In this article about Kyrgyzstan tourist attractions, you will find all the details to organise your trip to Kyrgyzstan, including the main tourist attractions, the best time to visit, curiosities as well as necessary information about the country.
Whenever we say to people we have been in Kyrgyzstan, the most common reaction was: “Kyrgy what?” But, if you are reading this post now, chances are that you are part of the exception and, not just know where this remote country is located at, but are probably looking to travel to Kyrgyzstan. If that’s the case, then, let us say something pre-handed to you: You will fall in love with it!
Kyrgyzstan is surprisingly astonishing, with a culture extremely hospitable and holders of the one of the most strong nomadic traditions yet existent. We were over there during the World Nomad Games, a thrilling Olympic Game that happens every other year and gathers nomads from every corner of the world to compete in the most exotic sports. We go more in depth about the World Nomad Games in this other article, but for a taste of it, watch the video below about a match of Kok Boru, the national sport of Kyrgyzstan.
What we liked the most in Kyrgyzstan
What impressed us the most in Kyrgyzstan was the landscape. 95% of the country is above 1000 meters sea level and, having that many mountains, you can picture how beautiful it is.
Another point that really caught our attention was the nomadic culture, still very lively and intact in comparison to other countries of the region. Currently, most of the people of Kyrgyzstan are what they call semi-nomads, which means that during the colder season of the year they live in the cities and villages and only during the warmer season they move to the higher parts of the country, searching for mild temperatures for their animals.
It was exactly at this time of year, this migration over summer, that whole families migrate to the mountains, set up tents – or yurts, as it is properly referred to – and and spend the whole warmer seasons reconnecting to their truly essence, the nomadic one. This “summer holidays” or “generalised migration” has even a name, jailoo.
But where is Kyrgyzstan on the map, exactly?
Kyrgyzstan is a very mountainous country, bordering Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. The largest city – as well as the capital of Kyrgyzstan – is Bishkek. The country has always been under different domination. It has attained its sovereignty after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
How to travel in Kyrgyzstan
This is how we travelled around over there. We partnered up with a travel agency from Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, named Travel Land Kyrgyzstan and drove a Toyota Sequoia 4×4.
If that’s the way you are leaning towards moving around over there too, we recommend you to have a look at this article about driving in Kyrgyzstan, where we explain more about the Kyrgyz roads, traffic rules, warns and difficulties.
For those who don’t feel entirely safe about driving in Kyrgyzstan, but still wish to travel by car, you can always choose the driver/guide service that companies such as Travel Land offer.
But anyway, if you also like tourism by bike, this can be a good option, just go and bike through Kyrgyzstan. Just keep in mind that the country has endless mountains and you will need quite decent bikes for that, let alone a good physical health.
To move between the main cities in Kyrgyzstan, you won’t find any problems. You can find buses, flights and even trains to take you. However, it won’t be easy to access the remote parts of the country. In this case, you will depend on the marshrutkas – something like a minivan – or shared taxis to go to some Kyrgyzstan cities.
The Kyrgyz People themselves travel hitchhiking too. It was normal to see women, men, children putting their thumbs up by the road. However, it is expected to contribute with some money to pay for the ride, apparently.
We say that because, as we were finaly motorised with our 4×4 from Travel Land, we took the chance to pay back the countless hitchhikes we have taken. Of course, we always refused to accept money when they tried to pay us. So, you had better ask first and come to a common agreement beforehand.
Is tourism in Kyrgyzstan for everybody?
We have heard this question many times and the truth is not. Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful country, yet rather wild. If your itinerary includes only the main cities of Kyrgyzstan, so you will not find any massive challenge. But the main – and most beautiful – tourist sights of Kyrgyzstan are isolated somewhere near a massive lake or mountain around the country.
In theses places, the only accommodation you will find are probably yurts – which are those nomadic tents from Central Asia, which families set up during the jailoo mentioned above – with no access to running or hot water, let alone a toilet sit.
If you, just like us, are completely willing to give up some of those comfortable perks to make it up in personal experiences, then go on. You will love visit Kyrgyzstan!
What are the best Kyrgyzstan tourist attractions
So let’s talk business now, what to do in Kyrgyzstan! Here, we will layout to you the best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan plus a list of authentic experiences you cannot miss during your visit in the country and all the things to do in Kyrgyzstan as well.
Bishek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The city is normally the starting point of most travellers and has some interesting places to see and to explore in one or two days.
What to do in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
See the Ala-Too Square, the main square of the city;
Visit the State History Museum – Formerly known as Lenin Museum, it’s located on Ala-Too Square and opend from 10am to 3pm, Tuesday to Saturday;
Visit the Central Mosque. It has recently opened to the public. The mosque was financed by the Turkish Government and it’s the largest mosque in the whole Central Asia
Visit the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Prince Vladimir
Have a meal at the Faiza Restaurant. They have local dishes very popular amongst inhabitants of Bishkek. The food is delicious and not expensive. We practically ate over there every day we were in the capital.
ACCOMMODATION IN BISHKEK: We stayed at the Friends Guest House & Hostel and really recommend it. The place has private rooms from 15 USD and dorms for 4.5 USD. Also, they have an outdoor area where people normally put their tents up for a cheaper price.
Located 70km away from Bishkek and 12km from Tokmok city, this is a good option for a day trip from the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The Burana Tower is an old minaret of 25m tall, though it was originally 44m, that stands strongly still since the days of the silk route. You can even go to the top of it at an entrance fee of 2USD.
Around the tower, scattered on the floor, you can find an enormous collection of ancient Balbals, which is a sort of gravestone, made by Turkish tribes who inhabited the region during the VI century.
Visit the city of Osh
Osh is the second largest town, one of the major cities of Kyrgyzstan and an important point of passage for travellers of Central Asia since the Silk Route days. This confluence of people from a variety of birth places resulted in a extremely diverse and multi-ethnic city. Currently, Osh is considered the cultural capital of Kyrgyzstan.
The city also hosted many bloody ethnic fights in 2010, but the situation is, thankfully, under control.
What to do in Osh and surroundings
Walk around Jayma Bazaar, one of the largest Bazaars in Central Asia. The best day to visit it is Sunday and the worst is Monday, when many stores don’t open;
See the Lenin Statue, one of the largest remaining statues of him in Asia;
Climb the Suleiman-Too – Solomon Mountain. It’s considered a sacred mountain for muslins as well as an important place of pilgrimage for locals since the pre-islamic era. The mountain is the only UNESCO heritage site of the entire Kyrgyz Republic and has caves, pagans religious relics, a mosque, museums and trekking tracks. From up there in the mountain, you also have a beautiful view of the city of Osh;
See the Kurmanjan Datka statue, considered as the Queen of the South and a huge person in the history of Quirguistão. You can see her face on the 50 Som notes, by the way. We actually recommend a great film about her on YouTube: Kurmanjan Datka with English subtitles.
Horse riding – or walk if horses are not your cup of tea – in the Alay Valley, about a couple of hours driving from Osh. We didn’t have time to visit this region, but we heard it really well about it. For further information on this region, you can see this other site.
Karakol is the main city of the Issyl-Kul Province. It is south of the lake Issyl-Kul, the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan, and there are many activities available to do over there. Karakol was founded by Russian Czares and it still has a strong russian tradition present in their culture, particularly seen on the architecture and habits of the people.
What to do in Karakol and surroundings
Visit the colourful mosque Dungan;
Visit the Holy Trinity Cathedral;
Go horse riding. There are many paths from Karakol to go by horse, some even lasting up to 10 days. On CBT (Community Based Tourism) of Karakol, they can help you out with updated information about the horse riding;
Go to the Barskoon Waterfall, which has a 90m fall;
Visit the Salt Lake, the Kyrgyz version of the Dead Sea about 250km away from Bishkek and 150km from Karakol. Known as Tuz Kul, the high salinity of the lake that, just as the Dead Sea, don’t let you sink. The water also has medical properties and is a great option for people with skin disease, such as psoriasis.
The Skazka Canyon, also known as the Fairy Tale Canyon – Skazka actually means fairy tale in Russian – is also south of Issyl-Kul Lake, about 100km from Karakol. This astonishing reddish canyon is full of surprises, gorges and peaks that can be explored in a few hours.
As we have said in previous posts, we really recommend using the app maps.me. It has great functionalities and works brilliantly in almost every country. The Maps.me has helped us a lot for years now in all our routes, either by car, bike or even walk. You can see more apps that can help you in here.
Explore the province of Naryn
The province of Naryn was the region we liked the most in Kyrgyzstan. Besides the landscape of incomparable beauty, it’s in the area where you find the most authentic nomadic culture. Naryn is one of the most underdeveloped region in Kyrgyzstan and most of its roads are basically, well, non-existent. So, spare a few extra days if you are visiting here as a 50km distance might take a good 5 hours drive.
What you cannot miss in the Naryn Province
Visit Tash Rabat, an ancient intact caravanserai build on the XV century. The caravanserai are fortress that sheltered travellers and businessmen crossing the Silk Route. Tash Rabat is one of the only few constructions of the sort yet remaining in Kyrgyzstan;
Visit the lake Song Kul: This is one of the most famous spot in Kyrgyzstan, absolutely fairly awarded. Song Kul is a gorgeous place, surrounded by ice capped mountains and yurt camps. It is the typical image we idealised before visiting Kyrgyzstan.
At-Bashy Animal Bazaar: If you are in town on Sundays, visit the Animal Bazaar. The place gathers nomad people interested in selling – or buying – their animals for more than a hundred years. The animal treatment over there is not the most adequated, so avoid it if you are very fund of the animal cause.
TIP: If you are in downtown Naryn, have a meal at the Nomad Coffee Restaurant. They have great dishes at a good price too.
The Kel-Suu Lake is just at the border with China. You will need a special permit to visit it and it can be obtained at the CBT of Naryn on the same day. All this effort is surely paid-off later, as this is one of the most beautiful regions of the whole Kyrgyzstan.
It’s worth mentioning, though, that the roads are really tough and only 4×4 will do it. After reaching the yurt camps, you also have to do, by foot, another couple of hours to reach the lake Kel Suu. You can hire a company to take you there, if you want. There is even a horse tour to take you there. Right there at the CBT of Naryn, they can give you more information about the tours.
An interesting fact about this lake is that it cleans itself. Every period of time – sometimes 7 years apart, sometimes 21 – the lake completely dries itself off for the whole season. This procedure gets all the dirty, such as broken woods, tree leaves, sludge and so on, to go with the water. The lake bed becomes clean and, when the next season of water from the defrost of the mountains comes, the lake comes back alive completely transparent and splendid.
It does look like a tale, but look what happened exactly when we were there:
Visit the largest forest of Kyrgyzstan
Arslanbob is a nut forest as well as the largest in the country. Although it is worth visiting it at any time of the year, it is mostly recommended to visit the forest around Autumn, between September and October, when is nut harvesting time. In this period, practically every inhabitant of the nearby villages go working on the forest and the villages became almost abandoned.
Watch an eagle hunting demonstration
Eagle hunting is an ancient practice very common used in Central Asia. The best place to watch a demonstration is around the south of Issyl-Kul Lake, where this tradition is still strong.
Watch a Kok Boru match and other nomadic sports
Kok Boru is the national sport of Kyrgyzstan. It’s a sort of headless goat polo, where the ball is the body of the animal. If that rouses your curiosity to watch a match of the sort, or other sports of nomadic traditions, you’d better travel to Kyrgyzstan over the summer – July and August.
As we said, currently most of Kyrgyz are semi-nomads and it’s during jailoo that they reconnect with their nomadic culture and traditions. During this time of the year, you can find many festivals and competitions happening at the yurt camps, when they are on jailoo.
We really hope this article can help your trip to Kyrgyzstan – or at lease inspire you to go. If you have already visited this lovely country and know something we have left aside, please let us know in the comments or write to us. We will be glad to add – and credit – other sights too. And take the time to let us know if you liked this article or not.