From first-class treks to a very accessible nomadic culture, horse riding and hospitable people, traveling to Kyrgyzstan is the experience, and destination, for those seeking an off the beaten track (but easy) adventure.
After spending two entire months traveling in Kyrgyzstan, I have compiled all the necessary information that will help you plan your trip, from visas and bureaucracy to accommodation, transportation and plenty of cultural facts.
By the way, if you want to keep a track of all my photos and travels, remember to follow @againstthecompass on Instagram.
In this Kyrgyzstan travel guide you will find:
Best time to visit
How to get in
Is it safe?
Top 5 experiences
The country, people, and culture
Food and alcohol
Internet & SIM card
Visa for traveling to Kyrgyzstan
1 – The most liberal visa regime in Central Asia – Most nationalities get a 60-day free visa on arrival, both at the airport and overland.
If you want to renew it, you just need to cross the Kazakh border (1 hour from Bishkek) and come back on the same day.
These countries are: EU/EFTA (except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania), Australia, Bahrain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brunei, Canada, Kuwait, Monaco, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan, Vatican City. Japan and Russia can get an indefinite stay.
2 – Other nationalities can apply for an e-visa – Since September 2017, most of the remaining countries can apply for an e-visa through the official portal. It takes around 1 week and costs 63USD.
Moreover, if you are in possession of an e-visa, you can travel to Kyrgyzstan both via land and air.
The countries which are eligible to the e-visa and don’t need LOI are: Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Cyprus, Indonesia, Israel, Macedonia, Mexico, Montenegro, Oman, Philippines, Romania, San Marino, South Africa, Serbia, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela.
If you are not on any of the above lists, read the Kyrgyzstan visa section of Caravanistan for further information on visas.
3 – Extending your visa does not seem to be possible anymore – We tried to extend our visa in August 2017 and they said that, since May 2017, extensions aren’t possible anymore. We tried to extend it in both Karakol and Bishkek.
It is easier to travel to Almaty and come back.
4 – Overstaying can be expensive – According to what the authorities told us when we couldn’t extend our visas, if we overstayed, the fine could be up to 200USD.
Travel Insurance for Kyrgyzstan
5 – Get proper travel insurance – If you visit Kyrgyzstan, travel insurance is a must, as accidents do happen in the mountains. Actually, during a horse trek in Tash Rabat, I fell off the horse and had to stay in bed for two weeks.
It was a pretty bad (and scary accident).
I had to go to the hospital, all the way to Bishkek, where they carried out different kinds of tests on me which, in the end, turned out to be expensive.
Luckily, I had World Nomads, the best travel insurance company out there because:
- It is the only company that gives unlimited medical coverage
- It covers a big bunch of adventure activities, including trekking in high altitudes
- Pretty much any nationality can get it
If you want to know more options, read how to find the best backpacking insurance
When to travel to Kyrgyzstan
6 – My favorite month for traveling to Kyrgyzstan: September. Why?
July & August would be the ideal season for trekking, especially if you plan to go high in the mountains as, during these two months, the weather is warmer and the likelihood of rain is lower.
However, in 2019, Kyrgyzstan is becoming a popular destination, which means that some areas may be crowded.
In September, nevertheless, most crowds will be gone, and the weather will still be warm enough for trekking, and that is why I consider September to be the best month for visiting Kyrgyzstan.
Travel in Kyrgyzstan during High season (mid-June to Mid-September)
- Pros: Best season for trekking, loads of nomads
- Cons: Crowded, plus it can be really hot in Bishkek and other low-altitude areas
Travel in Kyrgyzstan during Shoulder season (Spring and Autumn)
- Pros: In late spring and early autumn, you can do some cool treks
- Cons: High mountains may be not accessible, unpredictable weather, nomads may not be there
Travel in Kyrgyzstan during Low season (mid-November to March)
- Pros: Winter landscape, snow, no people
- Cons: No trekking, no nomads
How to get to Kyrgyzstan
7 – How to travel to Kyrgyzstan by air – Getting to the International Airport of Bishkek is fairly easy, as it has quite a few connections with several airports in Europe. Moreover, you should also check Pegasus, a budget airline from Istanbul with daily flights to Bishkek. Alternatively, check out the flights to Almaty, as they are usually cheaper and it is very close to Bishkek.
8 – How to travel to Kyrgyzstan by land
- China – There are 2 open borders, Irkeshtam and Torugart. Crossing at Torugart requires having a special, expensive Chinese permit. Crossing via Irkeshtam is fairly easy and you can read the full report here.
- Tajikistan – There are 6 border crossings and 4 of them are open to foreigners. The most obvious is the Kyzyl Art border crossing, which is the one that follows the Pamir Highway. For more information, read the latest Caravanistan updates.
- Kazakhstan – There are like 7 border crossings, but the easiest ones are Karkara and Kordai. For more information, read the latest Caravanistan updates.
- Uzbekistan – There are nowadays 4 borders but only 3 are open as of 2019. For more information, read the latest Caravanistan updates.
Is it safe to travel to Kyrgyzstan?
9 – Something you need to know:
The term Stan doesn’t mean a place is dangerous, but Stan means land, so Kyrgyzstan means the land of Kyrgyz.
Kyrgyzstan is a safe destination. Period.
I mean, just check the FCO advice and you will see that all they say is that Kyrgyzstan is a very safe country, and here you need to take into account that the FCO advice is always absolutely biased, meaning that tends to see danger where there is not, especially in the Middle East.
Solo travelers will be just fine and whereas I can’t speak for women, I know many women who have been there, and all they told me was positive experiences.
The only potential danger you may hear about is that Bishkek used to be infamous for its after-midnight crime, mainly targeting drunk people on their way home from the bars. The situation, however, has dramatically improved but, if that is a concern for you, just take a taxi when you go back home.
Top 5 experiences in Kyrgyzstan
Stay with Kyrgyz nomads
Experiencing the nomadic life is one of the greatest Kyrgyz experiences. From staying in a yurt to helping them preparing kurut, their local cheese, during our 2-month journey across the country, we met loads of nomads with we had awesome experiences.
However, with the tourism increase, some nomadic camps have become too commercial, and what I recommend is that you try to find the most authentic ones. How? Well, by getting off the beaten track but also, if you go to Song Kul, instead of staying at the CBT camp where everybody stays, just go across the lake.
Watch nomad games, but try to find out where the local games happen (don’t go to the touristic ones)
The ancient nomad sports in Kyrgyzstan are just crazy, and bizarre.
From horse wrestling to playing polo with a dead goat instead of an actual ball (Ulak tariysh), the nomadic games of Kyrgyzstan are, definitely, a must-see.
Every summer, some tourist organizations, like CBT, organize nomad games for tourists, in Song Kul and places like that, but I recommend you find the local ones, as the vibe is just great, plus they do a larger variety of sports.
To be very honest, I didn’t manage to see a local game in Kyrgyzstan, but I did in Tajikistan, near the Kyrgyz border (where most Tajiks are ethnically Kyrgyz), and it was just awesome.
Go trekking on a horse
Many people may feel bad for riding a horse, but the truth is that Kyrgyzstan is the land of horses and even today, in the rural areas, they are the preferred way of transportation.
Those horses are really used to go over high altitude mountain passes, and you definitely get a different experience, and perspective than going on foot.
Go trekking in some of the most mind-blowing mountains ever
I truly believe that, in a matter of years, Kyrgyzstan will become the trekking destination of reference, competing directly with Nepal and Argentina, and the reason is that its mountains are absolutely jaw-dropping, plus they are much more accessible than any other destination I know.
Visit the remotest Silk Road Heritage sites
Kyrgyzstan has only a small bunch of Silk Road Heritage sites, but the few it has are truly epic, remote and placed in the most epic locations.
Kyrgyzstan is about nature and nomadic life
With very few Silk Road Heritage sites compared to its neighbor Uzbekistan, in Kyrgyzstan, there’s not much to do besides wandering around its gorgeous mountains and experiencing the nomadic life. The truth is that, with the exception of Bishkek and Arslanbob, most towns in Kyrgyzstan are pretty boring as there is no distinctive architecture, soul and social life, as Kyrgyzstan has been a nomadic land for many centuries. When you travel in Kyrgyzstan, you will see that towns are merely used as a base to explore the mountains or take a rest from them.
Books for traveling to Kyrgyzstan
For more books to Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, check:
10 – Kyrgyzstan Guide by Bradt – By far, the best and most complete book guide to Kyrgyzstan. Bradt writes the most awesome guides, as they are always filled with great cultural insights and personal experiences. I always buy their Kindle version for whatever country I go to.
11 – Central Asia Guide by Lonely Planet – A classic. If you are traveling throughout the region, this might be a more economical option, rather than buying one guide per country.
Country, people and culture
12 – Kyrgyzstan used to be part of the Soviet Union – It acquired its independence in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR.
13 – The origin of the Kyrgyz – Kyrgyz people are an ethnic nomadic group which is believed to have come from a region within Siberia, during the 10th and 15th centuries.
Originally, they used to have red hair but, over the centuries, they have mixed with all kinds of groups, especially Mongols and Turks.
14 – Kyrgyz make up 66% of the population – The biggest minority are Uzbeks (15%), followed by Russians (10%).
15 – It’s a Muslim country. Well, not really – Like in most Soviet countries, religion is not a big deal anymore, especially in the north of the country.
In the south, people tend to be more traditional, so you may see more mosques or men with beard and Muslim hats, but nothing relevant. During Ramadan, I was in Bishkek and didn’t see any sign of people fasting.
Alcohol is available everywhere and there is no sex segregation. You will see that women of all ages will always come to you to start a conversation.
16 – However, Saudi Arabia wants to reverse this – They are funding the construction of mosques across the country.
17 – Kyrgyz is the national language but Russian is widely spoken – Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, is the country’s official language.
Russian is spoken by most of the population, except in the south of the country, which has a significant Uzbek population who, for some reason, don’t really speak it.
18 – English is a problem – Communicating with people is one of the biggest issues in Kyrgyzstan, as very few people speak English.
19 – At least, you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet – Extremely useful, especially when it comes to reading restaurant menus and bus directions.
20 – Bishkek is surprisingly Westernized – When you arrive in Bishkek and discover all those restaurants and bars where local people hang out, who dress incredibly well, you realize that this is not what you were expecting.
21 – The rest of the country is more traditional – Outside of Bishkek, most people still live a traditional life, where people’s main life goal is getting married and having children as early as possible. I met several 20-year old women who already had two kids.
22 – Kidnapping brides is still a big deal – And what do I mean by kidnapping brides? In Kyrgyzstan, a man can take a random woman who is just walking on the street to his house and, if both parents agree, he can marry her and the woman can’t say anything.
I know, it’s not a real kidnapping but it’s a crazy tradition and, even today, some locals told me that this is practiced by 20% of the population, especially in small, rural villages.
If you want to know more about, check out this video:
23 – The most hospitable people in Central Asia – In this region, the Kyrgyz are famous for their hospitality. When we went trekking in the mountains, I remember that there was not a single day when someone didn’t invite us to his or her yurt to have some tea and bread with home-made jam and butter.
Traveling in Kyrgyzstan is very pleasant, as the Kyrgyz people, who will always bless you with their smiles, are kind and hospitable by nature.
24 – You can’t believe how clean they are – When you visit Kyrgyzstan, you will realize that these people have a real obsession with cleanliness.
Even in youth hostels, sometimes I could never go to the toilet because there was someone cleaning it. In guest houses and home-stays, women spend the entire day mopping the floor and cleaning the kitchen.
I don’t know whether it’s true or not but, a Russian man told me that, during Soviet times, Kyrgyz people had a bad reputation for being dirty. In order to change this general opinion, they became obsessed with cleanliness.
25 – Girls are pretty, very pretty – Kyrgyz women are stunning, especially in Bishkek. On the other hand, all foreign women say that, in general, Kyrgyz men are not very handsome.
26 – Always remove your shoes – You must always remove shoes when you enter any house, yurt and even hostels and guesthouses.
27 – The most accessible nomadic life in the world – From time immemorial, the ethnic group known as the Kyrgyz have been a nomadic people who tend to move continuously throughout the mountains and valleys of the region with their cattle.
Today, a large proportion of the Kyrgyz population still live a nomadic, traditional life, not very different from their ancestors.
In summer, which is from June to September, you will find hundreds of nomad camps everywhere, either next to the road or in the remotest mountains, where they settle so their horses, cows and sheep can graze freely.
28 – It’s their summer job – During the summer months, Kyrgyz nomads move from cities to the mountains, so their herds of cows, sheep, goats and horses can graze freely.
When the season is over, they sell some of these animals, as well as dairy products and meat. This is the only source of income most of them rely on.
29 – They live in yurts – Yurts are perhaps the most iconic symbol of Kyrgyzstan. These cozy skin-made tents, which can be seen all across the country, can be incredibly warm during the freezing nights.
30 – You can always stay with them, no matter where you go – Whether you just want to get a warm meal or spend the night, wherever you go trekking, the nomads will always welcome you, at least in my experience.
But remember that, even if they don’t ask, they may expect you to pay something.
31 – Get off the beaten track because the touristic areas are too commercialized – If you go to popular places, such as Song Kul for example, most nomad families have spare yurts, which have been built for tourists.
Whereas there is nothing wrong with staying there, the experience won’t be very authentic.
If you have a chance, try to find yurts around the Alay Valley, the Pamirs or even in less popular treks around Karakol. In these yurt camps, you may sleep in the same yurt as the family and even join in with their daily tasks.
32 – It’s the land of horses – Horses are as much part of their culture as the yurts. From epic horse treks over 4,000-meter mountain passes to herds of tens of horses grazing in stunning meadows, if you like horses, you are going to love Kyrgyzstan.
33 – They learn how to ride a horse at the same time as walking – When you are in the mountains, you will see plenty of kids (including little girls) riding big horses.
34 – You must go horse trekking – Trekking over high mountain passes, riding one of those beautiful beasts is one of the highlights of Kyrgyzstan.
Ah, in case you are wondering, no, you don’t need any previous riding experience. A guide will always come with you.
35 – But be careful! – Horses are no joke. They are dangerous so don’t try to gallop if you don’t have any experience.
I actually had a pretty bad accident, felling off a horse in Tash Rabat when I tried to gallop (I am a stupid, inexperienced man). I had to stay in bed for two weeks and fully recovered after one month. I could have been much, much worse, so be careful.
36 – Hiring a horse is cheap – It costs around 700KGS ($10) a day plus 1,000KGS ($15) for the guide, which can be split between several people. If they try to charge you more, they are ripping you off.
37 – But be aware that they eat them! – When you see a herd of horses grazing over a dreamy meadow, don’t get too much in love with them because many of them will end up in a butchery!
38 – Horse games – Horses are so rooted in their culture that they are also main protagonists in their national sports. Among many others, Ulak Tsrtysh is the most popular game, which is a form of polo where they play with a dead goat which is beheaded right before the game begins. Violence in any match is more than guaranteed.
For more information on horses, read: Horse riding in Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
39 – Around 90% of the of the country is above 1,500 meters – I’ve told you everything already.
40 – First world-class hikes – For decades, travelers with a slight sense of adventure, who wanted to savor some first-class hikes, used to go to Argentina, Switzerland, and Nepal.
However, just a couple of years ago, the most intrepid travelers quickly realized that trekking in Kyrgyzstan could easily rival Patagonia and the Himalayas.
41 – In Kyrgyzstan, you can do the best trekking in Central Asia and, for more information:
Food and alcohol
42 – Food is not amazing but it’s OK to fill your stomach – You will not love it but, after traveling in Kyrgyzstan for 2 months, I was not especially bored of it.
43 – The typical food – Lagman (a hearty noodle soup), manty (meat dumplings) and shorpo (meat broth) are the staple food.
44 – But don’t trust mantys – While traveling in Kyrgyzstan, the only day I got slightly sick was after eating some street mantys. Be careful where you order them, as the meat they are filled with may have been outside of the fridge for days.
45 – In small towns and villages, only staple food – In bigger towns, you can easily find more choices, like salads, kebab or Western food. However, in villages, you’ll have to fill your stomach with lagman and mantys.
46 – You are expected to know what to order from the moment you enter the restaurant – It’s your first day in Kyrgyzstan, the first time you enter a restaurant, holding a menu written in an alphabet which you’ve never seen before.
However, they will expect you to know what to order within 10 seconds of giving you the menu. If you tell them to wait for 5 or 10 minutes, they won’t really understand you and will stand next to you. It’s very weird but you’ll get used to it.
47 – If you are vegetarian, you are fucked – It’s said that Kyrgyzstan is the country with the highest consumption of meat per capita in the world.
At most restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to find vegetarian dishes and, when you ask for something vegetarian, they kind of freak out.
Even sometimes, when I ordered a salad, it came with pieces of cooked beef in it. True story.
48 – Even chicken is difficult to find – If you find chicken on a menu, just order it!
49 – Beer and vodka are available everywhere – Welcome to the ex-Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan! Despite being a Muslim country, alcohol consumption is present everywhere, even in small villages and towns.
50 – Get used to people being completely smashed at 9am – You’ll definitely meet Kyrgyz men who are massively wasted, who can barely walk, quite early in the morning.
51 – You must try kymys – If you go to the mountains and stay with nomads, ask for kymys, which is fermented milk. Most people don’t like it, as it has a weirdly sour, strong taste.
It has some small percentage of alcohol. However, if you don’t like it the first time, give it another chance. I tasted it in four different places and in two of them it was surprisingly good.
52 – Kyryt is the snack in fashion – Kyryt are some sort of cheese and yogurt balls which are available all across Central Asia but Kyrgyzstan is where they are most prevalent.
Again, some people don’t like them but, like kymys, some of them were good, some of them weren’t.
53 – A fruit paradise – If you come during the season, markets are filled with all kinds of fruits, incredibly tasty and ridiculously cheap. In summer, you will find plenty of nectarines, watermelon, strawberries, raspberries and much, much more!
54 – Kyrgyz SOM is the official currency – 1USD = 68KGS
55 – It’s cheap, really cheap – You can easily find home or yurt stays for 10USD a day, including dinner and breakfast. Meals cost around 1-2USD in local eateries and between 2-4USD in mid-range places.
Public transportation within cities costs 15c and buses between nearby towns, less than 1USD. You can live like a king for less than 20USD a day.
56 – ATMs are easy to find and you can withdraw USD – ATMs are available everywhere and, in many of them, you can select the option that you want to cash out USD, instead of KGS.
In my experience, the maximum I was able to get was 200USD at a time.
57 – I’ve never seen so many exchange offices – In Bishkek, there are exchange offices in absolutely every corner. In the rest of the country, it’s also easy to exchange money.
58 – Except for taxi drivers, people don’t tend to rip you off – Perhaps, because mass tourism hasn’t arrived here yet but I didn’t feel anyone trying to rip me off, except for taxi drivers of course.
59 – Expect to pay 10-15% extra for service in any good restaurant – Except in cheap, local eateries, you will always pay an extra 10-15% for service when the bill comes.
Accommodation: where to stay in Kyrgyzstan
60 – Everybody has a home stay – Kyrgyzstan has the peculiarity that, no matter where you go, locals offer their houses to foreigners for home stays.
Whether it is a remote village or a touristic destination, as soon as you arrive, women will approach you, asking if you want to stay at their house.
61 – Homestays are superb – They are always comfortable, clean and nicely decorated. You will not want to leave!
62 – They always expect you to pay – Remember that, even if you are in a very remote village and you get randomly invited by someone to stay, even if they don’t ask you for money, they are expecting you to give something.
63 – Price is always per person – If you travel alone, Kyrgyzstan is a good place for you, as price is always per person, not per room.
64 – You must stay in a yurt – Go to the mountains and stay in a yurt with a Kyrgyz family!
How to move around Kyrgyzstan – Transportation
65 – Hitchhiking – Extremely easy and common among the locals. However, remember that, in Kyrgyzstan, everybody is a taxi driver so if you are looking for a free ride, you will need an extra dose of patience.
66 – Mashrutka is the way to go – Mashrutkas are some kind of vans and mini-vans that connect all cities and towns in Kyrgyzstan.
They are extremely cheap and it’s very easy to move around with them, as you can find a station (or more) at every bazaar in absolutely every town.
You just need to get on at the station and say which city or town you want to go.
67 – Shared local taxis – Late in the evening, for long distances or in very remote towns, marshrutkas don’t run that often, so you will have to take a local shared taxi.
They are more expensive but, definitely, faster than marshrutkas. However, some drivers are completely nuts and may drive at over 120km per hour along narrow mountain roads.
68 – Old women have the power – In any bus, marshrutka or taxi you go, women can choose any seat they want, even if you arrived one hour before them. In city buses, always give up your seat to any women over 40-50 years old. If you don’t, they will tell you to stand up.
When I fell off the horse and had to stay in bed for 2 weeks, I was sitting in a marshrutka on the way to the hospital.
I could barely stand up and, when a woman entered and told me to move and I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t, I created a lot of trouble until she understood.
69 – At 40ºC, windows are still closed – Kyrgyz are afraid of air currents and no matter what time of the year it is, even if it’s the peak of the summer and 40ºC outside, they like to travel with the windows closed and the AC switched off.
Sometimes, you can negotiate with the men but, if there are old ladies, forget about it.
70 – Remember to be patient – Ninety percent of Kyrgyzstan is composed of high mountains which means that, every time you want to go from town to town, you will have to cross them, making your journey particularly slow.
In addition, in some more remote destinations, shared taxis and marshrutkas leave once they are full and, sometimes, it takes some time to fill them. Just keep in mind that traveling in Kyrgyzstan can be particularly slow.
Internet and SIM cards
71 – The best internet in Central Asia – High-speed Wi-Fi is available almost all across the country, even in high altitude towns such as Sary-Mogol and Sary-Tash.
72 – 3G also works pretty well – If you get a local SIM-Card, 3G is also quite fast.
73 – SIM Card – Get a mobile company called O! For just a few dollars, they offer weekly deals for both internet data and calls. This mobile company has street stalls all over the country.
More information for traveling in Kyrgyzstan
74 – What is CBT? – CBT (Community Based Tourism) is a very popular tour agency in Kyrgyzstan that can arrange any kind of activity you want to, from yurt stays to trekking, taxis, permits and anything you can think of.
CBT has offices all over the country and it is so popular because, despite being a tour agency, they offer very cheap and competitive prices.
However, bear in mind that, of course, it will always be cheaper to arrange things on your own.
75 – All my articles about Kyrgyzstan – Find them here:
Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan: The ultimate travel itinerary
Horse riding in Tash Rabat
A beginner’s guide to trekking in Kyrgyzstan
A guide to trekking the Ala-Kul
Trekking in Karakol
China-Kyrgyzstan border crossing
Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border crossing
10 Reasons to visit Kyrgyzstan