All countries in Central Asia have a lot of natural capital, but none manage to present it as well as Kyrgyzstan.
The main 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.
Where to go?
We’ll just assume you are coming in summer…skiers look elsewhere.
First stop: Bishkek
Starting from Bishkek, most travelers will want to head straight for the Issyk-Kul region east of the capital. Here you can find what Kyrgyzstan is all about in a small, easy-to-access area. Alpine lakes and mountain circus, white water fit for rafting. Broad jailoo pastures with shepherds, horses and yurts. With 1 or 2 weeks time, there’s no need to look any further.
To cool down from all the hiking and horse riding, Issyk-Kul has beaches. There’s even a bit of ancient history for the geeks. Karakol and Kochkor are the 2 main gateway towns to the lakes and mountains beyond.
Crossing Central Kyrgyzstan on public transport is not possible. Backpackers on a budget will have to return to Bishkek if they want to see the other side of the country. Those with transport, a budget, or a lot of time can make their way to Suusamyr via Song Kol, or to Jalal-Abad via Naryn and Kazarman.
First stop: Osh
If you are coming from China, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, you can hardly avoid Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s southern capital. While hardy trekkers and climbers can spend weeks in the Alay range straddling the border with Tajikistan, most will prefer to move north onto the highway towards Bishkek.
On the way north, Arslanbob is a fixture on the tourist route, thanks to a splendid homestay network in a wonderful setting. Between Arslanbob and Bishkek, there are detours for the more persistent. However, the path of least resistance leads straight to Bishkek and on to Issyk-Kul. Just follow the kymis.
Off the beaten track
Climbers, dedicated trekkers, independent kayakers, hard-nosed cyclists and those willing to buy a horse: Kyrgyzstan is your oyster. If you’re not that hardcore but want to do something different anyway: you can find a homestay anywhere. You just have to arrive; before you know it, you have become part of village life.
A rail connection exists between Bishkek and Moscow, and with Tashkent in summer. Bishkek is the country’s flight hub. Osh also hosts international flights. Several local companies offer inexpensive flights between Osh and Bishkek.
For all other places: if you do not have your own means of transport, you will be dependent on minibuses (marshrutkas) and (shared) taxis to take you places within Kyrgyzstan. They leave when full. If you want more comfort or leave earlier, pay for the other seats.
As soon as winter falls over Kyrgyzstan, many places hidden behind high passes become very difficult to reach over land because of snow. The passage to Osh and the Irkeshtam and Torugart passes to China can get blocked because of heavy snowfall or avalanches. Snow is cleared quickly on these main roads, but take possible delays into account when planning a winter trip. Song Kol and the Naryn-Jalalabad road are difficult to access in winter.
Mudslides in spring are not a problem, unlike in Tajikistan. Between May and October all parts of the country are usually easily accessible.
Have a look first to see if you need a visa for Kyrgyzstan. It is a pretty safe country, all things considered, with traffic as the main danger. We discuss possible concerns for various types of people in detail on the safety in Central Asia page.
Health-wise, there are a few things you could worry about: diarrhea, smog, altitude sickness, tick-borne encephalitis and rabies.
Generally speaking, food in the region is unhealthy and of little variety, based primarily on meat, fat, pasta and dairy products. Few tourists become fans of the tastes of Central Asia. Unless you are a vegan, you should at least try kymys (fermented horse milk) and kurt (salty cheese balls) in Kyrgyzstan, though. We discuss your options as a picky eater.
Exchanging money and using ATMs is easy in Kyrgyzstan. Paying by card, less so. Buying a sim card and getting mobile internet is also not an issue at the moment, and internet is almost fully accessible without VPN. More details in our articles on money and banking and communications.
For orientation, Maps.me and 2GIS are often better than google maps.
Budget and accommodation
Kyrgyzstan has very affordable travel services. Count on 2-3$ for a basic meal, 5-10$ for a hostel bed, 10-15$ for a yurtstay with half board, and a double room in a decent hotel starting at 20$.
Villages have homestays, mountains have yurtstays. Cities have hotels and hostels aplenty, as long as you are not looking for a luxury experience. We give some more tips for finding the right place in the accommodation chapter.
We go in depth on the budget question at the Kyrgyzstan travel budget page.
Find out more about Kyrgyzstan’s different regions.
- Issyk-Kul region: Issyk-Kul and the mountains surrounding it have everything you need for a great outdoor holiday with a cultural touch.
- The North: Bishkek and the mountains around. No one goes to Talas (yet).
- The South: Osh is the second capital and the gateway to China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Arslanbob is a highlight. Beyond, there’s more stunning mountain scenery.
- The Center: A huge mountainous area. Song Kul is the star attraction. Beyond, much more mountains, lakes, yurts and jailoos.