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10 Experiential Adventures in Kyrgyzstan

10 Experiential Adventures in KyrgyzstanMost 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.

Adventures in Kyrgyzstan - how to make a yurt

Adventures in Kyrgyzstan - the interior of a yurt

Top: It can take several seasoned yurt-builders half an hour to put the structure together. Bottom: And that’s what the interior will eventually looks like.

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.

endangered snow leopard

The incomparable Snow Leopard (Photo: Pixabay)

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.

Adventures in Kyrgyzstan - remnants of the Soviet Union

While most former Soviet states have rushed to destroy anything that reminds them of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan embraces every facet of its history. Here, some beautification.

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!)

Adventures in Kyrgyzstan - a rural Kyrgyz market

A typical market in rural Kyrgyzstan

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.

Adventures in Kyrgyzstan - shyrdak carpet

Traditional Shyrdak felt carpets can take up to a year to make

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.

Going off the beaten track often requires experienced guides and a robust infrastructure. I partnered with World Expeditions and their #WEVentureOut campaign for this post. World Expeditions have high-quality teams on the ground and offer well-organised campsites, unique itineraries and local knowledge to make sure your experience is as authentic as it can be.

{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Dyanne April 24, 2017, 4:22 pm

    Looks like my kinda place! 😉

    Actually, it seems quite similar to Mongolia (though there, they call the collapsible homes “gers”). Indeed, right down to those luscious felt rugs. Even this minimalist (living in furnished apartments for the past 6 years, owning little more than what fits in a single rollie and a rucksack) couldn’t resist dragging a bulky Mongolian felt rug “home” to Vietnam – what was I THINKING???

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 25, 2017, 2:58 pm

      I was sorely tempted but that would have meant TWO carpets – since I bought one in Bukhara in Uzbekistan a few weeks later…

  • Jane canapini April 25, 2017, 2:22 pm

    This place looks amazing. (Can’t believe Google translate has it nailed so well!) Were you on a group tour, or did you do a private Kyrgyzstan tour?

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 25, 2017, 2:57 pm

      I did a private tour but it wasn’t cheap… but this is one of those countries in which I wouldn’t have minded a small group. You can absolutely visit on your own but because of the language and many cultural subtleties, you won’t get as much understanding as you would with someone local in tow…

  • Marilyn April 26, 2017, 8:37 am

    The entire time I was reading about your experiences in Kyrgyzstan, I kept wondering how you were able to manage such a trip until I read about your excellent guides at the end and World Expeditions. So interesting; what an adventure!! I admire your adventurism!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 26, 2017, 9:05 am

      The problem with visiting places that are a bit more offbeat is time. If you want to visit some of the more distant places in Kyrgyzstan on your own, you absolutely can, but you’ll have to at least double your time. I spent a few days touring on my own and saw the difference. Sometimes it would take me all day to find a ride a to the bus station, book my ticket, get the right bus, get to my destination and find a place to stay, whereas if all that is mapped out ahead of time, a couple of hours in the morning and you’re ready to go again. There’s something to be said for being able to see more in the precious time we have…

  • michele h peterson April 26, 2017, 7:59 pm

    I’ve long wanted to visit Kyrgyzstan and your post make me want to go there even more now! The inside of a yurt actually looks quite cozy

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 26, 2017, 8:59 pm

      When I first saw the mats on the floor I almost died – I thought I’d never be able to sleep (let alone get myself up!) When I woke up the first morning I hadn’t felt as rested in years…

  • Nitin Khanna April 27, 2017, 1:47 pm

    Great Article! Agree with you truly experimental destination.

    Thanks for Sharing.

  • Patti Morrow April 28, 2017, 12:34 am

    I did not really know much about Kyrgyzstan before reading this post. It really sounds so interesting! I love bazaars and the artisan felt is gorgeous. Wouldn’t be a fan of taking down and putting my house all the time, though.

  • Sue April 28, 2017, 8:45 pm

    I had no knowledge of Kyrgyzstan prior to this article. I’ve been to Kazakhstan and I see a lot of similarities. A truly unique destination. Love your photos!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 29, 2017, 10:02 pm

      Both countries and people are closely related. I haven’t been to Kazakhstan (although I was a few meters away on the Kyrgyz side) but physically I understand it’s quite different – what really makes Kyrgyzstan is its mountains.

  • Lyn aka The Travelling Lindfields April 29, 2017, 1:13 pm

    Kyrgystan sounds fascinating, if a bit too far out of the comfort zone for me. I would love to go there one day.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 29, 2017, 9:59 pm

      Once there I think you’d be fine – I was a little leery of the roads and mountains and sleeping on the ground – and now they’re among my fondest memories!

  • Elizabeth Rose April 29, 2017, 5:06 pm

    I love local markets… glad you included that. It looks like it was an amazing trip!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 29, 2017, 9:58 pm

      It’s a stunning country, with few visitors and those that do come are welcomed. It’s what I love when I travel – complete change.

  • Rachel Heller April 30, 2017, 12:36 pm

    I would love to rent a car and drive around Kyrgyzstan! You’ve described it beautifully here. I can’t imagine sleeping well on the floor, though. And I might go through withdrawal without a GPS signal, but I’d be willing to give it a try!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 30, 2017, 11:07 pm

      The mats on the ground are actually comfy! And after a while, the absence of an outside world is the perfect retreat 🙂

  • Jennie May 3, 2017, 7:57 pm

    I’ve been a primary teacher for years but decided to go international last year (I’m in my fifties) and am wondering whether to apply to a lovely school in Kyrgrystan, but I am seriously wondering if I could manage living there for a couple of years. I’m not exactly the outdoor, mountain-climbing, learn a new language type and I think I would greatly miss speaking to people in English. I do like getting outside my comfort zone, though …

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak May 4, 2017, 12:52 pm

      Hey Jennie – where in Kyrgyzstan? If you’re located in Bishkek or Osh, you’ll find English-speaking people and a city vibe – not huge cities but enough to keep you busy and learning about the culture. If you’re headed for a village, there’s probably little chance you’ll avoid the mountains. Why don’t you scout around some of the expat forums and blogs, and ask a few expats who actually live there what it’s like? You can try http://www.expatsblog.com/blogs/kyrgyzstan and this Kyrgyzstan forum for starters.

    • Dawn Hansen June 7, 2017, 4:12 pm

      I taught in Bishkek and had beautiful apt. ,public transport fine, and taught in English. Go for it.

  • Frank May 10, 2017, 6:45 pm

    Kyrgyzstan is an intriguing country – definitely on my to-travel list!

  • Nicola at Bon Voyage Bombshells May 18, 2017, 12:45 pm

    Great article! It is a fabulous place to visit. Learning Russian would have helped, but sleeping in a yurt was amazing. Summer is ideal with hikes and roads generally accessible.
    These photos are beautiful!

  • NTripping May 19, 2017, 10:28 am

    Hey Leyla,

    Kyrgyzstan sounds like an awesome destination in every sense! I’m heading on an epic road trip this August, mainly through Tajikistan, which ends in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. I can’t wait for it to begin 🙂

    I’ve heard a lot of great stories about the Kyrgyz cuisine and was wondering what was your favourite dish?

    Cheers,
    Naddya

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak May 19, 2017, 2:28 pm

      Hey Naddya – I didn’t write specifically about Kyrgyz food but you can find a piece about Central Asian food (pretty much the same thing) in this piece by Audrey and Dan… : https://uncorneredmarket.com/central-asian-food-good-bad-inedible/ Bear in mind that these days you’ll find a lot more beef and lamb (and chicken in the South) than horse. In Osh, eat shashlik, or kebab, mostly with lamb. That is my one favourite dish. Otherwise, if you’re a noodle person, try laghman, the national noodle dish. I loved Osh, by the way – my fave city (although Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have many).

  • Jade D'sa July 11, 2017, 8:32 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! I hadn’t ever heard of yurts before. Living in one of those would be cool! Kyrgyztan looks like an intriguing country since it hasn’t been touched by tourism to that extent.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak August 3, 2017, 10:46 pm

      I knew very little about it before I went – and now Central Asia has become my favorite part of the world. Because it was behind the Iron Curtain for so long, parts of it feel like time has stopped.

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