Being a traveler with a more exploring mind, I have always been looking for geographically interesting destinations. It made Asia my favorite continent, because it is the largest continent, featuring almost all kind of geographical zones. Of course, the whole Earth is interesting, but Asia for me is like the center of the geography. Exploring this continent first on maps, Google Earth, books and the internet, I found the “middle of this center”- Kyrgyzstan, a small, little known, but incredibly beautiful country. So, a trip to this country naturally became one of my goals. So, we built our Kyrgyzstan itinerary, and headed to the heart of Asia…
KYRGYZSTAN is a former Soviet Union republic. It is the furthest located country from the ocean. Located on the west part of Tianshan mountain ranges, 95% of its territory is mountainous. This location has formed a unique local culture and stunning natural views. Some of the landscapes are so beautiful, that if there is a chart of beautiful landscapes on the Earth, those of Kyrgyzstan would rank among the highest!
The tourism in Kyrgyzstan is still in the early stages of its developing. The country is far from the famous tourist destinations in the world- far from West Europe, far from Maldives, Thailand, Bali, far even from Nepal, its Mt.Everest, or China with its capital Beijing and the Great Wall (although it borders with China). That’s why usually only travelers, looking beyond the horizon of the well-known destinations visit this country. Thus, for now, it remains a real paradise for adventurers and explorers. It was also one of the reasons why I chose it.
However, when I scheduled our first trip to Kyrgyzstan, our time was limited. We had to plan a route for no more than 10 days. Using my geographical research of the country, first I outlined the main places of interest, best presenting Kyrgyzstan, as well as various route versions connecting these places. Bishkek, Ala Archa, Issyk Kul, Karakol and Terskey Alatau valleys, Song Kul, Tash Rabat, Osh, Arslanbob, Sarytash, the areas of Lenin Peak and Khan Tengri, and a few other places- it would be great if we could visit all of them, but it was impossible to do it for only 11 days.
So, after analyzing of the location, geographical features, local landscapes (from photos on the internet), transport, road distance, and all other details, I had to extract most of the destinations from our itinerary. We decided to skip Osh and Pamir region, planning them for the next trip to Kyrgyzstan.
OUR 11 DAYS ITINERARY
Finally, we built it like this: starting from Bishkek, since it is the capital of the country and the main international airport. Then- Issyk Kul, one of Kyrgyzstan’s landmarks. The next one- Karakol and one of the nearby Terskey Alatau’s valleys. I chose Altyn Arashan since I have “watched” its incredibly stunning landscapes from the internet, formed by Tianshan’s fur-spruce forests, combined with snowy peaks and green alpine grasslands. And finally- a jump to the south, where I chose Tash Rabat, the ancient Silk Road caravanserai- an opportunity to visit some history, situated on more than 3000 m altitude.
Maybe we could include one more of the destinations, but I decided to spend more time in one place, to explore and enjoy it better. We made this trip with our children (5 and 8 years old), which was a great experience for them too. So here is our itinerary, day by day.
DAY 1: Arriving in Bishkek and exploring the city.
Bishkek is Kyrgyzstan’s capital, and its airport is the largest and most important in the country. It is called Manas Airport and is located around 20 km north of the city. Most of the international flights arrive in Bishkek early morning. It is a bit tiring, but if you have enough strength, it is convenient for a day walk around Bishkek, as a first day in Kyrgyzstan.
That’s was we did. We arrived while it was still dark. I got my visa on arrival. Since I have a Bulgarian passport, I had to get a visa for Kyrgyzstan, but anyway, it was very easy in the airport. For the citizens from most Western European countries, as well as some other, mainly high developed and rich countries, entry to Kyrgyzstan is visa-free. For some other countries, a visa is required but in the easiest way- visa on arrival. But there are countries like China, whose citizens are required a visa in advance, by Letter of Invitation, and OVIR registration within 5 days of arrival. See more here.
We went out of the airport and by minibus called “marshrutka” went to the center, then by another taxi- to our hostel. The host was a very friendly woman, who gave my wife and children a temporary room to sleep until our own room was free. Then we made a nice walk around the city.
Some basic facts from this day in Bishkek:
– City transport: there are big buses, minibusses (“marshrutka”) and taxis. We haven’t used big buses, but as I was told, they are just slowest and cheapest. The marshrutkas are much comfortable and still cheap. And the taxis were very cheap too- from the center to our hostel, for about 3 km, it was 105 KGS (which is 1,40 USD). The marshrutka No.380 from Manas airport to the center is very cheap too- only 80 KGS (1,20 USD).
– Environment: Basically, the whole Kyrgyzstan is a very calm and peaceful country. Even in the capital Bishkek, which is the largest city, everything is quite silent, and only in the rush hours a little more crowded and noisy.
– Places to visit: Bishkek is a quite new city. It doesn’t have some ancient history, so there are not too many places to visit. Most of the city’s landscape is wide boulevards, not very tall house buildings, and a lot of parks and monuments, reminding of Kyrgyzstan’s communist past. A walk around the streets is quite pleasant. The main places to visit are Alatoo square– the main center, with Manas Monument, the Parliament, and the History Museum; Panfilov park– a nice park with a lot of playground attractions (a great place for the children to play); and Osh Bazaar– a nice market with more exotic feeling.
– Accommodation: there are a lot of hotels and hostels, quite cheap, as everything in Kyrgyzstan. Our hostel (Green Hostel) was really great, and I would certainly recommend it, but unfortunately, the host woman said that they are going to close it soon. Our night there was 1200 KGS (around 20 USD) for a whole room (2 adults and 2 children). Another good hostel is Apple Hostel. For more info, you can see (here)
– Other interesting facts: when you enter a house, hotel, hostel or even yurt, you MUST take off your shoes. It is their tradition- they want to demonstrate their love for the cleanliness, and we have to respect it. Actually, it is very comfortable.
Check out your accommodation in Bishkek and the rest of Kyrgyzstan:
DAY 2: From Bishkek to Cholpon Ata, Issyk Kul
This day we got a marshrutka to Cholpon Ata. The host woman helped us to take a taxi to the main bus station of Bishkek. Again- very cheap and comfortable.
The road from Bishkek to Cholpon Ata is 260 km (162 miles) long and is in very good condition (with some exceptions on the last 20-30 km, where some parts are currently under construction). And the price for the marshrutka was 280 KGS (3,73 USD). The road is running first on a plain, very close to the border with Kazakhstan, then enters a valley and gradually ascends from 750 to 1650 m altitude. There are few service-stops with restaurants, shops, and WC, where the marshrutkas stop for 20 min rest., somewhere before Balykchy. Normally the marshrutkas take the whole route for about 3-3,5h.
Issyk Kul is the second largest saline lake in the world, and although Kyrgyzstan is much further from the sea, Issyk Kul is the country’s own “sea” and one of its landmarks. Today the tourism here gradually develops, as it is one of the most favorite places for a holiday, not only for Kyrgyzstan people, but also for Russians, Kazakhs, and other foreigners. However, don’t expect modern resorts with 5-star luxury hotels or something like this. It is a very different type of holiday destination- calm, friendly and very local, with very warm people.
So, we arrived in the main city of Issyk Kul- Cholpon Ata. It is a small cozy town, with small local hotels and hostels. We chose a hostel on the western side of the town, where an Islamic monument led us to the lake shore. There was a small beach, one of many other beaches of Issyk Kul, where a few people relaxed on the sand, some of them played in the water, and a flock of sheep grazed nearby.
DAY 3: From Issyk Kul to Karakol
This day we moved to our next destination- Karakol. Again by marshrutka- the main way of transportation in Kyrgyzstan. Actually, you can stop a marshrutka just like hitchhiking, on the road. And it will stop unless it’s too crowded.
– A traditional rule: if you are a man, you must always give up your seat to a woman (if there is no seat for her inside), even if she is young, strong and healthy. It is normal for most of the countries in the world to give up a seat to sick, old people or pregnant women. But in Kyrgyzstan, it includes EVERY woman. And of course, old or sick people (including men) too.
We arrived in Karakol, and by taxi went searching for our hostel, that we reserved from Booking.com. But when we found it, the host told us that she hasn’t received any message from Booking about our reservation. And there was no free room for us. So, have it in mind when you book from there to such not so popular and remote destinations! However, she was very friendly and helpful to introduce another room for us. But we had another problem to resolve- the OVIR registration of Ying Ying, as she is a Chinese citizen. And there were only a few hotels that told us that they can help her for this registration.
So we moved to the hotel Neofit. Our room was 1300 KGS. The hotel is old, the toilet and bathroom are separated from the guest rooms. But the host and personnel were very nice to us. The bathroom has a heating light and the breakfast in the dining room is very delicious. Anyway, it is a hotel for adventurous backpackers, if you choose it, don’t expect too much.
DAY 4: Explore Karakol
That day we made the OVIR registration for Ying Ying, with the help of hotel Neofit’s boss. Then we decided just to explore Karakol before we go to the high mountains.
Karakol is a very calm city. Most of its buildings are one-floor houses, often separated from each other by large yards. Its center is nice, with all necessary places for shopping- supermarkets, bookstores, pharmacies, money change offices, fruit-vegetable markets, shops for mobiles, printing offices and clothes. There is a 3-floor old mall, where you can buy all kinds of daily used products, as well as souvenirs.
That day we visited the three main tourist destinations in the city:
– Dungan mosque. Dungan people are Muslims from Chinese origin, fled from the persecutions in China in the second half of 19th century. And this mosque is built for them by a Chinese architect. It is a wooden structure, specially made without nails. Its architectural style includes much of their pre-Islamic culture- the roof, and the minaret, which is actually a wooden pagoda.
– The Russian Orthodox church of Holy Trinity. It is located very near to the center of Karakol and is one of the most beautiful churches in Kyrgyzstan. Its first version is built after 1869 when the area is included in the Russian Empire. Over the next years, it passed through many transformations and one destruction by an earthquake. Sometimes it has been used for secular purposes, then again back to the believers. Now it is an active Christian Orthodox center, serving also as a tourist attraction.
– The Local History Museum. It is located in the western part of the center, in an old Russian style one-floor building. It presents various artifacts, following the history of Karakol area. Many of the artifacts are ethnographic, presenting the life of the local nomads, as well as the life during the Soviet time. There are also two sections of the museum with more special exhibitions. The first one is the photo gallery of the Swiss traveler Ella Maillard, from her Central Asia trip in 1933-1934. And the second one is stuffed animals exhibition of the local fauna. The Russian scientists and traveler Przhevalsky is mentioned there too (since Przhevalsky is the old name of Karakol, and the scientist died here in 1888). The Museum is opened from 9:00 to 17:00, and the entrance fee is 100 KGS (around 1,40 USD).
Finally, let me mention the local food. There are a few restaurants in the center, in front of the central mall, offering shashlyk- grilled mutton, beef or chicken on a metal spit. There is also a Dungan restaurant, where we tried the local Dungan food, influenced by its Chinese origin.
DAY 5: From Karakol to Altyn Arashan
It was time to go to the high mountains, to my dreamed goal- Altyn Arashan. I knew that going to this place is not easy since there is no public transport there, but only military or high passable 4×4 vehicles can reach it.
There is a marshrutka No.350 from the center of Karakol to Ak-Suu town, and it was enough just to tell the driver “Altyn Arashan”, then he drops you at the junction with the brown road sign, pointing to Altyn Arashan.
From there a 15 km dirt road starts, leading to our goal. It passes a small village and forestry, then enters into the deep Arashan gorge, covered by a stunning fur-spruce forest. From this point, the road becomes extremely difficult for normal vehicles. In some places, it is so stony, that even walking on foot is difficult. There are military truck-buses, used by a few travel companies in Karakol, taking travelers to Altyn Arashan. We met also some forestry trucks and 4×4 jeeps.
Normally this road can be taken for 4-5 hours, but since we were with children, we had to take it for 7-8 hours. However, the weather was not good and started raining, so we stopped a 4×4 jeep, which took us to Altyn Arashan.
Arashan gorge is one of the few beautiful northern gorges of Terskey Alatau– a mountain range, part of Tianshan mountain system. And it is famous with its hot springs in the place, called Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa). So, the combination of the picturesque alpine valley with the hot water relax was a really great experience.
There are few guesthouses in Altyn Arashan. We found Elza guesthouse and contacted them from their Facebook page while we were still in Karakol. Elza is the host of the guesthouse- a nice and friendly girl with very good English. The guesthouse is named after her, and she manages it together with her family.
So we spent two nights there, for 300 KGS per bed for 1 night. We used the nearby wooden huts with hot water pools for 200 KGS/40 mins. And we had a nice dinner, and a nice breakfast there- they prepare delicious meals for the visitors. 300 KGS for lunch and dinner, and 200 KGS for breakfast.
DAY 6: Exploring the area of Altyn Arashan
I arranged this day exclusively for Altyn Arashan. The place is so beautiful that it would be a mistake to leave it immediately on the next day.
Altyn Arashan is a point on the famous for many travelers and hikers Ala-Kol route. This route has two versions. The shorter version is starting from Karakol, ascending on Karakol valley, reaching Ala-Kol lake, passing the summit between Karakol and Arashan valleys, then descending to Altyn Arashan, and on the last day- returning to Karakol from Arashan valley. The longer version is again starting from Karakol, but getting on Djety Oguz valley, then passing through two summits and Ala-Kol lake between them, and finally, same as the shorter version, descending to Altyn Arashan and Karakol. For more information, you can look here.
This time we didn’t hike on Ala-Kol route (although we are sure that our children can do it). Instead, we just enjoyed the fantastic landscape of Altyn Arashan. There are four main directions for walking- following Arashan valley to the north, or to the south, ascending a smaller valley to the east, or walking up to Ala-Kol lake. We chose walking south, through the beautiful forest, meadows, between the steep slopes, toward the mighty Palatka Peak (there is various info how much is this peak’s altitude, from 4250 to 5020, so I can’t say which one is the right number), dominating in front of us.
Then we back to our guest house, and enjoyed some horse riding. 30 mins riding was 200 KGS per horse. Actually, horse riding is one of the attractions of Kyrgyzstan. And in Altyn Arashan they said 1000 KGS per horse for one day. And we met many travelers riding horse up to Ala-Kol lake, or on the road between Ak-Suu and Altyn Arashan.
DAY 7: From Altyn Arashan back to Karakol
I don’t like the days when have to back on the same route, which I have already passed, but in opposite direction. But that time we didn’t have other choices. So we walked the 15 km dirt road again, back to Ak-Suu, and then to Karakol.
Before we left Altyn Arashan, while it was still early morning, only I alone climbed the nearby slope of the valley (the eastern slope without forest), to see the valley from above and take some photos. I ascent from 2450 m altitude to around 3150 m, on a very steep slope (but with caution to not become too steep, which may be dangerous), and enjoyed the breathtaking panorama of Terskey Alatau around me. It was a non-standard adventure, which seems people seldom do.
Of course, if you want to follow our itinerary, you have enough time to make the short version of Ala-Kol trekking, from Day 5 to Day 7. When we back to Karakol at evening on that day, we moved to a better hostel, which was exactly in the center- Center hostel, with two 2-floor beds in our room, for 600 KGS per bed.
DAY 8: From Karakol to Tash Rabat
That day was a time to move to the southern part of Kyrgyzstan. Our goal was Tash Rabat- a difficult place to reach, not far from the border with China. Since there are no buses or other public transport going there, we arranged a car from the yurt camp that we had to sleep. The driver should wait for us in At-Bashy, and we had to reach At-Bashy by marshrutka from Karakol.
It was one of the things that were difficult to plan in advance, so we just went to Karakol bus station. There was no direct transport to At-Bashy, but only a marshrutka to Naryn- the largest city in this part of Kyrgyzstan, located on our route to At-Bashy. We thought at least to reach Naryn, and from there to look for another marshrutka.
This marshrutka from Karakol to Naryn leaves at 9:30 in the morning and travels around 7 hours (including the lunch rest). We arrived in Naryn around 16:00. And the price was quite cheap- only 450 KGS. While in the marshrutka, I called our yurt camp in Tash Rabat, and they told their driver to wait for us directly in Naryn, so we didn’t need to look for transport to At-Bashy.
The price for the transport from Naryn to Tash Rabat, then from Tash Rabat back to At-Bashy two days later, was 3800 KGS total. The driver took us from Naryn, we traveled the nice road to Torugart direction, and about 2 hours later turned left on a dirt road for 30 mins, to our yurt camp in Tash Rabat.
There are 4 yurt camps in Tash Rabat. The first one is at the beginning of the valley, about 4-5 km before the historical caravanserai. The second one, called Sabyrbek, was our yurt camp, and it is located in a place where two valleys join in one, only 500 m from the caravanserai. Then the third one is exactly in front of the caravanserai, and the fourth- a little behind it.
There are many yurts and one guesthouse in Sabyrbek. The toilets are new, but a little far, about 100 m from the guesthouse. There is also a bathroom and a restaurant yurt. Its host’s name was Cholpon, and our driver was her brother.
The price was 300 KGS per bed/night. The lunch and dinners were 400 KGS and the breakfast- 200 KGS. And taking a shower in the bathroom- 200 KGS too. Cholpon said that the nights are very cold, even in the summer, so she advised us to sleep in the guesthouse, instead of a yurt.
DAY 9: Exploring Tash Rabat area
What makes Tash Rabat significant, is the ancient caravanserai- a historical building located in 3150 m altitude. It is not so clear what actually this building was served for. Some scholars say that it served as a market meeting, where the locals made their trade with the neighboring Uyghur merchants. Others say that it has been a religious site. And a third hypothesis is that it has been a prison or a military garrison. What can be said for sure is that it has served one of the routes of the famous Silk Road, since around 1000 years ago.
All this mysterious history, combined with the breathtaking landscape around, makes Tash Rabat an amazing destination to visit. That’s why we chose it instead of Osh, in our short itinerary.
So that day we walked from our Sabyrbek yurt camp to the caravanserai. There is an old woman in the yurt camp beside it, which managed the historical building. We called her, she came and unlocked the door. The building inside was like a labyrinth, which was very exciting for our children. And the entrance fee was 100 KGS.
The rest of the time I used to walk and climb the slopes around- some with my family, some- again just alone. We really enjoyed taking a lot of photos from this amazing place.
DAY 10: From Tash Rabat back to Bishkek
That day we had to back again to Bishkek. There was another option- crossing into China through the nearby Torugart pass, but Ying Ying found it too expensive and complicated, so we decided to do it next time.
Instead, we back to a village near Koshoy Korgon, a small town near At-Bashy, from where by shared taxi together with Cholpon and her family we back to Bishkek for about 6 hours.
When we arrived in Bishkek and our Green hostel, we were sad to learn that it will close soon. So the next time we have to look for another hostel and seems Bishkek offers a lot of choices. We had a delicious and cheap dinner in the nearby Mr. Shashlyk restaurant, as it was our last night in Kyrgyzstan.
DAY 11: Leaving Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan
On the last day, the host woman from Green hostel arranged a taxi to the airport (for 600 KGS) and we took the flight for Urumqi, China, from where we had to travel 3 days by train to Guangdong province. Thus our first trip to Kyrgyzstan was over.
We made our trip in late August. Normally in the mountains, it is the end of the summer. The grasslands in the south start turning yellow, and the night temperature drops to almost 0℃. Bishkek is in 700 m altitude. So the summer is hot there, but the early mornings can be cool.
Issyk Kul is located in 1680 m altitude. When we were there, the weather was cool, changeable, sometimes with short rain. Only some more trained people entered in the lake water. The weather in Karakol was almost the same since it is very near to the lake shores.
Altyn Arashan- in 2450 m altitude. The weather was changeable too. In the night and early morning the temperature dropped to almost 5℃, and at noon it was still cool- no more than 18℃, slightly windy and sunny.
Tash Rabat- in 3150 m altitude- the highest place of our route. At noon it was almost the same- around 15℃, but at night it was maybe only 1-2, or even 0℃. Again changeable- sometimes sunny, sometimes with short light rain. And almost always windy.
Large areas of Kyrgyzstan as located high than 3000 m altitude, therefore a visit there may cause altitude sickness. However, the good thing is that usually the ascending is gradual, which helps a lot to avoid such uncomfortable situation. See more info here.
When we arrived in Manas Airport in Bishkek, there was a promotion of the local mobile operator Beeline. A few young boys and girls gave us 6 free SIM cards, which I used even without the need to go to a Beeline office to reload with money. The other mobile operator is MegaCom. You can see more here.
There was WIFI in every hostel, where we were, and the internet connection was quite good. But in Altyn Arashan and Tash Rabat- no WIFI and no mobile connection. In Tash Rabat, there wasn’t even electricity, but they used a local generator, usually in afternoon and evening only.
The people in Kyrgyzstan speak Kyrgyz and Russian. But in Bishkek Russian is dominating, compared with the countryside. Many young people know English and their English is good. The signs on the street, advertisements, and shops are usually both in Russian and Kyrgyz, and some of them- in English.
The food in Kyrgyzstan is more western than East Asian. It maybe comes from the significant Russian influence. There is some Muslim and Chinese influence too, but less than the Russian. The local people eat bread as a basic food. Shashlyk (roasted meat on a spit) is very popular here too. Another meat meal is beshbarmak, mainly made by horse meat. Other meals with more eastern influence are dumplings and noodles. There are a lot of biscuits in the supermarkets, very proper for mountain trekking.
About the drinks- there can be found all the popular drinks like Coke, Sprite, and Fanta, as well as beer, wine, and other alcoholic drinks. And there is a traditional drink- a little fermented and soar, called kymyz. It can be found on the streets or bottled in the supermarkets.
Kyrgyzstan is a very safe and calm country. It is said that the night streets in Bishkek or other larger cities can be dangerous, although we haven’t felt anything like this. The people are very friendly and we didn’t have any scam experience. Since Kyrgyzstan is not so tourism developed country (it is a paradise for travel adventurers, but not for tourists, especially luxury), the locals are very pure and helpful, unlike some other countries and destinations, where some of them would try various tricks and scams to get more money from naive tourists.
In general- our trip to Kyrgyzstan was a really amazing experience. I can say that it is a real pleasure for every traveler to explore this country- very calm and pure, incredibly beautiful, with very friendly and nice people.
Arrange your trip to Kyrgyzstan, check your transport options to Bishkek:
Check out some travel books and guides about Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia:
Disclaimer: Journey Beyond the Horizon is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon and affiliated sites at no additional cost to you.