This post recounts our experience during our 9-day trip around Kyrgyzstan as well as covers the main sights, hikes, and restaurants we discovered in the cities of Karakol, Bishkek, and Osh.
Written By: Marlie Long Last Updated: February 2020
While Central Asia is starting to be discovered with Kazakhstan being put on the map with the infamously crazy and completely erroneous Borat movie and Uzbekistan having quite a coming out in recent years, Kyrgyzstan, the smaller mountainous brother nestled in between, is still one of the last untouched frontiers for adventure travel. Most people, including ourselves until very recently, could not find this country on the map nor even be able to slightly locate the region it’s in. But for hiking enthusiasts and off-the-beaten-track adventurers, this country should quickly get on your radar.
Formerly part of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan declared its independence on August 31, 1991 but there are still traces of the Soviet Era through the country in architecture, monuments, and cars. Although Kyrgyzstan was once part of the USSR, don’t think that this country is a mini Russia by any means. The Kyrgyz people are a Turkish ethnic group, nomadic people who lived in yurts moving through plateaus and mountains and have facial characteristics that show the centuries of blending between the Middle East and Asia. Even though English is not widely spoken, the people were friendly, and we found traveling around to be doable with a bit of hand motions, pointing to the map, and Google Translate. If you’re looking for a cosmopolitan getaway or interesting city sights, this country will greatly disappoint. The main reason to go to Kyrgyzstan is for the rugged natural landscapes from the jagged mountains, turquoise alpine lakes, and vast desert plains that look out of a sci-fi movie.
We headed to Kyrgyzstan with the one aim to hike the Ala-Kul Lake Trek which starts in the Karakol Valley and leads you up to a beautifully crystal clear turquoise alpine lake. However, due to an unusually cold fall (hello climate change) most of the trek had already froze meaning the nomadic people we’d have stayed with had packed up camp and moved on. With the thoughts of making an already strenuous hike even harder with ice and sleeping on snow, we decided against doing the trek, which ultimately worked out for the best as Marlie got a nasty case a food poisoning from our last meal in Kazakhstan that put her out for a week. So, for now this epic trek remains on our ‘dream hikes’ list to be tackled on an unknown future trip. If you’re interested in the logistics of this trek, there are quite a few travel blogs that detail the trek, so information is abundant. Another good resource is Destination Karakol that can help once you’re on the ground before the beginning of the trek.
Other than the trek, Karakol itself isn’t anything spectacular as we saw the three main sights, which include the Dungan Mosque, the wooden Russian Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the market, in about an hour. The food options are limited, but we would recommend the burgers and pizza at the Duet Hostel if you’re in the mood for western food. The Duet Hostel is also a good spot to meet other travelers who maybe hiking the Ala Kul Lake if you want a hiking buddy or two. If you want traditional Kyrgyz food head to Dastorkon which had an extensive menu of grilled meats, simple but delicious veggie salads, interesting soups, and varied starters.
We were lucky that a) the Rugby World Cup was going on so Rid could watch matches and b) we met some other travelers in our hostel so Rid had someone to talk to while Marlie slept off her food poisoning, which ended up in him getting the low down on a few other awesome areas of Kyrgyzstan. A German couple we met rented a Lada Niva to traverse through the desert terrain and camp under the stars outside of Karakol. They could not recommend camping out in the desert enough especially because they were practically alone the whole time in these breathtaking locations.
Another solo traveler, Louis, told us about a national park in Bishkek, the country’s capital, and since we were headed that way anyways, we linked up. Thank goodness for Louis as his ability to speak Turkish was a huge help as he was able to negotiate our tickets on a marshrutka from Karakol to Bishkek, which took about 6-7 hours, and drives around Lake Issyk-Kul.
While we were bummed that we missed out on the Ala-Kul Lake Trek, we ended getting to hike in Ala-Archa National Park about 45 minutes outside of the city center, which worked out to be a fantastic replacement. The hike was the best part of our time in Kyrgyzstan as the scenery is unbelievable and the park is hardly crowded which allows you to truly soak in the grandness of the valley and mountains.
There are various hikes you can do in Ala-Archa National Park, but we were aiming to do the Ak-Sai Ratsek Hut Hike, which is about 11.6 km or 7.2 miles up a mountain pass to a glacier. Most people hike to the Ak-Sai Ratsek Hut with the intentions to spend the night in the hut and hike back down the next day or go glacier climbing (wayyy too advanced for us!). Our aim was to see how far we got in 3 hours as our ride was coming back for us in six hours and we needed time to hike out. Since Marlie was still recovering from her food poisoning she was slow and only hiked up to the frozen waterfall.
Rid and Louis went ahead and started to conquer the mountain pass only to have Louis pull a hamstring and Rid to realize that a thick fog was starting to roll in and that pushing on wouldn’t be safe. So, in the end while we didn’t make it to the Ak-Sai Ratsek Hut, we still enjoyed seeing the valley change throughout the day, the different mountains, rivers, and animals, as well as getting to hike in the snow for a bit! Because the fog tends to roll in thick in the afternoon (at least in late September/early October it does!), we suggest starting this hike early in the morning.
Once back at the bottom of the trail in the parking lot, beware of locals asking if you want to hold their golden eagle as they tend try to charge you when they thrust the poor animals into your hands. This happened to Marlie, but Louis quickly told the local in Turkish that’s totally not cool and extremely rude which caused the local to back off and got us off the hook from paying!
For a capital city, Bishkek is quite small and easily walkable. If you are a Soviet Era architecture buff, then you’ll love all the monuments, statues, and buildings leftover from the time of the USSR. There aren’t really many sights per se but we’d suggest doing a walking tour through the city winding through parks, streets, and along the government buildings for the best breadth of Soviet architecture.
Once you’re done walking, there are several restaurants and cafes, but our favorite was Navet. We loved how charming the exterior was with twinkling lights and large patio seating and the inside was a colorful, festive explosion of color and traditional decor. The menu ranges from Kyrgyz dishes to Russian staples (try the Solyanka soup – so unusual from the west but ahuuuumazing!), and western dishes.
We said goodbye to Louis and then flew out of Bishkek to Osh, the second largest city by population in the country behind Bishkek. We spent two days in Osh before going across the land border into Uzbekistan, which was surprisingly easy! While Bishkek is greener with mountains and forests, Osh is in a desert environment with dusty streets and little vegetation. We would recommend only staying in Osh 2-3 nights maximum as there isn’t that much to do with the main activities including a visit to the local market for dried fruits, nuts, meats, vegetables, clothes, and a plethora of random finds; a walk through the park which also serves as the local carnival; and start getting glimpses of the transition from Soviet to Islamic architecture.
But no trip to Osh is complete without walking up Sulaiman Too, which is a small “mountain” in the middle of the city. The walk to the top from the eastern entrance takes about 10-15 minutes of walking up stairs and is doable for all ages and fitness levels. If stairs are not your thing, you can enter from the western entrance and follow the uphill walking path to the top. At the top, you will get good views of the low-lying city as there are not many tall buildings and the surrounding desert landscape. Nothing spectacular but probably the best thing we did in Osh. There is also a small mosque at the top and a slick rock that you can slide down, which we were told is supposed to bring you good fertility…
The food choices are slim unless you can speak Kyrgyz as English wasn’t as spoken in Osh as Bishkek. We ate at Borsok, which had a good range of cheap western eats, and Brio Coffee Shop, that serves a coffee that reminds you of home and dishes up the typical Cafe fare for sandwiches and pastries. You could always try your haggling skills at the market to load up on a bunch of snacks – the pistachios were some of the freshest we’ve even had!