Whoever penned Kyrgyzstan as “the most beautiful country in the world” was no genius. A couple of weeks in the mountain nation and you’d think just the same. For years, it has escaped the prying eyes of tourists, barring a few backpackers traversing the silk route. With ever-improving air connectivity, easier visas, and the advent of travel blogging – the cat is out of the bag. A journey to Kyrgyzstan maybe physically tiring but the astounding natural beauty and its uniquely diverse culture will secure a place in your heart forever.
However, planning a trip to Kyrgyzstan isn’t quite as easy as packing your bags and leaving (although that will definitely be an exciting adventure). This mini-guide will (hopefully) prepare you as best as possible.
From India, Air Manas operates a direct flight to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan’s Capital) from Delhi. This does not fly on all days so it may require some scouring on the internet to locate it.
Alternatively, you can fly from Delhi on Air Astana with a layover in Almaty, Kazakhstan. These are the two cheapest options from India. If you’re based in any other Indian city, take a domestic connection to Delhi as trying to connect from any other city will significantly increase the airfare.
Average Flight Cost Per Person: $300 per person (INR 20,000)
Beyond The Wall Tip:
- It may be a good idea to club a trip to Kazakhstan, specifically Almaty and surroundings, along with Kyrgyzstan. Flying to Almaty will be cheaper and there are regular buses plying between Almaty and Bishkek, a short 4-hour journey.
Getting a visa to Kyrgyzstan was a really LONG, ANNOYING, and EXHAUSTING process. But the good news is that it isn’t anymore. Kyrgyzstan launched an E-visa facility for ALL nationalities on 1st September 2017, a week after we secured our visas (Let’s not even talk about it!).
Here’s the link to apply for an e-visa. The process is supposedly easy and straightforward. Also, if you’re still worried if India comes under the radar, here’s the notification on the website of Delhi Embassy. The new process also saves significant costs as it is no longer required to get an invitation letter from an agency in Kyrgyzstan.
Since Kyrgyzstan still doesn’t have an evolved bus or railway network just yet, traveling in Kyrgyzstan can be a bit of a pain. There are two primary methods of transport between two destinations – Marshrutka and Shared Taxis.
- A marshrutka is a minivan (or a tempo traveller, as they say in some places) which accommodates anywhere between 12-16 people. These are like unofficial buses within Kyrgyzstan and leave from the official bus stations of each city. There is connectivity for most journeys more than 100 km via a marshrutka. Make sure you know how to read the name of your destination in Cyrillic script.
- The average cost of a marshrutka ride: 3$ (INR 200) for distances <150 km, 5$ (INR 325) for longer distances up to 400 km.
- Shared taxis can be found at the centre of almost all small towns. They are typically Russian-era sedans or small SUVs, seating 4-7 people on an average. Shared taxis go all kinds of distances although they’re most common for shorter journeys which has no marshrutka connectivity. A shared taxi doesn’t leave unless all seats are occupied, a process that might take even north of an hour at times and a tad costlier. But, they’re a lot more comfortable. You also have the option of buying out all seats if your wallet is loaded, something that wasn’t an option for us.
- The average cost of a shared taxi ride: 3$ (INR 200) for distances <75 km, 4-5$ (INR 250-325) for slightly longer distances
- For travel within a city/ town, easiest is to just hail a cab off the street. In Karakol, the going price was approx 1$ (INR 70) and in Bishkek, it varied between 2-4$ (INR 150-250) depending on distance. Within Bishkek, you could also take a local city-level marshrutka for just 10 SOM (INR 9, 0.20 cents) but these will be uncomfortably stuffy and difficult to navigate in. We got lost a fair few times.
If you’re planning to travel from North/ Central Kyrgyzstan to the South, we strongly suggest taking a flight from Bishkek to Osh. These are usually just 25 USD (INR 1600) per person and can be booked online although it might be hard to find them on your regular airline booking sites. Your airline options are Avia Traffic Company, Tez Jet, and Air Manas (most popular). While Air Manas (also called Pegasus) can be booked here, the rest will have to be booked via a third-party website.
Finding an ideal accommodation is fairly easy in Kyrgyzstan. There are plenty of options on all your regular travel websites like booking.com, AirBnB, or hotels.com
But, if you’re going to a town/ village, it is best not to rely on any of the above websites but instead, go through CBT (Community-Based Tourism). CBT is a fantastic org that runs tours, experiences, and a huge network of homestays across Kyrgyzstan. Each state/ region has its own CBT office and you can get in touch with them directly via email to book a stay.
- Although there is a national level CBT based in Bishkek, it is best to arrange it through the local chapter as they offer much better rates. You can find these details under the ‘CBT Groups’ tab on this website. For eg, if you need a stay in/around Kochkor, click on CBT Kochkor in the drop-down menu of the ‘CBT Groups’ tab.
- Most homestays will also include breakfast and dinner along with the price. This is worth it as eat-out options are few and enjoying a home-cooked meal is the best way to keep your stomach virus-free and healthy.
- In the three big cities – Bishkek, Karakol, Osh – it is good to go via the regular websites. Although we stayed at the Centre Hostel in Bishkek, we found the vibe there completely off and the staff a bit lacklustre. Apple Hostel comes highly recommended by many other travelers. Even if you’re not a budget backpacker, the hostel has excellent high-quality double rooms.
- In Karakol, we couldn’t recommend Bed & Breakfast Nice enough. The owner is one of the few hosts we met who could actually have a detailed conversation in English. He is a well-traveled, well-read host, and provides high-quality service that will be rare to find while traveling in Kyrgyzstan.
TREKS & EXPERIENCES
If you’re making your way to Kyrgyzstan, chances are a trek feature on your must-dos. And if it does not, it should. There are many excellent trekking circuits to choose from that you can either do on foot or on horseback. We chose the latter and didn’t regret it one bit. There are 3 trekking routes that are most sought-after:
- The Song Kol Lake Circuit – We went on a 3 day/ 2 night horseback trek to the Song Kol Lake, one of the world’s most beautiful alpine lakes. We rode for 5-6 hours on two days with a guide in tow, lived in yurts set up high in the mountains, ate home-cooked fresh meals, tried mare’s milk, pooped in non-existent toilets, froze to death, and had the time of our lives by far. We arranged this through CBT Kochkor. Price: 570 USD for 2 people (INR 37,000). This included car transfers to the base, all meals, all stay, the guide, the horse rental. Costly but worth it. PS: The vodka was on us 😉
- Altyn Arashan Valley – An alternative option if you prefer green valleys over high alpine lakes is to do the Altyn Arashan trek. This can be done by foot or on horseback. CBT Karakol/ Eco Tours Karakol are two good options to help you plan the same. The stay won’t be in yurts but in guest houses or you can choose to camp yourself. More details can be found on this blog by Goats On The Road, who did this circuit a few years back.
- Jyrgalan Valley – This trek circuit was only recently opened to travelers and remains fairly off the beaten path (as if the country isn’t already!). One of our favorite bloggers, Nomadasaurus, recently did a trek up there and they have given all the information you’d need here
Apart from horseback trips or treks, there are also a lot of cultural experiences you could indulge in if you find yourself there during the high season (June-Sep). Unfortunately, we reached there a week too late and couldn’t gather enough people to arrange some of the cultural tours in Karakol. But, if you’re interested, head over to the Destination Karakol office next to Fat Cat Cafe (in Karakol, of course) and they’ll be happy to put it together for you.
Finalising an itinerary for Kyrgyzstan was extremely hard. Given the mountainous nature and lack of fast public transport, it isn’t easy getting from one region to another. Although roads are excellent (better than India at least) and traffic low, the country is bigger than it seems on the map.
The map below showcases our 12-day itinerary:
- Bishkek – 1 Day
- Kochkor – 1 Day (Small town, Base for the trek)
- Song Kol Lake/ Kochkor – 3 Days (The trek & return to base)
- Bokonbayevo – 1 Day (Eagle Hunting, Issyk-Kul Lake, Fairy Tale Canyon)
- Karakol – 4 Days (Jeti Oguz Valley, City tours, bazaars, small hikes/ treks)
- Bishkek – 1 Day
We took it fairly slow as the itinerary shows and slowed down significantly in Karakol where we lazed about our days. Also, we were caught in the middle of transitional weather cutting down our daylight time significantly.
If we were to go traveling in Kyrgyzstan again, we would come back to Bishkek post our Song-Kol trek, fly to Osh and explore Osh, Sary Tash, Jalal Abad, and Arslanbob. These places would have lent a different dimension to Kyrgyzstan as they are at the Uzbek border and the culture is significantly different, even the food. Arslanbob which hosts the world’s largest walnut forest was widely suggested by many people whose advice we didn’t listen to and we regret that. If you choose to go there, CBT is your go-to people (and your only choice, actually). You could even club such an itinerary with a trip through the Pamir Highway, often christened ‘The Roof Of The World’.
Beyond The Wall Tip:
- Skip buying the ‘Central Asia Lonely Planet’. It is short and ineffective. Instead, buy the Kyrgyzstan specific Bradt guide that will help you plan the trip much more effectively.
- The best season in Kyrgyzstan is June-September when the weather is warm and the sun beats down hard. But, we recommend April, May, and early October as well if you like lesser tourists and a little snow. All other times are out of bounds as everything shuts down due to bad weather.
Ok, I won’t sugarcoat this but if someone offers me Kyrgyz food and says ‘I’ll pay you’, I might just politely reject. The flavor takes a while to get used to, and we did not. Other than a few odd dishes, most tasted similar. Food was the only downside of traveling in Kyrgyzstan.
It is predominantly a meat-eating country. Sheep is the most common meat while you’ll occasionally get lamb or beef as well. Vegetarians/Vegans might have a tough time surviving since the vegetarian options aren’t in plenty. Although a lot of blogs online warned us about eating raw salads, we did have a lot of it and survived just about fine.
The good part, though, is that the meals came at dirt cheap prices. Whether it was a homestay, a run-down restaurant, a high-end sit-down meal, or a cafe, the food never cost us more than 10 USD (INR 650) together. Here are some prices you can expect:
- A bowl of Ashlayan-Fu, the cold noodle soup: 80 cents (INR 50)
- A double sandwich: 1.5-2 USD (INR 100-125)
- A cup of artisan coffee: 1.5 USD
- Chai (expect loads of this!): Free at most places; 1$ (INR 60-70) for a pot of tea
- A meal to yourself: 4 USD (INR 250)
- A full meal for two at a well-rated restaurant: 10 USD ( INR 600-700)
Beyond The Wall (Food Survival) Tips:
- Cross verify if someone tries to feed you ‘hamburger’ as usually, they mean ‘sheep burger’ and it isn’t the tastiest dish on the planet.
- Most menus are only in Kyrgyz, Russian, Chinese, or Korean. Ask the locals and understand the dishes that work for you beforehand and order accordingly. It might help to learn the local terms for ‘Chicken, Vegetables’ etc. We also skipped restaurants that neither had an English menu nor any pictorial representations.
- If you’re going to be on the move or trekking up into the mountains, definitely carry some food from supermarkets like chips or chocolates. It wouldn’t be that bad an idea to carry some items from your home country. Also, carrying some pepper might help in cases where the food is completely bland.
- Dishes we liked – Ashlayan Fu, Boso Laghman (Fried Noodles), Chicken on Skewers, Shashlyk
Overall, traveling in Kyrgyzstan is extremely cheap. In fact, it’s probably the cheapest country we’ve been to, even more than South-East Asia. Unfortunately, the organized treks/ tours are expensive but they’re the only way you can access a lot of places in the country. But, if you’re happy to trek and camp on your own, the budget will reduce significantly.
Here’s a detailed breakdown:
We spent a combined total of INR 1, 25, 900 (USD 1950) on the entire journey, end-to-end
Cost per person per day was just INR 3000 (45 USD), including the 3 day horseback trek, accommodation, all meals, and transport.
Phew! That was a long one but we hope this is helpful in putting together your trip to Kyrgyzstan. Frankly, if we hadn’t spent 3 weeks in South Africa, we’d have said Kyrgyzstan is the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen but a second place isn’t so bad for a country so small and often forgotten on the map. Do yourself a favor and head there before tourism picks up en masse.