Kyrgyzstan is a world-class trekking destination, on a par with countries like Nepal, Georgia or Peru. Why? There are 2 main reasons.
Firstly, the beautiful scenery of the Tien Shan and Alay mountain ranges that take up most of the country is a joy to behold. Secondly, the semi-nomadic culture of Kyrgyzstan’s shepherds has managed to survive the onslaught of 70 years of Soviet rule. Visiting a yurt and learning about the Kyrgyz traditional lifestyle should be a highlight of any visit to Kyrgyzstan.
There are 3 additional reasons that give trekking in Kyrgyzstan an edge: access is easy for many visitors due to an extensive visa-free policy and good air links, trails are rarely overcrowded, and prices are low.
Negatives? Nothing big we can think of for the moment. Crowds are a small issue, for now confined to the Altyn Arashan – Alakol trail and the Kochkor – Song Kul area. In any case, Kyrgyzstan remains very far away from Macchu Pichu or Kilimanjaro-type trekking. Beyond these few popular treks, you will not encounter more than a handful of other tourists on any given day, if you manage to meet someone at all.
Overall, it is a pretty good package, so it is no wonder Kyrgyzstan has become the premier hiking destination in Central Asia in terms of visitor numbers. While Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan also have beautiful mountain trails, they lack the yurtstays that make Kyrgyzstan special. Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor do have unique, vibrant cultures set against spectacular backdrops, but getting there is more difficult and more expensive.
Who is it for?
Experienced hikers who like to determine their own path enjoy Kyrgyzstan. The possibilities are endless.
If you would rather follow an established trail, there are a lot of options as well, many of which still see few visitors. The trails are not well-marked though, and passes often cross 3500-4000 m, so basic trekking skills (map reading, weather assessment, good stamina) are essential.
If you do not possess these skills but have the budget to join a tour or hire a guide, this does not have to be a problem. Someone else can carry the heavy load and Kyrgyzstan has several experienced tour companies that can cater to people of all abilities. If you are looking to hire a guide on the cheaper end of the scale, be aware that things might not always happen according to plan.
If you feel you lack stamina, consider discovering Kyrgyzstan on horseback.
Season and weather
July through mid-September is the ideal season for hiking in Kyrgyzstan. The passes will be snow-free at this time, although there is never certainty. It’s also possible to hit the mountains as early as June and into October, but your chances of snow increase dramatically in these months.
To stay in yurts, the season is July and August. It extends a little bit on either side, but for the best experiences, July and August is the time. End of August is already cutting it short in some regions.
All questions on what to expect weather-wise can be posted in the Kyrgyzstan trekking season forum thread.
Gear and equipment
When hiking during the summer season, there are no special requirements. Stuff a tent, a mattress and a sleeping bag in your backpack and you are more or less ready to go. But be aware you will need a warm sleeping bag. At 3000 m, it is never warm at night.
Trekking poles are also highly recommended. Slopes are often steep and covered in loose rock. Trekking poles will dramatically increase your stability, and will make hiking considerably easier on your lungs going up, and on your knees going down.
A first series of trekking maps was designed around 2010 with trails drawn over prints of the old Soviet maps of the main trekking destinations. Since 2018, considerably better maps are in circulation. The new maps have better design and more trails marked, and are completely in English.
They cover 6 destinations:
- Issyk-Kul southern shore (area south of Kochkor – Barskoon)
- Karakol & Jyrgalan. (for Inylchek, get hold of the older maps)
- Song Kul & Jumgal (north, south and west of Song Kul)
- Tash Rabat & Eki-Naryn (around Tash Rabat and Kyzyl Tuu & around Eki-Naryn and Ottuk)
- Eastern Naryn (area east of Eki-Naryn and east of At-Bashy – Ozgorush)
- Osh/Alay (area north of Sary-Mogol, Sary Tash and Daroot-Korgon, south of Gulcha)
This should satisfy the vast majority of hikers, but it is obviously not a complete overview of all hiking opportunities in Kyrgyzstan. Hikers who want to visit less-visited (but very worthwhile) Jalalabad region, Batken region, Talas region or Saimaloo-Tash, Ak-Sai or Arpa Valley, will have to look elsewhere.
Additional destinations on the older printed maps are the Chong Kemin Valley and the area south of Bishkek – Tokmok. For all other cases, check out our standard advice for trekking maps in the region.
You can buy the maps at CBT offices around the country, and in Bishkek at the offices of the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan (Kievskaya 168) and the cartographic institute in Bishkek GeoID (Kievskaya 107).
All map-related questions welcome in the Kyrgyzstan map forum thread.
With the exception of the occasional arrow spray-painted on a rock, there are no marked hiking trails in Kyrgyzstan. You will have to look at your map or smartphone to find the way.
In terms of trail length, there is no limit. Many of the routes you find on the hiking maps are tailored to 3-4 day hikes, but it is easy to connect and extend them. There is no trans-Kyrgyzstan hiking trail, but link up all the existing trails and you will have created something that is not too far off.
Travel in the border areas with Kazakhstan, China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan requires a border permit. All relevant information is gathered in our Kyrgyzstan border permit article.
Supermarkets and bazaars in larger towns and cities can supply you with all the basics. In small villages and yurt camps, you will only find homemade bread and milk products for sale or given to you for free. Village shops can supply you with cigarettes, vodka and candy, but not much more.
Outdoor gear in Kyrgyzstan
Most tour operators in Kyrgyzstan rent out tents, trekking poles, camping stoves, sleeping bags and mats. They also sell camping stove fuel. Bishkek, Osh, Karakol and Kochkor all have options.
If you want to buy gear, Bishkek has 4 outdoor shops: Alex.kg (Baitik Baatyra 5b), RedFox (Ibraimova 113/2), Marko Polo (2 stores: 48/1 Gorky and 61 Togolok Moldo) and Gergert Sport (Gorki 182). All have functional websites and decent selections, but camping stoves might not be available.
This is where this guide remains incomplete for the moment. We haven’t been everywhere yet, so it is difficult to compare these different destinations and give extensive info. But here are some basics to orient yourself.
If you have limited time to get out of Bishkek, Ala Archa National Park, just 30 minutes drive from the city center, should be your first port of call. You can go for the day or stay overnight, but try to avoid weekends.
Konorchek canyon is another popular day trip.
Alamedin and Issyk-Ata valleys are 1-2 hour drive from Bishkek. Attractive places, but with limited time, you will likely come down the same way as you went up. If you have more time, go elsewhere.
Sary Mogol, near the Tajik border, is the main destination for hikers. The landscape is different from Northern Kyrgyzstan: higher and less green. Highlights here are a 5-day hike over the Jiptik and Sary Mogol passes as well as hikes from Tulpar Kol to Traveller’s Pass and Peak Yukhina.
All info at Trekking in Alay.
But you can also start from Gulcha, a lot of yurts gather here in summer. Start from Sary Tash or Daroot Korgon to have the mountains to yourself.
Not far from Osh, the Kichi or Small Alay offer opportunities for day hikes and overnight stays.
There is good hiking between the northern shore of Issyk-Kul and the border with Kazakhstan. Follow the Chong-Kemin valley towards Kogur lake and continue east for as long as you want. When you get tired, turn south for beaches and beers. 3 to 5 days hiking. You might need a border permit here.
The once-popular cross-border route to Almaty is currently still off-limits, but work is ongoing to make it accessible once more.
Kochkor is the closest you will come to a tourist town in Kyrgyzstan. A bunch of ecotourism info centers occupy the center of town, all trying to sell you the same tours to Song Kul and 2-day hikes around Kochkor.
Bokonbayevo has become popular recently due to a LP recommendation for the yurt camp there. We haven’t hiked here yet.
Tamga and Barskoon are 2 towns with beach access and their own distinct personality and charm. Both good places to end your hike on the beach.
Karakol and around
The hike up to Alakol lake from Altyn Arashan is the most popular trail in Kyrgyzstan. Avoid it, we say. There are so many beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan: why follow the crowds?
Once you get off the Alakol highway, it gets remarkably quieter. Enjoy hikes to Kyzyl-Suu and Peak Karakol in relative solitude. The Jyrgalan area has been heavily promoted by bloggers, but push beyond the easier trails and see the crowds disappear.
Karakol is not such a good place for yurtstays.
The 10-day hike to Inylchek glacier is much more spectacular than the more sedate, classically alpine scenery around Karakol, but inexperienced trekkers should definitely take a guide here. Bonus is the extra cost/excitement of being helicoptered out from Khan Tengri Base Camp.
Song Kul is a beautiful lake in a grandiose setting that sees a lot of tourists coming for yurtstays. Get away from the shoreline to find challenging hikes at the heart of Tien Shan. Plenty more jailoos, yurt camps and alpine lakes await, but this time, you will have the place to yourself.
Due to its proximity to the Chinese border, you might need permits for some of the hikes in this area. With the exception of Tash Rabat and Chatyr Kol, Naryn region is a remote and under-travelled place. Recommended!
Kazarman and around
The 6-day hike to Saimaloo Tash is the highlight here. For long-distance hikers who like to set their own route, Kazarman connects Naryn and Song Kul with Alay and Jalalabad regions. Finding supplies is the main challenge.
Jalalabad itself is part of the Ferghana Valley and relentlessly flat, but the region extends east and north into prime trekking country. Arslanbob is a good base to start or end hikes into the walnut forest, or north towards Toktogul over 5 days.
Or you can loop the mountains and lakes above Arslanbob in a 4-day hike.
The eastern part of the region encompasses the Besh Aral National Park and Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve.
While the Batken region is mostly flat, mountains come peering over the Tajik border. The area is mostly known to climbers, but hikers can enjoy themselves here all the same. The need for a border permit means foot traffic is minimal.
Since hikers are so spoiled for choice in Kyrgyzstan, few get out to Talas region. Together with Bishkek, it is the flattest part of the country, prefacing the Kazakh steppe. But on the edges, even here, there is some excellent hiking. Hike across the Talas range, towards Besh Tash Lake or walk the whole Urmaral Valley in 6 days until Sary-Chelek Lake.
Camping and yurtstays
Wild camping in Kygyzstan is legal. Would you have expected anything else from a nomadic nation?
Shepherd families head for the mountains to live in yurts starting from mid-June until mid-September. The hot season is July and August though; in June and September the jailoos are not very busy.
The vast majority of yurts in Kyrgyzstan are set up to house shepherds and their families, but some are specifically set up for tourists, for instance at Tash Rabat, Song Kul and Tulpar Kol.
This does not mean the “shepherd yurts” refuse tourists. Some offer a place to sleep through tour operators or one of the community-based cooperations. Others are not associated with the tourism business, but they might invite you in all the same.
Problems and dangers
Wolves and bears live in Kyrgyzstan, but you are much more likely to encounter a shepherd’s dog. They can be quite scary.
Good insurance is a plus, since there are no decent hospitals in Kyrgyzstan and you are likely to be transferred out of the country in case of a serious injury.
Plenty of tour companies and individual guides offer their services.
Caravanistan works with a select few operators who we trust and encourage to design original, sustainable/regenerative, customisable, high-quality tours. You can find a selection at Trekking tours in Kyrgyzstan.
If you are looking for a budget option, you have the following options.