There are spectacular lakes and rugged mountains. Villagers farm and raise animals, primarily horses, sheep and goats, and you will see some yaks and camels. Most importantly, the people are very kind, generous, and welcoming. As former nomadic herders, the people of Kyrgyzstan love visitors and is impossible to enter a Kyrgyz home without drinking a pot of tea or even eating half of a sheep at the most. Kyrgyz folk think of themselves as the poets and artists of Central Asia. Nothing illustrates this spirit more than the Epic of Manas, the longest narrative poem in the world. Manas was a hero who, according to legend, unified tribal leaders long ago in the mountains and valleys now known as Kyrgyzstan.
The country of Manas comprises more than 80 ethnic groups from all over Asia and Eastern Europe. The country has a very rich mix of traditions and customs, with a population predominately ethnic Kyrgyz but with large populations of Russians in the North and Uzbeks in the South. Kyrgyz people are known for their felt and ceramic crafts and for their Silk Road-related history. Soviet culture fostered opera and ballet groups, theaters, and museums. Ancient tribal affiliations still govern social norms in many parts of the south where you find more of a mix of western and traditional Uzbek and Kyrgyz cultures. Kyrgyz is the national language, but Russian is used extensively.
Kyrgyz tourist amenities are growing, but outside of Bishkek and Osh, don’t expect much English, spoken or on menus. Kyrgyzstan is easy to get around, via the marshutkas or long distance taxis, though it might not be too comfortable. ATM’s are in the larger towns and cities, try to get smaller notes if you can.
Highlights from Kyrgyzstan
- In every oblast there are vistas worth checking out. Popular trekking areas include Ala-Archa, Song Kol, Sary Chelek, the Alays, and Arslanbob. The main season is June-August, due to chilly temperatures, though all year hiking is possible for the well suited.
- Jailoo is the Kyrgyz word for the summer pasture land where farmers take their animals for the summer months. Many Kyrgyz families spend the summer there as well, or go for weekend trips. “Going to Jailoo” means you will see breathtaking scenery and drink kumuz.
- Ski slopes in Talas and Karakol, swimming in Issyk Kul, hiking and climbing everywhere, and horse trekking are all major ways to enjoy the outdoors in Kyrgyzstan.
- A bazaar is not just a bazaar in Kyrgyzstan. It’s an entire world. Also check out the animal bazaars in At-Bashy or Karakol and the car bazaar in Bishkek.
Hints and Tips for Kyrgyzstan
- Getting around Kyrgyzstan is done via marshrutka (large passenger vans) or shared taxis. Prepare to get cozy with your neighbour, and in the summer, sweat. But marshrutkas are cheap! You can also fly between Osh and Bishkek, and take the train between Balakchi and Bishkek. Land borders between Kazakhstan and China are viable, but you have to fly to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
- Generally, Kyrgyzstan is quite safe, though pickpockets occur frequently in Bishkek’s marshutkas and in Osh Bazaar. Also, smoking and drinking in public is technically illegal, though this is not enforced, unless you are a visible non-Kyrgyz person. Then you might have militsia on you. Don’t do it.
- Kyrgyz kids love saying Hello to you, but if you say “Salam” back, they’ll be impressed. What’s your name? is “Atung kim? And How old are you? Is “Sen kancha jashta?” Learn some Kyrgyz.
- It is impossible to enter a Kyrgyz home without drinking a pot of tea at the least, and perhaps eating half of a sheep at the most. Social events are frequent and important. Get yourself invited to a toi (a wedding) and it’s a night you will not forget.
- Community Based Tourism is widespread in Kyrgyzstan and many CBTs are well run. Visit the CBT website, and give the coordinator for the town you’re visiting a call. They can set up tours, treks, horse treks, overnight jailoos, home stays, and more.