Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country in Central Asia and is one of the world’s sparsely populated countries. Many of us do not know that it has so many destinations that are Instagrammable and bucket list worthy. The problem is, Kyrgyzstan is a rugged and big country that it will force you to make some hard choices. We know the drill. You’ve only got less than a week in Kyrgyzstan, but you want to see as much as possible right? Our suggested itinerary ensures that you truly experience the rich culture and the natural wonders of this beautiful country; to see the most in 5 days. So let’s go go and discover Lake Issyk-Kul?
Things to know before traveling to Kyrgyzstan:
Language – The Kyrgyz is the official language in Kyrgyzstan. Russian and Uzbek are the other languages spoken by many. English is not widely spoken in the country but mostly members of the younger generation in larger cities like Bishkek. Before entering the country, it is advisable to learn a few Kyrgyz/Russian words and phrases to facilitate your travel and to get to your destination quicker. If you are traveling with a help from a tour operator, then you can get by without learning the language.
Currency exchange – The Kyrgyz som is the official currency of Kyrgyzstan. Exchanging money is easy and follows the same standard to elsewhere in Asia. You can exchange currency at the airport, hotels, malls, local banks, and money changers (called obmen balyot) throughout Bishkek. ATMs (called Bankomat in Russian) are plentiful, all accepting international credit cards and debit cards, so it’s easy to withdraw your money in Kyrgyz som. Credits cards are commonly accepted in most high-end restaurants and hotels but keep in mind that “cash is king” in Kyrgyzstan.
Safety and security – There is currently no nationwide security advisory in effect for Kyrgyzstan. Check your country’s travel advisory website to get the most up-to-date information for your personal safety abroad. Although most visits are trouble free, remain vigilant because crimes like pick pocketing and theft do occur especially in Bishkek. Every traveler should take safety precautions because there has been an increase in reported armed robberies and other opportunistic crimes targeting tourists.
Getting there – Entering Kyrgyzstan is not as hard as most people think. Through the Kyrgyz Railroad Network, you can get to Bishkek all the way from Moscow, Russia. You may also travel by air to Manas International Airport. The airport serves flights to and from most major and some smaller cities in the country and some international destinations including Russia, Turkey, London, Germany, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, which is the most frequent air connection.
Getting around – Bishkek features a good transport network consisting of buses, marshrutkas (minivans) and taxis. Buses are great if you are traveling short distances. If you’re going right across the country, it’s best to use the train or consider taking a short flight. Renting a car and driving on your own is not advised because road travel in Kyrgyzstan can be hazardous, as roads are often poorly maintained. Locals have little regard for traffic regulations and do not follow safe driving practices.
Where to stay – Kyrgyzstan has a wide range of accommodation options, with something for every level of comfort and budget. No trip to the country would be complete without staying in a traditional Yurt camp, traditional tents made of felt and well insulated. This experience will give you a glimpse of Kyrgyz family life and taste authentic Kyrgyzstan food. Make sure to check out Community Based Tourism Kyrgyzstan (CBT) to make it easier to plan your hiking trips and yurt stays.
Day by day itinerary: Discover Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan in 5 days
Day 1: Bishkek
Your 7-day adventure in Kyrgyzstan starts today! Schedule a flight that will arrive early in Manas International Airport (FRU). The airport is about 25 kilometres away from the city centre and it will take about 50 minutes to get there. Super Taxi and Express Taxi are available outside the Arrival Hall and provides 24/7 service to the passengers. You may also take the marshrutka #153 and #380 to get to the city center. After check in at your preferred accommodation, minimize your jet lag by spending a lot of time out in the sunlight so your body can adapt to its new surroundings. Wear a comfortable walking shoes as you will do a lot of walking for today.
Where to stay in Bishkek:
There is no better way to get acquainted to the city than visiting Ala-too Square, the main central square of Bishkek. Here, you’ll witness the ceremonial changing the guard ceremony every hour. At the center you’ll find the 10-meter bronze statue of the Mighty Manas and at the perimeter you’ll see the Museum of Sculptures, the People’s Friendship Monument, and the State History Museum. End the day at the Panfilov Park, a spacious green space and is a popular hangout place for locals. After your historic tour, make your way back to your hotel and get a good night sleep.
Day 2: Cholpon-Ata
Before you check out the countryside, be aware of the toilet situation on Kyrgyzstan. If you’re staying in a western-style hotel, then this would not be an issue. If you, however, will be staying in a yurt, then expect a pit toilet. Also, avoid using the toilets in gas stations as they usually lack any proper washing facilities. Make sure to pack some toilet paper and hand sanitizers when you travel.
On your second day, check out from your accommodation and take a marshrutka to the lakeside town of Cholpon-Ata, where you will stay overnight. Located on the northern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, the town is famous for its mineral waters and stud farm. The drive from Bishkek to Cholpon-Ata is approximately 3 to 4 hours, but you have the option to stop along the way for some photographs. There are numerous selection of accommodations in town, most of it are located centrally with close proximity to Lake Issyk-Kul.
Where to stay in Cholpon-Ata:
Day 3: Karakol
On day 3, explore the lake once again and take advantage of the picnicking opportunities. Check out from your accommodation in Cholpon-Ata and travel to Karakol. Located on the eastern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, the city is known for its stunning view of the lake and Tian Shan Mountains, as well as its traditional Russian houses. Along the way, you may stop for a quick visit to Grigorievskoe Gorge. You may also visit the Seven Bulls Rock Formation at Jeti-Oguz Korort, which is about 40 minutes away from Karakol.
Where to stay in Karakol:
Day 4: Karakol – Altyn-Arashan Valley
On your fourth day, leave Karakol for the amazing Altyn-Arashan Valley, where you will be staying overnight at a guesthouse or a traditional Yurt. No trip to Altyn-Arashan would be complete without staying in a traditional Yurt camp, traditional tents made of felt and well insulated. Aside from the yurt stay, swimming at the natural hot springs Altyn-Arashan is another must do in the area. To get to Altyn-Arashan Valley, take the marshrutka #350 to Ak-Suu Village. Make sure to tell the driver to drop you off at the start of the trail to Altyn-Arashan.
Day 5: Karakol – Bishkek
On day 5, make your way back to Bishkek or continue your adventure to Osh, the 3,000 year old city known as the midpoint of the ancient Silk Route. Since you came all the way from Bishkek to Karakol, why not take this opportunity to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Osh (Sulayman Mountain)? If you decide, however, to return to Bishkek, then you can take one of the marshrutka from the town of Karakol.
Have you been to Lake Issyk-Kul or anywhere else in Kyrgyzstan? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? If so, you can leave your comments below.
Featured image: Mountain lake, Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia (Aureliy / Shutterstock.com)