Some parts of Central Asia can be unstable: check current government advice before travel. Ongoing military operations in the region mean Western tourists can be the target of terrorism.
Land-locked Kyrgyzstan is dominated by the great Tien Shan Mountains. The country borders China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Its raw, natural beauty emanates from its imposing landscape, awesome mountains, glaciers, and lakes. This is an isolated land that time forgot which has escaped much of the modernisation that dominates the world today. Get back to nature with the nomadic herdsmen in the Arshane Valley and their ancient culture.
Lying on the old Silk Road, here you can chase some of the ancient mystery and romance of the Arabian Nights in the many mosques and madrassas. Kyrgyzstan is still a relatively young nation, in terms of its independence, which has definitely had some teething problems. Bureaucracy is tough and frustrating, and usually not weighed in the favour of the traveller. Increasing numbers of travel companies operate package holidays here, which is a good option if hours at checkpoints and immigration is not part of your ideal itinerary.
Kyrgyzstan hosts many rare species of flora and fauna and, due to the varying altitude, a diversity of vegetation from meadows and forests on the higher altitude slopes to deserts further south. The more well-known varieties include wild tulips and firs. Brown bears are found in the alpine meadows in summertime along with rams, mountain goats, and wolves. Very rarely, the elusive snow leopard is also spotted sloping around the higher altitude terrain, preying on wild sheep, goats, deer, hare, and birds. Since these beautiful creatures inhabit the more inaccessible regions of Central Asia, the exact number left in the wild is unknown. They are still threatened by poachers who trade in their distinctive coats and bones. These parts of the snow leopard are sought-after, as the bones are used in traditional Chinese medicines, and the fur is unique to this type of cat. In an attempt to save the species from extinction, hunting the cats is prohibited and reserves have been set up for the cat and its prey species.
Due to its prime mountain location, Kyrgyzstan is an increasingly popular trekking destination. Organised tours offer walking, mountaineering and heli-skiing from a growing number of operators who can also arrange visas and border entries into neighbouring countries if your route passes into other territories. Base camps allow you to explore different routes; many new ones are springing up. Ala-Archa, just 25 miles from Bishkek, is ideal for climbing across theKyrgyz range, while Pamir camp in the south is well positioned for treks on the peaks of thePamir Mountains.
The capital of Kyrgyzstan is situated in a mountain paradise surrounded by desert. The population is still largely nomadic and holds on to their ancient traditions and ways of life. Founded in 1878 on the site of a clay fort built by the Khan of Kokand, the city sits at the foot of the great Tien Shan Mountains. The city itself was mostly built in a Soviet-style, but thankfully the mountains survived the harsh soviet industrialisation that characterised the region in the twentieth century.
Sights to schedule into a trip to this pleasant city include Kyrgyz State Opera and Ballet Theatre which lies on tree-lined Ulitsa Sovietskaya, along with Chernyshevsky Public Library and State Art Museum. Other notable museums are History Museum, Lenin Museum, Zoological Museum, and Drama Theatre Museum.
Issyk-Kul Lake is the second largest alpine lake in the world and definitely worth scheduling in a trip. Surrounded by the majestic Tien Shan Mountains, you can stay in one of the few hotels here. Its name derives from a word for ‘hot lake’, due to the fact that it doesn’t freeze over in winter. It is located three to four hours from Bishkek, and lies at an altitude of 5,278 feet.
Karakol and the Tien Shan Mountains
Karakol is a good base for expeditions into the nearby Tien Shan Mountains. Here you can hire horses for trekking, and equipment to climb and ski. These mountains are extremely remote and seldom visited. If you decide to make Tien Shan part of your trip, you can expect to beat your own track as it’s not part of the tourist trail.
Altyn-Arashan is a picturesque gorge located about 25 miles east of Karakol, yet the mountain road leading you there is spectacular in itself, provided you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle to navigate the difficult terrain. The gorge itself, set at 10,000 feet above sea level, contains healing hot springs. A four- to five-hour walk will bring you to the foothills of Palatka Peak; experience beautiful scenery and a natural waterfall on the way.
Ala-Kol Lake is also situated nearby in the mountains. Its crystal clear waters lie 12,772 feet above sea level with glaciers and high peaks that will captivate your senses surround the lake. You can reach this alpine paradise on the popular route from Altyn-Arashan and Karakol gorges. The interesting marvel about this special lake is that its colour changes, from violet to dark blue to pink, depending on the weather and time of day.
This stunning and remote region is home to the nomadic shepherds of Kyrgyzstan. They live in unusual oval tents called yurts, and maintain some of their oldest traditions. On special occasions, they kill a sheep for a feast called beshparmak. Every part of the animal is made useful, including the gooey eye, which is considered the best part and reserved for the elders or a welcome guest.
An hour’s drive from Bishkek, this serene natural reserve is an excellent place to acclimatize before attempting one of its many peaks.
By Jenna Colbourne