10 reasons to visit Kyrgyzstan

KIrgyzstan is an adventurer’s paradise; a tapestry of windswept steppes, frenetic bazaars and still alpine lakes hidden between the towering peaks of the Pamir and Tian Shen mountain ranges. Long known for its ruggedly beautiful hiking and cycle-touring trails, its few towns – which have good air connections – offer sophisticated crossovers between post-Soviet chic and nomadic culture. Visit now – before it’s on too many to-do lists…

A negative PCR test dated less than 72 hours before your arrival by plane is now required for foreign citizens to enter Kyrgyzstan, regardless of their vaccination status.

Without visa

Kyrgyzstan is one of the most accessible countries in Central Asia, a region notorious for its labyrinthine post-Soviet bureaucracy. UK passport holders can stay visa-free for 60 days or apply online for a 90-day e-visa – although e-visas can only be used at Manas Airport, Bishkek International Airport , Osh International Airport and Ak-Jol border crossing point in Kazakhstan. For stays longer than 90 days, apply for a visa from the Kyrgyzstan Embassy before traveling – you cannot apply for a Kyrgyzstan visa if you have traveled to the country without one, and you cannot extend the electronic visa.

Craft beers

Bishkek is the cosmopolitan capital of Kyrgyzstan

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Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a fabulous mix of Soviet architecture, Asian bazaars, mosques and feminist craft beer. Save the Ales, an all-female microbrewery and tavern, is a little bar tucked away along a side street downtown that serves some of the best beer around. The range of taps can be a bit small as the beers are all brewed on site, but there’s usually at least one IPA, pale and stout to try. The nearby Brewster’s Bar is also worth a visit.

Incredible cycle tourism

Kyrgyzstan sits at the end – or beginning, depending on how you travel – of one of the world’s most famous and spectacular long-distance cycle touring routes, the Pamir Highway. The M41 – the prosaic name of this extraordinary highway, originally a Soviet trade route between Russia and Central Asia – ends in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. The road descends from the Pamir mountains, and from an altitude of about 4,300 m, just after the border with Tajikistan, before the small hamlet of Sary-Tash. The Tajik section of the Pamir Highway gets all the glory, which is unfair: the breathtaking descent from the Taldyk Pass, along sharp turns that wind around snow-capped peaks to the lush valley floor and in Osh, is one of the best bike rides in the world.

Shiny bazaars

The Pamir Highway is an epic cycle route

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Kyrgyzstan has otherworldly markets, with stalls filled with spices and alleys lined with blacksmiths and seamstresses. Jayma Bazaar in Osh is one of the largest in Central Asia, a cacophony of smells and colors pouring out of overturned shipping containers. Merchants come from China, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to trade in the market, which has existed on the same site for nearly 2,000 years. Amidst its bustling streets, it’s not hard to imagine being back in the heart of the ancient Silk Road.

Hostels and Homestays

Thanks to its growing reputation as a hub of adventure tourism, Kyrgyzstan has a whole community of backpacker-friendly hostels. The Hippyish TES Hotel in Osh is a major hangout for cyclists and bikers coming down the Pamir Highway, and allows campers to pitch a tent in the garden for a really cheap stay. Friends Guesthouse in Bishkek is a cozy hotel-hostel, with plenty of soft daybeds for lounging. High in the mountains, family homestays offer unparalleled hospitality for less than $10 a night. Sary-Tash has a good selection, the best of which is Hostel Muras, and is an ideal base for exploring the upper Lenin Peak and its hiking trails.

comfort food

Try staple dishes like Lagman

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Kyrgyz food is mountain food, suitable for high altitudes, cold winters and snowstorms. Think creamy stir-fried noodles – called “lagman”; rich and meaty “ash” – a kind of Central Asian pilaf; and “manti” or juicy dumplings. Street food is also high in carbs and substantial: watch out for samsa, a variant of samosa, which are hot patties stuffed with meat, cheese or potatoes.

High altitude hike

Uncrowded, spectacular and remote, Kyrgyzstan’s hundreds of thousands of miles of trails are its crown jewels. Nearly 300km of freshly marked trails were opened a few years ago around the two hiking bases of Kochkor and Karakol, the result of a long-term project in collaboration with USAID. The Kyrgyzstan Hiking Union organizes multi-day and one-day tours, and also sells maps if you want to guide yourself.

mountain lakes

Turquoise views of Lake Issyk-Kul

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Central Asia’s answer to the Swiss Alps, Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous regions are dotted with postcard-worthy high-altitude lakes. One of the most popular is Issyk-Kul, one of the largest lakes in the world, whose turquoise waters reflect the towering Tian Shan mountains that surround it. The north side of the lake is quite touristy, but the south is quiet and less developed. Skazka Canyon on the south side offers a Martian landscape of bright red rock formations that rivals anything in Utah.

eagle hunting

Kyrgyzstan has hosted three of the four World Nomad Games, Central Asian ethnic games that include traditional sports like falconry, horseback riding, wrestling and archery. You can taste “salbuurun” – hunting games banned in the Soviet Union – around Lake Issyk-Kul.

Horseback riding

Kyrgyz nomads still cross the alpine meadows on horseback

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One of the best ways to experience Kyrgyzstan is on horseback. Like their Kazakh neighbors, Kyrgyz nomads still cross the steppes and mountain pastures of their country on horseback, towing a yurt with them. The treks promise a bit more luxury, but you can still enjoy a night or two camping in Kyrgyzstan’s surreal wilderness – and wake up to a glass of hot mare’s milk for breakfast.

About John McTaggart

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