TRAVEL to KYRGYZSTAN – Tips and Information Guide 2019

Everything you need to know to travel to Kyrgyzstan, from the best things to do, places to visit, budgeting, travel itineraries and plenty more!

This beautiful landlocked country, formerly part of the Soviet Union is probably most popular travel destination in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan tourism is growing year on year, so take the chance to visit one of the worlds most spectacular countries.

Travels to Kyrgyzstan has increased dramatically in recent years as travellers come to hike, camp and horse trek through Kyrgyzstan’s stunning scenery.

As first of the Central Asian nations to relax their visa policies, (it’s visa-free for most western and developed nations) a strong tourism network has developed.

From Community Based Tourism (CBT) operating all over the country to guesthouses and independent guides there are plenty of ways to access the stunning scenery for which this country is famed.

Hikers marvel at stunning treks from Karakol, Kochor, Arslanbob and even the countries capital Bishkek. Since hiking makes a huge part of travelling here it should be assumed that you will need a reasonable level of fitness to access them.

Whilst some are naturally easier than others, it’s safe to assume you will be dealing with something more than a Sunday afternoon stroll. The vast majority of treks are between 1 and 5 days, however, there are some that are longer.

If you fancy saving your legs then jump on the back of a horse and take on the countries most spectacular horse trek to Song Kol. You could spend a few days relaxing and swimming at Issyk Kul.   

With plenty of off-the-beaten-path destinations, treks and trails the opportunities to explore are limitless.

For more specific information on what to see and do, how to get there and around and other Kyrgyzstan travel tips be sure to read through our Kyrgyzstan travel guide.

Table of Contents

Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide

If you’re planning to travel to Kyrgyzstan make sure to read this guide to prepare you for visiting one of the world’s stunning countries.

General Info

  • Capital: Bishkek
  • Other Main Cities/Towns: Osh, Karakol and Jalalabad
  • Currency: Kyrgyz Som
  • Language: Kyrgyz and Russian
  • Population: 5,849,296
  • Area: 199,951 sq km
  • Electricity Voltage: The standard voltage is 220V at 50 Hz frequency
  • Electricity Sockets: Type C and F

How to Travel to Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is serviced by two main airports; Bishkek and Osh. The vast majority of international flight will land in Bishkek.

If you’re looking at flying into Osh from overseas then you will either have to transfer in Bishkek or the regional hubs of Almaty in Kazakhstan or Tashkent in Uzbekistan.

Flights to Kyrgyzstan can be pricey depending on where you’re flying from. I would recommend researching across a number of platforms and book your flights as early as possible. 

Although Kyrgyzstan is well connected to its neighbours, if you’re flying from outside of the region it’s very likely you will need to transfer.

If flying from Asia, Chinese Airlines may be among the cheapest, however, you will have to transfer in China. Flying from the west the choices are far more varied.

As the majority of international flights require a layover, it’s wise to check if there are any visa requirements in the country you are transferring in.

It is also a good idea to browse for flights in incognito mode, or alternatively you can clear the cache in your browser periodically.

Many travel sites will charge higher fares if they know you are visiting their sites frequently to search for flights.

Google Flights also offers some of the best initial research for fares from your destination, from there it’s worth doing more detailed research.

However, be sure to check fares directly with the airline as there may be unspecified fees and regulations not listed in the Google Flights results.

If you find a flight on a site like Skyscanner or Kayak check the cost of booking the flight directly with the airline. It’s not uncommon for the flight to be much cheaper when booking directly through the airline.

Visa Requirements for Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal visa policy of any of the Central Asian nations and as a result travel to Kyrgyzstan is easier and more straightforward than ever.

Citizens of a number of countries (mostly western or developed nations) are granted a 30 or 60-day visa upon arrival. Check with your country’s foreign office to find out if you qualify. 

Citizens that do not qualify for this will need to get an E-visa. However, check where you can enter or exit the country. Some nationalities will be granted E-visas that will have specific entry and exit requirements.

For example, E-visas for Chinese citizens only allows them to enter the country at Bishkek or Osh airports or through one land border with Kazakhstan.

Additionally, some E-visas will require citizens to register within 48 hours of arriving in Kyrgyzstan. Check your countries visa policy to be sure.

Your guesthouse or hotel should be able to register you directly. If they can’t (this is unlikely) you will need to head to the Public Security Bureau with the required documentation which is located on Young Guard Blvd (молодой гвардии молодой гвардии).

If you’re staying in an AirBnB or apartment then you will not be registered with the government and will definitely need to head to the Public Security Bureau.

However, the above is only for those that require an E-visa and even then it’s not the case for every single nationality that requires an E-visa. If you require an E-visa to visit Kyrgyzstan make sure you check the requirements carefully.

Jyrgalan Travel to Kyrgyzstan
Jyrgalan Valley – one of the best places to visit when you travel to Kyrgyzstan.

5 Interesting Facts About Kyrgyzstan

  • The hero at the centre of the “Epic of Manus”, an epic 500,000 line poem, is celebrated all over the country with statues, airports, roads universities and even a planet.
  • 40 is a lucky number. It’s a reference to the 40 clans of the great Manas. The country’s flag features a sun with 40 rays as nod to the country’s luckiest number.
  • Only 36% of the country’s residents live in an urban location. Yurts and a nomadic lifestyle are still central to Kyrgyz culture.
  • Mountains cover 80% of the country – Get ready hiking, camping and breath taking scenery.
  • Horse milk, “kumyz,” is the national drink. It’s certainly an acquired taste.

Best Time to Visit Kyrgyzstan 

Travelling to Kyrgyzstan is limited to the warmer months if trekking is your goal. The ideal time is June to early September. However, even in June, you may find some routes and passes are closed especially if the preceding winter was a long and harsh one.

Do be aware that July and August are peak months to travel to Kyrgyzstan so whilst it may be slightly riskier weather-wise to visit in June or early September you can expect to see fewer travellers and enjoy cheaper accommodation.

If skiing is your game, March and April are particularly good months to travel to Kyrgyzstan. However, the ski industry is not particularly well developed.

Those planning longer trips to Central Asia may want to spend the hotter summer months travelling in Kyrgyzstan and its mountainous neighbour, Tajikistan and spring or autumn in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.

This allows you to access to the best weather in each country. You do not want to find yourself in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan in the middle of the summer!

Travel Itinerary Suggestions

  • Bishkek 1-2 Days: A great place to start or end your Kyrgyz adventure. With plenty of Soviet Architecture and parks to explore it’s certainly a great place for some downtime. There are some hiking trips into the nearby mountains; Ala-Archa being particularly stunning. Here’s our Bishkek article to help you plan your trip.
  • Karakol 4-5 Days: There is ample hiking here, whether it’s hiking to Altyn Arashan, Jeti Oguz or the Jyrgalan Valley there are oodles of treks of varying difficulty and length. Jeti Oguz is probably the most stunning single day trek in the area. However, head to Altyn Arashan or the Jyrgalan Valley for some awesome multi-day treks.
  • Kochkor 5-7 Days: Kochkor itself is a pretty nondescript town consisting of one main high street, a market and plenty of taxi drivers. However, it’s what can be accessed from here that draws people. Firstly there is the stunning Song Kul, possibly one of Kyrgyzstan’s top horse treks. In addition, there are stunning hikes to Kol Ukok and beyond.
  • Naryn 2 Days: This is the starting point for a road trip to Kyrgyzstan’s stunning south-east, culminating in a hike to Kol Su.
  • Osh 1 Day: Kyrgyzstan’s second city is home to a famous bazaar and the rather stunning Suleiman Too. You may stay longer if venturing out to some of the area’s hiking trails. 
  • Arslanbob 2-3 Days: Home to stunning treks through the world’s largest walnut forest, Arslanbob is justifiably popular thanks to excellent home-stays and spectacular scenery.

Budget for Travelling in Kyrgyzstan

Travelling in Kyrgyzstan is reasonably easy on your wallet, however doing horse treks, rafting and 4×4 trips out into the wilderness can rack up the costs quicker than you may imagine. However, there are a few little tips to help you save a few pennies here and there.

Accommodation: Guesthouses and Yurts are the name of the game in Kyrgyzstan. A private room in a guesthouse is usually between $19-25 which usually includes breakfast. Prices for accommodation in Bishkek is usually more expensive than other parts of the country.

Yurt stays vary depending on how many meals you are getting, but it’s fair to budget between $10 and $15 dollars per person including breakfast and dinner. These rates may go up in depending on location and time of year.

Food: Cheap and cheerful. You won’t spend more than a few dollars for local classics like manti, shashlik and Lagman. However, outside of the Central Asian staples it’s more pricey.

Alcohol: Cheap, but stick to beer as spirits can sometimes contain fake alcohol and there have even been stories of anti-freeze being used in some vodkas (not too dissimilar to parts of Russia).

Tours: For any hike check if you need a guide. For many you DON’T but check online otherwise some tour agents will encourage you to book a guide that you don’t need. Politely inform them if you don’t need one. However, there are some routes where a guide is a must. Tour operators of your guest house are usually the best places to book yurts for multi-day hikes.

For horse treks and 4WD trips expect to spend between $40-70 per person, per day. This price includes yurt accommodation options and is based on 4 people. Naturally the fewer the people, the more expensive it will be.   

Backpacker

Kyrgyzstan tourism is very well suited for backpackers. Staying in family-run guesthouses, your own tent or yurts will certainly save you plenty of money. Limiting how much you eat out and how much you drink are always solid options for saving a few pennies when travelling.

For hikes and treks, not using a guide and staying in your own tent are great ways to save money. However, you should only avoid using a guide if you are sure the trails are clearly marked and you are a confident hiker.

In addition, utilising marshrutkas (shared minivans) as opposed to private taxis can lead to some substantial savings on the transport front. 

To account for everything a healthy budget is $30-$50 per person for a single traveller and $40-$80 per couple per day. Remember it is always better to budget slightly more than you need to cover for accidents and emergencies, so I would recommend budgeting for slightly more than this.

If you are looking to take some of the tours mentioned above then you will need budget a little more than I’ve suggested here. 

Naturally staying in a tent, cheap guesthouses and taking advantage of hiking trails where guides are not necessary will naturally lead to a lower budget. 

Flashpacker

Staying in boutique guesthouses and taking private taxi’s for the majority of your trip will be a 20-50% increase on a backpacker budget. Instead of eating at local restaurants you occasionally opt for a taste of home and a couple of cheeky beers.

Luxury

This can be as expensive as you want it to be. Maybe you want a guide for your entire time, or want to horse trek across the country. Although the latter is not luxury, the price will certainly be.

Outside of Bishkek 5 star hotels are certainly not common, however hiring private guides and transportation will certainly add to your bill.

It is just about impossible to have a purely luxury holiday in Kyrgyzstan, as the infrastructure just isn’t there for it. That’s not to say you can’t have a very comfortable time, just don’t expect to be staying in world-class resorts.

Yurt Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide
You will spend plenty of times in yurts when you travel to Kyrgyzstan.

Top 5 Places to Visit in Kyrgyzstan

Every traveller who has been to Kyrgyzstan will have their own favourite place. Usually a particular spot, on a particular hike where a combination of exhaustion and snow-capped mountains combine to leave you in awe.

Here are my top 5 places to visit in Kyrgyzstan

Jyrgalan: After 7 visits to Kyrgyzstan and now running adventure tours in the country, the owners of this website, Alesha and Jarryd, can honestly say that Jyrgalan is the best place to visit in Kyrgyzstan. This little village just outside of Karakol is a trekker’s paradise, and is worth spending a few days in town anyway. Click here to see why they love it so much.

Song-Kul: One of the countries most popular destinations, Song Kul is truly spectacular. Whether you’re hiking or on the back of a horse it’s hard not to be completely overwhelmed, especially as you cross the pass down to towards Song-Kul. Here it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination.

Kol-Ukok: This awesome two-day hike from Kochkor offers spectacular views, but you certainly have work for it. Once you have your eyes on the prize, stunning mountain scenery will unravel in front of you.

Ala-Archa: For those that don’t have a lot of time in Kyrgyzstan, but still want to experience its epic mountain scenery Ala-Archa is an awesome option. Only an hour from Bishkek it is an easy escape.

Sary Mogol: If you head to the southern part of the country past Osh you’ll enter the Alay Mountains, which are some of the wildest, most untouched peaks in the entire country. The little dusty village of Sary Mogol is right near the base of Peak Lenin, a 7134m high mountain which can be climbed as part of an expedition and is an excellent launch point for trips along the Pamir Highway. It’s a lovely town.

Top 5 Travel Experiences in Kyrgyzstan

Hiking – Naturally this is one of the top travel experiences in Kyrgyzstan. With awesome hiking trails all over the country, you are spoilt for choice. With everything from day hikes to multi-day treks available, there is something for every hiker. 

Sleeping in a yurt – A quintessentially Kyrgyz experience and unless you have your own tent, it’s an essential one when undertaking a multi-day hike. As the temperature drops at night yurt’s remain warm and comfortable.   

Swimming in lake Issyk Kul – Swimming in one of the world’s highest alpine lakes is an awesome thing to tick off your bucket list. Taking a dip surrounded by stunning mountain vistas is fantastic, if a very chilly, experience. Check out our guide for things to do in Issyk Kul.

Taking a Horse Trek – Horse treks are a highlight when travelling Kyrgyzstan. Whilst your legs get a break, your backside will certainly feel the pain. However, hanging on for dear life as your horse goes galloping across mountain pastures is a once in a lifetime experience that certainly makes up for the aches and pains.

Sunsets and Star Gazing – After a long day of hiking and a home-cooked meal, watching the sunset set followed by a spot of stargazing is a great way to round off the day.

Skazka Canyon Travelling to Kyrgyzstan
Skazka Canyon, also known as Fairy Tale Canyon, is a wonderful place to visit in the country.

Kyrgyzstan Travel Tips

Travelling in Kyrgyzstan is getting easier every year, but it still requires an adventurous spirit and a bit of patience due to the lack of infrastructure outside of Bishkek.

To help you make the most of your trip, I’m going to share with you some of my best Kyrgyzstan travel tips.

What is Community Based Tourism?

One of the reasons that travel to Kyrgyzstan has developed so quickly is because of the community-based tourism network in existence throughout the country.

In effect, this allows the money that comes from tourism to reach more of the population. It connects herders, guides and drivers with tourists and helps them to receive the benefits of hosting, guiding and driving tourists. 

The main hub for this network is the CBT office that exists in almost every major town in the country. However, this is not the only agency doing such work.

There are a number of smaller independent agencies offering community-based tourism through a different name.

In addition, there are a number of guesthouses that have connections with local guides, herders and yurt camps and can also arrange everything for you.

There are also a number of former guides that are starting up their own tourism companies utilising their own network and knowledge. 

Do your research and find out which organisation offers what you are looking for. Here’s the main website.

Language Issues

Travelling in Kyrgyzstan does not have the same language challenges as travelling in China for example. However, it is important to remember that English is not widely spoken, save for tour agents and some guesthouse staff (certainly not all).

Outside of this it can be very hit and miss, and in truth, it’s usually more of a miss. Knowing a small amount of Russian is extremely useful for guesthouses, transport and general communication.

Money Changing

You will be able to access ATMs that accept foreign cards in Bishkek however it can be hit and miss outside of the capital, Karakol and Osh. It’s best to bring some additional US dollars in cash just in case.

These can be converted to Kyrgyz Som at any bank in the country, however, do be aware that the dollars have to be in excellent condition.

Transportation In and Around Kyrgyzstan

The best way to get around Kyrgyzstan is by marshrutka or private taxi. Internal flights are most reliable between Bishkek and Osh and there is a limited train service but it’s unreliable and inconvenient and in truth is best avoided.

Kyrgyzstan’s Geography

Before going into detail about the transport options in an around Kyrgyzstan it’s important to understand a little about the countries geography.

With 80% of the country covered by mountains and some roads in a poor state of repair, some journeys will take much longer than you would think. For example, expect it to take between 6 and 8 hours to get from Bishkek to Karakul by marshrutka.

Another thing to bear and in mind is the challenges of travelling across the centre of the country, for example from Kochkor to Osh, can be unreliable.

The main reason for this is the stretch of road that goes from Naryn to Jalal-Abad. This is a 4WD road that is closed in winter, however, do not be surprised to see some old Ladas taking on the terrain.

The road is in poor shape and it is closed in winter. Mudslides are a risk, but not as much as in Tajikistan. In addition, you may have to take two taxis to get all the way along this stretch of road.

Speak with your accommodations staff, the local CBT (who can also help to arranged a private taxi) and check online to keep up to date.

Flying

A convenient and affordable way of travelling between Bishkek and Osh, but outside of the two main cities, it’s not really a viable option.

Marshrutka

By far the most convenient way to travel in Kyrgyzstan and indeed Central Asia and the Caucasus. These converted transits ferry people all over the country.

If you’re stopping off at a smaller destination, then take a marshrutka that passes it and let the driver know where you want to get off. However, do be aware that you are likely to be charged the full fare.

One of the best things about marshrutkas is that they are cheap, sometimes a tenth of the price of a private taxi. In major towns, prices are usually clearly printed on a sign and the money will be collected by a driver or there will be a ticket office with a price list.

Knowing a little bit of Russian is extremely useful as it is very unlikely anyone will speak English.

Often marshrutka stations are a bit of a free for all, there seems to be no clear order or logic as to where they park.

There will be a card behind the windscreen with the final destination, which more often than not will be written using the Cyrillic alphabet (the alphabet used to write both Kyrgyz and Russian).

If you can’t read Cyrillic’s then you will need to go and ask someone. Even if they cannot understand you people are extremely accommodating and will often go out of their way to help you. 

It can be a squeeze inside and some will only leave when full. I would recommend getting to the station a bit earlier to make sure you can get a seat. There were plenty of times when I visited that our marshrutka left full to bursting leaving a large crowd behind.

If you have large luggage that cannot be stored in the back you may be charged extra as they may need to put your luggage on the seat. Another reason to get there early. 

Private Taxi

More expensive than a marshrutka and generally more reliable, private taxi’s are a good option. Sometimes they may be the only option you have. The route across the centre of country springs to mind.

The cost they give is usually per seat and they won’t leave until their car is full. This means you may be waiting a while for them to fill up the remaining seats.

However if you pay for these empty seats they will be on their way, however, they may stop and pick up people on the route, and still charge them full price, without giving you any money back. 

Rental Vehicles

This is a very new market, so you will need to do some very detailed research. Be warned, it is very expensive.

Accommodation in Kyrgyzstan

Whilst there is a lot of accommodation in Kyrgyzstan there is not a huge variety. The vast majority are family-run BnB’s and guesthouses. These are often excellent value for money and give you the opportunity to build up a great relationship with the owner.

Generally, luxury accommodation is limited to Bishkek or the northern shore of Issyk Kul for the Russian tourists the descend in the summer months

Hostels

Hostels are mainly clustered around Bishkek and Osh. These are a great place to connect with other travellers and get travel tips from the staff and other guests. These are generally rarer outside of the countries two main cities, but they can be found.

Guesthouses and BnB’s

This is probably the main accommodation option in Bishkek. Many families have taken advantage of the increased tourism to Kyrgyzstan by renting rooms in their homes to weary travellers.

The vast majority will include breakfast and in some more rural areas, they will also offer dinner, however, do be aware that this is usually an additional charge. Expect an extremely warm welcome and lots of conversations through google translate and hand signals.

Staying in these family-run BnB’s will leave you with some wonderful memories.

Yurt

Unless you have a tent this will be your only option for multi-day treks. Very often you will book through your guesthouse or CBT and then pay upon arrival. More often than not the price includes dinner and breakfast the next morning.

Shared Apartments and Houses

There are a few of these floating around on booking sites in Bishkek and they are an excellent option. However, do be aware that it is likely you will need to register with the police if you entered the country on an E-visa.

For the majority of people who do not need an e-visa though, then Airbnbs are cheap and plentiful in Bishkek. Sign up using this link to get USD$35 off your first stay on Airbnb.

Hotels

Western-style hotels are rare outside of Bishkek and Osh and more often than not are probably not worth the extra costs. However Soviet-era hotels are not uncommon, but may not be what you’re looking for.  

Kyrgyz Eagle Hunter
Around Issyk Kul you can get the chance to meet traditional eagle hunters – an experience that you will remember forever.

Food in Kyrgyzstan

The Central Asian staples can be found all over Kyrgyzstan and as good as some of it is you may crave something else after a while.

Bishkek has a wide variety of restaurants serving everything from western fast food to Italian, Chinese and Japanese cuisine. So if you want a break from the local delicacies then this will be the place to get your fill.

Shashlyk – One of the meals that define the region – grilled meat kebabs. Usually lamb, although chicken and beef can also be found here and there. Usually served with a scattering of red onions on a huge skewer.

Manti – These steamed dumplings come in a variety of styles with fillings both meat and vegetarian options available.

Samsa – More often than not they are wrapped in crispy, flaky pastry and have a taste similar to that of a cornish pasty (for those that know this delicious English snack). These can be found in restaurants, bazaars and from carts on the street. Like manti, they come in both meat and vegetarian varieties.

Lagman – A thick noodle dish covered in vegetables and meat in a spicy, vinegary sauce.

Beshbarmak – This literally translates as 5 fingers, since that’s what you eat it with. It consists of horse meat (occasionally beef or lamb) boiled it’s own broth and served over boiled noodles.

Safety in Kyrgyzstan

Generally speaking, Kyrgyzstan is quite safe, however, normal precautions should be taken. Avoid unlit streets and parks at night if possible. Also, keep your valuables safe and locked away especially if staying in a dorm.

In the past plain-clothed “policeman,” looking to shake down tourists were a big problem. They would ask to check your passport and occasionally would rifle through your possessions and wallet.

Strangely enough, this would usually end with some of your money disappearing or maybe even a fine for some unknown reason.

However this has dropped off in recent years, but it’s still a problem, especially around Osh Bazaar in Bishkek. If this happens to you try and offer them a copy of your passport and do not sign anything that you do not understand.

Drink driving in Kyrgyzstan is a problem, particularly at night. If taking a taxi, be sure that the person driving is not drunk.

All of this aside, Kyrgyzstan is generally safe and it’s very unlikely you would come across this.

Packing list for Kyrgyzstan (Men and Women)

Essentials

  • Travel towel
  • Hiking boots
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Hiking trousers x2
  • Thick socks
  • Shorts/Leggings x2
  • Trainers/Casual Shoes
  • Shorts x2
  • T-Shirts x4
  • Fleece/Hoody x2
  • Gloves
  • Warm hat

Miscellaneous items

  • Tent
  • Torch
  • Sleeping bag
  • Mosquito repellent
  • An unlocked smartphone so you can place a Kyrgyz SIM card in it
  • Camera
  • Laptop
  • Powerbank
  • Adaptor
  • Sanitary products (it may be hard to find them outside of Bishkek)
  • Plasters and cream for blisters

Final Tips for Travel in Kyrgyzstan

Learn a little bit of Russian – It will make your life a lot easier. Phrases around transport and money are most useful and for such basic phrases google translate is usually pretty accurate.

Get a local SIM card – This will make it easier to contact drivers and guesthouses in advance. Everyone there has WhatsApp and often this is how they prefer to communicate. Megafon, Beeline and O! are the main companies. We use Megafon on our own trips there, as they have the best coverage.

Compare CBT with other options – The CBT network is awesome for sure but sometimes other companies may have something available that is more in line with your interests. Sometimes guesthouses may offer their own tours and guided horse treks so they are definitely worth consulting as well.

Don’t expect a horse trek to be pain-free – If you have ridden a lot before then you’ll know what to expect. However if not, be prepared for horse treks to leave you backside and thighs in agony. They are definitely worth the pain though!

Travel Time and Distance – Very often journeys take longer than advertised, plan this into your itinerary. A safe bet is to budget a journey from one town to another to be an all-day affair.

Seasons – Even in early summer, some hiking trails may still be closed if the winter was a particularly long one. If you do end up going in June do be aware that there is a good chance that some trails will still be closed.

Read Our Kyrgyzstan Posts

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