Most countries have a list of “sights” – see this, see that, move on.
Kyrgyzstan is different: you can see it, of course, but you really should experience it, putting all your senses into play and delving into the country like you would into a luscious cake.
Yet it’s not a destination that comes naturally.
It isn’t that simple to reach, its infrastructure is frail, distances and changes in altitude are significant, and many creature comforts will be a distant memory once you’ve spent some time here.
Yet these challenges are rewards in themselves, knowing you’ve pushed beyond your boundaries and visited a country unknown by so many.
Because yes, Kyrgyzstan is a special experience.
1. Your house will come down every year
A yurt – known locally as a boz ooi – is what many Kyrgyz call home, especially during the warm summer months in the mountains; in winter, they pack it up and head home to their village. Staying in a yurt will give you a powerful nomadic experience: the outdoors, sleeping on mats on the floor, and in some cases, lending a hand in building one. Mealtimes are collective and a wonderful opportunity to exchange a few words with locals. Beware, though, very little English is spoken. I made my way with the Google Translate app, quite good in Kyrgyz, but having a guide who can interpret will give you a much deeper insight into local culture, one based on hospitality.
2. Things roam wild and free
The low population density of Kyrgyzstan makes it a haven for wildlife, which roams unfettered and safe through mountains and valleys. Look up and you’ll see an eagle. Or many. Look sideways and you might spot bears, wolves or lynxes (they are usually smart enough to stay away from people, though). Among the rarer animals are the glorious Snow Leopard, Marco Polo sheep with their twisted antlers and the Siberian Ibex.
3. High altitude sensations will chase you through the Pamir and Tian Shan
Kyrgyzstan could be synonymous with mountains. More than 80% of the country is above 1,000 meters and nearly half of it soars higher, to more than 3,000 meters. It makes sense to try climbing some of them if you love mountains and if you have a professional guide, then you might tackle one of the three soaring summits that break the 7,000-meter barrier: Lenin Peak, Pobeda Peak and Khan Tengri.
4. Cycle the roads of Kyrgyzstan
For those accustomed to hilly rides, cycling across Kyrgyzstan can be a paradise of high mountains, little traffic and sandy lakeside beaches along which to relax after a rigourous journey. If you enjoy being challenged, cycling in Kyrgyzstan will not disappoint you. Nor will the sweeping panoramas and majestic gorges you’ll be slicing through.
5. Watch them ride – not your everyday game
Kyrgyzstan loves its games and you haven’t experienced the country’s essence until you’ve spent an afternoon watching a goat carcass being thrown around like a polo ball by men galloping on horseback. It’s a rough game and you’ll shrink from it more than once – but there’s no denying the excitement of a horse racing at you head on. Called kok boru, it is similar to Afghanistan’s buzkashi and was central to the 2016 World Nomad Games.
6. Drift along the quiet magic of Lake Song-Kul
Kyrgyzstan has many areas of great beauty but few are as stunning as Lake Song-Kul, a huge patch of crystalline water that sits 3,000 meters above sea level. Reaching it takes time, whether by car, horseback or on foot, but every dizzying curve and climb is worthwhile. Once there, the utter flatness of the mountain plain belies the lake’s altitude. It is a place of calm, where you can hike into the distance with little chance of meeting another human (or of catching a phone signal, for that matter).
7. Immerse yourself in history
Kyrgyzstan has faced sweeping historical change for centuries. In the era of Mongol invasions it was a key link on the legendary Silk Road from China to the West. It eventually fell to a domineering Russian Empire, which later morphed into restrictive oversight by the Soviet Union until independence in 1991. Unlike in some neighbouring countries, signs of the former Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic still dot the landscape, an era the young are happy to forget but the older generations regret. “We were less free, but we were more stable and rich,” as some have put it.
8. Bargain in the bazaars
Many people hate haggling (I don’t!) but you don’t have to bargain. Kyrgyz merchants are perfectly happy to take your money as is but if you feel like haggling, go right ahead, though I’m not sure you’ll get very far. Mountains of spices and mounds of dried fruit vie for space along alleyways so narrow they could be washed away in heavy rain. Sometimes, in far-off corners of the country where people can’t travel easily, mobile markets take the place of permanent ones. Pick up a round of bread or chat with merchants (and don’t forget your Kyrgyz download of Google Translate!)
9. Hobnob with artisans of the past
One of the more traditional crafts of Kyrgyzstan is the making of felt. Not only do Kyrgyz men often wear traditional felt hats, but the women (yes, it’s always women) also produce two types of felt carpet, the Ala-kiyiz and Shyrdaks that keep yurts warm and colourful. As is too often the case, this traditional practice is endangered; it is now protected as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO.
10. Let’s go on a Kyrgyz road trip
Kyrgyzstan isn’t crowded. In fact, in some parts of the country you can almost go days without seeing anyone. That makes the roads more relaxing than usual. With a sturdy vehicle, every corner of the country can be uncovered, discovered and explored, from unequalled vistas to occasional old-fashioned villages with that ‘old time’ feel.
Kyrgyzstan is a country that overwhelmed my senses: the glorious sights of summits and lake shores, the scents of fresh pine and even fresher meats grilling on a spit, the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people, the unexpected plushness of a yurt bed… a truly experiential destination.