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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Luc Jones

Apart from appearing in pub quizzes as one of four countries in the world to only contain one vowel (you have until you reach the end of this article to think of the other three), Kyrgyzstan rarely makes the international headlines, unless they happen to have a coup—and there have been two of them in the past 5 years. Lacking the mineral wealth of its northern neighbour Kazakhstan, the history and beautiful buildings of Uzbekistan to the west and the populous might of China to the east, the only surrounding country Kyrgyzstan could lay claim to be ahead of in Central Asia’s bragging stakes is Tajikistan to the south.

The Burana Tower

And if your idea of a dream holiday is prancing around a Med holiday resort wearing the latest Gucci or Hermes then most likely Kyrgyzstan is the wrong destination for you. So why go, and what is there to actually see and do there? The fact that “Kyrgyzstan” roughly translates as “the land of forty women” does it for me. Legend has it that after a battle, just forty of the fairer sex remained and thus rebuilt the nation. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but with mountains covering 94% of the country, expect some exceptional scenery.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city isn’t exact a charmer at first glance and there aren’t a huge number of “must sees” to tick off the check list, but it’s a pleasant enough place to spend a day before heading out and exploring the rest of the country. Beginning its life as Pishpek, and later renamed Frunze shortly after the revolution, Bishkek’s Alatoo Square and the Presidential Palace on Chui, the main drag, are good places to start, and Osh Bazar is walkable from the centre. This a good place to get a taste of local life and the mix of cultures. Sure, most of the Russians have fled north since the fall of communism but many remain, and as well as the Kyrgyz majority you will see Uyghurs, Dungans and also Uzbeks, although most of the latter reside in the south. You will hear as much Russian spoken on the streets of Bishkek as Kyrgyz and pretty much everyone in the country speaks it, a legacy of the Soviet education system.

Lake Issyk-kul is where the majority of tourists head for, not only from Bishkek but from further afield in particular Kazakhstan and Russia. Sure Issyk-kul (which unoriginally means “warm lake” in Kyrgyz, due to the fact that, despite being the second highest fresh water lake in the world and being surrounded by snow capped mountains, it never freezes) may have withered since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it’s cool waters and nearby hot spas were favoured by holidaymakers from across the USSR, but it is definitely one of Kyrgyzstan’s highlights. On the way from Bishkek, make a quick stop to climb up the Burana Tower just outside the town of Kant before continuing on the upgraded road which winds through valleys of coloured rocks to Rybachy (Balykchy in Kyrgyz), at the western point of the lake. Most tourists stay in and around Cholpon-Ata which has the largest collection of hotels and home stays and gives easy access to the nearby 2,500-year old petroglyphs and the scenic Grigoriev gorge.

Looping around to the far end of Issykkul is Karakol, often still referred to by its old name of Przhevalsk after the epic Polish explorer, Nikolay Przhevalsky, who discovered the wild horses of the same name. If you ever dreamed of buying a two-humped camel, be sure to arrive on a Sunday morning at the famous animal market just before you reach Karakol.

In town, the beautiful green-domed Russian Orthodox Church is the main sight in town and the Dungan mosque is worth a visit although you might want to give the depressing local zoo a miss. Karakol is best used as a base for trekking up into the Tian Shen mountains, and climbing the mystical Khan Tengry peak which stands an impressive 6,995m high, right on the border with Kazakhstan. If that sounds too energetic, opt for a more leisurely stroll past the “broken heart” rock formation, as well as the resort of Jeti Oguz (Seven Bulls), close to the main road with the yurt-shaped bus stop! Despite being one of the largest towns on the map around Issyk-kul, there’s nothing whatsoever worth seeing in Bokonbayevo so carry on to the breath-taking Song-Kol lake and stay in a yurt by the shore.

Kyrgyzstan is very much a divided country, with high mountains separating the Russified north where the bulk of the population resides, from the less developed south which has a more Uzbek feel to it—a legacy of the Soviet days when borders were put in place with little or no consideration given to which peoples actually lives where.

Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city and is around 3,000 years old, even though this isn’t entirely obvious from the largely Soviet-style architecture . Nevertheless, the Sulayman mountain offers exceptional panoramic views across the city.

The road from Bishkek to Osh is an arduous 12 hour journey through the mountains and isn’t for the fainthearted although a propeller plane does the trip several times a day in just 40 minutes. And just to remind you of how you arrived, a Yak-40 is mounted in the main park. Rumour has it that it used to be a cinema. Central Asia’s largest covered market is the Jayma Bazar with just about everything on sale from scrap metal to pomegranates, although once you’ve chosen a kalpak (a Kyrgyz felt hat) that matches your outfit, retire to a cafe at the back for a tasty samsa (Kyrgyzstan’s equivalent of a pasty) and a bowl of tea.

Nearby sights include the walnut forest of Arslanbob in the Jalal-Abad region and the Karakhanid mausoleum and tower in Uzgen, although many travellers are simply on their way through to China’s western Xingjiang province, or for the real hardcore over Tajikistan’s “Roof of the World” Pamir mountains to Dushanbe.

Getting there and getting in:

Compared to the hassle tourists face in trying to visit Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan comes as a revelation. Western passport holders can buy a 1-month single entry visa upon arrival at Bishkek’s Manas airport with a minimum of fuss for $70 (double entry, also 1 month, is $100). Russians and other CIS citizens don’t need a visa at all. However, visas are NOT currently available at land borders, so if you’re in Almaty and fancy a side trip, you’ll need to get one in advance from a Kyrgyz Embassy.

From Moscow, your best bet is the daily overnight Aeroflot flight which arrives early in the morning. In the summer months, there is a second Aeroflot flight which leaves in the morning, arriving late afternoon. Turkish Airlines fly from Istanbul daily, and BMI make the journey from London Heathrow three times a week with a quick stop in Almaty to drop passengers off.

There is a regular Moscow-Bishkek train but it takes 3 days and you’ll need a separate Kazakh transit visa and it’s not a great deal cheaper than the plane, so unless you desperately want to see mile upon mile of steppe...?

Petroglyph - on the north shore of lake Issyk-kul

Tour operators:

For a country of its size, Kyrgyzstan has a surprising number of tour agencies catering to anyone from the adventurous trekker to the lazy sanatorium relaxer and can put together just about any trip for you, tailor-made. Additionally Kyrgyzstan is not an expensive country to travel around. I used NoviNomad who were reasonably priced and extremely efficient (, or ring +996 312 62 23 81). You can certainly try to ‘do it yourself’ but the remoter parts of the country require 4x4 transport, and crossing land borders into Uzbekistan, China or Tajikistan with the bureaucracy involved is not most people’s idea of fun. This is where the agencies really earn their spurs!

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