Things to see and do
South of Bishkek, and within easy reach of the capital for day trips, this rugged valley of alpine meadows, pine forest, towering mountain peaks and fast-flowing streams offers superb scenery within the confines of a national park.
Barskoon horse trekking
The village of Barskoon close to the southeast corner of Lake Issyk-Kul is a well-established centre for horse trekking. One adventurous long-distance route is to head up the Barskoon Valley before following the Burkan Valley west to reach the valley of the Kichi-Naryn River.
The Kyrgyzstan capital is a relaxed city with wide boulevards, leafy parks and clear views of the snow-capped Ala-Too mountain range to the south. Although specific sights are limited, the city is a pleasant place to do business, with good hotels and restaurants and interesting museums like the State Historical Museum.
Bokonbaevo eagle hunting
Hunting with eagles is an ancient Kyrgyz tradition that is in danger of dying out. The small town of Bokonbaevo on Lake Issyk-Kul’s southern shore is one of the best places to see this in action and demonstrations can be arranged with the local CBT (Community Based Tourism) coordinator.
South of Tokmok, and close enough to Bishkek for a day excursion, this tower is actually a minaret - all that remains of the 10th-century Karakhanid city of Balasagun. As well as the tower and visitor centre the site also has an interesting array of balbals – Turkic stone grave markers.
Karakol Valley trekking
The mountain valleys south of the city of Karakol offer exceptional hiking opportunities. A popular two- or three-day trek is to head up the Karakol Valley, cross over the watershed above spectacular Ala-Kol Llake and return via Altan Arashan Valley. The main trekking season is between June and September.
This small market town is an important centre for Kyrgyzstan’s modest tourist industry. Excursions to Lake Song-Kol can easily be arranged here, as can overnight trips to the jailoo (alpine meadow) of Sarala-Saz and the small, jewell-like alpine lake of Kol Ukok.
Osh, Solomon’s Mount
The city of Osh in the south of the country has a central rocky outcrop known locally as Solomon’s Throne because the legendary king was once supposed to have slept here. The top is marked with a small shrine called Babur’s House, an important pilgrimage site for Uzbeks.
Talas, Manas Ordu Complex
Close to the town of Talas is a large memorial complex dedicated to Manas, the legendary 10th-century Kyrgyz hero. Although it is unclear whether or not Manas is actually buried here, there is a mausoleum here that is a place of great reverence to most Kyrgyz.
Arslanbob walnut forest
The walnut forests surrounding the ethnic Uzbek village of Arslanbob in Jalal-Abad province are among the largest in the world and central to the local economy.
The landscape here is exceptionally beautiful and the area is perfect for summer hiking and skiing in winter or you could simply go for a walk; it's a peaceful way to while away a few spring hours. A drink in the main square watching the locals play chess is enjoyable at anytime.
Horse riding at Lake Song-kol
Although much smaller than Lake Issyk-Kul, this beautiful 3,000m-high alpine lake is the jewel in the crown of Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous mountain scenery - Song-Kol is widely regarded as the most beautiful lake in Kyrgyzstan.
Visit in the summer when horse treks to the lake can be arranged from Kochkor or, alternatively, horses can be hired on arrival.
The Jeti-Ögüz sanatorium offers Kyrgyz-style pampering. Aside from the massages and surrounding red rock formations, it's worth a visit just to wander around the eerie building that could be lifted straight from a David Lynch film.
The chaotic swell of people that duck and weave around Osh market make it one of Kyrgyzstan's main attractions. It's one of the largest in Central Asia and an excellent place to people watch or buy souvenirs, and everything else under the sun.
There are petroglyphs all over Kyrgyzstan but some of the most accessible can be seen close to the pleasant resort town of Cholpon-Ata on Lake Issyk-Kul’s northern shore.
Alternatively, visit the Saimaluu-Tash collection, where there are thousands of petroglyphs (prehistoric rock carvings) spread across two glacial marines, high in the Ferghana Valley. It was a sacred site as early as 2000BC and is still revered today by people of the Tien Shan.
Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve
The Sary-Chelek Biosphere Reserve has the best environmental elements of Kyrgyzstan in one place, with a series of forests, meadows and lakes.
Central to this large biosphere reserve which is home to more than 1,000 species of plants and 160 species of bird, is the beautiful cobalt-blue lake of Sary-Chelek. The lake is surrounded by forest that turns yellow in autumn giving the lake its Kyrgyz name that translates as ‘yellow bucket’.
Swimming in Lake Issyk-Kul
Relax on Cholpon-Ata beach after a swim in Lake Issyk-Kul, the second highest alpine lake in the world. Lake Issyk-Kul takes its name from the Kyrgyz for ‘warm lake’ as it is said to never freeze over.
The lake’s beaches are popular with Kazakh and domestic tourists in summer and the nearby valleys make for enjoyable walking. Once you've dried off, join the locals and Russian holidaymakers for a spot of karaoke on the town's main street.
Tash Rabat caravanserai
This isolated monument is probably Kyrgyzstan’s most remarkable Silk Road site. Half-buried on a hillside at 3,500m (11,483 ft) just off the route to China via the Torugart Pass, this former caravanserai was built in the 15th century on the site of what may have been a Nestorian Christian monastery.
As well as being an attraction in itself, Tash Rabat is a good starting point for a number of hikes.
Trekking Altyn Arashan Valley
A number of treks start in Karakol, the major town near Lake Issyk-Kul, but one of the most popular is the three day hike around the Altyn Arashan Valley. The path is easy to follow and can be done without a guide.
The second day is hard going, but the views from the highest point of the trek make the effort worthwhile.
Trekking Central Tien Shan
Even the local nomads avoid this part of Kyrgyzstan, which contains the country's two highest peaks.
The Central Tien-Shan in the far east of the country that borders China and Kazakhstan offer challenging mountaineering and glacier walking opportunities for the truly intrepid and only experienced climbers should attempt a trek in Tien Shan, but those who brave Kyrgyzstan's harshest conditions can see a disappearing lake and supposed UFO landing site.
The only time for non-winter alpinists to visit is July and August. Access is usually by helicopter and both mountaineering and border permits are necessary.