Kyrgyzstan has gained popularity over the past few years with independent traveller looking for off the beaten path experiences. The mountainous landscape has become well known as the place for adventure tourism and has slowly stopped the country being known as one of Asia’s best-kept secrets.
The country itself is filled with thousands of beautiful valleys, alpine lakes and some of the most stunning views in the world. The wild and untouched mountains provide a very unique trekking experience with crystal-clear mountain lakes and.
This complete guide of trekking in Kyrgyzstan will give you everything you need to know before taking to the mountains and provide you with some of the most beautiful walks in the country.
Packing list for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
One of the main things to keep in mind when deciding what to pack for a trek through Kyrgyzstan is that you’ll very much be wandering into the wilderness. This means that there won’t be the opportunity to stop at a corner shop to stock up on travel essentials. This means your packing list is one of the most important parts of planning for your trip.
Everything you take to Kyrgyzstan you will be carrying yourself, likely on your back and therefore you need to be careful with what you decide to pack. Ensure you pack only the necessary items. If you’re unsure about bringing something that isn’t related to your safety, then it’s likely you won’t need it. You should also keep in mind that travelling in the summer season will be entirely different to travelling in the winter season and therefore you should assess your packing to accommodate these seasons.
What should I take?
See below for a list of the what you should expect to bring when trekking in Kyrgyzstan:
- Maps of the walks you intend to do. Both physical and on your phone in case either becomes compromised.
- A first aid kit to help with any medical emergency. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to find help in the middle of the Kyrgyzstan wilderness so ensure you have everything from antiseptic wipes to anti-diarrhoea medicine. A trekking specific backpack – a good one! You’ll need a light but strong backpack that’s capable of handling lots of weight but not large enough to weigh you down.
- A lightweight tent to shelter you from the elements. Ideally, one that doesn’t weigh too much.
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan has become a popular adventure because it is a free activity; there are no entrance fees and you are self-sufficient for the majority of the trip if you are not paying for a guide. However, those who are wanting to visit neighbouring mountain regions in China and Tajikistan will need to buy a permit before they can continue their trekking.
The best time to trek in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has both summer and winter seasons. The best time to trek in the country is during the summer between the months of June and September where the temperature hovers around 10°C to 25°C and most of the mountain passes are snow-free.
During the evening the weather becomes very cold, falling to anywhere from 5°C – 0°C. It’s important to keep in mind that on the mountains the weather is sporadic. One second it might be sunny with a warm breeze, and then another you’re hit with a snowy blizzard that you never saw coming.
Trekking in the winter can be very difficult with temperatures dropping to 0C – 25C. While the landscape has a blanket of magical snow over its peaks, it can be a very dangerous time of year. Most mountain passes won’t be accessible, and you should be very careful about what you pack, ensuring your warmth is a priority.
Cost of trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan is generally free as there are no entrance fees which is another reason why it has become so popular with off the beaten track adventures. However, if you‘re looking to visit the mountain regions neighbouring China and Tajikistan you’ll need to buy a permit.
If you’re not using a guide and if you have your own camping gear then you’ll only have to pay for food which makes trekking in the country a very cheap holiday experience.
Cost of hiring a trekking guide in Kyrgyzstan
Hiring a guide to take you through the countryside is not a necessity but if you don’t have the confidence to follow a map yourself or if you’re not a seasoned trekker it’s definitely recommended. They come with a ton of advantages other than knowing the mountains better than anyone. They’ll take responsibility for cooking meals and setting up camp which will be a welcome addition after walking through the mountains all day.
The cost of a guide is between 1400 – 2400 SOM per day which is roughly 16 – 35 GBP. If you want a porter to carry your equipment up the mountains, they will usually cost around £21 per day. They will carry between 10-15 kg of your luggage along with the camping and trekking gear needed for the hike.
Where to trek in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan has plenty of choice for beautiful treks through its unreserved wilderness. Here are a few of the top treks to do in the country.
Song-Kul is an alpine lake in the Northern Naryn Province that is surrounded by the most beautiful rolling hills. Situated 3,061 meters high the lake is a hotspot for people looking for a unique stay in a yurt.
Song-Kul is surrounded by a huge plain filled with all kinds of beautiful flowers on rolling green hills. In the summer the lake is filled with yurt camps and nomads whose flock raze freely on the plain. Trekking to this beautiful lake is possibly one of the most popular hikes in the country and there are many starting points to choose from for both seasoned and less confident travellers.
The Jyrgalan Valley is situated in the Tian Shan mountain range in eastern Kyrgyzstan that translates as Mountain of Heaven. The unspoiled valley has a pristine beauty that is hard to come by and provides great trekking opportunities for those looking to get away from the crowds. The landscape consists of seven snow-capped mountain peaks, clear alpine lakes, a sunset of wildflowers in the summer months and flowing rivers.
Jyrgalan Valley plays host to a number of treks ranging from half-day easier hikes to challenging multi-day treks that explore the entirety of the mountain range. Starting from the Jyrgalan village you’ll be in the heart of the Tian Shan range, ready to wander in any direction.
Ala-Kul, another gorgeous alpine lake in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan is well known for its iridescent blue colour. Dubbed by the locals as the ‘pristine diamond of the Karakol Canyon’ it’s one of the most famous and popular treks in the country and at an altitude of 3500, it’s a mammoth trek to take on.
There are two possible starting points for this trek, from the Karakol valley, or from the Altyn-Arashan valley. The trek from Altyn-Arashan is regarded as being one of the most difficult with steep climbs and unpredictable weather making it physically challenging. The hike begins easily enough with it being mostly flat. You’ll encounter nomadic camps along the way as you follow the Karakol river. The second day is when things start to become much more challenging as the pass becomes very steep, crossing sharp inclines and traversing slippery rocks. On these treks, there are the opportunities to take a dip in the hot springs to relieve sore muscles.
Ala Archa National Park
Deep in the Tian Shan mountains, 40km south of Bishkek, you’ll find Ala Archa, an Alpine National Park. There are three main hiking trails in the park, all with their own highlights and difficulty levels.
One trail leads to Ak-Sai Glacier, located at 3350 meters altitude. Although its only 14km to the glacier, the tail involves a 1,100-meter elevation making the entire trek a 9-hour round-trip. The trek itself is very difficult with slippery rocks and steep terrain. The hike can either be done in two days for a more relaxed approach or in one day if you don’t mind waking up early.
Another trail is the hike to the Ak-Sai waterfall. It’s only short, a 7km round-trip and can easily be fit into one day. The path is popular for travellers and so is well marked, an ideal starting point for less experienced hikers. The beginning starts with a steep slope but then becomes much easier when it opens up. Follow the path above the river until you reach the creek, cross and then stick to your left up a steep path until you reach the waterfall.
For travellers looking for an even more off the beaten path experience, they can try their hand trekking to the Ala Archa Valley. This hike is the least visited of all the other hikes in this region and leads to an old Soviet-era ski base which is located at 3400meters, just below the foot of the Ala-Archinskii, Mana and Toktogula glaciers. You can hike to the Ala Archa Valley in just one day but if you bring a tent you can make it all the way up to the ski base and even visit the Adygene Glacier.
Staying in nomadic camps
One of the more unique experiences you can do in Kyrgyzstan is staying in one of the Kyrgyz people’s nomadic camps. Kyrgyzstan has one of the most accessible nomadic cultures in central Asia making this a once in a lifetime opportunity. While trekking through the mountains you’ll see nomadic families staying in yurts on the plains. During summer they look after their herds and often invite travellers into their yurts to stay with them.
On popular treks including Kyzyl Art to Song Kul and Kyol Ukyok lake, you don’t even need to bring camping equipment as there is always the opportunity to stay in yurts. In most other treks you’ll tend to find nomadic yurts at the beginning of the hike at the lower altitudes. Make sure you do your research before setting off on a hike where you suspect there to be yurts and take into account the seasons.
For just a couple of pounds, you can stay in a nomadic yurt and have a hearty homemade soup for dinner and filling breakfast in the morning. You can take part in their daily activities to get a true sense of how they live in the Kyrgyzstan countryside. It’s definitely a cultural experience you shouldn’t pass up and it can even be comfier and more hospitable than your own tent
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Horse trekking is a large part of the nomad culture of Kyrgyzstan, a key element to their survival and development. Outside of larger cities, everybody rides horses as a means of transport. It’s often said that you can’t experience this Central Asian country until you’ve tried horse trekking as it’s just that centric to the people’s daily lives. From the moment they can walk Kyrgyz children are taught how to ride a horse. It’s not unusual to see a child of three riding a horse better than most tourists.
Trekking on a horse is often a popular alternative to trekking on foot. It relieves a lot of pressure and effort but still allows you to experience the expansive wilderness.
Overall trekking in Kyrgyzstan is an opportunity not to be missed. With crystal-clear alpine lakes, sloping green hills and snow-capped mountain ranges there’s plenty to see. The country has a range of trekking options for both veteran mountaineers to those who take more casual hikes for a hobby.
Interested in more unusual activities to do around the world? Check out more of our unusual holiday guide’s below and discover off the beaten path experiences around the world.