Asia
Kyrgyzstan

10+ Things to know before visiting Kyrgyzstan

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Visiting Kyrgyzstan? Let’s dive in to everything you need to know!

If you’ve landed on this guide, I hope it means that you’re planning a trip to the beautiful country of Kyrgyzstan. We visited in June of 2024 on a whim after coming across some photos and absolutely fell in love. Striking mountains, unreal landscapes, and thousands of wild horses. The entire country feels like it’s straight out of a movie set!

But because the country is still relatively undiscovered from mass tourism, it can be a bit tricky to find all of the information you need to know. This guide will cover everything you need to know before visiting Kyrgyzstan, plus some tips for planning your best adventure yet!

Sunset in Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
Sunset in Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan

1. How many days in Kyrgyzstan? 

This is always a tough question for me because in my opinion, any length of trip is worth it! That said, if you want to cover a lot of the country then two weeks is perfect. This is because driving distances between destinations can be super long (some of our driving days were eight hours long).

That said, it’s still totally worth visiting for just a week. There is still so much that you can see and do! 

2. Cell service in Kyrgyzstan is great – until you head to the mountains

When landing in Kyrgyzstan, I recommend grabbing a local SIM card for one of the main three main network providers: O!, Mega, and Beeline. In order to test them out, my partner and I got different cards. I got my SIM card from O! for around $5 USD, and he got his from Mega for around $15 USD. Both of these SIM cards were purchased at the airport and offered us high-speed data throughout our two-week trip. We didn’t notice any difference between the two providers. 

There are a number of mountainous areas that won’t have any cell service, so you’ll want to make sure you have downloaded anything you need including offline maps, the translator app, and any music or books. 

Some areas that we visited that did not have any cell service include Song Kul Lake, Kel Su Lake, and parts of Jyrgalan.

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3. The best time of year to visit Kyrgyzstan

The high season in Kyrgyzstan is in July and August, with the majority of travelers visiting between late May and September. We arrived in late May and stayed through mid-June. Overall the weather was pretty good, with a few very cold nights (yes, it still snows in June). Pack lots of layers!

We loved visiting in June because there were so few tourists (we had popular camping areas completely to ourselves) but the weather was still good.

However, if you’re planning to do any high alpine hikes then July or August would be best, as many of the high trails are still covered in snow in June.

The weather is also super variable throughout the country. For example, the weather is less extreme around Issyk Kul Lake, whereas the Naryn region has some of the coldest temperatures in the country.

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4. Is wild camping allowed in Kyrgyzstan? 

Yes, wild camping is allowed almost anywhere in the country. This means that you can camp outside of designated campground areas for free and can camp in some incredible places. Of course, as with any camping, it is super important to Leave No Trace. Make sure to pack out anything that you bring, including any garbage or food scraps. 

We camped 7 nights of our trip  in Kyrgyzstan and the views were seriously unreal! We were often the only people around — with just the horses and cows to keep us company. 

Here is where we camped throughout our two week trip in Kyrgyzstan:

  • South side of Song Kul Lake 
  • North side of Song Kul Lake
  • Town by Kel-Suu Lake (but we wish we carried our gear and camped right at the lake)
  • Mars Canyon 
  • Barskoon valley
  • Jyrgalan 
Wild camping in Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan
Wild camping in Jyrgalan, Kyrgyzstan
Camping near Jeti Oguz, Kyrgyzstan
Camping near Jeti Oguz, Kyrgyzstan

5. Securing a border permit for Kyrgyzstan

If you are planning to drive or hike near any of the borders, it is super important that you secure a border permit. This can take up to a week if you’re looking for a full country permit so I highly recommend reaching out to a local CBT to start this process before you arrive in Kyrgyzstan. We did not do this before arriving, and had to circle back to Naryn to pick it up (we worked with the Naryn CBT and they were super helpful). 

The permit costs around $30 USD for a full country border permit.

You will need this permit if you plan to go to Kel Suu Lake, hike or horseback ride to Chatyr Kol lake from Tash Rabat, or visit areas around Jyrgalan or up the road past Barskoon Waterfall. 

6. Average Kyrgyzstan costs

Overall we found traveling in Kyrgyzstan to be super budget-friendly. By far our most expensive cost was renting our own 4×4 car, but for us that was totally worth it. Otherwise, dining, activities, and lodging are all quite affordable.

Here are a few sample costs:

  • Lodging in a yurt with food: $20-25
  • Camping: free 
  • Local meal: $2-10
  • 4×4 car rental: $100/day
  • Border permit: $30 
  • Visa for US citizens: free, no visa needed
Mountain trails in Jyrgalan
Mountain trails in Jyrgalan
Waking up in Mars Canyon - wild camping is one of the best parts of visiting Kyrgyzstan
Waking up in Mars Canyon – wild camping is one of the best parts of visiting Kyrgyzstan

7. How to get to Kyrgyzstan 

Most flights to Kyrgyzstan from the US and Europe transfer through Istanbul, Turkey. It is a 5 hour flight from Istanbul to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. If you can book in advance, you can find super reasonable flights into the country. You’ll find frequent flights on both Turkish Airlines and Pegasus. 

If you’re arriving from outside of Kyrgyzstan then you will likely arrive into Bishkek’s international airport. From here it is super easy to grab a car to the city center – I recommend using the Yandex app.

An alternative would be to fly into Almaty, Kazakhstan’s capital which is just north of Kyrgyzstan. Many travelers will combine a trip to the two countries. 

8. What language is spoken in Kyrgyzstan? 

The two main languages spoken in Kyrgyzstan are Kyrgyz and Russian. We found that some people along our travels spoke some English, especially younger people. 

However, Google Translate will be your best friend. 80% of places we ate at didn’t have an English menu, so using the photo translation tool is super helpful. 

Make sure to download the offline version of the Google Translate app, plus both Kyrygz and Russian. This will come in handy when you’re in more remote areas that don’t have any cell coverage (like Song Kul Lake and Kel Su Lake). 

I also recommend learning at least a few basic words in Kyrgyz, as this will go a long way. Below are the words/phrases that we used the most.

Here are some key helpful phrases: 

  • Hello – Salamatsyzby (Salam)
  • Thank you – Rahmat
  • Yes – Ooba
  • No – Jok

9. What is the food in Kyrgyzstan like?

I have always heard pretty mediocre reviews of the food in Central Asia, so I wasn’t expecting anything mind blowing in Kyrgyzstan. Boy was I wrong! We absolutely loved all of the food in Kyrgyzstan. It is very meat heavy (which is not my favorite), but the country also has some of the freshest and most flavorful produce. This means that if you’re a vegetarian you shouldn’t have any issue finding delicious food that you can eat!

Sheep is the most common meat eaten in Kyrgyzstan, but you can find beef as well. Horse meat is also eaten in Kyrgyzstan, although it is not as common as Kazakhstan.

Here are few common dishes that you should try:

  • Lagman (Laghman) – hand-pulled noodles, veggies, and meat served as a stir-fry or in a soup
  • Ashlan-fu – spicy cold soup with hand-pulled noodles
  • Borsok – tiny fried dough balls
  • Honey – local Kyrgyzstan honey is unreal, we put it on everything
  • Plov – fried rice with meat and veggies
  • Monty – a Kyrgyz version of dumplings
  • Tea – tea drinking is a huge part of Kyrgyz culture, it is common to add fruit jams to tea
  • Cucumber & Tomato salad – you can find fresh, delicious salads on most menus (look for ones with roasted eggplant too)

Here are a few places I recommend eating (my favorite restaurants in Kyrgyzstan):

  • Nomad Coffee in Naryn
  • ‘Bair’ Cafe in Karakol
  • Bugu Bazaar in Karakol
  • Cafe Tamga in Issyk Kul
Nomad Coffee in Naryn
Nomad Coffee in Naryn
Ashlan-fu in Karakol
Ashlan-fu in Karakol

10. Getting around Kyrgyzstan

My number one tip for getting around Kyrgyzstan is to rent your own car. Yes, you can definitely get around via shared taxis and marshrutkas, but it is not the same as having your own vehicle. Renting a car will give you the freedom to explore so much more of the country – visiting places and overnighting in areas with no one else around. We spent a few nights camping where our only company were the sheep and horses being herded in the evenings.

We rented our 4×4 car through Iron Horse Nomads and only have good things to say. A 4×4 is a must for adventuring, as the roads can be super tough. Think dirt roads, massive potholes and river crossings. You’ll be thankful for the 4×4. Many of the roads, especially mountain passes, may only be open at certain times of year depending on the weather. The CBT, which has offices all over Kyrgyzstan, is a great resource for information on current road or trail conditions.

And if you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself, then you can actually hire a driver and plan the route with him.

Here are some other options for getting around Kyrgyzstan:

Hitchhiking 

Hitchhiking is a super common way to get around Kyrgyzstan, as there are no bus or train systems outside the major cities. It’s actually considered the most common form of public transportation. 

Since we had our own car we didn’t have any experience hitchhiking there ourselves, but we did pick up some passengers along the way. It is typical to pay a small fee as a thank you for the ride (although I wouldn’t accept one from locals as a tourist).

This is obviously a very affordable means of getting around Kyrgyzstan, however it of course gives you a lot less flexibility. 

Rideshare apps 

While in the city of Bishkek we used the Yandex rideshare app, which was an easy and affordable way to get around the city. You can also use this app to go longer distances, such as between cities. If you’re taking buses in the city, then 2gis is a great app for helping you locate buses and timetables. 

Marshrutkas (minibuses)

Marshrutkas are a very common, and the cheapest, way to travel around Kyrgyzstan. These shared minibuses are often packed with people and not the most comfortable way to travel, but they are a very cheap way to get between cities. 

Again, since we had a rental car throughout our trip, we didn’t take any marshrutkas, but I’d love to hear more about your experiences in the comments below!

11. Lodging while visiting Kyrgyzstan

While there is no luxury lodging options outside of Bishkek, you’ll still find a range of options available. In the cities you’ll find hotels, hostels and guesthouses.

In more remote areas like Tash Rabat or Song Kul Lake, you have the option to stay at a family-run yurt or to camp. We mostly camped since we had all of our gear with us, but yurts are a fun, local option as well.

Here are a few places we stayed that I reccommed:

Photo credit: Booking.com

Kezgin Guesthouse

Located in the small city of Naryn, Kezgin Guesthouse was one of our favorite places that we stayed at. The guesthouse is well-located (if you have your own car), the staff is lovely, and the breakfast is delicious!

Check rates and availability

12. Best places to visit in Kyrgyzstan

There are an endless amount of itineraries that you could put together of beautiful places to visit in Kyrgyzstan. Here are a few of my favorite places that we visited on our 16 night trip, plus a few places that I wish we had visited.

  • Naryn 
  • Tash Rabat 
  • Song Kul Lake
  • Kel Suu Lake 
  • Issyk Kul (including Mars Canyon, Barskoon, and Cheti Oguz)
  • Karakol
  • Jyrgalan
  • Bishkek
  • Ala Kul (hiking trails only accessible in July and August)
  • Altyn Arashan (need to hire a driver as most rental car companies don’t allow you to self-drive)

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