Trekking in Kyrgyzstan is the highlight for many of those traveling in Central Asia. My friend Stephen Lioy, Central Asia expert, shares his expertise on trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Trekking in Kyrgyzstan is becoming increasingly popular among independent tourists looking for an offbeat travel experience and incredible mountain landscapes. It’s no wonder – Kyrgyzstan has earned a reputation as one of adventure tourism’s up-and-coming darlings and a regular feature on ‘Best Kept Secrets’ lists.
Home to 7000m+ peaks, rugged mountains that still see very few international visitors, and a culture of nomad traditions that can still be seen today; Kyrgyzstan is a perfect fit for travellers looking to combine authentic cultural experiences and challenging mountain hikes. However, even with travel guides like Lonely Planet: Central Asia updated every few years, it’s hard to find up-to-date and thorough information on trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
To help you plan a trekking trip to Kyrgyzstan, I’ve compiled information on where to find the best hiking trails in Kyrgyzstan and what you need to know before you go.
Table of Contents
- Best Regions for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- Chuy Oblast (Around Bishkek)
- Issyk-Kul Oblast
- Osh Oblast
- Naryn Oblast
- Other Options
- Finding Trekking Maps in Kyrgyzstan
- USAID Trekking Maps:
- Packing Tips for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- Costs for Independent Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- Best Tour Agencies for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- Destination Management Organizations (DMOs)
- Community-Based Tourism Operators (CBTs)
- Full-Service Tour Operators
- In the Event of Emergency
- About the Author: Stephen Lioy
- Inspired? Pin it!
Best Regions for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Just about anywhere in Kyrgyzstan can be a trailhead, with parallel mountain valleys rising from the lowlands across the country towards remote lakes and tempting peaks. Here are some of the best areas to go trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
Chuy Oblast (Around Bishkek)
The mountains surrounding Bishkek are the easiest to explore with a limited amount of time in country, and make particularly good trips if you’re hanging around the city waiting on a visa for onward travel. Ala-Archa National Park is the default option that travellers head to, in part because it’s only about an hour out of the city, and the three main trails there are all rewarding hikes.
Travellers trying to stick to public transport should head for Issyk-Ata, the popular Soviet-era sanatoria (health resort) that also functions as a trailhead into a short but beautiful valley topped by the imposing pyramidal peak Byty at the end. It’s possible to continue over two passes and back towards Bishkek via the Alamuddin Valley from here, or even continue on to Suusamyr valley, though most will see it as an ‘out and back’ returning to Bishkek from the sanatoria.
A little harder to get to but even more rewarding is Kegeti. Chon- (big) Kegeti valley is a popular daytrip option for Kyrgyz families who come to picnic near the valley’s several large waterfalls, while Kichi- (small) Kegeti is home to one of Chuy’s most beautiful mountain lakes. From the small guesthouse at the end of the road in Kichi Kegeti, turquoise-coloured Kol-Tor Lake is around three hours of uphill hiking away.
Dayhikers will likely stop in the vicinity of the lake, but on multi-day trips it’s possible to continue to the end of the same valley to a wide open bowl surrounded by towering mountain peaks, continuing east over a pass into the Shamsy Wildlife Preserve or west into the Chon-Kegeti Valley and back down towards the junction of the two.
For easy dayhikes within a couple hours of Bishkek, the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan keeps an updated calendar of tours on their website. Though group dynamics may slow down quick hikers, this is without doubt the easiest way to get into the mountains and back from Bishkek and as a bonus their groups are generally a fun mix of local and foreign guests that all enjoy the outdoors, so it’s an easy place to make friends.
Lake Issyk Kul is Kyrgyzstan’s most popular tourist attraction by a long shot, attracting plenty of Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Russian tourists who come for beach holidays and partying. The mountains surrounding the lake, however, attract a more adventurous sort of traveller, those looking to head into rugged nature or climb two of the country’s highest peaks: 7010m Khan Tengri and 7439m Jengish Chokusu (formerly Peak Pobeda).
Three main centres for ecotourism exist along the southern and eastern shore of Issyk-Kul: long-time trekking hub Karakol, new ecoutourism base Jyrgalan, or the surprisingly diverse natural and cultural landscapes of Issyk-Kul’s South Shore (where you can base yourself at Feel Nomad Yurt Camp and go on short hikes from there). Each offers a different ‘in town’ experience and a varying range of trails, but all three are excellent bases from which to explore the Tien Shan.
The city of Karakol is the most popular base for hikers in Kyrgyzstan, thanks mostly to the wealth of treks near Karakol. Walk for a half-day to a panoramic viewpoint above the hilly outskirts of the city in the Ak-Suu Arboretum, trek for one week on the Ak-Suu Transverse past stunning passes and the popular Ala-Kol lake, or buy a couple horses and set off for a month-long solo adventure all the way across Kyrgyzstan. It’s easy to get to, easy to stock up on gear and food, and easy to arrange anything a trekker might need.
About an hour by road into the hills beyond Karakol, the former coal-mining village of Jyrgalan has re-invented itself in recent years as one of the country’s newest ecotourism hubs. Staying in local family-run guesthouses and arranging guides and horses directly from locals, this is a great place to engage in sustainable tourism at a grassroots level. Plus, trailheads start right in the village so you can walk out your guesthouse door for trekking in Jyrgalan: dayhikes to small waterfalls and lakes, the popular four-day Keskenkiya Loop, or the tail-end of the Ak-Suu Transverse until Boz-Uchuk Lakes.
Traditionally more of a hub for cultural experience than trekkers, there are some decent trails on the South Shore of Issyk-Kol and the town of Bokonbaevo makes an easy base from which to explore them. The Ak-Sai Petroglyphs and Shatyly Overlook are both half-day routes in the immediate vicinity of town with great views over Issyk-Kol, while three- to five- day hikes stretch as far as Teshik-Kol lake or the Barskoon valley.
Southern Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, is better known among tourists for Silk Road history and excellent food; but even within a few hours of the city of there are really nice hikes near Osh to be found.
South of the city, off the highway to Batken, are two easy options. Kojokelen village, at the end of a windy mountain road past the Papan reservoir, is a quiet community surrounded by mountains studded with waterfalls and pilgrimage sites. Major trails here are better accessed from the Alay Valley, but for dayhiking it’s a charming base for a few days.
Kyrgyz Ata National Park comprises two mountain valleys full in summer with yurt camps and livestock herds. Visit as a one-day trip with a local tour operators or use it as the beginning of multi-day hikes stretching to Kojokelen or the Alay Valley. Push a little further, into the Alay Valley that forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and even more options await. Climbers come here to summit the 7134m Peak Lenin, considered one of the easiest trekking peaks above 7000m. At the foot of Lenin, the 40+ Tulpar-Kol lakes make for nice wandering or horse trekking in the region as well.
On the northern side of the Alay Valley, single- and multi-day hikes cut through the small valleys and high mountains that separate the Alay from Osh. Along the Pamir Highway between Osh and Sary-Tash, dayhikes through Karashagyl Gorge and Ak-Bosogo are excellent choices for tourists who are short on time and need to keep moving but want to experience some of the region’s nature.
Further into the Alay near the village of Sary Mogol the Koshkol Lakes are a hard but beautiful one-day trek, but the ultimate hike in the region is the five-day ‘Heights of Alay’ that crosses over the Sary-Mogol (4303m) and Jiptik (4185m) Passes. From each, if the weather cooperates, endless mountain panoramas stretch out beyond the Alay and Peak Lenin and into Tajikistan beyond.
For any hikes in the area, the CBT Osh / Visit Alay office in Osh city is an amazing resource. They’ve got contacts all across the region for local guides, guesthouses, yurt stays, and everything else a trekker could need; plus they’re happy to help provide info or recommendations on the most suitable routes for any given hiker.
Often considered the heart of authentic Kyrgyz culture, the long mountain valleys and wide-open jailoos of Naryn make much of the province more apt for horse trekking than hiking. There are a few lovely trekking routes in Naryn, though, and gorgeous Son-Kol lake is easily the second-most popular stop in the country for international tourists.
From the town of Kochkor, the usual hub for travelers headed to Son-Kol, five different community-based tourism operators arrange trips to Kol-Ukok and Kol-Tor Lakes or up to Son-Kol. It’s possible to drive, hike, or go on horseback to Son-Kol; most travellers will combine two of these to get a different experience on the trips to and from the lake.
An alternative to Kochkor is the Jumgal region, separated from Son-Kol by one low ridge of mountains, and itself home to a number of rarely-explored hiking routes. Among the highlights of the area is Ak-Kol village, a former coal-mining town on the shore of a manmade lake, no home to around 15 families living in Russian-style wooden cottages tucked into a dramatic mountain gorge. Hike from here for a few days to the town of Kazarman or about a week to Son-Kol, taking passes that see far more shepherds and sheep herds than tourists.
Apart from trips to Son-Kol, Naryn City is the ideal place from which to explore the oblast. Nearby single-day hikes lead up Salkyn-Tor valley, to a panoramic peak just above town, or up the Shaar valley to Central Asia’s highest waterfall. Further afield, multi-day routes lead on horse treks across the oblast and into Issyk-Kol or from the popular Silk Road Caravansaray site Tash Rabat to nearby Chatyr-Kol lake and onwards to the craggy mountains surrounding Kel-Suu lake just off the Chinese border.
That’s not to say that other areas of Kyrgyzstan aren’t good for hiking, of course, but rather than it’s more difficult for the average independent traveler to arrange in most cases.
Jalalabad oblast sees quite a few visitors to the remote Uzbek village of Arslanbob, which has a good CBT office, and some travellers make it as far as the beautiful forested slopes of Sary-Chelek Lake as well.
Talas oblast is surprisingly off the beaten track, especially given that it’s a more efficient border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and Southern Kazakhstan than backtracking all the way to Almaty, but CBT in Talas city has information on several nice hikes, including a week-long trip all the way to the Toktogul reservoir across a particularly remote stretch of mountains.
Batken oblast, on the other hand, is off the beaten track even for Kyrgyz. Slotted in between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the southwest of the country, tourism infrastructure is quite limited but the rewards for those who try it are great: excellent climbing, massive waterfalls, and more. Batken Travel Service is basically the only show in town, so get in touch with them if you want to explore.
Finding Trekking Maps in Kyrgyzstan
A range of topographic trekking maps exist for the various regions of Kyrgyzstan, varying in quality and with a handful of positives and negatives to each, so it’s worth taking some time to consider what the best option is for your trip based on which region and what type of trek you’ll choose. The main options are:
Mobile Apps: Popular trekking apps like ViewRanger, BackCountry Navigator, and Wikiloc all cover Kyrgyzstan with Open Cycle Map base data (among others), and the topography of these is generally fairly accurate. However, major terrain features like forests, rivers, and lakes are often missing on maps covering Kyrgyzstan so these are only really reliable for topography and infrastructure information.
Soviet Military Maps: During the USSR, almost every corner of modern Kyrgyzstan was mapped out by Soviet cartographers and many of those maps are available online as pdfs or as a mobile app on Android phones. The topography data on these is also quite good, but infrastructure (bridges, roads, even some entire villages) and place names (many of which changed after the end of the Soviet Union) are generally hopelessly out of date. If you’re downloading these for Kyrgyzstan, the most recent updates are generally from the late 1970’s, though some map panels hadn’t been reviewed since the 1940’s. Historians should keep an eye out for maps of Naryn oblast that bear the original name of ‘Tian Shan Oblast’, changed in 1962 but still printed on some of the older maps.
USAID Trekking Maps: In a partnership between the USAID Business Growth Initiative and the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan, a series of up to date Kyrgyzstan topographic trekking maps were prepared in 2017 and 2018 to cover the most popular trekking regions of the country. Including route information, brief trail descriptions, and photos of highlights along each trek; these are generally the best maps available if you’ll be hiking in one of the regions they cover. The maps are listed on Amazon.com but not available to purchase at the time of writing (check back soon!), or are available for purchase in-person at the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek office as well as the office of any of the regional DMOs linked later in this article.
USAID Trekking Maps:
- Karakol & Jyrgalan
- Issyk-Kol South Shore (including Kochkor)
- Eastern Naryn Horse Trekking
- Tash-Rabat & Eki-Naryn
- Osh / Alay Region
- Son-Kol & Jumgal Region (coming soon)
Packing Tips for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Packing for trekking in Kyrgyzstan is generally the same as for any other mid-altitude wet mountain climate. Be sure to stay warm, pack a bit of extra food in case of emergency or delays, and keep a pair of sturdy sandals on hand for the many rivers and streams you’ll need to cross along the way.
- As in mountain ecosystems anywhere in the world, don’t leave the trailhead without the 10 Trekking Essentials tucked in the bottom of your pack somewhere.
- Water purification systems are impossible to find in Kyrgyzstan and possible but difficult to find in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Most hikers would be well-advised to bring their own systems from home, whether iodine tablets or more tech-based water purification solutions like a Steripen or LifeStraw, as high penetration of livestock into even the most remote mountain regions of Kyrgyzstan make waterborne illnesses an ever-present possibility. If you do show up without, be sure to bring mountain water to a rolling boil before consumption.
- Even in mid-summer, mountain weather can change quickly. A rainproof outer layer and warm inner layer is a must for multi-day trips, as is a sleeping back that can keep hikers safely warm to freezing temperatures or below.
- One of the great highlights of trekking in Kyrgyzstan is the constant interaction with the semi-nomadic herder families who still spend their summers up in the pastures. This often involves an invitation to take a break in their yurt for tea, kymys (fermented horse milk), or a bite to eat. Kyrgyz tradition doesn’t expect payment for this hospitality (though yurts in more touristy areas might), but taking along a handful of sweets for the family’s children is a nice way to say thanks.
- For walkers unaccustomed to the elevation gain and loss found in most multi-day treks in Kyrgyzstan, struggling with full backpacks up and over mountain passes can be a difficult experience. To make things a little easier, considering hiring local horsemen to bring along pack horses to carry the bulk of your gear. Not only is it easier on trekkers’ legs, but it adds a bit of income directly to remote sectors of the local economy that see little direct benefit from the increasing levels of tourism in Kyrgyzstan. Check out my favorite backpack.
Costs for Independent Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
When arranging treks independently, prices for standard services see very little variance across the country (with the exception of Jyrgalan village, in which guesthouses and service hire are often around 50% more expensive). Guide hire, horse hire, camping gear, and yurtstays are often possible to arrange within a day or so, although in the busiest season demand can sometimes exceed supply.
- Hiking guides or porters can be arranged from $20-80 per day depending on the guide’s experience and how technically demanding the route is. For hikers more accustomed to manicured trails and gentle switchbacks, trekking in Kyrgyzstan may come as a bit of a shock. Trails follow livestock paths more often than not, with marking systems only having been applied to the most popular routes across each region. Where trails do exist over passes, they often climb straight up the side instead of the winding routes Western trekkers are more familiar with. This, combined with the ability to translate between English and Kyrgyz at yurts and shepherds’ camps, certainly makes a compelling case for hiring a guide.
- Yurt stays are generally around 600som per night including breakfast, with additional meals 200-400som extra. Not only does this obviate the need to carry a tent and lighten the food weight you’re carrying, but also gives some insight into Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic culture and what life is like for these folks that still spend summers in the jailoo pastures.
- Horse Hire can be arranged either to carry you or just for baggage (or both), from 1500som per day for the horse’s owner and his horse as well as 800som per additional horse.
- Camping Gear of varying quality is available for rent from many of the country’s CBT and DMO offices. If you’re traveling long-term and don’t need this stuff regularly it’ll certainly do for a trip or two, but if you’re looking at a lot of time in the mountains then you should really try to bring what you need from home.
- Transportation can actually be one of the major costs for trekking in Kyrgyzstan, particularly for solo or small group hikers. Public transport can put you within walking distance of a handful of trails in each region, but very rarely does it go all the way to the trailhead. So, you’ll either have to add a half-day of road walking or pay up for a ride. Discuss this with CBT or DMO offices in each town before setting out, to get an idea of the best route and standard costs; most can arrange rides directly for those without the linguistic skills to do so themselves.
Best Tour Agencies for Trekking in Kyrgyzstan
While it’s certainly possible to travel Kyrgyzstan entirely independently, many adventure travellers will at some point need to hire transportation to a trailhead, horses or porters for carrying gear, equipment rental, or trekking guides. This is possible at each destination across the country for those looking to save money or explore independently, or can be arranged by full-service tour agencies before your arrival to Kyrgyzstan if your priority is minimal hassle and the maximum amount of time spent hiking instead of dealing with logistics.
Destination Management Organizations (DMOs)
Regional DMOs across the country’s key tourism regions serve as social enterprises that help link tourism stakeholders and visitors, making sure that the former see sustainable growth from international tourism and the latter get authentic local experiences at fair prices. In each region the local DMO can help with any aspect of hike planning, from route selection and gear rental to guide hire and trailhead transportation:
- Destination Jyrgalan
- Destination Karakol
- Destination South Shore
- CBT Naryn
- Destination Jumgal
- Destination Osh
Community-Based Tourism Operators (CBTs)
While the organization called Community-Based Tourism is the best-known, there are a number of groups around Kyrgyzstan that style themselves as community-based tourism providers. The CBT network is itself a group of independently-run offices around the country gathered under the oversight of CBT’s Bishkek office. Of all of these, CBT Arslanbob is probably the most popular among independent tourists while CBT Osh / Alay and CBT Bokonbaevo are the easiest to work with. Don’t expect much at all out of CBT Kazarman or CBT Jalalabad, while CBT Naryn and CBT Karakol can arrange most of what you’ll need.
Full-Service Tour Operators
- Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan — Focused as much at the domestic tourism market as international guests, TUK runs a plethora of medium-group summer trips from one- to five-days RT from Bishkek to various highlights of the country, and in winter organizes ski tours as well. Trips are priced at the lower end, some cheaper than 500som (roughly $7.30 US) per day for transportation and guide.
- Ak-Sai Travel — One of the oldest tour operators in Kyrgyzstan, Ak-Sai runs everything from cultural tours and hiking experiences to full-on mountain ascents of Khan-Tengri and Peak Lenin. Very reliable, but at international prices.
- ITMC Tien Shan — Another long-time player, they offer a similar but slightly smaller choice of options to Ak-Sai, but with exceedingly friendly staff.
- Nomads’ Land — Knowledge guides and reliable service make this agency a good recommendation, but what really puts them over the top is an innovative trip schedule that’s constantly developing to include new and unusual trips that are off the regular tourism beat.
- Shepherd’s Way — Focused primarily on horse trekking trips, this family-run organization is one of the best in the country and consistently gets rave reviews from travelers.
In the Event of Emergency
Even the best-prepared and most-experienced hikers run into trouble from time to time. It happens. Kyrgyzstan’s emergency response services are not what would be considered robust by international standards, but it’s still worth noting some important numbers just in case.
The Ministry of Emergency Situations (Министерство по чрезвычайным ситуациям) is your go-to local contact for official government support, but English is limited and so are their resources so don’t pin too many hopes here. Contact them by phone at +996 312 614 734 or +996 770 221 226 or in an emergency by dialling 112.
International Embassies are probably a better bet, though of course some countries are better at responding than others. Contact your embassy directly for contact information or to inquire what they can do in the event of an emergency.
About the Author: Stephen Lioy
Stephen Lioy is a travel blogger and photographer based in the Central Asian city of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He writes about his adopted home on Monk Bought Lunch and shares his photography on StephenLioy.com. To see more photos and updates from Central Asia and beyond follow him on Instagram, Facebook or Twit
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