You know how people always ask which, of all the countries you have visited, is your absolute favourite? I have now travelled in 50 countries but for me the answer is easy – Kyrgyzstan.
Some of you may not have heard of this economically poor Central Asian republic but I think perhaps it is time you did. My travels in Kyrgyzstan and beyond count as some of my most richly rewarding travel.
With 93 per cent of Kyrgyzstan sitting over 1,000 metres (3,280 feet), you can see snow-capped mountains from almost everywhere, most of which never see trekkers or climbers. But the biggest attraction is the Kyrgyz people themselves.
Here are my Top 5 Kyrgyzstan travel activities:
1. Horse Trekking from Kochkor
Saddle up and head for the jailoo, the summertime mountain pastures of the semi-nomadic Kyrgyz people. Ride south into the Terskei Alu mountain range or north into the Khyrgizia range. This is a land of horsemen. In the hills of central Kyrgyzstan they herd their flocks of fat-bottomed sheep, cattle and horses. The velvety green hills give way to steep oxidized-red cliffs and snowy mountains. Golden marmots scamper amongst the rocks in the late afternoon sun and the sheepdogs chase them with unfounded optimism.
2. Stay in a yurt
This tent-like structure with a conical roof is still used by Kyrgyzstan’s semi-nomadic herding families as they care for their herds in the summer. Yurts are made from thin willow frame covered in a thick layer of woollen felt. There is a round opening in the middle of the roof for ventilation and a pot belly stove inside. They smell of mutton fat and smoke.
The exquisite Song-Kul lake is a great place to visit these people as they bring their flocks to the broad summer grasslands. When the grass is gone they pack up the yurt and move to greener pastures. They make fresh bread, homemade jam and the most amazing fresh cream you will ever taste. If you are there at the right time you may get to taste kymyz, the highly prized fermented mare’s milk drink. There are plenty of trekking opportunities in the surrounding hills.
3. Shop in one of Asia’s oldest bazaars in Osh
People have been trading in Osh since the 5th century BC so they know how to do a bazaar. Shop here for everything from flip flops to a handy length of rope; have a spot of black-smithing done or buy the most delicious dried apricots you’ve ever tasted. You won’t be able to resist buying one of the black and white felt hats worn by Kyrgyz men.
4. Go trekking from Karakol
There are some brilliant easy hikes near Karakol, an old Russian colonial town on the shores of the enormous and beautiful Issyk-Kul lake. The streets are lined with white-trunked poplars, cute Russian cottages decorated with wooden gingerbread, and blossoming apple and lilac trees. As always in Kyrgyzstan, there is a backdrop of snowy mountains, in this case the eastern end of the Terskei Alu range. Explore perfect alpine valleys with dark pointy fir trees and green grass meadows across which horse herds graze. The wildflowers in spring and summer are worth the walk alone. A lively animal market is held on Sundays. Just watch out for the ‘Central Asian hospitality ambush’…
5. Climbing in the Alai Valley
For more adventurous types the magnificent Pamir Alai mountain range runs along the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and contains some amazing trekking peaks. Approaching the mountains from the village of Sary Tash through soft green pastureland, the altitude is high enough for yak herds as well as horses. This is serious trekking and mountaineering territory. Unless you are good at organizing serious expeditions, you need to hire a trekking company or guide in this region. Peak Lenin is a big draw-card. It is considered one of the best introductions to 7,000m plus climbing in the world with relatively straightforward ascent routes.
See here for some tips on trekking in the Alay mountains.
Adventure travellers everywhere will rejoice at the opportunities for trekking, climbing, and authentic cultural experiences that come with travel in Kyrgyzstan. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime travel destination.
By Natasha von Geldern
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