While the superlative natural scenery and cultural diversity of Central Asia have long been admired, relative remoteness and political instability have kept it as almost a final frontier for mass tourism – a quality that has always proved alluring for the hardier traveller. With the dawn of One Belt One Road, however, the region looks to be on the cusp of some big changes, so if you like your landscapes untouched and your travel on the more challenging side, now might be the time to get packin’; with 60 days’ visa-free for passport holders from 45 countries, Kyrgyzstan offers perhaps the most accessible starting point. Getting around can be a slog at times, but these top sights can all be visited in a week or so.
The fact that 90 percent of the landlocked nation sits above 1,500 metres is a strong indication of the nature of Kyrgyzstan’s attractions – hiking, trekking and gawping at some of the finest mountain vistas around. Indeed, the capital, Bishkek, lies before one such dramatic backdrop, though besides a few Soviet-flavoured monuments and squares, it’s a largely unremarkable destination. It is, however, a leafy and pleasant launchpad for greater, more scenic adventures, including the remarkably accessible Ala-Archa National Park. Just 45 minutes’ drive from the city, the park is popular for its superb alpine scenes set around a swooping main valley where, even in summer, snow-capped peaks protrude over verdant, tree-lined slopes. Well- marked trails make it a good choice for the casual hiker, and a taster for some of the more extreme climbs further afield.
Heading south, Kyrgyzstan’s second city, Osh, is also not overly laden with sights itself, though the 11-hour drive between the two is simply spectacular. A 40-minute flight may seem the less laborious option (11 a day; from 130RMB), but traversing a large part of the country means ogling an awesome array of landscapes, from expansive yurt-spotted grasslands and turquoise lakes, to winding, cloud-shaving passes and epic mountain panoramas.
Breaking up the journey south seems wise, and the tranquil nook of Arslanbob is a more than worthwhile stop, not far from the Uzbekistan border. The town’s claim to fame is the world’s largest walnut forest that sits in the surrounding lowlands and mountain slopes, and if nut tourism is your thing, September’s harvest season is the perfect time to go.
Other popular attractions include waterfalls and more challenging hikes to greater heights; look for the town’s community-based tourism (CBT) office, who can help arrange safe, guided tours, as well as B&B homestays – an attraction in themselves, as a peek into local life and Kyrgyz-Uzbek hospitality. CBTs are an invaluable resource in tourist towns nationwide, manned by English-speaking staff who can organise accommodation and activities, including horseback treks and yurt stays on the famous highland pastures, or jailoos.
Back towards Bishkek and the country’s northeast, the Issyk-Kul lake is another highlight. The world’s second largest mountain lake, its name – literally 'warm lake' in Kyrgyz – alludes more to the fact that it never freezes than to its feel to the skin. In spite of the chilly aqua, Issyk-Kul has been a popular summer playground since the days of Soviet yore and, after emerging from a post-breakup slump, ever more resorts have begun to line the northern shore, replete with sandy beaches and watersports galore, and all set in the midst of towering snow-tipped peaks. Those in search of a quieter, rougher and more challenging experience may favour the less developed southern edge.
Lovers of Xinjiang cuisine will be overjoyed at Kyrgyzstan’s simple yet hearty gifts to the taste buds, often dashed with a few Russian twists; staples include laghman pulled noodles, meaty rice dish plov, manti dumplings, and lamb shashlik skewers. Tea and bread are omnipresent – the decorated circular doughs are works of art, though be sure to pick them up early at town bazaars, before they sit hardening in the scorching daytime sun.
Things to know
Beyond Bishkek, English speakers and signage are both limited, so a rough knowledge of the Russian alphabet and a few basic phrases is helpful, if not essential, particularly for transactions and finding your way around. Your currency, the Kyrgyz Som, will go a long way in everything from food to accommodation and transport.
Extremely cheap but cramped minibuses run between towns and cities, though shared taxis and driver hire – both still relatively affordable – are sometimes the only option for less-travelled routes. Be aware that some high-altitude roads and more remote destinations are tough to reach, or even completely inaccessible, outside of summer.