Kyrgyzstan is rapidly becoming the gateway of choice for western travelers in Central Asia. The reasons for this are its natural beauty, unspoiled mountain scape, ragged ridges, summer pastures and the recent introduction of visa-free travel, in addition with almost all of its neighbors. So it’s easy to see why.
As we were finally out of China and away from the controlled traveling environment that we have been in for the last month, we felt free roaming the highway that leads away from the border. Some 150 km further in our course and as it was getting late, we stopped in Tash Rabat (Kyrgyz for stone fortress) a small caravanserai sunk into the hillside of a photogenic narrow shepherds’ valley. Tash Rabat must have had significant Silk Road political and trade importance to justify its construction. Today it stands as a silent reminder of the former glory of the Silk Road but what makes it especially worth the 30 km detour from the main Torugart route is its peaceful valley setting, where the only habitation is a series of seasonal yurt camps offering interesting walking or riding options and in our case, a great overnight accommodation. As can be expected in a country where the vast majority of attractions are rural and high altitude, the timing of your visit is crucial. The beginning of spring, the time we were crossing, is supposed to be ideal, although that didn’t stop the weather. So the following day, to our surprise, we woke up in a snowy surrounding that luckily didn’t last for long. From October to May, as the weather conditions can be extreme, much rural accommodation closes down and the yurts that add such character to the Alpine vistas are stashed away.
Our next stop in this surprisingly beautiful country was Song-Köl, a crate lake some 250 km further inland, on the way to the capital. Distantly ringed by a horizon of peaks, the wide open landscapes of Song-Köl crate is a giant stage for constant performances of cloudscapes. Almost 20 km across , the lake’s water color changes magically from tropical turquoise to brooding indigo in seconds as the sun flashes or the storms scud by in a vast meteorological theatre. It’s a kind of place that gives you the opportunity to watch the sun come up and to gaze into a crystal-clear night sky, heavy with countless stars all in a 24-hour timeline. At 3016 meters it’s too cold for permanent habitation but between June and September, yurts pop up every kilometer or so. Many, if not all, are part of the community tourism schemes so the area offers an unparalleled opportunity for yurt-stay. Unpaved tracks, often a little more than tire-tracks in the turf, loop down from the high peaks to the lake linking the main concentrations of summer yurts. In our case and after the help from a local guide that we found on the road, we managed to get through the paths and arrive safely. We were the first foreigners of the season that started two days prior to our arrival. So we were treated as “guests of honor”, something that made up for the long, muddy road that leads to the place.
Our third and final destination in Kyrgyzstan was its capital Bishkek. Green and bustling but short on sights, the location of the country’s capital is more of an attraction than its forgettable architecture. Just occasionally, and in this we were lucky, when the air is clear, the Kyrgyz Ala-Too reveals a grand mountain backdrop, a beautiful background to the otherwise rather monotonous city. For us and as we found out for most other travelers, Bishkek is a comfortable place to pick up a visa or two while planning the rest of the Central Asian adventure. We were there to apply for our Kazakhstan visa as well as try to get the generally admitted impossible Russian visa. After a week and a lot of paperwork done especially for the Russian visa, we managed to get only the first before we made the decision to move on.
For a half-forgotten land of mountain valleys, glittering lakes and felt yurts, Kyrgyzstan was left high and dry after the collapse of the USSR and therefore it was forced to turn to tourism. Nowadays they have managed to create a cutting edge network of community-based ecotourism ventures and home stays. More than a dozen adventures await the intrepid, from horse treks and yurt stays to eagle hunting. Add in some Silk Road bazaars, two spectacular mountain passes to China and an instinctive local hospitality and it’s agreed that Kyrgyzstan is definitely a “don’t miss” destination in Central Asia.