Hear about travel to Kyrgyzstan as the Amateur Traveler talks to Eric Anderson about the Central Asian country where he has been serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Eric admits that he might not have been able to find Kyrgyzstan on a map before being sent to this beautiful mountainous country just west of China. Kyrgyzstan is the size of South Dakota and is about 70% mountains. “If you do want to take a trip to Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is the easiest country to get into. It is either no visa required or a free Visa on arrival for 60 countries now. Kyrgyzstan is very easy. You just show up, get that free visa, they step your passport and you’re in Central Asia.”
“The history of Kyrgyzstan is a little different from the other ‘stans. The people were a nomadic culture so they don’t have some of the same history and traditions that you would find in a country like Uzbekistan for instance. Being so mountainous there’s a lot of adventure sports to do. There’s a lot of hiking. You can go parasailing.”
Eric starts us with a couple of days in the capital of Bishkek. Getting around the country you will be traveling via a Marshrutka or a private or collective taxi. Within the city, you also have the trolly bus which is what Eric recommends. There is even an app you can get for your phone via bus.kg. Bishkek is a very modern city. He recommends Osh Bazaar which is one of the biggest bazaars in the country. There are great souvenirs and great local watching. Do watch your valuables as there are pickpockets. The Dordoy Bazaar is also a huge bazaar made up of shipping containers. The State History Museum is worth a visit. None of the exhibits have English but check out the giant mural on the ceiling that was done in the Soviet time.
From Bishkek, Eric recommends day trips to the old sanitarium at Issyk-ata and also Ala Archa National Park. “It is absolutely beautiful and there is also a lot of rock and ice climbing up there. If you’re coming for some of the extreme climbing, that is a great place to start.”
If you google CBT Kyrgyzstan you can find a listing of the 16 different community-based tourism providers. “A CBT is a collection of locally-based tourism companies. They offer homestays. They can arrange rides, horse tours or stays in yurts up in the mountains. Most regions have one and you can contact them via email before you come to Kyrgyzstan. In a lot of parts of the country, they are going to be the only way to find lodging. There are no hotels in some of the smaller villages. It’s one of the best ways to see the country.”
As we tour around some of the countryside, Eric describes visiting places like the lake at Issyk Kul, hiking at Karakol Peak and in the Jeti-Oguz Valley. From the Karakol Valley, you can visit the Yurts in Jeti-Oguz up in the winter pasture lands. At Tash Rabat, you can visit one of the old Silk Road buildings, one of the few from that time. Near the city of Osh the “capital of the south”, you will find a different mix of people. Osh is a more religious city. Near there is Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kyrgyzstan has mountains, lakes, villages and walnut forests. Eric highly recommends a visit to this beautiful country.
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Eric’s Guide to Kyrgyzstan
Bishkek Public Transport
Community-Based Kyrgyzstan Tourism Centers
Bishkek State History Museum
Ala Archa National Park
Song Kol Lake
Sulaiman-Too Sacred Mountain
Spent several weeks in Wisconsin this summer doing research on a book. Just discovered your program on that state with the young lady from Madison. I found the North Woods absolutely fascinating. We rented bikes and biked for miles and miles. Never seen a state with so many miles of bike paths through the wilderness. Wonderful.
Squeaky cheese (cheese curds), pea and peanut salad, and Friday night fish fries even at the Mexican and Chinese restaurants were all culinary newbies for us.
Speaking of which have you ever done a show on eating your way around the world? In Paraguay, the pizza comes standard with peas, carrots, and sliced boiled egg. In Japan, they put the salad on top of the pizza. And don’t order a Canadian bacon pizza in Canada!
In Columbia, they served meat empanadas in huge baskets before we ordered like they do chips and hot sauce at Mexican restaurants in the US.
Your show on Japan discussed Octopus balls. They are made by street vendors and are delicious. You keep the balls turning or they burn. A favorite dessert in Japan is something I call “moldy bean balls.” Beans are mashed and mixed with something similar to molasses and then rolled and put under the sink in the dark until they get a pretty thick layer of mold on them. I stayed in four homes during my Fulbright period in Japan. All four proudly served moldy bean balls with dinner.
In Paraguay, people would show up at the hotel room door and say, “You want anything? It’s complimentary.” Then they’d return with a huge platter of fruits, meats, and cheeses. This went on for a week. Then I was presented this enormous bill. Turns out the complimentary part was free delivery. My Spanish got appreciably better after that little episode.
Ecuador’s national food is cuy. You and I know it as guinea pig. They skin them and then run a stick through their mouth and out their anus so they can be roasted on a spit. The cuy all look like they just stepped out of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Why? Because they are killed by making a strong clap of your hands with the guinea pig’s head in the middle. Every one of them die saying, “Aaaaaaayyyy!” It’s a treat for Ecuadorians but tends to gross out the Americans.
Chris: Amateur Traveler, episode 478. Today, the Amateur Traveler talks about bazaars and lakes and sacred mountains. Break out your atlas, because today we head to Kyrgyzstan.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris Christenson. With no further ado, let’s talk about Kyrgyzstan. I’d like to welcome to the show, Eric Anderson. Eric Anderson is a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. You can read more about his travels at Ericandtaylor.com. I’ll link to that in the show notes. Eric, welcome to the show.
Eric: Thank you very much.
Chris: Eric is coming to us from Kyrgyzstan. So we have a little bit of a hiss on the line. But considering that we’re going all the way halfway around the world, it really sound pretty good.
Eric: It’s a needed thing for me so I can watch some American sports while I’m living all the way over here.
Chris: Well, before we get into why I should come to Kyrgyzstan, let’s talk about why you went to Kyrgyzstan.
Eric: Well, my wife and I applied to the Peace Corps a couple years ago. The reason we went to Kyrgyzstan is because Peace Corps said, “Hey. You’re going to Kyrgyzstan.” So the process has changed a little bit, as our director who you interviewed about a month ago or so mentioned. So people can kind of choose countries now. You can also just choose to leave it up to the whim of Peace Corps to make a decision for you. But when we applied, it was before that process was in effect. So we ended up here, which was great because we love mountains. We love hiking. Kyrgyzstan has a lot of that.
Chris: To be honest, could you have found Kyrgyzstan on a map before they told you you were going there?
Eric: Not a chance.
Chris: So can you help the rest of us? Where is Kyrgyzstan?
Eric: Yeah. So Kyrgyzstan is in central Asia. It’s on the western edge of China and just below Kazakhstan. Then to the south is Tajikistan and west, Uzbekistan.
Chris: Okay. That probably didn’t help anybody except for China. That’s the one.
Eric: China is the big country, but go all the way from Beijing to the western edge, and you’ll find the little country of Kyrgyzstan. It’s a very small country. I think they usually say it’s almost exactly the size of South Dakota in the states. So it’s very small, and it’s very, very mountainous. It’s something like 70% mountains, which can make it feel like a big country when you’re here because it takes a long time to get around anywhere.
Chris: When you pitched me the show, we had already done one show on central Asia, on all of central Asia, quite a while back by this point, but you said you want to do a show on Kyrgyzstan because people really ought to go to Kyrgyzstan. Why?
Eric: There’s a few reasons for people coming here. One, if you do want to take a trip to central Asia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan is the easiest country to get into. It’s either no visa required or free visa on arrival for something like 60 countries now. Kazakhstan recently implemented a similar policy, but we’ve heard of some troubles with people not actually getting that freebie when they arrived, like they expected.
Kyrgyzstan is very easy. You just book your ticket, show up. They stamp your passport, and you’re in central Asia. Also, the history of Kyrgyzstan is a little bit different than the other stans around central Asia. The people were an entirely nomadic culture. So they don’t have some of the same traditions and history that you find in places like Uzbekistan, for instance. Also, being so mountainous, there’s a lot of adventure sports to do, a lot of hiking. You can go parasailing and all kinds of stuff here.
So it’s really, really a great place to come. Some people come just to see Kyrgyzstan, and some people just come here for the start of a longer trip.
Chris: Okay. What would you recommend for an itinerary to see Kyrgyzstan?
Eric: Well, like I said, it’s not a big country, but it does take a while to get around. We had talked about itinerary time, and I know you like to talk about a one-week itinerary, but really . . .
Chris: One to two weeks.
Eric: It’s impossible to come here for one week. So if you’re here for two weeks, almost everybody arrives into the capital city of Bishkek. It is possible to fly into the southern large city of Osh, but most people come to Bishkek. Most people are also coming from quite a ways away. So I’d take a couple days first in Bishkek, just to kind of adjust to the time zone, adjust to being in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not always the easiest country to get around. So it’s also nice to get to Bishkek, catch your breath a little bit, kind of figure out where things are before you try to brave the taxi stand or bus station.
Chris: When you say it’s not the easiest to get around . . .
Eric: Well, let’s talk about getting around Kyrgyzstan. Generally you’re gonna get around either in what we call marshrutkas which is essentially a little Dodge or Mercedes sprinter van that’s been outfitted to hold a lot more people than you’d think would fit in it, or a taxi. Either you can book your own taxi, or you can just pay for a seat in a taxi.
Chris: A collective taxi.
Eric: Yeah. They’re not difficult. The marshrutkas especially are . . . They go from Bishkek, between one of the two main bus stations, and their prices are very fixed. If you’re traveling a long distance, like to another city, you will have to have a seat. They don’t permit people to stand. The taxis are a little bit more difficult.
Chris: Oh, that’s nice, actually.
Eric: Because you have to negotiate the price. So what I always recommend to people when they come is to check in with either the hotel they’re going to stay at or the apartment they’re going to stay or the home stay if you do CBT, which we can talk about as well. Just find out how much things are supposed to cost because they’ll know, and the taxi drivers will try to charge you a lot more than you’d expect at first. But if you know what the real price is, eventually they’ll come down, and you can get on with your ride.
Within Bishkek, you also have taxis or marshrutkas, or you also have trolley buses, which is my preferred way to get around Bishkek. They’re much less crowded. They’re very, very cheap. I think with exchange rates today, they’re something like 15 cents, 15 US cents per ride, so very, very cheap. There’s even an app you can get for your phone, either iPhone or Android, called Bus.kg. That will show you all the bus routes around Bishkek, as well as all the marshrutka routes. So that can really help you get around and kind of get used to the way things work in Kyrgyzstan before you decide to head out to Issyk Kul or one of the other locations we’ll talk about.
Chris: Okay. You mentioned CBT.
Eric: Yes. So CBT stands for community-based tourism. It’s a collection of locally based tourism companies. They offer home stays. They can arrange rides. They can arrange horse tours or stays in yurts up in the mountains. If you just Google “CBT Kyrgyzstan,” their main page will pop up. From there, you can find the listing of all the different CBTs around Kyrgyzstan. Most regions have one, and there’s, I believe, 16 today. You can contact those via email before you come to Kyrgyzstan to try to arrange for places to stay, find out about rides around the country, and that type of thing.
They are only loosely a collection. So you might find it helpful to email multiple CBTs if you’re looking for a ride from one part of the country to another, for example. The prices can be a little bit inconsistent. So I’d just check in with a couple before you come, but they’re really great. In a lot of parts of the country, they’re gonna be the only way to really find lodging. There’s not hotels in some of the smaller villages, but the CBTs can arrange for home stays, where you’ll get some true, authentic Kyrgz food, meet local families. They’re really used to tourists, and it’s one of the best ways to see the country.
Chris: Okay. What are we seeing in Bishkek?
Eric: So in Bishkek, it’s actually a fairly modern city compared to the rest of the country.
Chris: I was getting that impression, since you’ve got an iPhone app. I don’t know if we have one for our buses here. I feel very remiss.
Eric: Yes, it’s . . . Yeah, it can be a little confusing at first, but just play around with it. You can figure it out. In Bishkek, they don’t have a ton of big sights to see. A couple of the ones that I would recommend . . . One is Osh Bazaar. It’s one of the biggest bazaars in the country, but it’s also a little bit notorious for pick-pockets.
Eric: So before you go to Osh Bazaar, just take the usual precautions of making sure wallets and purses are zipped up and secured and that type of thing. In Osh Bazaar, you can see all the traditional things a bazaar would have. You can buy souvenirs. It’s great people watching. There’s not a ton of tourists there. It’s mostly just locals doing their normal shopping.
Chris: What is a typical souvenir that I would bring back from Kyrgyzstan?
Eric: Well, I’d say the number one souvenir would be the kalpak, which is the traditional white pointed hat you’ll see males around the country wear. They’re typically white and black, and they have patterns on them that mean different things. Within just a couple minutes of being in the airport, you will see what a kalpak is because people wear them everywhere. They fold up nicely. So you can take them easily in your suitcase, and they’re not that expensive. That’s definitely the number one souvenir people take from Kyrgyzstan.
Chris: You said, rather vaguely, they have symbols on them that mean different things. I’m assuming they’re names of clans or something like that, rather than “Yankee go home”.
Eric: Yeah, I don’t know exactly because when I try to ask, people just kind of tell me some stories about how this is a sheep horn, and it means such and such, but the patterns mean different animals and that type of thing, but the stories, I think, are a little bit made up, perhaps, by some of the families. They’re interesting, and they’re nice to look at, and they’re absolutely uniquely Kyrgz.
Other souvenirs that are a little bit larger but pretty popular to bring back as well are shyrdaks or tushiks. Shyrdaks are large area rugs that are made of felt. They’re entirely handmade. They also have patterns similar to the kalpaks. Then tushiks are a little bit narrower, and they are basically thin mattresses. Some of your home stays, or if you go stay in a yurt somewhere, there’s a good chance your bed will be made up of tushiks. Those are both popular to take back as well.
Eric: Also, when you’re going around Bishkek, there’s another larger bazaar called Dordoy bazaar, which I think is the largest or one of the largest bazaars in all central Asia. It’s interesting because it’s made up of entirely of shipping containers. It is huge. It’s easy to get lost, but it’s pretty entertaining to go walk around there for a little while.
The last site I always recommend is the State History Museum. It’s only a few dollars to get in, and none of the exhibits have English on them, but the real thing to look at is the ceiling. Both the ceilings of the museum are covered entirely in a giant mural that was done during Soviet times. So it’s a little bit of Soviet propaganda. It’s best that you can see right there in the museum.
Chris: So lots of happy workers, I’m assuming.
Eric: Lots of happy workers. You can learn all about how the Soviets rescued the Jewish people from the Nazis and that type of stuff. There’s also . . . My favorite image is one of an American skeleton that looks suspiciously like Ronald Reagan, riding a bomb, while the people below are protesting, “No nuclear weapons.” It’s very interesting. Every couple years, there’s talk that they’re going to paint over the ceiling. So if you do go to Kyrgyzstan, definitely check that out.
Chris: Excellent. So after Bishkek, where to?
Eric: So if you do have extra time in Bishkek, you can do day trips from there, either to Ala Archa National Park or to Issyk-ata. Issyk-ata . . . There’s a marshrutka that goes from Bishkek. So it’s quite easy to get there. It’s an old Soviet-style sanitorium, not for crazy people, but for…
Chris: Getting out. Yeah, taking baths.
Eric: Yes. Yes. I’ve never bathed with the services they offer there, but there is also nice hiking if you like to do that. Then Ala Archa is a national park, and it is absolutely beautiful. There’s also a lot of mountain, rock, and ice climbing up there. So if you’re coming for some of the more extreme climbing, that’s a great place to start. There’s not a marshruka that goes all the way to Ala Archa. So if you’re gonna go there, you want to hire a taxi, but it’s only $15 or $20 each way for a taxi.
Chris: Okay. You mentioned the collective taxis. Is there a specific spot where it’s easy to find a shared taxi?
Eric: Well, it depends. If, for example, you’re going from Bishkek to Issyk-Kul, there’s the main bus station in Bishkek. It’s very near Osh Bazaar.
Eric: That’s where most of the taxis and marshrukas are gonna leave from.
Eric: Some locations, such as Ala Archa, there’s no taxis that go there. So you’ll need to book your own. But if you’re going to any other regions, such as Issyk-Kul or Tula or Naryn or the other oblasts, there’ll be taxis that’ll leave from there, but that’s why I would say it’s best just to contact the CBT or your hotel beforehand and let them know where you want to go and find out how much the taxi should cost and where it leaves from.
Eric: The information is not published anywhere online. So you really just have to ask people. Once you have the information, it’s not too hard to figure out. But if you don’t have the information before you go, it’ll be a little bit of a challenge.
Chris: You mentioned ask people when we’re outside of a hotel in Bishkek, in the capital. How likely is it that we’re gonna run into somebody who speaks English?
Eric: Oh. Well, if you’re going to one of the nicer hotels, they will have people there that speak English. Just walking around the street, you’re not gonna find too much English spoken. At the bus stations and stuff like that, the taxi drivers conveniently know the numbers, and they know dollars, and they know some words such as that to try to convince you to take their taxi, but you’re not gonna have much success having long conversations with that many people.
In Bishkek though, there are especially students who do know English. Oftentimes, they will be pretty eager to practice speaking English with you. So they can be great people if you run into them, to learn about things to do or places to eat and that sort of thing.
But what I would recommend when it comes to the taxis and getting around the country is to go through email when you’re trying to book stuff through CBTs or your hotel, and ask them those questions before you even leave your country and come to visit.
Chris: Okay. Where to next?
Eric: From Bishkek, I would then go out to Issyk-Kul. Issyk-Kul is the oblast. It’s name Issyk-Kul for the lake and the center of oblast that makes up the majority of the oblast actually. It’s called Hot Lake in Kyrgz.
Chris: You say oblast. That’s a region?
Eric: Yes. An oblast is basically a state or a province.
Chris: Province. Okay.
Eric: Yeah. So Issyk-Kul is the most popular oblast for tourists to visit. There’s basically one road that loops all the way around the lake. On the far western edge is Balykshy which is the city I live in. On the far eastern edge is Karakol, which is a very popular tourist destination. Then depending on how much time you have, you may want to just go straight to Karakol. You can catch a marshrutka from Bishkek that goes straight there. It’ll take six or seven hours.
Then once in Karakol the thing to do is hike. There are great places to hike. You can go up to Ögüz, which is the name of a valley just a little bit east of Karakol. Then there’s also one called Altan Arashan. Altan Arashan is very popular with tourists because they have natural hot springs you can go to. There’s also another lake that you can hike to, that’s a little bit strenuous. It takes most people three or four days. That lake is called Ala-Kul. It is a very, very beautiful lake and a very popular place to go.
When you get to Karakol, there are some hotels there you can stay. There’s also a CBT you can stay at. If you want to do some hiking, you don’t have to bring everything with you. There are places you can rent backpacks and tents and trekking poles and all that type of stuff. One of the better organizations to do that is an organization called Eco Trek. It’s just Ecotrek.kg. From there, they can set you up with even a guide if you want to do a longer trip. You can do things such as horse trips, just one day on a horse or up to 20 days if that’s what you want to do.
Chris: Oh, wow. Okay.
Eric: Yes. So from Karakol there’s some very easy day hikes.
Chris: Have you done any of the horse trips? Since we’re mentioning horse trips.
Eric: I have not done the horse trips yet. I have done a lot of hiking around Karakol, but I prefer to walk than ride a horse.
Eric: So I stick to the hiking, but Karakol is another great place if you want to do some of the more extreme climbing or just get way out into the mountains. You can basically hike through valleys all the way to China. It’s just massive beautiful mountain peaks, and it’s a really, really great place to be outside.
Karakol is also a great place if you want to arrange a time to go to what’s called Jailoo. Jailoo are the summer pastures that the Kyrgz people take their animals. So once the snow melts in June, they go up there. They set up their yurts and bring all their animals, and that’s where they’ll basically live for the summer.
A lot of them have now set up yurt camps. They’re just single yurts where you can arrange through something like Eco Trek or CBT to go stay for a couple nights. That’s one of the real authentic Kyrgz experiences that people come to Kyrgyzstan for, is the opportunity to sleep in a real yurt, not one of the ones you’re gonna see back in the states or somewhere that’s for show or for glamour camping, but an authentic yurt. It’s also a good place to use as a base for more hiking and that type of thing.
Eric: From Karakol, I would head towards another oblast called Naryn. There is also another marshrutka from Karakol that goes straigth to Naryn City, the center of Naryn, but I would consider hiring a taxi because you can drive along the south shore of Issyk-Kul instead of the north shore. The south shore, the lake is very . . . It’s much less developed than the north shore, and it’s very, very beautiful.
You can make stops along the way if you’d like, if you have your own driver. It’s just gonna be a lot more comfortable as well. Naryn is the center of Kyrgyzstan. It’s all mountains. It’s the highest oblast. People always say it’s the most Kyrgz, meaning that you’re not gonna hear Russian anymore. You’re only gonna hear people speaking Kyrgz. It has a much different feel than Bishkek or Issyk-Kul, which have a lot more tourists.
Chris: So that implies that when I’m in Bishkek, I’m still gonna hear quite a lot of Russian.
Eric: I should mention that. Yeah. There’s actually . . . You’re gonna probably hear, especially if you’re coming from a western country . . . They’re gonna assume you speak Russian. If anything, you’re definitely not gonna speak Kyrgz if you’re coming as a tourist. Almost everybody in Kyrgyzstan knows at least a little bit of Russian. In places like Bishkek, people generally are fluent in Russian and maybe not even Kyrgz.
Chris: I was assuming a lot of the signs would be in Cyrillic.
Eric: Yes. That’s another good tip. Before you come to Kyrgyzstan, especially if you’re gonna spend more time around Kazakhstan as well, it’s really helpful if you can learn the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s not that difficult. You don’t need to learn any words. But just being able to pronounce the alphabet, you’ll actually find a surprising amount of words, especially in restaurants, that are English words that are just written in Cyrillic. So if you’re really craving pizza, that sign might be a little bit confusing unless you can pronounce the Cyrillic and realize it just says “pizza.”
Chris: Yeah, it’s gonna look like pie-H. I don’t know what the Z would be, but yeah.
Eric: A three, two threes and an A.
Chris: Yeah, two threes. Yeah, exactly.
Eric: So yes, it’s very helpful. Sometimes they don’t do the threes. They change how they write it sometimes. But if you can pronounce Cyrillic, it’ll really, really help you. So on your way into Naryn, a lot of people like to go to an even higher lake than Issyk-Kul, called Song-Kul. Song-Kul . . . I don’t know what it is in meters, but I think it’s something like 10,000 feet in elevation. You’ll need to arrange a taxi to get up there. There’s a CBT in a town called Kochkur, which is very near Song-Kul. They can arrange for you to have a taxi up to Song-Kul.
When you’re up there, there’s many yurts you can stay at. There’s also a lot of horses you can ride. Sometimes there’s people demonstrating how they used to hunt with golden eagles and other traditional things like that. So it’s also a very beautiful place. It’s definitely on a lot of people’s short lists when they come to Kyrgyzstan.
Chris: When you arrange a taxi to go up to some place like Song-Kul, which is at least 100 miles, as I’m looking at this maybe, do they stay with you, and then you go back with them? Or do you call a cab in some way once you’re up there?
Eric: Yeah, you’ll want to arrange that with the CBT or whomever beforehand. If you go for one night, they’ll probably just stay there. If you decide you want to spend a couple nights up there, they might come back.
Chris: You have to arrange somebody to come back and get you. Okay.
Eric: Yeah. But if you arrange it through CBT or someone else, they’re pretty good about coming back when they say they will and that kind of thing.
Chris: Okay. Interesting.
Eric: Then from Song-Kul, you can keep heading south in Naryn, through Naryn City. For tourists, there’s not a lot developed yet in Naryn City. There are some hikes and stuff like that you can do around the city. Again, the CBT or other local trekking guides can help you find those.
But if you keep going south in Naryn, you get to one of my favorite spots in Kyrgyzstan, which is called Tash Rabat. This is quite a ways south, past Naryn. You’ll go past a town called Vashi. You also have to arrange a ride through CBT or someone to get out to Tash Rabat. It’s quite a ways out there. It’ll have to be someone that’s got a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Tash Rabat is an old building. It’s one of the very, very few buildings that’s left over from the Silk Road days in Kyrgyzstan. Since Kyrgyzstan was occupied by nomadic people, they didn’t have any permanent structures for the Silk Road, other than Tash Rabat. So Tash Rabat is a very interesting building. You can also go inside of it. It’s, I think, $2 US to go inside. You can see all the little rooms where people used to sleep. The Tash Rabat was built as a mixture of a fort, it actually has a dungeon in it, and then it had little rooms for people to sleep in as they were passing by to do their trade.
There’s a legend about how difficult it is to count the rooms. Sure enough, when our group went there, everybody came up with a different number of how many rooms were inside. So I don’t know what the trick is, but it seems to work. It’s a little bit difficult. Around Tash Rabat, there’s quite a few yurt camps you can stay at.
They say in Tash Rabat, you can experience four seasons in a single day, and we definitely did that. We stayed in Tash Rabat and went for a little hike, and it started out beautiful sun, and then it turned to rain. Then pretty soon, it was hail and snow. We woke up the next morning with a couple inches of snow on the ground. This was in early June. So it’s supposed to be summertime, but it doesn’t feel like it at Tash Rabat all the time.
Once you leave Tash Rabat, the next region that is definitely worth visiting is in the south of the country. From Naryn, there’s a few ways you can get there. You can hire an off-road vehicle to take you over the high mountain pass to the west of Naryn. That will take you up this very rough road, down into Jalal-Abad and Osh, or you can drive all the way up to Bishkek and then take the better road south from Bishkek, or you can go to Bishkek and then fly. That’s definitely the easiest way to get down there.
The plane flight is only about half an hour, and it’s $15 or $20 US. So it’s very quick and easy. If you’re short on time, that’s definitely the best way to go. If you have a lot of time, the road from Bishkek south down to Osh is great. So it’s worth it, but it’ll take a couple days.
Eric: It’s a lot of time to be in a car.
Chris: Not a lot of flat and easy to drive, but great meaning picturesque, scenic, and very curvy.
Eric: Interesting. Yes, all the above. So then once you’re down into Osh, they often refer to Osh as the capital of the south. It feels very different than Bishkek. It’s a very beautiful city, and the makeup of the people is very different. Whereas in Bishkek, you have mostly Kyrgz but quite a few Russian and other expats from other western countries there. In Osh, it’s a lot more of a mix between Kyrgz, Uzbek, and Taji people. So you’re gonna hear a lot less Russian. You’ll hear more Kyrgz. You’ll even hear some Uzbek and Taji sometimes.
So the city feels very different. It’s much more religious. In the center of Osh, they have the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the country. It’s called Sulaiman-Too. Sulaiman is named after King Solomon, and Too just means “mountain” in Kyrgz. It’s just this mountain that rises up from the very, very flat city of Osh. You can walk up to the top of it. There’s a museum built into the side of the mountain. It’s a very popular tourist destination for Kyrgz people actually as well.
Sometimes if you walk around the mountain a little bit, you’ll see women doing shaman type of stuff. Kyrgyzstan is mostly a Muslim country, but there’s other little bits of witchcraft almost that’s seeped into some places, which is pretty fun to see. You’ll see most of that around Sulaiman-Too.
Chris: You mentioned it was the only UNESCO World Heritage site. I think that was true when you went there, but apparently in 2014, as part of the Silk Road’s route, the city of Suyab became a UNESCO World Heritage site as well.
Eric: Oh, good to know. I do know that Kyrgyzstan has several other sites that are pending. There’s some petroglyphs near Kazarman. They have an epic story about Manas their most famous hero in their history. I know those are both pending, but nothing else yet. I think Tash Rabat should be a UNESCO World Heritage site. I think it’s on the pending list as well.
Chris: Well, I found out last week or the week before that I’d been to two new UNESCO World Heritage sites, and I wasn’t even traveling, because they named two sites that I had been to. So yeah, you never know. That list is always changing.
Eric: Yes. Yes.
Chris: Generally growing. There’s a few that get taken off there because they don’t meet the standards of preserving the site, or they get destroyed.
Eric: Yeah, or they get destroyed in Syria and such. Yeah.
Eric: Then also, once you’re down in the south of the country, you should definitely take a visit to my favorite village in all Kyrgyzstan, which is Arslanbob. From Osh, you can take a couple of marshrutkas, one to Jalal-Abad City and one from there to Arslanbob. You can also take a shared seat in a taxi, or you can arrange a taxi just for yourself. Arslanbob is about three or four hours away from Osh. It’s very interesting because it’s entirely Uzbek. It’s just a little bit of an enclave for Uzbek people there. It’s still technically part of Kyrgyzstan. There are some other spots within Kyrgyzstan that are actually Uzbek, part of the country of Uzbekistan . . .
Chris: Yeah, little enclaves of Uzbekistan surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. I noticed that on the map. Interesting.
Eric: Yes, which can run into a little bit of trouble for us if we’re traveling around the country, because we’re not permitted to go to Uzbekistan because we don’t have a visa for there, but sometimes the people you’re going with may have it.
Chris: Uzbekistan comes to you. Yeah.
Eric: Yes, exactly. But Arslanbob is fantastic. The place to stay there is definitely with the local CBT. There’s quite a few CBT home stays there available, I believe 18 of them. We stayed at number 12, which is fantastic. Ask for that one if you’re going to go to Arslanbob.
Chris: This is a mountain village, it looks like.
Eric: Yes, it’s one of the only villages I’ve been to like this in Kyrgyzstan, where it’s actually built on the side of a mountain. Typically the villages are at the base of the mountain, and people take their animals to the mountains from there.
Eric: But Arslanbob itself is actually built on the side of the mountain, and it’s famous for having the world’s largest walnut forest. They are beautiful. If you happen to be coming to Kyrgyzstan in September or October, which is a little later than most tourists come, but in Arslanbob, the weather will be great. That’s the hardest time for the walnut forest. The CBT can arrange for you to get a tour around the forest, and they can show you how they process them and all that type of stuff.
There’s also several hikes you can go do around there. You can walk through the walnut forest, and there are two waterfalls you can hike to. Then of course, they also offer horse treks and that type of thing. If you visit Kyrgyzstan in the winter, there’s cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing in Arslanbob.
Chris: Now it’s interesting, when you mentioned the walnut forest, because I think the mental picture most people have, or at least I have, of central Asia, and we talked about this the last time we did an episode, is that central Asia is dry and brown. We didn’t talk about Kyrgyzstan. But what is the picture here? Obviously very mountainous.
Chris: How forested?
Eric: So in the northern parts of the country, it’s not that forested, even when you get to the mountains.
Eric: It’s not densely wooded. But in the south, around Osh, Osh is part of the same valley that leads into Uzbekistan. So it’s very dry, very hot, not a lot of forest. Once you get towards Arslanbob you end up going up the mountains just a little bit. All of a sudden, you’re in these woods, which is the walnut forest. It’s actually the only place I’ve been to in Kyrgyzstan that’s quite like this. So it definitely feels like woods from back in the northwest of America, where I’m from.
Eric: So it’s quite unique from the rest of the country, let alone the rest of central Asia. The walnut forest is all divided into groups of plots of land, maybe 20 or 40 acres. I’m not sure exactly how large they are. Different families are granted access to harvest from those different plots. Then in between those plots, there’s little roads you can walk through. When you hike around the area, those are the parts you can walk through. So you’re walking on a dirt road surrounded by these giant trees all around. Then there’s a large mountain on the north side of Arslanbob that you can see in the distance. If you want to do a longer hike, you can hike up there as well. It’s really a great place.
Uzbek food and dress and culture and all that is just a little bit different than Kyrgz culture. So you can experience a lot of that without actually having to leave Kyrgyzstan. As I was mentioning, CBT number 12 is great because they have what’s called a topchan, which is basically an outdoor patio. It overlooks all of Arslanbob valley. That’s where you’ll have your meals and everything. It’s really a nice place.
Chris: Now, that’s the second time we mentioned food. So I can’t let you go past it at this point. You say that you’re gonna find Uzbek food here versus Kyrgz food. What dishes would characterize each?
Eric: So Uzbek is definitely famous for their plov, which is rice cooked in oil with different types of vegetables in there, maybe carrots or peppers and garlic.
Chris: Like a biryani?
Eric: Yes. Yes, very similar to that. We should definitely talk about food in Kyrgyzstan. So in Bishkek, you can find all types of stuff, pizza or Chinese food and whatever else you’re looking for. Kyrgyzstan really has one big national dish, which is called Beshbarmak. That basically means five fingers in English. It’s very plain noodles with a lot of kind of fatty sheep meat in it. Most western tourists aren’t gonna enjoy it that much.
Chris: Okay. I was gonna say that isn’t the way I would express it in the brochure if I was trying to get people to go.
Eric: No. Honestly if you’re doing home stays and that type of stuff, they know that a lot of their visitors . . . It’s not gonna be their favorite dish, but Kyrgyzstan does have some very good food. My favorite is lagman, which is a noodle soup that’s got peppers and carrots and some shredded meat and other stuff like that in there. It’s a little bit spicy. It’s very good. It’s actually a Dungan dish. The Dungan people are the group that came from China, the Islamic people from China that now reside in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Their food is a little bit spicier. Now Kyrgyzstan has kind of integrated it, and they’ve made these new dishes which are great.
Logmon you can also get boso-lagman, which is the same as the soup, but the ingredients are fried instead of put into a soup. That’s my absolute favorite dish in the country. So definitely get boso-lagman whenever you can.
There’s another dish that’s also from the Dungans called ashlan foo. That is a cold salad. It’s made with tofu and also some peppers. It’s a little bit spicy, and it’s also in a broth. It’s very good. If you come in summer, you’re going to see shashlik all over the place. Basically shashlik is a meat kabob, either mutton or beef or, my favorite, duck. It’s usually served on a bed of shredded onions with some vinegar. That’s really great too.
Chris: Now you recommended a cold salad in a developing country. That tends to be a recipe for problems.
Eric: I’ve never had a problem from food. So I guess carry your Cipro with you. Yeah, never had a problem with that. That actually brings me to another point, which is I was pretty surprised when I came by how hot Kyrgyzstan can be. It’s this mountainous country and all that. But when you’re in Bishkek or Osh in the summer, the temperatures can easily get to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius. So they don’t have a lot of air conditioning everywhere either. So just be prepared that you may need a warm jacket if you’re going to Song-Kul or Tash Rabat, but you’re definitely gonna want to be dressed for the heat in the summer.
Chris: When would you recommend we come? Is summer the best time to come?
Eric: Summer is the best time.
Eric: Yeah. In the winter, there is some skiing and that type of stuff, but there’s probably better skiing closer to you than coming to Kyrgyzstan for that. So really it’s mid June through mid September.
Chris: So unless you want to say you’ve skied in Kyrgyzstan, for whatever points that’ll get you.
Eric: Right. Or if you happen to be in Kyrgyzstan for some other reason in winter, then come ski. It’s actually pretty nice. But yeah, mid June through mid September is really the best time to come.
Chris: I’m gonna guess the skiing is really affordable too, as far as that goes.
Eric: Yes, it is. There’s . . .
Chris: I’m assuming you’re already here rather than flying halfway around the world to get there.
Eric: Yeah, the resort I go to Karakol, it’s actually pretty nice, although a little small. I think the lift ticket is about $16 or $17.
Eric: So it’s pretty inexpensive. One other thing when you come here in summertime is that’s when it’s kymyz season. Kymyz is the national drink of Kyrgyzstan. You’ve probably heard about it if you’ve watched shows such as . . . I think Andrew Zimmern tried it in Mongolia. They have it in Kazakhstan and Mongolia as well. It’s fermented mare’s milk. Some people that I know claim to love it. I don’t like to drink too much of it, but it’s a very unique drink. So I would try a little bit of that when you’re here.
Chris: Okay. A strong drink is the other thing you’re implying there.
Eric: It’s mildly alcoholic, not very strong.
Chris: Oh, okay.
Eric: It’s got a very unique taste. It looks a little milky. But if you think of sour milk with a splash of vodka thrown in, you’re kind of on the right track.
Chris: All right. Again, not necessarily how I would describe it in the tourist brochure.
Eric: It’s unique.
Chris: Any other sites you wanted to mention before we get into our general questions?
Eric: Well, I think that’s definitely gonna take you to two weeks. So there’s a lot of other sites you can go to. There’s pretty much any valley in Kyrgyzstan, you can hike up there because there’s gonna be shepherds with their animals. So if you happen to be staying in a yurt on the south shore of Issyk-Kul and there’s a valley behind you, you can almost definitely walk up it, and there’ll be a path you can take, and it’ll probably be very pretty.
Chris: Okay. Describe to me one time since you were in country that it just seemed really familiar, like, “I feel like I haven’t even left home,” versus one time where it was the most foreign.
Eric: A couple stories then, I guess. So the most familiar . . . As I mentioned, I’m from the northwest of the US. So we’re used to hiking and forests and all that. I would say that the most familiar time has been on a hike I recently did in Karakol, where it was just through the trees and through the forest, and there was a river going by. There was no . . . We were past where all the shepherds go. So there was no more cow tracks and stuff to follow. It just felt like a normal hike. So that was the most that felt like home.
Although, what is a little bit odd now is that, after I’ve lived here for a year, when I’m not in the country, if I’m on a trip somewhere and I’m kind of like, “Okay. It’s time to go home. I mean back to Balykshy.” So that’s a little bit strange to think of, that I do think of this as my home now, but it is.
Then the time it’s felt the least like home . . . Pretty much my daily life does not feel like home back in the states here. So a lot of the volunteers, we like to get together to celebrate American holidays. So for Thanksgiving last year, we really wanted to do a traditional Thanksgiving, have a turkey, all that type of stuff. So instead of going to your local grocery store and buying a nice fat turkey, all prepped and ready for cooking, we had to go to the bazaar and pick a turkey out of a cage. Then we had to put it in a bag and hold it upside down, because now I know turkeys calm down when you hold them upside down.
We had to take the live turkey in the bag, take it onto a marshruka, and head back to the apartment where we could slaughter it and cook it and all that. Taking a live turkey on public transportation, that was a little bit strange.
Chris: Okay. We’ve heard of the chicken bus. Apparently that day, there was the turkey bus.
Eric: That was the turkey bus. Yes.
Chris: You’re standing in the most beautiful spot in the whole country. Where are you standing? And what are you looking at?
Eric: I would say the most beautiful place I’ve seen was a place called Ontor Pass, which I just recently saw. There’s a hike you can do out from Karakol, way past the turnoff to Ala-Kul that many tourists take, and just keep going up this valley called Karakol Valley. After about 20 miles or so, maybe a couple days, you’ll get up onto a high pass. From there, you can see Karakol peak to the right and Jigit peak to the left. Both peaks are something like 5200 meters or about 16,000 feet. You can see the massive glaciers coming down below them. You just walk through a high-alpine meadow filled with marmots. I’d say that’s the prettiest place I’ve been to in the country. It’s pretty unbeatable.
Chris: Excellent. One warning you would give, one thing we should know before we go to Kyrgyzstan.
Eric: The biggest danger in Kyrgyzstan is pick-pockets or people who just try to take advantage of you not knowing how much some things will cost.
Eric: So normal things when you’re going to a developing country. Just make sure that you can secure things, and make sure you know how much things should cost and that type of stuff, and you’re gonna be okay.
Chris: Well, we talk about being taken advantage of for how much things would cost. Sometimes you might end up spending $30 instead of $15, is really the numbers.
Eric: Right. I tell people when they come, if you can get within 10% of what the taxi should cost, just call it a win and go ahead and take it.
Chris: Right. Right. What’s gonna surprise me when I come to Kyrgyzstan? Or among the things that are gonna surprise me, what’s gonna surprise me first?
Eric: Well, my wife’s parents just came to visit us here. I think a lot surprised them. I forgot how much stuff surprised me when I came, now that it feels normal. One thing I think may surprise you, for example, if you do decide to take a taxi to some of these more remote places, the thing that may slow you down the most is the giant herds of animals that take up the whole road because there’s just no other path through.
The other thing that really surprised me, which we talked about, was the heat. In Kyrgyzstan, you’re not gonna find very much air conditioning. So the heat really surprised me, when I just kept looking at all these pictures of mountains.
Chris: Okay. If we’re coming to see you while we’re in Kyrgyzstan, what should we pack because you can’t get it in Kyrgyzstan?
Eric: Really good Italian salami is impossible, Goldfish crackers, and good beer. There is not much good beer here.
Chris: Oh, that’s unusual. It seems like every country has beer of some sort.
Eric: There is beer, but good beer is the key. The beer here that most people drink is . . .
Chris: Mostly water.
Eric: . . . maybe Baltica, which comes from Russia, and it’s not great. Also, there’s no good wine here. If there is, it’s very expensive. But if you would like cheap Russian vodka, they have a lot of it.
Chris: One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Kyrgyzstan.”
Eric: Only in Kyrgyzstan is when you’re in a taxi or marshruka, and you’re delayed for five minutes because there’s several hundred sheep blocking your road. That happens often.
Chris: I actually had that happen in New Zealand and Ireland as well. So I’m not sure we can count that as only in Kyrgyzstan. Okay. Any other thoughts of what we should know before we go, before we get to our last two questions?
Eric: One other thing I think you should try to keep an eye out for or maybe talk to the people you will be staying with here is to find out if a game of Kok-Boru is going to be going on while you’re around.
Eric: Kok-Boru basically . . . It’s a wolf. Gray wolf is what it means. It’s a game where it’s essentially polo, with two teams of something like six to eight men on horses on each team. The goal is to get this carcass of a dead goat into your goal.
Chris: I was wondering if that’s what we were talking about. Okay.
Eric: Yes. Sometimes there’s just games going on in the middle of a field that you may come across, or they may know of an organized game that’s going to be happening. But if you can see that close-up, it’s pretty incredible.
Chris: Excellent. That may be the answer to the next question. You really know you’re in Kyrgyzstan when what?
Eric: You really know you’re in Kyrgyzstan when you decide to take a chance and go off the beaten track and go for a hike someplace that no one told you was nice, but you see a valley that looks pretty. You hike up there, and you end up running into a family who’s just up there with their yurt or their tent, and they invite you in for hot tea and bread. You meet a family that speaks no English, but they’re just really happy that you’re there.
You hear a lot about Kyrgz hospitality, and that’s where you really experience it, when you just take a chance, and you go someplace that no one told you was where to go.
Chris: Excellent. You’ve lived in country now for over a year. How would you describe it if you had only three words?
Eric: Rewarding, beautiful, and mountains.
Chris: Excellent. Eric, where can people read more about your travels?
Eric: So my wife and I post to our blog on www.ericandtaylor.com. By the time this episode airs, I’ll have a guide to Kyrgyzstan up. So you can see some of the links to the CBTs and the types of things we talked about. I’ve also been posting to Instagram a lot more lately. That’s @Ericpaulphotos.
Chris: Thanks so much for coming on the Amateur Traveler and sharing with us your love for Kyrgyzstan.
Eric: Thanks a lot.
Chris: I meant to put in a sponsor spot earlier in the episode to announce that a video course we’re doing on hosting Airbnb. If you’re interested in knowing how we have at least mostly paid for or completely paid for our mortgage using Airbnb and had interesting people staying with us over the last few months, then sign up for that video course. I’ll let you know when it comes out, Amateurtraveler.com/airbnb.
I was just too lazy today to go back and put that where I wanted to in the episode, because I didn’t fly in until after midnight from the east coast, so after 3:00 AM my body time, because I was back in the east coast, working with Trip Advisor again, doing some contract work on Seatguru.com. So if you see, in the next couple weeks, that Seat Guru has a new look, that’s what I’ve been working on.
I sometimes get quite behind on the Amateur Traveler email. Way back in February, I got a letter from Bear that . . . I’ll put the whole thing in the show notes, but I wanted to share some of it with you on this episode. He was pitching me a show about eating your way around the world, which we do, but we just do it in parts.
We talk about eating every place we go, but we haven’t done one show about it, but I loved some of his descriptions. “Your show on Japan discussed octopus balls. They are made by street vendors and are delicious. You keep the balls turning, or they burn. A favorite dessert in Japan is something I call moldy bean balls. Beans are mashed and mixed with something similar to molasses and then rolled and put under the sink in the dark until they get a pretty thick layer of mold on them. I stayed in four homes during my full bright period in Japan. All four proudly served moldy bean balls with dinner.”
“In Paraguay, people show up at the hotel room door and say, ‘You want anything? It’s complementary.’ Then they return with a huge platter of fruits, meats, and cheese. That went on for a week. Then I was presented with this enormous bill. Turns out the complementary part was the free delivery. My Spanish got appreciably better after that episode.”
“Ecuador’s national food is cuy. You and I know it as a guinea pig. They skin them and run a stick through their mouth and out their anus. So they can be roasted on a spit. The cuy look like they just stepped out of Edward Munch’s “the scream”. Why? Because they are killed by making a strong slap of your hands with the guinea pig’s head in the middle. Every one of them dies, saying, ‘Ay.’ It’s a treat for Ecuadorians but tends to gross out the Americans.”
Thanks, Bear, for that email. I’ll put the whole email in the show notes over at Amateurtraveler.com. With that, we’ll end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. If you have questions, send an email to Host at amateurtraveler.com. Better yet, leave a comment on this episode at Amateurtraveler.com. You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, @Chris2X. As always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.