Introduction

The main attraction of Kyrgyzstan lies in the breathtaking landscape of mountains, glaciers and lakes; their isolation ensures that they have been almost forgotten by the crowds. The lakes and mountainous terrain provide excellent opportunities for trekking, skiing, climbing, sailing and swimming. For more ambitious travellers, it is possible to follow the route of the old Silk Road to Kashgar in China, crossing the border at the Torugart Pass, near Lake Chatyr-Kul. Trekking tours and adventure holidays in this region are offered by a growing number of companies.

BISHKEK : The capital was founded in 1878 on the site of a clay fort built by the Khan of Kokand and destroyed by the Russians, and sits at the foot of the Tian Shan mountain range. A largely Soviet-built city, it has a similar spacious atmosphere to its Kazakh neighbour, Almaty. Ulitsa Sovietskaya, the broad tree-lined road between the railway station and the city centre, houses the Kyrgyz State Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Chernyshevsky Public Library and the State Art Museum. Other attractions include the History Museum in the Old Square (Stary Ploshad), the Lenin Museum, the Zoological Museum and the Kyrgyz Drama Theatre. The Government plans to redevelop the former General Frunze Museum on Frunze Street - which commemorated the Kyrgyz-born Russian general who subdued Central Asia for the Bolsheviks - into a celebration of the ethnic diversity that is found in Kyrgyzstan. A section on Jewish culture has already been opened.

EXCURSIONS : Less than an hour’s drive from Bishkek, the Ala-Archa Nature Reserve offers spectacular scenery for trekking and skiing. A further 50 minutes east from the city, the Burana Tower is a 25m-high (82ft) minaret which dates from the 11th century and is all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun.

LAKE ISSYK-KUL : Still further east lies the jewel in the crown of the republic. Lying 1600m (5249ft) above sea level, the saltwater Lake Issyk-Kul was closed to foreigners during the Soviet era. Both its Kyrgyz name and Chinese name (Ze-Hai) mean warm sea, as it never freezes over, despite the altitude. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains and ringed with sandy beaches, the lake has a pristine and outstanding beauty. On the north shore, the town of Cholpan-Alta is a spa town which was a former retreat for the Communist Party elite. The resort of Issyk-kul is now open to anyone, although it is very busy during the summer season and visitors are advised to book in advance. In the Kungay Ala-Too Mountains behind it, four trekking routes start, leading eventually to Medeo, outside Almaty (Kazakhstan), 4 to 6 days away. For scuba-diving enthusiasts, there is spectacularly clear water and a 12th-century town that lies 2-3m (6-10ft) below the surface of the lake near Ulan, 18km (11 miles) from Balikchi.

At the southeast end of the lake is the town of Kara-Kol, with its attractive houses and tree-lined streets, and behind it are the Terskay Ala-Too Mountains, an unspoilt wilderness populated only by nomadic shepherds, and only then during the summer. There are few roads and little accommodation. Around 16km (10 miles) outside Kara-Kol is the health resort of Ak-Soo with hot mineral springs.

OSH : Kyrgyzstan’s second city is in the south, on the Uzbek border. Although it is 2500 years old, few traces of its ancient history remain. Since the tenth century, pilgrims have come to visit the Suleiman Gora, a hill in the middle of the city where legend has it that the Prophet once prayed. Childless women come here in the hope that they may conceive (the hill is supposed to look like a pregnant woman lying on her back). Other attractions include the Museum of Local Studies and the bazaar.

EXCURSIONS : North of Osh is the town of Uzgen where there is a mausoleum that is supposed to have contained the body of the Kyrgyz hero Manas. East of Osh is the Sary-Chelek Nature Reserve, which includes the stunning Lake Sary-Chelek.

THE SILK ROAD : This ancient trading route was used by silk merchants from the second century AD until its decline in the 14th century, and is open in parts to tourists, stretching from northern China, through bleak and foreboding desert and mountainous terrain to the ports on either the Caspian Sea or Mediterranean Sea. For further details of the route, see the Silk Road in the China section.

The main attraction of the route in Kyrgyzstan is the amazing alpine scenery including the Kyrgyz Altau and Tian Shan mountain ranges and Issyk Kul Lake (the world’s second-largest alpine lake). The difficult but exhilarating journey between Bishek and Kashgar (China) via the Torugart Pass is a popular trekking route. Travel along the silk road can be quite difficult due to the terrain, harsh climate and lack of developed infrastructure. Visitors to the region are advised to travel with an organized tour company or travel agent.

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Information provided by Kyrgystan Tourism Board.

 

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