Where is it?
The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan is wedged between the Tien Shan Mountains bordering Kazakhstan and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. Still an off-thebeaten track destination, the tourist season – May to late September – is short due to heavy winter snowfall.
Set aside a day to explore the capital Bishkek, a pleasant laid-back city gently sweeping aside the vestiges of Soviet rule that ended in 1991.
Founded around the late 19th-century during Russian Empire rule, Bishkek is fringed by jagged peaks and has a summery vibe with lots of parks, gardens and fountains. Much of the architecture is Soviet although by no means Neo-Brutalist, with many designs featuring classical flourishes. The communist era lingers on in Lenin statues and hammer-and-sickle motifs.
The city’s Osh Bazaar bursts with regional produce like fresh-baked round-breads, nuts and dried fruit, and you can sample popular Kyrgyz dishes such as moist manty dumplings and grilled shashlik (typically beef or mutton).
Meet the nomads
The Turkic-speaking Kyrgyz are very conservative and maintain a traditional culture. One such tradition is transhumance – each summer they leave behind their homes and seek alpine pasture to erect yurts and graze their sheep, horses, and cattle. This manifests spectacularly at SongKul Lake. This high mountain lake is set in an amphitheatre of peaks and surrounded by flower-rich plains dotted with summer yurt encampments and thousands of livestock herded by horse-born nomads.
Tourist camps enable visitors the chance to experience a night in a yurt and sample kumiss, a sour and fizzy horse milk drink.
Silk Road Journeys
The Silk Road was a spidery network of trading trails from China to Western Europe with Kyrgyzstan at its heart, and several outstanding monuments from this golden era of transcontinental trader remain.
Near Bishkek is a glazed brick minaret known as Burana. This 10th-century tower is all that remains of the once powerful Silk Road city, Balasgun. More remarkable is the intact 15th-century caravanserai at TashRabat, just a few kilometres from China.
Once an overnight refuge for the traders’ caravans, this beautiful brick structure with a domed roof is situated in a narrow, highaltitude valley where golden eagles fly.
Into the hills
The Tien Shan Mountains rise to over 7,000 metres – a pristine range of glimmering glaciers spawning aquamarine rivers that scythe through evergreen forests and pastureland and offer rugged but rewarding multi-day treks. Karakol city is a popular hub to arrange these into the surrounding mountains. One of the most popular is the spectacular Ala-Kul: a four-day trek taking in a sublime lake 4,000 metres high.
Curiously, Kyrgyzstan is landlocked, it’s easy enough to sample a beach holiday with a difference. The enormous 186km-long Izzyk-Kul Lake is fringed by warm sandy beaches which are lined with resorts and seafood restaurants.
Particularly popular is Cholpon-Ata, a modest city with lakeshore beaches perfect for sunbathing and freshwater swimming. The city is even more interesting thanks to its extraordinary collection of ancient petroglyphs.
VALLEY VIEWS ON THE ARCHA TOR PASS TREKNOMAD NEAR KOCHLORLAGHMAN NOODLES