Kyrgyz’ what? A travel guide for Kyrgyzstan with kids.

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Making plans to visit Kyrgyzstan with kids doesn’t register on every traveling families bucket list. But why not?! After visiting Mongolia we were certain; the nomadic herder culture is one of our favourites in the world. The horsie-ness and vastness that the nomadic herder culture entails, suits us and our style of travel. It’s wild. It’s remote. And it’s still real. The nomadic families are not for show; they genuinely live that way. Plus, the chance to visit Kyrgyzstan with kids definitely means stepping away from the mainstream. I couldn’t wait to get there.

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About Kyrgyzstan, quickly

  • Capital: Bishkek
  • Land area: 199,951 km2
  • Population: 6,533,500
  • Official language: Kyrgyz
  • Co-official language: Russian
  • Religion: 90% Islam, 7% Christianity, 3% other

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous, landlocked country. It is bordered to the north by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan to the west and southwest, China to the east, and Tajikistan to the southwest.

The brightly coloured flag of Kyrgyzstan.

Fear of travel to the ‘Stans

Let’s be honest; first thoughts of the ‘-stan‘ poses connotations that bring fear. History and media presents a certain image abroad, and for the seven countries in Asia that end with the suffix ‘Stan, our first reaction is not instinctively smooth.

But the word stan actually means land in the Persian language of Farsi; a word for “place of” or “country”. Moreover it’s a bit like the suffix of names in English titles such as England, Scotland, Switzerland.

And rightly so. Central Asia is a region of diverse geography and land with a lot of fascinating history behind it.  And I admit, we didn’t tell our family we were heading to Central Asia until we were actually there. Namely because we didn’t want to be put off when they freaked out on hearing the word ending with ‘Stan. But don’t let it put you off. It’s ok for families to worry about us. That’s their prerogative and that’s ok. But definitely don’t miss out of the land of travel and adventure in the ‘Stans. It’s incredible.

Visas for Kyrgyzstan

The good news is that Kyrgyzstan is visa-free for a growing number of passports. Passport holders from 69 different nations are not required to obtain a visa in advance for travel to Kyrgyzstan for travel up to the length of 30, 60 or 90 days. It is also possible for a lot of those nations to arrange a visa on arrival for an extended stay of up to 90 days.

If you aren’t one of the countries to qualify for visa-free entry, you can apply through an e-visa system or in person at a Kyrgyz embassy. You can apply via the E-visa government website. Always check for updated details of visas before you go.

Best time to visit Kyrgyzstan

Unlike Uzbekistan just over the border, the usual tourist season in Kyrgyzstan is the high summer. Summertime is also the holiday time for Kyrgyz nomads and therefore the time when summer pastures are full of yurts. Even semi-nomads who live life in the cities during the year go to the mountain summer pastures during the school holidays and warmest times of the year.

Aside from that, fruits and vegetables are ripe and the weather is as warm as it gets. Yurt camps set up in summer pastures offer yurt stays from mid-May to mid-September (and trust me, it’s getting cold up in the Tien Shan mountains by early September). After their holidays the camps are slowly packed away and the families move back to the cities.

In the cities however, summertime is hot. Temperatures in Osh and Bishkek get up to over 40°C. This is due to the distance in the cities from any large bodies of water (remember, Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country). The largest lake is Issyk Kul, which becomes a popular summer beach destination in Kyrgyzstan. It is even (just) warm enough to swim here (whilst surrounded by surreal snowcapped mountains in the distance).

A yurt all packed up after summer.

Kyrgyz language

In Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz language is co-official with Russian. In the cities Russian is the predominant language (especially in Bishkek), but in the smaller towns and rural areas the main language used is Kyrgyz. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language with a written alphabet using Cyrillic.

A few Kyrgyz basics

  • Hello: Salamatsuzbu
  • Hello (informal): Salam
  • Thank you: Rahmat
  • Yes: Ooba
  • No: Jok
  • How much is it?: Kanchadan?

Places to visit in Kyrgyzstan

A lot of travel in Kyrgyzstan will have you feeling like you are quite literally in the middle of nowhere. For the days we weren’t in Bishkek, every day we ended up somewhere random and unheard of. The landscape challenged us. Not only because it is so different from our previous months of travel in East Asia, but because it is a challenging landscape in itself. However, this is exactly why travel in Kyrgyzstan is so appealing. Because out of the city, people are living in this landscape as they have done for generations…

In Kyrgyzstan, we spent time in:

  • Bishkek
  • Chong-Kemin National Park
  • Song Kol Lake
  • Bokonbaevo
  • Karakol

Bishkek

Kyrgyzstan’s capital city has a population of around one million people. However, as a culture Kyrgyzstan is known for its rich nomadic history. So it makes sense then that the urban areas of Kyrgyzstan don’t showcase the best of what the country has to offer. Bishkek is no exception.

Picture huge tree-lined streets, boulevards and very Soviet style architecture. It’s easy to get lost in the serious bustle of Bishkek, and slightly tricky to find a local place to eat. But like it or lump it, Bishkek most commonly serves as the gateway to the amazing outdoor activities and vistas of Kyrgyzstan.  Plus, Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal tourist visa regime in the area of Central Asia, so the chances are you’re going to visit. And it’s worth making the most of it…

Things to do in Bishkek

  • Buy food at Osh Bazaar: This is the biggest and most colourful market in Bishkek and a great place to start exploring the city from. You can find anything here: pastries, cooked food, dried fruit, vegetables, souvenirs and cheap Chinese knock offs.
  • Walk around Panfilov Park: This is a very Soviet style amusement park that gets busy with locals. Part of the park is ticket-entry only, but there is also a spacious play area and free playground for kids.
  • Visit Ala Too Square: Another unmistakably Soviet style feature of Bishkek, this was built to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Kyrgyz Soviet Republic. It’s marginally interesting to visit and another chance to soak in all the Soviet influence that is such a huge part of the city history.
  • Eat: Bishkek isn’t honestly the most relaxing place to wander aimlessly, but if in doubt you can focus on finding a good place to eat. Beshbarmak is the Kyrgyz national dish; a soup and noodle bowl that is worth hunting out if you are there.
Samsy at a roadside cafe in Bishkek.

Note: Osh Bazaar is notorious for pickpocketing. I haven’t any photos from inside the bazaar as didn’t take my camera or phone out on any visit. We still can’t decide if Gavin had his small, reusable-cutlery bag snatched from his backpack or if we just lost it while staying in Bishkek… Keep your valuables safe.

That aside, we only had two days in Bishkek but it felt like enough. We had jobs to do including finding an English-speaking witness to sign paperwork we needed to send home, and a post office to send them by mail. That kept us sufficiently busy in Bishkek and less touristy to be fair. General vibes are of a busy city with sights to see if you are looking and have the time. And if you don’t, then get yourself out of there and on to the rest of Kyrgyzstan…

Chong Kemin National Park

Chong Kemin National Park covers 500 hectares of land in the north of Kyrgyzstan, in an area once known as Chong Kemin River Valley. Setting out from Bishkek, Chong Kemin is often the first stop on a tour for a night in rural Kyrgyzstan. And most tours include a stop of the ancient Burana Tower on the way.

We found Chong Kemin to be a beautiful area. Landscape within the park starts from desert-like stretches of flat, vast land, winding up into the hills through coniferous forests, mountain-scapes and glacial fed rivers.

We stayed our first night out of the city at a guesthouse somewhere in the park. And even to this day we still don’t know exactly where we were. Cellphone reception cuts out at the base of the park, before winding up into the hills past vast farms and herds and herds of horses. We stopped in a village to ask a passing horseman for directions, because even our driver hadn’t been there before. Chong Kemin is blissfully off the beaten track alright.

Meeting the family at our guesthouse for the night.

Things to do in Chong Kemin

  • Go hiking or walking in the National Park: Chong Kemin has a range of different hiking trails in the park. Or, like us, you can put on your hiking shoes and explore from the homestay.
  • Go horse riding or hang out with the horses: Our homestay in Chong Kemin was surrounded by horses. We went to sleep with the sound of horses in the paddock outside and woke up with one right at the window.
  • Get adventurous, try something new: Our kids were in awe of the young boys practising with a homemade bow and arrow. If you aren’t in a hurry, take the time to try something different. I mean, how often do you get the chance to try archery in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan?
  • Climb Burana Tower: Not technically in Chong Kemin, but on the way. Burana Tower is  large minaret in the Chuy Valley. The tower was built during the 11th century (though it has been partially restored) and claims fame as the earliest architectural wonder of Central Asia.
Waking up in our guesthouse at Chong Kemin.

Song Kol Lake

Experiencing nomadic herder life in Kyrgyzstan is one of our best travel experiences to date. Song Kol is an alpine lake in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, just over 3000m above sea level. Albeit cold, but stunning.

Things to do at Song Kol

  • Go horse riding: Horses are the livelihood and heart of nomadic Kyrgyz herder culture. You can ride along the shore line or trek up into the surrounding foothills of Song Kol.
  • Stay the night in a yurt: There is nothing quite like the smell of a yurt fire burning from the warmth of your yurt home for the night. Waking up in the hills of Kyrgyzstan is a dreamlike tick for the bucket list.
  • Hike along the shore line: Song Kol is beautiful and peaceful. There are plenty of options to enjoy short or long hikes.
  • Help with chores: Learn to make curd and cream from fresh milk, and help collect water for the camp on donkeys.
  • Try kymyz: This is the Kyrgyz national beverage of fermented horse milk. It is strong and sour to taste, and mildly alcoholic but it’s deemed to be healthy and good for digestion. (Perhaps healthier than vodka and cognac at least, which also seems to be a popular beverage with Kyrgyz people here!).
Meeting our host family for the next three days; Song-Kol Lake.

Read all the details about our stay at Song Kol Lake with a nomadic family here. We spent three days staying in yurts on the shore line of Song Kol.

Issyk Kul Region

Issyk Kul is an ancient lake in Kyrgyzstan, estimated to be 25 millions years old, and the second largest alpine lake on the planet. (Pretty cool, right?). The lake is surrounded by the snowcapped Tian Shan mountain range which is uncannily beautiful (and ironic, if you are arriving from anywhere desert-like in Central Asia).

Things to do in Issyk Kul Region

  • Go swimming in Lake Issyk Kul: No, seriously. If the weather is warm enough, the lake is Kyrgyzstan’s most popular summer ‘beach’ destination. (Don’t let the snow capped mountinas in the distance put you off too much!).
Kyrgyzstan with kids, swimming in Lake Issyk Kul in summer.
Off to the beach in Kyrgyzstan?!

Karakol

Karakol seems to have it all. It is a smallish town in eastern Kyrgyzstan, most often known as a starting point for day hikes in the Tien Shan mountains and a base to see some of Kyrgyzstans most famous natural scenery. It is in a unique location geographically, with China to the east and the rest of Central Asia to the west, in an area that was once part of Turkestan. Not only is there Chinese influence in the cuisine and culture of Karakol, but you can see the vestiges of Soviet influence again, in architecture, cuisine and culture.

Jeti Oguz and Fairytale Canyon are near to Karakol and can easily be done as day trips.

Things to do in Karakol

  • Go hiking: Karakol is considered the gateway to the Tien Shan mountain range, famous for beautiful alpine multi day hikes. There is also a range of short day walks (many in Jeti Oguz) without going to far from Karakol.
  • Visit Jeti Oguz: If you are in Kyrgyzstan with kids and/or not planning for long hikes, Jeti Oguz is a great choice for a day trip from Karakol. It is only 40 minutes drive from town. As well as the iconic Seven Bulls rock formation, there are short walks along the river and up to a great lookout point.
  • Explore the Dungan Mosque: The Dungan mosque was built between 1907and 1910 by a group of Chinese Muslims—known as Dungans. The mosque is beautiful and eye-catching, with bright colours and patterns. But what is most interesting is that the wooden mosque is constructed entirely without the use of nails.
  • Walk through the Karakol Bazaar: Obviously, we have a thing for bazaars in Central Asia. But you can’t help but be drawn in by the bustle and energy of an Asian market. Karakol Bazaar is even more interesting because, due to its location, sellers originate from a range of Kyrgyz, Russian, Dungan, Uzbek, Uighur and Kalmak backgrounds. (Plus, the boys found extremely cheap knock-off Bakugan cards and thought it was the best bazaar ever. Not an authentic travel tip I know, but if you are in Kyrgyzstan with kids it’s worth sharing, just in case…).
  • Admire the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral: Another cultural sight of Karakol that differs again from the norm. The first church in Karakol was built from stone in 1869 but was destroyed by an earthquake. The current cathedral is built out of wood on a brick base.
The Russian Orthodox Church in Karakol.
The striking Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karakol.

Food in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz food is similar to it’s surrounding neighbours (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan). In restaurants and roadside cafes, choices can often be simple and limited in variety. In summary, traditional Kyrgyz food is based around horse, mutton, and beef meat, as well as various dairy products. Meat is usually served on top of pasta or noodles, inside dumplings, or with potatoes. There isn’t a lot more choice than that, but we didn’t find anything we really didn’t like. And meals are always served with a pot of hot tea.

Some of the most popular Kyrgyz foods include:

  • Beshbarmak: Horse meat (or mutton) boiled in broth, served over soft homemade noodles.
  • Chuchvara: Meat dumplings served in soup.
  • Kuurdak: grilled mutton, fat and onions served on flat pasta noodles.
  • Monti: meat, onion and fat filled steamed dumplings.
  • Samsy: similar to a samosa, these are pockets of meat and onions. Samsy is a great snack choice from a roadside stall or bakery-style cafe in the city. (aka: a staple food traveling in Kyrgyzstan with kids).
  • Lagman: meat, vegetables and noodles served in a broth. (A cross between laksa and noodle soup?).
  • Ashlam-fu: A spicy lunch dish made with cold noodles, vinegar, and eggs. This one didn’t grow on us but it is supposedly a refreshing cold lunch dish to eat in summer.
  • Kurut: Small snack balls made of dried sheep’s cheese or fermented yogurt. Sounds worse than it is, and I was put off after eating them in Uzbekistan. But, kurut doesn’t taste too bad as a snack with a cold beer sitting in the sunshine outside a yurt…
  • Shashlyk kebabs: Cubes of meat on skewers cooked over embers. 
  • Plov: Rice dish made with mixed boiled or fried meat, onions, carrots and garlic (similar to Indian pilau).
  • Lepeshki: Kyrgyz bread served with almost every meal.
Beshbarmak for dinner. Food in Kyrgyzstan with kids.
Beshbarmak on a special dinner out with our driver and his family.

Food choices in Kyrgyzstan with kids

Kyrgyz cuisine doesn’t offer too much choice, which made it fairly easy to find food the kids were happy to eat. They even found some things they really enjoyed (a travel-win!).

Some Kyrgyz foods our kids enjoyed:

  • Monti: meat, onion and fat filled steamed dumplings.
  • Samsy: similar to a samosa, these are pockets of meat and onions. Samsy is a great snack choice from a roadside stall or bakery-style cafe in the city. (aka: a staple food traveling in Kyrgyzstan with kids).
  • Shashlyk kebabs: Cubes of meat on skewers cooked over embers. 
  • Bread (lepeshki): Round and flat breads are commonly served with most meals.
Touring Kyrgyzstan with kids, what will they eat? This is a typical lunch table set up in Kyrgyzstan.
A typical lunch spread complete with lebashki (bread), fruit, salad and sweets.

(Side note: a lot of the time the tables are laid with small bowls of treats and sweets included as part of the lunch spread. And the dinner spread. Even sometimes with breakfast… Don’t worry about finding Kyrgyz food kids will eat!).

Travel in Kyrgyzstan with kids

When you think of telling people you are planning to visit Kyrgyzstan with kids, first responses are liikely the same. Where? Albeit there isn’t a lot of information online about travel in Kyrgyzstan with kids, so this response is somewhat justified. And we too felt a heightened parental nervousness prior to travel.

Arriving in Bishkek surrounded by the solemn Soviet style of city architecture doesn’t exactly scream welcome to Kyrgyzstan with kids… But, the good news is that as soon as you head out of the city, travel with kids feels as it does anywhere else; like a new adventure.

Kyrgyzstan is a very welcoming country. We were humbled and welcomed by other families who were genuinely pleased to see us traveling in Kyrgyzstan with kids. We traveled around the rural areas with a driver, and felt safe in the country with kids.

The landscape of Kyrgyzstan is exciting and varied; perfect for children. Our kids loved the freedom of being outdoors. At Chong-Kemin they easily made themselves at home making homemade bows and arrows with local kids. In Song Kol they were in awe of the local boys riding horses and donkeys and jumped at any chance to spend time with them. At Issyk-Kul they swam in the biggest of Kyrgyzstan’s lakes and watched kids practising training with an eagle.

Experiencing that kind of nomadic lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan with kids really is the most incredible opportunity for learning and adventure.

Kyrgyz hospitality

Hospitality in Kyrgyzstan is one of the best stories from our travels. Kyrgyz people are somewhat shy on meeting, but welcoming without question. Don’t be concerned by the language barrier. We found that even without language we found we could understand and enjoy meeting locals and especially learning about the nomadic lifestyle of Kyrgyzstan.

It feels like a real honour to be welcomed into the homes of nomadic families, farmers, herders and Kyrgyz families. And one of the best things about travelling in Kyrgyzstan with kids is that Kyrgyz people love children. The boys were given sweets and biscuits everywhere we went. Families we met and stayed with welcomed them and genuinely seemed to be thrilled to have them play with their kids.

In Karakol, we spent four days in between Bokonbaevo and Kazakhstan, and met our drivers family. He ended up giving his boy a day off school especially to hang out with us. We couldn’t speak as little Russian and they spoke English, but we went out for dinner with the whole family and his wife even gave us all haircuts! Hospitality in Kyrgyzstan is definitely an asset of Kyrgyz traditions.

Ice cream with a new friend in Karakol.

Money in Kyrgyzstan

The local currency in Kyrgyzstan is called the som (in Kyrgyz: сом). It exists in bills and coins, with the largest denomination of note 5000 KGS (about $65 USD). ATM’s are common in the cities and larger towns, but definitely carry cash with you to Song Kol as the nearest town is half a days drive away. At bigger hotels in Bishkek and other cities you might be able to pay by card, but at smaller guesthouses you will be expected to pay in cash.

Licensed money exchange booths (marked obmen valyot) will exchange US dollars and other major currencies. In Karakol we found a money-changer next door to a bank to exchange Kyrgyz som for Kazakh tenge. And it is always a good idea to carry US dollars on you for travel.

Bargaining is common in Kyrgyzstan. It’s definitely worth negotiating when buying souvenirs at the bazaar as prices are often initially inflated for tourists. (We learnt this the hard way trying to buy souvenirs at Osh Bazaar).

Budget for Kyrgyzstan

Heres the catch. In theory, backpacking or travelling Kyrgyzstan on a budget is doable. Quite doable in fact. However, in our case we were travelling Kyrgyzstan with kids and we didn’t quite know what to expect. We booked ahead to confirm a tour with a CBT office and this isn’t cheap. But it made it easy, and accommodation, meals and transport were included in the price for the days we were on the tour.

As a guide for travel on a budget in Kyrgyzstan, here are some of the costs we found:

  • Samsy/streetfood snack: 50 som
  • Bottle of water: 40 som
  • Domestic beer: 150 som
  • Entry to Burana Tower: 150 som per adult
  • Roadside cafe lunch meal: 100-150 som
  • Restaurant meal in Karakol: 600-1200 som
  • Hotel in Bishkek: US $50-70

Communications: Phone and wifi

Kyrgyzstan has two main telecommunications operators; Megacom and Beeline. Mobile internet is not expensive with either provider, and tourist/short-stay packages are available.

Wifi is available in accommodation in the city, and we found good wifi in Karakol as well. 3G is available in the larger towns, although very spotty driving between sights along the south side of Issyk Kul. Roaming on an international sim should work in Kyrgyzstan as well.

Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has a wide range of accommodation options. Looking online for hostels in Bishkek, you will find everything from budget range dorm-style hostels to top end hotels. We stayed in a total of five different yurtstays/homestays and guesthouses during our time in Kyrgyzstan. I booked the accommodation in Bishkek and Karakol online through booking.com. The yurt stays and homestay in Chong-Kemin were booked for us by Kyrgyz Tourism, based in Bishkek.

Staying in a yurt stay means basic accommodation, but the best thing about any homestay in Kyrgyzstan is that is likely includes breakfast and sometimes even dinner.

Inside our yurt at Song Kol Lake.

Where we stayed

Hotel Koisha in Bishkek is a great place to start. The family room has two seperate rooms and a private bathroom. And you wouldn’t guess it from the outside, but the hotel has a huge courtyard, kitchen, outdoor kitchen and BBQ area, and indoor/outdoor common space.

The hotel is only 100m from Osh Bazaar, and affordable at US $38 per night for a family room. I would recommend Hotel Koisha as a good choice for arrival in Bishkek. It made day one for us in Kyrgyzstan with kids feel safe and smooth.

In Karakol, Jamilya Eje’s Guesthouse was a great find. We stayed four nights, relaxing in between our Kyrgyzstan tour and starting our next leg over the border to Kazakhstan. The quadruple room is a decent size with a double bed and two single beds. Cost: US $55 per night. Dinner is available in the restaurant room most nights. Breakfast is included. The guesthouse is in walking distance of playgrounds in Karakol and the main Karakol Bazaar.

Getting around Kyrgyzstan

The main ways to travel within Kyrgyzstan are by private taxi, marshrutkas (shared taxi van) or bus.

In Bishkek and Karakol we used taxis to get around. Taxis are cheap and it is easy for your hostel or hotel to call and book a taxi if you need to go somewhere. On the street you can wave down a registered taxi vehicle and negotiate a fixed price for a ride.

Marshrutkas are a a form of shared taxi, most commonly a minivan and are the most common form of transport. They act as buses, departing from central stations in the larger towns and cities and bus stops in rural areas. Some are scheduled but most line up and wait until they are full before departing. (Note: In a smaller marshrutkas is you pay for all four seats it will essentially act a private taxi).

We booked a driver for our time in Kyrgyzstan through Kyrgyz Tourism, based in Bishkek. I recommend you email Aisha at Kyrgyz Tourism who is amazing to deal with. She answered all of my questions and was fantastic in understanding and adapting a tour that would suit us to get around Kyrgyzstan with the kids.

A watermelon picnic with our driver Vitali (at 3000m above sea level).

One challenge in Kyrgyzstan

High altitude temperatures at Song-Kol lake mean it gets COLD! Early September is technically summer, but it hits zero degrees at night time.

Arriving in Kyrgyzstan having traveled for months prior in South East and East Asia, we were traveling light and had only been in temperate climates. (Not to mention arriving directly to Kyrgyzstan after the past few weeks sweltering in the Karakalpakstan desert and taking an overnight train across the desert in Uzbekistan!). We knew Song-Kol Lake would take us to the highest point of our travels for the year, and in truth we were fine. The kids had long pants and layered up with singlets, long sleeves, jumpers, and light jackets. Our host Mum at our yurt camp even came in during the night to re-stock our yurt fire with cow poo. BUT, we could have been better prepared. Our driver lent me a warm jumper to wear under my light jacket, and I have to be honest – I was so appreciative!

If we went again…

Now with hindsight, if we went again we would head to the op-shop in Bishkek to stock up with warm clothes BEFORE hitting sub-zero temperatures at Song-Kol lake. There are plenty of op-shops in Kyrgyzstan (they get knock-offs and near-new labelled clothing directly from South Korea), but we didn’t think of that before heading out of the city.

Stock up with jackets or jumpers first!

Rocking our new Dickies hoodies, courtesy of an op shop in Kockor. Post-Song-Kol Lake altitude, but still much appreciated!

One minute snippet of Kyrgyzstan

Check out this short clip of highlights from our time in Kyrgyzstan with kids:

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