GUEST POST – Nestled between Central Asia’s giant mountain ranges is a pristine, beautiful country. Some know it by its alluring landscapes. Some know it for its delicious delicacies. While others haven’t even heard of Kyrgyzstan at all. But within the borders of this off-the-beatem-path country lie scenic mountains, unique cultural traditions, and unique local legends.
If you’re a nature lover and someone who loves learning about fascinating cultures, Kyrgyzstan will feel like a breath of fresh air.
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I’ve always had an innate curiosity about how the world works, and that’s how my curiosity led me to Kyrgyzstan. It was a country I knew virtually nothing about, but since I studied Russian in college, I jumped at the opportunity to use my language skills there. Kyrgyzstan was the perfect choice since I was enthralled by its natural beauty and curious about the country’s hidden wonders. I ended up volunteering at an Educational Center, where I got to help graduating high schoolers with the hopes of going abroad.
Meet Kyrgyzstan, a land of legends and heroes
Kyrgyzstan was once a land where nomadic tribes independently roamed about until they were united by a mythical hero named Manas. Kyrgyzstan somewhat translates to the Land of Forty Tribes, which refers to those 40 legendary tribes of Manas.
Manas is a legend in Kyrgyzstan. There are statues commemorating him, an airport named after him, and even a 500,000-lined epic poem written about him. The Epic of Manas is a foundation poem for the Kyrgyz people, and it is actually the longest epic in the world, 20 times longer than Homer’s The Odyssey.
Since the country’s unification, the Kyrgyz people have had to unite under the domination of many other groups, from the ancient Chinese to Turkic groups and, finally, the Soviets. Kyrgyzstan is still left with remnants of their Soviet domination to this day.
Dive into the Kyrgyz Culture
Walking through the streets of Bishkek, the country’s capital, I only heard Russian spoken, despite Kyrgyzstan having a national language. I saw Soviet-style architecture, a statue of Lenin, and even a plaque that read, “We fought for communism!” You can feel a Russian influence from the food to the street signs if you go to Bishkek.
Nevertheless, all those years under Soviet rule could not completely erase the Kyrgz culture. Once you talk to the locals and explore outside the city, you can still see the ancient traditions that empowered the original Kyrgyz culture. Many still live nomadic lives, living in the mountains in traditional Yurts.
The people of Kyrgyzstan are also unrelenting on their traditional holidays. One of the most celebrated ones is Nowruz, or Persian New Year, which was banned during the Soviet years but came back into full force today. Being one of the most important Kyrgyz celebrations, people spend weeks preparing for it, along with gruelling hours of cooking.
Their celebratory pudding, Sumalak, must be stirred for twenty-four hours straight. The holiday is celebrated with song, dance, eagle hunting, and an intense game of football. Except in this game, the players ride horses and use a headless sheep carcass instead of a ball! Needless to say, the roots of ancient Kyrgyz culture are unique and offer so much to explore.
Bishkek things to do
Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is a vibrant hub on the border of the Tian Shan mountain range. The city has countless architectural treasures, historic places, and beautiful parks. Here are just some of the things to check out while in Bishkek.
This central square in Bishkek is a historical landmark in the city. It holds a statue of the Kyrgyz hero, Manas, right in the center. Ala-Too Square has been a place that was the center for revolutions and protests but also celebrations. In the square, you’ll find the National State History Museum. Walking through the square, you’ll be surrounded by buildings holding giant plaques that commemorate Kyrgyz heroes and notable people.
Standing in the middle of Ala-Too Square, the heart of the city, you can genuinely feel the country’s history around you. The people’s struggles for independence, their calls for revolution, their political spirit and hope for a stronger future all circle the air here.
Ala-Too Square is a great place to stroll and learn about the country when the flowers bloom, and the fountains are turned on in the summer.
Panfilov Park is one of the most shocking places I experienced in Bishkek because I couldn’t fathom the idea of a walk-in theme park. I was taking a stroll through the city and was delightfully surprised to have stumbled onto a Ferris wheel.
With small roller coasters, games, ice cream, and even a haunted house, Panfilov Park is a great family experience or a way to let out your inner child. The one thing I really wanted to do but didn’t get the chance to do was ride the Ferris wheel during sunset and get a great view from the top.
When I told my host family I wanted to go to Osh Bazaar, they sighed and told me it was just a crowded mess. But if you enjoy chaos, Osh Bazaar is the place to be.
Being one of the largest Bazaars in Kyrgyzstan, you will see an endless maze of vendors. With hundreds of vendors, you can find practically anything you need here, from household supplies to food to musical instruments. I even got my SIM card here. Beware, it gets extremely crowded, so keep your belongings close to you.
My visit to Victory Park was one of the clearest moments of peace during my trip. If you want to visit a serene, beautiful place perfect for a tranquil picnic, this park should be on your list. There are many historical plaques here, as well as beautiful beds of flowers.
The giant monument in the park’s center commemorates the toll of World War II. I went right during golden hour and watched the sun perfectly illuminate it. From the park, you can see the giant, with surrounding mountain tops in the distance.
Ala Archa National Park
About 20 miles outside of Bishkek is Ala Archa National Park. This park, in the Tian Shan mountains, is an alpine beauty. It’s the perfect spot for hikers, skiers, mountain climbers, or weekend picnickers.
For a quick trip to immerse yourself in some mountains, Ala Archa is a manageable distance from Bishkek and a great way to experience that. Whether you’re seeking serenity or adventure, the national park is a great outdoorsy option.
What To Eat and Drink in Bikshek
Fresh Fruits and Veggies: Many of the streets in Bishkek are lined with vendors that sell fresh fruit and veggies. My host family was bragging about how the fruits in Kyrgyzstan are wholly organic and delicious, and they were so right.
The two weeks I spent in the city were two weeks of feeding into my Kyrgyz strawberry addiction. Their strawberries are extra tiny but have an unparalleled flavour, unlike any other country’s strawberries I’ve experienced. Needless to say, I’m certainly disappointed and genuinely miss the fresh fruits of Kyrgyzstan now that I’m home.
Qurut: Initially, qurut (or kurut) was challenging to wrap my Western tongue around, but now I miss the unique flavour. This snack is dried, fermented balls of yogurt, buttermilk, or sour milk. Its origins go back to traditional Kyrgyz nomadic life, where nomads had to find nutritional foods that would not spoil quickly.
These balls of kurut are everywhere. From street corners to buckets and buckets of them in Osh Bazaar, kurut has become a very popular snack amongst the Kyrgyz and is a must-try for visitors.
Samsa: My mouth is watering just thinking about Samsa. This baked, meat-stuffed bun is an easily accessible and delicious snack. It is often sold on the streets, in kiosks, and in bazaars as a hot snack.
Blini: This Russian pancake is an addicting treat for those with a sweet tooth. You can mix these crepe-like desserts with various things, like cream cheese, jelly, honey, and more. They’re easy to find in Bishkek, as they are sold at many restaurants and street kiosks.
Popular National Dishes
It’s a known fact that the best way to explore a country is through its food. If you’re curious about the type of cuisine that is a staple of Kyrgyz culture, look no further.
Beshbarmak: This thick noodle dish is one of Kyrgyzstan’s main national plates. It is made with boiled meat and served in its own broth. You can get many different types of Beshbarmak, from lamb to horse. Yes, horse meat is actually very popular in the country.
Laghman: I was told by many locals that I absolutely must try Laghman before I left, and I was not disappointed. This pulled noodle dish is very popular in the country. It seems like a simple noodle dish, but something about its unique flavour made me want to lick the plate after I finished eating.
Manti: Manti is a dish popular in Turkey and all over West and Central Asia. They are excellent in Bishkek. These dumplings are made with different minced meats, like lamb, beef, or horse.
My host family told me that making a manti from scratch takes hours and hours of dedication and work. Good thing they are conveniently sold at many restaurants and street food stands.
Plov: Plov is a hearty rice and meat dish. It is usually made with rice, carrots, and some sort of meat (usually mutton or beef).
Shorpo: Shorpo is a delicious, hearty soup. It has a very rich flavour and is made with beef and vegetables.
There are so many wonderful restaurants throughout the city for you to sit down and enjoy these meals. Navat Teahouse is one of my favourites. It gives a taste of the traditional, from its decor to its food. The workers there often speak English, so it’s a perfect spot for someone new to the country to see what Kyrgyz food is about.
This is where I indulged in shorpo, horse meat beshbarmak, and experimented with other delicious foods and drinks. Another great restaurant in Bishkek is Cafe Faiza. I never got the chance to go here but was told by a few locals that I must try it. Apparently, it has the best Laghman.
But for foreigners who miss things that taste like home, there are so many adorable coffee shops around the city that you can explore and that cater to the Western taste, my favourite being Cavallo coffee on the bottom floor of Bishkek Park.
But don’t forget to experiment with the Bishkek food. The food, at least on the streets, is often so affordable that trying something new is always worth the cost. I indulged in countless samsas throughout Bishkek and the Osh bazaar, usually for less than $2.
Exploring the Kyrgyzstan nature
Over 90% of Kyrgyzstan’s landscape is made up of mountains, making it the perfect place to lose yourself in the serene wilderness. While there are some beautiful parks around Bishkek, some of the most renowned mountains of Kyrgyzstan are quite a trek away but worth the journey.
Supara Chunkurchak resort
For an alpine resort with a taste of nomadic living, Supara Chunkurchak is the place to be. The owner of Supara Chunkurchak made it his mission to teach visitors about the beauty of Kyrgyz culture, and he succeeded. This is a mountain resort that exemplifies Yurt-style living. The resort is a series of Yurts tucked between mountains around 40 km out of Bishkek. The main building epitomizes beautiful, traditional architecture, intricate woodwork and Earthy ambience. Along with a killer view, the resort has many activities, from horseback riding to skiing.
My favourite thing to do while there was to learn about Kyrgyz traditions, like their traditional marriage swings. At the top of the mountain are giant wooden swings made for two people. When talking to a local about the significance of it, she told me that it was an ancient tradition in Kyrgyz marriages. The swing, she said, represents the ups and downs of life. It constantly goes back and forth between the good and the bad. But at the end of the day, the swing will only work if the two people work together. These types of little stories made me fall in love with Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is renowned for its stunning mountainous landscapes, including the Tian Shan range, which covers a significant portion of the country. It offers breathtaking scenery, high-altitude lakes, and picturesque valleys, making it a popular destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers. Here are some of the must-sees Kyrgyzstan Lakes.
Lake Issyk Kul
This is THE lake that Kyrgyzstan prides itself on. People from all over the country and the world have come here to view its prized jewel. Lake Issyk Kul is a massive lake that lies between mountain ranges. It’s a well-visited vacation resort by locals and tourists alike and a center for nomads.
There are many legends surrounding the origins of the lake. One was told to me by a local about a girl named Cholpon, who captured the hearts of two young men. The men fought and fought over her, but she could not bear the thought of hurting them, so she never chose between them. In the end, she ripped out her own heart and lay dead on top of a mountain.
A town on Issyk-Kol was named Cholpon-Ata in her honour. It is said that the people of the town cried so much upon her body that their tears rolled down the mountain and created the lake Issyk-Kol, which is why the lake is so warm. Named “hot lake” in the Kyrgyz language, it never freezes despite being in an alpine and freezing region.
Usually, Issyk Kol has soft breezes and westerly winds, but every now and then, a wind coming from the East will challenge the westerly wind and a storm will occur. Some locals say these winds are the brothers, still fighting for Cholpon long after her death.
Another of Kyrgyzstan’s most famous lakes is Lake Song-Kul, a great place to learn about traditional Kyrgyz culture and activities. You can take a day trip there, which is about a 4-5 hours drive from Bishkek or stay for a while and enjoy life in a yurt. At Son Kol, you can truly get a taste of real nomadic life.
The lake is nestled within the Tien Shan mountain range. It is a breathtaking escape for adventure addicts, nature enthusiasts, and culture seekers alike. There are a variety of activities to choose from, like horseback riding, fishing, hiking, and even eagle hunting shows.
Today, the country is a hub of vibrant culture, food, and ancient traditions. However, remnants of Soviet nostalgia still remain. When I asked a local about attitudes towards USSR domination, she told me that a lot of elderly people feel nostalgic for it. However, the younger generation feels the opposite. “They tried to erase our culture,” she said. “Where did our language go?”
Recently, laws have been implemented to incorporate the Kyrgyz language into news and daily life. It seems that the Kyrgyz people’s culture is growing stronger each day. As respectful tourists, we can learn about its beauty and stories.
Reflections on visiting Kyrgyzstan
After interacting with my students for weeks, I learned that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even on the other side of the globe, in a place many people in my country do not even know about, kids still love to aimlessly watch TikToks. They love to laugh and make inappropriate jokes. Being able to laugh with people from a different world kind of brought to life things and stereotypes I didn’t think about previously.
What draws me to seeing the world is meeting people, hearing stories from across the globe, and learning how others live. After I graduated from the University of South Florida, I decided to go out on my own and find these stories myself. My dad is a flight attendant, so I jumped at the chance to use his free standby tickets. I created my blog, Tashie’s Travels, as a diary of my worldwide travels and an opportunity to inspire others. I want them to be inspired by the different peoples, places, and lifestyles that we share the world with, which I also share on my Instagram.
Planning your next trip? Check out the resources I use and start planning your perfect getaway today!
- Flights: Find the best flight deals on Kiwi.com (my new go-to for flights)
- Book your accommodations: Find the best prices on hotels with Booking.com
- What to do: Find the perfect tour with Viator
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Check out my travel resource guide for more resources to help you plan your trip.