A trip to Kyrgyzstan: from Pamir to Almaty (Kazakhstan)
And here it is, the last leg of my incredible journey along the Silk Roadwhich took me from Uzbekistan to Almaty, Kazakhstan, through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Together with Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyzstan is one of the easiest countries for us to visit, both because does not require an entry visa, but also because in recent years it has developed a good road network and excellent tourist infrastructures. Kyrgyzstan is very different from neighboring countries, it is the country of horses (I have never seen so many in my life!), Of semi-nomadic shepherds who move around with their yurts, but above all it is the country of the mountains, with several peaks that abundantly exceed 7000 meters. Thanks to the beauty of its mountain landscapes, Kyrgyzstan has become one of the most popular destinations for lovers of trekking and mountaineering and every summer an increasing number of European tourists (French, Polish and German in the lead) flock to the shores of Lake Issy Kol to reach the peaks of Tian Shan or to the south, in the Alay Valley, to conquer Lenin Peak (7134 m ). Entering from the south, from the border with the Tajik Pamir, one almost has the impression of entering Switzerland. The landscape changes radically and, from the barren peaks of Tajikistan, you pass to the green mountains crossed by rivers and streams, and dozens of herds of horses and cows graze. The road suddenly becomes paved and road signs appear for the first time. If it weren't for the yurt camps, you might really think you have entered the Canton of Ticino! In reality, not the whole country is so “developed”; a part of the Fargana Valley and the central area of the country (where the Song Kol is located for example) is still served by mostly dirt roads and, with the exception of some villages, it is inhabited exclusively in summer by semi-nomadic shepherds. Overall I liked Kyrgyzstan very much; I spent 9 days there crossing it from south to north, and I saw and experienced very different landscapes and situations. I started from Osh, the second largest city in the country, to then live the beauty of Song Kol lake together with the nomadic shepherds, before reaching theIssy Kol and go from beach life to high altitude trekking within 1 day. Kyrgyzstan offers a bit of everything, it is an economic country and, like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is inhabited by a welcoming and helpful people, who are always ready to meet the needs of the traveler.
When to go to Kyrgyzstan
The best time to visit Kyrgyzstan is summer, from June to September, when all roads are passable, you can swim in Issy Kol Lake and the hiking trails are all accessible. In cities like Bishkek or Osh it can get quite hot in the summer, but on Song Kol the weather can change at any moment and when the sun sets it is always very cold.
Money and the cost of living
Som is used in Kyrgyzstan (1 euro = 80 Som approximately) and, unlike Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, there is no black market for which you change only in banks or in exchange offices (which are easily found in all tourist resorts and cities). Here too, as in neighboring countries, you can never withdraw cash with credit cards so you will have to bring all the money you need directly from Spain. Kyrgyzstan is a decidedly economic country for us. To sleep in a private accommodation, in a yurt or in a small hotel you spend about 10 euros per person / night (breakfast included) and on average around 5 euros for food. Getting around is also cheap: with marshrutkas, collective taxis or hitchhiking you will spend about 2/3 euros for a journey of 1h. The most expensive expense, at least in my case, was the rent of the jeep with the driver for 4 days to reach Song Kol lake from Osh and have me drop off in Kochkor (200 dollars per person). Having actually more days available, even this movement can be done with hitchhiking and marshrutkas.
Health insurance is required
In Kyrgyzstan our health coverage is not valid. My advice is to always take a classic medical-luggage insurance that can cover you during the trip. I am very happy with many insurance companies, a site that compares the policies of different companies and proposes the most convenient policy for that particular trip. To do this you will have to enter the data relating to your trip (country, duration, etc.) and they will send you an email with the best proposal that you can then buy directly online.
How to get to Kyrgyzstan
L’aeroporto Manas International Airport di Bishkek it is the main airport of the country and several airlines fly there such as Turkish, Pegasus, Aeroflot and others. Me too'Osh airport has international flights via Instabul, Dubai, China, etc. Many (like myself) enter the country also by land, from the Tajik Pamir, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan. From Kazakhstan or Tajikistan there are no problems; the border with Uzbekistan of Jalal-Abad can be particularly mangy and could take a long time (on this aspect, read the paragraph “the Borders” in the article How to organize a trip to Central Asia). As with other Central Asian countries, always make sure that the border you intend to use is open beforehand.
How to get around in Kyrgyzstan
Getting around in Kyrgyzstan is very easy, as it is in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. And if you know a few words of Russian, you are on horseback! The most used ways to get around the country are: Hitchhiking: it is the cheapest option and is normally used by everyone. You will see people asking for rides everywhere along the roads, it is normal to do so, it is normal to pay a certain amount to the driver and it is super safe (even for single women). I have used it a lot in Kyrgyzstan and I have always found myself very well, I have never waited more than half an hour before being charged and I have always traveled comfortably. Marshrutka (Minibus privati): generally they are old minibuses for 20 people (in which they allow at least twice as many) that follow a fixed route and leave as soon as they fill up. They are found everywhere, in any town or village. They cost little, but, if you don't take them at the terminus, you risk having to stand crushed by other Christians like you, even for hours. Collective taxis: as for the Marshrutka they are found everywhere and represent the fastest way. In this case they are cars and, equally, they are filled more than normal (in a collective taxi there were 11 of us! Luckily most of them were children). They cost a little more than the Marshrutkas. Private car with driver: as I told you before, I used it to cross to reach the Song Kol lake from Osh. The road was unpaved and very few cars pass through these areas. Clearly they have high costs, but if you don't have months of time available and you want to reach remote locations, I would say that they are the only solution.
Security in Kyrgyzstan
As with the other Central Asian countries I have passed through, I have never felt in danger in Kyrgyzstan. I have read about some travelers who have been robbed by the corrupt police in the capital Bishek, but I have not been there and have never experienced anything like it, not even in Osh. In the latter, it happened to me that they looked at me badly because I didn't have a veil (Osh is a very radicalized city), but nothing more. The problem of corrupt police it concerns a bit all of Central Asia, but in my direct experience, I have seen bribes asked several times from locals (both at checkpoints and at borders), but never from tourists. In Karakol the streets are very dark at night, but there is also no reason to hang around after dinner. In general it is a country where the usual general rules of common sense apply, but nothing more.
Entry into Kyrgyzstan from the Tajik border on the Kyzyl-Art Pass (4282 m) and arrival in Osh (car with driver)
Transfer to Kazerman (car with driver)
Arrival at Song Kol and night in a tent (car with driver)
Transfer to Kochkor and relax (car with driver)
Transfer to Tanga (Issy Kol) and afternoon on the beach (marshrutk + hitchhiking)
Tanga (Fairy Tales Canyon) autostop
Transfer to Karakol + city tour (hitchhiking)
Trekking in the Jeti-Oghuz area (taxi)
Transfer to Almaty via Char-Kaduk (+ Charyn Canyon) taxi
What to bring
If you decide to visit Kyrgyzstan in the summer you will find yourself going from 30 degrees in Osh or Bishkek to zero (or less) degrees in Song Kol and the mountains around Karakol, so my advice is to dress "onion", bringing both light clothing rather than heavier. On the specific things to put in the backpack you can refer to the article How to prepare the travel backpack: the perfect backpacker. Another thing to bring with you is definitely a supply of water for the Song Kol: there is no drinking water there, so either drink tea 24 hours a day (as shepherds do), or bring water or tablets to purify it. . Else, download Google Translator before leaving; except a few in Karakol, no one speaks English here.
Where to sleep in Kyrgyzstan
Community Tourism has spread a great deal throughout Kyrgyzstan and there is an ever-increasing network of private accommodation where you can sleep and eat for $ 10-15 a night. Every city, even small towns, usually has a ufficio del CBT (Community-Based Tourism) and you can go there to find accommodation or a tour. The houses are usually nice and clean and have several rooms with private or shared bathroom. When I didn't sleep in CBT lodgings, I slept in these facilities:
Hotel Sunrise Osh (Osh). Western standards at this hotel near the river and bazaar. The only place on the whole trip where I was able to pay with the VISA! A double costs $ 30 each with breakfast included. After the Pamir ... we needed !!!
Tamga Bee House (Tamga). A house surrounded by greenery with a very funny owner, a big man who could almost scare but who turned out to be very kind and welcoming. They grow their own and everything you eat here is locally sourced. They don't speak a word of English but with Google Translator we were able to understand each other very well. It costs around € 10 each with breakfast, plus € 5 for dinner.
Hostel Neofit (Karakol). Very nice hostel in a more than central area, in a typical wooden building with pastel colors. The room with shared bathroom costs 700 Som per person with a rich breakfast included (about 8 euros).
Hostal Nomad (Almaty). Modern hostel on the 3rd floor of a building. The double room is huge and costs around € 23 (without breakfast). On the weekend in the evening there is some noise because there is a disco in the basement. From here you can go almost everywhere on foot.
Where to eat
Izyum (Osh). Good riverside restaurant, slightly set back from the center. If you want you can eat on wooden platforms surrounded by greenery. Fairly elegant and decidedly western restaurant, but the food is very good.
Tsarskii Dvor (Osh). Really very nice riverside restaurant. However, the cuisine is average.
Cafe Dastorkon (Karakol). The best and most popular restaurant in Karakol and it takes less than 10 euros each. Absolutely recommended!
Cafe Zarina (Karakol). The backpackers bar / restaurant. They all meet here and in the end the food is also good. Here, too, you spend less than 10 euros each. It is located a few meters from the Hostel Neofit.
Daredzhani restaurant (Almaty). Very good Georgian restaurant in the center of Almaty. Great everything, including wines, and a nice atmosphere. The prices are absolutely European (but here you can pay by credit card!).
What to see in Kyrgyzstan
Osh is the second largest city in the country and the entry point to Kyrgyzstan for anyone arriving from Uzbekistan or Tajikisan. It cannot be said that it is a beautiful city, but it undoubtedly has its own charm. AND an incredible tangle of different ethnicities, cultures and religions; many Uzbeks live here and coexistence with the Tajiki is complicated (there was a very heavy civil war in the 90s for this too), as is the presence of radicalized Muslims. Just think that more than 50% of ISIS terrorists guilty of suicide bombings in Europe come from this area! Around the city you can see everything, guys dressed in Western clothes, women with full burkas, people with dark hair and almond eyes and other blondes with blue eyes, there is a crazy mix here and right in this, in my opinion, lies its charm. Among the things to see there is nothing truly unmissable, nor the Suleiman Too (the 5-pointed rock that dominates the city) nor the Bazaar, but if you have to choose one, definitely go and explore the bazaar that winds along the river. It is one of the largest in Central Asia and it is very nice to get lost among the 1000 stalls watching people buy and sell. In my case, Osh represented civilization and comfort after the Tajik Pamir and I must say that I really appreciated the idea of sleeping in a real hotel and eating in more than nice restaurants.
2. Song Kol Lake
From Osh I left for the Song Kol (3016 mt). They are about 400 kilometers and, from a certain point on, the road becomes narrow and unpaved but from a very beautiful landscape. If you want you could be able to get to Song Kol even with a single day of travel, but it is exhausting. We made a stop at Kazerman and we arrived at Song Kol the next morning. The latter is the most famous (and most beautiful according to many) alpine lake in Kyrgyzstan. The lake is "inhabited" only by shepherds between June and September and during these months the meadows around the lake are wonderfully colored by yurts and herds of sheep, cows and horses. The landscape is breathtaking! Once you get here you can go for walks, or go horseback riding. To sleep, you can stay and eat in the yurt camp with the nomads (the yurt camps are many and are all around the lake); the bathrooms are aluminum boxes placed on the ground and there is a small outdoor sink where you can brush your teeth. Yurts can generally be heated (there is a wood stove inside) but they rarely are so you sleep in clothes submerged in blankets. The climate here is very harsh and it is not excluded that it can snow even in summer. I was lucky enough to come there during the weekend, when the Kirgizi tourists also arrive on the lake, and I was invited to a birthday party. I think I've never seen so much food and so much vodka in my life! On the fourth shot of vodka I found myself singing and dancing old Celentano songs (who is still an idol here!) .. fantastic. If you don't go horseback riding I recommend that you stay on Song Kol only 1 night because there is not much else to do; if the weather is not nice then you risk having to stay locked up inside the yurt.
3. Lago Issy Kol
After a technical stop a Kochkor (which is nothing special), I then hit the southern shore of Issy Kol lake (1600 m). It is the largest alpine lake in the world after Titicaca, and is considered the sea of kirgizi and Kazakhs. It is so big that you can't even see the other side! The lake offers very different views from area to area and is surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Alatau. I chose to relax for a couple of days Tamga, a very small holiday resort on the south shore where there are small beaches and little more. The water of the lake is very transparent and, if it were not frozen, you would immediately want to jump! From here I also made a small excursion to the Fairy Tales Canyon, a beautiful multicolored canyon which is located about 15 km from Tamga (arriving by hitchhiking, you have to walk another 2 km from the main road). It's not exactly Bryce Canyon but it defends itself well!
4. Outpost ei trekking sul Tian Shan
From Tamga I then moved to Karacol, a lively town famous for being the gateway to the many treks on the very high peaks of the Tian Shan. The only monument I would recommend you to see is there Holy Trinity Cathedral, an imposing church entirely of wood topped by towers with a green roof and golden domes. If you want to go trekking here you will be spoiled for choice! The town is full of agencies that organize everything from day trips to trekking for days and / or months. I only had one day and went (by taxi) to the yurt camp of Jeti-Oghuz (40-50 ′ from Karakol, bargaining, the taxi picked us up at 5 in the afternoon). From the camp you can do many walks on foot or on horseback. I did one on foot for about 4 hours to the Valley of Flowers and I loved it; if it weren't for the yurts, I would have thought I was in the Dolomites!
5. Charyn Canyon (Kazakhstan)
From Karakol I then reached Almaty, in Kazakhstan, from where I then had the return flight. In summer you can cross the border at Char-Kuduk; this border was only reopened in 2013 and is only open from June to September (during the rest of the year the area is covered with snow). It can be crossed from 8 to 18 and it takes about 2 hours by taxi from Karacol (the road is all dirt). Once you cross the border, there are then taxis on the Kazakh side which, for 1000 Som (about 12 euros) will take you to Song, the nearest town. From here you have to negotiate with other taxi drivers to be taken to Almaty and I recommend that you also plan a stop at the beautiful Charyn Canyon (I paid 60 dollars for 2 people up to Almaty). To reach it you have to deviate a little from the road but it is absolutely worth it! It's kind of a small-scale Grand Canyon.
6. Almaty, the green city
Almaty is a classic Communist city, but the gray of the buildings is hardly noticeable thanks to the trees and public greenery. Almaty it is by far one of the greenest and most tree-lined cities I have ever seen! It is a rapidly developing city, there are jobs everywhere, many skyscrapers, luxury shops and restaurants, bars and large-displacement SUVs. It is very clear that there is no shortage of money here! The city stands out on the snow-capped peaks of the Zailiysky Altau and you can have a nice overview by climbing with the funicular on the mountain of Kok- Tobe (1100 mt). Other things to see are definitely the Central State Museum, with many and important archaeological finds in the area, the Zenkov Cathedral in the Panfilov Park and central mosque.