Kyrgyzstan Itinerary: how to spend 3 weeks in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is called the Switzerland of Asia and is one of my favourite countries in the world. With more than 80 mountain ranges, glittering high altitude lakes and superb hiking trails there are plenty of opportunities to plan a Kyrgyzstan itinerary full of exciting activities in nature.
The mountains are never far away in Kyrgyzstan and you don’t need to be a professional hiker to enjoy them. There are many places to visit in Kyrgyzstan by car where you are surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks.
Although nature is the major tourist draw in Kyrgyzstan, its culture is equally interesting. It’s nomadic past still defines the Kyrgyz identity. In the summer pastures, yurts and horses are central to daily life.
Some of the cultural activities you can include in your Kyrgyzstan itinerary are sleeping in a yurt, trying fermented mare’s milk or watching an eagle hunting demonstration.
With so many things to do in Kyrgyzstan the only difficulty in planning your Kyrgyzstan itinerary is your selection of places to visit. I hope that with my sample Kyrgyzstan itineraries I can help yte ou plan your own while making sure you don’t miss out on the countries highlights.
My Kyrgyzstan itinerary
I have visited Kyrgyzstan twice now and still I want to come back. Kyrgyzstan is one of these countries that I never get tired of and that has so much to offer that there are always new places to explore.
My first visit back in 2014 was a last minute decision after I found a ridiculously cheap ticket. I had no planned Kyrgyzstan itinerary beforehand and was honestly a bit unprepared.
I went in October and soon I found out that the weather can be quite unpredictable that time. One day it was sunny and warm while the next day I was shivering in a snow storm.
Most of the places higher up in the mountains were already difficult to get to and I mostly traveled around lake Issyk kul. Regardless of all this, I absolutely fell in love with the country and in my mind I was already planning to come back.
My second trip I came much better prepared with a one month Kyrgyzstan itinerary including the southern Alay valley, the mountains around Karakol and Song kul lake.
The Kyrgyzstan itineraries in this post are a combination of my first and second trip. They are perfect for those that are not professional hikers. Some relatively easy day hikes are included, but not the multiple day treks that would require carrying your own gear.
However, if that is what you are looking for there are plenty of places to go. The most popular hike is the 3 day Ala kul lake near Karakol. I can personally also recommend the Alay mountains and Jyrgalan.
Kyrgyzstan itinerary 1: Around Lake Issyk kul (2 weeks)
Day 1-2: Bishkek
Most people will start their Kyrgyzstan itinerary in Bishkek. The capital is definitely worth a day or two, especially if you love Soviet architecture.
That doesn’t mean Bishkek is a grim Soviet city. The impressive Ala too square, the broad avenues and green parks make it a pleasant place to wander around in. Furthermore, Bishkek has its own Kyrgyz identity that is coming more to the forefront in recent years.
Kyrgyzstan’s capital with its bustling bazaars and museums is a great introduction to the country. If you find yourself for considerable time in the city there are also some interesting day trips to make.
Ala Archa National Park is just around the corner as well as the green Alameddin valley and the Issyk Ata gorge with its sanatorium. For more mountain sceneries head to Karakol next
Things to do: Ala too square, Osh bazaar, Oak park, Zhirgal banya, Soviet architecture.
Things to see nearby: Ala Archa National Park, Burana tower, Issyk Ata sanatorium and Alameddin valley
For more information you can read my post on the best things to do in Bishkek.
Day 3: Karakol
Karakol might be a small town, but there is much more to it than first meets the eye. First of all, its the fourth largest city in Kyrgyzstan. Second, it has a diverse and multicultural nature with an interesting food scene. And at last, it is the outdoors capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Although there are not a lot of things to do in Karakol itself, the city is an interesting mix of Russian wooden homes, an orthodox church and a Chinese Dungan mosque. Destination Karakol has done a great job to make Karakol a more interesting place to stay with some cultural activities like a Kyrgyz food tour and a Dungan family dinner.
However, the true reason to visit Karakol lies just outside the city where lots of outdoor activities are waiting for you in the mountains. In the winter you can go skiing and in summer you can go hiking and horse back riding.
There are so many options that you can spend weeks in Karakol exploring the different mountain towns that each have their own character. Most of them are accessible by public transport, making it easy and cheap to travel around.
In this Kyrgyzstan itinerary I have included Altyn Arashan, Jyrgalan and Jeti Oguz.
Things to do: Dungan mosque, Orthodox church, Animal market, Karakol food tour
Things to see nearby: Altyn Arashan, Jyrgalan, Jeti Oguz
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.
Day 4-5: Altyn Arashan trek
One of my favourite hikes near Karakol is the trek to Altyn Arashan. This beautiful valley is famous for its natural hot springs, alpine meadows, forested mountain slopes and views on the snow covered peak Palatka.
The 15 kilometer hike is not too difficult and the start of the trail is easy to reach by minibus from Karakol and there is no need for a guide or an expensive tour.
In summer there are several yurt camps to stay the night. You can either walk back to Karakol the next day or add an extra day in your Kyrgyzstan itinerary to do some more hiking in the Altyn Arashan valley. Basically wherever you go, you are guaranteed spectacular views.
Things to do: hot springs, hike to Ala kul lake, hike towards the foot of peak Palatka, horse back riding, sleeping in a yurt
For more information about how to get there and where to sleep you can read my post about the Altyn Arashan valley.
Day 6-8: Jyrgalan
If you have time to visit only one of the places around Karakol let it be Jyrgalan. This former mining town has transformed in the best place around Karakol for outdoor activities. Jyrgalan has it all. From hiking, mountain biking to horse back riding and wintersports in winter.
It all started with a community based tourism initiative and if you see the location of Jyrgalan its success is no surprise. The green alpine meadows and snowcapped peaks of the surrounding mountains offer some of the most spectacular views.
In this Kyrgyzstan itinerary there is one full day in Jyrgalan which means you have to make a difficult choice among the number of things to do. I would recommend one of the self guided day hikes. The easiest day hike is the one to the Kok Bell waterfall. The one I personally recommend is the hike to Turnaluu kol lake and the panorama viewpoint.
Things to do: Turnaluu kol lake, Kok bel waterfall, Eki chat gorge, Tulpar Tash rock, hiking, horse back riding, mountain biking and winter sports.
For more information about how to get there and where to sleep you can read my post about Jyrgalan.
Day 9 – 10: Jeti Oguz
Most people visit the small village of Jeti Oguz as a daytrip from Karakol just to see the iconic red bull rocks and the broken heart, but there are good reasons to stay the night.
First of all, because the red rock formations that Jeti Oguz is famous for are at its most beautiful during sunset and sunrise. Second of all, because there is much more to do in Jeti Oguz. Once more it is a great place for hiking and the landscapes are pretty unique here making it very different from Jyrgalan or Altyn Arashan.
For those with an interest in Soviet history you can also visit the Jeti Oguz Sanatorium. Although its glory days are clearly over and the building looks like it is about to fall apart it is still open for business. For only a few hundred som you can try any of their treatments such as radon bath therapy or mud electrocution.
Things to do: hiking in the dragon gorge for curious red rock formations, hiking to the valley of flowers, visit the sanatorium, enjoy the sunset over the red bull rock formations
For more information about how to get there and where to sleep you can read my post about Jeti Oguz.
Day 11 – 12: Tosor
Even though Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country it is still possible to go to the beach. Lake Issyk kul has plenty of places to cool down in summer. Because of its proximity to Bishkek most beach resorts are on the northern shore, but in my opinion the beaches in the south are more beautiful and more peaceful.
Tosor is one of my favourite beaches in Kyrgyzstan with powdery sand and clear blue waters and great views on the Ala Too mountains. There is not much more to do in the town of Tosor than the beach.
One reason to stay the night is the possibility to sleep in a yurt on the beach and to explore the nearby Barskoon valley where or the Skazka canyon.
Things to do: Barskoon valley, Skazka Canyon, Tosor beach
Accomodation : Tosor Yurt camp
For more information about how to get there and where to sleep you can read my post about Tosor.
Day 13-14: Bokonbaevo
In this Kyrgyzstan itinerary I focus much more on the southern shore of lake Issyk kul. Personally I found little charm in the resort town of Cholpon Ata in the north that is overrun by Russian and Kazakh tourists.
The south is in my opinion much more interesting and because of Destination South shore it has become easier to travel in this part of Kyrgyzstan. Bokonbaevo is the biggest town here and can be seen as the cultural heart of lake issyk kul.
Like Karakol there is not much to do in Bokonbaevo itself, but is the gateway to a number of places and activities. One if the most interesting things to do in Bokonbaevo are the eagle hunting demonstrations or a visit to the sacred springs of Manjyly Ata.
The landscapes around Bokonbaevo won’t dissapoint either with the mountains in the back and beautiful panoramic viewpoints over the lake.
Things to do: Eagle hunting demonstration, Felt making workshops, bazaar
Things to see nearby: Manjyly Ata, Kadji sai
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.
Kyrgyzstan Itinerary 2: South Kyrgyzstan (one week)
Day 1: Bishkek
In this second itinerary I will focus on the South of the country and you could easily add this either before or after the first Kyrgyzstan itinerary.
To travel to the South you will need to travel the long way between Bishkek and Osh. One option is to fly, but you will miss out on the beautiful scenery. The other option is the 12 hour journey by shared taxi.
Either way you will start your trip to the South in Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Check the information about Bishkek in the first Kyrgyzstan itinerary to read more about everything to do in this city.
Day 2-4: Osh
Osh is one of the oldest and most multicultural cities in Kyrgyzstan. Its history goes back more than 3000 years and different people have made this city their home. Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik people live together like they did for hundreds of years.
Even though the city has few historic remains left, it has a number of interesting things to do. The sacred Suleiman Too mountain towers above the city and you can climb it along with the local pilgrims to be rewarded with a nice view.
Osh also has the best food in Kyrgyzstan with regional versions of plov and manti that are worth trying out. The bustling bazaar is a great place to do so.
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.
Things to do: Suleiman too mountain, Osh bazaar
Things to see nearby: Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains, Arslanbob
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.
Day 5-7: Arslanbob
Arslanbob is another mountain gem in the south of Kyrgyzstan where an active community based tourism initiative welcomes visitors into their homes.
This village is quite unlike other rural places in Kyrgyzstan. For once, the majority of the people in Arslanbob are Uzbek. Second, the landscape is more lush and green and home to some of the largest walnut forests in the world.
It’s a nice place to simply walk around to soak up the friendly village atmosphere. There are two waterfalls that you can hike to and you can combine it in a loop with the shaded walnut forests.
Things to do: small waterfall, large waterfall, walnut forests, panoramic viewpoint
For more information you can read my Arslanbob travel guide.
How to get there: From Osh take a shared taxi or bus to Bazar Korgon. In Bazar Korgon there are marshrutka’s to Arslanbob every hour.
Kyrgyzstan itinerary extensions
With a 3 week Kyrgyzstan itinerary you will get to see the highlights of the country. If you have more time available, consider yourself very lucky, because there is so much more to see and do when backpacking Kyrgyzstan.
Here I will discuss some possible extensions that you can add into this Kyrgyzstan itinerary if time allows.
Sary Mogul & the Alay Mountains (2 – 3 days)
Sary Mogul is a tiny village in the less visited Alay valley. Being above 3000 meters you are right in the middle of the mountains. Most people come here to see peak Lenin. It is considered to be one of the easiest 7000 meter mountains to climb, but it is still a challenging 3 week expedition.
However, hiking to the Lenin Peak Basecamp is a relatively easy day hike from the nearby Tulpar kol lake where you can sleep in a yurt. For Panoramic views you can go to the Travellers pass.
Other easy day hikes go to the Besh kol lakes or to the Koshkol lakes. The hiking opportunities here are one of the best in Kyrgyzstan and you are likely to have the trails for yourself. This is also a great place for longer treks if you have your own gear.
Things to do: Tulpar kol lake, hike to Lenin Peak Basecamp, Travellers Pass, Besh kol lakes, Kosh kol lakes
How to get there: The best way to travel to sary Mogul is from Osh in Southern Kyrgyzstan. There is a daily marshrutka at 2 pm from Osh to Daroot Korgon stopping in the Alay valley. Make sure you are at the Osh bus station around 1 pm to get a seat (300 som). Expect to be in Sary Mogul around 6 pm.
Read more information in my guide about Sary Mogul and the Alay mountains.
Song kul lake (2-3 days)
Song kul lake is one of the most beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan with a deep blue lake surrounded by green pastures and snowcapped mountain peaks. It is the perfect picture of mountains, yurts and horses and the best place to experience the life and culture of the Kyrgyz nomads.
The alpine lake lies in a remote valley above 3000 meters. The fertile marshlands make it a favourite destination for the nomadic Kyrgyz herdsmen to let their livestock graze in summer. Nowadays tourism is also a good source of income and several yurt camps welcome visitors.
The difficulty of reaching Song kul lake protects it from overtourism though and the area is big enough that it doesn’t feel crowded. Song kul lake is a very peaceful spot and totally worth all the effort of getting there.
Things to do: panoramic viewpoints, horse back riding, sleeping in a yurt, watching the sunset and looking at the stars.
How to get there: There is no public transport to Song kol lake and basically there are three options. The most popular way to travel to Song kul lake is on the back of a horse and this is possible all year long. The other option is by road and requires your own mode of transport. You can find a car with driver in either Naryn or Kochkor. In summer you can also hike or cycle independently to the lake.
For more information check out my Song kul lake travel guide.
Sary Chelek (2-3 days)
Sary chelek is another beautiful lake that stands out for its natural beauty and stunning mountain views. It’s very popular with locals, but still a bit of a secret gem among travellers, because of its difficulty in getting there.
Thats why I wasn’t able to visit Sary Chelek yet. Even though I had a one month Kyrgyzstan itinerary I had to make some though choices.
Because Sary Chelek is only at 2000 meters it is a good alternative to Song kul lake if the road there is still closed.
How to get there: There is a daily minibus from Osh to Arkit at 07:40 AM. Arkit lies at the entrance of the Sary Chelek nature reserve and from there it is a 15 kilometer (4-5 hour) hike to the lake. It’s possible to camp at the lake or sleep in Arkit and visit the lake on a day hike.
Tash Rabat (1 – 2 days)
In the middle of nowhere with a fantastic mountainous backdrop lies the 15th century stone caravan serai as a reminder of the glory of the silk road days.
Nowadays Tash Rabat is remote and surrounded by empty lands, but this was once part of the famous Silk Road. At that time many trade caravans with their camels and wares passed through. A caravanserai was a roadside inn where traders could stop for the night, have a rest and fill their stomachs.
Because of the unusual lay out archeologists believe it might have been used for religious purposes too. The ruins combined with the gorgeous high altitude landscapes around it make this a great place to visit.
How to get there: Tash Rabat is 2 hours from Naryn. There is no public transport, but you can arrange a car with driver through cbt Naryn. There is a yurt camp where you can sleep
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.
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