It’s time to continue my epic Central Asian journey with a visit to the second “K-Stan”; Kyrgyzstan.
Have you heard of this one?
Know how to pronounce it?
Kyrgyzstan (Kir-giz-stan) is filled with every landscape you could want – snow-capped mountains, rivers, deserts, valleys, rock formations and greenery! If you love huge meals, friendly locals and scenery then this country should quickly make it on to your bucket list.
My first day in Kyrgyzstan was spent exploring the Kyrgyz capital city, Bishkek and then it was time for some off-roading high into the Tian Shan Mountains in search of Song-Kol.
History and Facts:
Remembering that the Persian word stan means “land of”, the word Kyrgyz is a Turkic word for forty and relates to the forty nomadic tribes that Manas, the legendary Kyrgyz national hero, united to form a nation.
Kyrgyzstan is wedged in between its comparatively giant neighbours, Kazakhstan and China. It is the second smallest country in Central Asia – with a humble population of 6.5 million – also, the second smallest population in Central Asia. It is a landlocked country; in fact the Kyrgyz people have to travel the furthest out of any other nation in the world to reach the ocean.
Kyrgyzstan’s history is similar to that of its neighbours; sharing a complicated history of many empires, tribes and khanates controlling the lands. By 1876, as the Russians spread their influence and territory into the Central Asian region, it was formally annexed into the Russian Empire, where it remained through the Russian Revolution in 1917 and into the Soviet Union.
In the early days of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan was organised into the Turkestan Autonomous Republic along with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Then in 1936, Kyrgyztsan was elevated to becoming one of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union.
On 31 August 1991, the Republic of Kyrgyzstan was declared as an independent nation.
Interestingly, since 1991, Kyrgyzstan has had two political revolutions that have seen its president overthrown. The first in 2005, dubbed the Tulip Revolution, saw protesters dispute the allegedly rigged election and eventually overthrow the sitting President. The much more violent and unfortunately deadly revolution of 2010 saw ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks erupt and the exile of then sitting President, Bakiyev. The revolution saw a complete change in the government model to a parliamentary republic. A model still in place now.
When: Days 2 – 5: 20 August 2018 – 23 August 2018.
How: Early morning Air Astana flight from the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan – Bishkek. Air Astana is the national airline of neighbouring Kazakhstan. The 2 hour flight from Nur-Sultan is comfortable with full service including surprisingly good coffee and a much appreciated hot snack. The flight attendants speak English and were quite happy to see the famous kangaroo on my Australian passport.
There are other airlines that fly directly to Bishkek from Moscow, Almaty, Urumqi and Istanbul but all Kyrgyzstan airlines are banned from entering EU air space.
Accommodation: In Bishkek I stayed at the uber luxurious Orion Hotel. A spectacular retreat in the centre of Bishkek complete with a pool, spa, bar, the most amazing breakfast spread I’ve ever seen and friendliest staff. You can read my tripadvisor review here.
We also spent two nights in yurts and one night at a farm – Reina Kench for a brief insight into the cultural and day to day lives of the Kyrgyz people.
Again visiting this country was part of an organised tour through Kalpak Travel. You can check out the tour I did here.
Visa: Nope. Kyrgyzstan is also visa free for citizens of Australia, New Zealand, most European nations and the US and Canada for 60 days.
Currency: Kyrgyzstan Som AU$1 = 48 soms, at time of writing.
At Manas International Airport we met our guide Aiperi who would be our local Kyrgyz guide. A native to Bishkek she was so passionate at showing her homeland to us that just made the entire experience extra special. At the airport we also met Mirza, who would be our trip manager and accompany us for the duration of the trip from then on.
Bishkek is the largest city and the administrative centre of the Kyrgzystan. While having no distinguishing landmarks there are some places of interest that are worth checking out which you can easily do in a day.
Bishkek is also the greenest city in Central Asia with a number of cute parks spread throughout the city which provided some cooling relief from the 33 degree heat we had whilst doing our walking tour of the city.
As part of our walking tour we stumbled across, Panfilov Park. An ageing amusement park in the middle of Bishkek. The park was seemingly completely out of place yet somehow perfectly fitting as well with the communist style buildings that dominate Bishkek. It was the emptiest amusement park I have ever been to which also meant no line to board the ferris wheel. From here we were able to get a nice 360 degree view of Bishkek and further to the Tian Shan Mountains.
The city also has places of major historical significance down the road from each other; Monument of Heroes and Independence Square.
The Monument of Heroes is dedicated to the civilians who lost their lives in the two revolutions. It symbolises the Kyrgyz people pushing out the darkness of corruption. This leaving room for democracy, signified by the white section. Interestingly, this monument is just a block down from the Kyrgyz White House, the Presidential office building, where the riots from the two revolutions started.
Ala-Too Square (or Independence Square) in the heart of Bishkek. Built in 1984, it used to hold a statue of the leader of the Soviet Union himself, Lenin. Upon independence the statue was moved to a smaller square, opposite a Mosque, ironic if you know that the Soviet Union outlawed all religion. It now proudly holds a statue of the national hero, Manas. The world’s longest poem, the Epic of Manas, details Manas’ union of the tribes inhabiting the area and is fundamental in shaping Kyrgyz culture and customs. You can read more about Manas here.
For our first meal in Kyrgyzstan we went to a local restaurant in central Bishkek called ‘Arzu’. They serve a variety of national dishes that are widely popular and is actually rated one of the best restaurants in Bishkek on TripAdvisor.
I tried the beshbarmak or “five finger dish” so called because the nomads used to eat it with their hands. For travellers who are worried about trying different foods this is a safe option as it is boiled noodles with boiled meat spiced up with an onion salsa. However, it is traditionally served with either lamb or horse meat. So just double check. Do recommend trying it.
As a group we also opted to try the Qarta. A very special delicacy which is horse meat…. I won’t even tell you which part of the horse it is because you probably won’t believe me but you can google it. I’ll leave it at that…
Ok I’ll tell you…. it is horse rectrum… but hey #WheninKyrgyzstan
For dinner we went to a beautifully decorated restaurant named ‘Navat’, where we tried some more traditional foods like a giant shared kebab plate. No horse this time. We were also treated to a traditional song and dance performance as part of some evening entertainment.
At just 80km’s from Bishkek lies the ruins of the Ancient city of Balasagun. It was once the capital of the 10th Century Central Asian state of Kara-Khitan Khanate. The main attraction is the Burana Minaret which you can climb up a set of narrow and at times physically demanding stairs. There is only one way up and one way down so at times when you meet someone going the opposite way you may have to squeeze your way through it. A nice view of the surrounding green valleys await you from the top.
Around the tower is a small open-air museum complete with tombstones and small ruins of ancient palaces.
This can be done as a day trip from Bishkek with a bus to Tokmok and a taxi from there. Luckily for us this was right in our direction to Song-Kol.
After our one night in Bishkek we were off in our mini van to Song-Kol. The second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan at a delightful altitude of 3,016m above sea level. Meaning the weather was cold! To get there we did some off road driving through mountains, valleys and rivers so it was a long and bumpy ride. All worth it for a stunning alpine setting.
Tempted to go for a swim? I wouldn’t recommend it. One word and one word only… cold!
In Song-Kol, we arrived at a Yurt campsite run by a nomadic Kyrgyz family. Yurts were historically used throughout the entire Central Asia region, when all that existed here were nomadic tribes. Today, families still live here and uproot themselves depending on the season. But don’t think these people are out of touch with modernity. In a classic ‘had to be there moment’ when we asked the matriarch for a photo, she agreed and asked us to show her the picture. When we showed her, she immediately zoomed in on the photo and swiped back and forth to see which photo was better.
The yurts are your basic mode of accommodation – a bed on a floor with a roof over your head. Albeit, when we walked in the roof was opened but this was closed as the evening approached and temperature plummeted. Beds with plenty of covers; a fireplace and shared facilities about 150m away. Though I did opt to skip a shower given how cold it was and that the water would have been freezing as well.
True nomads… sort of.
As part of our stay we could take a horseback ride or do a dumpling cooking class. Dumplings are a big national dish in Kyrgyzstan. For some reason I chose the cooking class thinking it would involve limited effort. WRONG! There were some seriously strict quality control standards by the matriarch and I just felt like I couldn’t keep up with the pace. Suffice to say I won’t be opening up any Kyrgyz dumpling restaurants in Sydney any time soon.
At around 10:30pm they turned off the lights for the camp and we were surrounded by darkness. This meant that the night sky was filled with stars. Brilliantly and beautifully shining. Another one of my fellow travellers and I gazed up at the evening sky. Both of us living in big cities like London and Sydney had never seen so many stars in the night sky. We gazed up at what felt like hours – or maybe it was just minutes because the temperature was close to freezing – and it was a brilliant way to end the day, high in the Tian Shan Mountains.
And that is half way through Kyrgyzstan. Never fear there is more coming!
Have you been to Kyrgyzstan or has this post left you wanting to go? Let me know below.
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