Road Trip through Kyrgyzstan – Travel Tips
In sisterMAG No. 51, Karolina Wiercigroch takes you on an exciting road trip by car through Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. A country, most of you might not be aware of, but that definitely has something exciting to offer! Karolina shares her valuable tips with you and who knows, maybe someone of you will soon travel to Kyrgyzstan – we can recommend it!
»Into The Wild«
Road Trip trough Kyrgyzstan – Travel Tips
»A wise man is not he who has lived the longest, but he who has travelled the most.« – Kyrgyz proverb
Before falling into 70 years of isolation behind the Iron Curtain, KYRGYZSTAN used to be the gateway to the west for SILK ROAD traders. Today, with the barren paths of the famous trade route substituted with asphalt roads, a road trip in Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s most superb overland journeys. With just over 90 per cent of the territory above 1500 METERS and 41 per cent above 3000 meters, the country offers some of the most dramatic and diverse scenery anywhere in the world. Winding roads will take you through sweeping steps and green mountain pastures, ancient walnut forests and lush orchards, clear alpine lakes and valleys dotted with flowers.
Car: There are now a few reliable companies offering car rental in BISHKEK, e.g. IRON HORSE NOMADS or TRAVEL LAND. Multi-country rentals are available for those interested in exploring a few countries in Central Asia during one trip. A 4×4 is required on some roads.
MAPS.ME is the best app to navigate in Kyrgyzstan. For those not wanting to drive, it’s also possible to hire a car with a driver.
Accommodation: When looking for accommodation in smaller towns or villages, it’s helpful to seek advice at CBT (Community Based Tourism) – a local organisation helping communities profit from tourism. They have a broad network of homestays around the country, enabling travellers to leave the beaten track in confidence of finding a safe place to stay.
The most picturesque roads in Kyrgyzstan
- Bischkek -> Karakol -> Kotschkor
We leave the Soviet landmarks of the country’s capital behind and embark on a journey around Lake Issyk-Kul, the second-largest saline lake in the world.
ISSYK-KUL means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz – though encircled by snow-capped peaks, the lake never freezes. Its balmy microclimate made Issyk-Kul one of the top health resorts in the USSR. YURI GAGARIN travelled here for a well-deserved break after his pioneering journey into outer space in 1961. The road follows the shoreline, passing brightly coloured fields and meadows placed against a backdrop of deep blue water and ice-covered peaks. Stretches of dusty desert take turns with quiet villages and busy farms, where locals sell ripe fruit and fragrant vegetables on roadside stalls.
Where to stay
BISCHKEK – ABK Boutique Hotel – a stylish house with a shady garden and an outdoor pool.
KARAKOL – Hillside Karakol – delicious breakfast and a great Russian sauna, perfect after a strenuous hike.
KOTSCHKOR – find a homestay at the local CBT office.
Distance: 655 km
Driving time: 10 hours
Road condition: decent tarmac
Break the journey in Karakol and go on a hike in ALTYN ARASHAN or KARAKOL VALLEY. If you have more time, a 2-4 day trek to ALA KOL LAKE is one of the most popular trails in Kyrgyzstan.
Stop in one of the Russian eateries in CHOLPON ATA for a lunch of pelmeni – moreish dumplings in a fragrant broth. In KARAKOL, hit the local market for a bowl of AHLAN-FUU – a delicious DUNGAN dish of spicy cold noodles.
2. Kotschkor -> Songköl-See -> Ak-Tal
Having left the sleepy village of Kochkor at dawn, we follow a solid paved road, admiring the sun rising over distant snowy peaks.
We take a right turn onto a dirt road that leads to KALMAK-ASHUU PASS and SONG KOL LAKE – meaning “last lake” in Kyrgyz. The name seems pretty accurate – the country’s second largest lake lies at 3016 meters, can only be accessed through mountain passes and seems like it really is at the end of the world. SONG KOL is a picture-perfect image of nomadic life: a turquoise lake, shepherds on horseback, green pasture dotted with yurts, bare snow-capped mountains and herds of cattle, horses and yaks. The drive around the lake is quite challenging, with numerous bumps, sharp rocks and river crossings. We leave the lake from the south, stopping to admire the dramatic mountain views from MOLDO-ASHUU PASS. The rugged, winding road takes us back down as the green steppe slowly gives way to wild meadows and arid rocks.
Where to stay
SONGKOL-LAKE – arrange a yurt stay with the CBT office in Kochkor. Ask to stay in a guest yurt with a shepherd family rather than a big yurt camp.
From AK-TAL head west to KASARMAN or east to NARYN and find a homestay via CBT.
Distance: 195 km
Driving time: 6 hours
Road condition: Good tarmac on A365, then a bumpy 4×4-only dirt road leading to the lake. Driving around the lake requires good driving skills, the terrain can be demanding.
Spend the night with a shepherd family in a yurt by the lake. Experience both sunset and sunrise by the lake and observe everyday nomadic life.
Enjoy a meal in a yurt. You’ll be treated to an afternoon tea Kyrgyz-style: endless tea is accompanied with freshly baked round bread (nan or lepyoshka), kaymak – very thick and very fat cream, local honey and a selection of homemade jams: wild blueberry, apricot and raspberry. Make sure to get a taste of kumis – a traditional KYRGYZ drink of fermented mare’s milk.
3. Ak-Tal -> Kasarman -> Osch
Crossing high mountains, traversing several passes and descending into steep gorges along the way, this road has a reputation of one of the most thrilling drives in Kyrgyzstan.
It’s usually only accessible between June and September, making the dust-blown village of KAZARMAN one of the most isolated places in the country. The town is often completely cut off during winter months when the roads are closed by snowfall. In summer, however, this route offers a matchless mountain scenery, starting with a succession of verdant valleys, leading up to an ascent to the 3500-metre KARA-KOO PASS. The steep climb over twisting turns is rewarded with truly outstanding views: softly moulded mountains stretch endlessly in gradual shades of yellow, red, purple and blue. From KAZARMAN, it seems like we’re driving in a sea of an infinite grassy steppe, occasionally passing yurts and shepherds herding sheep on virescent slopes of black lava mountains. We pass green velvet-covered dunes, lush valleys, leafy forests and finally reach the searing hot FERGANA VALLEY and the city of OSH – the oldest city in KYRGYZSTAN, once an important market hub along the SILK ROAD.
Distance: 355 km
Driving time: 10 hours
Road condition: Varied, 4×4 strongly recommended.
The lunar landscape at KARA-KOO PASS. You will stop to take photos, so take that into account when planning your trip.
The area is quite remote, so do your grocery shopping in AK-TAL or KOK JAR. Pick your spot and enjoy a picnic with a spectacular view.
Where to stay:
KASARMAN – find a homestay at the local CBT office.
OSCH – ASMAN GUEST HOUSE – comfortable rooms with private bathrooms and a friendly host who will cook you a delicious breakfast in the garden.
4. Osch -> Sary Mogul
With bags of juicy apricots, dried fruit and pistachios from Jayma Bazaar, one of the largest and most colourful markets in Central Asia, we hit the Kyrgyz part of the M41.
The famous PAMIR HIGHWAY is the second highest highway in the world and one of the most picturesque drives on the planet. It leads from OSH TO THE TAJIK border and then all the way to DUSHANBE, the capital of TAJIKISTAN. The combination of good tarmac and high mountains is unbeatable. In SARY TASH we turn off the highway towards the remote village of SARY MOGUL, admiring the snow-white peaks of the PAMIR MOUNTAINS along the way. If you have time, stay for a hike – a trek to KOSHKOL LAKES (4195 meters) can be done in one day and there are plenty of options for multi-day trips.
Distance: 220 km
Driving time: 3½ hours
Road condition: Perfect tarmac
The feeling of remoteness and high mountain views. You can spot the tall PEAK LENIN (7134 meters) on clear days.
Local shepherds have roadside stalls with fresh kumis, kaymak, yoghurt and kurut – dried, salted yoghurt balls. You can also sit down for a pot of tea and a hot meal.
Where to stay:
SARY MOGUL – Guest House Abdumalik – a basic, traditional accommodation with a friendly host and tasty home-cooked meals. Abdumalik can heat up the sauna for you, which will be invaluable – even in summer, the temperatures drop below zero at night.
5. Osh -> Bischkek
This is one of the most travelled roads in Kyrgyzstan, connecting the north and the south of the country.
It’s an exciting ride that winds over the slopes of the TIEN SHAN – the Mountains of Heaven – spreading through KYRGYZSTAN, KAZAKHSTAN and UZBEKISTAN. The trip starts with a stunning show of pastel desert, red rocks and azure lakes. The road swings round the dreamy sapphire waters of Toktogul Reservoir and continues through the austere, light-coloured landscape of the valley of Chychkan River. As the road snakes up, we enter the land of thriving green, where locals sell organic honey (myod) harvested from mountain wood. The mighty ALA-BEL PASS (3184 meters) is our gateway to the lush SUUSAMYR VALLEY. Deserted in winter, this serene place offers fine mountain pastures (jailoo), dotted with yurts and livestock in the summer. It’s where tourists from BISHKEK come to drink kumis and escape the hustle and bustle of the city. We stop for a glass of kumis ourselves before continuing the climb to the highest point of the drive, TOR-ASHU PASS (3586 meters).
Distance: 620 km
Driving time: 11 hours
Road condition: Good tarmac most of the way.
Spectacular views of verdant SUUSAMYR VALLEY from TOR-ASHU PASS.
Fresh fried trout with a spicy sauce and stunning views of Toktogul Reservoir at CAFE AQUARIUM. Typical kumis, bread and kaymak offered in yurts throughout SUUSAMYR VALLEY.
Where to stay:
The trip can be done in one day, but if you want to break the journey, the town of TOKTOGUL is a good place to stop. It has a few guesthouses, e.g. RAHAT GUEST HOUSE.