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.
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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.
The Best Time 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.
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 Around Kyrgyzstan
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.
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.
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
2. But it’s not all just mountains and lakes…
3. The roads are pretty epic!
4. Traffic isn’t too much of an issue…
5. They have beautiful yurts….
6. And they put them in the best locations
7. Selfie spots in awesome places are easy to find
8. Even the animals hang out in awesome spots!
9. Their idea of sport is a little different…
10. You can do some amazing hiking.
11. You can camp on the beach….
12. Or in the mountains…..
13. Or in the sand dunes!
14. They have some badass Soviet trucks….
15. And Yaks….
16. And Eagle Hunters
17. The night sky is unreal….
18. And the sunsets are pretty good too.
19 They have some interesting history
20. Finding places to rest is easy.
21. When you go horse riding you’ll be provided with these awesome Bob the Builder helmets!
22. And after you’ve finished all that….the capital city Bishkek has Micro Breweries and gigantic beers!
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