The tourist front-runners among the Central Asian countries are of course Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with their ancient Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara. Kyrgyzstan is considered a Mecca of international mountaineering thanks to the accessible seven-thousand-metre peaks in the Tien Shan Mountains. More than 75 % of the country’s surface is covered by the Tien Shan and Pamir-Alai mountain ranges. However, Kyrgyzstan is not only attracted by the mountains: due to the low tourist flow, the country has preserved the original culture, handicrafts, traditions and customs of the nomads, the old architecture and the joie de vivre that is so lacking in the developed tourist regions. Here is useful information for your travel to Kyrgyzstan. So it’s high time to pack your bags and backpacks and travel to Kyrgyzstan before mass tourism arrives, and holidays there will appeal to beach lovers and adventurers alike.
Why visit: Kyrgyzstan beckons with its nomadic culture and everyday landscapes. The places are not yet revised and the photos will be unique. You will also have the opportunity to meet people who live very differently, observe national nomadic games, try new foods and experience the famous Tien Shan mountains, of which there are many seven-thousand-metre peaks. It is easy to climb the high mountains and dissolve into the night sky because there is virtually no lighting from the cities and the stars seem closer. Hospitality here is almost the same as in the Caucasus: a guest means a holiday for the house.
When to travel: The time of year depends on where you want to go. In summer, the temperature rises to over 35 degrees in the valleys, but it is cooler in the mountains. In autumn, winter and spring, the highlands are covered with snow, so the ski resorts are open from November to April. On the high mountain pastures – jailoo – it is better to travel from June to September when there are camps of nomads. For hiking and trekking, we recommend May to October. The best seasons for combined travel are early and late summer or early autumn, when the mass flow of tourists decreases, it is not hot and sometimes there is snow on the mountain tops.
Arrival: By plane to the capital of Kyrgyzstan in the north – Bishkek, to the south of the country – to the city of Osh. Or via Kazakhstan – Alma-Ata. From Alma-Ata to Bishkek you can take a taxi, bus or train. From Osh, taxis will take you to the Druzhba (“Dozlik”, “Dostuk”) border crossing 30 kilometres away at the border with Uzbekistan for a small fee.
Visa: For most other countries – visa-free up to 60 days stay. For the full list of visa-free countries, click here.
Currency: The national currency is the Kyrgyz Som. It is better to change your roubles or dollars in banks or exchange offices, the latter are open 24 hours a day. Card payments will only be possible in Bishkek, Osh and Karakol. In other places it is better to have cash in som. Other foreign currencies are hardly or not at all accepted for payment. Prices for goods and food in the country are lower than in most touristy countries in the region.
Accommodation: In the larger towns you can rent holiday flats or guesthouses through us. There are also many good and inexpensive hostels. In summer, the Kyrgyz organise tourist yurt camps at popular tourist spots, which can also be booked through us. In other cases, ask locally and you will immediately find a guesthouse, hostel or yurt to stay in.
Communications: There are three mobile phone operators in Kyrgyzstan: O! , Megacom, and Beeline. It is easy to buy a SIM card in any communication shop with a foreign passport or without a passport in local supermarkets. 3G and 4G communication and mobile internet is available in populated areas, while in remote areas the connection is poor or non-existent. In cities, many cafés and restaurants have free Wi-Fi.
Travelling around the country: The most convenient way to see everything and be mobile is to rent a car in Bishkek or Osh. If you plan to drive in the highlands, it is better to choose crossovers or SUVs. Over 70% of Kyrgyz roads are not paved. There are no global car rental companies – you need to find a local one.
It is possible to rent a car for drivers who are older than 25 years, have not less than 3 years of driving experience and have an international driving licence (or a new type of licence – 2014 and after with the full name translated into English).
Make sure that the company you rent a car from insures the vehicles. Insurance is not compulsory in Kyrgyzstan and not all rental companies insure the cars, so ask in advance. Also check if it is possible to drive the rented car to neighbouring countries.
The popular tourist destinations are easy and cheap to reach on your own by bus or minibus. Individual transport is well developed and taxi drivers are always available. The quality of the main roads and highways is good, but in the highlands there are classic dirt roads that are best travelled by off-road vehicles. Although it is possible to reach Lake Sonkol and the Arabel Plateau by car.
The railway connection is poor (only the Bishkek – Balykchy line) and only works in summer.
There are also flights from Bishkek to Osh. By comparison, a regular bus (minibus) takes 10-12 hours on a good route over the high mountain passes between them.
Cuisine: There is a cult of food in Central Asia. Thanks to the country’s location in the heart of the region, the local cuisine has absorbed the characteristics of many Central Asian nations.
The Kyrgyz are nomadic, so the traditional cuisine is linked to the traditions of the nomadic way of life. The dishes are cooked from fresh products, almost all of them are based on meat: mutton, beef, horse meat or yak. A vegetarian will find it difficult to eat here, although many traditional dishes contain a lot of vegetables.
A vegetarian travelled with us and we had to explain to the Kyrgyz in the café for a long time that you don’t have to do something on meat broth and without meat. They were very surprised and could not understand for a long time how this was possible.
The main dishes are beshbarmak, pilaf, lagman, shorpo, manty, kurdak, dymdama, ashlyan-fu, chuchuk (kazy), tash-kordo.
- Beshbarmak are homemade noodles made from lamb or horse meat broth. The meat is finely sliced and cooked.
- Lagman – long homemade noodles cooked in the meat broth of lamb with vegetables. When there is a lot of broth, the dish resembles a thick, spicy soup.
- Shorpo is a national Kyrgyz soup made from lamb broth with vegetables. The broth is very rich and thick. Onions, carrots and potatoes are added to the vegetables.
- Manti resemble dumplings. The filling is usually minced meat (mutton or beef), onions and potatoes. It is steamed.
- A kourdak is similar to our stew. Meat or liver roasted in a cauldron with onions. Often potatoes and herbs are added.
- Dymdama- stewed cabbage, carrot, pepper, onion, aubergine, potatoes with meat and fat.
- Ashlyan-fu – cold soup cooked in sour spicy vegetable broth with laghman noodles and slices or starch straws.
- Churuk – a delicacy, a special sausage made from horse meat.
- Tash kordo – marinated whole lamb carcass with onions and spices. The carcass is placed in a small hole one to two metres deep. The pit is paved with stones and a fire is built; when the coals are ready, the marinated carcass is placed in it and covered with twigs and the animal’s skin. The meat is braised until it is tender, which makes it soft and melt in the mouth.
No meal should be complete without fresh, hot flatbread with a beautiful pattern, baked in the tandoor. They are made plain or with fillings. The culture of making some of them has been included in the UNESCO heritage list. Other popular pastries include samsa, kattama and bortsaki.
The homeland offers a wide variety of dairy products, such as kurut, salty curd, and drinks like ayran, chalap, kumis. For sour milk drinks, it is recommended not to drink more than 100 grams per day to avoid digestive problems.
Also popular among traditional drinks are Maksym (carbonated drink made from cereals) and Bozo – a low-alcohol yeast drink made from millet and maize. You can’t go anywhere without tea. Tea is drunk from half-full bowls and then refilled occasionally, while pouring a full bowl is considered an insult to the guest. This is a gesture indicating that they should finish their tea and leave.
Safety precautions: In the northern part of the country, dress requirements are simpler than in the south, where it is undesirable to walk down the street in shorts and shirts; it is better to wear light trousers and a T-shirt that covers the shoulders.
You have to be careful when crossing the streets and driving a rental car, because car traffic in Kyrgyzstan is quite fast. Just as pedestrians can cross the road anywhere, cars do not always allow pedestrians to cross the road.
IMPORTANT: A girl should not walk alone on the street because there is still the tradition of bride kidnapping, although it is outlawed. Above all, do not walk alone and do not enter the yurts in the Jailoo – high mountains and places away from big cities.