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Travel to Kyrgyzstan: An Independent Woman's Guide
(and plenty of photographs and a video!)

For someone who dislikes heights and is averse to mountains, Kyrgyzstan may seem an odd choice for a three-week visit. As I mentioned while I was planning this trip, I was mesmerised by this country, and something about its strong nomadic links called to me (my own ancestors were from this part of the world).

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - a yurt camp on  Lake Issy-KulA yurt camp on the southern shore of Lake Issy-Kul. It would be one of several yurt stays, inescapable when visiting Kyrgyzstan

So I conveniently 'forgot' about the dizzying 7000m+ mountains and the scarily narrow dirt roads, somehow imagining everything would be... lower, safer. Or that perhaps I might not notice.

I was so, so wrong.

Despite my vertigo, I somehow end up on mountains - Moroccan Atlas, Albanian Alps, Philippines Cordillera... Kyrgyzstan is on a par, with thin ribbons of red clay road that cut into mountain faces, threatening to propel a car into the abyss at first rain.  

The good news is - I'll probably never be this afraid again.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - narrow mountain road to Lake Song-KulThis road starts semi-gently and then thins to a one-way ribbon as it snakes down the mountainside. I spend quite a lot of it with eyes closed

Where is Kyrgyzstan, anyway?

Kyrgyzstan was a dream come true, but I knew little about Central Asia when I set out.

To me, the 'Stans' were a bit of a mystery, part Genghis Khan, part Lenin statuary. I'd have been hard-pressed to distinguish one Stan from the next.

No more. I could now draw Kyrgyzstan with my eyes closed and recite its peaks from memory.

It is a relatively small country of just over six million people, its population similar to that of El Salvador or Lebanon but much larger in area.

Kyrgyzstan has the dubious distinction of being further from the sea than any other country in the world. That said, it has its own inland near-sea, Lake Issy-Kul, the world's second largest salt-water lake after the Caspian Sea. The country is crowded with mountain ranges but often feels strangely flat as you race across the plains which the mountains surround in a protective circle.

Kyrgyzstan has an amazingly bumpy history, having been fought over by clans and nations for centuries. It sits astride the Silk Road, along which East-West trade long traveled. Its people are in large part descended from the tribes of Siberia but their faces reflect the great migrations of Asia, the Slavic countries and Europe.

Having been roughed up by the Mongols, the Manchu and the Uzbeks, Kyrgyzstan fell under Russian domination in the late 1800s, an uneasy relationship that spawned rebellions and migrations. Through much of the 20th century Kyrgyzstan was part of the then-Soviet Union, an arrangement that ended only with the country's independence in 1991. Not everyone in Kyrgyzstan thought independence was a good thing and many older people remember the Soviet era with nostalgia. If you're a fan of Soviet memorabilia, you'll be well-served here.

Since independence things haven't exactly been calm: a popular uprising, economic hardship, vanishing social services, ethnic clashes in the South, growing Islamic fundamentalism, all these have contributed to making people feel insecure. And it isn't a wealthy country, with poverty quite visible once you leave the expat enclaves of the capital Bishkek. 

Despite this, Kyrgyzstan remains a regional bastion of diversity and tolerance, at least for now. But Russia isn't far, and stands by waiting to 'help' if it is ever needed. And many foreign countries are rushing to build shiny new mosques in many villages, to the happiness of some but the concern of others.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - Russian Orthodox Church in KarakolRussian Orthodox Church in Karakol, a sign of diversity in a primarily Muslim country
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - communist monumentSigns of the former Soviet Union's communist regime are everywhere
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - valley surrounded by mountainsThis mountainous country is extremely flat - except for the mountains that surround the flat plains!
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - huge statue of Lenin in downtown OshLenin still watches over the southern city of Osh - gone but not forgotten

Getting around Kyrgyzstan

Travel for women in Kyrgyzstan is safe and straightforward, but not easy and not for the faint-hearted. It's a wonderful place to push your boundaries but if I were a new traveler, this would probably not be the first country I'd visit - the mountains are high, the roads not as safe as you'd like, bathrooms often rudimentary and health care not always accessible. But if you're a bit adventurous, Kyrgyzstan will be a wonderful experience.

The country has thrown its doors wide open.

Many nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival and much is being invested in tourism by opening hiking trails, putting up signs to the key sights or simply making it easier to travel.

You can see the country in a number of ways:

  • you can take a tour with any of the excellent companies who handle such things
  • get the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) association to organize a tour, or your transport, or accommodation - they specialize in arrangements to even the hardest-to-reach places
  • find a car and driver through one of the travel forums or on Tripadvisor (I did this through CBT)
  • use public transport (if you have enough time) - mostly you would take shared taxis (usually with 4-5 passengers) or marshrutkas, slightly larger minivans

Note: If you're using public transport you won't be particularly comfortable, you may bump around a lot and you'll probably be either hot or cold (I only tried this once). If you're traveling when the weather isn't perfect, check your vehicle, especially the tires. While most main roads are asphalted, many mountain roads are not - and narrow dirt roads on mountainsides are 'interesting' enough without rain, snow or bald tires. 

Places to see in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is not stuffed with cultural high points or monuments, but it does have a fascinating history and several interesting sights - some I visited, some I didn't. I didn't visit the petroglyphs or the Burana Tower or Ala-Archa Gorge, even though they're near Bishkek. What I did visit were the markets, artisans of all kinds and mountains of every size and shape.

This is a country you visit for its physical beauty and its people.

During my visit I criss-crossed the country and visited most regions, except a few of the ones too far to reach in the time I had. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, with its Soviet vibe, major monumentalia, utilitarian avenues - combined with a certain energy and friendliness; not a place to spend more than a couple of days but not unpleasant if you do.

  • Lake Issy-Kul, whose northern shore is the country's most popular (with former Soviet citizens) resort, a bit worn and spreading outward rapidly. An intriguing stop would be Ruh-Ordo in Cholpon-Ata, an outdoor celebration of Kyrgyz culture. The lake itself is enormous and ringed with mountains and the drive around it incredibly pleasant.  If you don't have the time, you can drive to its western tip from Bishkek in around four hours and stay at the Bel-Tam Yurt Camp, a lovely introduction to yurt-sleeping. (This camp has sit-down toilets - most don't, so get used to the thought of squatting).

  • Karakol and Kochkor both have frontier feels to them. Karakol is culturally diverse, with a Chinese mosque and Russian Orthodox church not far from one another, whereas Kochkor is the jumping off point for the mountains around Lake Song-Kul.

  • Jeti-Ögüz is an ochre hill formation near Karakol, quite pretty but more interesting (to me) is the nearby Soviet-era sanatorium, which probably hasn't changed much since the 1930s. Beautiful views all around.
  • Lake Song-Kul, the world's second-largest Alpine lake and a magical stretch of water high above the country. It is ringed by high snow-capped mountains and far enough away from 'civilization' to not even get a mobile phone signal. Beware of the road there and back if you suffer from vertigo, you'll spend a lot of time staring at your feet. You can catch a taxi from Kochkor to the lake but an easier way would be to get in touch with CBT Kochkor and ask them to help you organize the trip up. The better way to reach the lake is by horseback. Sadly I wasn't able to do this (although I did go for a little ride along the lake itself) but several people who have tried say it was the highlight of their visit.

  • Kyzil-Oy, which means 'red bowl', is a tiny village in a deep canyon, attractively set among the greenery. You can easily find a homestay for the night.

  • The city of Osh, which many visitors don't get to because it isn't on the way to anywhere (except overland to Uzbekistan), is one of Central Asia's oldest cities. It is a harrowing 8-12 hour drive from Bishkek, or you can take a short flight. Osh has a distinct Mediterranean feel to it, it's louder and brasher than Bishkek, a friendly city that has a bustling openness about it. That said, this is where the worst of the ethnic clashes took place a few years ago, pitting the city's two ethnic groups - Kyrgyz and Uzbek - against one another in a bloody conflict no one wants to talk about or even remember. Climb the holy Mt Sulaiman-Too for a view of the city and visit the market.

So that's a quick overview of some of Kyrgyzstan's high points but in reality, you can throw the list away and just get on the road. Anywhere you go will be enchanting, and you'll be drawn in. People are curious and friendly, food is easy to find, and it's difficult to get lost.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - view from Ruh Ordo on Lake Issy-KulGazing out to Lake Issy-Kul from Ruh-Ordo, an open-air cultural museum on the shores of the lake near Cholpon Ata
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - a herd of horses on a mountain above Lake Issy-KulInto the mountains around Lake Issy-Kul
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - seven bulls or jeti-oguz rock formationsThe Jeti-Ögüz rock formation, or Seven Bulls, not far from Karakol
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - Bokonbaeva yurt camp on the shores of Lake Issy-Kul during an electrical stormThe yurt camp at Bokonbaeva on the shores of Lake Issy-Kul - this is where I witnessed one of the most spectacular electrical storms of my life
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - horsement playing kok-boruOne of the sports they practise is kok-boru, a type of polo in which a goat carcass is the prize. Apparently all this to and fro tenderizes the goat and winner gets to take it home - and eat it. This was an impromptu local game in Kyzil-Oy - local teams play against one another and work their way up to regional and eventually national championships
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - making a yurtI attended a yurt-building class: when you first see a yurt, which the Kyrgyz call a 'boz uy' (yurt comes from the Russian yurta) it looks like a simple construction. After half an hour of putting this one together, I could appreciate the intricacies and many layers of craft needed to build one of these dwellings
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - a hole in the ceiling lets sunshine into an otherwise dark yurtThis is the hole in a yurt's ceiling - the structure is dark inside and by pulling open the top, the sun comes streaming in
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - woman selling hats and scarves at a marketA typical clothes market in Kyrgyzstan

The one event you shouldn't miss

If there is one single event you should get yourself to in Kyrgyzstan, it's the World Nomad Games. Sadly they only take place every two years and are announced only six months or so before the actual games. In 2016 they were held in early September but if Kyrgyzstan is on your wish list, watch for that date.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - opening ceremony of the World Nomad Games 2016Opening ceremonies of the World Nomad Games 2016, pulled off spectacularly. For hours, we were all mesmerized with light shows, dances and musical performances
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - outdoor camp at the World Nomad GamesMore than 1000 yurts were put up for the World Nomad Games, part of which took place in the mountains beyond Lake Issy-Kul
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - crowds at the World Nomad GamesCrowds gather at the start of the World Nomad Games, getting together on the mountain in a temporary village of more than 1000 yurts

Eating your way through Kyrgyzstan

If you eat meat, you'll be well fed wherever you go in Kyrgyzstan. In homes it won't take long for food to appear, and chances are it will be on the table even before you arrive. The people of Kyrgyzstan are incredibly hospitable and will make sure you eat! I can't say I found too many vegetarian options but the food was tasty and plentiful, if somewhat greasy - perfect for the rough climate and nomadic lifestyle.

In the South, shashlik - skewers of beef or mutton - reign. If you leave your car window down, as you head South, you'll be guided by your nose. Lagman is a classic dish (see below), wheat noodles topped by meat and a few rare vegetables. Another is plov, or rice, typical to Central Asia and never made the same way twice. Usually it'll be served with onions or garlic or a few bits of carrot. Satisfying.

One thing you'll find everywhere is kumys, fermented mare's milk. And no, I didn't try it. (Wimp.) The one thing I couldn't get enough of: bread, which comes in many sizes and shapes.

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - lagman noodles
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - different breads
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - snacks put on the table for all guests
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - shashlik, meat skewers
Travel to Kyrgyzstan - spice market

Safety and attitudes to women

The joy of traveling as a woman in Kyrgyzstan is that it's perfectly safe wherever you go - while there are never any guarantees of safety, this is not a country in which being a woman should cause you worry.

That said... you've heard of bride kidnapping, right? A woman is literally kidnapped and married against her will. Yes - Kyrgyzstan does that.

Nearly everyone I met had a family member or friend who had been kidnapped. Sometimes, the kidnapping is symbolic, with the woman having been forewarned but often, it is not.

One mother from a rural village was kidnapped in the 1980s and her daughter suffered the same fate two years ago (the little boy was the result). The daughter has found happiness in her marriage but it was very much against her will - she was finishing her business studies in Bishkek when she was shoved into a car and taken back to her home village to live with a man she had been seeing. Despite her pleas to her mother, she was locked into a room a few houses away from her parents' home and her mother, fearing shame, refused to help. They agreed to let me use their photograph but asked that I not reveal their names or location.

Interestingly, a local sociologist told me kidnapping often occurs when the man lacks confidence to ask.

A law has now been passed banning bride kidnapping but like everywhere, the mere existence of a law doesn't erase a custom of culture. Still, at least in urban areas, attitudes are changing and plenty of young women I spoke to told me they're rather not date and risk being kidnapped - because yes, it's often the 'boyfriend' and by dating, she is seen as tacitly 'accepting' his advances.

That said, mores in this mostly Muslim country are extremely conservative and premarital sex or pregnancy are rare. 

Other than the high and narrow roads, the one thing that did scare me in Kyrgyzstan: stray dogs at dusk, especially in Bishkek. They roam the streets in packs and converge near bins or garbage dumps as the sun sets and kindly residents put leftovers out for them. They aren't violent and ignore you but rabies is common in the region, and finding rabies shots could be complicated (especially in rural areas).

What to wear and what to buy

Bishkek is like any city - casual for tourists and students, more formal for business. If in doubt, err on the conservative side. Even though it was summer, the only bare skin I saw (other than lower arms and legs and the occasional short skirt) was on foreigners.

Once you leave the city, consider you are in a rural area or in the countryside and dress as you would there. In Karakol, when visiting the Russian Orthodox Church, you'll have to wear a scarf over your head (bring your own if you don't want to put on a used scarf). A the Dungan Mosque, I was promptly handed a chador-type robe (green velvet, no less). The Dungan are a Chinese minority who fled China more than a century ago and have settled in and around Karakol but have retained their Muslim faith.

There isn't a huge amount to buy in Kyrgyzstan, other than a shyrdyk or traditional carpet. They are heavy and yes, I could have bought a small one, but to fit in my backpack would have required something very very small and I was still in the early days of my trip when I saw these. (I made up for the carpet-buying fail a few weeks later, in Uzbekistan.)

Travel to Kyrgyzstan - beautiful shyrdyk carpetsSyrdyk carpets can take up to a year to weave. First, you spin the sheep's wool and use it as a base, then you apply colourful cut-outs and finally, you spin and glue a border around the felt.

Somehow I don't feel I'm doing justice to Kyrgyzstan. It is far more beautiful than my photographs can show, and people are among the most welcoming I've ever met. Food is always on the table, if not a full meal, then a series of wafers and breads and chips and candies that will keep you calm until the real food arrives. I don't think I ever walked into a home without being fed, a true mark of hospitality.

Its position at the crossroads of Central Asia makes the country a 'cauldron of diversity', as I've heard it called so appropriately. Most times, that diversity mixes well, in spite of the occasional ethnic clashes. Society is in full transition, torn between the safety of the Soviet net and the possibilities of the future. A muslim country, Kyrgyzstan has so far avoided fundamentalism but there are concerns, among government and parents, that young people lacking opportunities at home (many migrate to Russia for jobs) may turn to extremism for solace. 

Perhaps what struck me the most was the solitary silence I was able to experience, so rare in most parts of the world. As I got further off the beaten track, there were hours during which all I saw were herds of horses, and the occasional, distant yurt.

At night, no urban light spoiled the huge sky and if you turned on your phone, all you'd get is the dreaded 'No Service'. Except here, no service is just the way it should be.

Kyrgyzstan travel resources

  • Not too many airlines fly to Bishkek - I used Turkish Airlines, and Aeroflot also flies there
  • The best time to visit is between May and September, although you might not be able to visit Song Kul until the snows melt in June. I visited in early September and the camps were closing down for winter.
  • Use HotelsCombined to find a room for your first night or two in Bishkek (I always reserve my first few nights, just to get my bearings)
  • CBT can help you with your independent travel arrangements - they can set up transport, homestays, visits to artisans
  • I used the excellent Bradt Guide to Kyrgyzstan to plan my travels
  • Visa page of the Kyrgyzstan Embassy to the US - lists countries whose citizens can enter the Kyrgyzstan visa-free
  • If you haven't decided your route yet, my three-week itinerary for solo women in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan might give you some ideas
  • Caravanistan is a great online resource for Kyrgyzstan and for all of Central Asia

Quick video snapshot: Kyrgyzstan highlights

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