Kyrgyzstan really has it all in terms of activity-oriented sights and beautiful mountain landscapes. We unintentionally timed our visit with the shoulder and low seasons. Tourist numbers dwindled and temperatures dropped. Although everyone told us we should have come earlier in the summer, the first snow falls of autumn in Kyrgyzstan are nothing short of spectacular. A few patches of green grass remain, leaves are changing color and mountains are dusted (or covered) in white. If you can brave the cold, this time of year delivers a multi-layered visual treat. The following is a round-up of sights and practical details from our visit to Kyrgyzstan.
Community Based Tourism (CBT) is a wonderfully competent organization that supports independent tourists in finding affordable and authentic experiences in Kyrgyzstan through its strong network of home-stay families and local horse/trekking guides.
Kyrgyzstan’s laid-back capital city. There aren’t many sights to see here, but people find themselves staying longer than expected because of its easy pace. Make sure you visit the second floor of the State Historical Museum on Ala-Too Square for the shrine to Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. A real blast from the past.
Where to stay and eat: Nomad’s Home, a pleasant traveler hang-out run by kind hosts, has simple dorm and double rooms near the Eastern Bus Station for 200 som ($7). Price includes breakfast. There are many eating options in Bishkek, but our favorites included Lebanese Cafe, good for vegetarians, near Hotel Dostuk (Frunze 429), Adriatico (Chuy Prospektisi 217) for good pizza and pasta, and Concord Cafe (Ala-Too Square) for a cheap and tasty lunch of Russian and Kyrgyz favorites.
A small town nestled between Lake Issyk-Kul and the Tian Shan and Terskey Alatau Mountains. Karakol features a unique Chinese mosque, wooden Orthodox church, cute early 20th century Russian cottages and a large Sunday animal market. For most people, it serves as the jumping off point for hikes to Ala Kol Lake, Altyn Arashan, and Lake Issyk-Kul.
Where to stay and eat: Contact CBT Karakol at email@example.com or +996(3922)55000 for a list of home stays at 300-350 soms ($8-$10)/person including breakfast. For food, we recommend Traktiry Kalinka (Jusup Abdrakhmanov 99) for its cozy atmosphere, extensive menu and cold draught beers. Zarina Cafe near the Jakshilik Bazaar also has tasty baked pelmeni (Russian-style ravioli).
Transport: Catch a shared taxi from the main bus station in Bishkek (Western Bus Station) for around 300-400 som ($9-11) per person. The drive takes around 4-5 hours and goes along the northern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, providing beautiful views of the mountains along the lakes southern shore.
Manzhyly, Southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul
Part of our perfect day; a beautiful setting with red rocks on one side, deep blue water on the other, and a comfortable bed and breakfast yurt-stay. A highly recommended side trip from Karakol or Bakonbaeva.
Where to stay and eat: The CBT yurt-stay less than a kilometer the hill from the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Give Bakyt a call (+996 0503960060) to let him know you’re coming. 350 som ($10) per person, including breakfast. A delicious, home-made dinner in the yurt is 120 som ($4).
Transport: Catch a marshtrutka from the southern shore bus station in Karakol towards Bakonbaeva (90 som/$2.50). The ride takes around 1.5 hours. Just tell the marshrutka driver “Manzhyly” and follow the CBT signs. When the road forks, go left to avoid the evil dogs of the neighboring shepherd.
From Karakol, hike three to four hours to natural hot springs in a postcard perfect mountain setting. The high mountain Ala Kol Lake (3,860 meters) is a day’s hike away in good weather. Camp overnight near the lake and continue down to Karakol through the Karakol Valley the following day. Tents and other camping gear are available for rent from CBT Karakol.
Where to stay and eat: There are a couple of accommodation choices at Altyn Arashan. We stayed in simple dorms for 250 som ($7) per person, with free access to the hot springs. The hot springs are worth the trek and wonderful after a long day of hiking. Food is also available, but the price is high compared with accommodation, so bringing your own food might be a better, more economical bet.
Transport: Take a marshrutka from the main market in Karakol to Ak-Suu (30-45 minutes). Just tell the bus driver you want to go to Altyn Arashan and he’ll drop you off at the right dirt road (where the trail starts).
Kochkor and Song Kul Lake
Kochkor is a small town southwest of Lake Issyk-Kul that most travelers pass through on their way to Song Kul Lake or Sarala Saz jailoo (summer pasture for grazing). We took a three-day horse trek organized through CBT Kochkor from Kyzart to Song Kul Lake. Two days of spectacular scenery on horses, with yurt-stays in between and a return trip to Kochkor by car. Everyone told us we should have come in the summertime to see more yurts and animals grazing on Song Kul’s shores. However, tourists are few in mid to late autumn; the changing autumn landscape and the first snow created an absolutely magical landscape.
Where to stay and eat: CBT Kochkor (firstname.lastname@example.org or +996 3535 22355) made all the arrangements with the horse guide, horses, yurt stays and transport by car from Song Kul Lake to Kochkor. They can also arrange home-stays in Kochkor for 300-350 som ($8-$10) per person (including breakfast). Eating dinner at your home-stay is your best bet, but if you do venture out, Cafe Alba has good fried pelmeni (Russian ravioli).
Transport: Shared taxi from Bishkek is around 250-300 som ($6-$8). A marshrutka from Karakol to Balykchy takes around 3 hours and costs 180 som ($5). Then you’ll need to catch a shared taxi from Balykchy to Karakol (45 minutes) for around 60-100 som ($2-$3) per person, depending on the number of people.
Osh is a large, ethnically chaotic city in southern Kyrgyzstan. It features large Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations (with a few Tajiks thrown in for good measure) making it a Central Asian mixing bowl of cultures, food and people. The market in Osh seems to take over much of the town and is by far its most defining feature. Not a place to spend a whole lot of time, but Osh is a good stopping point on the way to the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan.
Where to stay and eat: We stayed at Sanabar 3 hotel near the main mosque. New, clean and priced at 500 som ($15) for a double ensuite room. As most every restaurant in the city seems to serve from the same menu – mutton skewers, mutton dumplings and mutton soup – we spent most of our eating moments at California Cafe near the University (Sylaimanova Street 3/1) for vegetarian fajitas, pizzas and pasta. Started and run by an American couple, this restaurant was an oasis from all the mutton and shashlik surrounding us.
Transport: Take a shared taxi from Bishkek’s main bus station to Osh – 800-900 som/person ($25-$28) and 8-10 hours, usually. In our case, the snow, broken lights and frequent tea and mutton breaks extended the trip to an ungodly 18 hours.
Photo Slideshow: The Kyrgyzstan We Know
If you don’t have a high-speed connection or you would like to read the captions, you can view our Kyrgyzstan photo essay.