After spending a year and a half in this remote Central Asian country, I think of myself as a bit of an expert in travelling around Kyrgyzstan and definitely know some of the best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan. I visited all of the oblasts I was allowed to check out the top Kyrgyzstan tourist attractions, and as I ventured out as far as the Peace Corps security procedures permitted me, my adventures in solo travel of Kyrgyzstan scenery grew and grew. Kyrgyzstan tourist places won’t look like tourist spots in other countries. Most are natural or cultural, but hey, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan will beat any museum, any day!
So with no further ado, here is my list of:
Top 10 Places to Visit in Kyrgyzstan (Tourist Attractions Galore!!)
Arslanbob: Kyrgyzstan’s Walnut Forest
Arslanbob is a quaint little Uzbek village, up in the mountains about an hour out of Jalal-Abad City. It is known as the home of the Largest Walnut Forest in the World!
There are a ton of CBT homestays where you can lay your head and fill your bellies after a long day getting lost on the trails in and around town. The two waterfalls (the big waterfall and the small waterfall) are natural starting points for outdoors exploration, or even for a dip to escape the hot Kyrgyz summer.
Arslanbob is easy to access from Osh or Jalal-Abad City, and makes for the perfect 3 day retreat in the mountains.
How to get to Arslanbob:
Take the direct marshrutkas from either Osh or Jalal-Abad City, or hop in a shared taxi for a bit more money. The CBT office is just north of the city centre.
Looking for more info on Arslanbob? Check out my post from the World’s Largest Walnut Forest!
Hike Up (or Around) Peak Lenin in the Pamir Mountains
Straddling the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Peak Lenin is the most achievable 7,000m+ peak in the world. It is climbed by many trekkers every year, as it is not technically demanding, like say Everest or K2. Not into scaling mountains?
Be more like me and hike around the foothills of Peak Lenin, great views I tell you!
Peak Lenin Yurt Camp is about 30 minutes south of Sary Mogol, in the Alay oblast, and sits in the shadow of the peak. Horseback riding, eating yak-buttered bread, day trekking, and sleeping in a yurt are the big-ticket items in this area, for good reason. The spectacular mountain scenery is some of Kyrgyzstan’s best, and due to it’s remote location, some of it’s least visited!
How to get to Peak Lenin Yurt Camp:
From Osh, take a share taxi to Sary Mogol CBT. The very helpful CBT coordinator can point you forward from there! Here is a post about my Experience at Peak Lenin!
Adventure Time in Karakol
Karakol, located at the far eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul, is the Kyrgyzstan equivalent to Queenstown in New Zealand. In the winter there is skiing and snowboarding for those who like to dislocate their shoulders, and during the summer there is phenomenal hiking, both multi-day and single day trails abound.
You can probably tell which season I prefer. My advice would be to visit Kyrgyzstan between May and September, but some folks do opt for the ‘travel to Kyrgyzstan in November‘ thing. Brrrr…
I hiked to Altyn Arashan, mainly so I could see the mountains and drink beer in the hot springs. There are multiple tour agencies in town, excelling in outdoors activities and getting you into Kyrgyzstan’s wilderness.
How to get to Karakol
From Bishkek, you can take either share taxis or marshrutkas very regularly from the main bus station. The northern route around the top of Lake Issyk Kul takes about 7 hours.
Want more info, go to my blog about Hiking to Altyn Arashan and those awesome hot spring pools!
Where to Stay in Karakol
Karakol is an outdoor person’s dream, so most of the accommodation is pretty relaxed, hostels, and yurts seem to be highly over represented!
Sleep in a Nomadic Yurt!
Not an exact location, but during your time in Kyrgyzstan, do try to sleep in a yurt, for several reasons. Yurts are traditional nomad dwellings, they can be taken down and moved around with relative easy, and they are THE symbol of the traditional Kyrgyz culture.
That and a dead goat. I digress.
Yurts have become fashionable for hipster Westerners, but they are still very much a real form of accommodation for not just tourists but locals alike in the upper elevations of Kyrgyzstan. Yurts will inevitably be in high elevation pastures, which are called jailoo, so they are normally in very picturesque locations.
If you stay in a yurt, you will probably also be fed Kyrgyz style, which means traditional Kyrgyz cooking ranging from yak yogurt to sheep meat soup, fresh bread, and Kumuz, the traditional Kyrgyz beverage, which is fermented mare’s milk (it’s an acquired taste, but when in a yurt!)
How to stay in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan:
Most CBT offices can help you get to a yurt stay, though the best will be at the higher elevations, like in Naryn, Talas, or Southern Osh oblasts. Most yurt camps are only open in the summer months due to weather, and that’s when summer pastures are open, so plan for June to August, mid-September at the latest. Check out my post about my incredible Yurt Stay in Peak Lenin!
A lot of the budget accommodation in Kyrgyzstan also offer yurts as an option, so definitely check out the hostels in Kyrgyzstan and you can find yurts on there!
Talas City: One of the More Remote Places to Visit in Kyrgyzstan
Not many travellers make it to Talas, which is a shame, and makes Talas sad. Talas oblast is definitely the frontier of Kyrgyzstan, with the ‘city’ part of Talas City being a pretty ironic oxymoron.
Talas is one of the more impoverished areas of Kyrgyzstan, surviving mainly off of bean farming. There is not a ton of great infrastructure; but as we adventurers know, once you get off that tourist trail, you start to see what the country is truly like.
There is no pretext when it comes to Talas, it can be kind of rough. At the same time, it is beautiful! Often people are so thrilled you came to Talas they treat you like royalty. There are superior hiking opportunities, some cultural gems (just ask me about the legend of Manas and his pants…), and truly delicious mantes to be eaten at the bazaar.
How to get to Talas Kyrgyzstan:
Take a shared taxi or marshrutka from Bishkek. The trip can take between 4 and 8 hours, depending on the roads and the weather. Two people I knew once got stranded in the winter overnight on the highway, but most people make it just fine! Check out my blog all about a Trip to Talas!
Explore Sary Chelek, Kyrgyzstan Scenery Posterchild
Sary Chelek is a high altitude lake in central Jalal-Abad oblast that will knock your Smart-Wool socks off. The pristine alpine vistas and clear water make Sary Chelek a bit of a poster child for Kyrgyz tourism opportunities. The problem with Sary Chelek is that it is far, from basically everything.
The village of Sary Chelek offers numerous places to stay, but not a ton in the way of food or grocery shopping, so arrive with some sustenance. Hiking around Sary Chelek is the best way to experience the lake and all of it’s vistas. If you have your camping gear, you can spend many nights out in the bush.
In the summer, beware the presence of the heracleum plant, an unassuming green bush with toxic leaves that will burn your skin. So stay covered up!
How to get to Sary Chelek:
Take a shared taxi from Toktogul or Jala-Abad City. Stay at the top of the village, as that is the end where the trailhead to the lake is.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s Southern Capital
Osh is the City of the South, and where I called home for a year and a half, so I’m slightly biased. At the same time, Osh is a nice city, with some solid accommodation and decent food options. The parks and the river are pleasant to stroll around, the people are friendly, and the few attractions there are in Osh, are pretty sweet.
Check out the History Museum and make sure you climb Sulaiman Too, the only UNESCO heritage site in Kyrgyzstan. I believe I hold the world record for two feats: 1) almost dying climbing Sulaiman Too at high noon in the summer and 2) running up the mountain while holding a video camera, gasping for air. Try to do the climb around dusk for sunset, the views are truly lovely.
During the summer, Osh has some fantastic pools to lie around, as well as a pop-up carnival in the park just south of the bazaar. And if you go to town, contact me, you can probably stay with my family there!
How to get to Osh Kyrgyzstan:
Fly direct to Osh from Istanbul or Bishkek, as well as several other Central Asian/Middle Eastern Cities. If you’re coming from Tajikistan, Osh will be the first city you hit off the Pamir highway. I wrote two posts about Osh in my time residing there: Osh, City of the South and Living in Osh.
Where to Stay in Osh Kyrgyzstan
Osh is a major city, so there are tons of options when it comes to accommodation. Luxury hotels, old Soviet manors, or modern hostels cover all the bases in Osh.
When my parents were in town, we stayed at the Tes Guesthouse for many nights and they were absolutely wonderful. The rooms are comfortable, wifi was good, people were friendly, the breakfast was solid, and the outdoors garden is lovely. My Mom got to know basically everybody who worked there on a near family like level and they were totally patient with my constant coming and going.
Attend a Kyrgyz Wedding
Again, not a specific place, but definitely a very Kyrgyz experience and one not to be missed if you can make it happen. Kyrgyz weddings are massive events, with an invitation list of 200 and then an additional 100 people who just show up invitation or not. There is endless food and drink, dancing, toast making, musical numbers, and probably even some contests and giveaways. Get ready to shoot vodka.
If you are a foreign guest, there is a good chance you will be asked to perform, so make sure you know the words to at least one or two verses of a popular song (my fave was the Titanic theme song). You do need to look nice, so wear that standby dress or nice shirt that we should all travel with for occasions just like this. You will surely walk away with a plastic bag of leftovers.
How to go to a Kyrgyz wedding:
During the summer, there are weddings constantly, and not only on the weekends. Talk to people, or better yet, be direct and approach a wedding party as they are getting their pictures taken in the park (you will see brides everywhere!). And more often than not, a couple extra guests is no biggie, especially in return for the novelty you will provide!
Warning: You may be asked to give a toast or perform something. Just do it!
Explore the Heights in Song Kul, Naryn
Song Kul is the epitome of jailoo, the high elevation pastureland that makes up mass tracts of the Kyrgyz landscape. A beautiful and freezing cold lake, a visit to Song Kul will get you Kyrgyzstan’s scenery and nomadic culture all wrapped into one. Sleeping in a yurt and catching some nomadic horse games make Song Kul a must do for the traveler on a bit of a time crunch. You could even get yourself on a horse trek to Song Kul like the nomads!
How to get to Song Kul Naryn:
You can book trips to Song Kul directly from Bishkek, or go through the CBT in Naryn City. It’s only about 4 hours from Bishkek.
Interested in these horse games of which I speak? Here is more info from my time watching Kyrgyzstan’s Nomadic Horse Games…
Where to Stay in Bishkek
Check out the South Shore of Issyk Kul
Issyk Kul is the second largest high elevation, saline lake in the world. It is the raison d’etre of the entire Issyk Kul oblast, and a major draw for Kazakh and Russian holiday-goers. Cholpon-Ata is the main tourist hub on the north shore, with beaches and resorts, though if I were you, I would plan to head for the South Shore of Lake Issyk Kul.
The South Shore holds better and quieter beaches than the North Coast of the lake, plus it is home to some phenomenal hiking in Kyrgyzstan, like Jeti-Oguz, an area of unique rock formations.
The South Shore is to the North Shore what Vancouver is to Toronto: less hype and more scenic beauty (As a West Coaster I just had to get a poke in at TO! Any Torontonians want to defend themselves? )
How to get to the South Shore, Issyk Kul:
The easiest way will be from Karakol. Make sure you get a marshrutka or a taxi going along the south coast and they can drop you anywhere along the way. You can also come from Bishkek, again, ask for a specific destination to make sure that ride is taking the southern route around the lake.