Backpacking Kyrgyzstan: the ultimate travel guide
This post is a travel guide about backpacking Kyrgyzstan. It includes all the practical things you need to know about travel in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is an incredible tourist destination and often dubbed the Switzerland of central Asia. Its mountains are indeed equally impressive. Only its landscapes are even more varied and for backpackers it is much more budget friendly.
With a visa free regime for most nationalities backpacking Kyrgyzstan has become much easier than before and is likely to become more popular in the future. The Lonely Planet has made central Asia one of the top destinations in 2020.
Why Backpacking Kyrgyzstan?
The number one reason to travel in Kyrgyzstan is the spectacular nature. There are almost unlimited opportunities for hiking. More than 90% of the country is mountains and almost half of it is above 3000 meters. In Kyrgyzstan you don’t need to go far to be surrounded by spectacular views.
Kyrgyzstan is the perfect destination for outdoor lovers. With so much opportunities for hiking, cycling and horse back riding the only difficult thing is to choose where to go.
Will it be the alpine meadows near Karakol, the rocky hills around the deep blue issyk kul lake lake, the green summer pastures around song kul lake or the remote alay valley in the south.
But Kyrgyzstan is not only about nature. Despite its Soviet past, Kyrgyzstan managed to keep much of its nomadic culture alive. In the summer pastures it’s still yurts and horses that dominate life.
With plenty of community based tourism initiatives you will always find a welcoming place to stay, even in remote mountain villages like Arslanbob or Jyrgalan. Kyrgyz people are extremely friendly and the homestays are a great way to learn more about Kyrgyz culture.
Visas for backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Most nationalities no longer need a visa for backpacking Kyrgyzstan and for those who do, things are much simpler than before. Check the latest visa requirements on the Kyrgyzstan visa guide on Caravanistan.
How to travel to Kyrgyzstan
By plane: Turkish Airlines, Air Astana, Aeroflot and Pegasus among others have direct flights to Manas International Airport in Bishkek.
By train: The railway system in Kyrgyzstan is not as developed as in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There is a train from Bishkek to Moscow (3 days through Kazakhstan) and one from Bishkek to Almaty in Kazakhstan. There is also a train from Bishkek to Tashkent in Uzbekistan (through Taraz in Kazakhstan) that only runs in summer.
Trains are cheap, comfortable, but also very slow. They are great if you want the typical Soviet train experience. In general, it is much easier and faster to use minivans or shared taxi’s, especially on the routes from Bishkek to Almaty and Bishkek to Tashkent.
Travel to Kyrgyzstan overland
From Kazakhstan: The best way to enter Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan is to travel from Almaty to Bishkek through the Kordai border crossing. There are plenty of minivans plying this route. They leave from the Sayran bus station in Almaty and the journey takes about 5 hours, depending how busy it is at the border.
From Uzbekistan: Most people enter Kyrgyzstan from Uzbekistan through the border crossing between Andijon and Osh in the Fergana Valley. Since 2019 there is a direct marshrutka between Andijon and Osh and the journey takes between 2 and 3 hours, depending on how long it takes at the border.
From Tajikistan: People can enter Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan through the Pamir highway. I would recommend booking a Pamir highway tour, because public transport on the Pamir highway is infrequent and the scenery is extremely beautiful. However, if you are on a budget there should be at least one shared taxi a day from Murgab to Osh.
In theory it is possible to travel from Dushanbe in Tajikistan to Osh in 3 days by public transport or hired vehicle, but the Pamir highway is really worth your time. Plan at least a one week Pamir highway itinerary or more if you plan to do some hiking along the way.
Places to visit in Kyrgyzstan
In this guide I will only give a brief overview of the most popular places to visit in Kyrgyzstan. For more inspiration I can recommend my post about my 2 to 3 week Kyrgyzstan itinerary.
Bishkek is Kyrgyzstans capital and therefore its likely that as a traveler you will end up there at some point. It might not be the most beautiful city you see. However, its a great place if you love Soviet architecture or if you prefer to explore Kyrgyzstan nature from the comforts of a city that has all the facilities you might need.
The mountains are just around the corner and the snowcapped peaks of the Ala too range are visible from the city. Only an hour away from Bishkek is the beautiful Ala Archa National park with its waterfalls and forested mountain slopes. Also nearby is the Issyk ata sanatorium with its natural hot springs and the green Alamedin valley. All great places to go hiking or escape from the city.
With so much natural beauty, people often overlook the city itself. A pity, because Bishkek has an interesting history. The city developed as a Russian outpost before it became the capital of the Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. A lot of the Soviet architecture is still there including a statue of Lenin.
Another Soviet legacy is the beautiful Ala too square and the large amount of green spaces within the city. It makes Bishkek a pleasant place to wander around. The young and dynamic city is now more Kyrgyz than ever. Restaurants with Kyrgyz food stand alongside hip cafes and entertaining bars.
Bishkek is therefore a great introduction to Kyrgyzstan where you can learn more about the country and its nomadic culture before exploring the rest of the country.
Things to do: Ala too square, Osh bazaar, Oak park, Zhirgal banya, Soviet architecture.
Things to see nearby: Ala Archa National Park
For more information you can read my post on the best things to do in Bishkek.
Karakol is the outdoors capital of Kyrgyzstan. Again it’s not the city itself that makes Karakol worth a visit, but the spectacular nature on its doorsteps.
It’s easy to spend weeks in Karakol exploring the mountains around town. There are several places to go and each of them are very different. From the hot springs in Altyn Arashan to the the red rock formations in Jeti Oguz and the alpine meadows of Jyrgalan.
Although the locations of these places are already spectacular enough it is only the beginning. From Altyn Arashan, Jeti Oguz or Jyrgalan you can go on easy day hikes or treks to high altitude mountain lakes that can take multiple days. If you don’t want to hike you can also do them on the back of a horse if you like.
Things to do: Dungan mosque, Orthodox church, Animal market, Karakol food tour
For more information you can read my post on the best things to do in Karakol.
How to get there: From Bishkek you can take a minivan or shared taxi that takes around 7 hours. Read more about how to travel from Bishkek to Karakol.
Bokonbaevo in Kyrgyzstan is a rather small town that serves as the gateway to the southern shore of lake issyk kul.
While the northern shore is all about resorts catering to mostly Russian and Kazakh tourists, the Southern shore offers a more authentic Kyrgyz experience.
Its around Bokonbaevo that the natural beauty of lake issyk kul and the Ala too mountains combine with a rich cultural heritage that is still very much alive.
It’s for example one of the best places to see the Kyrgyz practice of eagle hunting in action or to see what it takes to build a yurt. Other cultural activities include felt making workshops. Furthermore, Bokonbaevo has some of the best and most welcoming homestays in Kyrgyzstan.
Whatever you do, you will be surrounded with incredible surroundings. For an out of this world experience you should visit the skazka canyon or hike along the sacred springs of Manjyly Ata.
Nearby Bokonbaevo you will also find some of the best beaches in Kyrgyzstan. Truth be told that the waters of lake issyk kul are cold, but where else can you swim with views on the snowcapped peaks of the mountains around you. Tosor beach is my favorite, but Kadji sai has some nice ones too.
Things to do: Eagle hunting demonstration, Felt making workshops, bazaar
For more information you can read my post on the best things to do in Bokonbaevo.
How to get there: From Bishkek you can take a minivan or shared taxi that takes around 5 hours. Read more about how to travel from Bishkek to Karakol.
Song kul lake
In many guidebooks Song kul lake is mentioned as the number one highlight in Kyrgyzstan and for good reason. This high altitude mountain lake, surrounded by green summer pastures, is a beauty.
The difficulty in getting there is part of the fun. The journey from either Kochkor or Naryn is as spectacular as the lake itself. You can choose to come by private taxi or on a guided horse trek. Even hiking to the lake is a possibility.
The best season to visit song kul lake is short and most yurt camps only open up from June till September.
For more information you can read my Song kul lake travel guide.
How to get there: From Bishkek you can take a minivan or shared taxi to either Naryn or Kochkor from where you can arrange the next leg of your journey. The easiest is by private taxi, but its also possible to reach song kul lake by a guided horse trek or by hiking in.
Osh is the gateway to Southern Kyrgyzstan and one of the oldest cities in the country with a history of more than 3000 years.
Not much of that history remains, but Osh still feels very different from the other cities in Kyrgyzstan. Being part of the Fergana valley, Osh is a very multicultural city and unlike the nomadic cultures in the rest of Kyrgyzstan people are used to be settled here.
Osh has a thriving bazaar that has been there on the exact same place for centuries. The holy Suleiman Too mountain towers over the city and still attracts thousands of pilgrims that climb to the top to visit the sacred shrines.
With so many cultures it is not a surprise that the food in Osh is as varied as the city’s peoples and its here that you will find the best food in Kyrgyzstan.
Osh is also a great city from where you can explore the nature in Southern Kyrgyzstan that receives much less tourists than other places even though it is just as spectacular. Even so there are equal opportunities for hiking.
Highlights include the walnut forests of the scenic Uzbek village of Arslanbob and the remote Alay mountains.
Things to do: Suleiman too mountain, Osh bazaar
For more information you can read my post on the best things to do in Osh.
How to get there: From Bishkek you can take a shared taxi that takes around 12 – 14 hours. Read more about how to travel from Bishkek to Osh.
When to travel in Kyrgyzstan
With cold and long winters, the travel season in Kyrgyzstan is short. If you want to do higher altitude treks the best time to visit is from June till September. For lower altitudes you can visit from May till October.
Although summer is best, spring and autumn are possible as well if you don’t plan to go that high up in the mountains. In that case autumn is better than spring, because spring brings more rain. Autumn is in fact one of the most beautiful times in Kyrgyzstan with the fall colours.
Backpacking Accomodation in Kyrgyzstan
Accomodation in Kyrgyzstan is relatively cheap and hostels are opening up throughout the country. In almost every city you will find a CBT office. The community based tourism initiatives often have an excellent network of homestays. For me, they were always the preferred option. Not only do you get a chance to meet new people, the homecooked food is always much better than what you will find in a local restaurant.
What and where to eat in Kyrgyzstan
As a traveller Kyrgyz food might be a bit dissapointing. If you are on the road, the choices are often limited to the standard central asian foods like plov (rice with carrots), laghman (noodle soup), manti (steamed dumplings) or pelmeni (russian dumplings).
On top of that, what you will find in the average roadside restaurant tends to be bland and fatty. Something a lot of travellers struggle with.
That said, there is a huge difference between what you get at a cheap restaurant and homemade Kyrgyz food. The welcoming homestays often serve surprisingly delicious versions of the Kyrgyz recipies. Some favourites are dimlama (vegetable stew), kuurdak (potatoes with meat) and beshbarmak (meat with noodles in broth)
Otherwise Bishkek, Osh and Karakol are your best bet with a number of midrange restaurants that serve nice food from different cuisines. In fact, Osh is somewhat of a culinary destination with their own regional varieties of plov and manti.
In the drinks department, Kyrgyzstan has a lot of interesting stuff to offer. Kymyz is the most famous national beverage and the fermented mare’s milk is believed to have healing powers.
Then there is Chalap (similar to ayran), Bozo (alcoholic wheat drink), Maksym (fermented wheat drink) and Jarma (fermented cereals mixed with ayran).
If you want to try Kymyz you can buy it on the side of the road in summer. Apparently Suusamyr valley, which is on the way from Bishkek to Osh, has the best quality Kymyz.
Language and culture in Kyrgyzstan
The Kyrgyz people were one of the nomadic Turkic tribes that moved to Central Asia and there are some similarities with the Kazakh and Mongolian peoples.
Although most Kyrgyz people have now settled down, yurts and horses are still central to their culture as well as other nomadic traditions such as eagle hunting.
Most Kyrgyz people are sunni muslim, but rarely follow strict rules. In fact, more ancient spiritual beliefs are practised at the same time.
The Kyrgyz people are the majority in Kyrgyzstan, but there is also a large Russian and Uzbek community. Other ethnic minorities include the Uygurs, the Dungans and Tajiks.
How to travel in Kyrgyzstan
travel in Kyrgyzstan by train
Besides the international trains from Bishkek to Moscow, Almaty and Tashkent there is only one domestic train that runs in summer. The train from Bishkek to Balykchy is a scenic journey, but takes its sweet time. While it would take 3 hours by minibus, the train can take up to 6 hours.
travel in Kyrgyzstan by bus or shared taxi
With an almost non existent train system, the most common way to travel in Kyrgyzstan is by shared taxi or marshrutka. The latter is an, often white, minivan that leaves once uncomfortably full. As a general rule of thumb shared taxi’s are twice the cost of a marshrutka, but also much faster.
For some destinations shared taxi’s might be your only option. They too leave once they are full, unless you pay for the vacant seats. Depending on the time of the day and where you go, taxi’s fill up quickly or test the limits of your patience.
Shared taxi’s to a certain destination are often on a specific location in the city that might not be obvious. Ask at your hostel to make sure you get to the right place.
Although Kyrgyzstan has an excellent and cheap public transport system that brings you almost everywhere, having your own car allows you to visit even those few places that are hard to get to.
Kyrgyzstan is the perfect country for going on a road trip. The sceneries are absolutely stunning and having your own transport gives you the comfort and flexibility to go off the beaten path and explore all of Kyrgyzstan on your own pace.
If you are considering renting a car in Kyrgyzstan I can recommend this guide from Monday Feelings about all you need to know for driving in Kyrgyzstan.
Useful Apps for backpacking Kyrgyzstan
2Gis: this Russian app has city maps of most cities in Russia including information on public transport. You can download the maps offline and then simply tell the app where you need to go. It will show you which buses you can take or how far it is to walk.
They are now also developing maps of cities in central Asia. For Kyrgyzstan they already have information about Bishkek and the area around lake Issyk kul.
Yandex: the Russian version of uber also works in Bishkek. It is an easy way to order a taxi or to get an idea of how much a taxi should cost on a certain route.
Google Translate: not everybody speaks english in Kyrgyzstan and google translate has allowed us to still have some conversations with the friendly and curious people that we met.
Money matters for backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan uses the Kyrgyz Somoni. ATM’s are present in the major cities like Bishkek, Karakol, Bokonbaevo and Osh. Make sure you get enough cash before heading into the mountains.
Costs of travel in Kyrgyzstan
Backpacking Kyrgyzstan is not expensive and in my experience it was the cheapest of all the countries in Central Asia. That is, if you stick with public transport. Luckily most places to visit in Kyrgyzstan are accesibly by minivan or shared taxi and there is plenty of beauty to see in Kyrgyzstan without going on a tour package, horse back riding trip or guided trek.
Expect to pay between 15 and 20 us dollars per day excluding the costs of tours or private transport.
accomodation: less than 10 dollars for a bed in a dormitory, around 15 dollars for a double private room.
food: less than 4 dollars if you stick to roadside restaurants, stolovaya canteens or the bazaar, around 8 – 10 dollars if you go to a more midrange restaurant.
transport: Minivans and shared taxi’s are very cheap in Kyrgyzstan. Short journeys between 2 and 3 hours will costs you between 3 and 5 US dollars while longer journeys (3 hours +) will cost you between 7 and 10 US dollars. The most expensive is the 12 – 14 hour journey between Bishkek and Osh that will cost you 30 – 40 US dollars. Private taxi’s will cost you more and for some places, like Song kul lake and Tash Rabat, this might be your only option.
Tours: Prices for horse back riding trips, guided treks and other tour packages can vary a lot. Although the community based tourism initiative CBT used to be the cheapest they now tend to be slighly more expensive and the reviews are mixed. While some CBT’s provide excellent services, others are less well organized. I still had very good experiences with CBT Naryn and CBT Bokonbaevo.
Do shop around when planning to book a tour package or a horse trek as there are now plenty of reliable tour agencies available in Kyrgyzstan such as Visit Alay, Kyrgyz nomad, Destination Karakol and Destination Osh.
Is it safe to travel in Kyrgyzstan?
In general Kyrgyzstan is a very safe country to travel in. Crime is rare, people are friendly and corruption towards tourists is a thing of the past.
Most travel advisories mention the risk of terrorism in Southern Kyrgyzstan, but I would say the chances are extremely small to become the victim of any kind of violence. The biggest risks in Kyrgyzstan are related to the crazy traffic and your health.
Health issues when backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Sanitary conditions in Kyrgyzstan are very basic and hygiene standards low. Diarrhoea is the most common health issue among travellers in Kyrgyzstan. Many people struggle with the food that is heavy in fat. BI recommend to bring a water filter with you and a hand sanitizer to minimize the risk.
Also be aware that at higher altitudes the sun is much stronger and you can get sunburn more easily. Bring enough sunscreen with factor 30 or higher. Also bring sunglasses and a sunhat for adequate protection.
At last, if you are prone to motion sickness make sure you bring your preferred medication with you. There are lots of winding roads in Kyrgyzstan.
Altitude sickness in Kyrgyzstan
The biggest threat to your health in Kyrgyzstan is altitude sickness. It can affect anyone and starts to become a concern at 2700 meters and above. The higher you go, the higher the risk,
The key is to go up slowly. The general rule of thumb is that you should not ascend more than 300 meters per day once you are above 3000 meters.
Symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) include headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, fatigue, problems sleeping, shortness of breath and feeling miserable. If left untreated it can progress into the life threatening High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).
When at higher altitudes make sure you drink enough water. At least 3 to 4 liters per day. Local remedies include dried fruits with a bit of sugar and kurut (dried yoghurt balls). You might consider taking diamox, a medicine that will help you acclimatize.
Once you have severe symptoms the only thing that helps is to go down again to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
Solo female travel in Kyrgyzstan
In my experience Kyrgyzstan is a very safe country for backpackers, whether you travel alone or not and whether you are male or female.
Kyrgyzstan is a muslim country and even though most people identify with islam, they rarely follow strict religious rules. Kyrgyz people are very friendly and helpful towards travellers. If anything, they might be curious why you are traveling alone as a woman. Kyrgyz women rarely travel alone, but they are used to the fact that western woman do.
That said it is better to dress modestly and make sure your shoulders and knees are covered, especially outside of the city where people are more conservative.
Sustainable Travel in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is seeing more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in the country, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.
Support the local community: You can support the community by purchasing goods and services from local vendors, artisans, and restaurants. It is better to try Kyrgyz cuisine that uses local ingredients rather than imported foreign foods. Kyrgyz food is not very vegetarian friendly, but there are a few vegetarian restaurants in the capital of Bishkek.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is also better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. Kyrgyzstan has a number of community based tourism initiatives with excellent homestays. Where possible, I can recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Use public transportation: Kyrgyzstan has a well-developed public transportation system with buses and marshrutkas. Opt for public transport, whenever possible, instead of taxis or private cars to reduce carbon emissions. Avoid internal flights. The journeys on road might be long, but the views are spectacular.
Leave no Trace principle: Kyrgyzstan is famous for its natural beauty and mountains. When hiking, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly.
To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to respect the culture. Kyrgyzstan is an Islamic country with a nomadic past that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Kyrgyz or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
Online Resources about Backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Caravanistan: Caravanistan has a wealth of information about travel in Kyrgyzstan and other countries along the Silk road. They also have an excellent forum where you can find travel partners for the Pamir highway.
Journal of Nomads: Journal of Nomads is an excellent blog with tons of information on backpacking Kyrgyzstan.
Travel to Eastern Europe Facebook group: This Facebook group is full of experts and travellers with a passion for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. If you have any questions left you will find or get an answer here.
Backpacking Central Asia Facebook group: This Facebook group is all about travel in central Asia and is a great place to meet other travellers when backpacking Kyrgyzstan.
Books about travel in Kyrgyzstan
Bradt guide Kyrgyzstan: The most comprehensive travelguide about travel in Kyrgyzstan that is very strong on background information about the country.
Lonely Planet Central Asia: The Lonely Planet doesn’t have a guide for Kyrgyzstan in particular. However the central Asia guide has a good section on backpacking Kyrgyzstan.
Sovietistan – Erika Fatland: A wonderful book about an anthropologists journey in Central Asia including an informative and fun chapter on travel in Kyrgyzstan.
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