Central Asia is not a place you normally hear people talk about visiting. That’s just one of many reasons why I was so excited for my own trek around the country; to discover places totally new to me. As it turns out, countries like Kyrgyzstan are quickly making their way onto the travel lists of people from around the world, and with good reason. As I learned on my trip to the country, there is so much to see and do that it would take months to enjoy all of it. I think though that I managed to participate in a nice range of experiences, some expected and others a complete surprise. Today I want to show what I think makes visiting Kyrgyzstan so much fun by highlighting just some of those many experiences I bet you didn’t know you could enjoy when visiting this fascinating Central Asian country.
Sleep in a Yurt
I’m not a camper by nature and roughing it for me usually entails a hotel without AC, but I think it’s practically criminal for any traveler to visit Kyrgyzstan and NOT spend at least one night in a yurt. The people in this part of the world were nomadic for most of their history and at the center of that existence was their home, the yurt. Even Kyrgyzstan’s flag pays homage to this history with the design at the center of the yurt featured prominently on the national standard. For me though, spending the night along the pristine waters of Lake Issyk-Kul, listening to the waves lap up on shore as I slept in my yurt was just something I needed to do. I’d spent the week prior learning everything I could about this amazing country, but I needed that time getting closer to it in this very unique way so that I could walk away not just knowing, but understanding.
Watch a Dead Goat Polo Match
Attending a special ethno-festival on the banks of Lake Issyk-Kul was one of those rare occasions when I had so much to say that I didn’t know where to start. The daylong event shared some of the best aspects of traditional culture in Kyrgyzstan. Dancers, story tellers, athletes and cooks all gathered in a fun and friendly sharing of their heritage. One of the more interesting aspects of the day was watching the traditional sporting events, including one of the most unusual sports on the planet – dead goat polo. Otherwise known as Kok Boru, this very unusual activity started as a way to practice for raids on neighboring villages, but today is a fun and important aspect of the Kyrgyz nomadic identity. It’s actually a lot like watching a soccer match, two teams square off and try to capture the dead goat and take it to their goal on the opposite end of the field. Played on horseback, this is an intense sport to watch and for the riders a dangerous one. It’s also oddly enjoyable as a spectator and I quickly found myself cheering on my favorite team.
Enjoy Alpine Views
Before leaving on my trip, Instagram taught me that Kyrgyzstan did indeed have some incredible landscapes to enjoy. But of course, nothing really prepares you for the reality of the experience, which was honestly overwhelming in the best possible sense of the word. Not only is the natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan unexpected and undeniably gorgeous, it’s also incredibly varied. Within a view hours you can trek into nature and admire alpine meadows reminiscent of Austria, desert beauty that looks as if it was plucked from the American Southwest and even lake views that feel more like being on the shores of a great sea. It’s remarkable and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. The chance to go back and see even more of these natural treasures is perhaps what motivates me the most to return, to explore even more and to see what else is there waiting to be discovered.
Believe it or not, but even a luxury traveler such as myself found plenty of opportunities to be pampered throughout my time in Kyrgyzstan. Tourism is still in its infancy there, but new hotels and experiences are quickly opening their doors, including those geared towards luxury travelers. In Bishkek this means spending time at the truly exceptional Hyatt Regency Hotel. I was incredibly impressed by this, the best hotel in the city, from service to food and certainly the rooms, the hotel delivers. Bishkek also offers a wide range of excellent dining options for all tastes, but that’s perhaps to be expected in the capital city. Outside of Bishkek, luxury offerings may be somewhat more limited, but they do exist. In Osh this means staying at the Classic Hotel and in Karakol spending the night at the newly opened Karagat Hotel is a must-do. But activities are also at the heart of the luxury travel experience and this is where Kyrgyzstan truly shines. Whether it’s a mountain horse trek or spending time along Lake Issyk-Kul, there are plenty of exceptional experiences awaiting the intrepid traveler.
Experience an Amazing Cuisine
Food is always an important aspect of the travel experience, but in Kyrgyzstan it seems especially critical. It’s also an aspect of traveling around the country that I didn’t give much regard to before my trip. I didn’t anticipate anything great to be honest. Bland food made from meats I couldn’t identify filled my imagination, but immediately I understood how very wrong I was. Sitting at the crossroads of the great Silk Road, cultures from around the world have shuffled through Kyrgyzstan over the centuries and you better believe they brought with them their own culinary traditions and ingredients. Spices from China, recipes from Iran and traditions from Turkey all form the foodie subtext of what has become a very distinct culinary heritage in Kyrgyzstan. Ultimately those important meals shared with new friends became the backbone of my own travel experience in the country and, as such, will also form as the foundation of how I share the stories from the country.
Get There Easily
When one first considers traveling to Central Asia, the last thing one expects is finding an easy way to get there. Luckily, Turkish Airlines offers fast and easy connections to Kyrgyzstan that makes this possible. Traveling from Washington, DC I only had to take two flights in order to reach Bishkek, all the while enjoying the exceptional service for which Turkish Airlines is so very well known. On the way home, I was even able to leave and arrive back home on the same day – a fact that still boggles my mind if we’re being honest. Central Asia may sound exotic, and it is indeed a very unique experience, but thanks to the many easy flight connections we as modern travelers enjoy, Kyrgyzstan is thankfully very easy to reach.
This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.