Granted, Kyrgyzstan does not occupy the same place in the hearts of travelers as does Paris or London. I get that; but that’s why I keep writing about this emerging Central Asian tourist destination. It’s one of those remarkable places on the planet that isn’t overrun with visitors, which I think is part of the appeal. Still in the naissance of its burgeoning life as a tourist destination, it enjoys the unique combination of offering experiences to visitors while remaining a place where you can still explore and discover without hoards of people. In fact, now is probably the ideal time to visit Kyrgyzstan before too many other people learn about everything that makes it so truly special. I’ve written about many different aspects of my trip to the country, but today I don’t want to highlight the outdoors or special natural experiences, instead I want to share why two of its most important cities are fun places to visit. Both Osh and Karakol enjoy very different histories and traditions, but both have become staples of the tourist route around the country. I also think they’re important stops for anyone who wants to truly get to know and understand everything that makes Kyrgyzstan so very special.
Osh may not be a household name, but it probably should be. Sitting at the crossroads of the Silk Road, the second largest city in the country has been a very important place for a very long time. I quickly learned that it’s not just an interesting place to visit, but a fun one as well and I can’t imagine having traveled to Kyrgyzstan without spending time in this dynamic city.
The only UNESCO World Site entirely within Kyrgyzstan’s borders is Sulayman Mountain, located in the city of Osh. I think it can be safely said that the mountain is one of the oldest sacred places in the world, with worshipers climbing its slopes for millennia. During the days of the Silk Road it marked the midway point, and the bazaar still operating in Osh is a remnant of that importance. While what people worshipped at the site may have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that people have sought solace here for as long as there have been people living in the region. That amazes me, and walking up the staircase to reach its summit was certainly a spiritual experience, but a more holistic one. I felt respect for all those who came before me and looking out across Osh, I found myself wondering what other adventures lay in store for me in the city.
To understand the travel experience in Kyrgyzstan, it’s also important to understand the role that food plays in the local culture. Food is important in Kyrgyzstan, as it is in many countries, but for me the cuisine was honestly one of the highlights of the experience. Like most people, I really didn’t know what to expect but almost immediately I was won over by their delicious traditional dishes. As an affirmed carnivore I fit in well there, but one meal in particular was special, the night I learned how to make plov. My Kyrgyz friends may not like to hear this, but plov is actually an important dish throughout Central Asia, and forms the basis of the diets for millions of people. It’s also a simple but hearty dish made from meat that is fried, boiled and steamed with yellow carrots, spices, garlic and then cooked rice. Served as a concoction, it’s tasty and definitely filling. While in Osh I joined a Plov Dinner Tour where we were invited by our guide into his home to help make a fresh batch. It was fun, educational and definitely delicious and was one of the highlights of my time in Kyrgyzstan.
Plov wasn’t the only way I connected with the local food culture in Osh, I also joined a newly minted Osh food tour led by a local who was eager to share with me why the city is famous around the country for its culinary expertise. Certain foods are commonly found throughout Kyrgyzstan, but in Osh they have their own unique versions of these hearty meals. Kyrgyzstan is thankfully a place for carnivores and meat forms the base of most traditional meals, but not all. Mayda Manty is a good example of a dish that can be, but not always meatless. In the rest of the country this pasta-like dish features large, almost ravioli-like pieces, but in Osh they’re much smaller and when a little raw onion is added in, is the perfect comfort food. Another favorite was Samsy, a meat-filled dough, sort of like a meat pie, that is cooked in a tandoori oven. I’ve never tried anything quite like it and again, it was love at first bite. The tour is naturally much more expansive, and when you add in the lessons on history and culture, is one of the best ways to learn about life in Osh.
Traveling around Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia was one of the most unexpected experiences of my year, but also one of the most fun. When I was invited to visit by USAID, I had no idea what to expect – but that’s normal I think. New to international tourism, Kyrgyzstan is trying to share with the world everything that makes the country so interesting to experience. After ten days of travel, I was convinced by the width and breadth of activities from urban escapes in Bishkek to admiring the beauty of Alpine meadows. There’s a fierce diversity of activities in Kyrgyzstan and that is especially true in the northern city of Karakol. Even though I knew little about Karakol before my visit, I left the city with an incredible admiration for it for these reasons and more.
For a small town, there’s actually quite a bit to see and do, most of which I learned about on a Karakol walking tour led by a local. To be clear, this isn’t Bishkek. The roads aren’t always in the best shape, there are plenty of abandoned areas and Soviet era statues and memorials line the parks and public spaces. But, believe it or not, that’s all part of the charm of the city, what makes it special and, ultimately, what keeps luring in visitors from around the world. The city was created by the Russians and so has a planned look and feel to it. Streets are mostly in a grid pattern and in the old part of town you can still see the old Russian homes and other buildings, all colorful and all a reminder of Karakol’s origins. The highlight of these buildings is the wooden Russian Orthodox Cathedral, which has had many lives on the last 100 years. It’s in great shape though and with plans to completely refurbish it, the church will continue to be a highlight for many visitors. Another colorful highlight is the Dungan mosque, a great example of how many different ethnic groups all live alongside each other. Unique shops, incredibly diverse markets, a fantastic history museum and more all make spending time in Karakol fun and important for any visitor.
Spending a morning touring Karakol, one of the day’s highlights was actually about 30 minutes outside of town at the gorgeous Jeti Oguz rock formation. Translated, it means the Seven Bulls and there’s a legend attached to it of course, but for me the experience was amazing in its own right. Standing there, listening to the rushing stream as dozens of horses wandered about freely grazing to their heart’s content, that moment seemed to define Kyrgyzstan for me so far. Known for their horsemanship and love of nature, to join them in this love affair was a special moment. Of course it helped that it was also a nice day, but I soon realized why Jeti Oguz is one of just a handful of places around the country that every Kyrgyz hopes to visit at least once in their lives. There are many other day trips available from Karakol, all of which highlight the natural beauty for which Kyrgyzstan is so very well known.
Originally of Chinese decent, the Dungan people fled China in the 19th century and established communities throughout Central Asia, including in what is modern Kyrgyzstan. One reason why they’ve been oppressed throughout the years is because they are also ardent Muslims, but they seem to have found a welcoming home in Karakol. They’ve also had an incredible impact on the city over the more than 100 years they’ve lived there, not only through the colorful mosques, but through their unique cuisine. One evening I joined a fun excursion to a nearby Dungan community where I had the great opportunity to enjoy a traditional Dungan dinner in the home of a local resident. Sitting on colorful rugs, it seemed as though the steady procession of small dishes would never end – it was a feast in every sense of the word. More than just amazing food though, it was a very unique way to learn more about the Dungan, to break bread with them in their homes and, by the end of the evening, to be welcomed as a new friend. Experiences like this one are surprisingly easy to find in Kyrgyzstan, most people eager to welcome visitors and to share everything that makes their way of life so wonderful. That’s unique in my experience and is just one of a hundred reasons why Kyrgyzstan was such an important trip for me on a very personal level.
Both Osh and Karakol now occupy special places in my heart because they, more than anything else, helped me realize just how unique a country Kyrgyzstan is. Full of wonderful people, delicious food and adventurous experiences, there’s nothing quite like it in the world and personally, I hope it never loses that essence of its character.
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.