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Kyrgyzstan - couple - Elter photo

Why should more people visit this spectacular destination?’


1.) Endless mountains and hiking trails, everywhere, all the time. The Tien Shan central trail runs across snowy peaks and glaciers, and there can’t be many more thrilling treks than that across the 3860m Ala-Kul.


2.) High mountain lakes at around 3000m. Crystal clear, untouched, and hardly visited by tourists. Wild horses drink along their banks. You can choose between several thousand of these lakes. :)


3.) Horse riding! Whether you’ve ridden before or not, you’ve got to try it. The placid Kyrgyz horses are an easy mount, even for beginners. Just be careful: The fabulous landscape and the loveable personalities of the horses can be addictive!


5.) Sleeping in a yurt. The locals have been living this way for centuries, so why shouldn’t we try it too? There’s no reason to be alarmed, as the average tourist yurt is much more comfortable than might be supposed: soft bed, freshly washed warm blanket, heating and – of course – silence. :)


6. The hospitality of the locals. In fact, I don’t know whether this is really hospitality, or whether they’re just so good natured that they like everyone they meet. As a rule, they’re honest, friendly and natural. There’s no trace of that ‘Thai smile’ you sometimes encounter in Southeast Asia – the fake friendliness put on for tourists. The Kyrgyz are utterly charming, and that’s without mentioning the children!


7.) The Jailoo, or the high, emerald-green summer pastures – they’re everywhere! True, you might see these as part of a longer hike, but often even without a tough trek you can get to a place where, amid the harsh, arid summer, you suddenly find yourself in soft, bright-green pastures. It’s probably superfluous to say what a delight it is to walk through a sea of wildflowers, with wild horses and cattle roaming freely.


8.) Spectacular geology! Whether it’s the red sandstone rock formations at Jeti Ögüz or the similarly formed canyon at Skazka (see picture) near Issyk Kul, you’re sure to come across some breathtaking geological wonder every couple of hundred kilometers or so.


9.) Issyk Kul – while Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a coastline, you can easily forget that as you stroll along the shores of Issyk Kul, which is the size of a whole state. The water is unbelievably clear, with long, sandy beaches, and old ladies selling roasted corn on the cob, ($0.25) as well as young Russians drinking beers and of course a lively nightlife. Are you convinced yet?


10.) Total digital detox. Forget what day of the week it is, and stuff your phone deep down at the bottom of your backpack (there won’t be reception anyway) disconnect your brain and recharge as much as you can! (2017)


Practicals

Transport

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Kyrgyzstan - mountain road - s.g. photo

Kyrgyzstan - donkey ride

Food

Tipping is not common in Kyrgyzstan. In many restaurants, a 10% service charge included in the bill.

To be on the safe side, avoid eating at street vendors.

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“Our favorite Kyrgyz dish was lagman, which I’d describer for simplicity’s sake as Kyrgyz spaghetti. We’d already eaten lagman in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but when we arrived in Kyrgyzstan we knew we’d arrived in lagman’s spiritual home, first and foremost because here they really make it fresh, by hand, whereas in the other countries all the lagman looked suspiciously alike, and resembled cheap pasta from a bag back home.

Lagman can be eaten with more or less sauce, more or less spice, and with beef or mutton, but contrary to popular opinion it is never made with horsemeat, which is too expensive and highly prized to be chopped up and thrown into a dinner such as this.

Another pasta dish is the national dish of Kyrgyzstan: Beshbarmak is eaten by hand by locals, hence its name, which means ‘five fingers’ in Kyrgyz. We didn’t like beshbarmak at all, firstly because like most Tajik dishes, they use no spices whatsoever in preparing it. Instead they pack plain, unseasoned chunks of meat into dough, then pour greasy mutton stock over it. This not only makes it taste worse, but also makes the whole thing look pretty disgusting. In this dish, however, they do use horsemeat on special occasions. Unfortunately we did not come across this version, but it’s said to be very tasty.

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“Kyrgyz cuisine is never going to be in my all-time top five. They eat a lot of meat, but don’t concern themselves overmuch with the question of seasoning. In short, it’s difficult to escape the holy triumvirate of Central Asian cooking: shashlik, pilaf, and meat dumplings. It’s heavy, fatty food. Everywhere we went we encountered samosas, and naan bread.

Only the biggest supermarkets seem to sell jam, ground coffee, and other global staples. They do have good beers, however, and a huge range of vodka is available. Even the best Russian vodkas are sold in half-liter bottles for just a few dollars. (Cigarettes and alcohol are sold very cheaply in Kyrgyzstan, and it seemed to us that a large proportion of the adult male population had some kind of alcohol dependence – probably because they don’t seem to consider heavy alcohol consumption a problem in the first place).” (2015)

Kyrgizstan - steamed dumplings - k.a. photo

Kyrgyz meal

Shopping

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Kyrgyzstan - souvenirs

Kyrgyzstan - market

Fun

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Kyrgyz band - all of them wear the kalpak, the traditional Kyrgyz hat

Public safety

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Kyrgyzstan - Lada police car

Kyrgyzstan - road checkpoint

Health

Don't drink tap water; you better buy bottled water.

During the warmer months, some malaria risk exists in the country.

Background

Kyrgyzstan - national flag - kyrgyzstan мамлекеттик желеги - In the center of the flag you see a yellow sun with 40 rays, related to the followers of Manas, and the 40 tribes this national legend has united

Destination in brief

Kyrgyzstan in brief

Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. Neighbors: Kazakhstan (north), China (east), Tajikistan (south), Uzbekistan (west).  

Size: 199,900 km² (77,181.8 mi²) – 70% of its territory is mountainous (leading some to call it “Central Asia’s Switzerland”)

Capital city: Bishkek

Population: 6,4 million (2020) – The country’s people are called Kirghiz (or Kirgiz) and come from a proud tradition of nomadic horsemen and warriors of the Central Asian steppe.

Eating is based on meat only. That's why people there stay healthy in such frequent weather changes in Kyrgyzstan.

Official languages: Russian and Kyrgyz - Kyrgyz is a Turkic language that has similarities in grammar and vocabulary to Turkish, but is closer to Kazakh. In the capital city, Russian is the primary spoken language.   

Each province has its own dialect: north part has dialect with some similar aspects with Kazakh, south - with Uzbek.

Religions: 83% Sunni Muslim, 15% Christian (mostly Russian Orthodox) – Walking around Bishkek, you will see very few apparent signs of Islamic tradition or architecture. This is mostly due to the country’s Soviet past. After the collapse of communism, however, Islam’s influence has made a progressive comeback into Kyrgyz society. That does not stop many Kyrgyz Muslims (along with the local Russians of course) from being notably big drinkers. Public intoxication is apparently pretty standard, especially during the winter. Vodka is the most popular drink, a solid legacy of the Soviet era. Luckily locals also love tea, which they drink with pretty much every meal.

Official currency: Som (KGS)

Average net monthly salary (in 2020): about 240 USD

Kyrgyzstan is an underdeveloped country, even by Central Asian standards. There is a significant wealth disparity between its urban and rural populations, with 75% of the country’s poor living in rural areas. The economy is dominated by minerals extraction, agriculture, and a heavy reliance on remittances from citizens working abroad. Corruption is widespread. 

Most frequent surname: Ismailova (wives – and quite a few widows - of Ismailovs)

Safety: Kyrgyzstan is definitely a safe tourist destination. 

Best time to visit: The climate is dry, continental. The weather in the dominant mountainous areas is very tough, so the optimal timing for a tourist visit is preferably July and August, although it can be very hot during that period.  

Kyrgyzstan’s most famous tourist attractions are its spectacular mountain landscape, its unspoiled nature and endless forests, many of them full of nut trees. The Inylchek Glacier is one of the most massive non-polar glaciers in the world. 

Traveling individually is quite challenging because of the sketchy infrastructure, but the difficulties are definitely compensated by the genuine, heart-warming hospitality of the Kyrgyz people. 

Geography

Nestled in a lush valley of Kyrgyzstan’s Chatkal mountain range lies the village of Arslanbob, home of the world’s largest natural walnut forest. 

Kyrgyzstan - landscape - j.d. photo

Kyrgyzstan - Ysyk-Kul region- Kadji Say - red mountains - k.a. photo

Climate

Kyrgyzstan has a dry, continental climate. In the higher places of the Tien-San, the climate can even be called arctic. In the southwestern part of the country, the climate is subtropical. The weather in the northern hills is temperate. The spring season between March and May or September and October is the best time to visit the lower areas. Outside of these months, the weather is too hot. July or August is best suited for mountain hiking.


History

The name Kyrgyz means forty. Presumably, there were forty families or clans settled in this area.

Manas, a 10th-century warrior of the Kyrgyz people, has united Kyrgyzstan. He is the most celebrated national or folk hero for the Kyrgyz. His name appears everywhere in the country: streets, statues, universities, radio stations, national parks.

Nowadays

There is no real democracy. Corruption is a massive problem; there is a lot of political and ethnic tension.

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“The Russian minority in Kyrgyzstan has a significant presence. Before independence they numbered some 1,000,000, making them approximately a quarter of the population. According to data from the 2018 census they now number some 352,960 – mostly in the capital and in northern areas – making them approximately 5.6% of the population.

Many left the country amid the deteriorating living standards which followed independence. Those who remained, on the other hand, became quite well integrated into Kyrgyz society, though they have kept aloof from politics. They have a more open mindset than Russians in Russia. (2019)


Kyrgyzstan - Osh - the second-largest city of the country still approves the Soviet-era saying: "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, and Lenin will always live." - Viktor Ohotin's photo

People

Many ethnic Kyrgyz  can speak some Russian but do not like to use it.

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“The people of Kyrgyzstan are very beautiful. They have the narrow eyes common to people across Asia, and it suits the girls in particular very well. They are extremely pretty, and a visitor could fill a photo album with pictures of the characterful old people. Many of the older people still wear the traditional hat, known as a ‘kalpak’. Gold teeth are often seen as a status symbol, so many smiles gleam.

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“We didn’t find the Kyrgyz people particularly friendly or curious towards us. They certainly stare at foreigners, and maybe ask in Russian ‘ot kuda?’ (an abbreviated version of ‘where do you come from’ meaning approximately ‘where from’) but it was rare for anyone to strike up a conversation with us. There were a few times when someone showed real friendliness towards us, but I’d characterize their general attitude as fairly indifferent.

Many of the men wear interesting white felt hats (which I’ve never seen anywhere else) or else a kind of felt baseball cap. Many wear an old-fashioned style of pants and jacket. In the cities, of course, they wear Western clothes. Women mostly wear long skirts and dresses. They have more Mongolian features than their neighbors in Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan. Everyone is Muslim, but of the relaxed variety that thinks nothing of cracking open a beer.” (2016)

Kirghiz newly-weed beauty - Elter photo

Kirghiz newly-weed man - Elter photo

Kyrgyzstan - cotton picker woman - Elter photo

Tourist etiquette

1. For Kyrgyz people, shaking hands is a significant part of the greetings. Shaking hands is common among men. Men don’t usually shake hands with women.
Although Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim country, the way of dressing is entirely European in the capital and big cities, i.e., the tourist can dress usually.  On the other hand, in the southern parts of the country, women dress more conservatively, so tourist girls and women must dress modestly.

Attractions

Bishkek

Population (in 2020): 1 million

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“Bishkek does not spoil visitors with many thousand-year-old ruins, or even centuries-old mosques, but that should not discourage you. There’s no overwhelming Soviet architecture either, and the city’s buildings are unassuming rather than striking.

The city’s main axis is Chui Avenue, and most of the sights are to be found in its vicinity. The city’s main square, Ala-Too Square, is on this avenue, and here can be found the equestrian statue of Manas – the great national hero of the Kyrgyz. He is the protagonist of an epic of the same name. Historians cannot establish for certain that he ever actually existed, but the Kyrgyz are convinced he was a real person.

Behind the statue of Manas is the Kyrgyz National Museum. It may have been a very modern building in its day, but today it just looks like a big stone cube.

So the city doesn’t offer too much in the way of sights, but overall you’ll find a pleasant, albeit slightly boring big city. The pleasant atmosphere is supplied by the broad boulevards lined by shady rows of trees, and plenty of parks.” (2017)


Bishkek - Manas statue (Manas is an imaginary warrior hero) - Elter photo

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