Kyrgyzstan (pt 1) : Land of Horsemen
Updated: May 24
Shanghai - Urumqi (Xinjiang) - Almaty (Kazakhstan) - Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) - Karakol - Jyrgalan - Karakol - Jeti Orguz - Skazska - Bokonbayaev - Son Kul - Kochor - Bishkek - Almaty - Urumqi - Shanghai
Part 1 : Shanghai to Almaty to Karakol
Part 2 : Jyrgalan & the Boz Uchuk Trek (80kms)
Part 3 : Karakol & the Ala Kol Trek (ca. 50 kms)
Part 4 : Jeti Orguz - Skazska - Bokonbayaev
Part 5 : Son Kul Trek (on horse-back)
Part 6 : Kochur - Bishkek - Almaty - Shanghai
For Kyrgyzstan photographs for purchase please go here (opens in new tab) : https://www.thedragonsfather.com/copy-of-kyrgyzstan-1
Note that, until my shop is fully functional, wall art purchases can be made directly by contacting me at : email@example.com
Firstly try to imagine :
80% of the country is covered by the Tian Shan mountain range, and the rest by the Kakshaal-Too range, the rest is mainly turquoise lakes & stunning valleys
The world's 2nd largest alpine lake is the beautiful glacier fed sparkling Issyk-Kul (182 kms long by up to 60 kms wide and up to 668m deep)
It is surrounded by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan & China (the first three easily accessible).
The people are even today still as obsessed by, and dependant on, horses and horse-riding skills, as they have been for thousands of years.
There are many thousands of kms of accessible (and remote) trekking, some popular though mostly you'll see very few people, if any, on any given day.
Nomad Games & Festivals, where Kyrgyz horsemen & archers demonstrate their awesome skills, abound in season. Some of the err ... sports are horse wrestling and a game called Kok Boru, which is like polo except played with a dead goat (which they slaughter on the field before the game commences) ! In Central Asia it is also called Ulak Tariysh or Buzkashi).
Staying in Yurts is thoroughly recommended, very affordable indeed and they are also plentiful during the late Spring & Summer. Try to avoid those targeting tourists though.
If yurts are not your thing then there are B&Bs all over the country, many in lovely homes. For a single private room (usually communal showers though sometimes private also) I paid no more than US$15 - 30. Perfect considering you are not spending much time in them at all. Breakfasts are usually substantial !
Kyrgyzstan is still a relatively 'undiscovered' country in Central Asia. You are not going to find hordes of tourists wherever you go, in fact bar the lovely, but quite tough and very very popular, Ala Kol trek (which can be done as a day trip and is a quite spectacular trek, with a stunning turquoise glacier lake your destination) I hardly saw any other hikers / foreign tourists anywhere I went in the one month I spent there (July 2018).
You can wild camp virtually anywhere in the mountains ... and it is often the only choice !
The languages spoken are usually Kyrgyz and Russian though some people (mostly of student age, e.g. 15-30), restaurant or B&B owners, especially in the towns, speak some/good English. Menus and important renting/trekking information was almost always available in English and there are tourist (or 'guests' as tourists are referred to there) offices in the larger towns.
Learn the cyrillic alphabet before you go to make reading signs easier. An hour a day for 2 weeks and you'll have it down pat!
It cost me just US$1,000 to spend one month in country, that included all food, transport and accomodation as well as horses and guides where required or desired. Impressive, though I did spend half that time wild camping in the mountains !
Traveling to Kyrgyzstan was for me, since I'm an expatriate living in Shanghai, rather easier than for people coming from the USA or Europe. Not that that should deter you in the slightest ! I flew from Shanghai to Urumqi (Xinjiang) with China Southern (who were excellent) and then, after an overnight wait with hotel accomodation provided free of charge by the airline, onto Almaty in Kazakhstan.
This route is considerably cheaper than flying directly into Bishkek (one assumes airport landing fees is the culprit) from Shanghai (and I assume from anywhere else) and yet Almaty is just a short 4-5 hour bus trip to the main Bishkek bus station, from where I was then able to immediately find a Marshrutka (minivan, the main method of transport around towns and villages in Kyrgyzstan) to take me to Karakol.
It was easy to get a bus downtown from Almaty airport and to find the hostel I'd booked into for a night before taking a bus the next day across the border into Kyrgyzstan.
The AMIGO HOSTEL in Almaty. Groceries, drinks and snacks just 50m away. A private room for one included a shower and food making facilities in the common room. Recommended.
Almaty to Bishkek and onto Karakol
Firstly let's be clear - I needed to be at the Sayran bus station early to ensure I got across the border and onto another Marshrutka to Karakol the same day, as it's a long ride and the last Marshrutka to Karakol is around midday (from memory). It was around a US$1-2 taxi ride to Almaty’s Sayran bus station from the Amigo Hostel. There it was easy to find Marshrutka going to Bishkek (there are many) for around US$5-10. Including the dismount (at the border crossing, and then pick up the Marshrutka again on the other side - make sure you take a photo of the buses' number plate so you can find it again amongst the many others!) it takes 4-5 hours, if the border isn't congested.
At the Bishkek western bus station (Zapadny Avtovokzal or Западный Автовокзал) around 20-30 mins from the border, I now had to find a bus going to Karakol. With my new cyrillic reading skills (and knowing the Marshrutka number I needed to find) I found the one I needed, paid my ca. US$ for the 400 kms, 5-6 hour trip, and bought some drinks and snacks for the journey (the Marshrutka does make 2-3 courtesy stops on route for pee breaks)! The trip is along some of the best, and fastest, roads in Kyrgyzstan so no different to traveling on the excellent inter-city roads in China. We were driving at over 100 kph most of the time. Whilst waiting for the Marshrutka's departure time I changed some cash at the bus station (cheaper here than at the border crossing) around US$500 worth and also swapped out my phone's SIM card for a local one (very very cheap). I later topped up my SIM card in Karakol (and later changed money here too) and Kuchor and ending up buying far more than I needed, but I didn't want to skimp because top-ups are only available in towns. Most of the time you can't get a signal in the mountains anyway however the GPS still functions of course, for my trekking routes (always carry a back-up paper map) !
Sony A7rii and Voigtlander Ultron 35/2, merged 5 shot panorama.
My B&B at the excellent NICE HOTEL in Karakol. The owner was very pleasant and helpful and he speaks great English. The breakfast lovely too and tea and coffee always available. As I used Karakol for my base in this area and I returned to the NICE HOTEL 3-4 times over a 2 week period, after returning from hiking in the nearby Tian Shan mountains. Every room I stayed in was clean and as per the above. Only one had a private toilet/shower however.
I liked Karakol so much that I ended up using it as my base for my treks (5 in total in this region). I found a lovely B&B, that I liked a lot, that was just a 15 mins walk into the town centre, just about all I could manage after the extensive mountain trekking!) and there were excellent places to hang out and get myself fed & watered closeby. In addition the main market wasn't far away where it was easy to stock up on energy heavy foods (nuts, cheese, chocolate etc.) for my next trek into the mountains.
Walking the streets of Karakol. Since independence and the Soviet pull-out Kyrgyzstan has suffered from a lack of investment. It was beginning to recover prior to the CV-19 epidemic. I do hope they continue to do well but the lack of money is obvious in the many buildings now showing signs of dilapidation. Even if they do make great photographic opportunities.
Yeah not at all what any of us want when on vacation and especially when trekking alone in the mountains. I had started to suffer from severe coughing on the way back down from one of my treks (luckily for me this is well before before Covid so I wasn't ostracised on arriving back in civilisation)! It didn't let up once back in Karakol. In fact it seemed to have worsened and a young girl working in the local Destination Karakol tourist office next to the Fat Cat cafe took mercy on me (thank you so much for all your help Ayperi Maratova !!) and not only took me to the local (Russian) doctor but acted as my interpreter. Awesome. The doctor diagnosed Chronic Bronchitis and gave me some medication along with the advice that I shouldn't go too high. Definitely not what I wanted to hear when that was mostly what I had planned. So Peak Lenin, the highest mountain in Kyrgyzstan at over 7,000m, was now out of the question (not that I planned to summit it !) and my plans underwent a dramatic revision.
NB. back in Shanghai the coughing was still lingering so a hospital visit and tests disproved the Bronchitis diagnosis and it revised it to pneumonia. Lucky for me, far better than bronchitis at that stage, since it hadn't developed into a more serious form! No longer going to Osh or Saty Mogul I could concentrate on festivals, towns and UNESCO sites around the gorgeous Issyk-Kul lake, though as I felt better after a week or so I went back up the mountains on the Ala Kul Trek, which has a maximum altitude of around 3,900m.
Courtesy of Wikipedia :-
Issyk-Kul Lake is 182 kilometres (113 mi) long, up to 60 kilometres (37 mi) wide and has an area of 6,236 square kilometres (2,408 sq mi). It is the second-largest mountain lake in the world behind Lake Titicaca in South America. It's at an altitude of 1,607 metres (5,272 ft) and reaches 668 metres (2,192 ft) in depth.
Most importantly, having already secured a place to stay until I sorted out my mountain trekking, was where to eat and drink ! Luckily Karakol has plenty of feeding stations and my favourite three where I spent all my time planning and browsing the internet were :
Karakol Caffee Good coffee, good cafes and snacks and a very nice atmosphere. Located on the main road through Karakol (it's not a big place - population ).
The Lighthouse Close to my B&B this has a good reputation amongst foreign tourists. I ate here most evenings during my time in Karakol.
Fat Cat This is cafe Numero Uno for most backpackers and foreign visitors because aside from the good food and drinks right next door is the Destination Karakol tourist office where a lot of people sign up for guided treks. Need another reason to hang out there ? Fat Cat also functions as an outlet for social projects targeting three initiatives: feeding the homeless, helping families with low income through food drives and fundraising, and providing a place for the development of skills for former victims of abuse.
iPhone 7 photograph.
More on Karakol can be found here : https://destinationkarakol.com/