Tucked within the Tian Shan mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan sits Issyk-Kul, the world’s second-largest saltwater lake. With its deep, blue waters and surrounding snow-capped peaks, it’s often referred to as the “Pearl of Kyrgyzstan.” For thousands of years, this stunning natural marker was a stopping point along the legendary Silk Road, a land route for travelers connecting the Far East to Europe. Today it’s one of the country’s most popular spots for day hikers and multiday trekkers. Many of them come to explore features like Skazka Canyon, a sculpted landscape of red sandstone formations located along the lake’s southern shore, and to bed down in family-run guesthouses, swapping stories with other like-minded travelers.
Issyk-Kul is just one of thousands of alpine lakes scattered throughout this landlocked country, 94 percent of which sits more than 3,200 feet above sea level. At 77,200 square miles, Kyrgyzstan is one of Central Asia’s smallest nations, but it is brimming with natural features, including sky-high mountain peaks and jaw-dropping glaciers. With an abundance of explorable outdoor space, it’s no wonder that the country is earning a reputation as an adventure travel destination, especially among those taking to trails on foot. Adding to the attraction is the country’s Community-Based Tourism (CBT), a growing network that connects travelers with rural communities through everything from yurt stays to cheesemaking demonstrations.
“We’re not a country that is rich in gas or oil,” says Asylbek Rajiev, executive director of CBT Kyrgyzstan, an organization that aims to improve the living conditions of remote mountain residents through rural tourism. “But what we do have is access to nature.”
The growth of Community-Based Tourism
Launched in Kyrgyzstan during the early 2000s, the Community-Based Tourism initiative is a way to tap into local natural and recreational resources countrywide, while providing new ways for rural residents to earn money. Through the implementation of guided trek services, guesthouses and crafting co-ops, CBT operations often involve entire communities. “For example,” says Rajiev, “women are now running the homestays, earning their own money and often using that money to educate their children.” In this traditionally conservative country, “CBTs have helped women become powerful,” he says. Many men are working as guides, while the kids are learning English and other languages to assist their parents with visitors.
Over the last couple of decades, the CBT infrastructure has flourished. Today, more than 400 people take part in such initiatives throughout Kyrgyzstan, a country of only 6 million people. “It’s important that we keep the bulk of the money made within the communities,” says Aisha Mambetalieva, co-founder and director of Kyrgyz Tourism, a Kyrgyzstan-based, CBT-focused travel company. “This is how we keep things sustainable, rather than having larger companies or international tour operators come in and then taking their profits outside.” Each community has its own model of development, says Mambetalieva, but they all welcome travelers and let them “experience the authentic way of life, traditions and habits.”
CBT has put areas on the map that were previously off the radar for international travelers. Take, for example, Kochkor—a large village midway between the city of Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan’s bucolic Naryn region that’s become a center of sustainable tourism, with ample family-run lodgings, local cafés, a women’s handicraft co-op and traditional activities like eagle hunting. Pair this with local hospitality, a tradition of self-reliance and an underlying nomadic heritage—“The mountains are normal things for us,” says Mambetalieva—and it’s easy to see how the country’s rural offerings are a welcoming atmosphere for visitors.
Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic heritage
The nomadic lifestyle of the Kyrgyz people dates back thousands of years, to a time when journeying on foot or on horseback was a part of everyday living. These pastoral nomads would often travel long distances searching for green pastures and food for their livestock, which included goats, sheep, yaks and cattle, and survived through hunting and moving with the seasons. They brought along portable year-round dwellings known as yurts, which could be easily erected and dismantled as needed. Such wooden-framed, domed-roofed structures, bound together with ropes and covered in felt cloth, were the ideal lodging. Practical, compact and durable enough to withstand both freezing temperatures in winter and summertime’s harsh sun, they were an integral part of the country’s cultural and social development—especially across jailoos, or high-altitude summer pastures where nomads fattened up their herds, and kyshtoos, or winter pastures.
However, during Kyrgyzstan’s years as part of the Soviet Union, from 1936 to 1991, much of the country’s nomadic lifestyle began to disappear. Joseph Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture combined farmers’ individual landholdings and caused many such farmers to abandon their historical traditions. “The Soviets forced our nomadic people to settle into specific areas, because it was too difficult to keep track of them when they were constantly relocating,” says Aziret Zhusubali Uulu, a Kyrgyzstan native and guide with Visit Alay, which runs adventure tours throughout Central Asia. Still, this heritage didn’t vanish altogether. Today, many Kyrgyz people maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle, setting up mountain yurts during summer and allowing their livestock to graze in the cooler alpine temperatures, and then returning to their villages for the winter.
“There are two main types of yurts,” says Rajiev. One is the Mongolian ger, a heavier, lower, and flatter structure. It’s created to withstand the heavy winds of the Eurasian steppe, a wide-open grassland that extends from Hungary to northeastern China, including across Mongolia. Another kind of yurt is more typical among Kyrgyz and Kazakh peoples. This kind is known for its taller, steeper shape; the circular structure is held up by steam-bent wood to create a curved-rounded roof. Each yurt is insulated with felt and features a tunduk, or “door to the sky,” which helps control its interior temperature.
Yurts are such a prominent part of Kyrgyzstan’s history that in 2014, UNESCO placed them on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a register meant to safeguard cultural knowledge, skills and practices around the world. Such authentic yurts are notable both for their craftsmanship—passed down through apprentices and in community-based groups over generations—and as a Kyrgyz symbol of family life.
The art of yurt-making
The best place to witness the artistry skills of yurt-making firsthand is Kyzyl-Tuu, a village of approximately 1,800 inhabitants that sits on Issyk-Kul’s southern shore. It’s estimated that 80 percent of Kyzyl-Tuu’s residents partake in the production of yurts, a revival that began several decades ago when a group of village elders resurrected the craft and began passing it down from generation to generation. The work of yurt-making is typically split between men and women, with the former cutting, treating, steaming and bending large pieces of willow wood by hand to create the frames, and the latter using artisan handicraft techniques such as felting, braiding and spinning to create a yurt’s interior decor and exterior coverings. “Visitors here can watch the yurt-making demos and even participate in the process,” including erecting a finished yurt, says Rajiev.
Visitors can opt to stay in yurts throughout the country. These range from mass-produced iron yurts to more traditional versions, like those found at Song-Kul, a lake at an elevation of around 11,000 feet in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Naryn region. Here, trekking, horseback riding and swimming in glacial waters are must-do activities.
A developing hiking infrastructure
Kyrgyzstan is home to 13 national parks and 10 nature reserves, with landscapes ranging from juniper forests to towering cliff sides and geothermal springs. But these are just the beginning of the country’s natural offerings. Outside the village of Arslanbob, at the foot of the Babash-Ata mountains in southern Kyrgyzstan, sits the world’s largest walnut forest, a more than 42-square-mile expanse known for its scenic hikes. Then there’s the remarkable Altyn Arashan Valley in northeastern Kyrgyzstan, where an eight-mile trek brings hikers to pools of natural hot springs at an elevation of over 8,000 feet.
Still, despite so much natural beauty, the country doesn’t have the same international recognition as others, in the way that Nepal is associated with trekking and Peru has its ancient archaeological sites. But maybe that’s a good thing, says Rajiev. “Our potential for furthering ecotourism is great,” he says, but the slow growth of the industry is allowing it to evolve sustainably. “We know our traditions, and we keep our history.”
Printed hiking maps remain hard to come by, and trail markings tend to fade quickly. Despite the many CBT organizations, much of the country’s outdoor offerings remain both remote and untouched. However, it’s easy to join a guided group trek. Travelers can also arrange transport to hiking trails, as well as rent equipment like tents, hiking poles and backpacks, in the country’s larger cities, including Bishkek, Osh and Karakol, all of which serve as excellent jumping-off points for outdoor exploring.
For example, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, borders the Tian Shan mountains and is a gateway to Ala-Archa National Park, known for its stunning, rocky gorge and towering Ak-Sai waterfall. Hiking options here range from the Ala-Archa River Trail, a 7.6-mile out-and-back trail that opens into expansive views of the surrounding mountains, to a full-day climb to the foot of Ak-Sai Glacier. Bishkek is also an easy day trip to Konorchek Canyons, nicknamed the “Valley of Castles” for its otherworldly, red-and-orange-hued rock formations.
Osh, referred to as the “capital of the south,” is an entry point to the nearby Alai Mountains, a range that’s beloved for its deep-green valleys and dramatic snow-covered summits. Here, travelers can embark on an 18-mile overnight trek along rocky slopes, sleeping in a summer yurt camp to experience a shepherd’s nomadic lifestyle.
Situated less than ten miles southeast of Issyk-Kul lake, Karakol in eastern Kyrgyzstan is known as the “adventure capital.” The country’s fourth-largest city is also a launching pad for one of its most popular long-distance hiking trails: the 34-mile Ala-Kul trek. This multiday beauty starts in the Karakol Valley, winding its way through verdant meadows and coniferous forest and up steeply rising slopes before reaching Ala-Kul lake, a turquoise gem surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and glaciers.
“Karakol is where you’ll find some of our best hiking infrastructure,” says Zhusubali Uulu of Visit Alay. “A lot of locals work as guides here, and there are plenty of marked trails. You’ll even find a few Western toilets,” he adds, laughing.
In fact, over the past several years, various CBT homestays have installed everything from solar polars to showers (rather than the traditional banya, which consists of a wood stove and a steam bath). “With more visitors, villagers are starting to think differently,” says Zhusubali Uulu. “It’s brought a lot of positive change.”
Rajiev agrees. “For us, it’s very natural to install, say, a solar power station,” he says, “and to focus on ecotourism. Some of our places are just so remote that using the sun to generate energy makes the most sense.”
Perhaps Kyrgyzstan’s biggest news in terms of its hiking infrastructure is the creation of a national hiking trail. Supported by USAID’s Future Growth Initiative, to help spur productive economic activity across Central Asia, and in partnership with organizations such as CBT Kyrgyzstan, the 62-mile network will connect northern Kyrgyzstan’s Chuy region with both the Naryn region and Issyk-Kul lake in the east. Rajiev says it’s expected to be completed and opened to hikers by the end of 2024.
While Kyrgyzstan may be a long way to travel for some, says Rajiev, the country’s compact size makes it easy to cover once you’ve arrived—especially when this involves setting out on foot.
“It’s a kind of meditation when you’re hiking up in the mountains,” says Mambetalieva. “You are not thinking about your problems. There is no phone coverage, and you have no internet, you have no phone calls. This is really stress relief.”
This article was made possible by the Smithsonian Artisan Initiative, as part of its “Documentation Celebrating Women Artisans in Central Asia” project, with support from the USAID Trade Central Asia Activity and the Commercial Law Development Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce. If you want to learn more about Uzbekistan, take a journey through this Lookbook highlighting the work of 50 women artisans in Central Asia.