Hi, my name is Cynthia Bil. Welcome to my guide on the best things to do in Kyrgyzstan. I grew up in Knokke-Heist, a coastal town in Belgium. Travelling the world was always my dream but I didn’t know how to do it while supporting myself financially. I was also afraid of the unknown.
It wasn’t until I suffered from depression that I started to question myself and my life choices. I used to be a special needs teacher for children with learning disorders and emotional problems. I liked the teaching part and helping those kids but I felt something was missing. I didn’t really feel alive.
So in 2011, at 26 years old, I decided to take a gap year. I travelled to Australia for one year on a working holiday visa to have a new life experience. During that time, I learned ways to travel on a budget, how to find jobs and most importantly I experienced how it was to feel fully alive.
After that year of travel, I didn’t want it to be over. Instead of returning to Belgium, I kept travelling. It was the beginning of my nomadic life!
How I Ended up in Kyrgyzstan
I never planned on visiting Kyrgyzstan and barely even knew of its existence. It was purely coincidental that I ended up there. I was on a hitchhiking journey with my former boyfriend Niko. We started our trip in Ireland and were planning to travel the world by hitchhiking overland.
When we were crossing the Caspian Sea from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan by cargo ship, we met two guys from England who were also heading towards Russia. They offered us a ride in their car so we could cross Kazakhstan.
The plan was to go our own way when we arrived in Shymkent, Kazakhstan. Our English friends decided to take a small detour through Kyrgyzstan. On the day we were supposed to say goodbye, Niko and I decided last-minute that we wanted to join our friends on their journey to Kyrgyzstan.
I immediately loved it there! The landscapes were incredible, the people were so hospitable and I liked the general vibe of the country. So instead of continuing our hitchhiking trip towards Russia, Niko and I decided to stay for a while in Kyrgyzstan so we could get to know this country better.
Living in Central Asia for a Year
During my first trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2017, I ended up living and travelling there for nearly one year. Every 60 days I crossed the border into one of its neighbouring countries (Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan) to renew my visa. I rented an apartment in the capital Bishkek which I used as a home base.
I visited many places and regions. I hitchhiked to Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city Osh, explored small villages on the southern shore of Issyk Kul lake and took tons of hikes in the region of Issyk Kul, Song-Kul, Naryn and Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan isn’t a massive country but there are so many stunning regions and hiking trails that one could easily spend years there!
My Favourite Places in Kyrgyzstan
It sounds cliché but as soon as I arrived in Kyrgyzstan, I fell in love with the country. I’m a huge outdoor lover and the mountainous landscapes were breathtaking! Kyrgyzstan’s nature is wild, untouched and beautiful. I was also delighted to learn about its centuries-old rich nomadic culture.
Many Kyrgyz people are shepherds and have a semi-nomadic life. They spend the winter usually in villages and during the warmer summer months, they take their herds (sheep, cows, and horses) up to the higher summer pastures in the mountains where they stay in traditional yurt camps. Those yurts are round tents covered with skins or felt.
I also didn’t expect to see so many horses in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. These horses aren’t wild per se (as they all technically have owners) but they roam freely around the yurt camps and it’s beautiful to see.
My favourite spots in Kyrgyzstan are: Kel-Suu, Song-Kul and Ala-Kul. These are all alpine lakes (Kyrgyzstan has about 2000 lakes). I love Kel-Suu lake as it’s extremely remote and hard to access. It’s one of the destinations I visit during my Adventure Tours and it’s an incredible experience to camp in the nearby valley as you get the feeling you are all by yourself.
I also love Song-Kul lake. This is one of the more popular destinations for both locals and foreigners in Kyrgyzstan but the lake is so big (it has an area of about 270 km²) that you don’t notice this. I usually visit Song-Kul lake on a multiple-day horseback trip and stay at one of the yurt camps on the shores of the lake. It’s another extraordinary and unique experience!
The third place I love is Ala-Kul, a rock-dammed lake at an altitude of 3,500 meters. It’s a multiple-day hike to reach Ala-Kul but once you get there the views are rewarding. The lake is so beautiful that locals refer to it as the ‘pristine diamond of the Karakol Canyon’. The water changes hourly from azure to violet, depending on the weather conditions and time of year.
10 Best Things To Do in Kyrgyzstan
There are many unique things to do and experience in Kyrgyzstan but here are some that will give you a taste of the beauty and culture of the country:
- Spend some time at a traditional yurt camp and learn more about the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Kyrgyz shepherds.
- Attend a Kok Boru game, the most popular sport in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. However, this sport isn’t for everyone. You could describe it as a rough rugby game on horses with a beheaded goat used as a ball.
- Horseback ride in the mountains or at one of Kyrgyzstan’s epic lakes.
- If you visit in October, you can’t miss the walnut harvest in Arslanbob.
- Visit an ethno-cultural festival (mainly held in the summer months) to learn all about the national sports, traditional music, etc.
- Take at least one hike and spend the night camping in the mountains.
- Visit Fairytale Canyon where you will find yourself in a world of colour.
- You have to see one of Kyrgyzstan’s stunning alpine lakes. If you don’t have much time then try at least visiting Song-Kul lake.
- Try a glass of Kumis which is fermented mare’s milk and a very popular drink among the Kyrgyz semi-nomad people.
- Learn how to build a traditional yurt on the south shore of Issyk-Kul.
The Wonderful Kyrgyz People
The Kyrgyz people love meeting foreign travellers. Already on our first evening in Kyrgyzstan, my friends and I got invited by a family to spend the night in their home. They treated us to some local dishes and rang their neighbours and extended family to come meet us. It was a delight!
Even though our Russian language skills weren’t particularly fluent, we were still capable of having a good conversation and could learn more about the daily routine of the family. This is just one small example of how generous, friendly and hospitable the Kyrgyz people were with us.
While hitchhiking in Kyrgyzstan, drivers would often invite us for a meal. If you come across a yurt camp during your hikes and you are looking for a place to sleep, the shepherds will very likely welcome you in their yurts.
Hearty Cuisine of Kyrgyzstan
The food in Kyrgyzstan is hearty. Most meals consist of mutton, beef and chicken served in dumplings on top of noodles. If you are a vegetarian, it will be challenging to find Kyrgyz dishes without meat. However, it’s not impossible and you can always ask for meals without meat.
Laghman is one of the traditional Kyrgyzstan dishes. Traditional Laghman noodles are soupy, boso Laghman noodles are fried, and guru Laghman noodles are boiled and less soupy. Then there is manti – Kyrgyzstan’s version of dumplings and usually containing lamb and onions.
Another dish you should try is Beshbarmak, a traditional Kyrgyz nomadic dish made with mutton (or other meat) cooked in its own juices for hours then poured over hand-cut noodles. The name of this dish translates as “five fingers” because it’s meant to be blended and eaten with your hands.
When it comes to specific restaurants, there are two restaurants in Bishkek that I would highly recommend if you want to try the traditional Kyrgyz kitchen: Arzu and Navat. While you are in Bishkek, you should also visit the Osh Bazaar – Kyrgyzstan’s most famous and largest outdoor market.
Staying at Yurts and Homestays
Kyrgyzstan has many hotels, guest houses and hostels but I recommend staying at least one night at a traditional yurt camp of nomadic shepherds. There are nice yurts for tourists at lake Song-Kul or Issyk-Kul.
Another recommendation is to spend the night at a local homestay. This is a less fancy version of a B&B but you will be staying with a local family and get such a unique experience. By staying at a homestay, you will get to experience the daily life of a local family which is just priceless.
Precious Memories of Kyrgyzstan
My most precious memories are the ones spent hiking or horse riding in the mountains and staying at the yurt camps of the nomadic shepherds. I really love how they connect with their natural surroundings.
They don’t have running water but the camps are always located near a source of water. They barely have electricity. They work hard and are always outside. I find it very peaceful to be there. There are no distractions, no WiFi, no light or sound pollution. It’s back to basics and the essentials of life.
Need to Know Before you Go
I often get asked if Kyrgyzstan is a dangerous country. But as a matter of fact, it would be one of the safest countries I have ever travelled to! Just exercise normal safety precautions like you would in any other country.
You can withdraw money at the ATMs in big cities like Bishkek, Osh and Karakol. Make sure you have cash money with you when travelling to rural places as you will have a hard time finding an ATM or paying by visa card.
If you don’t have your own transport, you can travel between cities by using public transport in the form of a marshrutka (minibus) or shared taxis. Most marshrutkas only leave when full so you have to be patient! To be able to reach remote places, you will need to rent a car or get a private taxi.
Never go hiking alone in the mountains, unless you are an experienced trekker (and even then practice caution). Always hike with a buddy or even better, hire a guide! This way you will stay safe and support the local people.
The best time to visit Kyrgyzstan if you want to go hiking, horse riding and stay at the yurt camps of the semi-nomads is between the months of May and September. If you love winter sports, then you will have a blast in Kyrgyzstan between the months of December and March.
Don’t assume that people can speak English. I would recommend learning some basic Russian or taking a Russian dictionary with you. Bring clothing for all seasons. Even if you are travelling to Kyrgyzstan during the summer months, it can still get very cold at night high up in the mountains.
Bring a water filter. There are many water sources but as a foreigner you shouldn’t drink the water straight from rivers. Filter it first! Bring toilet paper too. Most toilets in rural areas are outside with a hole in the ground.
All in all, Kyrgyzstan isn’t really a destination for city-dwellers. If you are an adventurous person and outdoor lover then you will have a blast here!