Getting lost. Getting amazed.
And getting one of the best off-road experiences.
That`s the usual people`s reaction when we said we are going to Kyrgyzstan.
For those who don`t know already, Kyrgyzstan is one of the 7 " stan" countries and it`s a rather small, land-locked, mountaineous country in Central Asia.
It is a highly underrated mountaineous destination, since the Himalayas lie not so far south and they get all the attention. But if you are in love with the wilderness and the mountains, this country is simply amazing, with peaks rising above 5000 m!
Things to know before going to Kyrgyzstan
Don`t understimate the roads, you will need a 4x4 for most of the important destinations
There are some roads which are forbidden by contract to go on with a rented car ( we didn`t know that 😀 )
Google Maps is not accurate at all, download Maps.me instead
For some places near the China border, you will need a border permit that needs to be purchased in advance
All the locations are pretty high in altitude, so even in summer it`s pretty cold; pack some warm clothes!
If you want to go to Kazakhstan with a rented car, you don`t need an actual permit, only the rental company needs to agree
Food is mainly meat based, so it`s pretty hard to find something to eat outside of cities, if you are a vegetarian
There are camels in Kyrgzstan! Around 240, to be more specfic, out of which we saw like 5 ! 😀
Usually, Turkey based airlines provide the best connections, such as Turkish Airlines and Pegasus. Alternatively, you could land in a nearby country, such as Kazakhstan and take it from there.
Getting around: rent a 4x4 car
The best way to get around Kyrgyzstan is by car. A good and reliable 4x4 car!
It is fairly easy to rent over there and there are many companies as well as individual people who rent cars.
In high season it is reccommended to book ahead, at least a month in advance. Prices vary from around 60-70 USD in low season to 85-115 USD in high season.
At the moment of our trip, the availability was pretty reduced and we rented through a lady named Aigul, which was reccomended by another travel blog: Ountravela. You can find more useful information on their blog, as well.
However, she is not the owner of the cars she is providing, but just a third party. Despite this, the car we had was really good - a Toyota Sequoia from 2005. If you need, you can whatsapp her on +996 553280881.
We researched other rental companies and another one with good reviews is: Travel Land.
All rental companies have some restrictions regarding which roads you can use and some of them even limit the number of kilometers you can do, so do read carefully your countract.
In our case we also had a speed limit of 100km/h.
However, we got lost and we drove by mistake on one of the forbidden roads. Nothing happened, in the end. 😄
In Kyrgyzstan, there is no full insurance, like in other countries. The rental vehicles usually have some insurance included, but this only covers Collision Damage Waiver ( CDW ), which covers a portion of the damage in case of an incident.
In our case, for example, in case the car was fully destroyed, we had to pay 20% of the total value of the car. In case of minor scratches, the 300 USD deposit would cover for them.
Road conditions in Kyrgyzstan
Apart from the roads that connect main cities, such as Bishkek to Naryn, which are paved, the roads are really bad. Really, really bad. The often cross the mountains and they are not paved at all, sometimes there is also work in progress, so allow extra time for it.
The traffic is pretty chaotic and drivers never signal where they are going. However, it is manageable.
The main paved roads have gas stations around. This being mainly the roads around Bishkek and Bishkek - Naryn, Bishkek - Karakol.
For the rest, you must either take extra fuel with you, or try to find people around villages that sell fuel in plastic bottles. Ask for "benzin".
Google Maps doesn`t really works here. Or at least, it works partially. We figured that out while being lost in the mountains, in the evening, at 3800 m altitude, on a road that didn`t even exist in reality. 😃
The alternative is Maps.me.
Download the app and have it handy.
In general, accommodation is very affordable and it always include breakfast.
However, there are some areas where the standards are not great.
We have been advised to try a yurt as well, however, if you go to Song Kul ( which we highly reccommend ), the yurts are the only option anyway. 😀
If you are staying in a yurt - pack a sleeping back or at least very warm clothes.
Azamat yurt camp in Song Kul, was ok but not all the yurts were heated
Grand Khan Tengri in Naryn ( for some proper washing conditions after sleeping in a yurt 😀 )
Guest house and yurt camp Aktan in Issyk Kul - however, we didn`t really like this one
Hillside Karakol B&B in Karakol , by far the best accommodation we had in Kyrgyzstan!
Where to go
This is the easiest destination from Bishkek, roughly one hour drive. It is not the most spectacular bust since it`s enroute to most of the cool destination, we think that it`s worth a stop. The Burana Tower is a large minaret in the Chüy Valley in northern Kyrgyzstan. The tower, along with grave markers, some earthworks and the remnants of a castle and three mausoleums, is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun, which was established by the Karakhanids at the end of the 9th century.
SONG KUL LAKE
By far, one of the most beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan. It lies at an altitude of 3016 m, and has an area of about 270 square kilometres. It is pretty remote and surrounded by mountains. There are only few inhabitants that are living in yurts ( tents ). Actually, you can only find accommodation in yurt camps over here and a lot of them are unheated. Even during the summer the temperature can drop close to freezing during the night. So prepare accordinly.
THE ROAD FROM SONG KUL TO NARYN
One of the most picturesque roads which was recommended to us by the lady at the yurt camp. We think this road is a must for any roadtrip in Kyrgyzstan. It is also very popular for the hard core bikers. And surprisingly, it is shown on Google Maps, as well, but only with the walking option. 😃
SKAZKA OR FAIRYTALE CANYON
Another instagrammable spot in Kyrgyzstan, which is very touristic compared to the rest of the places. The Skazka canyon is about 1,5-2 km long reddish rock formation at the south side of Issyk kul in Kyrgyzstan. The peculiar forms of the rocks have been slowly created by the erosion of wind and rain resulting in imaginative forms.
ISSYK KUL LAKE
The biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan. Issyk-Kul is an endorheic lake in the Northern Tian Shan mountains in Eastern Kyrgyzstan and lies at an altitude of just over 1600m. It is the seventh-deepest lake in the world, the tenth-largest lake in the world by volume and the second - largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea.
However, we didn`t get so impressed by it.
This road actually in on the forbidden list of most of the car rental companies in Kyrgyzstan. And we can understand why: it is very rough, crosses rivers and a mountain range, goes up to almost 4000 m high and is it very remote. And ocasionally dangerous.
To be honest, we reached this road by mistake and we only found out about the name after we finished it. This road doesn`t appear on Google Maps at all and this is how we got tricked. However, it is shown on Maps.me.
We don`t reccommed doing this unless you have some offroad experience or at least you have assistance from other car groups. You can easily remain stuck in a river or so and there is literally no one to take you out.
In our case, we met by coincidence three other 4x4 cars which were doing touristic tours and we kind of crossed all the bad parts together. They were clearly much more experienced.
Anyway, it took us over 12 hours to go from Naryn to Issyk Kul lake and we were still at 3000 m altitude when it got dark. 😃
TASH RABAT CARAVANASERAI
However, not really an impressive destination. In our opinion, you can skip it for something else, as the whole round-trip to get there takes minimum 3 hrs from Naryn.
Karakol itself is a rather communistic destination, however it is the starting point for a lot of trekking trails and offroad trips. Being obe of the largest cities in Kyrgyzstan after Bishkek, you can find here a lot of accommodation options, tour companies, guides, etc.
SARY-JAZ VALLEY AND ENILCHEK GHOST TOWN
Unfortunately, both of these locations are within the border area so you will need a border permit. There is actually a border point with barriers and we could only managed to reach it, but we had to return afterwards.
The permit usually needs to be booked couple of weeks in advance.
This is roughly our itinerary. The walking option is only to allow certain roads to be depicted. The road leading to Tosor is not correctly depicted here, the actual road is further to the east. USE MAPS.ME instead.
We tried to combine both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan since we had 10 full days. We sacrificed trekking in Kyrgyzstan for a 3 days getaway in Kazakhstan. Total length approximately 1500 km.
The red areas are roughly the border zones for which you require a permit. There are 5 border areas and the permits can be requested for one or more zones. Theoretically the permit can be booked in person at Department of Registration in Bishkek, however, it can be difficult if you do not speak Russian.
More info can be found:
Where to eat
Obviously, it is pretty easy to find restaurant in the main cities and on the main roads. The service is quite bad, however, but cheap at the same time. The menus are often only in Russian so we advise to have a translating app if you can.
Outside the main cities, there is virtually nothing so please pack some lunch with you.
What to pack
Kyrgyzstan is a mountaineous country and the elevation varies from 800 m to 4000 m above mean sea level. So even in summer, it can be pretty cold.
Getaway to Kazakhstan
Since we had some extra days, we decided to check out Kazakhstan as well, with a short city break in Almaty.
Almaty is considered to be one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Central Asia. And definitely the biggest,too.
On the way to Almaty, we stopped at Charyn Canyon, which is definitely a highlight in southern Kazakhstan.
Almaty itself doesn`t have som many highlights but it`s really nice to go around and feel the vibe of the city. They have a lot of nice cafes and restaurants.
We wanted to make it to the big Almaty lake but they recently closed the road for the cars and the last 10 km need to be made on foot.
Since we only had one day, we couldn`t make it as we wanted to visit the city as well.
Next, maybe you`ll feel inspired by our photo gallery, shot on Sony A7III.
Zeiss 55 mm ( F1.8 ), Sony 135 mm GM ( F1.8 ) and Sony 35 mm GM (F1.4 ).
The video was shot with ur most recent Sony A7IV and Sony 35 mm lens.