Capital of Kyrgyzstan
Perhaps initially perceived as a little rough and tumble, the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek has a few surprises up its sleeves. The undisputed transport hub of the country, a visit here is almost inevitable. But what may come as a shock is there are more than enough things to do to keep one busy for a few days. A couple of museums (including the excellent Historical museum), dirt cheap theatres (ballet and opera) and even a circus will keep culture vultures more than occupied. Several old-school markets make for excellent shopping and people watching. A decent supply of restaurants and cafes line the treed boulevards making for relaxing dining. Not to mention a fair share of clubs and bars to rock the night away. Plus several chilled parks if it all gets a little much. You have to make an effort to actually get bored in Bishkek.
Forbidden Kyrgyz-Chinese border
Border crossings these days tend to be little more than formalities. They rarely pose any real challenge and more often than not might even go unnoticed. This is certainly not true for the Torugart Pass. This crossing, bridging a very remote part of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, is truly remote. But the major draw for many travellers is the fact that it is technically illegal for foreigners to use. However, there are ways around this. If a traveller is on a "tour" (a car with a pre-arranged guide, with a driver to the border and another driver to meet you on the other side), the pass may be used. This involves a series of permits, transport connections visas and other logistical challenges which spice up the typical border crossing routine. There might not be any better endorsement than beautiful, remote and illegal.
Central Asian nomads have a special bond with their horses. And while these animals are a source of kymyz (fermented mares milk) they are also used for transport. And the Kyrgyz do it with flare. Every summer, the young men put on a show of their tremendous horse riding skills in a series of games. Everything from chasing down a prospective bride (Kyz kuumai) to trying to pick a cloth off the ground at full gallop (Tyiyn Enmei) to wrestling on horseback (Kurosh) to the magnificently gruesome polo played with the carcass of a decapitated goat (Ulak Tartysh or Bushkashi). If you'll excuse the pun, when it comes to these traditional games, these guys aren't horsing around.
Kyzyl Oi Village
Located halfway down the obscure dirt track that links the Suusamyr Valley with Kochkor town, the village of Kyzyl Oi, though in the middle of nowhere, has been blessed by surroundings so majestic they will likely make even seasoned Central Asia travellers stop and stare. The trip here is worth it for the drive alone which, if coming from Suusamyr, takes you along a narrow track hacked into the wall of an immense canyon with throthy white waters crashing against the rocks thirty feet below. On the main street of the village itself is a tiny guest house. They have a few beds and can organise guides to nearby herders' yurt encampments in the mountains. They are also happy to give directions to those keen to trek on their own to the yurts, the nearest of which are three to four hours away.
Lake Song Kol
This pretty alpine lake sits at 3000 metres above sea level and is ringed by mountain peaks reaching 3500 metres in height. You cannot walk for more than an hour along its shores before spotting a cluster of yurts. A few are especially for tourists and run by Community Based Tourism (CBT), but the majority are shepherds up here with their flocks. Either way, if they see you on your own, they will likely invite you in, CBT in the hope of gaining some business or shepherds simply out of interest and desire to have a chat with a foreigner over a bowl of kumis (fermented mare's milk). It's possible to hire a car or book a tour to come here from the towns of Kochkor or Naryn, but you can also hitchhike, cycle or trek. There are dozens of tracks and paths leading over the mountains to come here. One, passable only on foot or by horse, comes from the village of Kyzart near Jumgal to the north of the lake, while another mind-blowingly beautiful one comes from Ak-Tala to the south and is passable by car.
The ever romanticized title of "nomad" is one many travellers use for self-labelling. But this lifestyle of making no permanent home is not best exemplified by an extended trip around the world. Instead, it is the practice of countless generations upon generations. Such is the lifestyle of the Kyrgyz herdsmen. While true nomadism may be a thing of the past, every summer, glimpses of this past spring to life in the high alpine pastures (jailoos) of Kyrgyzstan. Herdsmen lead the livestock up into the hills, set up the traditional tents (called a Ger or Yurt) and let the sheep feed. But what is undoubtably more interesting than merely a photo-stop is the opportunity to share this life (for a few days anyway). Drinking fermented mares milk, hiking in pristine nature, all while wearing a traditional Kalpak are just a few of the highlights of a yurt stay. Truly memorable.
There is certainly a niche market for those in search of yesteryear. For many reasons, icons of the pomp and pageantry of the former Soviet Union are often high on the wish list of those travelling through the greater region. Perhaps no place in the former U.S.S.R. is better to get a fill of soviet-ness than the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek. From the military precision of the changing of the flag in Ala-too square to the very pro-soviet imagery in the historical museum to the occasional statues of Lenin still gracing public parks, memories of a bygone era are everywhere. Who knew that a trip to Bishkek would be transport to the past?
Sary Moghul village and Lenin Peak (7,134 m)
Kyrgyz - Tajik border region
Sary Moghul village is less visited than its neighbour Sary Tash, which lies 30 km away on the Pamir Highway connecting Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. However, the detour here rarely disappoints. The area offers spectacular views of year-round snowy mountains, including Lenin Peak (7,134 m), Kyrgyzstan's second highest and the world's easiest mountain to scale over 7,000 metres. You can trek to the top of Lenin Peak with no actual climbing or need for ropes, the only problems being altitude sickness and very unpredictable weather. Even if you're not a mountaineer, Sary Moghul is well worth a visit in itself. The people here are very strict Muslims. Unusual for Kyrgyzstan, when the call to prayer begins, you will see even young children in the streets drop to their knees to prostrate themselves. People observe Ramadan strictly even when it falls in summer, depriving themselves of food and water all day while they work in the fields in blistering heat. There are plenty of trekking opportunities to lakes, yak herders' yurt encampments and mud-built farmsteads in the surrounding mountains.
Silk Road markets
The stories of the most famous and historically important trade routes in history have become legend. It's difficult to say the words "Silk Road" without conjuring images of bygone caravans, bustling markets and fabled cities. Perhaps no place in Kyrgyzstan is better to catch a glimpse of the route than the southern city of Osh. The main bazar in Osh hasn't changed much for millennia. Locals and foreigners alike hunt for hidden treasures then set in for prolonged bargaining sessions trying to get a fair price. From textiles to livestock to handmade tools to everything else you might (or might not) need, the bazar in Osh has it all.
This valley, ringed by gargantuan, lusciously green mountains, has everything most people are looking for in a trip to Kyrgyzstan: spectacular scenery, lots of yurts inhabited by hospitable horse and sheep herders and - wait for it - almost weekly games of Ulak, the traditional Kyrgyz horseback sport where everyone competes for a goat carcass. Don't think half-hearted 5-man games put on by agencies especially for tourists, think utter mayhem with fifty yurt-dwelling herders coming together from all over the valley most Saturdays, racing up and down a boulder-strewn mountainside and wrestling one another on horseback for the goat carcass. Suusamyr is one of the least visited parts of Kyrgyzstan, possibly because of the lack of tourist facilities or any public transport coming here from anywhere else. Two roads lead in - the jaw-droppingly scenic one to Kyzyl Oi, passable only by hitchhiking or hiring a private vehicle, and another one that branches off the main Bishkek - Osh road. Irregular shared taxis come to Suusamyr from the town of Kara Balta about an hour by bus from Bishkek.