touring | kyrgyzstan - chasing eagle hunters on the silk road
'ghosts in the snow, conservation efforts in central asia'
so, you are wondering where the hell this place is or did i misspell kazakhstan, well this mountainous country is actually to the south of its larger neighbor. known as the most democratic country in central asia, countless revolutions have shaped this nation over the years since the fall of the soviet union.
this historically nomadic country where tribes used to set up yurt camps & moved their livestock herds depending on weather & other factors has been thrusted into the 21st century in recent times with the development of education & migration to the major hubs of bishkek, osh & karakol.
so, let us dive a little deeper into my experience here, exploring the cities & landscapes of this awesome mountainous central asia country. i can guarantee that you will be surprised by this underrated nation.
most people outside the kyrgyzstan have never heard of the capital bishkek, the guidebooks always suggest one night before moving on but i decided to spend a week here to utterly understand what the capital has to offer. oh boy, was i glad i did.
arriving on the early morning flight from istanbul dazed from lack of sleep i jump in a cab at the airport & headed to the center. make sure to take the official cab from luggage claim area as a friend of mine was swindled by some unscrupulous characters a few days prior to my arrival.
the 40min ride to my home for a few nights the 5* hotel orion, set on the main boulevard i was filled with anticipation as this was my first time in central asia, i had no idea what to expect. i was pleasantly surprised when we rolled up to the gates of what i believe is the best hotel in town. although it was only around 10am the friendly staff informed me that my room was ready for my arrival, i was super relieved as i did not want to wait until the afternoon to check-in.
my room on the 6th floor was super spacious & regal in its design with artisanal embraided accents. the illy expresso machine & acqua di parma toiletries was a touch of class & the automatic curtains that can be opened with a flick of a switch from the bed made waking up a joy.
for those looking for a touch of relaxation & luxury then this is the place to stay, from the spa with huge pool & jacuzzi, gym with trainer & not to mention the fabulous, included breakfast i spend hours in the morning enjoying the fresh pastries & high-quality produce.
now, let us get on to the city itself. one of the best ways to explore any city is to take a walking tour & this time was no different i found a cool company bishkek walks that offered a mosaics tour around the center. i met up with a few other locals & tourists as we made our way around exploring the mostly soviet style mosaic artworks that where vast & interestingly mostly depicting women.
now, it was time me to explore what this city had to offer travelers, i heard the restaurant & bar scene was epic & diverse from korean to georgian & of course a few local places, you will find a map of my favorites at the end of the post. the coolest places i visited was save the ales & baan baan thai, it's a wonderful place to visit with friends. i also must recommend etno, a super traditional restaurant that serves up some of the best local dishes in the city.
the city i would say has a modern brutalist feel from the soviet times with plenty of cool street art & a young vibrant population. i was thinking this could be a new hub for digital nomads due to the fast wifi speeds, night scene & visa free entry.
while the marshrutka (public minivan) network is vast & cheap ($5 - 400km from bishkek to karakol) there are so many places they do not reach & having the opportunity to stop & visit gorges, mountain passes & lakes then 4x4 is your only option.
travel land offers awesome well maintained 4x4 rentals for around ($50) a day. a bargain for such a large vehicle & with fuel prices at ($0.50c liter) no need to worry about the running costs. if you want to get to the interesting landscapes of the dzhety-ogyuz rock formations or the lake shore of issyk kul lake, a 4x4 is a necessity.
six hours east of bishkek along the shore of lake issyk kul (2nd largest saltwater lake in the world). this small city is the main tourist stop off to explore the mountainous region in the southeastern part of the country. karakol itself should not be overlook as a destination in itself from the renowned aslan fu noodles, a dungan ethnic dish to the blue mosque that was built without nails it demands a few days to explore.
the most well know attraction is the sunday cattle market, where nomads from around the region come to sell their herds. to be honest it was not for me, thousands of animals being held in terrible conditions was quite a shock but as a photographer it is a fascinating place to see the interesting faces from the different ethnicities of the region.
after an exhausting day hiking in the mountains there is nothing better than soaking your feet in the ak-suu natural hot springs about 20mins from the center.
this was for me one of the most exciting reasons for visiting kyrgyzstan, to meet an eagle hunter has been a dream of mine for years. while the practice is used for sport & competition it was still on the top of my list to go out with an eagle hunter into the wild.
for around ($50 for two) you can go on a horse trek into the hills above bokonbayevo for the day with a bonafied eagle hunter.
arriving early in the morning we jump on the horses & took an hour ride into the mountains above the town, with the outstanding views if issyk kul lake in the distance we let the eagle free to search for prey. it was a privilege to see the relationship between the eagle & its trainer, they have such an intimate understanding of each other.
i knew that we would not be sitting around for the entire day but i was not prepared for traversing the precarious ridges following the eagle on its hunt. one misplaced step & it would be disastrous, definitely not for the faint of heart. while she did not make a kill that day the sheer sight of seeing such a majestic creature up close was well worth the near-death experience.
this was truly a dream come true, one of the greatest experiences that i had ever had in my many years of traveling. booking via whatsapp
fairytale canyon "skazka"
another early start saw us back on the road heading back to bishkek. this time we took the southern road of lake issyk kul, this is by far the more scenic route between the capital & karakol.
a few hours into the trip we arrived at what is affectionally know as fairytale canyon. the scorched landscape of this canyon inspires the imagination transporting you to another world, it reminded me of the grand canyon in the usa. with the snowcapped mountains in the distance, it was surreal to look down upon the desert like landscape that has been carved out over millennia.
a near treacherous climb up the rock face to the viewpoint makes you think twice, but once up top it makes it all worthwhile, the views are breathtaking. the perfect time to visit the canyon for the best shots is at sunrise when the early rays transform the colors of this fascinating landscape.
anti poaching conservation efforts
the ilbirs foundation is a nonprofit environmental organization, aimed at preserving the natural heritage of kyrgyzstan, it carries out educational, charitable, cultural research & other socially useful activities in the field of improving the natural environment & conservation of endangered species including the illusive snow leopard in kyrgyzstan.
conservation of viable populations of snow leopards & other wildlife species as an integral part of kyrgyzstan's nature by promoting & encouraging local communities, which live in high mountainous regions of the country, to preserve their natural environment by promoting tourism & more sustainable activities moving away from poaching.
I & kenje 'from the foundation' took a trip to chon-kemin, a valley only a few hours' drive from the capital where the foundation has made headway in anti-poaching efforts. we visited the guesthouse of an ex-poacher, uzur. now an anti-poaching ranger. uzur was approached by ilbirs to shift away from poaching into tourism & conservation. although initially hesitant uzur has since become a passionate advocate for protecting wildlife in the area while promoting tourism to his guesthouse.
poachers either hunt for sport or financial reasons. the foundation solves the issue of finance by educating poachers in the benefit of promoting conservation tourism, they also train them in honey production, a is a high value product in the country.
we spent the day on horseback in the snow traversing the trails up the mountain spotting animals along the way while also being on alert for poachers. it was a wonderful experience that not only supports conservation efforts but the local community.
the ilbirs foundation offers eco tours all over the country. if you are interested in conservation while also supporting local communities this is by far the most interesting way to experience the country. you can find more information here.
i love it when i visit a country with zero expectations as it's super easy to be surprised & delighted not only by the landscape but the people. i came to kyrgyzstan on a whim, covid has made it super difficult to visit many countries recently & since they did not require quarantine here it worked out perfectly for me.
my time in kyrgyzstan was absolutely awesome i was shocked by the fact i haven't heard much about this country before. the natural beauty of region is unrivaled & only surpassed by the wonderful people that live here. not only is it very safe here the people of this nation are kind & curious towards foreigners, always willing to help every step of the way.
kyrgyzstan is one of the cheapest countries in the world. i was surprised just how inexpensive this place was. from street food for around ($1) to 20 min taxi rides for ($3) & fine dining meals for two costing only ($30). decent hotels range from ($15) - ($200) per night. for those who cannot rent a car, the vast intra-country marshrutka network can get you anywhere in the country for less than ($10)it'sa terrific way to meet locals.
⦿ budget ($40) a day including accommodation.
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country travel tips
atm: demirbank bank offers free withdrawals. don't accept the on-screen conversion.
sim card: beeline. 40GB is ($6) for 30 days. got an e-sim enable phone try, airalo.
transport: bus, private car & taxi (yandex app) are all cheap.
taxi: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here