You named it your Top Emerging Destination in the Wanderlust World Travel Awards. Here’s why Kyrgyzstan is so popular with travellers looking for culture, hospitality, and off the beaten track adventure
Started in 2014 to celebrate the traditions of nomadic people across the planet, the World Nomad Games are held every 2 years on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul in Kyrgyzstan. Competitors come from over 65 countries to participate in sports like traditional wrestling, equestrian javelin, ancient board games and Salbuurun – a complex game using hunting birds and dogs.
The Games feature spectacular opening and closing ceremonies (the only ticketed events), as well as dance and theatre performances in spectacular traditional costumes. The Kok-boru tournament is the most popular event; a take on polo but involving a dead goat. It has its origins in a time when Kyrgyz hunters would chase wolves, grab them from horseback and then toss them to each other.
A ‘city of yurts’ springs up during the games, offering spectators the chance to stay in traditional accommodation during the Games as well. The World Nomad Games are spectacular, inspiring and the perfect antidote to the over-commercialisation of sport everywhere else on the planet.
Located on the Old Silk Road, in the heart of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is a land of monumental mountains and vast alpine lakes. 90% of the country sits over 1,500 metres above sea level and there are 1,923 lakes and over 40,000 rivers, all fed by melt water. Little wonder, then, that Kyrgyzstan is known as the Switzerland of Central Asia.
Lake Issyk Kul, a crystal blue high alpine lake up in the Tian Shan Mountains, is one of the largest and deepest lakes in the world. The Alay Valley in southern Kyrgyzstan is a trekkers paradise, featuring trails backed by 7,000 metre peaks and breathtaking views at every turn.
In summer, the vast alpine valleys are dotted with yurts, as nomad families graze their stock on the lush, sweet grass, adding context and scale to these epic landscapes.
Kindness and hospitality are an integral part of the Kyrgyz nomadic lifestyle, with guests treated with the utmost respect. Living conditions here are harsh, and every family knows that every act of generosity will be rewarded ten-fold. It is not unlikely that they’ll need a hearty meal or hot cup of horse milk at some point in the future as they search for new pastures for their sheep. Hospitality isn’t just cultural, it is a means to survival.
As a guest you’ll be offered kymyz (fermented milk of the female horse, the mare), green or black tea and bread. Drinking tea is a ritual here. Poured by the host, your cup will only be filled halfway, leaving the option for more tea later on.
Kyrgyzstan has a well-developed network of ‘yurtstays’, so their are plenty of opportunities to stay with a nomadic family in an alpine valley and experience traditional Kyrgyz life and hospitality first-hand. Head to any alpine valley or lake shore between June and September and you’ll find herders' yurts dotting the landscape. Many are part of community tourism schemes, offering an unparalleled opportunity for yurtstay visits, multi-yurt hikes or multi-yurt horse treks.
The food in Kyrgyzstan is a hearty mix of influences from Russia, Asia and Turkey. Expect a lot of bread and meat, noodles, potatoes, dumplings, soups and rice, as well as fresh tomato and cucumber salads. Summer sees an abundance of fruit, picked wild or straight from orchards.
Oromo is a favourite dish with the locals. Imagine layers of dough, filled with finely cut chunks of meat and fat, as well carrots, onion, potato, or pumpkin. It takes time to prepare, steamed in a special multi-layered pot, so you’re more likely to come across it in a home rather than a restaurant.
If you’re feeling brave, try Beshbarmak, the national dish. It is made from horse meat, sometimes beef or mutton, boiled in its own broth for several hours. It is served with homemade noodles and sprinkled with coriander and parsley.
Getting a visa for many of the ‘Stans is an exercise in patience and endurance – yes, we’re looking at you Kazakhstan – but with Kyrgyzstan, it couldn’t be easier. Visitors from most countries can visit for up to 60 days without having to obtain a visa.
Best of all, when you arrive, you’ll have the country pretty much to yourself. Kyrgyzstan is one of the least visited of the ‘Stans, despite being one of the most affordable and friendly to visit. It can’t stay that way, of course, especially when word gets out about its people and landscapes; so get there now.