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Kyrgyzstan is a Central Asian country of incredible natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions. Landlocked and mountainous, it borders Kazakhstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, Tajikistan to the southwest and China to the southeast. Annexed by Russia in 1876, it achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. It has the most liberal tourist visa policy in Central Asia and one of the more progressive post-Soviet governments in the region.
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The ancient Scyths inhabited much of present day Kyrgyzstan. With their disappearance the Kyrgyz people moved from Siberia. The Kyrgyz are descendants of tribes from the Tuvan region of Russia, which migrated to the area now known as Kyrgyzstan in the 13th century, during the rise of the Mongol empire. In 1876 the area was incorporated into the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. With the tsarist annexation came numerous Slavic immigrants that displaced many of the Kyrgyz and planted crops on their pasture lands. During World War I, many Kyrgyz refused to support the tsarist troops and many were massacred.
Following the creation of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan changed dramatically as industrialization took over and brought factories, mines, and universities. The Soviet influence on Kyrgyzstan was strongly felt and many of the pre-Soviet traditions and cultures were lost and are only being recently rediscovered. In addition, ethnic minorities were deported to Kyrgyzstan, including Germans, Kurds, Chechens, Poles, and Jews. In addition, Ouighur and Dungan Chinese Muslims settled in Kyrgyzstan. This mix of populations makes Kyrgyzstan one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Asia.
August 31st, 1991 marked a major event in the history of Kyrgyzstan. After unrest in various regions throughout the Soviet Union, a coup in Moscow against the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev failed. This move against the central government motivated the Kyrgyz power structure to declare independence from the U.S.S.R. Kyrgyzstan also saw during that time the election of the only non-communist party backed president in the Central Asian region, a physicist named Askar Akayev.
As for President Akayev, it became evident that non-party affiliation did not guarantee honesty. The executive branch’s power increased through suppression of opposition and the President secured immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. After several years of questionable elections, in March 2005, massive groups of protesters from around the country converged on the capitol, causing Akayev to flee into exile in Russia.
The leader of the Tulip Revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, formed an interim government and served as president and prime minister until later that July when emergency elections were held. Bakiyev ran for the office of President and won, but was unable to gain parliamentary approval of his cabinet until five months later. After several attempts to resolve a constitution, Bakiyev declared in 2007, that all previous versions of the constitution were illegal and instituted a modified constitution from the Akayev era. He then dissolved parliament and called for an early election to reform the parliamentary structure. The President’s own party gained the majority and the U.S. State Department expressed deep concern about the conduct of the elections, citing several issues including widespread vote count irregularities and exaggerations in voter turnout. Some of the current problems that Kyrgyzstan faces today are universal throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States, namely lack of political freedom, widespread corruption and negative influences on democracy.
Dry continental to polar in high Tien Shan; subtropical in southwest (Fergana Valley); temperate in northern foothill zone.
- Wander around Osh Bazaar - Traditional Eastern market in Bishkek selling everything from spices to dishwashers.
- Buy cheap Chinese goods in Dordoi Bazaar - The largest market in Central Asia, situated 20 minutes north of Bishkek.
- Swim, sail and sunbathe in Issyk Kul - The world's second biggest high altitude mountain lake.
- Stay in a yurt near Tash Rabat - Ruins of a Caravansarai in Naryn Oblast.
- Live like a nomad in Son Kul - High altitude mountain lake less visited than Issyk Kul and ideal for seeing traditional semi-nomadic Kyrgyz life in action.
- Hike or climb in Altyn Arashan - a secluded valley a 2 hour vehicle ride from Karakol.
- Expedition to the peak Lenine, 7134m - south of Osh city.
- Horseback riding near the Toktogul - 3 days of adventure on horseback.
Kyrgyz food is the product of a long history of pastoral nomadism and is overwhelmingly meat-based. And if we are saying overwhelmingly, it means really overwhelmingly. Those with vegetarian fixations may wish to revise their habits, purchase their own fresh fruits, vegetables, and fresh bread from one of the many small stands or food bazaars that are ubiquitous in every city, eat in Chinese restaurants or stay with bread and tea only. While people from the West are programmed to think of large vegetables as desirable, small and flavourful is the rule here. Same is valid for pistachios, almonds as well. Washing vegetables before consumption is recommended.
Besh barmak (“five fingers”) is the national soupy dish of Kyrgyzstan (Kazakhs would probably disagree). For preparation, a sheep or horse is slaughtered and boiled in a large pot. The resulting broth is served as a first course. The meat is then divided up between those at the table. Each person in attendance receives the piece of meat appropriate to their social status. The head and eyes are reserved for guests of honor. The remaining meat is mixed in with noodles and, sometimes with onions, and is traditionally eaten from a large common dish with the hands, although nowadays more often with a fork or spoon. Kyrgyz people like soupy food in general, those food that are served as kind of pasta in Russia (pelmene), they prefer it as soup.
Most other dishes encountered in Kyrgyzstan are common to the other countries of Central Asia as well. Plov or osh is a pilaf dish that at a minimum includes julienne carrots, onion, beef or mutton, and plenty of oil, sometimes raisins. Manti are steamed dumplings that normally contain either mutton or beef, but occasionally pumpkin. Samsa are meat (although sometimes vegetable or cheese) pies that come in two varieties: flaky and tandoori. Flaky somsa are made with a phyllo dough while tandoori somsa have a tougher crust, the bottom of which is meant to be cut off and discarded, not eaten. Lagman is a noodle dish associated with Uyghur cuisine, but you can find everywhere from Crimea to Ujgurs. Most of the time it is served as soup, sometimes as pasta. The basic ingredients of lagman (plain noodles and spiced vegetables mixed with mutton or beef) can be fried together, served one on top of the other, or served separately. Shashlik (shish kebabs) can be made of beef, mutton, or pork and are normally served with fresh onions, vinegar and bread
Almost all Kyrgyz meals are accompanied by tea (either green or black) and a circular loaf of bread known as a lepeshka. The bread is traditionally torn apart for everyone by one person at the table. In the south of Kyrgyzstan, this duty is reserved for men, but in the north it is more frequently performed by women. Similarly, tea in the north is usually poured by women, while in the south it is usually poured by men.
At the end of a meal, Kyrgyz will in some cases perform a prayer. Sometimes some words are said, but more often the prayer takes the form of a perfunctory swipe of the hands over the face. Follow the lead of your host or hostess to avoid making any cultural missteps.
Drinking is one of the great Kyrgyz social traditions. No matter if you are served tea, kymys, or vodka, if you have been invited to a Kyrgyz person's table to drink, you have been shown warm and friendly hospitality. Plan to sit awhile and drink your fill as you and your host attempt to learn about each other.
When offered tea, you might be asked how strong you want it. Traditionally, Kyrgyz tea is brewed strong in a small pot and mixed with boiling hot water to your desired taste. If you want light tea, say 'jengil chai'. If you want your tea strong and red, 'kyzyl chai'. You might notice that they don't fill the tea cup all the way. This is so that they can be hospitable and serve you lots of tea. To ask for more tea, 'Daga chai, beringizchi' (Please give tea again). Your host will happily serve you tea until you burst. So once you've truly had your fill and don't want to drink any more, cover your tea cup and say, 'Ichtym' (I've drunk). Your host will offer a few more times (and sometimes will pout if you say no), this is to make sure that you are truly satisfied. Once everyone at table has finished drinking tea, it is time to say, 'Omen', and hold your hands out palms up and then brush the open palms down your face.
When entering a local store, you might goggle at the amount of vodka on display. Introduced by the Russians, vodka has brought much joy and sorrow to the Kyrgyz over the years. Most vodka you will find for sale was made in Kyrgyzstan and can provide travellers with one of the worst hangovers known, mainly if you are stupid and buy one of cheaper ones. But for approx. €2 you can have good kyrgyz vodka, ex. Ak-sai. Some professional vodka drinkers say that this is because foreigners don't know how to properly drink vodka. To drink vodka in the right way, you need to have zakushkas (Russian for the meal you eat with vodka). This can consist of anything from simple loaves of bread to full spreads of delicious appetizers. Quite common are sour or fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and of course meat.
First, find someone to drink with. Only alcoholics drink alone. Second, choose your vodka, the more you spend... the less painful your hangover. Third, choose your zakuska, something salty, dried, or fatty. This is so that the vodka is either absorbed by the food or repelled by the fat. Fourth, open your bottle... but be careful, once you open it you must drink it all (a good vodka bottle doesn't have a cap that can be replaced), now pour your shots. Fifth, you will toast! You must toast! Toast your friends, toast their futures, toast their sheep, toast their cars. Sixth, drink! Drink it all! Now chase it with a zakuska and repeat until you can't see the bottle or it is empty.
If you are drinking with locals its not problem to skip round. They would just pour you a symbolic drop and when they are clinking glasses you have to use your right hand and slap sparingpartners glasses slightly instead of your glass.
The Kyrgyz for generations have made their own variety of beverages. At first, these drinks might seem a bit strange, but after a few tries they become quite tasty. Most are mildly alcoholic, but this is just a by-product from their fermentation processes.
In the winter, Kyrgyz wives brew up bozo, a brew made of millet. Best served at room temperature, this drink has a taste somewhere between yogurt and beer. On cold winter days, when you are snowed in, five or six cups gives you a warm fuzzy feeling.
In the spring, it is time to make either jarma or maxim. Jarma, a wheat based brew, has a yeasty beerlike quality but with a gritty finish (it is made from whole grains after all). Maxim, a combination of corn and wheat, has a very sharp and zesty taste. It is best served ice cold and is a great pick me up on hot days.
Summer sees yurts lining the main street selling kymys, fermented mares milk. Ladled out of barrels brought down from the mountains, this traditional drink is one of more difficult to get used to. It has a very strong and pungent foretaste and a smoky finish. Kymys starts off as fresh horses milk (known as samal), the samal is then mixed with a starter made from last year's kymys and heated in a pot. The mixture is brought to just before boiling and then poured into a horse's stomach to ferment for a period. A local grass called 'chi' is then roasted over a fire and cut into small pieces. Once the milk is finished fermenting, the roasted chi and milk are mixed in a barrel and will keep for the summer if kept cool.
Tang is another drink thought to be useful for the health and good for hangovers. It is made from gassed spring water that is mixed with a salted creamy yogurt called souzmu.
Kyrgyz have their own cognac distiller, which produces excellent, albeit highly sweet cognac, with the preferred brand being "Kyrgyzstan Cognac", which the locals sometimes call Nashe Cognac, meaning "our cognac".
You can also find an excellent selection of not so excellent local and imported beers as many Kyrgyz have been taking to drinking beer versus harder spirits. Locally produced beers include Arpa, Nashe Pivo, and Karabalta. Arpa is highly recommended by beer connoisseurs. While being considered a common person's beer, its style is somewhat similar to an American Pale Ale (less hoppy than its Indian counterpart). Due to the fact that Kyrgizes prefer more vodka than beer (actually, half litre of both costs the same...), beer is staying in tubes for longer time. Regular cleaning service is not common. Bottled beers are better, except their strange habit to pour all the beer into the glass at once.
There are also a multitude of bottled waters (carbonated or still) from various regions of the country. Especially popular with southerners is the slightly saline "Jalalabad Water".
The official currency in Kyrgyzstan is the som (written as 'сом' or abbreviated as 'с' in Cyrillic), divided into 100 tyin. Notes are available in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 5000 som denominations. Coins are available in 10 tyin, 50 tyin, 1 som, 3 som, 5 som and 10 som denominations.
Changing money is relatively straightforward. Banks will accept a variety of major currencies, while the money-changing booths that are ubiquitous in urban areas will typically only deal with US dollars, British pounds, euros, Russian rubles, and Kazakh tenges. Note that neither banks nor money changers will accept any foreign currency that is torn, marked, excessively crumpled, or defaced in any way, so be sure to carefully check any notes you intend to bring into the country for defects.
Credit Cards & ATMs
Like other countries in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is overwhelmingly a cash economy. Credit cards are rarely used.
ATMs are common in Bishkek, and there are a scattering of ATMs in other towns. Many accept Visa - only Kazkommerts bank accepts MasterCard / Maestro / Cirrus, and their ATMs are few are far between. You can withdraw US Dollars or Kyrgyz som at many ATMs.
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Kyrgyzstan on Wikivoyage.
Cities in Kyrgyzstan
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Bishkek (population in 2009 approx. 835,000) is the capital and the largest city of the Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan).
- Ala-Too Square
- National Historical Museum
- American University of Central Asia
- Kyrgyzstan White House
- Parliament of Kyrgyz Republic
Points of Interest in Kyrgyzstan
- The capital Bishkek offers bazaars and Soviets monuments and architecture.
- Al-Archa National Park with mountain peaks of over 4,000m is located just a half hour drive from Bishkek.
- Kyrgyzstan's only World Heritage Site is the Sulaiman-Too mountain in Osh. The city of Osh itself also boasts a bazaar, mosques and Soviet architecture.
- Issyk Kul in eastern Kyrgyzstan is surrounded by mountains and is the world's second largest alpine lake.
National Historical Museum - Bishkek
Osh World War II Memorial - Osh
Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral - Karakol
Toktogul Reservoir - Toktogul
Lake Son-Kul - Naryn
Burana Tower - Talas
Ala-Too Square - Bishkek
American University of Central Asia - Bishkek
Kyrgyzstan White House - Bishkek
Parliament of Kyrgyz Republic - Bishkek
Panfilov Park - Bishkek
Manas Square - Bishkek
Osh Bazaar - Bishkek
Osh Lenin Statue - Osh
Ala Archa National Park - Bishkek
Karakol Dungan Mosque - Karakol
Lake Issyk Kul - Karakol
Lake Ala-Kul - Karakol
Przewalski\'s Museum and Memorial - Karakol
Dordoy Market - Bishkek