When we started telling people that we were headed to Kyrgyzstan we were met by a surprising amount of skepticism. We were lectured about terrorism, wars, weapons, sex slavery and the rest of it, mostly by people who have seldom left the USA let alone ventured into the far reaches of Central Asia.
Don’t get me wrong, any country ending in ‘stan’ gets more than enough press to have even the slightest mention breeding fear. Yet, the thought never crossed my mind when we accepted an offer to visit the country. We were excited, despite everyone telling us we should be otherwise.
We learned quickly that Kyrgyzstan is a pretty amazing place to explore. There, I said it. We had no idea what to expect before our visit and left the country wanting to return immediately. It is an incredibly diverse place with mountain vistas, sandy beaches, grassy hills and desert like plains.
Couple that with a wide array of cultures that blend seamlessly thanks to the countries vital position on the Silk Road and you’re left with a wide array of wonders to experience. We knew it would be an adventure, but we weren’t expecting to fall for the place. Which is exactly what happened.
Our time in Kyrgyzstan focused mainly around the North, East and South shores of Issyk Kul Lake in the Northeastern part of the country. Compare our itinerary to the rest of the map and it’s easy to see that we have much more to explore. While we’re over here trying to figure out our next visit, we want to show you what happens when you look beyond the ‘stan’. Hang on for the ride, we might even surprise you.
33 Epic Kyrgyzstan Photos
It was appropriate for me to set the mood with a mountain shot. So much of what makes Kyrgyzstan attractive is the stunning Tian Shan Mountain range and the wide variety of treks on offer. I took this morning shot at the start of the second day of our trek through the mountains.
Plan your own trek in the Tian Shan Mountains ===> Karakol Trekking
The biggest shocker we had on our trip was seeing beaches around Issyk Kul Lake. People come from all over Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Russia to relax on these beaches. Cholpon Ata is a prime resort destination. Of all the photos we’ve shared from our trip to Kyrgyzstan, this one gets the most reactions of surprise.
The national sport of Kyrgyzstan is the infamous Kok Boru, affectionately known amongst foreigners as Dead Goat Polo. You’ll be hard pressed to visit the country and not catch a game. We were lucky enough to not only see it in the country but also at the official Manas Games at the World Nomad Games stadium during our visit.
Read more about Kok Boru in Kyrgyzstan – An Intimate Look At Dead Goat Polo
Setting off into the Chon’ Kyzyl Suu valley on the first day of our 3 day trek in the mountains. We hiked 30 miles, made 2 camps, ascended 1500m from the village of Chon’ Kyzyl Suu, summited a 4,000m pass and descended 2000m.
Many nomads take up residence in the valleys near the mountains for the summer when they send their herds to higher elevations. When the winter season starts to near, they drive their herds back down and head closer to town to avoid the harsh winters in the mountains.
It’s not uncommon to come across nomad yurt camps when trekking in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. They are always set near a water source and open grazing land. The nomads are not shy and do not hesitate to come over and chat.
The first day of the hike was all about climbing. After navigating through the Chon’ Kyzyl Valley we started our climb up into the mountains, heading towards the Archaly Tor pass. This was the sunrise view from the camp we made on the first night.
Horses are the wings of the Kyrgyz people. Without them, they would have nothing. There is nowhere you can go in Kyrgyzstan where you won’t see horses. This includes the mountains. We met this lovely guy at 3,600m elevation on our way to the Archaly Tor Pass on day 2 of the trek.
Summiting the Archaly Tor Pass was aggressive with unstable scree making up the entirety of the path. That said, there is no denying it was worth the effort. We sent the drone up when we reached the top to capture the dramatic views that surrounded us. Simply, unreal.
Descending the pass and heading down towards the Jeti Oguz Valley felt like being on the set of Lord of the Rings. We’re well above the tree line here and beyond the alpine scrub. For as far as the eye could see, little rocks.
The beginning of life at the start of the Jeti Oguz Valley. At this point in the hike we had been descending for 2 hours. We didn’t know it at the time, but we had 4 more hours until we would make camp for the night.
The further we descended the more lush everything became. The water source from the mountain glaciers creates beautiful streams that hold onto thick patches of moss. We drank from these streams on several occasions to stay hydrated during our trek.
Arguably the best view of our trek and the location of our second camp. We had a bonfire that night and watched the sun set behind the snowcapped peaks of Jeti Oguz. The translation means ‘seven bulls’ and was given to these mountains that resemble a charging bull.
In September, the water is flowing at lower amounts and the glacial fed rivers are starting to spread out to take the easiest path. Seeing this natural phenomenon from the air was exciting enough but the color contrasts were a real treat.
Being in the mountains provides endless opportunities for amazing views, yet we are never disappointed when we send the drone up. Even with the mountains towering in the backdrop, you can really see the scale of the valley when you get a perspective from up high.
Heading out of the Jeti Oguz Valley on our third day was bittersweet. We wanted to stay longer but had more of Kyrgyzstan waiting for us. This shot was our final glance into the valley before we met our transport vehicle for a ride back to Karakol.
If you ever make it to Karakol, don’t miss the sunset cruise on Issyk Kul Lake. You’ll be surrounded by mountains, birds, Kyrgyz beer and an explosion of color at the end of the day.
Want to do this on your Kyrgyzstan trip? ===> Plan your Issyk Kul Sunset Cruise
Karakol is the gateway to some of the best hiking in Kyrgyzstan but it also has a bit to offer visitors itself. If you’ve ever heard of the famous cathedrals in Russia that are built without nails, this Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Karakol can state the same.
See this cathedral on a Karakol Walking Tour
We never missed the sunsets in Karakol because sunsets on Issyk Kul Lake are really that good.
A placid morning with sweet reflections on Issyk Kul Lake, near Karakol.
Jyrgalan is a small village located west of Karakol that is becoming known for horse trekking and mountain hiking opportunities. At present there is only one guesthouse in town and no restaurants (you’re limited to the food served at the guest house) but it’s worth the trip. We trekked on horseback high up into the valleys opposite of town where we explored a mountain lake and then descended back down through the forest before returning to the village.
Everything you need to book your own Horse Trek in Jyrgalan
It’s obligatory to stay in a Yurt camp when you visit Kyrgyzstan. We headed to the South Shore of Issyk Kul, near the town of Bokonbayevo, where we spent 2 nights staying in the famous Bel Tam Yurt camp.
While they may look plain on the outside, yurts are very much a colorful expression of the family on the inside. Kyrgyz people love bright colors and will hand make all the decoration you see both inside and outside the yurts.
A classic Kyrgyzstan scene. Yurt, horse herd, chicken and mountains. Check.
The start of blue hour from the Shatyly Panoramic lookout outside of Bokonbayevo. We opted for a horse trek to the viewpoint up the side of a steep mountain.
Fall colors creeping into the south shore in early September. This photo gives you a little peek of the Skazka Canyon on the right and the sun kissed shoreline of Issyk Kul Lake at sunset.
Saying goodbye to our horses after our horse trek to the Shatyly view point. I could not resist the warm light of this sunset. It just wouldn’t quit.
Kyrgyzstan’s Skazka Canyon, also called the Fairytale Canyon, was formed when pieces of the earth slammed together and pushed upwards. This is unique to Kyrgyzstan as most of their valleys and land formations were made by moving glaciers.
On our last day in Kyrgyzstan we attended the fabulous Salburun Festival outside of Bokonbayevo. It was Kyrgyz culture on steroids and we learned so much about the people and their traditions. These girls performed several traditional dances in a variety of costumes.
Eagle Hunting is a proud tradition in Kyrgyzstan and the bond between each Golden Eagle and his handler is apparent, even to the public eye. They spend all waking hours together and the birds become very devoted to them.
From a young age, boys born into Eagle hunting families are taught how to handle and treat the birds of prey. It is not uncommon to see young boys handling falcons or hawks instead of eagles.
Do not miss this experience on the South Shore of Issyk Kul
This man was such a performer and a devoted musician. Pride beamed from him as he performed beloved folk songs for us behind the stage without another person in sight. You should have seen the smile on his face when I asked if he would play for us.
It is traditional for Kyrgyz women to know the art of making felt rugs. These are needed for building and decorating yurts. The harder work of kneading and rolling the felt is left to the young ladies while the older women separate the lambs wool by color and spin it into thread balls for stitching the rugs.
I’ve been an animal lover my whole life and have formed bonds with so many special animals along the way. So being able to get up close and see the bond between a Golden Eagle and his handler was a very special experience for me.
If these Kyrgyzstan photos don’t have you adding the country to your bucket list and scanning the internet for plane tickets, well, then I don’t know what will. Kyrgyzstan offers so much to anyone that is willing to look past the ‘stan’ and open their mind.
More on Kyrgyzstan:
- Kok Boru in Kyrgyzstan – An Intimate Look at Dead Goat Polo
- Trekking in Kyrgyzstan – Chon Kyzyl Suu to Jeti Oguz
Disclaimer: Our visit to Kyrgyzstan was hosted by Discover Kyrgyzstan. This trip was made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. All opinions about how awesome it was to photograph Kyrgyzstan are 100% mine, as always.