“Are you married?”, the customs officer asks me expectantly. I put on the universal smile of I-Don’t-Speak-Your-Language-But-Please-Let-Me-In-Your-Country that has proven so useful to me in the past, and shrug in helpless explanation: my Russian sucks, it is supposed to tell the uniformed man behind the glass window in front of me. “Husband? Man?”, he tries again, and finally something clicks inside my head: “Yes”, I lie. “Yes, yes, husband, yes!” He disappointedly lowers his eyes and says sadly “You – pretty”, as his stamp hits the paper and I can finally pass through. I gleam with excitement – I made it. I am in Kyrgyzstan.
One year of wonder was lying ahead of me then, one year of studying in the country’s capital, Bishkek, one year of hiking the Tian Shan, one year of learning all there is to learn about Kyrgyz customs and culture – but also one year of not getting married to a Kyrgyz suitor, thank you, but no thank you. To be 23 and unmarried is, as in many parts of the world, hardly something to boast about in the Kyrgyz Republic, and attempts to help you out of your unfortunate situation like the one in the very first minutes after I touched ground in Central Asia are frequent. Husband-picking has never been so easy, if there wasn’t the BF at home – but even if you are not here on a quest to find your other half, Kyrgyzstan has lots to offer. Here’s ten reasons why you should definitely put Kyrgyzstan on your travel radar:
1. Mountains as far as the eye can see
Given that almost all of Kyrgyzstan is covered by the breathtaking Tian Shan mountain range (its name meaning literally Heavenly Mountains), it’s hard to miss the astounding beauty of the small Republic’s peaks. Whether you’re more into leisurely strolls or planning an adventurous mountaineering trip – from the picnic area in Ala Archa National Park right next to Bishkek to the challenging Peak Pobeda (meaning Victory), reaching 7,439m high up into the clouds, there is sure to be a mountain just perfect for your needs in the vast ranges covering the country.
2. The food will keep you satisfied for days
Lagman, Plov, Besh Barmak – it is hard to go hungry in the Kyrgyz Republic. Lots of meaty, greasy goodness is waiting to supply you with all the energy you need to climb those peaks and creative beverages like Kymyz (fermented mare’s milk) and Bozo (fermented millet) make every drink an adventure. Kyrgyzstan has also got you covered on the snack side – Kurut (dried yoghurt balls) and Borsok (fried dough with sugar) are waiting to be enjoyed with your daily chai or beer. Life is a little bit harder for vegetarians, but if you ask nicely, the Kyrgyz will cook you up a dish boasting vegetables instead the usual meat.
3. It’s good for your language skills
Amongst other souvenirs from Kyrgyzstan’s Soviet past (such as murals of Lenin or statues of Marx), the country has kept Russian as its lingua franca, making it the perfect place to dust off that Russian you learned years ago in college but since buried somewhere in the darker parts of your brain. Cheap language classes, helpful locals and lots of opportunities for practice, all without the hassle of obtaining a visa beforehand, are waiting.
4. It’s the perfect entry point to Central Asia
Wait, what? No visa application? That’s right – Kyrgyzstan issues 60-day tourist visas on arrival to many nationalities, including most European countries as well as North America and Australia. All you have to do is take that flight and possibly refuse an almost-marriage proposal at the boarder – and you’re in. The Kyrgyz Republic is the easiest of all the Central Asian Republics to gain access to, and many times travellers will find themselves starting in Bishkek to get all their visas in order for the other, more conservative countries around.
5. There’s lots of bang for your buck
Cheap, cheaper, Kyrgyzstan. Off-season, you can find decent accommodation even in tourist hotspots for as low as 4 dollars, and even in peak season prices for the adorable home stays (which include delicious, home-made food!) rarely go over 10 dollars. Food is even cheaper – even splurging in the more expensive restaurants will make you feel like you are saving money. With the local currency, the Som, being heavily dependent on its Russian counterpart, prices are falling like they have never been before.
6. Kyrgyzstan is definitely off the beaten track
Besides the occasional French or German traveller, you will have a hard time bumping into any tourists – Kyrgyzstan is refreshingly free of the tourist hoards that are trampling over most other Asian countries. And the travellers that do make it all the way to the small mountain Republic are more adventurers than anything else, here for the thrill of climbing new heights. In fact, Kyrgyzstan is so far off the beaten track that most people have never heard of it – “Now where exactly are you going again?”, is a question you’ll get tired of hearing very, very quickly. (“Oh, you mean Russia!”, is another classic.)
7. The culture is full of wonders
Spending all your hard-earned money on a three-day-feast in order to celebrate the wedding of your oldest daughter with the entire village? Playing games with the bones of dead animals and betting on the outcome? Marrying a woman by stealing her from her village together with your best buds? Everything is possible in Kyrgyzstan… The local culture is as fascinating as it is many-faceted, reminding the first-time traveller of a fairytale (albeit with a slightly sadistic touch at times – yes, although it’s banned by law, bride-kidnapping really is still a thing in some parts of the country, and it really does involve grabbing a woman and keeping her in your yurt by all means until she accepts the bridal veil on her head).
8. The lakes are pristine
As if to make the country look even more picture-perfect, Kyrgyzstan boasts a number of deep, blue, (almost) untouched lakes. Whether you are swimming in the enormous Issyk-Kul lake and enjoying a drink in one of the many Soviet-style resorts, experiencing the nomad lifestyle next to the central Song-Kul lake at 3,000 meters, or sweating your way up to see the little gem that is the Ala-Kul lake, the water is sure to be as clear as glass.
9. The nomadic lifestyle is alive and well
Speaking of the nomads – Kyrgyzstan might be the best place to get a little glimpse into the life of these Central Asian wanderers. Admittedly, their lifestyle has probably changed in the past couple of hundred years, with nomads hosting tourists now in their little encampments, but spending a night in one of the many yurts, under an open roof, hearing nothing but the cackling of chicken and the occasional howling of a dog (or is it a wolf?), will still be an experience you’ll never forget.
10.Bishkek is ever-growing and exciting
Last but not least, Kyrgyzstan’s capital also has a certain charm to offer: stroll through the streets lined with grey apartment blocks, legacy of the Soviet union, admire the many trees in and around the city, take a trip to the National History Museum, find the Lenin statue, and unwind in one of the many new restaurants and bars that are sprouting up all over the place. Bishkek is just beginning to develop, and being there will make you feel like you can literally watch the city grow.
With all that Kyrgyzstan has to offer, it is hard to believe that the tiny mountain Republic remains almost untouched by tourism up until this day – but who knows how long that will last. All the more reason to put Kyrgyzstan on your travel radar, starting: now!
This is a guest post by Vanessa Graf.
Vanessa is a 23-year-old mountain enthusiast and constant traveller – originally from Austria, she has spent the last five years living abroad and wandering the world. Right now, she’s completing her degree in Political Science at Sciences Po Paris, France, with a year abroad in Kyrgyzstan. She shares pictures of her adventures on Instagram (@vavavama).