Kyrgyzstan was on my bucket list for, like, forever. The outdoors, the mountains, the wilderness, nature. Everything just screamed to me that it had to be visited. And then, I had a chance to try backpacking in Kyrgyzstan and I loved it! There are so many unique and interesting things to do in Kyrgyzstan, that it’s hard to choose. I share with you some of the top places to visit in Kyrgyzstan, as well as my personal favourites, unique experiences not to miss and hidden gems.
Whether you are a mountain lover, outdoor adventure enthusiast or you just want to explore the culture and history of the Silk Road, there are tons of things to see in Kyrgyzstan. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do in Kyrgyzstan in spring, as I was told that many of the mountain passes are still covered in snow and there are not many places that I can visit. It wasn’t entirely true. I still managed to see quite a lot. Travelling in Kyrgyzstan in spring was a beautiful experience. However, if your focus is primarily the Kyrgyzstan trekking trails and hiking opportunities, then you will have more choice in the summer months.
Travelling in Central Asia allowed me to visit many incredible sights, and, I must admit, that some of my favourite places were in Kyrgyzstan. No surprise, why tourism there is increasing. Luckily, there is still plenty of hidden places to explore.
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TOP THINGS TO DO IN KYRGYZSTAN
#1 Swim in the Issyk Kul Lake
Issyk Kul lake is the second biggest salt lake in the world, just after the Caspian Sea, and the seventh deepest lake in the world. If this is not enough for you to put it on your Kyrgyzstan itinerary, then the surrounding mountains and the beautiful nature should convince you.
The northern part of the lake is more developed with resorts, that get crowded in the summer months. However, the Issyk Kul south shore is much quieter and perfect for a chill. We spent there several days, exploring amazing canyons, horse riding and staying in the yurt camp near Bokonboaevo (I recommend Jurten Camp Almaluu).
#2 Try Horse Riding in Kyrgyzstan
Not trying horse riding in Kyrgyzstan is like going to Jordan and not visiting Petra. There is some sort of social pressure to do it. But it honestly doesn’t even need that, because it’s pretty darn awesome. I really wanted to try horse riding in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, as I know how close the horses are to Kyrgyzstan culture and to nature. We managed to ride a group of horses in the mountains of Bokonboaveo. We took a guide with us as we are not very experienced horse riders, but if you are, you can do it by yourself.
#3 Watch the Eagle Hunting (or just the eagles)
The eagle hunting is an old Kyrgyz and Kazakh tradition still practiced in Central Asia. Typically the eagle hunter trains and lives with its eagle since its young age. I wasn’t sure about supporting something, that now is mainly a sport for tourists, so I didn’t see it for myself. Instead, I was able to admire the eagles everywhere in the mountains.
#4 Visit Karakol and a Dungan mosque
Karakol, a small town on the north-east of Kyrgyzstan, is a perfect base for any outdoor activities. Surrounded by mountains from every side, it’s truly a hiker paradise. Apart from many trips that you can take from Karakol, the town itself is also interesting. Due to the influx of Dungans (Chinese Muslims) from across the borders, you can see their influence in the city. One of the places built by Dungans is a wooden Dungan mosque. It is not the type of architecture that you expect to see in Kyrgyzstan, so being able to see it in Karakol is an interesting experience.
Apart from the mosque, in Karakol, you can visit the local market, the museum explaining the history of the region, the Orthodox Church and several cute cafes.
Where to stay in Karakol
#5 Try Kyrgyzstan trekking and hiking
Kyrgyzstan is a paradise for mountain lovers. The variety of options for Kyrgyzstan trekking opportunities in endless. I’d say do not only limit yourself only to the most popular treks, as there is plenty to choose from.
#6 Stay in a yurt
This is a must thing to do in Central Asia. Initially, I thought that it would feel very touristy, but actually, it was so much fun! I stayed in a yurt in Uzbekistan and in Kyrgyzstan and I loved the traditional interior, the meals served in the big community yurt and the “yurt campsite” by the lake. In Kyrgyzstan, I can recommend staying in a yurt by the Issyk-Kul lake in Jurten Camp Almaluu.
#7 Visit Skazka Canyon (Fairytale Canyon)
The Skazka Canyon is a popular Kyrgyzstan tourist attraction in the south shore of Issyk Kul Lake. Its name means “Fairytale Canyon” in Russian, thanks to the fascinating shapes of the rocks that you can find there. The erodability of sandstone which is rich in different types of minerals allowed it to be shaped in thousand of different forms and have fairytale colours. The canyon gets busy in the summer season, but when we were there in spring, there was barely anyone.
#8 Try Kumys (or just look at someone else trying it)
Kumys is a popular drink in Central Asia and Russia. It’s a diary drink made from fermented mare’s milk. It is believed to provide many health benefits. Not everyone likes its taste though 😉
#9 Try Bishbarmak
Another popular Kyrgyz (and Kasakh) dish that you have to try when you are in Central Asia is Bishbarmak (it’s not like you really have to, but every local person you meet will ask if you did). It’s a national dish among nomadic Turkic peoples in Central Asia and Russia. Its name means “five fingers: as the dish traditionally is eaten by hand. Bishbarmak is a mix of meat, broth, and noodles.
#10 Visit a local market
Local markets are probably one of my favourite places to visit in Central Asia. Every bigger city has one and you can find there pretty much everything. From local food products to fresh produce to clothes, toys, washing products, and toiletries. One of the famous markets in Kyrgyzstan is Osh Bazaar in Bishkek.
#11 Follow Silk Road route
Central Asian countries used to be a part of the Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes, that linked East and West together. Kyrgyzstan was a part of that route. You can still find there historic Silk Road destinations to visit. Some of them are the Burana Tower – the minaret positioned along the Silk Road, Tash Rabat – originally built as a monastery, it was converted to inn providing for the caravans travelling the Silk Road; and Osh.
#12 Explore the capital city Bishkek
Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan and contrary to what you can read in most places on the internet, it’s worth exploring. The city is developing and you can find several fun things to do in Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan. We spent the time in the capital with a local family, who showed us the best what the city and the country have to offer. I also loved how close it is from there to the Ala Archa National Park with snow-capped mountain peaks.
Where to stay in Bishkek
In Bishkek, we stayed with a local family, but some of the recommended hotels in Bishkek are:
Friends guest house & Hostel, a nice hostel in a good location, preferred by backpackers for its good prices and friendly atmosphere. Check prices and availability here.
Capsule Hotel – modern and clean hostel with capsule dormitory beds. Check prices and availability here.
Garden hotel & SPA – 4-star hotel with a perfect location and great amenities. Check prices and availability here.
#13 Visit Song-Kul lake
Son-Kul Lake, also called Song Kol or Song Köl is one of the highest mountain lakes in the world. It has a length of 29 kilometres and is located at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters. In the summer, it is a popular place in Kyrgyzstan for horse trekking and staying in the yurt. You will find there summer pastures and grazing animals. It is also known for its rich birdlife.
UNIQUE THINGS TO DO IN KYRGYZSTAN – KYRGYZSTAN OFF THE BEATEN PATH
#14 Visit Jyrgalan Valley
Destination Jyrgalan describes it as “a short distance off the path but miles from crowds”. Jyrgalan Valley is a growing destination for outdoor activities including trekking, biking, hiking, freeride skiing, horse riding and more. It provides lush valleys and snow-covered peaks to the adventure-seeking visitors.
#15 Discover hidden Sary-Jaz valley in the Tian Shan mountains
Located off the beaten path in Kyrgyzstan, Sary-Jaz valley is an extraordinary place. Hidden between 7,000+ meters tall peaks of Tian Shan range, only a short distance from the Chinese border, it has a unique landscape. Sary Jaz is a part of the national park Khan-Tengri, boasting with the almost untouched landscape, rare flora, and fauna, very different from the other places in the country. Powerful rivers cut the valley bringing the water from the glaciers and the availability of the nearby treks is in abundance.
The trip to Sary Jaz can be organized for you by the local tour company Visit Karakol.
Disclaimer: I was invited on the trip to Sary-Jaz valley with Visit Karakol and really enjoyed it. I also had a chance to meet the owner of the company – Timur and his family, as well as Ibraim, who was my guide. I can really recommend them – they are from the area and they know a lot about the region. They love exploring their own country and they focus on the lesser-known areas and showing their beauty to travellers.
#16 Swim in the hot springs
Kyrgyzstan is full of hot springs and connected to them the health resorts or “sanatoriums”. Some of the most popular hot springs are Altyn Arashan, Jukuu, and Issyk Ata. I had a chance to try Kara-Tash hot springs in Sary-Jaz Valley located in the picturesque location, just next to the flowing river.
#17 Explore abandoned Soviet ghost town of Engilchek
The half-abandoned post-soviet town of Engilchek is an interesting place to visit. Booming during the time of the Soviet Union thanks to the work required in the mines, it faded away after the collapse of the Union. Now, it’s home to around 30 families, who mainly take care of the livestock. Many of the buildings are crumbling down and still show the past events of the collapsed Soviet empire. Entering the buildings is at your own risk.
#18 Stay with a local family
For a true Kyrgyzstan experience, stay with a local Kyrgyz family. I was lucky enough to be able to do it twice, once in Sary-Jaz valley in the east of Kyrgyzstan and the second time in Bishkek. Staying with locals allows you to have a sneak peek into their daily lives and to understand them and their culture a little bit better. I find people in Kyrgyzstan very hospitable and kind, so I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there.
#20 Explore abandoned mines
Another unusual thing to do in Kyrgyzstan, in Sary-Jaz valley, is to explore some of the abandoned mines. The mines have been left open, together with some of the barracks that miners used to live in. Having the opportunity to explore some of them is a very exhilarating experience. Going into places like those is only at your own risk. Do not attempt to do it alone.
#21 Discover unknown canyons
Kyrgyzstan’s landscape variety is spectacular. From snow-covered mountains towering over the green meadows and lush valleys to fast-paced rivers, turquoise lakes, and fascinating rock formations. As a geologist, I was particularly interested in the new, undiscovered canyons, that I read about on Visit Karakol website. Thanks to the assistance of the guides and owner from Visit Karakol, I managed to visit those spectacular locations – Mars Canyon and Canyon of the Forgotten Rivers. If you are interested in knowing where those hidden canyons are located, please contact Visit Karakol directly.
#22 Admire the ancient petroglyphs
Deep in the mountains are hidden some of the ancient petroglyphs in the Kaindy valley. This place is special, as there are no other tourists, no ticket booths, no information boards. Just you, the mountains and the images from the people living there many years ago.
What are your favourite places to visit in Kyrgyzstan? Do you recommend any other Kyrgyzstan tourist attractions or off the beaten path things to do? Let me know in the comments!
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