This mountainous country, filled with natural beauty is often referred to as the Switzerland of Asia. The Tian Shan Mountains cover more than 3/4 of the land and furnish endless hiking and mountaineering opportunities.
The remainder of country is varied, with the subtropical, fertile Fergana Valley in the southwest to temperate foothills in the north. Kyrgyzstan’s diverse geography and the hospitality of the people make it a wonderful tourist destination.
The capital and largest city is Bishkek, located in the north, near the border with Kazakhstan. In centuries past it was an important stop along the Silk Road and many historic sites have been preserved among modern Bishkek’s wide, tree-lined boulevards and well-cared-for Soviet-era gardens. The nearby Ala Too Mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop as well as a cool respite from summer heat and many alpine winter recreational activities.
To the city’s east is the world’s second largest mountain lake, Issyk-Kul. Though surrounded by snow-capped peaks of the Tian Shan, the lake never freezes, hence its name, which in the Kyrgyz language means “warm lake.”
Along the way, a stop at Cholpon-Ata lets you take in the open air art museum, said to date from 500 BC. Here, you see stone carvings depicting wolves, goats, long horned ibex, horses and snow leopards along with sacrificial and hunting scenes.
South of Issyk-Kul is the Jety-Oguz gorge, a lush valley with striking red sandstone formations called the Seven Bulls, from which the gorge takes its name.
Traveling further southwest you come to the small town of Kochkur where Kyrgyz felt carpets are made. Nearby is the beautiful Skazka Valley. Here, centuries of wind and melting snow have sculpted the limestone cliffs into magnificent arrays of columns and crags, ranging from bright orange to deep red in color.
Kyrgyzstan maintains its nomadic, independent traditions and more than 2/3rd of the population still live in rural areas. Many still make their living as shepherds and livestock herders, moving their flocks higher in the mountains during summer and back into lower valleys in cooler months. The simple, efficient yurt hut so common throughout Central Asia makes for good overnight lodging anywhere in the country.
The hospitality of the Kyrgyz people is legendary and any stranger will be invited in for a cup of the national drink, fermented mare’s milk and, more of ten than not, a full meal of Kyrgyz home cooking. The other national passion is horsemanship and horseback is the preferred mode of transportation in many rural areas.
Kyrgyzstan’s second major city is Osh, located in the southwest part of the country. It is reputed to be some 3000 years old, older than Rome, as locals proudly proclaim, but its position along the Silk Road assured it a place of prominence through history. Located near the fertile Fergana Valley, Osh is dominated at its center by Sulaiman Too (“Solomon’s Mountain”), which is the burial place of the Muslim prophet Suleyman Sheikh. Since Mohammed is said to have once prayed here, the Osh has become one of the holiest cities in Islam and many come here on pilgrimages.
The city’s archaeological-cultural museum houses artifacts discovered in the city’s surroundings. On the banks of the river that flows through the city lies one of the largest and most picturesque bazaars in all of Asia and the largest mosque in Kyrgyzstan, the Shaid Tepa Mosque.