Kyrgyzstan: Where Hospitality Meets Untamed Beauty

Kyrgyzstan
In Bishkek, Soviet-era architecture predominates.

From Bishkek to Issyk-Kul Lake: A Look at the Gems of Kyrgyzstan

By Teh Chin Liang
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Kyrgyzstan, a country that epitomizes a far-flung adventure destination, has never been on my travel radar. Early this spring, my travel compass took an unexpected turn and steered me to this valley-studded nation, often known as the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”

Kyrgyzstan is a nation with a history spanning more than three millennia and a prominent nomadic culture.

State History Museum,
State History Museum

Kyrgyz Hospitality

Kyrgyzstan surprised me in many ways, starting when I arrived at Bishkek’s Western station. A young shopkeeper in a phone shop, with limited English, guided me to a money changer. His eyes lit up with recognition as soon as he knew I was from Malaysia.

He quickly pulled out a photo from his phone album—it was him posing in front of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The photo transcended the language barrier and connected us immediately.

He then led me to a Marshrutka, an old-fashioned Soviet-style minibus that went to my hostel. He looked back to see if I was behind, then saw my chapped lips. He popped into a store and returned with a bottle of water for me.

“Thanks,” I said, startled by his kindness.

People in traditional costumes at the Nowruz celebration
People in traditional costumes at the Nowruz celebration

He spoke to the driver about my stop, and the driver gave a thumbs up. I thanked him profusely and waved goodbye.

As the marshrutka was about to leave, he slipped the driver the fare for my ride. I hadn’t seen it coming. Before I could stop him, the marshrutka lurched forward with a metallic clink.

Soviet remnants linger in Bishkek

It may be this overwhelming hospitality that gave me the lens that made Bishkek seem exceptionally welcoming on my first impression. This 200-year-old city sprawls like a glowing jewel against the backdrop of the snow-capped Tien Shan mountains.

Wide boulevards flank stoic, nostalgic Soviet-era buildings. Like Almaty, Bishkek is dotted with green spaces throughout the urban concrete.

Bishkek is a compact city, making it easy to explore most attractions on foot within a day or two. The city also has affordable public buses and marshrutkas for getting around.

For added convenience, Yandex, a popular ride-hailing app available in English, is readily available. Drivers typically respond quickly, and rides cost less than 1,000 som (around $11) to most destinations within the city.

Explore Kyrgyzstan’s capital in a day on foot

Osh Bazaar is a bustling market with a labyrinth of stalls and shops for visitors to feast their eyes on a dazzling array of goods: local produce, spices, dried fruits, nuts, clothing, household items, and more.

The cacophony of the vendors mixes with the spice aroma, making it an authentic place to soak up a slice of the Kyrgyz way of life. Be cautious of the slippery floor and keep an eye on your belongings, as pickpockets are notorious in that area.

In front of the State History Museum, the ceremonial guards marched with high steps that radiated regal splendor. A statue of Manas, Kyrgyz folklore’s legendary hero, is poised atop a horse, as if ready to charge off into the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. For 200 som ($2), you gain entry to the world of artifacts from the prehistoric to the Soviet era.

A 10-minute walk from Panfilov Park, a park named after Soviet military hero Ivan Panfilov, The Holy Resurrection Cathedral stands out with its white and blue façade, topped by bulbous spires thrusting skyward. This ornate Russian Orthodox cathedral, combining a school and church, is a prominent landmark on Jibek Jolu, one of the main thoroughfares in Bishkek.

The stained-glass windows reflected a kaleidoscope of colors onto the candelabrum. Flickering candle flames crackled softly, casting dancing shadows on the walls. Amidst the soft glow, rhythmic murmurs of prayers rose from women in headscarves. Adjacent to the cathedral is a gift shop offering religious items such as icons for visitors.

The stunning view of Issyk-Kul lake
The stunning view of Issyk-Kul lake

Issyk-Kul Lake: The Pearl of Kyrgyzstan

No trip to Kyrgyzstan is complete without seeing Issyk-Kul Lake. Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyz for “warm lake,” is the world’s second-largest alpine lake by volume, surpassed only by Lake Titicaca in South America. The lake never freezes, even in deep winter, due to its high salinity.

Several lakeside towns offer access to Issyk-Kul: Cholpon-Ata on the north shore (270 km from Bishkek), Karakol on the east (450 km from Bishkek), and Bokonbaevo on the south (350 km from Bishkek).

Marshrutka could get you to these towns for 400 to 800 soms ($4.5 to $9). In Bokonbaevo, my host, Gulmira, a woman in her 60s, came to greet me as my taxi pulled into her front gate. I was introduced to Gulmira by a Kyrgyz friend, who highly recommended her guest house, which always receives glowing reviews.

The charming Kyrgyz farming village of Bokonbaevo
The charming Kyrgyz farming village of Bokonbaevo

Kyrgyz farm village homestay

The house is tucked in a picturesque Kyrgyz farming village. My eye was drawn to the two large nomadic yurts standing in the backyard. Inside the yurt, red wooden beams radiated from the top ring like spokes on a giant wheel, and two colorful yarn tassels dangled from the top ring, adding a touch of rustic aesthetics.

I pushed open a creaking wooden gate and entered a farm where Gulmira reared horses and chickens. A flurry of clucking erupted as the chickens scuttled around my feet. The horses, startled by the unexpected visitor, snorted and pawed the ground, stirring a plume of dust before rising to their feet.

Beyond a rickety wooden fence, the vast expanse of mud plains rolled out to the horizon, where the snow-coated mountains stood in otherworldly streaks of white and blue.

Kyrgyz Hospitality
Gulmira and her husband sit in front of a table filled with snacks and treat

Kyrgyz cuisine often uses horse meat

A German guest echoed my thoughts. “I can’t find a better place to curl up with a good book,” he’d said. I couldn’t agree more. The scenery invited me to settle in for a while with my reading.

The occasional bleat of grazing goats served as a tranquil background melody until a sudden thudding broke the serenity. One of the horses launched into a powerful gallop in a circle, churning up the soil and sending plumes of dry grass flying as it picked up speed—a seemingly show-off meant to impress me, their new guest.

Gulmira lives with her husband, a retired policeman. All their children are away in Bishkek.

“I worked as a chef at a restaurant,” she said, a smile playing around her lips, and then she went back to slicing potatoes.

Earlier in the day, the German told me he saw Gulmira had brought back a large bag of what he believed to be horse meat. Our suspicion was confirmed when dinnertime arrived. Gulmira emerged with plates of stir-fried vegetables.

Buried among the leafy greens, the surprise ingredient—cubes of horse meat—had both of us shooting up our arms in delight.

Staying with Gulmira means your tummy is always taken care of. A bounty of snacks—dates, cookies, chocolates, chestnuts, apples, you name it—is always spread across her dining table. I knew where to turn whenever I needed a nibble.

A cup of hot chai was offered to me whenever she saw me. The chai is best served with a dollop of her homemade ginger-infused honey, making the chai taste even better.

The animal farm behind Gulmira homestay
The animal farm behind Gulmira homestay

From eagle hunting to an otherworldly canyon

Bokonbayevo is home to an ancient tradition of eagle hunting. In the winter months, the eagles were trained to hunt hares and foxes for fur and meat.

I took a taxi to Tong village. Following the sound of water lapping against the rocks, I arrived at the picture-perfect southern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake. A jagged line of mountains, their snow-capped peaks crowned with wispy clouds, stretched as far as the eye could see, blurring the line between earth and sky.

Skazka Canyon is also known as Fairy Tale Canyon
Skazka Canyon is also known as Fairy Tale Canyon

Skazka Canyon, a landscape sculpted by wind and water erosion over centuries, lies a 45-minute drive east of Bokonbayevo. Here, red sandstone formations contort into whimsical shapes, some resembling colossal mushrooms sprouting from the rock face.

Under my feet, the rock surfaces displayed a palette of reds, oranges, yellows, and even touches of pink. The only sound was the crunch of gravel against my soles in this fantasy-like land.

Hidden trails and viewpoints wind throughout the canyon; some offer easy walks, and others require shoes with good traction for steep climbs.

The writer, Teh Chin Liang, poses with a group of costumed Nowruz revelers
The writer, Teh Chin Liang, poses with a group of costumed Nowruz revelers

Nowruz celebration

Back in Bishkek, the Nowruz celebration was in full swing. Nowruz, also known as the Persian New Year, marks the dawn of the spring equinox.

Ala-Too Square, the central square of Bishkek, was a whirlwind of mascots, flowers, and yurts showcasing Kyrgyz wooden crafts. Samples of Sumalak, the gooey wheat-based treat specially made for the Nowruz festival, were offered to the visitors.

Despite the cloudy weather, the festive mood was infectious, with people dressed in their finest. Women donned their distinctive “elechek,” a turban-shaped hat.

The streets were turned into a massive dance floor by the electrifying excitement on stage. From toddlers to the elderly, everyone was in the mood for dancing, tossing down their shopping bags, and moving to the music. I began with a toe tap, but as the music rose to a crescendo, I started to whirl and twirl.

The rain pelted down like bullets, blurring the world into a swirl of color and sound. People, bare trees, and streetlamps—starbursts against the gray sky—spooled into a continuous reel in my mind. It would take years for me to unravel that reel, frame by frame, to relive the most unforgettable moment in Kyrgyzstan.

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2 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan: Where Hospitality Meets Untamed Beauty

  1. Really enjoyed Chin Liang Tehs writing as about Kyrgyzstan.It is perceptive, insightful and has a real understanding of culture, people and the joy of new experiences.
    i love the fact he values non luxury people,places and experiences.

  2. great to read about independent travels, and people who try the local experiences.
    the article makes it easy to be comfortable as kind of travel plan that i could do one day.

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