If you’re looking for the adventure of a lifetime, travel to Kyrgyzstan!
Kyrgyzstan remains one of the wildest countries on earth, an amazing adventure if you’re looking for ancient nomadic traditions wrapped in extraordinary natural beauty.
This landlocked country in Central Asia was once part of the Soviet Union, and that isolation in some perverse way contributed towards preserving its culture as part of the Great Silk Road. So did its difficult terrain – it is dominated by the Tien Shan mountains, whose snowy peaks and alpine lakes give it a rough natural beauty through which you can travel for days and feel you are in a different world.
One of the features I found most attractive about Kyrgyzstan was its diversity, the mix of religions and ethnicities providing an unusual culture of tolerance in the region.
Kyrgyzstan is where you can disconnect from the world, and for a few days, you may feel plunged into a storybook tale of wild horses, cozy yurts, and a nomadic way of life whose survival is very much in question.
Where is Kyrgyzstan, anyway?
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 Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest salt-water lake after the Caspian Sea. The Kyrgyzstan range is everywhere but the country often feels strangely flat as you race across the plains which the mountains hug in a protective circle.
It is a relatively small country: the Kyrgyzstan population is around 6.7 million people, similar to Paraguay, which is twice the size.
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.
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 and the recent attempts of the government to suppress it, 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 Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek.
Despite this, Kyrgyzstan remains a regional bastion of diversity and tolerance, at least for now. That said, many foreign countries are rushing to build shiny new mosques in many villages, to the happiness of some but the concern of others.
Meantime, Russia isn’t far, and stands by waiting to ‘help’ if it is ever needed. These days, with the war in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan has become a major “re-exporter”, channeling goods to Russia while that country faces international sanctions: Kyrgyzstan’s exports to Russia have reportedly doubled since the war.
Getting to Kyrgyzstan
Not too many airlines fly to Bishkek – I used Turkish Airlines, and Pegasus Airlines also has flights to Kyrgyzstan from Europe.
You can also cross into Kyrgyzstan by land but only through certain borders from China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. You can no longer take the train from Moscow.
The visa situation has evolved quickly in recent years. These days, citizens of most Western countries do not need a visa if they’re staying less than 60 days. You can check whether you need one on this page and if so, submit your application electronically through the same portal.
How safe is Kyrgyzstan for solo women?
Traveling in Kyrgyzstan is relatively safe and straightforward for women, but not easy, and not for the faint-hearted.
Getting around Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful place to push your boundaries but if I were a new traveler, I might consider a more “trodden” destination to sharpen my solo travel skills – the mountains are high, the roads not as safe as you’d like, and some toilets look like they should belong more to fiction than reality.
That said, if you’re a bit travel savvy and can get yourself from A to B even if you don’t speak a word of the language, a Kyrgyzstan vacation is an adventure you’ll never forget. I haven’t.
Best time to visit Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan tourism is in full swing and the government has made it a priority – which is bound to mean some infrastructure improvement.
As for the weather, winters can be frigid, and roads snowy and impassable. Some of the loveliest mountain destinations can only be reached once the snow melts.
For a varied journey, aim for mid-May to mid-September, but the closer you get to summer (July and August), the better the weather – and the scenery. Everything is lush and green, and while you’ll still need to wear a fleece at night in the mountains, the weather is gorgeous.
The Kyrgyzstan currency is the som (KGS), and you’ll have no trouble exchanging US dollars and Euros. There are plenty of ATMs in the capital, Bishkek, and in other larger towns. However, don’t expect to use your credit or debit card much – this is still a cash economy, so get some of those Soms as soon as you land.
Intriguingly, Kyrgyzstan has both the best and the worst internet. It has the best internet in Central Asia, but in some parts of the country, you cannot even get a phone signal, let alone get online. And that is part of Kyrgyzstan’s attraction…
Transportation in Kyrgyzstan
If you’re an expert traveler and accustomed to wandering off the beaten path solo, you can make your own transportation arrangements across Kyrgyzstan.
- Travel in shared taxis, which usually carry 4-5 passengers, is commonl
- Many people ride marshrutkas, minivans that ply predetermined routes, a bit like a bus.
- You can also rent a car, either on your own or with a driver (a driver is highly recommended, given the state of the roads once you leave the main highways).
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, depending on the season. If you’re traveling when the Kyrgyzstan weather isn’t perfect, check your vehicle, especially the tires. Kyrgyzstan safety standards can at times be questionable and 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.
Use CBT to get around
This is my preferred option in Kyrgyzstan.
CBT stands for Community Travel Organization, a group launched in May 2000 to improve rural living conditions in remote areas by developing sustainable tourism. The group has 15 member organizations throughout the country, and they handle all local arrangements.
They organized the more rural segments of my visit, and their community approach meant they worked with local groups throughout, redistributing the money you spend in the country rather than repatriating it to wealthy companies located abroad.
It worked beautifully. I had a driver and a guide (for what I considered a very fair price) and they handled all the arrangements in places I might not have been able to reach on my own in the timeframe I had. They set up transport, homestays, staying in yurts, visits to artisans, and provided general Kyrgyzstan travel advice.
If you’d rather be mostly on your own, they can organize a car and driver for you but beware, the driver may not speak English. Make sure you have a translation app with you that doesn’t require an Internet connection!
Top places to visit in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is not stuffed with cultural high points or monuments, but it does have a fascinating history and several interesting sights – most people come for the physical beauty and ancient nomadic culture.
You can visit those endless Kyrgyzstan mountain ranges and vast, captivating areas of wildness from the warmth of a vehicle – or you can go on a hike or a horse trek, both of which are hugely popular. Just make sure you have guide because these are not mountains you want to wander into on your own.
And if you’re feeling less adventurous, head for one of the alpine pastures, plunk yourself in a yurt, and be mesmerized by the scenery…
Kyrgyzstan places to visit
During my visit I crisscrossed 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 my top things to do in Kyrgyzstan:
- Visit the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, with its Soviet vibe, major monumentalia, wide utilitarian avenues – combined with a certain energy and friendliness. And, for some reason, lots of bubble tea. Walk around on your own, or take a walking tour of Bishkek.
- Take some day trips from Bishkek: visit the 11th-century Burana tower or Ala-Archa Gorge.
- Lake Issyk-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 Kyrgyzstan culture. The lake itself is enormous and ringed with mountains and the drive around it is 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 a frontier feel 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, one of the best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan.
- 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, one of the most magical spots on earth (see box below).
- Kyzyil-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 in this picturesque Kyrgyzstan landscape.
- 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 by shared taxi, or you can take a short flight (doesn’t feel much safer). Climb the holy Mt Sulaiman-Too for a view of the city and visit the market. 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.
The Magic of Lake Song Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Lake Song-Kul is 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.
The small town of Kochkor is the jumping-off point for the region, with the occasional vehicle ferrying visitors up the 1300 meters (4300ft) from the valley below.
As I arrive at my charming Kyrgyzstan yurt stay, my hostess, Asel, prepares my bedding. The yurt is heated, a luxury which is in slight contrast to the upright turquoise metal box that serves as my outhouse.
At night, I listen to the lake lapping the shore and fires crackling. I crawl out for a last look at the sky. The earlier rain has washed away the clouds and I’m left with a trillion stars, unblemished by electricity.
The next morning, people are beginning to pack – it’s the end of the season. Women disassemble their yurts and fold them up for next winter, waving their children off for the ride down the mountain and a new school term.
Soon, we leave the yurt camps and the lake behind and follow a faint track, which becomes fainter as we advance.
My driver, Bushbek, waves vaguely towards some distant mountains and sets off cross-country towards them.
Occasionally, we stop at a yurt to ask for directions. As always, we are invited in for tea and snacks, and an arm points in one direction or another.
After an hour or two, we shriek joyfully when a ‘real’ road makes an appearance. We finally know where we are: at the top, heading down.
From the pristine shores of the lake, we are now coughing in the swirling dust of coal trucks from a local mine.
This is why Kyrgyzstan holidays are so intoxicating, after all: there’s a surprise around each corner, and no two corners alike.
10 experiential adventures in Kyrgyzstan you’ll remember
1. Your house will come down every year
A Kyrgyzstan yurt is where many people live in the mountains during summer; during the harsh Kyrgyzstan winter, they pack it up and head home to their village. Staying in a yurt will give you a powerful nomadic experience, especially if you’re there at the beginning or the end of the season.
2. Things roam wild and free
Kyrgyzstan is a haven for wildlife. You may spot eagles, bears, wolves, or lynxes. Among the rarer animals are the glorious Snow Leopard, Marco Polo sheep, and the Siberian Ibex.
3. High altitude sensations will chase you through the Pamir and Tian Shan
More than 80% of Kyrgyzstan is above 1000 meters, and nearly half of it soars to more than 3000 meters. Those with a professional guide have tackled one of the three soaring summits that break the 7000-meter barrier: Lenin Peak, Jengish Chokusu Peak, and Khan Tengri.
4. On and off the roads of Kyrgyzstan
Hiking is a much-loved pastime and although there are soaring peaks, you don’t have to goo far to get lost in nature, including if you’re a beginner. Cycling across Kyrgyzstan can be a paradise of high mountains, little traffic, and sandy lakeside beaches. One of the most popular activities is horse-trekking in Kyrgyzstan – there are so many horses here that the moment you’re out of the city (which is most of the time), you’ll find horses to rent and guides to go with them.
5. Watch them ride – not your everyday game
Kyrgyzstan loves its games, and you haven’t experienced the country’s essence until you’ve spent an afternoon watching a goat carcass being thrown around by men galloping on horseback. Called kok boru, it is similar to Afghanistan’s buzkashi. A little unpleasant to watch, but almost inevitable.
6. Drift along the quiet magic of Lake Song-Kul
Kyrgyzstan has many areas of great beauty, but few are as stunning as Lake Song-Kul, sitting at 3000 meters above sea level.
7. Immerse yourself in Kyrgyzstan history
Kyrgyzstan has faced sweeping historical change for centuries. In the era of Mongol invasions, it was a key link on the legendary Silk Road from China to the West. It eventually fell to a domineering Russian Empire, which later morphed into restrictive oversight by the Soviet Union until independence in 1991. All those phases are still visible today.
8. Bargain in the bazaars
Mountains of spices and mounds of dried fruit vie for space along alleyways so narrow they could be washed away in heavy rain. Pick up a round of bread or chat with merchants. And yes, you can bargain.
9. Hobnob with artisans of the past
Felt-making is a traditional craft of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz men often wear traditional felt hats and women produce two types of Kyrgyzstan felt rugs, the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdaks, that keep yurts warm and colorful.
10. Let’s go on a Kyrgyz road trip
In some parts of the country, you can almost go days without seeing anyone. Kyrgyzstan solo travel is incredibly rewarding. With a sturdy vehicle, every corner of the country can be uncovered, discovered, and explored, from unequaled vistas to occasional old-fashioned villages with that ‘old-time’ feel.
That was 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, Kyrgyzstan food is easy to find, and it’s difficult to get lost.
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 (first held in 2014), whose aim is to safeguard fast-disappearing nomadic traditions and culture.
Sadly, they only take place every two years and aren’t exclusively held in Kyrgyzstan anymore, but if you’re lucky to catch them, don’t miss out on seeing indigenous nomadic sports, arts, foods, and performances. (The first three games were held in Cholpon-Ata in Kyrgyzstan, but the fourth took place in Iznik, in Turkey.)
Centuries ago, when nomadic tribes swept through Asia, they used games to sharpen their physical and intellectual skills.
Now, nomadic traditions are fighting for survival.
Nomadism suffered a severe blow under the Soviet Union, which absorbed all of Central Asia from 1924 until its fall towards the end of the 20th century. In many places, nomadic lifestyles were declared illegal and nomads were forced to become sedentary.
Even if you’re not into spectator sports, you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away should you attend the games. They are in turn clever, brutal, competitive and exhilarating, so it’s not surprising the event is often referred to as the Nomad Olympics.
Back when I visited, the Games were held in two separate locations. Many were held in Cholpon-Ata, on the shores of Lake Issyk-kul, while the others were about an hour’s drive away, at Kyrchyn Gorge.
If you’re in Cholpon-Ata, you must visit the petroglyphs. These are Bronze Age carvings, visible in an open-air museum just outside town where you’ll find stone circles, tombs and a variety of other carvings that date back to the 2nd millennium BCE.
However much I enjoyed watching some of the unusual events in Cholpon-Ata, the gathering at Kyrchyn Gorge was the place that stole my heart.
Men and women from across Central Asia caught up on gossip, fried boorsok dough in hot oil to make pastries, or handed eagles to passers-by – the most natural thing in the world.
The mood was joyous and there was a fair bit of being pulled into yurts, drinking yak or horse milk (never again!) and eating fried things, all accompanied by gestures, laughter, and unintelligible exchanges.
While many cultural festivals are put on nearly exclusively for tourists, with overly stylized performances tailored to what is thought to be our taste, this was somewhat different: a festival by nomads, for nomads.
A few Kyrgyzstan facts
- The official Kyrgyzstan language is Kyrgyz, a Turkic language. In Kyrgyzstan Russian is the second language.
- Kyrgyzstan weather is continental: winters are cold and snowy, and summers warm and sunny. The altitude can be treacherous: it might feel like summer in the lowlands, but climb a mountain and you might easily be faced with snow.
- There are nearly 2000 Kyrgyzstan lakes, although most are small and high up in the mountains. The three largest are Issyk-Kul, Son-Kul, and Chatyr-Kul.
- There are Kyrgyzstan horses native to the country: the Kyrgyz, and you’ll see them all over the place.
Eating your way through Kyrgyzstan food
Kyrgyzstan food is heavenly for meat-eaters, and 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 pilaf, 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…
The one thing I couldn’t get enough of: bread, which comes in many sizes and shapes.
Safety and attitudes to women
Is Kyrgyzstan safe? Yes!
The joy of traveling to Kyrgyzstan as a woman is that it’s relatively safe wherever you go – while there are no guarantees of safety anywhere, 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, willingly or not. Yes – Kyrgyzstan does that. They call it “Ala kachuu”.
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 (the little boy was the result). The daughter has found happiness in her marriage but it was initially 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 the 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.
The chances of this happening to a foreign woman are slim, but it’s important to be aware of social customs and to be on the alert when talking to local men.
The Kyrgyzstan religion is primarily Muslim, so mores are extremely conservative and premarital sex or pregnancy are rare.
So is Kyrgyzstan safe overall?
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).
Dogs are often culled by different associations but animal rights group are opposing the cull because family-owned dogs are often swept up along with the strays.
I would also be cautious on dark streets at night… that frontier spirit still isn’t too distant.
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 but beware, these are heavy!
Kyrgyzstan’s 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 former safety of the Soviet net and the possibilities of the future.
A Muslim country, Kyrgyzstan has so far avoided extreme fundamentalism but there are concerns, among government and parents, that young people lacking opportunities at home (many migrate 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 moved 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.
A final note about Kyrgyzstan
For someone who dislikes heights and is averse to mountains, travel to Kyrgyzstan for three weeks might seem an odd choice. But as I planned my trip to Kyrgyzstan, I was mesmerized by this country, and something about its strong nomadic links called to me (my own ancestors were from this part of the world).
So I conveniently ‘forgot’ about the dizzying 7000m+ Kyrgyzstan 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 always 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.
Kyrgyzstan travel resources
- Try to book a room for your first night or two in Bishkek (I always reserve my first few nights, just to get my bearings). You will find some cheap hotels in Kyrgyzstan, but part of the joy in this country is staying in yurts.
- I used the excellent Bradt Guide to Kyrgyzstan to plan my travels.
- Caravanistan is a great online resource for travel in Kyrgyzstan and for all of Central Asia.
NOTE: The above section called “10 experiential adventures” was developed in partnership with World Expeditions and their #WEVentureOut campaign.
And please – don’t forget your travel insurance before you go! I recommend SafetyWing if you’re 69 and under. If that birthday has come and gone, click here for travel insurance that covers you at any age.
— Originally published on 17 October 2016, renewed and updated in April 2023.