In this day and age of the internet, where almost every place has been documented or photographed, it is the most wonderful feeling to stumble upon places that you probably had no idea even existed! When we'd decided to travel to Kyrgyzstan, little did we know that it would turn out to be THE TRIP of our lifetime! This little country, which was once part of the Soviet Union, went above and beyond our expectations, and just blew our minds! From unending mountains and glaciers, to lush green fields and canyons, the country boasts a multitude of picture-perfect landscapes and never ceases to surprise you.
Moreover, this happened to be our first international travel during the pandemic, as well as our first trip post our wedding! So Kyrgyzstan, and the beautiful friends we made along our journey, will always hold a special place in our hearts. ❤
We were in the country for 9 DAYS (this is a one-week itinerary, but we took extra two days for relaxation) and here are our TRIP HIGHLIGHTS >>
2 Days in Bishkek Day trips to Ala Archa National Park and Lake Kol Kogur
4 Days in Altyn Arashan Drove along the southern shore of Issyk Kul Lake >> Skazka Canyon >> Karakol Stayed in a 'YURT' for 3 nights in Altyn Arashan >> Hiked to Lake Ala Kul
1 Day in Issyk Kul Drove along the north shore of Issyk Kul Lake >> Tyup >> Cholpon Ata >> Back to Bishkek
2 Days in Bishkek If you are short of time you could go directly to the airport but we chose to relax and explore the city for 2 days
NOTE: In a week, we only covered a very little area of Kyrgyzstan. But if you have more days in hand, it is worth visiting Sary Chalek, Kel Suu, and areas around the Naryn River! We have been told by the locals that these places are incredibly beautiful albeit the drive to these areas is quite long (but again, WORTH IT) !
If you're in a hurry, you could skip the Q&A below and head straight to our detailed itinerary underneath.
Kyrgyzstan has some of the most breathtaking locations, with many of them pristine and untouched. In fact, during many occasions, Arjun and I found ourselves in the middle of a surreal landscape, with not a soul around. ❤ From mountains and lakes, to flower fields and canyons, road trips through Kyrgyzstan is a sensory feast with views changing every few kilometers.
Yes! We experienced a different landscape almost every single day of our trip!
Kyrgyzstan also has some of the most challenging mountain trails we've come across, and is great for hikers and adrenaline junkies. To top it all, traveling in and around the country is very affordable as well.
Moreover, considering the pandemic, Kyrgyzstan at the time, seemed like a relatively safer option compared to some other countries that had opened their doors to tourists.
When is the best time to visit Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan experiences all four seasons and is very beautiful to visit all year round. However, based on our experience we would highly recommend traveling during the summer months from June-August, or even up until early-October. Summer is the ideal time to explore the mountain regions and hiking trails, and the temperature is just perfect (with the possibility of snow in 'Ala Kul' region in early-June and other extreme mountain caps where it snows all year through).
How many days do you need in Kyrgyzstan?
There is never enough time to fully explore a country. However, we recommend AT LEAST a week to immerse into the Kyrgyz culture and fully experience some of the major sights.
BUT most importantly, if your itinerary like ours is filled with hikes, then we highly recommend providing 'off-days' in between to just relax and prep your body for the remainder of the trip. On these off-days we would spend time with our guides or the local family that was hosting us at the mountain tops.
We are huge believers in slow and intentional travel. :)
Visas & Flights
*Please note that this article was written in June 2021, and visa rules are subject to change*
This official Kyrgyzstan website link has a tool to check for visa eligibility and requirements for holders of passports of different countries. As Indian passport holders, we had to apply for an e-visa on the country's official visa portal - https://www.evisa.e-gov.kg. In the past, there used to be an option of visa-on-arrival, but for now an e-visa is the only way to go. While applying for the e-visa, you will be asked for :
Scanned copies of your passport
Digital copy of your passport photograph (A scanned image won't work. You might even get rejected for poor photo quality!)
Valid email address
Credit card details for payment
Visa Cost: A single entry tourist visa for 30 days costs 51.5 US$
Visa processing time: It took us about 10-11 working days for our e-visa.
Flight views somewhere above Kyrgyzstan :)
We traveled via FlyDubai Airlines that has direct flights between Dubai to Bishkek (Manas International Airport). We recommend running a quick search on Skyscanner to check for flight routes and rates based on your location. The airport is around 40 minutes from Bishkek by road.
Do I need an RT-PCR test for COVID -19 in Kyrgyzstan? Where can I get tested in Kyrgyzstan?
*Please note that this article was written in June 2021, and rules related to COVID-19 protocol are subject to change*
A negative COVID-19 (PCR) test is required to be taken within 72 hours before your arrival in Kyrgyzstan. While exiting the country, we got our RT-PCR test done in Bishkek at The Department for Disease Prevention and State Sanitary and Epidemiological Surveillance.
Address: Bishkek city, Frunze Str. 535 Telephone: (0312) 323212, (0312) 323006
The test costs around 1574 KGS (approx. 18.59 US$) per person, and we got our results within 6 hours!
Can I travel around the place with my kids?
Most of the scenic sights in Kyrgyzstan are a couple of hours' drive from the capital city. They are mostly mountains, and the hikes here require a minimum level of physical fitness as the trails can be quite tough and physically demanding. With a heavy heart, we would probably not recommend Kyrgyzstan if you are traveling with infants and children up to the age of 11, and would ask you to wait a couple more years so that you and your family can fully enjoy the country. 😊
Getting Around in Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek is a very pedestrian-friendly city and so moving around by yourself is quite easy with the assistance of Google Maps. You can easily walk around and explore. We never took any cabs (yes, we walk A LOT), but you can still book for one on an app called 'Yandex Go' which is the Kyrgyz version of Uber. Bear in mind that English is not widely spoken and most signages are in the local Kyrgyz or Russian languages. A pro-tip would be to download Google Translate on your phone - coolest invention ever!
However, most of the activities and sight-seeing is outside of Bishkek, where driving on your own can be quite challenging with not too many directions or signages on the roads. Moreover, the mountain hikes do not have designated trails or paths, and often these areas do not have good network coverage so being on your own in the wilderness without an experienced guide would not be the safest idea. We highly recommend reaching out to some local guides that are experienced hikers. You can opt for private or group tours but we always prefer private ones (safer in a pandemic, and moreover, you get to enjoy the place all to yourself without making the place seem 'touristy'!)
We HIGHLY recommend 'Kettik' for its tours and guides! We first contacted them on their Instagram page and they later reached out to us with their details and quotes via WhatsApp. The guides at Kettik are young, friendly, and very responsible. In fact, we made so many memories with them and ended up being great friends!
Our special mountain van that would go on the most rugged of terrains!
You could get a SIM card at the airport or from any of the 'Globus' chain of stores in Bishkek.
'Beeline' and 'O!' are the two most popular network providers, and they are extremely affordable as well!
Budgeting for the trip
The currency in Kyrgyzstan is called the Kyrgyz Som (KGS). The money exchange centers in Dubai did not have any Kyrgyz currency, so we carried US Dollars with us and converted it to Som at a local exchange centre in Bishkek.
1 US$ = 84.65 KGS (dated June 2021)
Food, accommodations, and getting around in general, is very affordable. Hotel accommodations in the capital start at around 50 US$ per room per night inclusive of breakfast, but you could even find cheaper options such as hostels and boarding lodges. In the countryside, the rates are much lower depending on the kind of accommodation. (Guesthouses and yurts are relatively much cheaper than hotels). As for food, you can have a complete meal for just 2 US$, but it could be twice (yet still affordable) in more fancier restaurants in the capital city.
A driver with a vehicle and an English-speaking guide, starts at around 100 US$ for two people for an entire day-trip. However, we we were traveling with 'Kettik' and they have options of complete packages where they provide for day trips, food as well as all accommodations at different price points.
Accommodations in Kyrgyzstan
Throughout our week-long trip, we stayed at 4 different locations. These were recommended and arranged for us by Kettik.
> 2 Days in Bishkek (Bugu Hotel - highly recommend for its spacious, clean rooms, excellent location, and value for money!)
> 4 Days in Altyn Arashan (a 'yurt' offered by EcoYurt Camp Arashan and Guesthouse 'Gulnara')
> 1 Day in Issyk Kul (a local resort which we would not recommend because of our poor experience)
> 2 Days in Bishkek (back to Bugu Hotel)
Staying in the traditional 'Yurt' at Altyn Arashan, far away from civilization, was the BEST experience of Kyrgyzstan!
Food in Kyrgyzstan
While Arjun is a complete vegan, and I am almost-vegan, we initially expected that finding good food would be a challenge in a predominantly meat-eating country. However, we were able to find some great options throughout our stay! And since it was summer, we feasted on some of the tastiest strawberries, cherries, and apricots we've ever had! The country is also famous for its assortment of nuts, so we were always snacking on those.
National Dishes to try:
Ashlyan Fu (a cold broth/soup with handmade wheat noodles. We had ours without eggs/meat Fun fact: This dish is popular among the locals for curing hangovers!
Lagman (a tangy noodle dish, usually served with meat but you can ask the restaurant to eliminate it)
Naan (Local bread sold at various street corners. The Kyrgyz love their naan with fresh berry jams!)
The traditional Ashlyan Fu soup served with a spicy paste
Russian dishes to try:
Bulgur (a brown-grain that is eaten in place of rice, often flavored in broth)
Borscht soup (a cold beet-soup with potatoes and other boiled vegetables)
Pulof (flavored rice, although we asked ours to be made in a vegetarian broth)
The Kyrgyz love to have their hot tea with fresh bread and jam spreads at any time of the day.
Here is a delicious home-cooked meal of Plov (flavoured rice) and warm noodle soup,
prepared by our family host in Altyn Arashan.
Restaurant recommendations in Bishkek (capital city):
Baan Baan Thai Kitchen
Yellow Split Pea with Bulgur was a hit at BUBLIK!
The Tom Yum Tofu Soup at Baan Baan Thai is a MUST!
Packing for Kyrgyzstan
This would totally depend on the season you are traveling in. But an important note is that temperatures in Bishkek are generally higher than the temperatures up in the mountains. Since we travelled during early-June, we wore our winter jackets in the mountains of Ala Archa and Altyn Arashan, where it was quite windy and the temperatures would even reach single-digit celsius.
We are currently working on an article explaining our hiking gear and backpack contents, and it should be out very soon!
And now finally, a Day-by-Day breakdown of our trip!
Day 1 - Arrive in Bishkek, Hike at Ala Archa National Park
We arrived early morning at the Manas International Airport in Bishkek, and were welcomed by our guide and friend, Azim, who also drove us around for the entire duration of our trip. After a very scenic 40-minutes drive to the city centre, we checked into Bugu Hotel to freshen up after the long journey, and fuel ourselves with some breakfast. We highly recommend Bugu for its clean and spacious rooms, excellent location, and complete value for money.
By mid-day, we were well rested, got our currency exchanged at a local store nearby, and set off to Ala Archa National Park. Situated 40km to the south of Bishkek, Ala Archa ('Archa' actually means juniper tree) is straight out of a fairytale book! We were spellbound by the vast expanse of mountains, unending rows of juniper trees, melting glaciers, and such crisp, clean air. ❤
The national park has several hiking tours. We took the one leading to Ak-Sai Waterfall at about +2860m above sea level. The hike was a total of 8km (up and down). We recommend dedicating an entire day to this park, plus this is a great warm-up to the upcoming hikes on your trip.
Day 2 - Hike to Kol Kogur OR Hike to Kol Tor
After an early breakfast, we started our road trip for the day to Kemin district, around 170 km from Bishkek. The drive is around 3 hours one-way, and is absolutely scenic, with passing views of lush green mountains and Kyrgyz nomads leading their herds of horses, sheep and goats.
The hike is literally like a scene from a movie, and in many ways resembles landscapes from Switzerland! The hike is around 8km (up and down), but is totally worth the effort when you reach atop +2000m above sea level, to find beautiful Kol Kogur! ('Kol' is Kyrgyz means lake!) There was not a soul around while we were there. You can just lay on the grass staring into space all day, listening to the sounds of nature! We had a little picnic lunch by the lake, organized by our lovely guides who so kindly packed food for us before we started our road trip. Note that there is no restaurant or grocery even within kilometers' radius of this quaint, little place.
OPTION 2 - We were initially supposed to hike to Kol Tor, which is much closer to Bishkek (around 80km only) than Kol Kogur. But we were told by our guides that early-June would not be the best time to visit Kol Tor. So it's best to check with your guide before you choose which lake to hike to!
Day 3 - Visit the Gorgeous Canyons!
We checked out of our hotel, and set off on a long 8-hour journey (approx. 430 km) to our much-awaited destination - Altyn Arashan! Our guide drove us along the southern shore of Lake Issyk Kul, the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan and en- route, we visited the Skazka Canyon (also called Fairytale Canyon). Skazka is a world of its own, and the red-rock alien-like formations are a gorgeous change to the green mountains in the rest of the country.
Skazka is just one of the many canyon formations across Kyrgyzstan. There are many other popular ones such as Konorchek, which also happens to very closely resemble the Grand Canyon!
Can you spot Arjun?
After spending about two hours at Skazka, we continued our road trip, and by nightfall, finally reached Karakol - the starting base to get to Altyn Arashan! Here, we changed vehicles and hopped onto a 4WD mountain van with special tires that enable it to go on extremely rugged mountain terrains. This was, and probably will be the craziest vehicle journey we've ever experienced! No roads, extremely rocky trails, pitch darkness, with just the shadows of the mighty mountains, and terrifying sounds of the gushing rivers. We were moving farther from civilization and getting deeper into the wilderness of the Alytn Arashan Gorge! ❤
We finally arrived at our destination, still pitch black around, and just guided by the starry night sky! We were greeted by our hosts (a local Kyrgyz woman and her two daughters) who manage the guesthouse 'Gulnara', and they showed us our way to our 'Yurt' - our humble place of stay for the next 3 nights!
Day 4 - Stay in a Yurt in Altyn Arashan
The previous day was a long journey from Bishkek, and the crazy ride from Karakol to Altyn Arashan got us all exhausted by the end of it! But waking up in our yurt the next morning to the views of Altyn Arashan was the most surreal experience we have ever had! We were transported back in time, far away from civilization - no network, bare minimum electricity, hardly any human souls. It was just Arjun and me, our guide and hosts, in the middle of acres and acres of endless green pastures dotted with beautiful animals grazing away to glory. ❤
There are no regular toilets, well...it's more like a pit situated at least about 20 meters from our yurt! It would be best to carry wet wipes with you - super convenient in situations like these. :)
There are no electric lights in the yurt, so we used battery operated portable lights at night. We also had headbands with torchlights that were super useful when using the toilet at night.