Journey through Kyrgyzstan: An Enriching Road Trip from Bishkek to Osh

After spending a few days exploring Kazakhstan (read my blog on Kazakhstan), our group of seven, along with our guide and driver, embarked on the next leg of our Silk Road adventure — Kyrgyzstan. We hit the road toward the Korday/Ak-Zol border crossing, about a three-hour drive from Almaty.

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Border crossing on the Kazakhstan side

Korday marks the border on the Kazakh side, and Bishkek is the Kyrgyz counterpart and roughly 25 km away. A passport (with at least six months of validity) and a prearranged visa are essential for the journey (although on-site visa purchase is also an option).

Navigating the border crossing was straightforward. Our driver brought us as close as regulations allowed on the Kazakhstan side. It’s worth noting that, although we had a private driver, you can also reach the border using a shared taxi or a bus.

I left the van, grabbed my luggage, and followed the gated walkway to a small hall with passport control offices. I showed my passport and documents to Kazakh officials for exit procedures there. Afterward, I headed to the neutral zone (sometimes called no man’s land) — the area between the two countries.

It was pretty much the same thing on the Kyrgyz side — I followed the path, presented myself to Kyrgyz border officials, answered their questions, and had my belongings checked during customs inspection. Once cleared, I received the necessary entry stamps and documents to enter Kyrgyzstan.

I left the border area, waited for my fellow travelers, and continued today’s journey —Bishkek.

Note: It’s important to be aware of specific requirements and possible wait times for a smooth border crossing.

Arriving in Bishkek

Bishkek, the country’s most significant and current capital, was once the capital of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic. The city is rich in Russian influence, particularly its Socialist Modernist(an architectural approach prevalent in former socialist nations from 1955 to 1991) architecture and art.

But before we began to explore Bishkek, we stopped for a much-needed lunch break at a local restaurant, Arzu —and it did not disappoint.

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Waiting for our feast to begin at Arzu

Things to do in Bishkek

1. Explore the Soviet-era Art and Architecture in Kyrgyzstan’s capital.

Dive into the Soviet-era art and architecture of Kyrgyzstan’s capital—a city immersed in Soviet history. Noteworthy stops include Victory Square, The Circus, and The Wedding Palace, each boasting distinctive Soviet allure. Don’t overlook the mosaic water fountain in front of The Wedding Palace—it’s spectacular.

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Victory Monument - dedicated to the Victory over Nazi Germany
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Wedding Palace in the background and beautiful mosaic water fountain in foreground
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Built in 1976, the Bishkek Circus kind of look like a flying saucer .

Explore other architectural treasures like the National Library, the Russian Drama Theatre, and a beautiful building known as the Soda Shop. Continue with visits to the Ala-Too Cinema, the Lenin Statue, and the State History Museum.

For other examples of Brutalist architecture (a term I hadn’t heard before visiting here), head to Kyrgyz National University. Here, you’ll find the communist-era mosaic titled “The Path of Enlightenment” by Satar Aitieve on one of the campus buildings. Created in 1978, this mosaic caused a stir in Frunze (the Soviet name for Bishkek) at the time—it was bold, beautiful, and entirely different from the prevailing styles. Instead of traditional monumental forms, the imagery carries an almost “painting-like haze.”

Note: Book a walking tour to receive insightful background history on the sites. Otherwise, use Google Maps or a similar mapping program to enter the various sites for a self-guided tour. Either way, there is a ton to see.

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Satar Aitiev "Path to Enlightenment"
The mosaic in this picture is found at the entrance of a textile factory . The writing at the top says, “Our work is for you, Motherland!”

2. Explore the Burano Towers

Discover the Burana Tower, an 11th-century minaret along the Silk Road of the Mongol Empire. The 24.6-meter tower, initially over 40 meters, is part of a complex featuring citadel ruins, nomadic Turkic gravestones (balbals), petroglyphs, and a small museum. Additionally, climb to the top of the tower for a 360-degree view of the surrounding area if you wish. This historical site is worth a visit.

3. Visit one of Bishkek’s bazaars

While there, I went to the Osh Bazaar—a well-known market in Bishkek, located on the western side of the city center and within walking distance for city dwellers. As I understand it, this market has been around for over 2000 years, tracing its roots back to the ancient Silk Road—maintaining its original location.

It’s a diverse market where you can find a variety of items, making it a nice place to casually explore and perhaps try some local foods.

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The popular Tandyr nan

4. Try some local favorites at one of the many restaurants in town

Classic Kyrgyz cuisine is hearty, featuring a mix of bread, dairy, soups, and red meat. Spices are generally straightforward.

For meat enthusiasts, the choices are abundant. From Shashlik (grilled meat skewers, usually lamb or chicken) to Laghman (a popular noodle soup with meat, vegetables, and spices), Plov (a communal rice dish with meat, carrots, onions, and spices), Manti (steamed dumplings filled with meat, typically beef or lamb), and Chuchuk (spicy sausages often made with minced horse or beef, blended with spices, dried, and smoked). There is just so much to try.

Vegetarians can enjoy options like Chechil (sinewy cheese braided into a rope-like shape, often referred to as “beer cheese”), Samsa (a filled pastry, sometimes available with vegetable filling), Kyrgyz bread such as Lepyoshka or Tandyr nan — a round bread with a smooth crust which is dense inside, or Boortsog — fried balls of dough served with jam and incredibly tasty), Deep-fried eggplant cubes in a delicious sauce, and there are always salads. Again, while options were somewhat limited outside of vegetarian-specific restaurants, I certainly didn’t go hungry.

5. Visit Ala-Too Square

Ala-Too Square is a wide public space in front of the State History Museum. It is the central hub for various events and celebrations throughout the year. Named after the Ala-Too Mountain range surrounding the city, I happened to be in Bishkek on Independence Day. It was a lot of fun joining the celebration at Ala-Too Square.

6. Take a walk in Panifov Park

Established in 1924, Panfilov Park, known initially as Zvezda Park, underwent a name change in 1942 to pay tribute to Ivan Panfilov—chairman of the Military Committee of the Kirghiz SSR. The park is a green space in the city, perfect for a casual stroll or picnic. It also has a small amusement park.

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The I Iove Bishkek sign located in Panfilov Park

Bishkek to Tokmok and Kyrgyz Canyon

Tokmok is a quaint Soviet-style city a few hours west of Bishkek. The city feels like a snapshot of the past, with socialist memorials, Stalinist architecture, and a massive monument featuring a Soviet Il-28 bomber plane.

We traveled from Tokmok to Lake Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-largest alpine lake and the second-largest saline lake after the Caspian Sea. Despite freezing temperatures, the lake’s size and salinity prevent it from freezing over. Standing on the shore, I enjoyed stunning views of the distant mountain peaks. We followed the northern route along the shoreline, reaching our night’s destination—Cholpon-Ata.

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Lake Issyk-Kul

Tip: While traveling by vehicle to a new village or town in Kyrgyzstan, watch for Soviet-era Bus Stops. Trust me, these are not your run-of-the-mill bus stops—they are unique works of art. Each bus stop, designed by different architects, offers a glimpse into the artistic expression of an era with mandated conformity and suppressed creativity. They are highly geometric and adorned with mosaics, often contrasting the sometimes-barren surroundings where these bus stops stand.

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Soviet-era bus stop covered in mosaic

Lake Issyk-Kul to Karakol

Navigating the road alongside Lake Issyk-Kul, we made our way to the bustling market town of Karakol. Nestled in the Tian Shan mountains, the town was a mix of Soviet and traditional Kyrgyz architecture, old churches, mosques, and breathtaking mountain vistas.

Along the way, we stopped at a Soviet Era bus stop in Grigoryevka—a white-covered structure with plaster relief designs on its interior walls.

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Soviet-era bus stop in with a plaster relief

Today was unexpectedly great. As I checked out a Soviet-era bus stop, I spotted a local Kyrgyz couple. The man was wearing a traditional Kyrgyz hat known as a Kalpak, and I really wanted to take a photograph of them.

I asked my guide for help with translation, and they happily agreed to let me take their photo. This led to an unexpected invitation to their home for tea and bread.

At one point, she began affectionately referring to me as her daughter. She genuinely believed that our presence in her home was a blessing, citing her belief that every seventh person is spiritually enlightened. Ironically, though, she was the true blessing.

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Kyrgyz couple

We enjoyed about an hour in the company of this delightful couple before bidding our farewells. The journey from Grigoryevka to Karakol took just under two hours.

Karakol is situated at the eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul. Surrounded by the Tien Shan Mountains, the town is a mix of Soviet-era and traditional architecture. Beyond cultural spots, Karakol offers outdoor activities such as hiking and skiing, making it a great destination for those interested in history and nature.

Things to do in Karakol

1. Explore one of Karakol’s Bazaars

Enjoy wandering the maze-like paths of one of the local bazaars — offering treasures ranging from Soviet memorabilia to exotic spices and dried fruits. Be sure to sample some of the local treats.

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Exploring the bazaar

2. Visit the Dungan Mosque

The Dungan Mosque, built in 1910 by Chinese Muslims seeking refuge in Kyrgyzstan, remains in use today. Notably, it was initially assembled entirely without the use of nails. Additionally, female visitors must wear a head covering provided by the mosque.

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The Dungan Mosque

3. Visit the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

Built in 1869 for troops, Karakol’s first church was destroyed in an 1889 earthquake. A new one, with a 26-meter spire, replaced it in 1895. Active until 1917, it later became state property, serving various purposes. 1947, religious services resumed, but the church was repurposed in the 1960s. After independence in 1991, it was returned to church authorities, who initiated repairs. Today, the Holy Trinity Church is a prominent attraction in Karakol.

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Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

4. Indulge in Chinese-Muslim cuisine.

Ashlan Fu is a zesty soup featuring a fusion of Laghman and starch noodles—and a local favorite. This dish didn’t originate in Kyrgyzstan but was introduced by the Dungans—Chinese Muslims who sought refuge here after a failed rebellion in 1877 and then escaped over the Tien Shan Mountains. Despite shifts in language and culture, the delectable cuisine has endured, becoming a cherished part of Kyrgyzstan’s culinary scene.

5. Try your hand at a Laghman Noodle Pulling Class.

You’ll have the complete experience, from shopping for ingredients to learning how to make noodles and, most importantly, savoring the finished product—Laghman. Book this culinary adventure at Destination Karakol.

Karakol to Kochkor and then on to Song Kol Lake

Today, we exchanged our van for three four-wheeled vehicles. Why? Because we were headed towards the Kyrgyz Canyon, a four-wheeled vehicle was necessary to navigate rough dirt roads with numerous switchbacks and large potholes.

Leaving Karakol, we headed to the mountain town of Kochkor, enjoying the final glimpses of Issyk-kul’s sparkling waters along its southern shore. En route, we passed natural wonders like the surreal Skazka Canyon and the Terskey Ala-too mountains.

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Skazka Canyon

Our journey included stops at Barksoon, where Yuri Gagarin’s face was carved into a massive boulder, and the ruins of Aalam Ordo, an unfinished complex for culture, spirituality, and science. Abandoned a decade ago, it showed signs of fading murals and crumbling concrete yurts.

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Bolder with Yuri Gagarin's face on it.

 

The final stretch was lovely, passing emerald-covered hillsides with grazing cattle. There was even a gas stop where we grabbed Soviet-era prepackaged ice cream cones.

Our ultimate destination, Song Kol, an alpine lake surrounded by majestic mountains, left a lasting impression.

The night stay in the Song Kol yurt camp was a unique experience. Nestled near the lake’s shores, the yurt camp offered a glimpse into traditional Kyrgyz nomadic life. The circular felt structure, adorned with colorful fabrics, created a cozy and intimate atmosphere.

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Song Kol Yurt Camp
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The inside of the Yurt — each one had a coal stove which was lit at night
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The granddaughter of the woman managing the Yurts

As night fell, the clear sky above Song Kol became a canvas of stars, and the crisp mountain air added to the ambiance. Inside the yurt, the warmth from the coal stove contrasted with the coolness outside, creating a comforting and needed haven.

Sleeping in the yurt was unlike any other accommodation. The sounds of the surrounding nature provided a soothing lullaby. Waking up to the breathtaking scenery just beyond the yurt’s entrance was a moment I won’t forget—the pristine lake, the towering mountains, and the tranquility of the morning made the yurt stay at Song Kol an unforgettable part of my journey through Kyrgyzstan.

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It was a chilly morning so I wrapped my self in a blanket while enjoying a cup of coffee and taking in the view

There are a couple of hand-washing sinks and Western-style toilets— but no showers. The food prepared in the kitchen yurt and then served in the central yurt was delicious and plentiful, and the freshly baked bread was maybe the best I had on my entire trip.

The camp can also arrange horseback riding for those seeking adventure beyond the yurt experience. If you prefer exploring on foot, there is plenty of rugged terrain to enjoy.

Song Kol through Moldo Ashuu Pass and then on to Kazarman

After a late morning walk along Song Kol’s shores, we headed toward Kazarman.

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A quick morning walk before heading out
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The road was obstructed by herds of horses or cattle that had to use the same path

The drive from Naryn to Kazarman was a beautiful journey through the heart of Kyrgyzstan. The road (much of it unpaved) twisted through valleys surrounded by towering mountains, offering stunning views of the diverse landscape. As we ascended the mountains, the scenery shifted from lush greenery to more arid surroundings.

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We had a 40-minute stop in Naryn due to a flat tire on one of our three 4-wheeled vehicles.
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Winding our way towards Osh

After a few hours, we found the perfect spot for a picnic lunch. And I was happily surprised to discover the owner of the yurt had packed a loaf of bread for me (okay for us).

Kazarman to the Foothills to Bustling Osh

The journey from Kazarman to Osh was a long drive—roughly 5 hours. We went west through the valleys of southern Kyrgyzstan, enjoying serene views of rolling hills and vast, dry landscapes.

As we traveled, we encountered these picturesque scenes of rural life. Herds of cows and horses occasionally crossed our path, causing momentary pauses in our travels.

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Herds of horses and cows blocking our path was a common sight

Once, a spirited calf decided to engage in a spontaneous race with our vehicle, keeping pace until it eventually gave in to fatigue.

The weather in this region can be quite extreme, with scorching summers and freezing winters. Kyrgyzstan is dominated by mountains, and the Tien Shan range, through which we were driving, is a vast expanse. Mile after mile, the imposing mountains trailed alongside us, showcasing the rugged beauty of the landscape.

Our route led us through a diverse terrain—fast-running streams, cascading waterfalls, rocky mountain peaks, and expansive high mountain pastures. Nomadic families often dotted these pastures with their Yurts, bringing their herds to graze on the lush grass.

The mountain ranges varied in appearance, from arid landscapes with sparse vegetation to smooth, wrinkled formations reminiscent of an elephant’s skin and others covered in loose rocks.

We traveled on narrow dirt roads through the mountains, some perilously close to sheer drop-offs, with sections showing significant erosion. Along the way, we passed abandoned maintenance buildings and saw horses, sheep, and cows scattered across the landscape, resembling tiny ants from a distance.

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Ruins of Soviet-era maintenance building

Abandoned trailer-like homes stood as silent witnesses to the passage of time, their rusting structures revealing stories of families long gone. Peeking through the window of one, I glimpsed traces of the past—a couple of thin mattresses, a little boy’s jacket, and an iron tea kettle.

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Abandoned trailer

 

Amidst this rugged terrain, we spotted hawks gracefully soaring above the mountain peaks. Our journey continued, passing more cows, horses, and sheep herds. Glacial-topped mountains and vast areas of erosion further added to the breathtaking and diverse mosaic of the landscape.

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Song Kol heading towards Moldo Ashuu Pass

We saw more Soviet-era bus stops, mosaics, and monuments on the route. We also passed unique rock formations and ancient structures, such as the detailed minaret and mausoleum of Uzgen—examples of Kyrgyzstan’s fascinating history.

Leaving the rural landscapes behind, we eventually reached Osh, a lively city and the second largest in the country and home to one of Central Asia’s major bazaars.

Like many Central Asian cities, Osh thrived as a cultural hub along the ancient Silk Road. Since the 8th century, it evolved into a significant center for silk production. Trade caravans journeyed from China, crossing the Alay mountains to reach Uzbekistan’s fertile Fergana Valley and the Silk Road cities.

Today, Osh is Kyrgyzstan’s most diverse city, with a sizable Uzbek minority as well as Russians, Tajiks, and Tatars. Yet, this mix of cultures has faced challenges. The Fergana Valley, a particularly disputed region in Central Asia, experienced heightened social tensions after the Soviet Union’s collapse. In 2010, the Osh region witnessed ethnic clashes, highlighting the intricate dynamics of this city.

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Entering Osh—stopped to take in some views

Unfortunately, the drive from Kazerman to Osh was much longer than expected. The five hours turned closer to seven because 1 of the three four-wheeled vehicles transporting us had a flat tire and no spare, so sadly, we didn’t have as much time to explore Osh.

A few things to do in Osh

1. Look for the Lenin statue

Kyrgyzstan has a distinctive feature that piqued my interest – unlike many former Soviet Socialist Republics, the Lenin statues stood tall even after the Soviet Union’s demise. In almost every town here, you’ll come across a Lenin statue. And in Osh, Lenin’s statue is a distinctive feature in the city center. It stands prominently and holds significance in the urban landscape. Notably, a sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union lingers among many people in this part of Asia, particularly among the older generations.

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Lenin Statue

2. Explore the Soviet murals scattered across the city

While Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks might not win any beauty contests, their sides tell a different tale adorned with captivating murals. These artworks offer a unique lens into life during the Soviet Union, showcasing a strong ideological focus.

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This mural is located on the facade of the Osh Drama Theatre building.
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This mosaic entitled Horsepower is prominently displayed at the entrance of the Osh Agrarian Economic Institute.

3. Enjoy a cup of Chalap

Chalap Shoro, a classic beverage, is created by dissolving kurut (yogurt balls) in carbonated water and adding a dash of salt. The result is a tangy drink resembling fermented goat’s milk flavor. Street vendors frequently offer this beverage from their roadside stalls.

Challup —a popular drink here

Due to my time constraints, there’s so much more to explore in Osh beyond what I’ve listed. If you are considering a trip to Kyrgyzstan with a stop in Osh, you could spend two full days here.

Osh boasts one of the largest markets, which is always a fun and exciting experience. Try local delicacies like Spicy Korut (fried yogurt balls), which supposedly pair well with a cold beer.

Consider arranging a trek to the nearby Alay Mountains; plenty of resources are available to facilitate this. You can easily organize a trek with a local guide, horses, and supplies for a day or longer. I met someone at the Yurt Camp on the eighth day of a 14-day trek who was thoroughly enjoying his journey.

For those interested in culinary experiences, there are numerous cooking classes available. Most include a visit to the market to purchase ingredients, hands-on instruction, and the chance to sample the finished product.

Unfortunately, I only had one day in Osh. The following day, we boarded our van and headed towards the Osh-Andijon border, marking our exit from Kyrgyzstan. Our journey on the Silk Road would then unfold in Uzbekistan.