I just finished 3 weeks of travel in Kyrgyzstan and it’s basically all I can talk about. This was my first time venturing into Central Asia and it was so different from any other place I’ve been to. Kyrgyzstan was rugged, welcoming, mountainous, expanse, thrilling and challenging all the same time.
Like most off-the-beaten path destinations, Kyrgyzstan won’t necessarily be the easiest place to travel around and it will require some flexibility on you as a traveller, but all those little hurdles are completely washed away whenever a family invites you into their yurt, or when you finally reach that pass with views over the valley, or when you get a warm smile for using the one word of Kyrgyz you know.
I’ve already written a bit about attending the World Nomad Games and horse trekking to Song Kol, but today I thought I’d share some practical Kyrgyzstan travel tips to help make your trip just a tiny bit smoother.
Travel locally with CBT
CBT Kyrgyzstan (Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan) is all about providing value-packed travel services that utilize local guides and place you with families who can offer a window into Kyrgyz culture through food, music, art, crafts and traditions.
Whether you want to experience an authentic yurt stay with a nomadic family, go horse trekking to Song Kol, hire a driver to take you across the country, or attend a cultural festival, CBT can help you out.
They have branches in major town and cities across the country, so just pop into the one closest to you and they’ll be able to help you sort your travels in Kyrgyzstan.
Plan your travels around events
My trip to Kyrgyzstan purposely coincided with the World Nomad Games which only takes place every 2 years, but fret not because there are lots of cool events worth attending through the year.
I’m once again going to direct you over to the CBT website since they have a fairly complete events calendar that features everything from horse games and cuisine celebrations, to folklore festivals and hunting demonstrations. You can also find a smaller events calendar here.
I would suggest planning your travels to coincide with one of these events if possible, since it’s a really cool window into Kyrgyz culture, which will allow you to better understand their unique practices and traditions.
Pack for warm and cool weather
Kyrgyzstan is quite mountainous and the thing about being at high altitudes is that there is a big temperature shift from day to night and the weather can also change rapidly.
By day you may be fine in a light t-shirt, but by night you’ll find yourself putting on every warm layer you own. I would pack a fleece, a rainproof windbreaker, fleece leggings, mittens, and a touque – especially if you’re doing yurt stays.
You’ll also want to bring sunscreen and slather it on even if it’s overcast; it’s so easy to burn in high altitude and you don’t even realize it’s happening until you’re already a lobster.
Keep a flexible travel schedule
So it probably sounds like I’m contradicting myself, first telling you to plan your travels around major events and then suggesting you be flexible, but hear me out.
It’s good to lock in your dates for events you don’t want to miss, but it’s also good to keep an open schedule during your travels in Kyrgyzstan, because you’re going to get a lot of cool suggestions and insider tips from fellow travellers, and these are worth tracking down!
Maybe it wasn’t on your initial itinerary, but it might be worth detouring to the alpine lake of Kol Suu, or wandering through the ancient walnut forest of Arslanbob, or swinging through Tash Rabat to see a caravanserai frozen in time. This part of the world draws some pretty adventurous travellers, so chat with them and see where they’ve been and recommend going.
Learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet
Communication can be a bit of a challenge. The official languages in Kyrgyzstan are Russian and Kyrgyz, and while you will encounter English speakers, these can be few and far in between outside of Bishkek.
It’s a good idea to learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet so that you can decipher bus destinations and menus. Aside from that, it’s also helpful to learn a few words of Russian and even Kyrgyz if you’re planning to travel through the more remote areas.
And if you are at all interested in taking Russian language lessons, apparently Bishkek is one of the best places to do so because the accent is pure and the lessons are very cheap!
Dive into the local food
Kyrgyz food isn’t exactly widespread outside Central Asia, so here’s a look at some dishes and drinks you’ll want to try:
Plov (плов) – Also known as pilaf or paloo, this is a mixed rice dish that features pieces of meat (usually mutton, beef, or chicken) and shredded carrots. It is cooked in a cast-iron cauldron and it is delicious.
Manti (манты) – These are steamed dumplings filled with ground meat and onions. You can also get vegetarian ones filled with pumpkin or potatoes.
Samsy (самсы) – This is a popular street snack. Picture a flaky pastry pocket stuffed with ingredients which include: chicken, cheese, cabbage, beef, or other fillings.
Lagman (лагман) – This is a noodle dish which can be served as a soup or fried, and it features chopped peppers with a spicy vinegar sauce.
Ashlyam fu (Ашлям фу) – This is a cold and spicy soup that has meat, veggies, cold noodles and starchy noodles.
Besh barmak (бешбармак) – The name of this dish translates to ‘five fingers’ because it is so tasty it is meant to be eaten with your whole hand. It is a plate of steamed noodles and onions with meat, which can be lamb or horse.
Kymyz (кумыс) – Can I offer you a glass of fermented mare’s milk? It tastes nothing like what you’d imagine – it’s salty, fizzy and it kind of reminded me of Korean makgeolli – so give it a try.
Learn to navigate transportation
The first mode of transportation you’ll encounter travelling in Kyrgyzstan is the marshrutka. This kind of looks like a large van and it’s a cheap form of public transportation. A ride in Bishkek costs 10 som; you just get in, pay the driver, and you’re on your way.
If you’re travelling longer distances to neighbouring cities, you can either go with a long-distance marshrutkas, a long distance bus, or a shared taxi. You can catch these at the West Bus Station in Bishkek; the smaller Eastern Bus Station is primarily the terminal for destinations within Bishkek or just beyond the eastern suburbs. Estimated costs for rides here.
While I didn’t hitchhike on this trip, I have friends who’ve had success with this, especially travelling in rural parts of the country. Rides could take a while and you may be picked up by a car that’s already bursting at the seams, but it’s all part of the fun…or so they tell me. Drivers may ask you to put a little bit towards fuel, though others may let you ride for free.
And also pack snacks and water because rides in Kyrgyzstan always seem to take longer than they’re supposed to.
Plan for the toilet situation
Ahh, now let’s talk about the bathroom situation, because you’ll want to be prepared for this.
If you’re staying in hotels you’ll get your typical Western-style toilet, however, the majority of bathrooms you’ll encounter will be the squat toilet.
As a piece of advice, toilets at gas stations should be avoided at all costs even if it means finding a bush on the side of the road. If you’re doing rural homestays, you’ll likely be treated to the trough toilet, which is basically a few planks over a deep pit. Step carefully! Most of these toilets will have a door, though you may come across the 3-wall variety with a sweeping view of the mountains while you do your business. For that particular toilet we made it a rule to hang a hat or a scarf on a post outside the toilet to let others know to keep away.
You’ll also want to always carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Toilets will probably be the most unpleasant part of travel in Kyrgyzstan, but you do get used to it after a while.
Carry cash on you
The local currency is called ‘som’. When I visited 1 USD was at 68 SOM, but this can fluctuate so check the rates before you exchange your money.
ATMs are easy to find in cities and larger towns, but if you’re going to be travelling through rural areas you’ll want to carry cash on you. I would also suggest breaking your larger bills right away as it can be a little difficult to pay with these if you’re just buying small things.
Get out of Bishkek
Bishkek is a pretty cool city to hang out in and take it easy (or get crazy and enjoy the nightlife), but I think Kyrgyzstan truly shines when you get out close to nature. This is a country with a terrain made up of 80% mountains, so go out there and do some hiking!
Have you been to Kyrgyzstan?
Do you have any other travel tips you’d like to share?
This trip was made possible with the support of Discover Kyrgyzstan and USAID. As always, all opinions expressed here are my own.