The Adventure Trip of a Lifetime Is in the World’s Hardest Country to Spell
Climbing the last hundred yards of a steep scree slope, struggling as our guide Daniyar effortlessly glides up to the top, the stunning panorama of glaciers and 13,000-foot peaks cradling Ala-Kul lake comes slowly into view. In the Alps or Patagonia this would be a magnet for hikers, but in under-the-radar Kyrgyzstan, our small trekking crew has the moment all to ourselves.
One of the least-known but best-value adventure destinations in Asia, the mountainous Kyrgyz Republic is finally bleeping on the travel radar, nearly three decades after becoming an independent country after the fall of the Soviet Union. Why now? Cheap flights from Europe and easing visa regulations certainly help. There’s also the World Nomad Games -- like the Olympics, but waaay more hardcore. Finally, this little country is getting the big reputation it deserves, as a hiking and horse-trekking destination, and a Silk Road travel hub.
Some fast facts about Kyrgyzstan:
Name: The Kyrgyz Republic, or colloquially, Kyrgyzstan
Currency: Kyrgyz Som
Price of a meal: 100som - 800som ($1.50 - $12)
B&B at a yurt camp: 600som - 1500som ($9 - $22)
Trekking guide per day: 1400som - 3500som ($20 - $50)
Horse hire per day: 1200som - 1500som ($17 - $22)
Kyrgyzstan is a little smaller than South Dakota with a population of 6 million (roughly the same as Missouri). Most of those people live in the major cities of Bishkek, Osh, and Jalal-Abad; outside of the urban centers, the country is rural and sparsely populated. The official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian, but English is increasingly common in the tourist sector, and some older citizens also speak a bit of German (a leftover from the Soviet education system).
You can’t move for mountains around here. Over 80% of the country is alpine, from the Tien Shan range in the north to the Pamir Alay in the south. It’s these dramatic landscapes that are the initial draw for adventurers seeking wild nature and rugged mountain hikes. Yet many travelers find the most enduring memories are of the people and the culture -- shepherd families living on high-altitude pastures, craftspeople making felt carpets by hand, and market traders peddling goods in open-air bazaars in a modern reflection of the historic Silk Road.
Aigul Kubatbekova, who runs the Apple Hostel chain, sums it up best: “Kyrgyzstan offers nature, hospitality, and remoteness. It’s not overflowing with tourism, so it interests people as a virgin country.”
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Early on a May morning, several hundred hikers gather at the end of the road in Ala Archa National Park, which is just far enough away from the city of Bishkek to finish a cup of coffee on the drive. Slowly the crowd climbs and thins, snaking along the steep ridge up to the 13,780-foot Komsomolets Peak. I amble up, slower than most but determined to be one of many that will summit this morning and return to a festive evening in the base camp below.
This is the annual Alpinada hiking festival. Every May it draws the biggest crowds of the year to the capital city's closest mountain valley, although on any given weekend the locals go to Ala Archa to hike, picnic, or just escape the city heat. Trekking is part of the soul of this mountain country, so to make the most of a trip here, you’re gonna have to lace up those boots and head out into the wild.
The hands-down most popular route is a three-day hike past the panoramas of Ala-Kol Lake and down to the hot springs in Altyn Arashan. Then there’s Jyrgalan, a former mining community turned ecotourism hotspot on the border with Kazakhstan; the seven-day Ak-Suu Traverse trek from there to the rocky red canyons of Jeti Oguz takes you through some of the Kyrgyzstan's most jaw-to-the-floor scenery.
In the far south, you’ve got the Alay Valley, where high alpine lakes are set in arid, otherworldly terrain. Treks vary from one-day hikes to week-long endurance tests, with vistas across the Alay to Tajikistan and the Pamirs, where Peak Lenin soars to 23,406 feet.
Even outside of the well-known areas, every little valley looks like an opportunity -- a day-hike waiting to happen, the start of a multi-day trek, or perhaps the perfect campsite beside one of Kyrgyzstan's 2000-odd mountain lakes. And there’s almost always a nomadic community nearby that can provide travellers with meals, yurt stays, and the chance to connect with the local community.
Living like a mountain nomad
Ainura's day at Son-Kol Lake starts early. At her yurt camp on the northwest shore, the first rays of sunlight see her preparing breakfast for her family, before they head out to milk the horses and take sheep to fresh pastures. She also looks after the visitors who have trekked over the 11,053-foot Ozbek Pass to get there. She’ll prepare lunch for travellers passing through on their way to the lake, then climb to the crest of a ridge to confirm reservations for the next day -- the Community-Based Tourism (CBT) office in the nearest town signals the numbers of how many to expect. Life in Kyrgyzstan’s jailoo mountain pastures continues in much the same way as it has for centuries, just with a few more amenities and a lot more outside visitors coming to experience it for themselves.
Son-Kol Lake is the most popular jailoo for travelers looking to hike in the foothills and experience the day-to-day lifestyle of families high in the mountains, but it's far from the only option. The CBT connects visitors with small mountain communities across Kyrgyzstan, organizing homestays, horse rides, trekking guides, and much more.
Summer on the Kyrgyz shore
While Kyrgyzstan is off-radar for many Westerners, it's a well-established destination for one group of travelers: beach lovers from across the former USSR. “Beach? In a landlocked country?” I hear you say. Yes, that’s right -- the rocky shoreline of Issyk-Kul Lake draws masses of Speedo-sporting sun-lovers from Russia and Kazakhstan every summer, especially to the party town of Cholpon-Ata.
It’s an unusual scene on the warm sands of the northern shore. There are snowy peaks on the horizon, but down on the beach kids splash in the water, boats buzz along trailing parasailers, and grumpy camels haul tourists on lakeside joy rides. For the families who vacation here year after year, there’s a decision to make every single day: Hike into the mountains, drive to a deserted beach, or head to the lakeshore restaurants for shashlik and beer?
There’s a more laid-back vibe on the southern shore -- swap tourist-trodden beaches for silent walks in the foothills and kayaking trips alone with the lake-scape. Down in the Salburuun Federation, hunting masters work with trained golden eagles and indigenous taigan sighthounds to keep alive the traditions of ancient Kyrgyz tribes.
The World Nomad Games: A more brutal and badass Olympics
On a cloudless afternoon at the Cholpon-Ata Hippodrome, several thousand fans cheer as two teams of horsemen charge towards the press area, scattering the assembled crowd of photographers away from the field. This is no Golden Horde battle game though, even if it does evoke a popularly repeated sentiment, “If Genghis Khan were alive, he’d be here.”
It only started in 2014, but the World Nomad Games is already a Big Deal. The biennial event brings together nomadic cultures from across the world, kicking off with a raucous musical bonanza at the opening ceremony, where daredevil riders perform horse stunts for the baying crowd. Then the seven days of events begin, with an emphasis on horse sports, archery, and wrestling, along with intense intellectual competitions too.
If there’s one sport you *have* to see, it’s kok boru, and not just so you can smirk at the name. It’s kind of like a faster, more violent version of basketball, where all the players are on horseback, the “ball” is a goat carcass, and whipping is definitely allowed. Seriously, it’s brutal.
Aside from the sports in the main arena, there’s the yurt village, where most international visitors hang out and sleep each night. Hundreds of tents are clustered in the valley, filled with food stalls, hunting demonstrations, and handicraft workshops.
This year, the third World Nomad Games (September 2-8, 2018), is touted as the biggest and best yet, with 37 sports, over 3,000 athletes from 80 countries, and the broadest program of cultural performances ever seen at the festival. Anyone who’s been knows there’s nothing quite like it -- this is the world’s greatest celebration of unique historical sports, fascinating cultures, and nomadic tradition.