Breathtaking landscapes, authentic hospitality and cultural diversity – all of that can be found in the Central Asian state Kyrgyzstan.
key photo: unsplash/Marek Brzoska
The former USSR-republic just celebrated 30 years of independence and shares borders with China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It was part of the ancient Silk Road, whose remains can be seen to this day. One of them is Burana Tower, not far from the modern capital Bishkek. The construction was erected during the Karkahnanid Khanate in the 11th century in the city Balasagun, which was at that time an important part of the trade route. The settlement was destroyed by Mongol invaders, which marked its decline into a ghost town by the 15th century. Standing 24, 6 meters above the ground, it is the only remainder of the old city. For visitors without vertigo, the climb of its staircase reveals a marvelous view of the surrounding area.
Nestled in the base of the breathtaking mountain scenery of the Tian-Shan range lies Issyk-Kul lake. With 6232 sq, it is the second largest saline lake in the world. On its banks, you get the impression of being by the seaside. Permanent winds produced by the surrounding mountains create a constant ripple of gentle waves. The name Issyk-Kul means “hot lake” in the Kyrgyz language, referring to the fact, that its water never freezes, making it a popular destination for tourists and locals alike to relax at one of the many hotels and homestays. The town of Bokonbaevo on the Southern shore of Issyk-Kul keeps its traditions alive, such as eagle hunting, which has been practiced by the Kyrgyz nomads for centuries. For those wanting to experience nomad life, yurt camps are a perfect option. Other activities include hiking or horseback trails into the unspoiled nature of the Tian-Shan mountains, jeep tours and visiting the annual birds of prey festival. At the Agro-Festival, organized by the CBT (Kyrgyz community-based tourism association) you can experience folklore concerts, felt shows, the exhibition of home animals, Kyrgyz national games, Kyrgyz food tasting and National Horse Games.
Handicraft and Yurt Making in Kyzyl-Oi and Kochkor
Traditions are still alive in Kyrgyzstan. Stemming from its nomadic culture, the country is famous for its traditional yurts and handicrafts. The residents of the village Kyzyl-Tuu are famous for their yurts, that are hand made in the traditional way.
Kochkor is a small town that is located in Naryn Province, on the road to Lake Son-Kul and Torugart Pass. It used to be a stop for merchants going to and from Kashgar, on the other side of Torugart Pass in China. Today, Kochkor (or Kochkorka) has become a stop for tourists as they head deeper into the Tian Shan. Kochkor has been relatively well developed in terms of tourism infrastructure. Transport, treks, horse rides, homestays, and concerts are all relatively easy to organize. The town is also home to artisans who specialize in traditional Kyrgyz art, and revive the traditions of the region and make sustainable souvenirs. It has become famous for its shyrdaks and felt carpets, which are made in workshops around the city. Those interested in immersing themselves in Kyrgyz culture can organize homestays and concerts of traditional Kyrgyz music. Kochkor is a popular stop for those heading up to the jailoo (summer pastures) around Son-Kul and in nearby areas, such as Kol-Ukok (a lake and jailoo). Saryla-Saz, just 54 km (34 miles) from Kochkor, is an ideal jailoo, complete with grazing animals and traditional yurts, and is a great starting point for treks to nearby historical sights and a waterfall. The most famous and well visited site near Kochkor is Son-Kul, a high mountain lake surrounded by wide pastures and plains.
Kyzyl-Oi is quite different from the other mountain villages in Kyrgyzstan. It existed even before the Great Socialist Revolution, and has therefore kept its distinct Central Asian character with its reddish clay houses. Kyzyl-Oi is located in a narrow gorge on the riverside of the powerful Kokomeren River some 40km south of Suusamyr on the road to Kochkor Village and Son-Kol Lake (both in Naryn region), and about 200km from Bishkek. The elevation is 1,800 metres asl; here, a valley opens up somewhat to form a hollow ringed by the high red-coloured mountains, which gave the place its name. Kyzyl means ‘red’ in Kyrgyz.
Spending a couple of days here is ideal for those wanting to relax in the very heart of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range. From here, you can choose from a variety of different hiking or horseback trekking routes in the mountains. The Sary-Kamysh Range south of the village has some gorgeous peaks up to 4,000 metres. In summertime, you can ask the villagers to take you up to the summer high-altitude pastures to watch the wildlife and pristine flora. Another attraction in late summer is rafting down the Kökömeren River, an activity offered by some tour operators in Bishkek. Tourists in wintertime can also help local people get the hay down from jailoo to the village using horses and sledges.
Famous for its walnut forest, which is more than 1000 years old and was most likely planted by the founders of the village. It secures the livelihood of the villagers by providing them with various kinds of walnuts, that they are collecting and selling on the markets. Visitors should definitely take the time to explore the impressive old walnut trees, and have the background story explained to them by the mountain rangers.
Arslanbob is the perfect place to discover the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. In summer, tourists can book hiking trips for all fitness levels, from rock climbing to the jailoo Jaz-Jarym, to a tour to holy lake over the pass of “friendship”, which leads you through gorges and glaciers, past magnificent waterfalls and canyons. All these wonderful places can also be discovered on horseback.
In winter, Arslanbob offers great outdoor activities such as ski tours, snowshoe tours, or multi-day ski tours with overnight stays at a shepard’s hut, and horse-tow skiing or horse sleigh rides.
Osh is the second biggest city of Kyrgyzstan and lies in the fertile Fergana valley, in the south of the country. It looks back at a 3000-year old history and has served as the administrative center of Osh Region since 1939. Osh was known as early as the 8th century as a center for silk production along the Silk Road. The famous trading route crossed Alay Mountains to reach Kashgar to the east. It is only 5 km away from the border to Uzbekistan. The city is the home of the one of the oldest outdoor bazars of Central Asia, where you can find almost anything, from food to clothing and souvenirs. Visitors will also be surprised to find one of the few remaining statues of Lenin in the city center. The world heritage site mountain of Sulayman should also be on your list during your stay in Osh. The mountain is thought by some researchers and historians to be the famous landmark of antiquity known as the „Stone Tower„, which Claudius Ptolemy wrote about in his famous work Geography. It marked the midpoint on the ancient Silk Road. The National Historical and Archaeological Museum Complex Sulayman is carved in the mountain, containing a collection of archaeological, geological, and historical finds and information about local flora and fauna. From its top you get a great view of the city. Osh is also the birthplace of the female Kyrgyz national hero, Kurmanjan Datka.
When visiting Kyrgyzstan, the hospitality of its inhabitants is what stays in the memory the longest. You should definitely try to experience the life of these wonderful people while staying in one of the many homestays, enjoy the wonderful simple but delicious cuisine, including “plow” (rice with mutton and vegetables), “Beshbarmak”(noodles and meat) and various soups and terrific mountain honey.
Find more information on community-based tourism in Kyrgyzstan here:
Turkish Airlines offers flights to the capital Bishkek via Istanbul
Fotos: unsplash/Tanja Tauchhammer