Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia’s Stunning Secret Playground


How did I wind up in Kyrgyzstan? That’s a fair question.

Kyrgyzstan probably isn’t very high on the list of countries you’ve daydreamed about visiting lately. It’s not even high on the list of countries whose names people can spell on the first try.

Although tourism is growing now, Kyrgyzstan has historically pretty much flown under the radar of vacationers. The reasons for the lack of visitors, however, are probably not what you would expect. They certainly don’t include a lack of natural beauty, as you’ll see in a minute.

Until 1991 Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, so unless you lived in a country whose name began with “People’s Republic”, you couldn’t visit if you tried. After 1991, the Kyrgyz people did what many people did after the collapse of the Soviet Union thrust the region into political turmoil: they fought for control of their country.

Over time, things settled down. As the Kyrgyz people worked to get the country back on its feet, they turned their focus to their abundant natural resources and that’s where they’ve focused their efforts ever since.

Until recently, that is, when USAID showed up. USAID created a Business Growth Initiative program with the mission of identifying the best opportunities for growth in the country and then helping to develop them. I assume that their employees visited all parts of the country to gather information. I imagine the first meeting after they’ve all returned from to the office to share what they’d found and immediately some guy blurts out, “Those mountains are bloody majestic. Why the hell is there no tourism?” And everyone else just nods in agreement.

So, BGI began a tourism development project. They started training and equipping locals and promoting the country abroad. Now, things are starting to pick up.  As part of their promotions, they began inviting large groups of bloggers to write about the country. That’s where I come in. Not only did I visit to write Kyrgyzstan to blog about it. BGI also contracted my company to help them manage the bloggers.

And that is how I came to the last 12 days of summer in Kyrgyzstan. I did the hardest trek of my life in the Tien Shan Mountains (the Ak-Suu Traverse Trek), much of it at the highest elevations I’ve ever experienced (the highest was just under 4000 m).  It was amazing, as you’re about to see.

I’d never even thought about visiting Kyrgyzstan before this project came up. Now, it’s one of my top 3 trips, along with Bhutan and Philippines.

It’s wonderful when life sends you down a random path out of the blue and you wind up discovering the best secret you never knew you were missing out on.

I’ve divided the my photoessay into 3 subjects: Hiking the Tien Shan Mountains, the lowlands and the people, and bloggers at work in the Krygyz countryside.

Hiking The Tien Shan Mountains

I won’t write about the trek in too much detail here. The bullet points are below. For those of you who are really interested, I’ve written an excessively-detailed guide to the Ak-Suu Traverse Trek here.

Length: 6 Days

Distance: 98.3 km

Lowest Elevation: 2032 m

Highest Elevation: 3925 m

Average Elevation: 3122.1 m

Total Elevation Gain: 6520 m

Total Descent: 6320 m

This is the elevation profile.

This what the map look like. You can explore it on Google Maps here.

It was truly the most epic trek I’ve ever done. Here are a few of the places we slept and some of the food we ate.

Photo by Stephen Lioy

If you’re interested in visiting these beautiful mountains, the easiest jumping off points are the village of Jyrgalan and the city of Karakol.

The Lowlands And The People

When we weren’t hiking we spent most of our time around the village of Jyrgalan, the local trekking hub, Karakol, and the massive Lake Issy-Kul, which is the second biggest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca.

If you think that’s interesting, you should check out 14 Surprising Facts About Kyrgyzstan

At Work In Kygyzstan

There were four of us on the trip. We lucked out and got a great group. There was a photographer from Alberta named Jeff Bartlett, Lonely Planet author Stephen Lioy, and Tim Leffel, the owner and editor of Perceptive Travel among others.

Shennanigans ensued.

Photo by Stephen Lioy

After seeing these photos, what do you think of Kyrgyzstan? Would you travel there?

10 thoughts on “Kyrgyzstan: Central Asia’s Stunning Secret Playground”

  1. Congratulations! Now, I am literally begging God to grant me an opportunity to land in Kyrgyzstan! What amazing photographs. All the very best for your next adventures!


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