For those leery of having to jump through the hoops that some of the other ‘stans of Central Asia put you through to visit their country, but you still want to visit this starkly beautiful and under trafficked part of the world, Kyrgyzstan is your best bet.
The hardest part of this visiting this country, language and infrastructure issues aside, may be actually pronouncing this nation’s name when booking your plane ticket over the phone. Visa procedures are super easy for residents of many countries around the world, as 44 of them are permitted a visa-free stay for up to 60 days, a radically open approach to outsiders compared to many of its neighbours.
So, what does this nation in this hidden corner of the globe hold in store for travelers? If you love nature and medieval history, it holds plenty, as it is situated in the dizzying heights of the Pashmir and Tien Shan mountain ranges, and it holds a position on a major trade route of the past, the one and only Silk Road.
Overall, travelers looking for a convenient gateway into Central Asia have an easy in here – a few weeks exploring Kyrgyzstan, and you’ll be extending your trip to explore more of the touristically pristine countries that comprise this region.
Currency: Kyrgyz som
Languages: Kyrgyz, Russian
What To Do
Upon arrival to Kyrgyzstan, you’ll land in the capital of Bishkek, nestled in the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. After taking a day or two to wander the streets of this green city and admire its many Soviet statues and monuments that have been preserved since the fall of the USSR, head to the State Historical Museum, which contains many relics from the days of totalitarian communism.
The propaganda from those times that are preserved here makes this place well worth the visit, as the often unintentionally hilarious exhibits include Ronald Regan wearing a skull on his head and a ridiculous grin on his face, all whilst riding a missile. Other exhibits extoll other artifacts from Kyrgyzstan’s past, such as Turkic headstones, yurts, and the like for those not interested in this nation’s Soviet history.
In the general vicinity of Bishkek lie two significant markets worth your time. The Osh Bazaar is frequented by locals looking to stock up on food for the day’s meals, clothing for the children, or even a musical instrument to provide entertainment for their loved ones. If you are so inclined, souvenirs here are also produced by local artisans, giving you chance to bring something special home for your folks.
In the case of Dordoi Bazaar, it is a special economic zone where duty on imported goods from China is exempted, making it a great place to stock up a seemingly infinite array of goods. Give yourself plenty of time to explore here – the scale of this place is immense, which will result in your afternoon being consumed before you even realize it.
Making your way outside the capital, make Sulayman Too Sacred Mountain your first destination. Dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical and religious significance to practicing Muslims in the region, Sulayman Mountain, which rises up within the city limits of the city of Osh, is reputedly where the grave of the prophet Sulayman (whose life is documented in the Qur’an) is located. According to local lore, it is said that women who climb to the top and through a small hole in the shrine located there will give birth to healthy kids.
Next, head to Issyk Kul, one of the most stunning high altitude lakes in Central Asia. This giant saline lake, despite its elevation, is beloved as a swimming destination in the summer time, and there are many health spas in the area as well, taking advantage of the hot springs that occur naturally here.
When you are done with leisure activities, and are ready to do something active, there is an embarrassing wealth of alpine terrain in the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges where a wide variety of treks, mountaineering activities, and mountain biking can be conducted. Lenine Mountain, soaring to well over 7,000 metres (>21,000 feet) in height is a prime target for expert mountaineers, while there are plenty of lower peaks for novices to attempt. Remember to take things slow, and if you start to show signs of altitude sickness, take time to recover before continuing.
What To Eat
Like most central Asian countries, Plov is a well-loved dish here. This oily dish typically consists of rice, sliced carrots, onions, meat, and sometimes raisins, and is a fixture of many meals that you will have here, and throughout the region at large.
The dish that is perhaps most representative of Kyrgyzstan would be Besh Barmak. Meaning five fingers in English, it is a hands-on meal that is made by boiling the slaughtered parts of a sheep or horse (with the soup created served as a starter), after which the major parts of the animal are served to those with senior status at the table, and the smaller parts are mixed in a communal bowl with noodles and onions, which everybody digs into with their hands, hence the name!
When a special social occasion is not ongoing, some opt for simpler fare, by indulging in dishes like Kuurdak. Kuurdak is easy to make, as it only combines meat, potatoes, onions and garlic in a pan, where they are sautéed with various spices to create the consummate comfort food for this nomadic nation.
Finally, people in Kyrgyzstan have their own mildly spiked drink called Kymyz. Unlike most alcoholic beverages, most of which are distilled from grain, potatoes or grapes, this one is fermented from … mare’s milk. Despite its origins, Kymyz (also called Kumis) is touted for its health benefits, which haven’t substantiated by science, that include curing bronchitis and tuberculosis.