Kyrgystan: Central Asia, west of China and south of Kazakhstan. Dominated by the Tian Shan (Heavenly Cloud) mountainous range with verdant green gorges, tall peaks and high altitude lakes.
Through dramatically rugged mountains and fertile valleys on camel and horseback, China and the mysteries of the Orient beckoned ancient merchants and now you can experience this out-of-the-ordinary adventure. But before you saturate yourself in the Silk Road scenery of yore, here are some travel tips…
Are you inspired to get right off your beaten track, ride mountain ponies, hike trails of breathtaking scenery, stay in yurts with the mountain people and swim in alpine lakes? Kyrgyzstan ticks all these boxes and more:
DO – Visit Bishkek:
You can pick up daily flights from London and the Airport Manas is 30km north of city centre. It’s a cash economy – soms, the local currency, is only available in Kyrgyzstan and it’s best to take US dollars. ATM’s are common in Bishkek, though available less in other towns and credit cards are rarely accepted anywhere. Bishkek is tree-lined town of parks and gardens, handsome houses and TsUM Department Store is your place to buy Kygyrz souvenirs.
DON’T – Drive:
The highways are generally okay, but the condition of minor roads can be variable. Also it’s quite normal for drivers to cross to the other side of the road if there are potholes – something that locals cope with much better than foreign drivers. Instead opt for minibuses and shared taxis, which are very economical. Approximately 500 soms by taxi from airport to city centre.
DO – Observe the Changing of the Guard:
This takes place daily in Ala Too Square.
DO – Visit Osh Bazaar:
Bishkek’s main market is wonderful for traditional eastern ambience and savoury snacking.
DON’T – Succumb to pickpockets:
Like most cities and busy markets in the world, it pays to stay alert and not let your guard down.
DO – Stay in a yurt:
Yurts are the traditional dwellings of the Kyrgyz people, made of boiled wool, or felt, and tarpaulins strapped on a round frame. Hidden in a small valley and protected from the elements you’ll find Tash Rabat, a beautifully preserved 15th-century caravanserai. You can rent a horse and a guide from yurt owner and by nightfall view a cornucopia of stars in the great outdoors. Enjoy the hospitality of your local hosts with good Kyrgyz food, mainly meat and soupy, with vegetables that are small and flavourful.
DON’T – Obsess about toilets:
There are no other facilities out here, so no point turning up your nose up at the outdoor pit loo.
DO – Visit Ala Archa Gorge:
Only a 30-40 min drive from Bishkek, this national park is noted for its tulips in spring. It’s a lovely alpine valley of river and waterfalls. Great hiking of differing lengths and difficulty.
DON’T – Swim in the river:
As tempting as it might be to take a dip, be warned that this is very icy water!
DO – Indulge the 3 S’s:
Swim, sail and sunbathe in Issyk-Kul, the world’s second biggest high altitude mountain lake. The region was beloved by ancient nomadic tribes and has the petroglyphs to prove it. Outstanding natural beauty with mountains and trees of fir and birch and of course the water – eternally blue, refreshing and salty, which is apparently good for you.
DON’T – Forget the Vodka:
It’s one way to warm up after your refreshing swim. Traditionally, Kyrgyz consume the beverage with zakushkas, tasty treats ranging from a selection of appetizers to just bread.
Lastly, DO – Be prepared:
Be prepared to be wowed by the vast landscapes, resilient people and their time-honoured traditions. Travelling to Kyrgyzstan is a remarkable experience in an amazing part of the world that will astound you at every turn!
* Photo of Tash Rabat yurts by Anee Frigon, for the Intrepid Photography Competition.