Kyrgyzstan: an adventure in land-locked Central Asia

Few countries are so completely off the beaten track, that saying you’ve visited them will automatically garner attention from your peers. They’ll wonder: what’s the food like? Why did you choose to go there? And of course, where on Earth is it? I’ve just returned from a three-week trip to beautiful Kyrgyzstan, a land-locked country in Central Asia, wedged between Afghanistan, China, and Russia and bordered by the better-known Kazakhstan. Safe to say, it is exactly one of those places – mysterious, arresting and so far afield it’s almost otherworldly.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the usual holiday in Spain, spent wandering around supermarkets, Solero-seeking in my Speedos after drinking a pint with my €3 full English. Yet, the very moment I came across a photo of Ala-Kul lake, I knew I had to set foot in this previously unheard of country. It may not be on your bucket list, but for more reasons than one, it’s a country ripe for exploring.

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The tall peaks

Kyrgyzstan is 90 per cent mountains. Almost all of it rises 1,500 metres above sea level. The average elevation of the country is 2,700 metres. This means it’s beautiful just about everywhere. The landscape is awe-inspiring to an Englishman, who comes from a place where the tallest mountain is 1,300 metres high. The cities here are in-between mountain ranges. You see these peaks everywhere, poking up above the houses and bustling markets, and long car journeys – usually a real drag – became exciting as I weaved through them.

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The lakes

The lakes are the reason why most tourists visit Kyrgyzstan – and for good reason, as there are well over 2,000 of them. The largest lake, Issyk Kul, is almost double the size of the English channel and will make you feel as though you’re at sea. The North Side is heavily frequented in the summer by Kyrgyz locals and Russian holidaymakers, who flock there for the beaches. The South Side, on the other hand, is a little more quiet: it’s home to villages and a couple of yurt camps, as well as the huge red Skazka (Fairy tale) Canyon.

Ala-Kul was the lake that inspired my visit, and hence proved a personal highlight to my trip. Reaching it required a difficult, steep, two-day trek up almost 4,000 metres. Never in my life had I seen such beautiful scenery and been the only soul around in such a vast expanse. With no-one and nothing to surround me, other than dead silence and wind blowing through the mountains, it was an experience that not even a photo could ever capture.

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Affordable activities

Treks are abundant and cheap. I spent around £150 for a four-day trek complete with tent hire and an English-speaking guide. A three-day horse riding adventure to Song Kol, Kyrgyzstan’s 3,000 metre-high alpine lake, cost me little more. You could pick your price range and stay in tents, yurts or caravans… the experience will be unique regardless. What’s more, locals are so friendly and excited to meet a foreigner. The majority of fellow trekkers I met were Swiss or French – if you have the Alps in your back garden, but choose to climb mountains halfway around the world, that tells you what a wonderful place this is.

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Living with the locals

Kyrgyzstan has a distinct lack of formal tourism infrastructure. There are of course hotels dotted around the major cities and villages; however, as a foreign tourist, they can be difficult to find. A small number of tour operators have now sprung up, making it easy to travel the country whilst staying with families in their homes or yurts. Community Based Tourism (CBT), the largest of all with 11 offices around the country, work closely with the local communities to create a brand of ethical eco-tourism. During my stay, CBT organised my treks, arranged a rental horse, and placed me with young families and old couples alike: I was invited into their homes, offered copious amounts of tea, incredibly well fed and made to feel totally at ease – despite the language barrier. It’s a relatively cheap way of seeing the country, and the best part is that around 81 per cent of CBT’s revenue goes directly to those very families you stay with.

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Ease of travel

Everyone usually comes back from their holiday and proclaims how cheap it was. Kyrgyzstan was insanely cheap and easy to navigate. There are next to no trains or clear timetables for anything, but that’s part of the adventure. Shared taxis and marshrutka minibus taxis are common modes of transportation. I shared a six hour-long taxi from the capital of Bishkek to Karakol, wedged between two locals, and the trip cost me under £6. A two hour-long minibus ride into Bishkek would in fact cost little over £1. The buses all run regularly; the only downside was waiting a half-hour or so for the shared taxi to fill up before we made our way. The best part of all? Kyrgyzstan is visa-free for British people, meaning you only need a passport and a flight to reach this beautiful country.

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Good to know

Currency: Som. £1 roughly equals 100 som. A bottle of vodka costs around 70 som. Guesthouses are around 800 som a night.
Language: Kyrgyz is the official language. The majority of locals speak Russian, too.
Religion: Whilst Kyrgyzstan is a secular state, around 80 per cent of people follow Islam.
Emergency services: Police – 102; Emergency – 103; Emergency rescue service – 110.

Time difference: Kyrgyzstan is five hours ahead of London, UK.
Flights:
 There are no direct flights to Kyrgyzstan, so you will need to connect in Istanbul. The overall flight time is around twelve hours.
Visa requirements: Kyrgyzstan is visa-free for many, including EU and USA residents.

Best time of year to go: For trekking, May-early September is the best time to visit. Outside of these, the country is very cold and ideal for skiing.
Best route to get there: Unless travelling overland, the best way in is via Istanbul. Turkish Airlines offer return flights for around £350.
What to pack: The temperature varies dramatically depending on your altitude. I would advise both warm clothing, and shorts/t-shirts. Even during the summer you may experience snow in the mountainous regions.
Electricity: 220V/50hz two-pin European.
Local customs to be aware of: Kyrgyzstan loves tea almost as much as the British. Wherever you go you will be welcomed into homes and offered their local ‘chai’ which you should gratefully accept. Handshaking is a sign of respect, and as a man you should always do this when greeting other Kyrgyz men. Before entering homes or yurts, you should always remove your shoes.

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Images by Thomas Evans

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