Can you guess what’s firmly pressed in my mind when I think about my travels to the Kyrgyz Republic? Surprisingly, it’s the kumis (fermented horse milk). You heard me right. Horse milk – a rather acquired taste, that’s also known to cleanse one’s bowels if you happen to drink too much of it the first time. And if you’re after a fresh batch, then you’ll need to immerse yourself in a yurt experience, which also happens to be my favourite thing about the Kyrgyz Republic.
Stay in a yurt
There’s something magical about cosying up inside a yurt (essentially a portable, round tent structure made of wood and felt), seated on the floor, munching on torn bread spread across the table and enveloping cups of kumis and chai, late into the evening. You’ll find these beautiful domes in some of the most remote parts of the country, on green pastures and nestled alongside high-altitude lakes. And when you’re tucked inside, there’s a reassuring warmth and safety as you take cover from the elements – particularly, the freezing cold. These are the sort of memories that will stick with you forever, and what makes the Kyrgyz Republic utterly unique.
Sightsee the dramatic landscapes
To the east of the capital, you’ve got the majestic Issyk Köl lake in the Issyk Köl region, perched at 1,600m above sea level. What’s even more bewildering are the views of snow-capped peaks whilst you’re swimming in the crystal-clear waters or gazing at a wild colour display at dawn or dusk.
Down south at the border of Tajikistan, it’s all about the dramatic Alay Mountains and the trekking opportunities around Tulpar Lake. You’ll get that feeling of grandeur as you hike through the enormous rock formations en route to the Traveller’s Pass and the 7,000m giant they call Peak Lenin. The views here can only be described as walking through a Middle Earth scene on a Lord of the Rings film set, and it’s bound to impress.
The Kyrgyz Republic’s lakes to the south east are definitely a sight to behold. You’ll want to venture to the beautiful alpine lake of Chatyr-Köl by foot or perched in the saddle of a horse. We also recommend the rocky route towards Köl-Suu for a chance to see the emerald lake and its surrounding mountain ranges. A word to the wise – both locations require border-zone permits (more on that later).
Whilst the Kyrgyz Republic is lauded for its nature, it’s worth spending some days in the capital, Bishkek, that’s rich in cafes and restaurants and a stone’s throw away from the magnificent Ala Archa National Park.
Get your border zone permits in advance
The Kyrgyz Republic is split into four geographic zones, and as far as arranging your travels through the country, in certain regions, you’ll need a border permit to access these destinations. Single or multi-region permits are available to travellers (depending on where you’re visiting), but it’s best to apply a few weeks in advance to ensure you’ve got a physical copy. Border permits can be picked up at selected Community-Based Tourism (CBT) offices.
Gorge yourself on the moreish local food and drink
The Kyrgyz cuisine is totally hearty and filling. Treat your tastebuds to a dimlama – an array of fresh vegetables and meat, or devour the succulent oily rice dish that they call plov.
Meals are typically quite heavy, and almost always served with a side of lepyoshka (bread) and chai. Our local tip is to order a plate of the manti/u (juicy dumplings), which are always a fan favourite when they hit the table, plus a jar of compote (non-alcoholic sweet fruit drink) to rinse it all down.
The Kyrgyz hospitality is a staple part of the travel experience, and don’t be surprised if you receive an offer from a local to share a traditional meal with their family. That happened to me as I was standing at a marshrutka (bus) stand in Taskomur asking for directions and ended with an invitation for some delicious lagman (the Central Asian answer to Italian pasta).
When it comes to exploring the country, the local marshrutkas (shuttles) are your best friend for short and long-haul trips. Car rentals and share taxis (handy if you’ve got a party of three or four) offer more direct and flexible travel options.
As far as navigating around town, we’d recommend downloading 2GIS – an app for directions that provides more accurate details about the local businesses in the area (functioning similarly to Google Maps).
Try the Central Asian snickers bar
This is Central Asia’s answer to a delicious treat that’s actually healthy and easy to assemble from a market visit – or even the local supermarket. What you’ll need to do is grab yourself some walnuts and apricots (seedless preferred), peel open that dry fruit and place a walnut inside, then press it down like a sandwich and you’re all set. And the best part about it is that it’s totally healthy. So have as many as you like!
Accept that the long drives are totally worth it
Commuting across the country is an adventure in itself, face pressed against the glass window and taking in the glorious views. If you’re looking for particularly scenic land adventures, the 15-hour drive between Bishkek to Osh, and, separately to Naryn are our personal favourites.
Wild. Hospitable. Magical.
If you’re planning your next holiday and have doubts about where to go, I urge you to visit the Kyrgyz Republic as soon as possible!