Kyrgyzstan is rich in history and culture. However, booking a trip to Kyrgyzstan isn’t really part of mainstream travel norm. It’s definitely different. But when travel is ‘different’ or challenging, most often that is where the greatest highs of travel come. You are outside your comfort zone, there are new challenges and a lot of new learning. And the best things in Kyrgyzstan tick all those boxes.
Choosing five reasons we loved Kyrgyzstan feels like it only scratches the surface on an incredible country. But read on. Kyrgyzstan is an amazing place to travel.
Seriously, yurts are amazing. A truly awesome practice, part and tenet of Kyrgyz culture. And staying in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan has got to surely be one of the most tangible ways to experience Kyrgyz culture firsthand. It’s not just something that is set up for tourists. Yurts really are central to part of nomadic life in Kyrgyzstan.
At Song Kol Lake, the yurt camps are set up in pastures half a days drive from the nearest town. It’s not often that as travellers (or human beings these days) we get to feel that level of isolation and disconnect from the modern world. It’s hard to choose just one thing, but yurts have got to be the first that comes to mind when I think of the the best things in Kyrgyzstan.
2. Horse culture
Visiting Kyrgyzstan was high on our bucket list after being blown away by the nomadic culture of Mongolia. Horses are pivotal to nomadic lifestyle and a big part of Kyrgyz culture too. As soon as you leave the city you will start to see horses everywhere. Albeit, there are horses in many other parts of Asia – heck, we even saw horses in Manila(!). But Central Asia really feels like the heart of horse culture.
In traditional nomad culture, horses are indispensable and a central part of the lifestyle. They are used in practical work; to herd other animals and carry water and goods. The nomad kids ride them to get from one place in the camp to the other, and some of the time they ride for fun. Young children are taught to ride horses as soon as they are physically able. Thus making an important and respectful connection with the animal world from a young age.
Staying up in the hills of Chong Kemin National Park, and with nomadic herders at the lake in Song Kol was a great opportunity to see Kyrgyz horse culture up close. The kids had been wanting to try horse riding again, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of Kyrgyzstan.
3. The landscape
Kyrgyzstan has over 80 mountain ranges, making up more than 70 percent of the country’s territory. And it also has impressive valleys and plains that stretch for literally miles. Nature in Kyrgyzstan is everywhere. You hear about the alpine landscapes and remote summer pastures. But I want to tell you that there’s much more than that. It has mountains covered in thick forests. And it has ‘resort towns’ famous for Kazakh-Russian summer vacations. (In a landlocked alpine country?!).
Our first night in Chong Kemin looked more like somewhere in the Alaskan mountains than we had imagined from Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t the open pastures and plains of central Kyrgyzstan, but rather, lush and beautiful alpine forestscape.
And Bokonbaevo, on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul was a surprise again. We knew the northern shores of Issyk-Kul were the popular summer holiday towns for Russian and Kazakh visitors, but we swam in Bokonbaevo. Surrounded by picturesque snow-capped peaks, the lake has beautiful stony beaches. This is Kyrgyzstan!
4. The people
Kyrgyzstan is a nation of traditional nomadic culture. Nowadays though, as far as travel goes, Kyrgyzstan has the most accessible nomadic culture of the ‘Stans. This is due to families altering their traditional ways to spend more of the year in the cities, moving to nomadic living for the summer months only. But the question is always, how can we connect with people there?
Overall, we initially found Kyrgyzstan a more challenging country to meet locals in. However in saying that, the challenges of travel often bring the greatest rewards. And after a first week to find our groove with the language and cultural barrier, we started to make connections and enjoyed meeting people where we stayed. The kids drew a lot of attention in Kyrgyzstan, and as soon as other kids were around they instantly had friends to play with. Kyrgyz women seemed to enjoy seeing their own children playing with ours, and often this was a great way to break the ice. They weren’t quite as forthcoming and outwardly friendly as host mothers we met in Uzbekistan. (Ahem. Like the time one of our host mothers wanted to breastfeed 4 year old Oscar… That’s another story). But it felt special to meet people and share a meal with families in different parts of Kyrgyzstan.
We spent two of our days in Karakol with our drivers Russian-Kyrgyz family. His son was the same age as our boys and came with us for a day out around Karakol. Language-wise, the kids had absolutely nothing in common and couldn’t communicate verbally. (Note: This was also about the time we realised we must have been on the road a while. Oscar bowed and introduced himself in Japanese to his new Russian friend!). Fortunately though, kids are amazing and can find instant connection without a common language needed. Kyrgyz kids were no exception, and we found many times we connected with people after first seeing the kids interact.
5. The difference
This last one is the biggie. It is always a privilege of travel, being able to experience and learn about cultures and ways of living that are often very different from ours. We set out on our family gap year with our kids and a hope to show them, more than anything else, that there are different ways of living and being all around the world. And that our way is not the only way.
Certainly from our western style of life in New Zealand, Kyrgyzstan epitomises that notion of being different. It feels special to see families living in Kyrgyzstan as they have done for generations. Families that live in the cities during the cold winter months, migrate to summer pastures and live in yurts as their parents and grandparents before them would have too. So perhaps it is not a case of how it is just different from us. Rather, how Kyrgyzstan has so carefully preserved some of their heritage and traditions and still live in some ways as they have done.
And it’s not all as if it is another time period. We found Bishkek to be fairly modern and a mixture of Soviet style architecture, new office high rises and hotel. (We actually even managed to find a lawyer in Bishkek to witness documents in English for us so we could process the sale of our house in New Zealand!). And our hotel was a newly styled hostel in Bishkek. But overall, the culture of Kyrgyzstan is unique. And when you are spending the night in a yurt, surrounded by nomadic families and herds of horses. You can’t help feeling it’s just a little bit more than special to be right there.
How to visit Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek and the bigger cities are easy to navigate alone. But to get around Kyrgyzstan we booked a tour through Kyrgyz Tourism, based in Bishkek. This made it straightforward to travel between places and easier travelling in Kyrgyzstan with the kids.