Kyrgyzstan: Why I Love This Unfamiliar Frontier

Kyrgyzstan: Why I Love This Unfamiliar Frontier

MIR President and co-founder Douglas Grimes always loves his travels along Central Asia’s Silk Road, seeking memorable places and life-changing experiences for MIR travelers. Kyrgyzstan is a Silk Road country with plenty of both.

I can’t even count the extensive scouting trips I’ve taken through Central Asia, but those to the countryside of Kyrgyzstan, the Silk Road’s best kept secret, always stay with me. My travels here, as well as our generous hosts, always reinvigorate my appreciation of this part of the world.

It’s a remote, unfamiliar frontier, wide open to travelers who are eager to experience wild beauty, meet nomadic people, and discover the traditions of their forebears.

Here are my picks for a few of the many reasons Kyrgyzstan is so special: 

Doug at the border crossing between Western China and Kyrgyzstan along Torugart Pass. Photo: Douglas Grimes

Doug at the border crossing between Western China and Kyrgyzstan along Torugart Pass

1) The Views from Torugart Pass

One of the most intriguing ways to enter Kyrgyzstan is by traveling from Kashgar in Western China over the 12,000-foot-plus Torugart Pass at the China-Kyrgyz border, stopping at imposing Tash Rabat. At 11,500 feet, it’s one of the most atmospheric places in Kyrgyzstan. 

From the road you can appreciate spectacular views of rugged mountain peaks towering above deep valleys, and far-away glaciers feeding blue lakes, breathing life into the region. 

Torugart Pass is a remote, steep-sided and stunning border crossing between China and Kyrgrystan <br>Photo credit: Christine Z. Anderson

Torugart Pass is a remote, steep-sided and stunning border crossing between China and Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Christine Z. Anderson

A view of Torugart Pass while crossing the border between Western China and Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Douglas Grimes

Torugart Pass at the border between Western China and Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

2) Tash Rabat, an Ancient Silk Road Rest Stop

Tash Rabat is a massive stone fortress and ancient caravanserai used by 15th century Silk Road merchants and caravans as a rest stop. It’s the largest stone structure in Central Asia, and its architecture is similar to that of Samarkand. The fortress contains numerous underground passages, secret exits, and underground prisons.

(click on photo to see larger version)

It’s exhilarating to come down the pass into Kyrgyzstan and find the serene alpine pastures around Tash Rabat, grazed by herds of yaks and sheep and tended by mounted herders. The only sounds are the burbling of a mountain stream, and the low calls of the animals. And at night, the Milky Way spread across the dark sky looks close enough to touch.

Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

The inn of the Silk Road: 15th century caravanserai of Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Overlooking Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Jake Smith

Overlooking Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Jake Smith

Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

Visiting with a nomadic family near Tash Rabat
Photo: Michel Behar

3) Handmade Felt in Kochkor

One of my favorite pastimes while exploring the Kyrgyzstan countryside is visiting the sprawling village of Kochkor, located in the flat plain of a cup-shaped valley, and spending time with resident craftswomen

I never get tired of observing their traditional craft of felt making, a craft that has survived the centuries. Kyrgyz have always used felted wool to cover their yurts, and to make rugs, bags, slippers and hats.

Making felt. Photo credit: Paul Schwartz

Laying out the felt pattern
Photo: Paul Schwartz

Lake Issyk Kul, Kyrgystan. Photo: Martin Klimenta

High altitude Lake Issyk-Kul, Kyrgyzstan
Photo: Martin Klimenta

4) Alluring Lake Issyk-Kul

A drive around the entirety of beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul is not to be missed. “Issyk-Kul” means “warm lake,” because of the fact that it never freezes, despite its high elevation. It’s considered to be the world’s second-largest alpine lake, after Lake Titicaca in South America. Archaeological discoveries from the lake’s bottom include ancient relics and graves dating back to the first millennium BC. The lake shore is dotted with little resort towns and some modern hotels.

Kyrgyzstan’s beautiful Lake Issyk-Kul

Kyrgyzstan’s big blue Lake Issyk-Kul
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov.

Located at the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul, the town of Karakol was founded late in the 19th century as a Russian military outpost and grew as a refuge for Chinese Muslims (called Dungans) fleeing persecution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many buildings here are constructed in a Chinese style from wood and without metal nails, yet other architectural styles can be found here, including a lovely Russian Orthodox Church. Here, I like to visit a local Dungan Chinese Muslim family home for a meal and to hear about Dungan traditions and history. Their culture is a mix of Chinese, Muslim, Kyrgyz, and Russian customs and practices.

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karakol, Kyrgyzstan. It is a Russian Orthodox Church made from wood and corrugated iron completed in 1895. Photo: Martin Klimenta

Holy Trinity Cathedral in Karakol. It is a Russian Orthodox Church made from wood and corrugated iron completed in 1895. Photo: Martin Klimenta

A little northeast of Issyk-Kul, the beautiful steep-sided Chon (Big) Kemin Valley runs parallel to the border of Kazakhstan between two mountain ranges. The valley’s population is mostly Kyrgyz, and time-honored traditions are still practiced here, including Kyrgyz horse games such as Ulak Tartysh, a sort of polo played with a goat carcass, and kurosh, wrestling on horseback.

Kyrgyz horse games. Photo: Vlad Ushakov

Racing for the goal 
Photo: Vlad Ushakov

Burana Tower

9th century Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan

5) A Climb Up Burana Tower

I always make time to climb Burana Tower (one of the only remaining Silk Road watch towers in Kyrgyzstan) on the way to the capital, Bishkek. The settlement around the tower, Balasagun, was an important seat of power, and was so celebrated that Genghis Khan’s Mongol horde spared it from destruction when they began to conquer the region in the early 13th century.

From the top, you look out on miles and miles of grassland, as well as the small museum below with its graveyard of ancient carved bal-bals, stout stone figures used as monuments.

A sense of timelessness with these horses of the Silk Road – and their riders – at Burana Tower <br>Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

Horses of the Silk Road and their riders at Burana Tower
Photo credit: Vlad Ushakov

6) Kyrgyz Hospitality

Long-standing nomadic traditions have been woven into the way of life of the people who make their homes in this mountainous terrain. Known for their hospitality, the Kyrgyz people welcome visitors with open arms, inviting them to experience their traditions and explore their homeland.

There’s a hopeful, positive mood in Kyrgyzstan these days, with tourism opening up and more visitors arriving. You can see that optimism in action with a visible infrastructural investment in highways, new hotels and guesthouses springing up, and restaurants busy with patrons.

A warm welcome awaits those who venture to Kyrgyzstan<br>Photo credit: Michel Behar

A warm welcome awaits those who venture to Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Michel Behar

One example is a charming guesthouse in the Chon-Kemin Valley, a family-run establishment built on farmland about 80 miles from Bishkek. Everything in this sweet two-story house is handmade in a rustic bare-wood style.

MIR President Douglas Grimes in this sun-filled Chon-Kemin guesthouse; crops in the backgroundPhoto credit: Douglas Grimes

MIR President Douglas Grimes in this sun-filled Chon-Kemin guesthouse; crops in the background
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

It’s convenient for them, since they have their own small sawmill and cut all their own boards. The couple opened a new restaurant on the second floor, featuring organically grown local food. There are also three other separate structures with rooms and private facilities, a meeting room and a traditional Russian banya, or steam bath.

There's a high-country feel to this Chon-Kemin guesthouse, complete with <i>bal-bal</i> petroglyphs <br>Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

There’s a homey, rural feel to this Chon-Kemin guesthouse, complete with stone bal-bals 
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

These guesthouse owners say their beginning years were challenging, but now first-time visitors are returning and spreading the word about their place. They’re full of hope for the future – a very healthy indicator that reflects hope and optimism for the entire Kyrgyz nation.

Yurts – round felt tents – dot the Kyrgyz highlands in summertime <br>Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Yurts dot the Kyrgyz highlands in summertime
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Another example of tasteful innovation is found in the hills behind Bishkek. The Supara Restaurant and Ethno-Complex is a modern interpretation of a traditional yurt encampment built around seven of the felt and wood dwellings, where fresh local cuisine is served in your choice of brilliantly-decorated yurts. (Supara means a traditional Kyrgyz leather tablecloth.)

The Supara Chunkurchak lodge serves regional and European cuisine (Kyrgyzstan). Photo: Douglas Grimes

The Supara Chunkurchak lodge serves regional and European cuisine
Photo: Douglas Grimes

Up in the mountains about an hour away, the Supara Chunkurchak is a new specialty yurt lodge, with sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. Set at 8,000 feet, the lodge features comfortable modernized en suite yurts, and serves both regional and European cuisine.

Hiking near Lake Issyk Kul. Photo: Vlad Ushakov

Hiking near Lake Issyk Kul
Photo: Vlad Ushakov

7) Outdoor Adventure, and Boorsok 

As Kyrgyzstan gains a reputation among adventure lovers, mountaineers, skiers, rafters, and trekkers, a new backwoods hotspot has opened up for travelers to enjoy. Near Lake Issyk-kul, the gorgeous Jyrgalan Valley is tucked into the Tersky Ala-Too Mountains at 7,500 feet. The pastoral valley is surrounded by sharply inclined peaks and watered by shallow rushing streams.

Donkeys are sometimes still used to travel the high roads of Kyrgyzstan. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Donkeys are sometimes still used to travel the high roads of Kyrgyzstan
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

You can spend an afternoon or a week, trekking with horses to carry your gear. You can take a short hike among the alpine flowers or simply drive here to visit with a Kyrgyz family and share lunch in their home. The family can show you how to make boorsok, a fragrant sweet bread fried in oil like a doughnut, and served with honey or jam. 

Enjoy boorsok, a fragrant sweet bread fried in oil like a doughnut - a Kyrgyzstan favorite. Photo Photo: Vlad Ushakov

Enjoy boorsok, a fragrant sweet bread fried in oil like a doughnut – a Kyrgyzstan favorite
Photo Photo: Vlad Ushakov

Travel to Kyrgyzstan with MIR

You can discover the beauty of Kyrgyzstan, exploring out-of-the-way places where travelers rarely go, on a small group tour or a personalized private journey.

MIR has 30 years of experience in travel to Central Asia. Clients rave about our on-the-ground support, tour managers, dedication, and commitment to quality. MIR’s destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Discover the surprising mountainous landscapes of Kyrgyzstan on these MIR small group tours:

  • The Pamir Highway: From the Tien Shan to the High PamirsThis adventurous journey over the Pamir Highway is a breathtaking route through Kyrgyzstan, Western China and Tajikistan, in use since the time of the Silk Road. 
  • Chinese Turkestan & Central AsiaVisit Kashgar, one of the most exotic cities in the world, skirt the infamous Taklamakan Desert on camelback, and admire the breathtaking views across 12,000-foot Torugart Pass on our most comprehensive Silk Road offering though Kazakhstan, Western China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
  • Journey Through Central Asia: The Five ‘StansA modern-day caravan on an epic journey to five exotic Silk Road countries – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Or, try a custom, private itinerary hand-crafted to your travel interests and dates. Take a look at our Essential Kyrgyzstan itinerary which is ready-made for your private trip. You can even use it as a starting point for your own custom itinerary:

  • Essential KyrgyzstanOn this journey through the Kyrgyz outback, spend a night with a village family, visit with an eagle hunter and admire dramatic sandstone formations. Visit high-altitude Lake Issyk-Kul and spend the night at a guesthouse in the traditional village of Chon-Kemin, getting to know the locals before returning to the capital for a performance of the Epic of Manas.

Contact MIR today at or 1-800-424-7289.

(Top photo credit: Vlad Ushakov – Lake Issyk-kul glows at sunrise)

PUBLISHED: June 7, 2017

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  • Cathy Burt

    Please send me a catalog of your trips to Central Asia. Cathy Burt
    4010 Fearrington Post, Pittsboro NC 27312. USA