influences from earlier faiths (Shamanism and Zoroastrianism). Of course, Islam was also restricted during the Soviet era and is now growing stronger again. Numerous mosques were built with the support of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Some of them are not yet filled with life, but customs such as wearing headscarves and observing Ramadan as well as prayers are becoming more widespread. The more southern, the more obvious Islam is. Those who have travelled in other muslim-dominated areas will find it very moderate in Kyrgyzstan. Over 70% of the population is counted as muslim.
A special feature are the Dungans, immigrated muslim Chinese , who have found a new home here where they can continue to practise their old customs. The core area is in Karakol and the surrounding area with a very special mosque, delicious food and open doors, i.e. arranged visits are possible.
As in most countries, life in the villages is immensely different from that in the larger cities. Kyrgyzstan has 25 cities and very many villages. Not only is it easier to experience the beautiful landscape here, but it is also good to take life down a notch and focus on the aspects of village life. How are the people here, what is their everyday life like, what occupies them and how has life changed in comparison to the Soviet era, what are the structures like – all these are interesting questions that you can pursue at leisure.
In Kyrgyzstan there are various opportunities to bathe in hot springs. Especially after a day of trekking or in the cooler/cold season, these are special moments of enjoyment. Be sure to bring a bathing suit on your trip!
A very special experience is a visit to a sanatorium. In Soviet times, many were built so that workers could relax and regain their strength. Today, many Kyrgyz still like to go to a sanatorium for a few days to take care of their health. Stays of 3 days or more, including medical consultations and treatments, are recommended.
At 7,134 m, Peak Lenin is the highest peak that can be climbed in Kyrgyzstan. It actually belongs to Tajikistan, but can also be climbed from Kyrgyzstan or there is also a trekking tour to the base camp. There are also many other peaks nearer 5,000 m – tell us about your experiences and wishes – we will find the right peak for you!
Issyk Kul is the second largest (after Lake Titicaca) mountain lake in the world and is located in eastern Kyrgyzstan. On its northern shore there are beaches and resorts where locals also like to spend their holidays. The southern shore is less developed, but also offers many interesting things. The large city of Karakol is to the east and is a good base for excursions into the mountains, exploring the Dungan culture, Prziwalski Museum, petroglyphs and much more. A good long time can be spent here – including lake swimming in the warmer months.
Besides the large Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan has countless other lakes of all sizes. Some can only be reached on foot or horseback, others by car. We assure you: you can hardly spend any time in Kyrgyzstan without seeing at least one of the beautiful lakes. Of course, we will be happy to fit some into your tour plan!
Bishkek is the capital and only city in Kyrgyzstan with a population of just over 1 million. As a former caravan station on the Silk Road, the city has been renamed many times and is called Bishkek since 1991. Bishkek lies at an altitude of 800 m and has towering snow mountains in the south. Architecturally, the Soviet style of building dominates: wide boulevards in a chequerboard pattern, Soviet blocks, marble-clad public buildings and many green parks. Besides cafes and restaurants, Bishkek offers some interesting sightseeing: the lively Osh Bazaar, the interesting historical National Museum, cultural institutions such as the Opera and Ballet House, the spacious lively Ala Too Square, the Panfilova Amusement Grounds, the old railway station and numerous parks. This is a great place to spend time!
Of course, the most comfortable way is by (off-road) car with driver, which will take you to the remotest corners of Kyrgyzstan. The road conditions are rather challenging with some very well-maintained stretches in between. There are hardly any vehicles without scratches in the windscreen. Getting around by public transport is exciting and cheap. For overland routes, there are shared taxis, marshrutkas (minibuses) and buses. Some run fixed routes at fixed times, some only start when even the last seat is occupied. In a few cases, private cars also stop on empty stretches of road in the countryside and are given a small fare.Together with the guide, we recommend travelling at least one stretch by public transport.
There is a blog from my own trip in spring 2022 and thus a good opportunity to get a small impression: