In pictures: Why Kyrgyzstan should be your next destination

Kyrgyzstan

A Kyrgyzstani horseman hold his hunting eagle. Source: Shuttertock

WITH Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, and China to the east, Kyrgyzstan is hemmed in the middle of Central Asia, boasting copious amounts natural beauty and lots of adventure to be had.

The ancient nation is often overlooked by its tourism-dominating neighbors, but Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, has so much to offer travelers and summer is the perfect time to explore.

The unspoiled nation was a popular vacation destination in the 80s when the Soviet Union ruled. Tourism numbers reached more than a million people per year. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s, so did Kyrgyzstan’s tourism industry.

In 2016, Kyrgyzstan emerged from a bleak period of political uncertainty and travelers began bouncing back to the pristine nation with visitor numbers exceeding 1.2 million.

With a population of just six million people and nearly 200,000 square kilometers of land to explore, there’s a good chance you could go days without seeing a single soul up in the unspoiled mountainscapes, but watch out for snow leopards.

Whether you want to camp beside Lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second largest alpine lake and ponder the ancient stars to sand ratio or have a truly authentic experience living with semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherds, Kyrgyzstan will exceed your wildest expectations.

Timing is crucial when visiting Kyrgyzstan. Only visit in the winter if you plan to ski or snowboard as temperatures drop to minus 30 degrees.

The best time to visit is mid-summer when the semi-nomadic shepherds perch their yurts on the mountainside, blooms of wildflowers coat the valleys, and all the tourist attractions are open.

Kyrgyzstan also has super relaxed visa restrictions meaning a handful of nations don’t need a visa at all, and many others can stay for up to 90 days before acquiring a visa.

Also, established airlines such as Emirates and Malaysian Airlines fly part way to Kyrgyzstan from destinations across Asia.

With visa-free travel, easily available flights, and an abundance of historical, cultural, and gastronomical delights to entice travelers, Kyrgyzstan the perfect place to start your Central Asian adventure.

Adventure

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Kyrgyzstan has been voted as Central Asia’s second best destination for adventure tourism. Glaciers cover four percent of the country, and only eight percent of the land is cultivated, making it an explorer’s paradise.

Its encompassing mountains have created an atmosphere of seclusion for those living in Kyrgyzstan. But this isolation has maintained centuries of vibrant culture and traditions that can still be seen and enjoyed today.

Trekking is a hot favorite with travelers. The renowned 16-day Bishkek to Bishkek tour guides hikers through the Fann Mountains, Chon Kemin Valley, through Kol-Kogur, past the never-freezing Lake Issyk-Kul, across the Boz Uchuk Pass, along Tosor and then back to the capital.

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On any hiking adventure, it’s worth camping out a few nights to experience the beauty of the unpolluted star-filled skies above Kyrgyzstan. If you enjoy your creature comforts but want to experience the yurt-life, Airbnb is the answer.

Enjoy a US$15 a night stay in a comfy, clean and ideally located yurt next to Lake Issyk-Kul. Wake up to the sounds of the wind on the lake, the purest sunshine beaming on your face and the freshest air you’ll ever inhale.

Believe it or not, Kyrgyzstan also has some of Central Asia’s best ski resorts, with a total of 93 kilometers of slopes and 32 ski lifts servicing 22 resorts.

Toguz-Bulak is the country’s top resort for all levels of skiing ability, guaranteeing fresh snow and minimal skiers, meaning no crowds or queues.

Also, apres-ski takes a different meaning in Kyrgyzstan. Instead of hot cheese fondue, try a plate of horse meat sausage, washed down with mare’s milk. But don’t worry, beer is still plentiful.

If you want to see the outstanding natural beauty in Kyrgyzstan, but don’t consider yourself to be an active person, head out on horseback and traverse the unblemished alpine landscapes.

You won’t be hard pushed to find a skilled rider who doubles up as a local tour guide as horses have played an integral part of Kyrgyzstani life for thousands of years.

Natural beauty

Kyrgyzstan is affectionately nicknamed “the Switzerland of Central Asia” because of its numerous mountains, but there are also stunning lakes, beaches, and valleys which shouldn’t be missed.

The most obvious and arguably the most beautiful is the previously mentioned Lake Issyk-Kul.

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Lake Tulpar-Kol in the Osh province is also worth a visit and an ideal place to camp.

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From the Instagram-focused travelers, head to Lake Kel Tor near Kegety Gorge at sunrise and sunset to capture the beauty of this lake.

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Between mountain peaks and lakes, there are also gorges which resemble an angelic stairway to heaven.

And rolling hills to rival New Zealand’s.

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Culture

If you’re anything but a package holiday lover or a beach-bum vacationer, you’ll probably want to experience and understand the local culture.

Book onto a Highlights of Kyrgyz Culture tour to experience life inside a yurt and dine on traditionally cooked plov, a true Kyrgyz dish.

After lunch, you can watch Kyrgyz eagle hunters practice their ancient art and enjoy a traditional soul folklore performance to round off the day.

In the southwest of Kyrgyzstan is the millennia-old city of Osh.

The area is surrounded by lush steppes and plays host to a busy bazaar which was once a major stop-over point for those traveling the perilous Silk Road.

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The bazaar is perfect for souvenirs and vibrant enough in color and atmosphere to add a priceless picture to your Instagram.

Food

If you’re still not convinced that Kyrgyzstan should be your next vacation destination, perhaps you’ll be swayed by some of Central Asia’s most interesting dishes.

The nation revolves around cattle, so mutton, goat, beef and even horsemeat feature highly on the menu.

Beshbarmak is the most traditional Kyrgyz dish in the country. The hearty meal consists of shredded lamb, noodles, and potatoes served in hot broth.

If you can stomach eating horse, try Kazy Karta. The dish is just medallions of cured horsemeat often served as an appetizer or added to dishes such as Beshbarmak.

Traditional meals you can easily recreate at home are samsa and plov.

Samsa consists of little bread pockets filled with meat and cooked inside a clay oven, but your conventional gas oven will suffice.

Plov is a staple dish throughout Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan’s take on the hearty dish is a mix of stewed beef and vegetables packed into fragrant rice.

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Kyrgyzstan is just the start of your Asian journey. From here, you can head in any direction and find more adventure, culture and culinary curiosities.

But get there before the mass crowds do because the “Stans” won’t remain a snippet of history with untouched beauty in this globalized, tourism-frenzied world for long.