Vacation in Kyrgyzstan: Top 10 Things to Do in Kyrgyzstan
1. Swim in Lake Issyk-Kul, the pearl of Central Asia. Surrounded by the snowcapped peaks of the Kungey and Terskey Ala-Too, Issyk-Kul is the highlight of any vacation in Kyrgyzstan. Beaches and resorts provide the perfect place to take a break, with spa treatments and mineral springs for those looking to really relax. Dive into the turquoise waters of Issyk-Kul for a refreshing swim, or lounge on the warm, sandy beaches. For those interesting in history, the petroglyphs around Issyk-Kul are not to be missed. Cholpon-Ata has the best open-air petroglyph museum in Kyrgyzstan, filled with exquisite images of mountain sheep, deer, bulls and horses. The most striking petroglyph shows hunters using tame snow leopards to hunt deer, with artistry that has clearly inspired shyrdaks and art to this day. Tamga Tash, on the south shore, is an excellent example of Tibetan religious inscription, a reminder that the history of this region is deep and complex.
2. Trek to Jeti Oguz and Altyn Arashan. For those that want their Kyrgyzstan vacation to include a bit of adventure, treks starting from Karakol and leading to Jeti Oguz, Altyn Arashan and beyond will certainly satisfy. Jeti Oguz is Kyrgyzstan’s most famous red sandstone figure, and its name (seven bulls, in Kyrgyz) reflects the legend about how the rocks came to be where they are. Further away is Altyn Arashan, a picturesque gorge with hot springs, sure to relax the sore muscles of any hiker. More experienced hikers can hire a guide and head even deeper into the mountains and glaciers in the direction of Khan Tengri and Pobeda Peak, two of the highest peaks in Kyrgyzstan.
3. Climb Burana Tower. No other architectural monument in Kyrgyzstan is as famous as Burana Tower. All that remains of the Karakhanid capital of Balasagun, Burana Tower is a monument to ancient architecture. Climb to the top of the tower for a view of the surrounding valley and mountains, and to see the outlines of the buildings that once made Balasagun. The museum nearby showcases artifacts from the region, including ancient coins from different empires on the Silk Road. And make sure to get a photo of the balbals, stones carved like people that were used to mark graves.
4. Hear the roar of waterfalls in Arslanbob. Any trip to Jalal-Abad would be incomplete without stopping at Arslanbob to visit the waterfalls and try the walnuts. The native walnut forests in Arslanbob are the largest and some of the most diverse in the world, with 1,500 tons harvested annually. In fact, Kyrgyzstan’s first export to Europe was the walnut, taken back to Greece by Alexander the Great (this is why walnuts in Russian are called Greek nuts). Many pilgrims come for the religious sites in the mountains, or the caves next to the smaller of the two waterfalls. The smaller waterfall, dropping 23 m (75 feet), is right in the village, and the larger waterfall, at 80 m (260 ft) tall, is a short hike away.
5. See your reflection in the depths of Sary-Chelek. If Issyk-Kul is the most famous lake in Kyrgyzstan, then Sary-Chelek is the most tucked-away and picture-perfect. Located in the Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve, on the southern side of the Chatkal Mountain Range, Sary-Chelek is harder to reach than other lakes, and thus more pristine and off the beaten path. The reserve itself covers 23,868 hectares, and is home to bears, wolves, lynx, foxes, deer, boars, porcupines, and even a few snow leopards. This makes Sary-Chelek the perfect place to slip away from the world for a bit, and to experience the quiet of nature or head out on some hikes up into the mountains.
6. Go back in time to the Silk Road at Tash Rabat. Hundreds of years ago, merchants and traders would cross Eurasia from east to west, making them the original globetrotters. Back before there were hotels, these travelers would stay at caravanserais, where they could find a safe place to sleep and let their animals rest. Tash Rabat is one such caravanserai, and is remarkably complete, despite being from the 15th century. Walk through its halls and imagine what it would have been like to cross the Fergana Valley on your way to Kashgar, and to see this stone building in a meadow full of sheep and horses at the end of a long day.
7. Touch the sky at Son Kul Lake. At 3,016 m (9,895 feet) above sea level, surrounded by high mountain pastures and rocky peaks, Son Kul is a vacation at the top of the world, with nothing between you and the sky. Son Kul is only accessible between June and September, as snow makes the road impassible for the rest of the year. This means that there are no buildings on the meadows and plains, just yurts, animals, and the clear blue waters of the lake. For a little adventure, travelers can go on horseback treks or hikes starting from the lake, or even swim in the cold water!
8. Buy Uzgen rice in the bazaar in Osh. Long before there were malls, the bazaars in Central Asia were the best places to buy anything from far and wide. The main bazaar in Osh is one of the oldest in the world - it’s been at its current location, stretched along the Ak-Bura River in Osh, for over 2,000 years. Long ago, Osh was the center of the Silk Road, and this bazaar was a place for merchants to sell their goods to those passing through as they crossed the continent. For millennia, if you needed anything, this was the place to come. Food, appliances, crafts, textiles, perfume, jewelry, hot bread, even livestock can all be found here. Make sure to check out Uzgen rice, which makes the best plov.
9. Follow the steps of pilgrims up Sulaiman Too. Legends connect this mountain in Osh to many religious and historical figures, and tell about the powers of the various caves and shrines in the mountain. Climb to the top to visit Babur’s mosque, built in 1510, which he constructed on his way from Fergana to India, where he founded the Mughal dynasty. Learn about the long and storied history of Sulaiman Too’s spiritual sites, including caves and shrines (and you can’t miss the museum made of a large cave). Explore the two mosques and cemetery at the bottom of the mountain to get the full experience of the only UNESCO site completely in Kyrgyzstan.
10. Experience the World Nomad Games. There’s no better way to experience the full richness of nomadic culture than a visit to the World Nomad Games. Even though the Nomad Games are only held every two years, they are well worth a trip. Athletes come from all around the world to participate in traditional sports like archery, wrestling, intellectual games and horse races. Cheer on your favorite team in kok-boru, a game that features teams of men on horses vying to score points by landing a dead sheep in a goal. For those who aren’t fans of sports, cultural events include concerts, fashion shows, cooking competitions, and plenty of crafts and souvenirs. Nomad Games shows off the best Kyrgyzstan has to offer, from daring athletes to warm hospitality to expert artisans, all in one place. This is a unique event, not to be missed!