The main Kyrgyzstan tourism highlights are accessible and inexpensive, it’s easy to get away from the few places where tourists congegrate and authentic experiences of nomad life, post-soviet life and animal life can be had at every step. Ecotourism projects are running smoothly: hiking, horse riding and yurtstays can be arranged easily with the benefits going to those who need it the most.
With visa-free travel now available for citizens of most wealthy countries, and better flight connections with Europe and the Far East, Kyrgyzstan is poised to become the new darling of the outdoor community.
If they could just stop having revolutions.
North and East Kyrgyzstan Tourism
For most people coming to Kyrgyzstan, travel starts in Bishkek, the relaxed capital which surprises with its many parks and a cool, young vibe thanks to its massive student population. 30km from Bishkek, Ala-Archa canyon is a haven for hikers and climbers.
Alamedin canyon is equally beautiful but much less visited. Spas in Kyrgyzstan often exude a stuck-in-1978-feeling, and the ones at Alamedin and Issyk-Ata are no different. Further east, the Burana tower is a nice stopover on the way to the Chong-Kemin valley, which offers great possibilities for rafting, hiking and botanical explorations.
Next stop is the huge Issyk-Kul lake. The northern side has been developed for mass tourism from Kazakhstan, especially around Cholpon-Ata, but behind the shore there are petroglyphs and (you guessed it) good hiking and horse riding in places like the Ak-Suu valley and around Grigorievka.On the southern side of Issyk-Kul, there is a lot of underexplored terrain around Bokonbaeva.
Most foreigners end up on the western side in Karakol. Beautifully located and surprisingly interesting in terms of history and culture, it’s the perfect base for hiking (this is becoming a theme) in summer and skiing in winter.
There is a lot of trekking around Karakol: the Altyn Arasan walk dotted with hot springs is loved by beginners and veterans, while hardcore trekkers will want to attempt the high and remote reaches of the Inylchek glacier and Merzbacher lake.
Don’t miss the magnificent landscape of Jeti Oghuz if you are there, and for weird-sanatorium lovers, Tamga is the place to be. The Karkara valley is a scenic route to head into Kazakhstan through the backdoor from Karakol.
Further south, Kochkor and Naryn are centers for Kyrgyz shyrdak and felt production, and form convenient bases to strike out to the alpine Song Kol lake, the Tash Rabat caravanserai and further off across the Torugart pass to Kashgar or westward to Jalalabad across the Kazarmam pass, where lay the magical stones of Saimaloo Tash.
South and West Kyrgyzstan Tourism
While the south of Kyrgyzstan gets its share of visitors coming or going to Uzbekistan, the west sees very little people. Too bad, since the nature here is stunning too. Especially Sary-Chelek lake is worth a visit. Other points of interest in the west: Kol Tor lakes, Char valley and Suusamyr valley.
Further south, Arslanbob is a crowd favourite. Other little lovely towns in the area are Ortuk and Ak-Terek. Jalal-Abad offers another weird spa experience, while Ozgen bathes in history.
Osh is the second-biggest city in Kyrgyzstan, capital of the south and continually simmering from inter-ethnic tensions. The road to Osh from Bishkek is a major attraction in itself. The Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley is just over the border, while further east the town of Sary Tash connects Osh with Kashgar via Irkeshtam and Murgab via the Pamir Highway.
Special Interest Tourism
There are some reasons to specifically travel to Kyrgyzstan for. Hiking and horse riding – obviously. Its a pioneer skiing destination, but especially heli-skiing is quite unique here. Kayaking is pretty pioneering as well, but therefore all the more rewarding.
Botanical tourism and wildlife and birdwatching tours are another niche, as is health tourism (mostly Russians and Kazakhs though).
Finally, climbing attracts more adventurers than anything else. Main destinations: Pik Lenin, Pik Pobedy, Khan Tengri and Ala-Archa.