The Kyrgyz Republic

The land of hills and horses

According to an ancient proverb, horses are “the wings of the Kyrgyz”, and it??™s here you??™ll find them running free – to the backdrop of some beautiful mountains.

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The complexity of Kyrgyzstan??™s name alone is often enough to put off even the most ardent traveller.
Yet though it has acquired the spurious title of least heard-of country on the globe, as awarded by Time Magazine, the experience of visiting this nation is far less daunting than its spelling suggests.

Getting there can be tricky. Flights aren???t exactly direct, and most people arrive from China or a Central Asian neighbour by bus or train.
A word on this; handing over a few Som to a guard for entry, unofficially of course, is not as harrowing as it may first seem.

And once in, you will find the friendly manner of the Kyrgyz people to be incredibly warm. A regular family will welcome you in to a humble abode and lavish you with all the bread, jam and tea they own.
Do not reject until you???ve had enough, but do reciprocate with a small gift, preferably an item they cannot purchase locally.

You will certainly meet fellow travellers along the way, as the sporadic nature of accommodation and transport dictates.
And a shared taxi will often save you many hours of journeying through the mountainous regions that comprise around 85% of the Republic. But here it is definitely the case that in the voyage lies half the fun.
For extreme trekkers and climbers, Kyrgyzstan is fast becoming a badly kept secret, but if conquering 6000+m mountains is not your cuppa, do not despair.

The rolling green pastures and smaller mountains make for a multitude of day hikes and 2 to 4 day treks. And if you??™re not one for mass organisation and carrying heavy loads then look no further than Community Based Tourism and Shepherd??™s Life.
Both organisations specialise in three areas:

Accommodation – providing homestays for walkers visiting rural areas where there are no or few hotels.

Walking aids ??“ guides, porters and cooks. If you don??™t like map reading or outdoor cooking there??™s a security in hiring one or more of these, but take note; a guide and porter together is often unnecessary, as they often do the same job and so the porters know where they??™re going.

Transport – Trips to rural lakes and beauty spots are organised upon demand using minibuses (not to be confused with the public Marshrutka buses)

Two of the main areas where CBT and Shepherd??™s Life operate are Kochkor and Karakol. Both are small towns, a little rough around the edges, but centrally safe with a greater than usual choice of restaurants and cafes.
The main attractions are the walks and horse treks that surround the towns.

Kochkor offers Horse Games annually. This CBT organised event involves a 45 minute bumpy bus journey to Sarala Saz, which is, to coin a phrase, in the middle of nowhere.
But it??™s an idyllic nowhere surrounded by mountains. The games are less spectacular, but equally intriguing. They involve a group of locals demonstrating how to pick up a coin off the ground from a moving horse, wrestling on horseback, and the national sport of Kok Boru, fighting in teams over a goat carcass on??¦ you guessed it, horseback.

CBT provide transport to Song Kol, a serene and picturesque lake away from any hustle and bustle, at 3000m altitude and with a mountain range surrounding. Be careful here, it??™s very cold at night but often hot in the day so take warm clothing and good shoes.

On day three of a four day trek towards the village of Kyzart, my partner and I became stranded on a mountain, and having not seen a soul in 24 hours we realised there was no mobile reception or rescue service. If you??™re not with a guide, take good maps, plenty of supplies, and stick to the paths.

Karakol lies east of Issyk-kol (the world??™s second largest saline lake) and from here you can access a national park with stunning views. Highlights include a near 4000m pass with a strange blue lake called Ala-Kul, and the relaxing sulphurous hot springs at Altyn Arashan. There is a huge range of hikes and treks in this region and a good mixture of woodland, mountains and rocky paths.


You don??™t go to Kyrgyzstan for the cuisine so these places stood out:

Kochkor – Cafe Vizit: good Plov (classic Kyrgyz beef and rice dish), Manty (dumplings) and Brizol (chicken with a rich sauce)

Karakol – Zarina Cafe: try the Beshbarmak (mutton or horse meat, with Kyrgyz noodles)

Barbecued meat skewers called Shashlyk are everywhere, and the Kyrgyz love Kymyz (fermented mare??™s milk!)

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