Backpacking Kyrgyzstan

Everything you need to know about backpacking in Kyrgyzstan, including accommodation options, how to get around, what to eat and what to wear. In this post I also provide 22 epic reasons why you should travel to Kyrgyzstan.

I first travelled to Kyrgyzstan in October 2015 and absolutely loved it. I raved about it so much to my friends and family that some of them even booked trips there!

In 2018 I got to go back, not once but twice and I fell in love with it even more. So, I thought it was only right that I should share some of my ramblings about why you too, should visit Kyrgyzstan. 

Kyrgyzstan Basic Info

Before I dive in, let me give you some basic information on the country first. Kyrgyzstan is a landlocked country, 80% of which is covered by the Tian Shan mountains. It’s considered the Switzerland of Central Asia, so as a self-confessed mountain girl, there’s no wonder why I love it so much.

If you love to hike or ride horses, then Kyrgyzstan should be at the top of your bucket list!

As a post Soviet country, Kyrgyzstan gained independence in 1991. It is one of the world’s least crowded countries, which is probably another reason why I love it so much, and just 36% of the population live in rural areas.

Finally, they have gold, lots of it! Kumtor Gold Mine in the Tian Shan mountains is one of the largest gold deposits in the world, so unsurprisingly, gold is Kyrgyzstan’s biggest export. 

Top nerdy fact: Proper nouns aren’t allowed in Scrabble but if they were, Kyrgyzstan would score 30 points. There’s only one other country that would score higher (write in the comments below if you know the answer!)

Do I need a visa for Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan has always been the most relaxed country in Central Asia when it comes to visas. 

Citizens from North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, to name a few, are able to visit the country for 60 days without a visa. Too easy!

If your country is not on this list or you have any queries about visas in Kyrgyzstan, head over to Caravanistan to find out more.

When to visit Kyrgyzstan

The Summer months of June – September are the best time for visiting Kyrgyzstan. This is peak season for travel in Kyrgyzstan so there will be plenty of opportunity to meet up with other travellers.

During summer, days will be pleasantly hot but the nights can be very cool, especially up high. As this is such a mountainous country, the weather can change rapidly and without warning, so it’s best to pack clothes for all conditions.

Winter in Kyrgyzstan is a great option for travellers interested in skiing or snowboarding. 

Transport in Kyrgyzstan

Similar to other Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, the easiest way to get around Kyrgyzstan is by marshrutka – a shared minivan. These marshrutky travel between the major Kyrgyzstan tourist spots, and within the cities themselves.

The marshrutky don’t have a set schedule and just leave when they are full. For this reason, it might not always be the fastest mode of transport but it’s certainly the cheapest. (Aside from hitchhiking)

Hitchhiking is definitely possible in Kyrgyzstan and is common amongst the locals. Rather than holding out your thumb however, local custom is to flap your arm up and down with the palm facing the floor. This is the signal that you would like a ride. It’s also customary to pay a contribution to the driver for petrol money.

Apart from the odd pothole, driving in this beautiful little country is a delightful experience. The roads are mostly small and not too busy.

Renting a car for your backpacking trip is definitely a good option if you are confident driving in foreign countries. Drink driving can be a problem in Kyrgyzstan so avoid driving at night.

Dress Code

The dress code for Kyrgyzstan and most of Central Asia is quite reserved. Women should avoid wearing clothes that show off too much skin, such as skimpy tops and short, shorts.

Knee length shorts, skirts and dresses are fine, along with regular tops and t-shirts. For guys shorts, trousers and t-shirts are fine.

Accommodation

Camping is definitely the best option for those on a budget. Kyrgyzstan is true to its’ nomadic heritage so wild camping is allowed. Wild camping should be free in most, places but if you pitch your tent near a yurt camp, they might expect a small fee.

In big cities like Osh and Bishkek, there are plenty of hostels to choose from which offer shared dorms. In the towns, guesthouses and B&Bs offer affordable options.

Homestays are also a great accommodation option in Kyrgyzstan and will provide you with the opportunity to really learn about Kyrgyz culture. 

And then of course there are the yurts! Yurts are a really fun way to spend the evenings and if you don’t have camping equipment, are often the only option on multi-day hikes. Overnight yurt packages typically include dinner and breakfast.

Food in Kyrgyzstan

I’ll be honest, the food in Central Asia won’t set your tastebuds alight however it is hearty and warming, which is quite often what you need after a day in the mountains.

Most meals do contain meat so vegetarians will have a tougher time finding typical Kyrgyz meals.

Common Kyrgyzstan staples include:

  • Plov – a rice based dish cooked in broth with meat and vegetables.
  • Lagman – thick noodle soup with vegetables and meat.
  • Manti – The Kyrgyzstan steamed dumpling mostly filled with meat.
  • Shashlyk – aka the meat kebab, typically served with a heap of raw onions.

Language

Kyrgyz and Russian are the two official languages of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz is a Turkic language so I found my (very basic) Turkish quite useful in the markets. 

English is spoken but it’s not common place. A basic understanding of Russian will go a long way. Otherwise hand gestures and Google translate with Russian is a must.

The best places to visit as a backpacker in Kyrgyzstan

  • Bishkek – This capital city has an International Airport and is the likely starting point of a Kyrgyzstan trip. There is some interesting Soviet architecture to see but if you’ve come to enjoy the mountain scenery, one or two days is enough here.
  • Ala Archa – These are the closest mountains to Bishkek and so day hikes from the capital are possible.
  • Karakol – Karakol town is the gateway to several hiking options, including Altyn Arashan and Jeti Oguz.
  • Fairytale Canyon – An area of desert terrain consisting of colourful canyons, rocks and spires.
  • Kochkor – A very small town whose main draw is again the places which can be accessed from here, namely Song Kol and Kol Ukok. One fun experience here is to see a felt making demonstration.
  • Song Kol Lake – This breathtaking, high-altitude summer grazing spot is not to be missed on a visit to Kyrgyzstan (unless you come in Winter, in which case access is not possible)
  • Osh – Home to its’ famous bazaar and Suleiman Too sacred mountain.

Why should you consider backpacking in  Kyrgyzstan? 22 epic reasons!

  1. They have the most amazing alpine scenery.
Beautiful aqua blue alpine lake with snow capped mountains. Ala Kul lake hike is popular backpackers in Kyrgyzstan
Ala Kul Lake
Lake Kol Ukok
Altyn Arashan

2. But it’s not all just mountains and lakes…

Fairytale Canyon
The Severn Bulls, Jeti Orguz

3. The roads are pretty epic!

Road descending from the south side of Song Kol Lake
Road from Bishkek to Toktogul

4. Traffic isn’t too much of an issue…

Road from the Chinese border to Naryn

5. They have beautiful yurts.

If you visit Kyrgyzstan you should stay in a yurt like this one in a remote location surrounded my mountains
Tash Rabat

6. And they put them in the best locations.

Lake Kol Ukok

7. Selfie spots in awesome places are easy to find.

Altyn Arashan
Kara Kul

8. Even the animals hang out in awesome spots!

A visit to Song Kol lake is a must when backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Song Kol Lake
Atyn Arashan

9. Their idea of sport is a little different…

Trying to see a game of goat polo should be top of the list for a visit to Kyrgyzstan
Kok Boru (aka goat polo), Chong Kemin
Picking coins off the floor, Song Kol Lake

10. You can do some amazing hiking.

A man hiking amongst arid mountains. Hiking is on of the best things to when backpacking Kyrgyzstan
Mountains above Tash Rabat
High pass over Ala Kul
Lake Kol Ukok

11. You can camp on the beach….

South shore, Issyk Kul

12. Or in the mountains…..

Jeti Orguz

13. Or in the sand dunes!

Naryn Province

14. They have some badass Soviet trucks….

Atyn Arashan

15. And Yaks….

Song Kol Lake area

16. And Eagle Hunters.

An Eagle Hunter with his Eagle. Seeing the Nomadic culture is a great reason to visit Kyrgyzstan
Taldor the Eagle Hunter, Barskon valley

17. The night sky is unreal….

Our overland truck at Song Kol Lake

18. And the sunsets are pretty good too.

Stay in yurts on your tour of Kyrgyzstan
Song Kol Lake

19 They have some interesting history.

Tash Rabat is an ancient Caravanserai and a must for any visit to Kyrgyzstan
Tash Rabat, A 15th Century Caravanserai. This was a motel for traders moving along the Silk Road.
Burana Tower is a major tourist attraction in Kyrgyzstan
Burana Tower. An 11th Century minaret and all that remains of Balasagun, an important Silk Road city.

20. Finding places to rest is easy.

Putting my feet up next to a lake on a recent trip to Kyrgyzstan
Kol Tor Lake
Backpack Kyrgyzstan to enjoy lakes like this one
“Small lake”, Altyn Arashan

21. When you go horse riding you’ll be provided with these awesome Bob the Builder helmets!

A photo of me horse riding which is something I love to do on a trip to Kyrgyzstan
Song Kol Lake

22. And after you’ve finished all that….the capital city Bishkek has Micro Breweries and gigantic beers!

Time for a well earned enormous beer in Bishkek. The perfect opportunity to plan your next adventure – Georgia maybe? Or Pakistan perhaps?

The best guide book specifically for Kyrgyzstan is this Bradt one.

As always if you want to see more photos of my time in Kyrgyzstan head on over to my photography website.

Have you ever thought about backpacking Kyrgyzstan? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps cover the cost of running this blog. Thanks for your support!

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22 reasons why backpacking Kyrgyzstan should be at the top of any travellers list. Discover what makes Kyrgyzstan an incredible Central Asian destination.

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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Josy A

    Goodness these photos are goooorgeous! Kyrgyzstan looks like such a beautiful place to hike and see those stunning mountains!

    What is the food like?

    1. LouFrance

      Hey Josy, yes the hiking is incredible with all the fabulous scenery. The food is typical of Central Asia – lots of kebabs, noodle soup and dumplings! Not a huge amount of variety but I like it 🙂

  2. Laura Pedlar

    I enjoyed this post and think that the photos of the landscape were breathtaking, I can understand why friends and family have visited Kyrgyzstan after you told them about it. The hard hats for horse riding is different!

  3. April Key Rode

    I love all the pictures and I didn’t know it can be snowy in there! It looks like you’re having a good time in seeing this beautiful gem that not all travelers able to visit.

  4. Nitin Singhal

    Wow!! your photos are truly mesmerizing. I never gave serious thought to Kyrgyzstan as a travel destination. But now I have to consider it. You were right about it being Switzerland of central asia.

    1. LouFrance

      Thank you Nitin 🙂

  5. The Holidaymaker

    Wow, how do you pick a favourite thing to do, by your photos, it looks fantastic! There is something about visiting a country that is least populated. I can see why you have returned. I hope to get there one day. Thank you for inspiring.

    1. LouFrance

      With so much natural beauty everywhere, doing anything outside is always a must in Kyrgyzstan! Glad to have provided some inspiration 🙂

  6. Life Of Y

    Amazing photos! I’ve always been interested in ‘The Stans’ but I never knew Kyrgyzstan was so beautiful. So much natural beauty and such modest sized beers to top it off!!

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