Off the beaten track – why Kyrgyzstan is worth your time
When I told friends and family I was planning a holiday to Kyrgyzstan, the reaction was the same: “where’s that?” Yet this overlooked Central Asian nation made Lonely Planet’s top ten countries to visit for 2019. Here’s why you should consider a visit to this unspoilt and very welcoming corner of Asia.
Hike to paradise
You don’t need to travel far from the airport to be in some of Kyrgyzstan’s premier hiking country. Ala-Archa National Park is only a half hour ride from the capital city, Bishkek, yet in summer, it affords welcome respite from the sultry heat of the city. Trails follow the river, framed on each side by craggy, snow-capped peaks that poke above the tree line. Further afield, Jety-Oguz is famed as the location of the Broken Heart and Seven Bulls rock formations, reached along a pretty valley lined with beehives and honey sellers. Chong Kemin valley is another favourite. Give your feet a rest: saddle up and explore this area’s rolling hills on horseback.
Explore beautiful Alpine lakes
Most travellers to Kyrgyzstan include its largest lake on their itinerary. To loop Issyk-Kul takes the best part of two days, but you won’t tire of the views of the glittering water with its backdrop of distant mountains. Russians and Kyrgyz city dwellers have made the beaches of Cholpon-Ata a lakeside mecca. Break your journey in Karakol, where Dungan Mosque is a reminder that China’s just next door; the wooden Orthodox Church around the corner is a nod to Russia’s ever-present influence. In Bokonbaevo, arrange to meet an eagle hunter who will demonstrate this centuries old tradition on a nearby hillside before allowing you to feel the weight of the golden eagle on your outstretched arm. A more remote lake, but one worth detouring for, is breathtaking Son-Kul. Reached via vertiginous mountain passes that are thrilling to drive, the lake sits at over 3000 metres above sea level.
Follow the Silk Road to an ancient caravanserai
Centuries ago, merchants followed the Silk Road, bringing goods from China to Europe and vice versa via Central Asia. One of the legacies of this trade are ancient caravanserai, the roadside inns that offered travellers a hot meal and a bed for the night. One of the most romantic, tucked into the hillside at the end of a shepherd’s valley, is Tash Rabat. Its metre-thick walls offered protection from the harsh winter weather that characterises this high altitude region. Stay in one of Sabyzbek’s cosy yurts within walking distance of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Relax as you watch cute, furry marmots dart in and out of their burrows while sheep and horses graze in the background.
Experience Kyrgyzstan’s legendary hospitality
I asked one hotel owner why she thought the Kyrgyz people were so welcoming to outsiders. “Simple,” she replied, “many of us can’t afford to travel, so we learn about other countries through the people that come to see us.” I think it’s also because tourism is in its infancy; in some parts of the country you’ll have beauty spots to yourself, particularly in the spring and autumn. Expect to be welcomed with a kiss on each cheek, a mug of steaming tea and a beaming smile that never seems to go away.
Prepare to be interactive
One of the great strengths of Kyrgyzstan’s fledgling tourism industry is that it is firmly anchored into community life. Local organisations known as CBTs can arrange cooking and craft demonstrations – participation is enthusiastically encouraged! Learn how to make boorsok, the delicious, deep-fried dough that looks like ravioli and tastes like salted bread. Felt-making demonstrations are also popular, giving visitors the opportunity to see the work that goes into one of the country’s famous shyrdak carpets. There’s no hard sell, but you’ll want to come home with a souvenir.
If you’d like to visit Kyrgyzstan before the secret’s out, why not let Mundana arrange a bespoke trip for you?