Find out some of the most interesting things to do and to see in Kyrgyzstan.
After a few days spent exploring Southeast Kazakhstan, I crossed the border in Karkara and spent the second part of my trip to Central Asia discovering Kyrgyzstan. Crossing the border is simple and since it’s quite a remote area it doesn’t take long.
Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries we almost never hear about however it’s an incredibly beautiful destination that you should include in your bucket list.
What are some of the most unique things you can do and see in Kyrgyzstan? Here some ideas for your trip to Central Asia.
What to do in Kyrgyzstan
A visit to San-Tash
About 20 Km after crossing the border with Kazakhstan you’ll come across San Tash. There are many legends associated with this archaeological site.
According to one of them, the large pile of thousands of rocks dates back to the Timurid era. En route to an invasion of China, the conqueror instructed his soldiers to each place one stone from Issyk-Köl Lake into the mound. Upon returning victorious from the battle, each soldier again removed one stone; and this allowed Timur to estimate his battle losses.
Drinking horse milk
In ancient times the first thing you should offer to your guest if you were a Nomad in Kyrgyzstan was horse milk.
I’m not gonna lie: it tastes bad, however, you should at least try it once. Horse milk tastes like sour cream and bacon and since it’s fermented it’s slightly alcoholic. It’s one of those things that you have to acquire a taste for since you were a kid, just like blue cheese, stinky tofu, or durian.
To prove that I’m not exaggerating just keep in mind that fermented horse milk has been included in the Disgusting Food Museum in Stockholm.
Kyrgyzstan for foodies: Ashlan-fu
Fortunately, there are some delicious dishes to try in Kyrgyzstan and Ashlan-fu is one of them. This is one of Karakol’s Signature Dishes. It’s a dish that originates from the Dungan ethnic group (a Muslim minority from Xinjiang, China). It’s a slightly spicy, cold soup made with two kinds of noodles — thick rice noodles and thinner wheat noodles — mixed with a vinegar chili sauce and topped with chopped herbs. It usually comes with piroshky (fried bread stuffed with potatoes).
The best place to try Ashlan-fu it’s in Karakol’s Small Bazaar. You can find more info about the food you can try in Karakol on this website. Another thing you should try is my favorite dish in all of central Asia: Laghman, basically a Central Asia version of the Chinese pull noodles also called Lamian (拉面).
Dungan Mosque in Karakol
In the late 19th century Karakol’s population increased due to an influx of Dungans, Chinese Muslims fleeing warfare in China. They brought their culture with them in Kyrgyzstan and, in 1910, a mosque was built to serve the community of Dungans. Some of the things that make this building unique are that is constructed entirely without nails and much of its imagery, including a wheel of fire, reflects the Dungans’ pre-Islamic, Buddhist past. Furthermore, instead of a minaret, the mosque has a wooden pagoda.
All colors represent different Dungan cultural concepts; red: protects from evil spirits, yellow: contributes to the accumulation of wealth and brings prosperity, and green symbolizes happiness. It’s probably one of those buildings that, unless you know the culture and the history behind it, doesn’t stand out, but I find it fascinating. In all the years I spent in China I’ve actually never seen this type of mosque.
Camping in Issyk-kul lake
Issyk-Kul is a lake in the northern Tian Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan. According to Wikipedia “it’s the seventh deepest lake in the world, the tenth largest lake in the world by volume (though not in surface area), and the second largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Issyk-Kul means “warm lake” in the Kyrgyz language; although it is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it never freezes.”
It’s a huge lake and it’s the summer holiday retreat for Kyrgyz people. One interesting thing you can do is camping in a yurt on the shores of the lake.
Camping in a yurt
One of the first things that come to mind when you think about a trip to Central Asia is spending a few nights in a yurt. There are plenty of places in Kyrgyzstan where you can spend a few days with a local family in their yurts. Some are quite remote and difficult to find (you need a local tour company to book the yurt for you) others (like in Issyk-Kul) are very accessible.
If you visit Kyrgyzstan staying in a yurt it’s a must. Don’t expect any comfort though: some camps don’t have electricity (definitely don’t expect any WI-FI signal), the toilet is just a hole in the ground and, especially in the mountains, it gets quite cold even during the summer.
Enjoy the incredible landscapes
In Kyrgyzstan, you’ll find some pretty sick views. Be ready to hike a lot but you’ll eventually be rewarded with amazing landscapes. Unfortunately, during my trip it rained a lot so I had to skip a few destinations but I’ve seen pictures of incredible places with absolutely zero tourists.
Kyrgyzstan is a country to explore with a lot of possibilities for any landscape photographer.
Seeing a Snow Leopard
The first time I saw a Snow Leopard was in China and it was an incredible experience but also quite extreme. We had to camp at an altitude of 4300 meters (in winter) and it was quite tough. If that’s too much for you, you can visit the NABU Snow Leopard reserve where at the moment there are 2 Snow Leopards.
It’s very difficult to find the camp and you need to book the visit before going there. I suggest you contact the NABU center to ask for more information. The Snow Leopards are kept inside a big enclosure and they are not free to leave. One cat lost part of his leg due to poaching and would die quickly if released in the wild since it’s not able to hunt. The second Snow Leopard was born in captivity.
At the moment there are about 300 Snow Leopards in the whole country but the number is declining due to poaching and loss of natural habitat. The NABU center is part of a German project entirely sponsored by the German Government.
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and even though is not as developed as Almaty (the other city I visited during the trip in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) is an interesting place to explore.
There are two new mosques and it’s cool to see the contrast between the soviet architecture and the religious buildings.
Useful info about Kyrgyzstan
- It’s definitely possible to arrange a trip without any tour operator however you might want to consider hiring a local driver to get you to the most remote places. Most yurt camps are so isolated that only local people know about them.
- Kyrgyzstan is the most democratic of all the Central Asian countries and for this reason from time to time, there are some protests in some of its major cities. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a safe country. During my trip, I met a lot of solo travelers (males and females).
- Unlike Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have many natural resources, and generally speaking, the country is not as developed as its gigantic neighbor. Even in the capital, Bishkek, you’ll find plenty of unpaved roads. The only abundant resource is water and in my opinion, this might play a very important role in the future development of the country.
- The majestic Tien Shan (Heavenly Mountains) range occupies the greater part of the area and 90% of the country stands above 1.500m, with 71% above 2.000m. So even in summer, it can be quite cold especially if it’s cloudy.
- Holders of passports from 69 different countries (including most European countries, the United States, Canada, and Australia) are not required to obtain a Visa for up to 60 days. You can find more info here. So you might want to consider including these two countries in your itinerary.
DISCLAIMER: This publication is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Fabio Nodari and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.