Bishkek, Ala Archa NP,
Issyk Kul lake
Planning and overall impression
The only reason I ended up in Kyrgyzstan in 2015 was the Turkish
airlines flight connecting Ulan Bator with Bishkek. I was originally
planning to stay in Mongolia and visit Astana in Kazakhstan, but there
are no direct flights between Ulan Bator and Astana and I didn't want
to go through Beijing. Mongolia is a pretty remote place, which not so
many airlines serve. Since I was going to be in Bishkek anyway, I
thought of perhaps staying a couple of days to get a glimpse of the
country. Thanks to the efforts of Aigul, a travel operator from Bishkek
who approached me via the Lonely Planet Thorntree forum and also due to
the lack of direct flights from Bishek to Astana these two days became
These five days I spend in Kyrgyzstan were very, very interesting and
time well spent. Tourist infrastructure and roads are relatively
underdeveloped in Kyrgyzstan, but the country is very interesting and
the sceneries very photogenic. I spent less than three days on the trip
around Issyk Kul lake, but could have easily spent much more time, had
I visited the side valleys around the lake, which for sure are very
interesting. Kyrgyzstan is a mountaineering haven; lots of easily
accessible high mountains everywhere. You can switch from a beach
holiday at the Issyk Kul lake to a mountain climbing one very quickly.
It's possible to travel around Kyrgyzstan
on a budget, paying not much for food, accomodation and transportation.
Outside of Bishkek accomodation is available for less than USD 50/night.
In Bishkek there is the excellent Faiza
restaurant, where you can get delicious meals at very moderate prices.
Outside of Bishkek instead I had difficulties finding good food. It's
possible that I had no time or didn't know the right places.
There are enough hotels in
Bishkek, but not so many Western level hotels around the Issyk Kul
lake. Probably because there are not so many western tourists visiting
Kyrgyzstan, and the ones from the former Soviet block are not willing
to spend so much, making investments in new hotels not worthwhile.
Money / Exchange rate (August 2015)
Euro = 68 Som at the time of visiting.
1 Euro ~ USD 1.10
ATMs from where to get cash are available in Bishkek.
phones and prepaid cards
I got a local
SIM card from Megacom upon arrival at the airport in Bishkek. I paid
600 Som for a SIM card with about 550 Som of
balance; international calls cost between 3 and 8 Som/minute; 1MB of
2.4 Som, but then it's better to subscribe to a data package. The
Internet connection is quite fast. Good coverage, except in the
I relied on Internet access in hotels and via the smartphone (set up in hotspot mode).
The first day it rained. Later the weather was very good (always
sunny). Very hot in Bishkek on the sunny day, more fresh around the
Issyk Kul lake because of the altitude.
Health / Vaccinations
I didn't bother refreshing my immunisations for the trip to Kyrgyzstan. High altitudes and the strong sun can cause problems.
VISA / Entry requirements
Luckily I didn't need any visa to enter Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan leaves the impression of a pretty safe country.
- The sceneries, the montains, the views
- Lake Issyk Kul in the summer
- Mountain climbing
Things to avoid
- Actually nothing to report here.
I had my own car + driver, which
made it very easy to get around. Also, I was lucky to have a person
(Aigul) who arranged everything for me (see below). The driver spoke
some very basic English, i.e. it was possible to communicate with him.
Travel agencies and guides who helped us on
14.8: Ulan Bator -> Bishkek
Silk Road Lodge, Bishkek. USD75 for an a bit
old-fashioned, but nice room with everything, including A/C, TV, lots
of furniture, toilet with bathtub/shower and hairdryer, fridge and
tea-making equipment, sofa, ironing board+iron, electronic safe. The
hotel has an elevator and is pretty central. Electric water boiler
system for the hot water in the bathroom.
Weather: sunny, blue sky and cool in Ulan Bator.
Overcast in Bishkek.
- Aigul Kubabetkova (firstname.lastname@example.org) organised my trip across Kyrgyzstan.
Wake up call at 7:45am, then
again at 8am. At 9:30am I'm in the Turkish
airlines bus to the airport, arriving at the airport at 10:10am.
to check-in again, long queue, only manage to check in after 11am. Then
there is again a long queue at the security check and passport control.
Around 11:40am they start boarding the plane (a B737-900).
The plane finally takes off at 12:20pm (about 3/4 full) and lands
in Bishkek with some delay shortly before 2pm local time. When
disembarking I'm one of the few passengers who are not in the transit
area for Istanbul (the flight continues to Istanbul). Going through
passport control, getting the luggage, local cash and a local
SIM card (Megacom; I pay 600 Som for a SIM card with about 550 Som of
balance; international calls cost between 3 and 8 Som/minute; 1MB data
2.4 Som) is quite fast.
At the exit some people offer to drive me to Bishkek for 1500 Som, but
I take a taxi (700 Som) to the hotel. After checking in the hotel I
leave the hotel shortly before 4pm and explore a bit Bishkek.
Bishkek is not much of a capital, but at least it's very green and
there is plenty of water. There is not much in terms of sights and
actually Bishkek makes a relatively poor impression (even poorer than
Ulan Bator). But the people are friendly and welcoming. Some Russian
here and there. Most women do not wear headscarves, even if most people
here are Muslim.
I walk to the Bishek B&B where I meet Aigul, the lady with whom
I've been in touch
and who has helped arrange
the trip across
Kyrgyzstan. I spend about an hour with her discussing the various
options and in the end plan to stay in Kyrgyzstan until Wednesday,
August 19th. Will do a trip to the glacier tomorrow, and a 3-days round
trip of the Issyk-Kul lake and Karakol.
At 6pm I have a dinner in the Faiza restaurant, a pretty good
restaurant serving local food (delicious and inexpensive). There I have
a chat with two Kyrgyz university students, one of them studying in a
military academy in Moscow. They make big eyes when I tell them I just
came from Mongolia with my wife being in Malaysia. After dinner I
explore a bit more of Bishkek and then walk back to the hotel.
15.8: Bishkek -> Ala Archa NP ->
Silk road lodge, Bishkek. The breakfast is pretty
Weather: sunny, spotless blue sky, warm (probably
> 30°C peak)
At 8:35am I get out of the hotel and start the daytrip to the
takes a bit over an hour to reach the national park, driving along a
wide road, in not such a good shape. There is a big parking at the
and a hotel.
The altitude is 2100m, which
means that I could have
acclimatised a bit, had I spent the night at the hotel.
Shortly before 10am we start climbing towards the glacier, which
according to my guide is at 3900m (my goodness!). Turns out that today
I'm not fit for climbing. The flu which I got in Mongolia is still not
100% healed and I had a far too heavy breakfast. To top it all, I make
the mistake to drink a lot of tea when getting out of the car and my
guide starts walking very fast.
Around 1:30pm, at almost
3000m altitude, I decide to walk back because
I can't continue. Slowly walking down (not in a hurry to get back to
Bishkek) we are back at the parking at 3:30pm. Because it is still
early, the driver brings me to the Ata-Beyit memorial complex about the
victims of Stalinist purges and the 2010 uprising. There is also the
tomb of a Kyrgyz writer.
We are back in Bishkek after
5pm. I ask the driver to drop me off at
Ala-Too square. From there I explore a bit the area, then for dinner go
again to the Faiza restaurant.
When the weather is good the centre of Bishkek is relatively pleasant,
although there is a lack of real attractions which would justify a
trip to Bishkek. By the way, I can't find any big church or mosque or
building older than 100 years. Bishkek seems like a city with no
16.8: Bishkek ->
Cholpon Ata (Issyk Kul lake)
Mini Pansionat Kalinka, Cholpon Ata. Sort of a
pension, which I book today while driving from Bishkek to Cholpon Ata,
due to lack of choice (am unable to find a decent mid-range hotel). $30
for a room with no attached bathroom. In practice, when I arrive I'm
"upgraded" to the higher level room which has an attached bathroom (not
so good shower with little water, no toilet paper!). It's sort of a
mini-apartment with a toilet, small living room and bedroom with three
single beds. There is a TV with a satellite receiver, a cupboard,
table+chairs in the living room. No A/C, but there is no need for it,
as it is quite chilly outside. A bit old infrastructure, and especially
the toilet is not up to western standards (for instance electric water
boiler system), but for $30 I won't complain.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. A few
small clouds around the Issyk Kul lake. Quite fresh at the lake, mainly
due to the altitude (1600m). Strong sun at the lake.
At 9am I check out and meet the
driver, who is bringing his nine years
daughter along with him on this trip. I get some cash at an ATM, then
we start driving towards the Issyk Kul lake. Highly unimpressive
scenery and villages along the road for the first 80km: old, decrepit
buildings, roads in a poor state, dry, brownish mountains along the
way. The driver refuels the car (2000 Som, 47 Som/Litre for 98 octane
We make a stop at the Burana tower archaeological site, about 80km from
No entrance fee
to my surprise. The Burana tower (a brick
tower) is what is left of an ancient settlement, and has been
restaurated in the 1970s. Small museum with some artifacts near the
tower, and some other excavated structures. Not too impressive, except
for the tile pattern on the tower walls.
The scenery starts getting more interesting, as we approach the
mountains. The road becomes a motorway (toll-free),
climbs up along a river valley. Bishkek is at 700m altitude, but the
Issyk Kul lake is at 1600m altitude. Now I understand the words of my
guide of yesterday ("You should have done the Issyk Kul trip before")
and of Aigul ("No need for A/C because it is chilly"). Pretty
impressive that there is such a large lake at such a high altitude.
As we approach the lake, I notice many cafes, clubs and restaurants
along the motorway. Seems that people come here to have fun.
It's almost 1pm when we first see the lake. The driver stops for
refuelling the car (1210 Som), then we continue driving towards Cholpon
Ata. The mountains are all dry yellow-brown,
but at the bottom and in
the valleys there are trees and vegetation. Pretty wide valley along
the Issyk Kul lake, which is not cultivated (no agriculture). Perhaps
the weather conditions at this altitude are too harsh.
We finally reach Cholpon-Ata at 2:15pm. It's sort of a beach tourist
centre. I see many blond or fair-skinned tourists; these probably are
ethnic Russians (just guessing). While I'm not able to distinguish
between Kyrgyz and Russian language, it would seem that a lot of
Russian is spoken here. Many blonde people on the beach, not that many
dark-skinned people with black hair.
Cholpon-Ata is definitely a tourist centre, but it's a bit messy,
run-down (like many things here in Kyrgyzstan) and dusty. Not that many
restaurants and cafes along the main road.
For lunch the driver brings me to a place where I order some chicken
with rice and tomato salad. Not that delicious and more expensive than
After lunch we drive to the Ruh Ordo cultural centre. Pretty steep
entrance fee of 400 Som, and the centre is definitely not worth the
money. It contains some Kyrgyz things (a ger, some sculptures and a guy
with an eagle and an arch) and some pavilions, one for each world
religion. Then some other decorative statues,
a statue of Aristotle
(why here in Central Asia?). A pretty fake and artificial place,
perhaps designed to impress Kazach tourists.
While I'm there I notice a wedding party (bride + groom + friends).
Funny scene, when the friends throw the groom into the air.
By the way, cool views of the lake surrounded by mountains with
glaciers. I'm guessing that these mountains must be at least 4000m
otherwise there wouldn't be glaciers.
At 4pm we drive to the petroglyphs (ticket: 50 Som), an area with
with ancient drawings. These are large boulders with hunting scenes and
scenes with wildlife. Sort of interesting, but I only spend 20 minutes
at this place.
Finally the driver drops me off
at the Kalinka pension, where the owner
or receptionist doesn't speak English. I use the smartphone to
communicate with her. She doesn't ask for the passport, interesting.
After getting settled I walk to the beach and have a look.
of Russians and Central Asians on a beach wearing hot bikinis (in a
Muslim country with mosques). Disco music, beach bars, paragliding
boats, jetskis, touts offering excursions etc. This is just like any
other beach place, it's just the location which is incredible: on a
lake in Central Asia at 1600m altitude. Seems to be a fun place, where
to rest for a few days. The only problem is the environmental
conditions which are a bit extreme: cold wind blowing, very strong sun.
The water itself is not too cold (lots of people are in the water, even
in the evening).
At 6:30pm I walk back to the road and look for dinner opportunities.
There is not too much, so I buy some fruits in a market and some bread
later (freshly baked, delicious, 15 Som one bread). When I'm about to
get back to the pension I run into two restaurants opposite each other,
competing for customers. One in which a guy is grilling some meat. No
need to walk so far away for dinner.
17.8: Cholpon Ata ->
Altamira Hotel, Karakol. USD 49,73 for a small and
elegant apartment with two bedrooms, a living room, a toilet and an
additional empty room. Flat screen TV as well as other furniture in the
living room. Friendly staff who comes and carries by heavy bags from
the car to the room, then offers to bring me into town by car. When I
go with the passport to register the room, they say no need. Good
shower with plenty of water (best shower so far in Kyrgyzstan), fast
WLAN in the room. Good buffet-style breakfast.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. Some
clouds over the mountains. Quite warm during the day, more fresh in the
Shortly after 9am I meet the driver. We stop briefly at the
where I buy three freshly baked flat breads, which I will eat over
the day. Then the driver offers to bring to the Apple hostel for
breakfast. So we go there.
This Apple hostel has rather basic rooms, sort of containers with four
beds each. Interesting however that there I meet a Canadian/Kazach
from Almaty who actually could afford to stay in a better place. Brief
chat over a cup of tea. Supposedly Almaty has changed a lot over
the last 10 years and now has an own modern business district.
After breakfast the driver
to the museum opposite the Apple
hostel (ticket: 50 Som + another 50 Som for the camera). The museum is
relatively small and contains some artifacts of the Issyk Kul area,
from the prehistoric age to today.
Then, around 10am we start driving eastwards along the lake.
Interesting sea coast with small bays and more beaches, reminds me a
of the Mediterranean coast.
At one point the driver turns left and drives towards the Semenovskoe
canyon. There is a steep entrance fee of 200 Som (no ticket given). The
road is no longer paved and slowly climbs up the mountain. The scenery
gets more and more 'alpine', meaning that it's more green and there are
here and there.
At 11am we reach a high meadow at about 2000m altitude, a wide
valley. The driver continues driving a bit,
the stops a bit higher at
2200m altitude. There we walk around for a while, then the driver
have lunch. So we eat some lunch at 11:40am.
Very nice scenery, but where is the canyon? The driver suggests that
this wide open valley is the canyon. It takes some effort to explain
him what a canyon or gorge is. The problem is also that there is no
cell phone signal here, so it's impossible to clarify the matter with
Aigul in a phone call.
In the plan for today Aigul also wrote of a hot spring, and I imagine
some rock cliff with hot water coming out of it.
More discussion follows, then the driver suggests that the canyon is in
the valley to the left. However it's highly unlikely that a canyon is
behind there and I try to explain that to the driver. Nevertheless the
driver insists to get there.
Quite a stubborn guy. I tell him a couple
of time to just go back, but no, he continues driving on that road,
which in the meantime is getting more and more impossible (big stones
everywhere). Not really suitable for a sedan car.
Finally we reach the end of the Semenovskoe area and finally the driver
turns back. We get back to the place where we had lunch. There is
another valley, which ends between steep mountains. Perhaps the canyon
is there? There is a road leading there and I suggest to try that.
Actually I had suggested that other valley from the beginning, but the
driver had refused to try it out. Now the driver agrees to give it a
So we drive up that other valley. Well, we get more into the mountains,
but there is still no canyon or gorge in sight. At one point I tell the
driver to stop the car (we would otherwise have to cross a shaky
bridge). We walk
a bit for a while and reach a place where there is a family with kids
and horses. Turns out that these people rent out horses to tourists.
Some discussion. The driver suggests that I should take a horse for a
couple of hours and further up the mountain I will reach the canyon.
But it's already past 2pm and we still have to get down and reach
Karakol. Besides I haven't been riding horses for over 20 years, so I'm
not sure how well I'd be able to control a horse on a mountain. So I
decline and we start driving back to the Issyk Kul lake.
Along the way,
suggests to make a stop in a cafe and I
agree. However when we arrive this turns out to be some kind of
restaurant and they want to make lunch for me. Ehmm... it's 3pm and I'm
not exactly in the mood to have lunch again at this time. It takes some
effort to convince the driver that I'm not going to have lunch now and
was just thinking to perhaps have a cup of tea or something like that
with a piece of cake. I ask him if he wants to eat something (perhaps
this is the reason he chose this place), but he says no. So we continue
As soon as we are close enough to the lake and there is a cellular
signal again, the mystery gets clarified. There is no canyon or gorge.
With 'canyon' Aigul just meant that big valley we have just visited.
Excellent, we have spent well over an hour looking for something which
doesn't exist. The hot spring is supposed to be somewhere along the
So we drive to the hot spring, arriving there at 3:40pm. Turns out that
this hot spring has no water anymore. There are some pools for the
guests, but they are empty. So we just drive to Karakol.
After one more stop near Karakol to eat 'ashlyanfu' (seems to be some
sort of noodle soup), we reach Karakol at 5:15pm. There we briefly
check out the Dungan mosque (a quite unimpressive building) and the
Pravoslavik church. This church is a wooden Russian orthodox church and
is absolutely gorgeous and photogenic.
Finally, we reach my hotel shortly before 6pm. I tell the driver to
pick me up tomorrow at 9am.
In the evening I walk to the Zarina cafe, which the hotel lady
recommended to me. This seems to be a better place and also more
tourist oriented, but the food, while not bad, is not that good either.
And they forget to bring the salad which I ordered.
18.8: Karakol -> Bishkek via the
coast of Issyk Kul lake
Silk Road Lodge, Bishkek. $80 for a room.
Weather: sunny, blue sky the whole day. Some
clouds on the mountain tops.
We leave the hotel shortly after 9am and, after buying some drinks and
food in a shop, drive to Jeti Oguz, one of the side valleys around the
Issyk Kul lake. We arrive there at 10am.
One of the amazing things of lake Issyk Kul is that the area
immediately surrounding it is quite dry and actually looks like dry,
sufficient to drive away from the
for about 20 minutes to reach an alpine environment at about 2000m
altitude, with plenty of water, forests and lots of vegetation. Typical
alpine scenery with high meadows and coniferous forest.
mediterranean beach scenery you change to alpine scenery in 20 minutes.
There is an entry fee of 50 Som at one point. We drive the car a bit
further until a parking behind a house. Alpine scenery with mountain
huts and farms, cows, a stream flowing in the middle, meadows and
forests. Beautiful and highly photogenic red rock formation in the
Here, at 2000m
altitude, is the starting point for treks
into the mountains. You could base yourself here and spend a few days
exploring the nearby mountains. It's just that I don't see any hotels
or other tourist accomodation.
Shortly before 11am we drive back to lake Issyk Kul and proceed
westwards along the southern shore. This is a quite peaceful and laid
back area. Every now and then the road passes closer to the lake and
are some very nice beaches, many
almost empty or with few people. In
the background you can see high mountains with glaciers - pretty strong
contrast. Pristine turquoise water of the lake.
At 2:20pm we reach the next
place, the socalled Fairytale Canyon (50
Som entrance fee). This is a very photogenic area of red mud/sandstone
with some very characteristic shapes, probably developed
over time as a result of wind and water erosion. Quite unique scenery
with shrubs, other vegetation and mud/rock formations.
We continue driving along the southern shore of the lake, every now and
then stopping here and there to take pictures. (Overpriced) lunch at
3pm in a not so good restaurant next to a beach.
We also stop at the
Manjyly Ata 12 holy springs, a pilgrimage place where local people come
to take water from the springs. Not that impressive any I only find one
spring with water and another one which is dry.
We are back in Bishkek in the evening shortly after 8pm. There, at the
Bishkek B&B I meet again Aigul. Some chat. Turns out that the
driver is her father and her sister is running the Apple hostel in
Cholpon Ata. The aunt or somebody else in the family is running the
19.8: Bishkek -> Astana
Business hotel. 144000 Tenge for a stylish room
with A/C, fridge, WLAN, phone, some furniture (table+chair, cupboard,
clothes hanger). Breakfast included. The heating seems to be on in the
toilet (floor heating), i.e. the floor feels warm. Breakfast included.
The location is not perfect (5km from the Bayterek monument), but this
was the only affordable option with A/C, and I wanted to have A/C as
the temperatures were forecast to reach 35°C.
Weather: sunny, blue sky in Bishkek. In Astana
also sunny, later in the afternoon some cloud cover.
After checking out of the
hotel, at 8:30am I get into the taxi to the
airport. The drive proceeds smoothly and at 9am we reach the airport.
No charge for the trip (it is covered by the room rate of the Silk Road
Major mess at the Bishkek international airport. There is no queueing
system at all, so all the queues at the various check-in counters mix
up totally and it takes a while to understand which queue is for which
flight. Then people have the habit to jump queue. As I'm not that used
to jumping queue I'm one of the last to check in.
Another queueing mess at the passport control counters, again caused by
the lack of a queueing system and the lack of queueing discipline of
the people here. Women with a child in their arm happily jump queues
and then call all the members of their extended family to join them.
Also, the passport control officials are quite slow.
Then, once in the departure hall, I notice that there is no gate number
on my boarding pass. Turns out that there is just one gate on the left
side which is active, through which all passengers pass. The other
gates are closed.
There is also some lack of control at the boarding pass check.
Nevertheless I'm on the plane at about 10:25am and I have an emergency
exit window seat, which sort of compensates for the inconvenience of
the Bishkek airport.
Copyright 2015 Alfred