Kyrgyzstan has the most liberal visa regime in the region – citizens of many developed countries can get a visa on arrival at any border crossings and it’s hassle free. Bishkek, the capital city is laid back and has a very strong Soviet feel to it. Since independence in the early 90’s, Kyrgyzstan, much like its neighbours, has slowly draped the capital in Kyrgyz colours, and symbols and icons, leading to a mixed feel.
Near Bishkek is a minaret called the Burana tower. This minaret was built by the Kara-Khanid Khanate, a 9th century empire on the Silk Road that fell to Islamic conquests around the 10th century. The original tower was 45m tall and succumbed to several earthquakes, leaving us with this diminutive Soviet-restored version from the 70s.
After celebrating my birthday on the northern coast of the Issyk Kul lake, we then headed to Karakol at the base of the eastern Tian Shan mountains. We spent the last three days hiking the Ala-Kol pass trek in the Tian Shan mountain ranges that border Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. The Silk Road networks passed through these regions between 2BCE and remained until 16CE. This was by far the toughest trek I did, starting from 1.7km all the way to the summit at 4km.
We rented camping gear and set out on the scenic trail which looked pleasant at the start (and also at the end), but the intermediate parts were very demanding. Besides straight up elevation gain that makes you stop every ten steps, the trail was on rocky terrain with predominant scree sections – those always terrify me because one slip means… let’s not think about it. However, that’s also the rush we crave for, isn’t it?
The Ala-Kol lake itself was meh (we are spoilt by the Himalayas, I reckon) but the views from the summit were stellar. Unfortunately we didn’t get to spend much time up top because it was getting late and there was much ground to cover (or slide) before we could find a suitable campsite before dusk. It ended up being quite a scenic spot.
Overall, a highly recommended trek – but know in advance that it is nowhere an easy hike (unless you hire porters!).
Travelling from Bishkek to Osh brought us close to some spectacular scenery. This road not only cuts through colourful mountains and pastures, but also through the cultural divide between the Kyrgyz in the hilly north and the Uzbeks in the fertile Fergana plains. The only reason this road exists now is thanks to some ridiculous borders drawn by the imperial masters in Moscow, to divide and rule. Kyrgyzstan is keen on linking these key cities. Nevertheless, the views are amazing.
Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second biggest city, is predominantly located in a Uzbek-majority Fergana valley. This ancient city is said to be over 3,000 years old and was a famous silk production center on the silk road from where roads crossed to Kashgar (now in China). This was our jumping point to the remote regions to the south, on the Pamir highway leading into Tajikistan.