Salam Kirgizstan – Hello Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan, officially Kyrgyz Republic. A small country between Kazakhstan and China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In the middle of Central Asia.
Beside the usual map of my route within the country I will provide here also a general map. So you can see where this small high mountain country is situated.
And it is located high. Very high. In the Tian-Shan mountains. And the southwest of Kyrgyzstan in the Alai Mountains, which then merge into the Pamir Mountains. With peaks between 5.000 and 7.500m. I stayed here as well mostly at an altitude between 2.000 and 4.000m.
My route in Kyrgyzstan
First I drove from Karakol into the east along the south bank of the Yssyk Kul Lake to Kochkor. And from there I continued my travel via Naryn to Tash Rabat. In the south of Kyrgyzstan. Almost at the border to China. Then north again to Song Kul Lake and from there back to the Yssyk Kul Lake. This time on the north bank.
Before I finally reached the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, I made a small detour near the city of Tokmok. To the Burana Tower.
From the border to Karakol
It is a small border crossing between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. And it is only open during the day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. With 2 cars in front of us the border crossing was quick and easy.
On the Kyrgyz side I immediately asked for a liability insurance for the car. But I was assured – even after several requests – that this was not necessary for a stay of less than 60 days in Kyrgyzstan. All right now, Kyrgyzstan was the only country on my trip where I drove without a local car insurance.
The 85 kilometers to Karakol were done quickly. Although there was only a road for the first 10 km – and then again 50 km before Karakol. In between we drove over a track in the mountains. On which various herds of cattle crossed our path. On a hill we met a French couple who were traveling with their VW camper van there.
In Karakol I dropped off the German couple I had taken from Kegen, at their hostel. And then I drove quickly to my accommodation. Because I got stomach problems again.
Sick in the hotel
Therefore I could not do much with the nicely laid breakfast table the next morning as well. And so I took only some slices of bread to my room. To eat it later.
The places of interest of the city didn’t interest me at all that morning. But only 3 topics. Cash, a pharmacy and a SIM card. In that order. I would have loved to go to the pharmacy first, but I didn’t know if credit cards were accepted there.
At the ATM I got cash first. Here the currency is no longer called Tögrög and Möngö (like in Mongolia) or Tenge and Tiyin (like in Kazakhstan). But Som and Tyjyn. For one US-dollar I got about 70 Som.
A pharmacy was also quickly found. They were marked with the Russian word ‘Aптека’ in almost every country on my trip. I only had to point to my stomach and got a box with the right pills.
After I finally had a local SIM card as well I went quickly back to my accommodation to take the first two tablets. But it took until the evening of the next day until the drug finally worked.
Because I wanted to really cure myself, I then spent 4 nights in Karakol instead of the originally planned 2 nights.
A spectacular event in the sky
But in the third night I was already so far okay again, that I could watch the total lunar eclipse. And it was to be seen here particularly easy, because it was already at half past two in the night. While in Central Europe it was only in the evening due to the time difference. The clouds had also cleared, so that actually no further disturbances were to be expected.
But then there were some. Caused by the neighboring bakery, who punctually at 2 a.m. heated it’s ovens with wood. And through the wind, the thick clouds of smoke kept pulling in front of my lens. But I was still able to take a few photos…
Because the town is located on a pass over the Tian-Shan Mountains, it has long been an important trading center for travelers on the Silk Road. Today, a touristic development is slowly starting here again. On the one hand by travelers who want to follow this old trade route. And on the other hand by the offers of trekking tours into the mountains of the Tian-Shan. The couple who traveled with me from Kazakhstan also wanted to hike here.
I visited the Russian Orthodox Church. Built entirely of wood, from 1895. When I looked inside, I was amazed because of the many visitors. Are they all tourists? Not at all. After a while the door was closed and I found myself in the middle of a baptism ceremony.
I could not get out, because the floorboards and the door squeaked. Moreover, at irregular intervals, the believers all turned around at the same time and then looked to the exit (and me) instead to the preacher. That was probably part of the ritual. It would have been a little embarrassing if I had disappeared. So I stayed in a corner in this church for about one hour.
After that there was still some time to look around at a market. I would have loved to visit the big cattle market in Karakol. But unfortunately this only took place only on Sundays. So I went to a normal weekly market. Also very exciting.
Along the south bank of the Issyk Kul
The onward journey to Kochkor was uneventful. Except for the fascinating mountain panorama, which always showed up in front of me in different types and colors. And from time to time I could dimly see a huge mountain range on the opposite side of the lake.
After almost exactly 100 kilometers I reached the ‘Fairytale Canyon’. Or in Kyrgyz ‘Skaza Canyon’. I almost missed the turn off the main road to the left. It is located at a place from which there is a nice view to the lake to the right as well.
The canyon is much smaller than Charyn Canyon in Kazakhstan. And not that deep either. But it is a maze of small hills, rocks and mountains in many shapes and colors. Colorful sandstone from yellow to brown to red.
Here you can surely walk around for hours and climb the hills. But unfortunately it started to drizzle. And I wanted to reach Kochkor until the afternoon. Because I could not book an accommodation there in advance. Hotels.com and booking.com did not show me any available rooms. But no matter, I would find something there.
Accommodation search in Kochkor
The search for accommodation was difficult. Whether it was the geographical location – Kochkor is located at the crossroads of highways from north to south and from east to west, or whether it was the weekday – it was Sunday:
Anyway, everything seemed to be fully booked here. Walking around I asked in a few guesthouses for a place to sleep. Because I didn’t want to drive with my car through the the narrow streets. I was already prepared for the fact that I might have to drive on. Finally, at the third hotel, a friendly Kyrgyz woman called her son.
He was supposed to take me to private accommodation a few blocks away. And there the Landcruiser found a place to sleep in the yard and I found one in the house. With a great view into gardens and behind them again of high mountains.
Later in the evening a French family arrived, which was picked up the next morning by a tour operator for a hiking and horse-riding tour. In the living room of the house there was a dinner for all of us later that evening. Traditionally, sitting on carpets, at a low table.
On to Tash Rabat
Tash Rabat is located almost at today’s highway between Kyrgyzstan and China over the 3.800m high Torugart Pass in the Tian-Shan Mountains. Therefore the road is well developed. Only the last 15 kilometers I had to drive on an unpaved track.
It is actually not a village but only a single building. An old caravanserai on the Silk Road, almost on the border with China. Originally the building was probably built in the 9th or 10th century as a monastery. Whether as Christian monastery or as Buddhist monastery, scholars argue about this.
In any case, it was then used as a caravanserai from the 14th or 15th century onwards. At a height of 3.100m for travelers and caravans on their way from China to Europe. Or vice versa. For protection against snow storms in winter and against outlaws.
I spent the night here in a yurt camp. In each yurt there are 5-6 sleeping places. But since the camp was not fully booked, I had a yurt all to myself. In the evening in each yurt an old wood oven was heated. Because despite summer time it was quite fresh at this altitude at night. But I still had some sleeping bags from Australia in the car. From my son from his work&travel time there.
From Tash Rabat to Song Kul Lake
The next morning I got the advice in the camp to drive towards Song Kul just across a range of hills to the next road. This would save me 100 km distance. Maybe that was meant well, but it didn’t work out that way. On Google Maps there was no connection shown to the next road behind the mountains. And either the car was already lying on the mountain so diagonally that I was afraid it would tip over. Or I ended up at lonely farmsteads in the mountains instead of on some road.
So I drove back to the main road and there on the very official way to the Song Kul Lake. Wikipedia writes succinctly: “(The Song Kul Lake) can be reached during the summer months (June-September) with off-road passenger cars via two “roads”…” But the Kyrgyz, whom I asked at the foot of the pass road, sounded quite different: “Very easy way…”, “Good to drive…”, “No problem…”
The truth was probably – as so often – in the middle. I thought the track up to the lake was not as difficult as the Abano Pass in Georgia later on. And I didn’t need my four-wheel drive either. On the other hand, in case of heavy rain or thunderstorms I would probably have had some doubts about the partly quite steep ascent and on the gravel road.
Song Kul, a second large lake in Kyrgyzstan
Beside the Yssyk Kul, the Song Kul is the second large lake in Kyrgyzstan. It is located on a plateau at an altitude of 3,000m. An unpaved track leads around it and the adjacent grasslands serve as pasture for horses, sheep and goats in summer.
Between June and September the water gets about 11 degrees warm. So nothing for bathing or swimming. And in winter (November to May) the lake is frozen over.
It was already in the evening and I was looking for a yurt camp to spend the night. There were only a few of it up here. Of course I could not book them before. Because these accommodations are not listed in any hotel app.
So I had to rely on the fact that I would find a vacant yurt. And indeed: Even though small groups from Japan, Korea and Israel stayed overnight there was still a free yurt. The last one within this yurt camp.
In the video below you can see a few scenes from my trip to Song Kul and some drone shots of the lake.
By the way, I used the short time until dinner to take a shower. Because late in the evening and early in the morning there can be queues at the sanitary facilities of a yurt camp. Something like if you stay on a camping ground.
Back to Issyk Kul – this time to the north shore
The next morning it clouded over again. The weather seems to change frequently here in the mountains. And sometimes quite fast. In any case, I had drizzle and snow rain on the first stretch back into the valley. At the beginning of August!
But when I was back in the valley after the first 80km, the remaining 200km were no problem at all. The roads up to the north bank of the Yssyk Kul were excellent. Only the last part along the north bank was still under construction.
The main town Cholpon-Ata, in the middle of the northern shore of the lake, was a popular tourist place already in Soviet times. And today again. With many hotels, sanatoriums and guest houses.
I had already booked an accommodation in a small guesthouse on my way. But when I arrived I found out that the address I was given was not correct. The guesthouse did not exist there. And nobody knew it either.
But I was lucky, the owner of the guesthouse called me in the afternoon. And asked me if I was still coming. It turned out that the accommodation was near Cholpon-Ata, but not in the town itself. But in a suburb, 8 km the main road back to the west.
Yssyk Kul Lake, the sea of Kyrgyzstan
After Lake Titicaca in South America, Yssyk Kul is the second largest mountain lake on earth. At 1.600m height, 180 km long and 60 km wide. With many sandy beaches. There the name ‘Kyrgyz Sea’ fits quite well.
And what a difference compared to the morning. It had snowed at Song Kul, but here at Yssyk Kul it was 25 degrees in the afternoon. And although it can be as cold as -20 degrees Celsius in winter here as well, the Yssyk Kul (= hot lake) does not freeze over.
Warm springs at the bottom of the lake, fast water exchange between upper and lower water layers and a slight salinity of the water make it possible.
I had a good contact with the owner of the guesthouse right after arrival. And his son showed me the next day the surroundings of the area and the beach.
On our tour we also climbed up the ruins of a Russian hotel shell from the 1980s to take some pictures from above. After the fall of the Soviet Union this building was never completed.
Before I left the next day the owner of the guesthouse gave me a phone number of another relative. If I would arrive in Bishkek, I should give him a call. He would show me then the capital of Kyrgyzstan. How kind!
Detour to the Burana Tower
But before I got there, I made a detour to the Burana Tower on the way there.
It is one of the landmarks of Kyrgyzstan. From an important ancient trading place on the Silk Road in Central Asia, only this tower remained.
Originally it was a minaret of the local mosque. And it was probably also 40 m high in former times. Today, only 22 meters of it are left after a heavy earthquake.
But still very impressive against the background of the high mountain range.
Obviously also a popular destination for excursions. Anyway, a colorful wedding party just took place on the square next to the tower.
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan
After a phone call with the relative of the guesthouse owner at Yssyk Kul we arranged a date for the next day. He wants to show me the city by bike. And of course this will take me to corners that a tourist would probably not see otherwise. Small residential streets, parks, ruins of former industrial plants.
Through the city
But of course also the big squares, wide boulevards and large buildings in the city center.
Large buildings does not mean high buildings here, by the way. In contrast to Astana, there are no real skyscrapers here.
Maybe because of the danger of earthquakes in the whole Tian-Shan mountains. But maybe also because Kyrgyzstan is not yet as economically developed as Kazakhstan. In any case, the young people assured me credibly that they felt much more comfortable here in the city than in more modern big cities.
However, if you come from Ulaanbaatar and Astana yourself, you feel like you have been transported back a few decades in Bishkek.
During lunch I learned more interesting things about Bishkek. The city was called Pischpek in former times. Like the jar for the preparation of Kumys, the fermented mare’s milk. Everyday food in Central Asia.
Why is a city named after such a vessel/jar? No idea.
In the Soviet era the city was renamed into ‘Frunse’ after a military leader in the Russian Civil War.
And only after the independence of Kyrgyzstan in 1991 did it regain its Kyrgyz name Bishkek.
A special feature are the many stands with soft drinks in the city. On every street corner from spring to autumn Maksym, Chalap und Kvass are sold. Mostly by women between 18 and 68, who stand there all day long. The business is in the hands of two big companies and runs apparently very well.
And to the central market
In the afternoon we strolled through the Osh Bazaar. These are the central market halls in Bishkek.
With a large offer of fruits, vegetables, bread, cakes, meat, nuts spices and flowers.
Unfortunately, parts of the bazaar were still closed because there had been several fires a few months earlier.
And my guides kept an eye on the next exit the whole time…
Farewell from Kyrgyzstan
In the evening I was additionally invited to a dinner. Into the ‘Etno Kompleks Supara’, 15km from the city center away. A restaurant with Kyrgyz specialties. And with a small museum with historical handicraft equipment.
The young people want to start their own business with a travel agency. We discussed a little bit about that during dinner.
And at the end of the evening I was made an honorary Kyrgyz by them. And as a farewell gift they gave me a ‘Kalpak’, the traditional Kyrgyz men’s hat. Which I should wear “always with pride”.
Early the next morning I leave the capital of Kyrgyzstan. In the direction of the Kazakh border in the west. Until there it is only 100 km and I make good progress. But in front of the border there is a long traffic jam.
But only in the right lane for the trucks. The passenger cars can drive past on the left. And since there are only a few cars in front of me, I am soon standing at the border gate. Here then alternately always a passenger car and a truck is let into the border area.
The clearance on the Kyrgyz side takes 30 minutes. And on the Kazakh side too, it only takes one hour and a half. Then I am back in Kazakhstan at noon.
As usual at this point a short dashcam video and some drone shots (2m 34s; Music: A New Beginning – http://www.bensound.com).
- From the Kyrgyz border to Karakol
- On the way to Song Kul Lake
- From Song Kul Lake to Issyk Kul Lake
- At the Kyrgyz border with Kazakhstan
Plus a link to my YouTube video about Kyrgyzstan from 2019 (12m 34s)
What I unfortunately missed in Kyrgyzstan
The southwest of the country, especially the city of Osh. A 3000 years old place at the Uzbek border. Actually I would have liked to drive from Kyrgyzstan via Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan.
Once this distance to the Caspian Sea is about 800 km shorter than the distance to the Kazakh port of Aqtau. On the other hand, the ferry connection to Azerbaijan from the Turkmen city of Turkmenbashi is said to be more stable than the one from Aqtau.
But unfortunately this was not possible. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan I was definitely not allowed to import a drone.
That left only the route through western Kazakhstan. In the next post you will find out how it went for me there.
Today I say goodbye to Kyrgyzstan. Besides Mongolia for sure, it was definitely the second highlight of my road trip up to this point.
Cheers, Ruediger 😎