Post-Soviet chic meets nomadic culture in central Asia’s worst-kept secret, writes Liz Dodd
Kyrgyzstan is an adventurer’s paradise: a tapestry of windswept steppes, frenetic bazaars, and still, alpine lakes hidden between the imposing peaks of the Pamir and Tian Shen mountain ranges. Long known for its wildly beautiful hiking and cycle-touring trails, its few cities – which have good air links – offer a sophisticated crossover between post-Soviet chic and nomadic culture. Visit now, before it gets on too many bucket lists…
A negative PCR test from no more than 72 hours before your arrival by air is now needed for foreign citizens to enter Kyrgyzstan, ongeag die inentingstatus.
Kyrgyzstan is one of the most accessible countries in central Asia, a region renowned for its labyrinthine, post-Soviet bureaucracy. UK passport holders can stay visa-free for 60 dae, or apply online for a 90-day e-visa – although e-visas can only be used at Manas Airport, Bishkek, Osh international airport and at the Ak-Jol border crossing point into Kazakhstan. For stays longer than 90 dae, arrange a visa with the Kyrgyzstan embassy before you travel – you can’t apply for a visa in Kyrgyzstan if you travelled into the country without one, and you cannot extend the e-visa.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a fabulously film-noir blend of Soviet architecture, Asian bazaars, mosques – and feminist craft beer. Save the Ales, an all-female microbrewery and taproom, is a tiny bar hidden along a downtown side street that serves up some of the best beer in the region. The tap range can be a little small because the beers are all brewed on site, but there’s usually at least an IPA, a pale and a stout to try. The nearby Brewster Bar is also worth a visit.
Incredible cycle touring
Kyrgyzstan sits at the end – or the beginning, depending on which way you’re travelling – of one of the most famed and spectacular long-distance cycle-touring routes in the world, the Pamir highway. The M41 – the prosaic name for this extraordinary highway, originally a Soviet trade route between Russia and Central Asia – ends in Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan. The road drops down from the Pamir mountains, and an altitude of around 4,300m, just after the border with Tajikistan, before the little hamlet of Sary-Tash. The Tajik stretch of the Pamir highway gets all the glory, which is unfair: the breathtaking descent from Taldyk Pass, down tight switchbacks that wind around snowy peaks all the way to the lush valley floor and Osh, is one of the best bike rides in the world.
Kyrgyzstan boasts some other-worldly markets, with stalls heaped with spices and aisles lined with blacksmiths and clothes-makers. Jayma Bazaar in Osh is one of the largest in central Asia, a cacophony of smells and colours that spill out of upturned shipping containers. Merchants come from China, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan to trade at the market, which has existed on the same site for almost 2,000 jare. Stood among its busy streets, it’s not hard to imagine yourself back at the heart of the ancient Silk Road.
Hostels and homestays
Thanks to its growing reputation as a centre for adventure tourism, Kyrgyzstan has a whole community of backpacker-friendly hostels. Hippyish TES hotel in Osh is a major hangout for the cyclists and bikers coming down from the Pamir highway, and allows campers to pitch a tent in the garden for a seriously cheap stay. Friends Guesthouse in Bishkek is a comfortable hotel-slash-hostel, with plenty of plush daybeds for lounging. High in the mountains, family-run homestays offer unparalleled hospitality for less than $10 (£7.57) per night. Sary-Tash has a good selection, the best of which is Hostel Muras, and makes a great base from which to explore lofty Lenin Peak and its hiking trails.
Kyrgyz food is mountain food, suited to high altitudes, cold winters and snowstorms. Think unctuous stir-fried noodles – called lagman; rich, meaty ash – a kind of central Asian pilaf; and juicy manti, or dumplings. Street food is also carb-heavy and substantial: look out for samsa, a spin on samosa, which are hot pasties stuffed with meat, cheese or potato.
Uncrowded, spectacular and remote, Kyrgyzstan’s hundreds of thousands of kilometres of trails are its crown jewels. Nearly 300km of freshly marked trails opened a few years ago around the two hiking bases of Kochkor and Karakol, the result of a long-term project in collaboration with USAID (the United States Agency for International Development). Die Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan arranges multi-day and one-day tours, and also sells maps if you want to self-guide.
Central Asia’s answer to the Swiss alps, Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous regions are dotted with postcard-perfect, high-altitude lakes. One of the most popular is Issyk-Kul, one of the largest lakes in the world, whose mirror-still turquoise waters reflect the imposing Tian Shan mountains that surround it. The north side of the lake is fairly touristy, but the south is quiet and less developed. Skazka Canyon, on the south side, boasts a Mars-like landscape of bright red rock formations that rivals anything in Utah.
Kyrgyzstan has hosted three out of the four World Nomad Games – central Asian ethnic games that include traditional sports like falconry, horsemanship, wrestling and archery. Jy kan enjoy a taste of the salbuurun – hunting games outlawed in the Soviet Union – around Lake Issyk-Kul.
One of the best ways to experience Kyrgyzstan is on horseback. Like their Kazakh neighbours, nomadic Kyrgyz still cross the steppes and alpine meadows of their country on horses, towing a yurt with them. Trekking tours promise a little more luxury, but you can still enjoy a night or two camping out in Kyrgyzstan’s unreal wilderness – and wake up to a warm glass of mare’s milk for breakfast.