Sleeping in Kyrgyzstan is a wonderful experience for travelers who don’t mind rustic options. If you desire comfort and opulence: dial down your expectations.
Couchsurfing and unexpected hospitality
Couchsurfing is not that easy in Kyrgyzstan. In Bishkek, there is a sizable community, but during the summer season, couches are often booked in advance, so make plans early enough to secure your couch or floor space. Outside of Bishkek, there aren’t that many hosts.
When traveling, you might get invited at random by people. This is generally a delightful experience and you should indulge. If you don’t want to drink, make that clear. If you want to leave or have other plans, make that clear. People can be pushy at times, especially with their food, but they understand “I am really very full,” “Sorry, I cannot stand the taste of kymis” or, “I really should get going now” (you might have to repeat it a few times, though).
The many yurts dotted around the countryside serve as a testament to the camping spirit of the Kyrgyz. Finding a scenic spot should never be an issue in Kyrgyzstan.
Wolves and bears live in Kyrgyzstan, but you have to get far off the beaten track to encounter them. Poachers and hunters make sure they stay away from human settlement, which is always low-density, but reaches deep into the mountains.
To rent or buy camping gear like gas canisters, sleeping bags, tents, … we discuss your options at Trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
CBT, yurtstays, homestays and ecotourism
Almost all yurts in the Kyrgyz countryside still serve a working purpose: once summer comes, shepherds and their families move out of their houses in the valley to set up camp in the mountain meadows higher-up, where their animals can graze to their heart’s content. If you are exploring less-visited mountain ranges in summer, you will meet them, and you might be invited in for a fresh cup of kymis. You might also be invited to stay overnight. No money will be charged.
In places more popular with tourists, the shepherd families got organised and started charging to accommodate the increase in visitors. Most are still shepherding, although in Song Kol and Tash Rabat, some families are only there to host tourists. In return, these “tourist yurts” are generally more attuned to the wishes of visitors: they might have beds instead of mats, soluble coffee rather than tea, etc.
Even if its most famous jailoos intertwine semi-nomadism and commercial tourism ever more tightly, things remain small-scale for now, and beyond the tourist sites, it is easy to get invited into a living yurt. Nomadic (Kyrgyz) culture is folk culture; dynamic, living, intangible. You cannot understand it by looking at a building – there are no buildings. One can only experience such a culture, and a yurtstay is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of it.
One thing to keep in mind when setting out to sleep in a yurt, is the cold. Song Kol or Tash Rabat, for example, are both located at 3500m (11,500 feet) above sea level. Nights are never warm at such heights. Bring something warm if you are a cold sleeper. A hat is always a good idea.
As mentioned above, some yurts have beds; they are a lot warmer than the traditional pile of fluffy mats on the floor (korpushkas), and more comfortable. Ask what kind of sleeping arrangements are available if comfort is important to you. Yurts generally have big metal stoves in them which are heated with animal dung. This produces a ferocious heat, but the dung burns out quickly, leaving the unprepared to shiver until dawn.
Ecotourism and CBT
There are a number of competing organisations in Kyrgyzstan that group people who offer homestays and yurtstays, acting, in effect, as a type of low-rent hospitality consortium. Community Based Tourism (CBT) is the biggest of these, with branches in every part of Kyrgyzstan, but there are others, like Shepherd’s Life, headquartered in Kochkor.
In theory, these organisations should have the interest of the whole community at heart, but in reality, they often operate as standard for-profit organisations. Their tour services are similar to other tour operators and homestays are prone to switch allegiances or go their own way if it earns more money.
At the same time, a few of the “standard” tour operators have been implementing a triple bottom line strategy for many years: they’re the kind of people we like to work with.
The omnipresence of CBT is slowly fading as more members start their own businesses and new accommodation pops up all over Kyrgyzstan. Still, almost everyone who travels in Kyrgyzstan will stay with one of their members at least once.
They might not tick all the ecotourism boxes, but neither does anyone else, and their existence has opened up Kyrgyzstan for less intrepid travelers, offering budget accommodation and a cultural experience in places where only self-sufficient travelers would venture before.
Airbnb and apartment rental
Airbnb, Homeaway, VRBO and Flipkey all have spaces for rent in Kyrgyzstan, mostly centered on Bishkek. Apartments also get rented out on other hotel booking sites like booking.com. These apartments are generally owned by real estate moguls and you are unlikely to share a space with others or even see the owner. A decent alternative to more traditional accommodation options. Electricity black-outs are an issue in winter in Kyrgyzstan. Ask in advance if this is likely to happen in your apartment block.
Bishkek has seen mushroom growth in the number of hostels in the capital. Many of these are rather grimy, ultra-basic backpacker haunts, but a few are raising standards, like the very well-appointed Interhouse ‘poshtel’. Some hostels also offer camp space, filled mostly by long-distance cyclists, and some also offer space in a garden yurt.
Unlike in neighbouring Uzbekistan, prices are non-negotiable when walking in.
A young country with a history of nomadism, there is no grand hotel in Kyrgyzstan. Instead, hotels run the gamut from “renovated Soviet” to “newly built international chain”. In general, deducting 1 star from the advertised number of stars will lead to a correct assessment of the place you will be staying at.
Hot water is a typical summer issue in the FSU that is often outside of the control of hotels. When the utility company decides to switch it off, they are left standing. Ask politely if there will be hot water.
Electricity black-outs occur in winter in Kyrgyzstan. Ask in advance what kind of measures your hotel has in place. Heating, on the other hand, is unlikely to be a problem. In summer, air-conditioning is not an excessive luxury in Bishkek, and it certainly is not in Osh.
You might find shabbier hotels in a less interesting part of town that also advertise sauna. This is coded language for brothel, and renting a room comes with service included.