Embark on an exhilarating 8-day road trip through the winter wonderland of Kyrgyzstan, where every turn reveals stunning landscapes, local traditions, and the warmth of Kyrgyz hospitality. From the bustling streets of Bishkek to the tranquil shores of Issyk Kul Lake, this journey is a testament to Kyrgyzstan’s incredible diversity, even in February’s frosty embrace. Let me share my first-hand experience on how you can plan this 8-day Kyrgyzstan travel itinerary with minimum budget and effort. But firstly, let’s find out on a map where Kyrgyzstan is and why you should visit it.
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Where is Kyrgyzstan? And is it worth visiting Kyrgyzstan?
Kyrgyzstan is one of the ‘stans’ of Central Asia that, for the better part of the 20th century, was in the shadow of the USSR. A landlocked country in Central Asia with a total area of 199 949 km2, it is bordered in the north by Kazakhstan, in the east and southeast by China, in the southwest by Tajikistan and the west by Uzbekistan. It became independent from the Former Soviet Union in August 1991.
And, yes, it is worth visiting! Over 90% of Kyrgyzstan is covered by mountains. Therefore, its major attractions are its stunning mountain ranges. Kyrgyzstan’s most famous mountain ranges include the Tien Shan, Pamir, and Alai Mountains. These towering peaks offer breathtaking views and opportunities for trekking, mountaineering, and skiing. Here, joyously unspoilt mountainscapes, stark craggy ridges, and rolling summer pastures (jailoos) are brought to life by semi-nomadic, yurt-dwelling shepherd cultures.
Add to this natural beauty a well-developed network of homestays and the recent introduction of visa-free or e-visa travel, and it’s easy to see why Kyrgyzstan is rapidly becoming the gateway of choice for world travellers in Central Asia. But bear in mind that in a country where the majority of attractions are rural and high altitude, the timing of your visit is crucial to your experience. Summer is ideal for hiking and even for road trips; most roads are accessible. Midsummer is pretty famous among neighbouring Kazakh and Russian tourists converging on the beaches of never-freezing Lake Issyk-Kull Lake. October to May is a lean season when most rural accommodations and yurts in the alpine vistas close down. So think twice about a winter visit unless you’ve come to ski or Snow Drive like I did.
Come on board and relive the 8-day Kyrgyzstan travel itinerary with me vicariously.
My 8-day road trip through Kyrgyzstan in winter
Day 1: Delhi to Bishkek via Almaty – Tour of Almaty
Taking a midnight flight of Air Astana, I reached Almaty at 6:30 am. My flight to Bishkek was at 6 pm, so I explored the city. Known for its mountains and historical landmarks, Almaty offered a perfect introduction to the region. I started my exploration with beautiful and chirpy Valentina, who had hazel green eyes and a flawless complexion. She had guessed correctly that I was starving. She first treated me to a lavish breakfast at once iconic Hotel Kazakhstan, followed by a trip to Shymbulak Ski Resort. Despite sub-zero temperatures, there was a good amount of people going up the slopes via cable car. Thanks for being a weekend and a good sunny day. The Tralgar Pass stood majestically, and after soaking in the snowy beauty for half an hour, I descended to explore the rest of the attractions, such as the Central State Museum of Kazakhstan of Musical Instruments, Zenkov Cathedral, and the Kok-Tobe Hill. You can read more about how to spend a day in Almaty here and see a video about my experience here.
By the time I was done exploring the key attractions of Almaty, it was time to board my Almaty to Bishkek flight, which took just 45 minutes. Rifat, my guide for the entire Kyrgyz Snow drive, welcomed me along with several other adventurers who were my companions on this ride of my life. We stayed at the Novotel Hotel, which is conveniently located and offers comfortable accommodation in the heart of Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Bishkek is about 800 meters (2,600 ft) near the northern range of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, an extension of the Tian Shan mountains.
I was tired from an overnight flight and a full day sightseeing in Almaty. I called it a night early that day to be fully rested for the upcoming Kyrgyz snow drive.
Impression: Almaty is a good layover option, and the day-long sightseeing trip and a guide cost me less than 10,000 INR. I highly recommend doing it. Alternatively, you can also break your journey for 1-2 days in Almaty and enjoy it fully. Read more about the top things to do in Almaty: a 3-day adventure of apples, culture, and snowy thrills.
Day 2: Bishkek to Kemin – 145 km
The following day, Rifat, our guide, meticulously outlined the route we would traverse and briefed us on what lay ahead. Our team comprised 11 individuals navigating the route in a convoy of five Toyota 4Runners, featuring a lead vehicle and a backup at the rear. Each SUV accommodated pairs from various corners of the country. Rifat and the driver led in the front vehicle, while Sachin (a fellow traveller), Sujal (our trip leader), and I occupied the backup car. We adopted a cautious pace, acquainting ourselves with the unique right-hand-drive system of Central Asia, eventually accelerating on the Bishkek to Naryn highway, constructed and managed by the Chinese under the Belt and Road initiative.
The journey unfolded through picturesque landscapes, showcasing snow-draped mountains and frozen rivers in the distance. Following a few pitstops at petrol pumps, we arrived at our destination for the day – Kemin. Rather than heading straight to our lodgings, we proceeded to an open ground teeming with well-maintained horses and their riders. My excitement soared as I anticipated some equestrian activity, and my intuition proved correct. Rifat informed us that we were about to witness one of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular national horse games, Kok-Boru. This traditional Kyrgyz game played for centuries, holds immense cultural significance.
A team comprising eight men and one young woman on horseback engaged in a spirited competition, aiming to score points by carrying a deceased goat or sheep carcass, known as “buzkashi,” and hurling it into the opposing team’s goal area. Despite being a friendly exhibition match for visitors, the game exhibited moments of intensity and physical demand as riders manoeuvred their horses to obstruct and challenge opponents, vying for possession of the carcass. In the 21st century, with access to modern technologies, horses remain an integral part of Kyrgyz culture.
Kok-Boru transcends being just a sport, a cultural tradition deeply woven into Kyrgyz life. Celebrating the country’s nomadic heritage and strong equestrian culture, the game is a fixture at special events and festivals. It even plays a role in Kyrgyz marriage rituals, where a suitor must showcase his horsemanship to win a girl’s hand, outriding and kissing her. In competitive scenarios, multiple suitors may contend on horseback, with the last man in the saddle emerging victorious. Witnessing this first-hand, despite my vegetarian inclinations, I respected the preservation of a country’s heritage and culture.
After the riveting horse games, we retired to our accommodation for the day – Ashu Guest House, a welcoming family-run establishment nestled in Shaddan village within the picturesque Chon Kemin Valley. Despite its Hindi name, ‘Ashu,’ which means a mountain peak in Kyrgyz language, the guest house exuded warmth and comfort.
For lunch, we savoured a blend of traditional homemade Kyrgyz and European dishes featuring hot lentil soup, salad, an assortment of bread, flat noodles, and concluding with Kyrgyz tea. The fare at Ashu was both delectable and abundant. As we concluded our meal, Sujal teased a surprise awaiting us in a nearby village. A 10-minute drive led us to a local villager’s house, where we were treated to a horseback riding experience amidst falling snow. Despite the chilly weather, the thrill of riding a horse in a snow-covered landscape was irresistible, and I gladly volunteered. The scene was surreal – the entire expanse blanketed in powdery snowflakes gently kissing my cheeks.
Forty-five minutes of horseback riding in the snowy Kyrgyz outdoors left my cheeks flushed, and I yearned for the comforting warmth of a heated room. With the snowfall intensifying, we returned to our hotel. Dinner featured local delicacies such as manty (dumplings filled with meat or potatoes) and shashlyk (grilled meat skewers). Post-dinner, we retired for the night, anticipating another day of adventure on the road!
Impression: Kemin’s horse games and Ashu Guest House began an intimate immersion into Kyrgyz traditions.
Day 3: Kemin to Naryn – 211 km
Our journey unfolded into an exhilarating off-road adventure, leading us from Kemin to Naryn, a town draped in a pristine blanket of snow. En route to Naryn, a significant pause awaited us at Kochkar, recognized as a gateway community to Song Kul, Tash Rabat, Kyzyl-Oy and Ferghana Valley. However, our stop in Kochkar had a distinctive purpose. The town is renowned for its women’s handicraft cooperative, Altyn Kol (Kyrgyz for ‘golden hand’). Established in the mid-1990s to offer an alternative income source for struggling rural nomadic families, Altyn Kol has gained global recognition for its handcrafted felt carpets known as shyrdaks. The intricate process of crafting these carpets involves the collaborative effort of 5 to 10 women in Kyrgyzstan. It’s not just a task; it’s a community endeavour. As they engage in this work, they weave female unity into the very fabric of these carpets, playing a significant social and economic role in their lives. Our time in Kochkar included a lesson in the meticulous process of creating shyrdak and visiting their souvenir shop, preceding a delightful Kyrgyz lunch arranged at a nearby home.
A generously laid dining table adorned with dostorkon (a white cloth) showcased an array of fruits, candies, biscuits, salads, soups, and freshly prepared Kyrgyz delicacies. Local favourites such as Lagman (boiled, hand-pulled wheat noodles, with mutton and fried vegetables in a profoundly aromatic broth), Kuurdak (mutton alongside large chunked potatoes and onions), Oromo (rolled and coiled pasta filled with various stuffing), Dimlama (onions stewed in a large wok along with cabbage, carrots, eggplant, sweet peppers, potatoes with a small portion of meat), bread basket with my favourite being Borsok (Kyrgyz fried bread), and Plov (a staple food of Central Asia consisting of rice with various finely chopped vegetables and meat) graced the table. Despite being a vegetarian, special arrangements were made to ensure I enjoyed a fulfilling meal.
With satisfied appetites, we resumed our journey to Naryn. Along the way, we encountered Kyrgyz cemeteries, nomad yurts, and intermittent traffic jams caused by mountain goats and sheep. The thin layer of snow dust gradually transformed into a thick blanket, and on my right-hand side, a giant red-orange ball cast a golden glow over the landscape.
Around 6 pm, we reached the Grand Khan Tengri hotel. After refreshing, we convened for dinner at their restaurant, which doubles as a banquet hall. Sujal shared anecdotes about the lively atmosphere she had experienced during previous visits, resonating with the sounds of “Jimmy Jimmy… aa jaa aa jaa.” Mithun Chakravarthy’s songs are popular in Central Asian countries, and locals still love to dance to his tunes.
As a renowned hotel in the region, Grand Khan Tengri boasts an extensive menu featuring international cuisines and local delights like beshbarmak and kuurdak. We took full advantage of the culinary offerings.
Impression: Naryn, the highest city in the country, positioned conveniently near Son Kul Lake, Kel Suu Lake, and Tash Rabat, emerges as an ideal exploration base and a strategic stop between treks.
Day 4: Naryn to Kochkor via Son Kul – 265 km
In the chilling embrace of -8°C, our intrepid group embarked on another thrilling off-road expedition, charting a course from Naryn to Kochkor via the breathtaking Son Kul Lake. As the largest freshwater lake in Kyrgyzstan, Son Kul is perched at an elevation of 3016 m in the northern Naryn Region. However, before our journey, our trip leader, Sujal, issued a cautionary note – reaching Son Kul Lake in winter is not guaranteed. The lake’s surface freezes, measuring 1-1.2 m ice thickness. The route becomes perilous and impassable due to heavy snowfall and plummeting temperatures as low as -20°C.
At approximately 10:30 am, our snow drive adventure to Son Kul Lake commenced. With only Kyrgyz horses dotting the wintry landscape, we tried to traverse a challenging 100 km stretch. Despite our sturdy 4X4 Toyota 4Runner, we had to reconsider when the driving conditions became treacherous, covering around 70 km. Unanimously, we decided to turn back and redirect our course towards Kochkor. Not before, however, savouring a picnic lunch featuring paav Bhaji, daal roti, noodles, and piping hot tea and coffee.
By 6:30 pm, the Nomad Lodge in Kochkor welcomed us, unveiling a delightful surprise – a local Kyrgyz music performance. Adorned in traditional Kyrgyz attire, two women and one man showcased their prowess with Kyrgyz folk instruments, including the fold kyl kiak (qyl-qyiyak), a two-stringed upright bow instrument, sybyzgy, a side-blown flute, chopo-choor, and the temir ooz komuz (mouth komuz), akin to a jaw harp in some countries.
Despite the language barrier, their musical talents left an indelible impression. It was a testament to the universal language of music. This unique cultural encounter allowed us to delve into Kyrgyzstan’s rich heritage, immersing ourselves in the captivating tunes and dances integral to the country’s nomadic traditions. Undoubtedly, this cultural revelation marked a pinnacle in the journey, offering a captivating glimpse into traditional Kyrgyz life.
Impression: The vastness of Son Kul and the cultural revelations unfolded during this leg of the journey, creating an unexpected treasure trove of memories.
DAY 5 Kochkor to Karakol – 255 km
Much like the previous day, today promised to be an extended journey. At approximately 10:30, we embarked on a circuit around Issyk Kul Lake. The ongoing road construction lent a dusty hue to our route, slightly slowing our pace. However, time lost on the journey was compensated with a remarkable sighting – a gathering of 30–40 wild Bactrian Camels.
As we progressed towards Bokonbayevo, the route unfolded more breathtaking landscapes, accentuated by snow-clad peaks providing a mesmerizing backdrop. Stops at high mountain passes allowed us to capture the unfiltered beauty of Kyrgyzstan.
Bokonbayevo, situated on the southern shore of Issyk-Kul Lake, greeted us with its tranquil ambience. After roughly two hours on the road, we arrived at the home of a local eagle hunter in Bokonbayevo, where we shared a meal. As a trapper, the hunter’s front yard also showcased fox pelts drying in the sun. This unique experience offered an intimate look at these magnificent birds and provided insights into Kyrgyzstan’s traditional art of eagle hunting.
Following a satisfying lunch, our journey led us to the captivating Barskoon Valley, adorned with a frozen waterfall that stirred our senses. Along the way, Rifat shared the narrative of the Canadian Kumtor Goldmine, nestled in the same region and a source of contention between Kyrgyzstan and Canada’s Centerra Gold. Situated at a breathtaking 4,000 meters above sea level amidst the permafrost and glaciers of the Tien-Shan Mountains, this goldmine ranks second-highest in the world.
Although our initial plan to explore Skazka Canyon, also known as Fairy Tale Canyon, was derailed by diminishing daylight, we decided to return to Karakol, nestled at the eastern tip of Issyk-Kul Lake, known for its unique fusion of Russian and Chinese architectural influences.
By approximately 6:30 pm, we reached the Greenyard Hotel in Karakol, where the comfort of our accommodations, a delectable dinner, and a warm atmosphere awaited us.
Impression: Karakol’s harmonious blend of nature, culture, and history painted a vibrant portrait of Kyrgyz heritage, fostering a profound connection to the land.
Day 6: Karakol to Issyk Kul – 190 kms
The following day, our exploration led us to the remnants of the Russian Empire in Karakol. While renowned as a prominent tourist destination, serving as a gateway to high-altitude adventures such as hiking, trekking, skiing, and mountaineering in central Tian Shan, Karakol boasts cultural richness with a diverse population including Dungan, Uyghur, Kalmak, Uzbek, Russians, and Kyrgyz ethnic groups. Karakol’s history traces back to its establishment as a Russian military outpost on July 1, 1869, with Russians constituting the largest ethnic minority group in the region (17.0%, 2009 census).
Our first stop was the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Holy Trinity, originally constructed from stone in 1872 but later rebuilt with wood on a brick base following an earthquake in 1890. Over the years, the cathedral served various purposes, from an educational centre to a sports hall, theatre, dance hall, and even a coal store, before reclaiming its status as a church in 1991 after Kyrgyzstan gained independence from the Soviet Union. In contrast to the opulent cathedrals of Western Europe, Karakol’s Russian Orthodox Church stood as a modest structure – a simple rectangular building made of brown wood with four green tented conical piers and a golden cross atop each. Internally, it maintained a straightforward design with no elaborate murals or wall paintings.
Leaving Karakol, our journey unfolded into the captivating Kyrgyzstan mountains, where the spirit of playfulness emerged, with ten adults engaging in spontaneous snow fights in Karakol Gorge. It was fascinating to envision the same snowy landscape transforming into a lush green valley during the summer. Karakol Gorge (Altyn Arashan), translated as golden spring, is one of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular tourist spots due to its unique natural beauty, hot springs, spruce forests and breathtaking views. Even in winter, it looked damn pretty.
A swift picnic lunch preceded our visit to another picturesque locale – Kyrchyn Gorge, a significant tourist site in summer and autumn. Stretching 30 km, the gorge featured the tumbling Ak-Suu mountain river, with majestic Tian-Shan spruces adorning the slopes, mostly frozen with a thin line of flowing water devoid of visible cars.
After a day filled with joy, we returned to the breathtaking Issyk Kul Lake, ranking as the 10th largest lake globally by volume, the 7th deepest, and the 2nd largest saline lake. As we traversed the lake’s shores, the captivating scenery drew my attention, prompting thoughts of its summertime beauty with lush greenery. By approximately 6 pm, I arrived at the Raduga Resort Beach, a beachfront hotel in the lakeside resort town of Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, featuring a spa and outdoor pool. As the night unfolded, I reflected on the incredible experiences of the preceding days.
Travel Tip: Once a passage for caravans of the Great Silk Road, Cholpon-Ata remains a renowned resort town on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Given its popularity, hotels fill up quickly in summer, so advance booking is advisable.
Day 7: Issyk Kul to Bishkek – 250 km
After indulging in a hearty breakfast, I explored the captivating beauty of Issyk Kul Lake, renowned as the world’s second-most transparent lake after Lake Baikal. Despite the winter chill, the lake emanated a serene charm that mesmerised me. Its sheer vastness momentarily made me feel as if I were gazing at a sea rather than a lake. Despite ranking as the second-largest mountain lake globally, only surpassed by Lake Titicaca in South America, where temperatures average around -3 degrees Celsius, Issyk Kul never freezes due to its saline nature.
The biting cold wind compelled me to seek shelter indoors. With a tinge of reluctance, I bid farewell to the enchanting Issyk Kul Lake, marking the commencement of the final stretch of our road trip back to Bishkek. As snowfall commenced, visibility plummeted, making it challenging to see beyond 50 meters. We briefly stopped at a local food plaza for a swift lunch during our journey. Around 6:30 pm, we finally arrived at the Novotel Hotel in Bishkek.
For dinner, we opted to experience the offerings of a local Indian restaurant named Gandhi. The restaurant impressed us not only with its decent interiors but also with the quality of its food.
Travel Tip: Commence your journey early from Issyk Kul Lake to avoid being caught in the evening traffic of Bishkek.
DAY 8 Bishkek Sightseeing
After seven days of traversing the picturesque Kyrgyzstan countryside, the time had come to delve into the nation’s heart – Bishkek, its vibrant capital. Contrary to the nomadic landscapes encountered earlier, Bishkek stands as a bustling modern city, showcasing a stark contrast in lifestyle between its urban dwellers and the mountain-dwelling nomads.
My exploration commenced with a visit to Osh Bazar, a bustling market renowned throughout Kyrgyzstan for its diverse products. This iconic market is a treasure trove for tourists seeking souvenirs, offering everything from food, milk, and cheese to clothing, musical instruments, wooden trunks, and more.
The architectural beauty of Bishkek unfolded as I explored landmarks like the Manas Statue, Victory Square, Ala-Too Theatre, and the State History Museum. The Kyrgyz National Philharmonic, adorned with a giant statue of the legendary figure Manas, pays homage to Toktogul Satylganov, a prominent figure in Kyrgyz arts and literature.
Victory Square commemorates the end of WWII with its monuments and eternal flame. At the same time, the State History Museum, a UNESCO-recognized institution, unfolds the rich tapestry of Kyrgyzstan’s culture and history from the Stone Age to the present era.
Ala-Too Square, named after the surrounding Ala-Too mountain range, is a central hub for various events and celebrations. The vibrant square boasts beautiful fountains, colourful flower beds, and benches against impressive structures like the Manas Statue and Ala-Too mountain range.
The change of guard ceremony at the National Flagpole on Ala-Too Square left a lasting impression, showcasing the precision and discipline of the National Guard.
Bishkek offers ample green spaces, such as Panfilov Park and Togolok Moldo Park, providing families with walking paths, fountains, playgrounds, and a bust of Kyrgyz poet Togolok Moldo.
Borborduk Mosque reminded me of Turkey. Central Asia’s largest, funded by Turkey and inaugurated in 2018, reflects the city’s cultural diversity.
Things I missed in Bishkek:
Despite the vibrant exploration, a few gems were missed due to time constraints. Bishkek’s nightlife, with its bars, clubs, and restaurants, remains on the wishlist for future visits. Additionally, Ala-Archa National Park, a mere 30-minute drive from the city, promises a natural escape with its lush landscapes, snow-capped peaks, and flowing rivers. Visiting Ala-Archa National Park in Kyrgyzstan is not just one of the top things to do in Bishkek but probably one of the top things to do in Kyrgyzstan. There are more than 20 glaciers and 50 mountains.
For enthusiasts of the Silk Road history, Burana Tower, 80 km east of Bishkek, stands as a poignant reminder of the ancient city of Balasagun, dating back to the 9th century.
Total cost of the 8-day Kyrgyzstan Winter Travel
The 8-day Kyrgyzstan trip, encompassing flights, city tours, and a self-drive adventure with Embarq, incurred approximately 2,75,000 INR (around 2100 US Dollars). Here’s the breakup:
- Delhi to Bishkek return Flight: Approximately 36,000 INR
- Almaty city Tour with food, sightseeing, attraction tickets and guide – 10,000 INR
- The 8-day self-drive tour with Embarq is 2.25 Lakh per person on twin sharing cost.
Total cost: 2,75,000 INR (Approximately 2100 US Dollars)
It was a self-drive, semi-luxurious trip, with everything taken care of by the agency once you arrived in Kyrgyzstan. If you do it yourself, you can do it more expensively and cheaply, depending on your budget and what you want. Just bear in mind the season – due to the harsh winters, everything was arranged specially for us – whether it was the accommodations, food, or activities. If you too want to enjoy Kyrgyzstan Winter Travel, check out – Kyrgyzstan Snow Drive.
So, should you travel to Kyrgyzstan in winter?
Absolutely, yes! Kyrgyzstan travel in winter exudes a different kind of beauty you’ll never forget. My eight-day winter expedition through Kyrgyzstan was a tapestry woven with warmth from the locals, shared meals, and ancient customs. While the winter charm captivated me, the allure of Kyrgyzstan’s summer awaits exploration. A detailed Kyrgyzstan Travel Guide is available for those planning similar ventures, and we are open to further suggestions for inclusion or refinement. Here’s my Kyrgyzstan Travel Vlog:
Further Reading For Central Asia
Are you looking to dive deeper into Central Asia? Here is a selection of travel guides and itineraries for travelling in Central Asia:
- Looking for things to do in Almaty, Kazakhstan? Check out Top things to do in Almaty: A 3-Day Adventure of Apples, Culture, and Snowy Thrills.
- Want to get off the beaten path in Kazakhstan? Shymkent is an excellent place to visit. Here are the Best Things to Do in Shymkent.
- Want to visit Turkestan in Kazakhstan? Check out our Complete Travel Guide to Turkestan.
- Intrigued by the capital of Azerbaijan? Check out Baku, Azerbaijan: a European destination that comes at an Asian price!
- You can watch all my travel videos from Central Asia here: Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan.