Overview
Costs
Food
Hotels
Money
Mobile phones
Internet
Weather
Health
VISA
Security
Recommended
Avoid
Getting around
Photos

Bishkek, Ala Archa NP, Issyk Kul lake




14.8: Ulan Bator -> Bishkek
15.8: Bishkek -> Ala Archa NP -> Bishkek
16.8: Bishkek -> Cholpon Ata (Issyk Kul lake)
17.8: Cholpon Ata -> Karakol
18.8: Karakol -> Bishkek via the southern coast of Issyk Kul lake
19.8: Bishkek -> Astana


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 five.
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.



Costs

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.



Food

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.

 

Accommodation

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)

1 Euro = 68 Som at the time of visiting.
1 Euro ~ USD 1.10
For current exchange rates check the Universal Currency Converter.

ATMs from where to get cash are available in Bishkek.


Mobile 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 data 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 mountain valleys.


Internet access

I relied on Internet access in hotels and via the smartphone (set up in hotspot mode).



Weather

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.



Security

Kyrgyzstan leaves the impression of a pretty safe country.



Recommended things



Things to avoid



Getting around

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 this trip



Back to the Mongolia 2015 travelogue



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.

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. Have 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 -> Bishkek
Silk road lodge, Bishkek. The breakfast is pretty good.
Weather: sunny, spotless blue sky, warm (probably > 30C peak)

At 8:35am I get out of the hotel and start the daytrip to the Ala Archa NP. It 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 entrance 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 history.




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 old 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 fuel).

We make a stop at the Burana tower archaeological site, about 80km from Bishkek. 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), and 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 in Bishkek.

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 high, otherwise there wouldn't be glaciers.

At 4pm we drive to the petroglyphs (ticket: 50 Som), an area with stones 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. Surreal view 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 -> Karakol
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 evening.

 Shortly after 9am I meet the driver. We stop briefly at the bakery, 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 couple 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 brings me 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 bit 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 trees here and there.

At 11am we reach a high meadow at about 2000m altitude, a wide open 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 suggests to 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 try.

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, the driver 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 driving.

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 lake.

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 southern 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, mediterranean shrubland. But it's sufficient to drive away from the lake 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. From 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 background. 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 there 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 formations, 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 adjacent cafeteria.




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 35C.
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 Lodge).

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.



 Continues with the Kazakhstan 2015 travelogue




Copyright 2015 Alfred Molon