Kyrgyzstan is one of the most beautiful countries I have been to. Not in the sense of majestic architecture or massive UNESCO ruins. Instead, you will see never-ending jailoos (summer pastures) and get in close touch with the easily-accessible nomadic culture.
Two weeks is definitely not enough to fully explore Kyrgyzstan, but it will bring you to most of the attractions around the Issyk Kul, the huge alpine lake which, over history, spawned numerous towns and villages along its perimeter.
We were there during the World Nomad Games, so a bulk of our time was spent at the Games instead of visiting attractions. Prior to the trip, we planned out a rough skeleton and did not book most of our accommodations because we wanted to have the flexibility to change our itinerary along the way. With two full weeks, you will be able to visit a few more attractions than we did.
Here is a quick summary of the trip in Kyrgyzstan:
Bishkek (1 day)
Kochkor / Song-Kol (3 days)
Bokonbaevo (2 days)
Cholpon-Ata / World Nomad Games (3 days)
Karakol / Altyn Arashan (2 days)
Ananyevo / Cholpon-Ata (1 day)
Bishkek (1 day)
Total time spent in Kyrgyzstan: 14 days.
We were there from 26 Aug - 08 Sep 2018. Jun - Sep is the best season for travelling Kyrgyzstan, if you are keen on exploring the nomadic culture and hiking. Unless you intend to visit the ski resort at Karakol - then you should definitely visit in winter instead!
DAY 1: BISHKEK
After arriving in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, we spent a night in town at a simple and cosy guesthouse that we found off of Airbnb.
The next day we took a marshrutka (a fixed-route public minivan) to Kochkor, a village with just over 9,000 inhabitants. The journey took 6 hours and cost us 300 soms ~ 4 USD each. From here we would make our way to Song Kol on horses.
There are main bus interchanges in almost every major town, where there are rows and rows of marshrutkas and drivers shouting the names of their destinations (ask around, or look for people shouting "Kochkor! Kochkor! Kochkor!"). If you have picked up a bit of Cyrillic (Tip: You should! At least learn the alphabets to make your own life easier), you can also read the signboards on the front of the marshrutkas, stating their destinations. Typically the driver will wait until the marshrutka is sufficiently occupied before departing. If you are in a rush, you can take a private car/taxi, which will cost more.
To get around within Bishkek, you can use Yandex, a super convenient ride hailing app which is unfortunately only available in Bishkek. Yandex is a good option to travel to/fro the airport.
If you have more time in Bishkek, you can head to the Ala-Too Square, the central plaza of Bishkek, and the Osh Bazaar, the main market in the town where you can find fresh local produce and perhaps some souvenirs to bring home.
DAYS 2-4: JOURNEY TO SONG KOL
First we had to find some horses. Led by a plain and unostentatious banner on display outside of a 2-storey building, we arrived at the office of Kyrgyz Wonders, a local tour agency that runs tours to Song Kol. It was a small room with a single table in the middle. There was a world map hung on one side of the room. Simple, but the office serves its purpose.
There were a few other tour agencies operating in the area. The Kochkor main area is really small, you can walk around and basically knock on the various offices to ask for a quote. However, do remember to read online reviews for the tour agencies you visit, we nearly signed up with a tour agency for its low price, but we did a quick google on the spot and found really bad reviews of this agency! Of course, it is up to you and your gut feeling, but we would recommend you do whatever form of checks you can...
Eventually we signed up for a 3d2n tour with Kyrgyz Wonders (7200 soms ~ 103 USD per pax, all-in) -
Day 1 - Car ride to Kyzart Village, where we would meet our guide and our horses. The first day we would take our horses and arrive at a yurt camp among the mountains, where we would camp for the night.
Day 2 - Continue horse-riding towards the lake, Song Kol. We would stay in the yurts by the lake at night.
Day 3 - Journey back to Kyzart town on horses.
P.S. Transportation costs, accommodations and meals are included in the cost above, but I recall we asked for one less meal per person in order to cut cost (i.e. opted not to have lunch on Day 2, and brought our own food instead).
At Kyzart Village we met Beksultan (Beksi for short), who would be our guide for the next 3 days. Beksi was only 16 years old when we met, but he had had 6 years of guiding experience. They start young here!
Song Kul (also Song Köl – Son Kul – Songköl – Song-Köl – or Kyrgyz: Соңкөл, IPA: [sóɴkœl]) is an alpine lake in northern Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan, standing at almost the dead center of the country. It lies at an altitude of 3016 meters (9,900 ft) and has an area of about 270 km2 (168miles2). As the largest fresh water lake in Kyrgyzstan, it stretches 18km (11 miles) wide and 29km (18 miles) long but is only 13m (43ft) deep at its lowest point. Its name, meaning “Following Lake”, is popularly considered to refer to this relation. One other meaning of its name may be translated as ‘The Last Lake’ and this seems wholly appropriate for such a large, pristine isolated lake that can seem like it is at the end of the world. It is surrounded by a broad summer pasture and then mountains. Its beauty is greatly praised, but it is rather inaccessible. There are no facilities on the lake, but local herders will provide supplies and rent yurts. The area is inhabited and safely accessible only from June until September. (Source: www.kyrgyz-travel.com)
More pictures of the Jailoo Hopping here.
After lots of jailoo galloping, we reluctantly bid farewell to Beksi and took a car back to the main town of Kochkor. We set off with our backpacks to find the guesthouse that we just booked off Airbnb. However, as it turned out, we spent almost an hour trying to locate the guesthouse but to no avail. No thanks to Google Maps because it is not the most accurate map application for this part of the world (use Maps.me instead!).
When we finally located the building, it seems like it was vacant and no one was living in there... So we decided to ditch it and went to find another guesthouse, on foot. Thankfully we found Guest House MIra, which cost us 600 soms ~ 8.6 USD per pax per night. We had a cosy triple room and breakfast provided by the property.
Summary of the journey so far:
Day 1: Bishkek, spent the night at Airbnb guesthouse. 500 soms incl. breakfast.
Day 2: 6-hour marshrutka to Kochkor, 300 soms. Song Kol horseriding tour, spent the night in mountain yurt camp. 7200 soms for tour (all-in).*
Day 3: Song Kol horseriding tour, spent the night at the lake yurt camp.
Day 4: Song Kol horseriding tour, return to Kochkor, spent the night at guesthouse. 600 soms incl. breakfast.
Total cost so far (excluding food not covered by tour): 8600 soms ~ 123 USD. Bulk of the cost comes from the horseriding tour, which is relatively pricey for travelling in a generally 'cheap' country like Kyrgyzstan!
*Drop a message if you wish to get the contact details of the nice dudes at Kyrgyz Wonders, they can arrange the horseriding tours (and much more, if you are keen) with great service :)