A detailed list of all my favorite things to do and the most important tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan might just be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Even though Kyrgyzstan has so many places to visit, the landlocked country in Central Asia sees hardly any tourists (only 1,2 million stays according to official statistics; my hometown, Munich, has ten times that amount). But let me tell you, there are just so many beautiful things to do in Kyrgyzstan.
I really cannot fathom just why it is so unpopular. Probably a lot of people fear the “-stan”. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan – the whole region isn’t exactly known for its uneventful history.
That being said, Kyrgyzstan stands in stark contrast to many of its neighboring countries. It may not be a very rich country, but its people are extremely hospital, the criminality is very low (except bribery) and the political situation is also totally stable. The only thing the country is lacking (yet) is a good touristic infrastructure.
But let that not shy you away. I visited the country (see my itinerary here) and I’ll share my favorite 20 things to do in Kyrgyzstan with you. There are not many tourist places in Kyrgyzstan, so be prepared for a wild adventure!
1. Horse riding
The Kyrgyz people follow a long, long nomadic tradition. I did not find any official statistics, but I bet there are twice as many horses in the country as people (and yet again twice as many cows, goats, and sheep). If you have not ridden on one of the beautiful Kyrgyz horses, you have not been in Kyrgyzstan at all.
2. Staying in a yurt
Number two on any list of things to do in Kyrgyzstan should be staying in a traditional (!!) yurt. In summer they pop up like mushrooms all over the country. All of them are family-run, so you will have the unique opportunity to get in contact with the nomadic traditions. In recent years, the yurt camps have started to cater to the whims and wishes of western people, so it actually is getting harder to find one, where you still sleep and dine on the ground.
3. Watch a game of Ulak Tariysh or Odarysh
Ulak Tariysh is the Kyrgyz national game. Much like Polo (which is actually derived from the horse games of central Asia), it is played by two teams of 6 riders each…..and one grizzly beheaded sheep carcass. Almost every village will have a team or two, and matches are held every week. Special matches are held on Independence Day (31. August). Seeing the unbelievable skill of the Kyrgyz riders in action will be well worth your time.
Odarysh is another national game in Kyrgyzstan. It is pretty much like wrestling – only you do it on horseback. Having seen it, I got not the slightest clue how these guys can cling to the saddles the way they do. The goal, you have to know, is throwing your opponent off the horse.
Apart from Ulak Tariysh and Odarysh there are a couple of other national games. Archery, Falconry, tug of war, and quite a lot of other unique sports that are still practiced throughout the nation!
4. Be amazed by Tash-Rabat
Tash-Rabat is an ancient Silk Road caravanserai that survived the ages almost unscathed. It is located in an utterly beautiful valley in the far south of the country (only a couple of kilometers away from the Chinese border). Here you will get a tiny glimpse into the life on the Silk Road you will not be able to get anywhere else in the world. If you want to know more about this spectacular site, make sure to read my article about Tash-Rabat.
5. Visit Kyzyl-Oi
Kyzyl-Oi means ‘Red Valley’, and the name was not given lightly. The small town is located at the bottom of a breath-taking gorge towering over you with red clay. But actually, the clay is sometimes browner, and sometimes even yellow. So your vista will constantly be crowded with the most amazing shades and hues, creating an almost surreal feeling.
Many interesting rock formations have been created due to rains and winds over the eons. Absolutely grab a local guide to show you around. There are just so many things to do here, that a week would probably be not enough for a passionate hiker. Personally speaking, I’d say that Kyzyl-Oi is, in fact, one of the best tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan.
6. Visit Son-Kul Lake
Son-Kul (sometimes Song Kol or Song Köl) is one of the highest mountain lakes in the world. With a length of 29 kilometers, the amazing lake is located at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters. In summer the shore will be sprinkled with yurt camps and grazing animals. It is also known for its rich birdlife, making it a paradise for ornithologists.
7. See Jeti-Oguz
The town of Jeti-Ogus or Jeti-Ögus is one you will not forget so fast. Its name translates to seven bulls because of the more than impressive red rock formation towering above the town. I cannot stress enough how very beautiful it is! Absolutely put it on your list of things to do in Kyrgyzstan. It might just be the most famous place in Kyrgyzstan.
But there is more. If you follow the river further upwards, you will enter the most beautiful valley. In fact, the valley looks a bit like taken straight from a movie about Heidi. Further up in the mountains you will find a small settlement consisting of 4 houses. Yuri Gagarin is said to have trained here. Certainly a special place – not sure if I would call it one of the top tourist attractions in Kyrgyzstan ;-)
8. Wildlife experiences
Kyrgyzstan’s nature it almost unspoiled. There are so many uninhabited mountain regions that it’s possible to see virtually untouched nature. You will have no problem at all spotting an eagle. In fact, they seem to be so common, that you will have to be blind to not see one.
Beyond the western shore of Issyk-Kul, you will find a snow leopard rehabilitation center. If you got the time, you should definitely stop by to see the fantastic animals. Tracking them down in the wild, however, might be a tiny bit too difficult.
Kyrgyzstan has a lot of half-deserts and smaller desert regions. Here you will have the unique possibility to see wild Bactrian camels. It feels utterly unreal to stand amongst a flock of 30 or so.
Other than that you will be able to see many birds of prey, maybe deer, maybe Marco Polo sheep and quite possible Marmots. My, how I like these cute little fellows! Oh..and you will see horses….plenty of horses!
9. Bath in the Issyk-Kul Lake
Issyk-Kul is the second largest mountain lake in the world, only rivaled by Lake Titicaca in South America. It may not be as high, but it is just as stunning. It is surrounded by high mountains on all sides, so there are plenty of hiking and horse riding opportunities for you.
BUT, unlike its cousin in South America, you can go swimming in Issyk-Kul. The water is surprisingly warm and you have the most beautiful beaches. It somewhat looks like in Italy – only without the crowd and mountains some 6,000 meters high in the background. Simply amazing!
10. Swim in the Tuz-Kol salt lake
You have probably heard of the Death Sea, a sea so salty that no fish live in it, so salty that you don’t need to swim to stay buoyant. Well then, Kyrgyzstan has its own version – Tuz Kol, one of the most peculiar points of interest in Kyrgyzstan. Located close to the Issyk-Kule Lake, Tuz-Kol is almost as salty as the Dead Seas. Especially the salty mud is said to have healing properties and quite a few locals come here to enjoy the warm waters.
11. Go hunting with eagles
Eagles are the national bird of Kyrgyzstan. Unlike in many other countries in the world, they are quite abundant in Kyrgyzstan. Ever since the dawn of history, the Kyrgyz people used eagles to hunt. Actually, eagle hunting is even a competitive sport in the country. Since there are so many eagle men, you should definitely go visit one!
12. Visit famous Karakol
Karakol is the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan and quite the teeming city. Like most cities in Kyrgyzstan, it is not very old. It dates back to 1869 and was founded by the Russian military as an outpost. Even today the city feels very Russian. Definitely, drop by to visit the orthodox church.
Your main highlight, however, should be the animal market. Every Sunday half the country seems to converge on the bazaar to sell their livestock. Horses, goat, sheep, and cows are being offered to those willing to buy them for their meat or breeding capabilities.
13. See the Burana tower
The Burana Tower is the remains of an ancient minaret dating back to the 9th century. It is all that remains of a huge city the so-called Karakhandis established on the fertile plains. It is one of the very few architectonic highlights of the country.
14. Go hiking beyond Kyrgyzstan’s tourist attractions
This item on my list of things to do in Kyrgyzstan is kind of trivial: with so many mountains in the country, there is no way around hiking. Much as I loved riding over the rolling hills, hiking connects you way deeper with the landscape.
And my, what a landscape it is. I have honestly never seen more beautiful mountains than in Kyrgyzstan. People always ask about famous places and the best things to see in Kyrgyzstan, but I am not sure if that is actually the right question. The country as a whole is just so beautiful that you can basically go hiking everywhere and see spectacular things. Get a local guide so he can show you the points of interest if needed.
15. Visit Talas
Talas is an enchanting region in the northwestern part of Kyrgyzstan. It’s not far from Bishkek, and the border to Kazakhstan is also quite close. Here’s a blog about Talas Kyrgyzstan you will enjoy.
16. Watch the making of felt
If you have ever stayed in a yurt or visited a local family, you will have noticed huge felt tapestries adorning walls and lining the floors. Many Kyrgyz people are wearing the traditional felt hats, so you should definitely take the opportunity to visit one of the many felt making centers scattered across the country. If you ever see a family rolling a strange round parcel around on the main street, definitely stop. They are making felt :)
17. Eat Beshbarmak
Beshbarmak is Kyrgyzstan’s national food. Translated as “Five Fingers”, it is basically horse meat with noodles (though you will find it with any other kind of meat as well!). A true Beshbarmak banquet will feature a table almost bursting with foodstuff. Definitely, eat it in a yurt for the most authentic experience.
19. Hike the Alamedin Gorge
Only a couple of kilometers away from Bishkek you will find a beautiful mountain gorge called Alamedin. Many locals come here because of the (rather ancient) Russian spa, where you can soak away in healing Radon water. As a western tourist, you should probably concentrate on the beauty of the valley, as the spa is in a decrepit condition.
19. Get in contact with the Kyrgyz people
Last, but certainly not least, you really should get in contact with the Kyrgyz people. They are a mountain people and somewhat reserved. So don’t expect them to greet you with wide-open arms and a “hi, how are you, where have you been, come in, have a cup of tea, where are you from”. But if you take your time, if you are truly interested, you will be able to explore a true treasure trove of stories and experiences. You will also get to experience the fabled Kyrgyz hospitality – so definitely give it a try!
Other things to do in Kyrgyzstan
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Regular readers will already know that I really like the numbers 20: 20 things to do in Cusco, 20 things to in Paris, and now 20 things to do in Kyrgyzstan. In reality, there are obviously so much more places to explore and things to see in a country as diverse and beautiful as Kyrgyzstan.
Most people, however, will only have a limited amount of time, so endless list serves nobody. So, given enough time, you could possibly go exploring the Soviet past. The southern shore of the Issyk-Kul lake is home to the most fantastic rock formations AND some of the highest mountains on this planet.
You don’t need to be afraid to run into tourist traps because frankly there are no other tourists to speak off. Security is, by and large, no issue. At least I did not encounter any. Human Rights Watch is a bit more critical about Kyrgyzstan, but I guess those concerns will not affect you as a tourist.
Kyrgyzstan is largely unchartered territory. If you see something awe-inspiring (which happens virtually 10 times a day) stop the car, get out and enjoy it. Take a hike if necessary – I doubt you will regret it. Definitely bring along a map (don’t count on your internet connection) and have a guide book along.
I can utterly recommend the Bradt Travel Guide to Kyrgyzstan.
In fact, I have been chatting with one of the authors before my trip, so do give it a try. Still, it is certainly not the only fish in the pond, so here are some more recommendations I found very helpful.
Where to stay in Kyrgyzstan
Usually, I like to close my articles with recommendations for accommodations. From personal experience, I know how utterly hard it is to find honest, non-sponsored opinions on the web, so I feel the need to share mine. For Kyrgyzstan, I am having a very hard, hard time. Mainly because I have no found a single hotel, guesthouse or yurt camp I could really recommend.
They were, with one exception, all abysmal by western standards. No electricity, no running water, no warm water, no toilet, shared bathroom, and stale food were the common characteristic of most of them. Personally, I did not mind so much because I was here for the stunning nature and that’s the traditional way of it.
Many people I know, however, would mind. So taking your own camping gear might actually be a good idea to be on the safe side.
But there is one hotel I can recommend. You will most probably arrive in the capital Bishkek. Absolutely consider staying at the Hyatt Regency (here’s a link where I booked the hotel; you can see prices and more pictures). It is, frankly speaking, the only hotel with a western luxury standard in the whole country.
You cannot imagine how blissful I felt diving into its perfect pool after 3 weeks on the road. It’s certainly not the cheapest hotel, but then again all other accommodations in Kyrgyzstan will cost you 10 US-Dollar a night, so there is room for some expenses ;-)