I understand that Kyrgyzstan may not be on as many people’s travel bucket lists as, let’s say, Paris or Bora Bora. But, believe it or not, the stock of this Central Asia country is rising quickly and thanks to a massive effort to develop the Kyrgyzstan tourism industry, it’s never been easier to explore than it is today. That being said, there may be aspects of traveling to and around Kyrgyzstan that confuse or intimidate the would-be visitor, so today I thought I would try to address some of those concerns. This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive guide to visiting Kyrgyzstan, far from it. No, instead these are some questions I know I had before I first visited and wanted to provide a resource to those of you interested in this beautiful and endlessly fascinating country.
Where is it?
Kyrgyzstan is located smack dab in the middle of Central Asia. About the same size as the U.S. state of Georgia, its neighbors are Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the east. The capital and largest city is Bishkek, but other notable cities include Osh and Karakol.
How to get there?
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.
How to get around?
This is one point where opinions will differ but, ultimately, there is no wrong answer. I was in Kyrgyzstan at the invitation and sponsorship of USAID and as such they organized for me a guide and driver for the duration of my trip. Even if they hadn’t hosted me though, that would have been my preferred way to experience the country. Hiring the services of a guide and driver in the country isn’t expensive and well worth it for a number of reasons. Unless you speak fluent Russian, you’ll need a translator and the guide, in addition to providing standard tour guide duties, also acts as a translator and fix-it person. A driver I think is necessary given the state of the roads in many areas of the country. You have to be experienced with driving in Kyrgyzstan I think in order to get around easily. Sure, it’s possible for foreigners to do but it’s usually only after having spent an extended period of time in the country. To reach cities like Osh, internal flights are easy and frequent and if you don’t want to hire a guide and driver to explore areas outside of Bishkek or Osh, there is another option, shared vans or private taxis. Marshrutkas are shared minibuses that are offered throughout the country traveling to every possible destination you could imagine. They leave once they’re full but the costs are very reasonable. For example, the 6 hour drive to Karakol averages between $6-$10. If you’re willing to spend a little, but not much, more then you can hire a private car to take you just about anywhere you want to go.
How much time to spend?
Again, this is entirely subjective and depends on everything from how much time you have to what kind of experiences you want to enjoy. Many people travel to Kyrgyzstan to trek through the mountains and enjoy the incredible natural beauty found almost everywhere. To do this you need a guide or, better yet, join a tour taking you to your destination of choice. These treks though can also take time. Three days would be a very short one, with many others ranging from 5-7 days and longer. If you’re not a trekker though there’s still plenty to see and do not only in the major cities of the country, but also in the great outdoors. I spent ten days in Kyrgyzstan and while I managed to do a lot, I still feel as if I only just scratched the surface. For a country that’s relatively small, there really is a lot to see and do. What’s paramount though I think is being organized, know exactly what you want to experience and then find the most efficient way to accomplish it.
Odds and ends
I’m a picky eater, so food options for me are usually front of mind. Although I was worried before my visit, I shouldn’t have been – the culinary side to Kyrgyzstan quickly became a personal highlight of the travel experience. 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.
Don’t ignore Bishkek. Many travelers transit through the capital city without spending time there, and that’s a mistake. I wish I had more time in the city, my one-day not nearly enough time to enjoy everything it has to offer. I was surprised at how cosmopolitan it is compared to the rest of the country and there’s certainly a lot to do, from the museums and monuments to exploring the emerging food scene in the city.
Don’t travel to Kyrgyzstan as a voyeur, instead do everything you can to know and understand the wonderful people who call the country home. You can accomplish this in any number of ways, from engaging food tours in Osh and Karakol, to attending special festivals highlighting the traditional culture of the country. Everyone has a story to tell and as travelers, it’s up to us to find out what they are.
Being patient and open-minded is also key since tourism is so very new in the country. Yes, there are hotels, there are tours and other experiences, but these have mostly been recent additions. Operators and owners are trying hard to accommodate the new influx of curious visitors, but they’re learning along the way. Things move a little slower in Kyrgyzstan, so go with the flow and don’t get too frustrated.
Just go. I had honestly never considered Kyrgyzstan tourism as something viable until I was approached by USAID. However, the trip opened my eyes to a new region of the world, one I had some strong misconceptions about. I never knew how beautiful it was, how friendly the people are, how delicious the food can be and just how fun traveling there is. It felt like an adventure and in 2017, that’s a difficult sensation to recapture but in Kyrgyzstan you can embrace everything great about the spirit of pure exploration.
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.