Our trip to Kyrgyzstan was purely motivated by the World Nomad Games and we didn’t really know about any of the other things to do in Kyrgyzstan. But we figured we’d give it an extra couple of weeks and see what we could discover. Turns out Kyrgyzstan is so much more than nomadic traditions (although they’re pretty great too).
We’re in the process of writing some more detailed information about some of the stunning, interesting and weird places we visited but for now this serves as an overview about a country that doesn’t get a lot of worldwide press. I give you a ‘non-exhaustive but a great place to start’ list of awesome things to do in Kyrgyzstan! From museums to mountains, walnuts to windows have a look at all the brilliant attractions in Kyrgyzstan!
Head up a Mountain
Kyrgyzstan is king when it comes to hiking. With beautiful mountain settings to rival New Zealand and low (although steadily increasing) tourist numbers the untouched nature of the country is any hiker’s paradise. The areas around Karakol are the best for hiking and here you’ll find all kinds of day and multi-day trekking options. The little village or Jyrgalan also makes a great base and Alakol-Jyrgalan Guest House has super comfortable mattresses and a sauna to ease the sore muscles after a trek. For more hiking info have a read about our 3 day trek to Ala-Kul alpine lake and these awesome day hike options from Jyrgalan (coming soon).
Sleep in a Yurt
Yurts are the epitome of nomadic life and no trip to Kyrgyzstan would be complete without spending at least one night amidst the cosy felt surroundings of a traditional yurt. Over the summer months many yurt camps are set up in convenient places for tourists to stay including the south shore of Issyk-Kul lake, Song-Kul and Jyrgalan and along many of the popular hiking routes. If you fancy getting more off the beaten path you can head off to some of the less frequented hiking areas and find yourself some actual shepherds living in their yurts over the summer months.
We loved our stay on the South shore of lake Issyk-Kul at Bel Tam Yurt Camp. Check prices here.
This is the name for traditional eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan. Salbaruun is still very much a living tradition and eagles are trained throughout the country to chase and hunt prey. The World Nomad Games was a huge gathering of eagle hunters from all over Central Asia and was an amazing spectacle. If you want to arrange to watch a demonstration and take photos of these amazing animals you can get in touch with Destination South Shore who can contact the local Salbaruun club.
Visit the Magical Fairytale Canyon
Always wanted to see what it’s like on Mars? A trip to Skazka canyon on the south shore of Lake Issyk-Kul will have you feeling pretty close. The incredible valley of red sandstone rocks shaped by the elements in all kinds of hills and valleys. There are areas with ripples of orange, red, yellow and even purple sands layered together. This is a stunning place to stop and visit and is particularly breath-taking at sunset. You can take a taxi there from the nearby town of Bokonbaevo or ask a marshrutka leaving from Karakol to stop on the way past.
This traditional dish is mostly found in Karakol and costs just 30 som at a local stand. It’s a cold soup that consists of noodles, pieces of starch and a mix of herbs, vegetables and spices in a vinegar sauce. It sounds a bit weird, and to be honest it kind of is but it tastes delicious and is best served with fried bread in the stalls down Ashlan-fu alley in the centre of Karakol. It’s also famed for being an excellent hangover cure.
Discover Dungan Culture in Karakol
Dungans are a group of ethnic Chinese muslims who first migrated to Kyrgyzstan in the 19th century. This unique blend of Islam and Chinese culture makes for some amazing cuisine and architecture. The Dungan Mosque in Karakol resembles a Chinese temple and even has dragon heads carved into the corners. Besides Ashlan-fu you can also enjoy a trip to the Dungan museum followed by an overly indulgent 8 course meal in a local Dungan village. The mosque is open from 8am everyday and is free to enter. The dinner can be organised through Destination Karakol office and costs 1400som per person.
Watch Some Kok-Boru
Kok-boru is the national sport of Kyrgyzstan and is quite accurately described by tourists as ‘dead goat polo’. Two teams on horse back wrestle over a headless dead goat carcass and try to get it in the pit at either end to score a point. Sound brutal? It is! But also involves a lot of skill and thrill. The best competition is the World Nomad Games which constitute the Olympics for Nomadic tribes and were held in 2014, 2016 and 2018 in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately the next ones will be held in Turkey and it’s unsure whether kok-boru will be included. Read more about the World Nomad games and the sports here.
Sip Coffee in Bishkek
Kyrgystan’s capital doesn’t offer a lot except a good base to start or end your trip to Kyrgyzstan. There aren’t many tourist attractions but there are a lot of great cafes and the wifi is fast so if you’re looking to take it easy for a day or two, Bishkek has it sorted. Check out Craft Coffee, Social Coffee or Sierra, all of which have good food, coffee and wifi.
Go on a Horse Trek
Horse trekking is definitely not my thing. In fact I’m pretty terrified of getting on a horse after a (minor) accident horse trekking in Cuba a few years ago. But if you’re into that kind of thing I hear Kyrgyzstan is the place to do it. There are some beautiful multi-day horse treks as well as day trip options. Contact the helpful people at Destination Jyrgalan or Destination South Shore who will help you organise reliable guides and horses. Song-Kul Lake is also a popular area for horse trekking.
Witness the Walnut Harvest
During October the walnut forests of Aslanbob become alive with locals out harvesting the walnuts. The town itself is an interesting stop on the way to Osh but if you can time it to get involved in the harvest it’s even more special. Aslanbob is also a great base for hiking and there are several day hikes in the area as well as a 4 day hike to the Holy Lake.
Admire the Windows of Karakol
Karakol as well as some other small towns around Issyk-Kul are home to some of the most adorable windows the world has ever seen. Affectionately named ‘gingerbread houses’ these one story homes are made in a old Russian style from wooden logs. The windows have wooden shutters and are painted with swirling patterns (often in blue and white). You can see them simply by taking a stroll through some of the smaller streets in Karakol, particularly Zhamansariyeva Street.
Visit the World’s Most Oddly Located Modern Art Museum
In the tiny town of Kadji-Saj lies a newly opened modern art museum featuring local artists as well as artists from around the world. The collection is amazing but lies somewhat off the beaten path so makes a good stop off if you’re driving along the south side of Issyk-Kul lake. The collection belongs to a Kyrgyz artist who lives in Bishkek but grew up in Kadji-Saj and decided to place his gallery there.
Buy Felt Goods
The Kyrgyz know how to felt, it’s the key element of a toasty, warm yurt and this soft and durable product is now used to make a variety of gorgeous souvenirs. If you’ve read any of my packing posts you’ll know we swear by our merino wool clothing for hiking and travel and now the Kyrgyz nomads are backing us up! They now breed merino sheep in Kyrgyzstan and use their wool for felt making because it is softer, lighter and more durable than other wool types. There is a chain of souvenir shops that you’ll find in all the major centres selling bags, cases, soft toys and coasters made from merino felt.
Don a Kalpak
Kalpaks are the traditional Kyrgyz hat and are worn by Kyrgyz men throughout the country on a a day to day basis. We couldn’t really grasp the purpose of them besides fashion as they don’t shade from the sun nor keep your head warm in the cold. But they sure do look cool! You can buy them at the Osh Bazaar in Bishkek or the actual Osh bazaar in Osh and a good quality one should set you back 200-300 som.
Go Urban Exploring
Kyrgyzstan is an ex-member of the Soviet Union which means weird buildings and yes, some abandoned areas to explore. After some research by our friend Richard of Travel Tramp we went exploring an abandoned Soviet Young Pioneers camp early on morning. For a full account check out his article.
Ok, this isn’t actually something we enjoyed but it’s an authentic Kyrgyz experience that you’ll no doubt be forced into at some point on you trip. Kumis is fermented horse milk and tastes about as good as it sounds… Kyrgyz drink it regularly and it is often served as a welcome drink for guests. I’ve heard of the odd few tourists that enjoy it so why not give it a try!
Stay in a Russian Resort
The shores of Lake Issyk-Kul are a popular Russian holiday destination and as a result the coast is lined with resort-style hotels at Central Asian bargain prices. So if you’re looking for a beach side getaway between hiking trips book yourself in to some Soviet style luxury. Many places have pools, massage places and inclusive meal plans. Check out some options here.
See the Biggest Lenin Statue in Central Asia
We’ve seen our fair share of Lenin statues throughout our travels in Russia and the former Soviet Union but they still impress us and we find it pretty fascinating the influence this guy had on such a large area of the world. We can’t work out if he’s still celebrated or if they just haven’t got around to taking down the statues but he’s standing in most cities around Central Asia and apparently Osh has the biggest.
See a Cultural Performance
The traditional clothing of Kyrgyzstan is truly special and needs to be seen in action at least once on your trip. Musical performances are common in various regions but to guarantee seeing something you might need to head to a restaurant with performances in either Bishkek or Karakol. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a festival, wedding or celebration at some point to see this brilliant display of colour, dance and music.
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This article is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Travels of a Bookpacker and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.