Set on the Silk Road and rich in nomadic culture, Kyrgyzstan has long held a place in the imaginations of explorers and curious minds as a rugged landscape and cultural crossroads between East and West. As elsewhere in Central Asia, ecotourism is in the early stages of development. Nonetheless, an ever-increasing number of travellers are being drawn to Kyrgyzstan by its diverse scenery and sustainable tourism initiatives, which centre on local nomadic culture and outdoor activities including hiking, horse riding, and enjoying natural hot springs.
If you’re looking for a high-altitude adventure, head to Karakol, a small city in northeastern country and an ideal base from which to access some of Kyrgyzstan’s stunning nature. There are plenty of trekking routes from here, with different durations and difficulty levels from which to choose, but the three-day trek to Ala Kul lake is probably the most beautiful (and also challenging) of them all. The trek usually starts from Karakol National Reserve Park, then continues up to the Ala Kul alpine lake – at an altitude of 3,500 metres (11,483 feet) and fed by the glacier above it – and ends at the Altyn Arashan valley. While possible to do independently, it is strongly recommended to hire a guide to take you through the trek; Kyrgyz Tours, for example, have a range of excellent guides, who can also organise accommodation in traditional yurt camps during the trek.
Be aware that this is a challenging trek, with a lot of climbing and high-altitude walking. Temperatures can be low, even in the summer months.
Altyn Arashan, meaning ‘golden spa’ in the Kyrgyz language, is usually the end point of many treks starting from Karakol, but you can also visit on a day trip. Located at 3,000m (9,843ft) above sea level, here you can find many natural hot springs – usually managed by local families who have set up cabins around them and built small pools – in which to relax after a long trek. Should you wish to stay at Altyn Arashan overnight, check in to one of the family-run guest houses. The only guesthouse that you can book online is Ala-Kul guesthouse, while the others need to be booked through tour operators. To organise a day trip to Altyn Arashan, contact Kyrgyz Tours or EcoTrek.
Issyk Kul is the second-largest alpine lake in the world, and was a popular beach break destination during the Soviet era. During hot Kyrgyz summers, when temperatures soar to 30-35C (86-95F), there is nothing better than cooling off in the waters of Issyk Kul. The southern side of the lake is the most unspoilt side of the lake; here, instead of large Soviet-era resorts, you will find small vibrant villages and deserted stretches of beach. To see the lake at its most beautiful, take a sunset boat tour (one-to-two hours long, mainly starting from Karakol) and enjoy the pink skies and seemingly burning mountains glimmering under the dipping sun.
Jeti-Ögüz is a popular day tour from Karakol. The valley takes its name, meaning ‘seven bulls’, from old local nomadic legends and is located 25km (15.5mi) south of Karakol, alongside Issyk Kul lake. The valley is arguably one of the prettiest (and most photogenic) in Kyrgyzstan, offering spectacular views of mountains, red canyons and waterfalls. From here you can independently trek to see the ‘Seven Bull’ rocks or the ‘Broken Heart’ rock. On your way back, stop in the village in the valley for a quick traditional lunch at a homestay restaurant or to shop for some delicious locally made honey.
So-called because of its surreal rock formations and diverse colours, Skazka (Fairytale) Canyon is nothing less than magical. Set aside around two hours to get lost in this rocky maze – packed with sandstone figures and vibrant red and yellow hues – and see what images you can discern sculpted in the rocks.
The site is located south of Issyk Kul, around 4km (2.5mi) from the village of Tosor, where you can stop and spend a night at a local guest house (Eldos Ata Eco Hotel or Bel Tam Yurt Camp are some popular options) and enjoy the village’s beautiful deserted beaches.
Bokonbayevo is a village located on the southern side of Issyk Kul lake. Though not necessarily the most picturesque of villages, it is a great place to stop for a night when travelling south of Issyk Kul. Bokonbayevo is home to a large number of craftspeople, who are especially famous for their carpets and felt rugs. Additionally, this village is the home of an essential Kyrgyz tradition: eagle hunting. If you find yourself here in summer, don’t miss the spectacular eagle hunting festival. There is also the possibility of arranging a private demonstration via the local homestays. In terms of accommodation, there are a number of guest houses and yurt camps to choose from, with Almaluu Yurt Camp and Meiman Ordo arguably among the best.
Staying at one of the yurt camps on the shores of Son Kul lake offers the chance to get a real taste of nomadic life. Here, activities centre around the daily lives of the nomadic community: you can cook a traditional meal with your yurt host, go horse riding and lead the flock to pasture, or even go for a dip in the bracing waters of the lake. When living alongside the nomads, you’ll most probably be offered some kumis (fermented horse milk) – a memorable experience for sure. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to watch people training for the country’s yearly nomad games and see some awe-inspiring stunts involving goat carcasses and falcons.
To find accommodation at Son Kul, take a look at CBT Kochkor to see what your options are. To complete your nomadic experience, you can also decide to travel to Son Kul on a two-to-three day horse trek (check with the Sheperd’s Life tour company).
Though in Kazakhstan, Charyn Canyon is an excellent day trip from Karakol and a must-visit if you are travelling between Almaty and Karakol as part of a wider Central Asian adventure. Frequently dubbed the mini Grand Canyon of Central Asia, Charyn is recognisable due to its red sandstone and fast-flowing river, and offers opportunities for hiking and rafting. While many visitors stop in at Charyn on a day trip, consider spending a night here to enjoy the light on the amber cliffs at sunset or sunrise. Eco Park Tour offers a variety of accommodation, including yurts and bungalows. Camping is also allowed in the open spaces beside the river, and is free of charge if you bring your own gear.