After Mongolia, the nomadic herder culture was one of our favourites in the world. The horsie-ness and vastness that the nomadic herder culture entailed, suited us and our style of travel. It’s wild. It’s remote. And its still real – the nomadic families are not for show; they genuinely live that way.
We wanted to show our boys that different way of life, and having grown up on a farm in New Zealand, we knew it would suit them too.
This felt like absolute paradise. Albeit cold, but stunning. Song-Kol is an alpine lake in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, just over 3000m above sea level.
We spent three days with a nomadic family, staying in yurts on their summer pasture of Song-Kol.
The herders only stay here for their summer, and move on in September. It is so remote. The last shop was half a days drive away, but the families that settle here each summer are well set up; they have goats, sheep, horses and donkeys, and rely almost solely on meet, dairy, and wool from their animals.
We tried the Kyrgyz national beverage: fermented horse milk (kymyz), which is uniquely strong and sour to taste, and mildly alcoholic. 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!).
We stayed in a total of six different yurtstays/homestays and guesthouses, booked for us by a Community Based Tourism (CBT) organisation based in Bishkek.
Each time we felt privileged to be welcomed into the homes of nomads, farmers, herders, or Kyrgyz families. Kyrgyz people loved the kids! Our boys were so suited to the outdoors in Kyrgyzstan, that each different landscape bought a new adventure.
Our first night out of the city we stayed way up in the mountains – we still don’t know exactly where we were! Our cellphone reception had cut out two hours earlier, and we were winding up into the hills past vast farms and herds and herds of horses. Even Vitali, our driver, hadn’t been there and stopped in a village to ask a passing horseman for directions.
It turned out to be a cabin-like farm setting, more iconically like Canada than anything we had seen of Central Asia so far!
The boys had one of their best nights there, learning to use a real bow and arrow with the boys on the farm, and racing up and down the fast flowing alpine creek and river.
The vastness, and varied landscape
We were in the middle of nowhere! If we weren’t in Bishkek, every day we ended up somewhere random! The landscape challenged us, not only because it was so different from the previous months of travel in Eastern Asia, but because it is a challenging landscape in itself. The temperatures range from 40 above in summer to 40 below in winter – that’s extreme!
It felt unique to be in a place that was so different from home; so different from what we know; and still in a space where people were living as much as they had done for generations.
One challenge from Kyrgyzstan…
High altitude temperatures at Song-Kol lake were cold! It hit zero degrees at night time.
Having travelled for five months prior, we were used to travelling light, and had only been in climate temperatures. 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, and our host Mum even came in once 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!
Yurt fires… These things are amazing! I have a whole new respect for the amazing fuel that poo can be… There are no trees in this mountain landscape, so not only is there no shelter, but there is no chance for using wood as fuel for a fire. Poo it is! And trust me, when temperatures are sub-zero at night, there is nothing quite as pleasantly smelling as the scent of cow shit burning on a yurt fire!
Where to stay
- Bishkek: Hotel Koisha
- Chong-Kemin/Boo Jeptes Area: Homestay
- Song-Kol Lake: Yurtstay
- Kochor: Guesthouse
- Bokonbaevo: Yurtstay
- Karakol: Jamilya Eje’s Guesthouse
Hotel Koisha in Bishkek was a great start for Kyrgyzstan. The family room had two seperate rooms and a private bathroom. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the outside, but the hotel had a huge courtyard, kitchen, outdoor kitchen and BBQ area, and indoor/outdoor common space! It was only 100m from Osh Bazaar; the main market for Bishkek. We paid $52 NZD per night. Overall a highly recommended choice for arrival.
In Karakol, Jamilya Eje’s Guesthouse was a great find. We spent four nights here, relaxing in between our Kyrgyzstan tour and starting our next leg over the border to Kazakhstan. The quadruple room was a decent size, with a double bed and two single beds, and priced at $85 NZD per night. We had dinner cooked a couple of nights, and spent the rest of our time there wandering in to the Karakol Bazaar, and hanging out with our driver’s family!
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 Korea), but we didn’t think of that before heading out of the city.
Stock up with jackets or jumpers first!