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From Mountains to Meadows: A 7 to 21-Days self-drive itinerary in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan - a land of unspoiled natural landscapes, rich nomadic traditions, and a history intertwined with the ancient Silk Road. Read on to discover how to make the most of your journey to this captivating Central Asian country.

Key information about Kyrgyzstan at a glance

Daily budget:ca. 30-60 EUR/person/day if self-traveling, tours start at 80-100EUR/person/day
Transportation:In your own 4x4 (if you are going for 7 days, you don't need one)
Itinerary length:7 - 21 days
Best time to travel:mid-June to mid-September
For you if:You love nature, hiking, mountains and a little bit of adventure
Not for you if:You are looking for an easy holiday destination
Country Overview:Head here for a general overview over Kyrgyzstan

The two weeks we spent driving around Kyrgyzstan were one of our favourite parts of our world trip (alongside Omalo in Georgia and the two months driving in Southern Africa). However, it was not a relaxing vacation - Kyrgyzstan is not the easiest travel destination (but it is becoming easier every year as the tourism infrastructure is growing).

All the struggles in communicating with people, finding information on where to stay, how to book said stays, and where to go and how to get there were all worth it though. The landscapes of Kyrgyzstan are unlike anything we've seen, and of breathtaking beauty.

The natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan will take your breath away
The natural beauty of Kyrgyzstan will take your breath away

A word on logistcs

Here's a list of must-knows before driving in Kyrgyzstan:

  • If you plan to drive into very remote regions, like e.g. into the Kyrgyz Tian Shan mountains, you do need to have some basic offroad driving skills (or just learn very fast XD). Some of the roads can be tricky to navigate, and there might be a river crossing or two. That being said, I think if you are an experienced (and confident) driver that has not too much offroad experience, you can do it. If you are inexperienced or going for a longer time and into tricky terrain, consider driving with friends and taking more than one vehicle (so there's someone that can pull you out if you get stuck).
  • Check whether you need permits to access the regions you want to include in your itinerary. I mention it in the article when a destination requires a permit, but you can also on the Visit Karakol Website. This is also where you can apply for the permit(s) you need.
  • Unfortunately, corruption is still widespread. Our car rental agency warned us that when stopped, we would likely have to pay a bribe to be able to continue driving. However, when we were once stopped on the road
  • The speed limit is enforced quite rigorously. That being said, there are no speed cameras and outside of the popular roads from Bishkek along the shores of Issyk Kul to Karakol you will likely also not see too many police cars monitoring speed. Be on the lookout and adhere to the speed limits (especially on the above mentioned road), even if many cars overtake you.
  • Research available gas stations before driving into the mountains and on longer cross-country trips. If in doubt, take a bit of extra petrol with you.
  • Many of the roads you'll be using are in poor condition. It's not uncommon to encounter an abundance of potholes, even on highways—what starts as a smooth stretch of asphalt can abruptly turn into a field of potholes around the next corner. Always drive with care and keep an eye out for sudden changes in road quality!
Make sure you plan accordingly if you decide to visit the very remote regions of the country
Make sure you plan accordingly if you decide to visit the very remote regions of the country
  • The road lighting is generally poor, and when you add the numerous potholes into the mix, it makes night driving quite hazardous and difficult. If possible, try to avoid driving at night.
  • Similar to many Central Asian countries, constant vigilance is required when driving. Not everyone adheres to traffic rules, and city traffic can sometimes be overwhelming. Still, with careful driving, there's nothing to be overly concerned about.
  • Throughout Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the more secluded regions, hitchhiking is a frequent practice among locals. Initially, we hesitated to pick up hitchhikers in areas where we hadn't seen anyone for kilometers. However, it generally proved to be very safe, and locals often depend on the infrequent passing vehicles for transportation. Our experiences turned out to be quite enriching — through Google Translate, we discovered that our passengers included a monk, a carpenter, and a group of women heading to a local market.
  • You'll probably be staying in Yurt Camps and smaller guesthouses a lot. While basic, this is a unique and great experience! They usually come with dinner on the day of arrival and breakfast on the day of departure. You can also contact them if you would like to have lunch.
  • I would advise to pre-book the yurt camps. I know a lot of people do not, and if a camp is booked out they just move on to the next - but I do get a bit nervous when I don't know whether I'll have a bed that night. For your peace of mind, I advise you to pre-book. You can do this via WhatsApp (use google translate to write in Kyrgyz), the yurt camps usually don't have a booking site and especially the smaller ones are not on any of the third party booking websites.
We do advise you take a 4x4...
We do advise you take a 4x4...
...as this gives you access to very remote regions
...as this gives you access to very remote regions

Do I need a 4x4 for Kyrgyzstan?

In theory, you could drive the country with a "normal" car, but your experience will be different. Your itinerary will be confined to the main sights: Issyk Kul, Skazka Canyon, Karakol (with a trip to Altyn Arashan), Naryn. As our 7 day itinerary covers these (except for Naryn), if you want to follow our 7-day itinerary, your do not need a 4x4 car.

That being said, for a longer stay in the country and to immerse yourself fully into what Kyrgyzstan has to offer by also exploring the very remote areas, you need to get a 4x4 (or you need to join a tour). The 7 - 21 day itineraries in this article assume you have a 4x4 car available.

We ended up getting a Toyota Fortuner for our trip: this was much too big a car for 2 people, but felt it was exactly the car needed for our drive - the Renault Duster we had in Kazakhstan would probably not have made it up some of the hills and across some of the rivers. Our car rental was Аренда Авто Бишкек and we were very happy with them.

Map Overview

To orient yourself throughout this article and all the locations mentioned here, let's first take a look at a map of the region and the most prominent stops of this itinerary:

One week (7 days) self-drive itinerary

One week is a bit short to explore Kyrgyzstan, as even though the country is not huge, travelling from A to B can take quite some time due to the conditions of the roads. This itinerary gives you a good introduction to the country and you'll want to come back for more!

Note: For this 7 day version, you do not need a 4x4 car!

Views of the Skazka Canyon...
Views of the Skazka Canyon...
...on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul
...on the shores of Lake Issyk Kul

Day 1

Arrive in Bishkek and pick up your car - we stayed at Futuro Hotel Bishkek. It's nothing special, but nice and clean. Furusato, Torro Grill & Bar and Bublik Cafe are all good options for food.

If you plan on heading to remoter regions, it might be a good idea to stack up on a few basics: Our shopping list included food (incl instant soups and other ready-made food), a few big canisters of water (5-10l each), toilet paper, disinfectant, ear plugs.

Day 2

The adventure begins! Start early and drive to the Skazka Canyon on the shores of the Issyk Kul lake - this will take you around 5 hours (distance: 300km). As there are not that many restaurants on the way, we had a bit of the food we bought on the previous day for lunch.

Spend the afternoon exploring Skazka Canyon. The road is accessible for 4x4, but does consist of a lot of sand. We parked our car on the first parking lot as we felt the sand was getting too deep for us, but if you have experience in adjusting your tyres you can drive almost all the way up to the canyon. If you do not have a 4x4, use your judgement to see how far you can drive - you can then simply park your car at the side of the road and walk the rest. Once you reach the canyon, spend a bit of time walking around and admiring the view of the crevasses with Issyk Kul as a backdrop.

Alam Ordo is a peculiar place
Alam Ordo is a peculiar place

You can also consider stopping at Aalam Ordo - even though you cannot enter, it's an interesting place for a quick stop. Built in 2009, Aalam Ordo was envisioned as a hub for culture, science, and spirituality. The concept was ambitious: it aimed to be a gathering place where Kyrgyz youth could engage with elders, exchanging ideas and learning in an informal setting devoid of lectures, curriculum, or structured lessons.

We stayed at Yurt camp Sonun and can highly recommend it. The owner is super nice and food was good. However, there are many options of yurt camps along the shores of Issyk Kul lake.

Day 3

Start early, drive the 2 hours (130km) to Karakol and leave your car as well as your main luggage there - we negotiated with a hostel that allowed us to leave ours in their parking lot against a small fee - ideally, this should be the hostel you will spend the night after returning from Altyn Arashan.

Catch the Matrushka from Karakol to Ak-Suu. Usually, this leaves every hour or so from the main square, but double check with the hostel / hotel you leave your car at as timings and also the number of matrushkas going there change frequently. If you cannot get a Matrushka, there are many Taxis that can take you the 20min there. If you end up taking a taxi, ask to be dropped here.

You can hike to Altyn Arashan from Ak-Suu
You can hike to Altyn Arashan from Ak-Suu
Don't attempt to drive to Altyn Arashan with a normal 4x4!
Don't attempt to drive to Altyn Arashan with a normal 4x4!

Then it's time for your first hike in Kyrgyzstan! It's not too long nor too hard - 15km and 245 elevation gain gets you to the village of Altyn Arashan. Here's the AllTrails link.

If you do not want to hike, there are old Soviet military cars that take tourists up the mountain. As we did not do this, I am not sure how it can be arranged - check with your hostel in Karakol or contact Visit Karakol for more infromation. Even if you have a 4x4, do not attempt to drive to Altyn Arashan! Normal 4x4s cannot make it - the road has a lot of huge boulders, so you need a vehicle with axle articulation where the tires can move independently of each other.

Spend the night in Altyn Arashan - we slept at "Ala-kul" guesthouse and were quite happy with it. After the long day, a soak in the hot springs might be exactly what you need. It's not exactly fancy (a hut with a 1m deep basin that you can rent for 1 hour), but it's a super relaxing experience!

As you can see here, the mountain pass is mostly gravel
As you can see here, the mountain pass is mostly gravel

Days 4 - 6

Once you reached Altyn Arashan, you have two options for the remaining two days (days 4-6): Either you base yourself in Altyn Arashan for two nights and do day trips (the chill version), or you can do a multi-day circular hike that includes Ala Kul lake (for fit people :P).

Option 1: Speak to your guesthouse to arrange for a horse ride day trip to go see the Ala-Kul lake. The horses will take you to 90% of the way there and you only need to climb the final ascent to the Ala Kul Pass. On day 2, you could do some of the shorter hikes in the region or go on a horse riding excursion again. On the third day, make your way back to Karakol.

Option 2 (recommended): From Altyn Arashan, hike a half circle to get back to Karakol. You can either take your own tent and supplies or sleep in Yurt camps on the way.

Horse riding in the Altyn Arashan valley
Horse riding in the Altyn Arashan valley

On day 1, start early and hike to Yurt Camp Sirota. This is the AllTrails link of this hike - it's not too long, but especially the last bit is of high technical difficulty: It's essentially a scramble up a gravel mountain. The views at the top are spectacular!

On day 2, hike to Aydin-Kol Yurt Camp - the distance is approximately 15km and goes 920m downhill. If you are feeling very energetic, you can consider hiking a bit in the opposite direction and deeper into the mountains once you reach the Karakol river.

On the last day, you can either take one of the Matruschkas back to Karakol or hike the 10km back into town. If you have time, you could also consider booking a half-day horse riding tour with your Yurt Camp.

In Karakol, we stayed at Hillside Karakol Bed and Breakfast. Karakol Lighthouse is a great option for lunch and dinner.

Day 7

Drive back to Bishkek in time to catch your flight out.

Views of the Tian Shan mountains
Views of the Tian Shan mountains

Two weeks (14 days) self-drive itinerary

Day 7 - 9

Follow the itinerary above as described - however, instead of driving back to Bishkek on day 7, use the day to get ready to drive into the Tian Shan mountains (you need a permit for this trip!). I've written a detailed article on self-driving this region - do the 2 day itinerary and return to Karakol late on day 9.

Day 10

Make your way towards Naryn. If you feel like another half-day hike, consider getting up very early and driving the 5 hours (280km) to Usonbak yurt camp. From there, you can do the 5 hour hike (11km) up Ak-Tash Mountain.

Alternatively, take it easy, sleep in, and then take the whole day to reach Naryn, where you will spend the night.

At the Kel Su base camp
At the Kel Su base camp

Day 11

Today, you will drive into the mountains again, again into a border region with several border posts: Towards the Kel Suu base camp! Allow the whole day to arrive there - it's a beautful drive and you'll want to stop for the occasional pictures. Make sure you get to your yurt camp before it gets dark! We stayed at this yurt camp.

Day 11

Hike to Kel Su lake - it's an incredible lake that has a large underground cave system that means it sometimes drains completely. The hike there is 9km one way and one of the most beautiful hikes we did in all of Kyrgyzstan. Take lunch from the yurt camp and eat it looking at the beautiful lake.

The Kel Su lake has an incredible color!
The Kel Su lake has an incredible color!

Day 12

A driving day! Drive out of the border region and to Tash Rabat. Once you reach here in the afternoon, visit the Tash Rabat Caravan Palace. Spend two nights at Sabyrbek's Yurt Camp.

Day 13

Organise horses with your yurt camp and do a horse ride to the Mountain pass to Chatyr Kol lake. You can also hike there, but we found the hike to be quite rocky and the views (up to the end) not on par with the other hikes we had done. However, riding on horses made this into a fun day trip - and you can't leave Kyrgyzstan without having ridden a horse at least once. Don't be worried if you've never ridden before: The tour guides are very knowledgable and adapt the speed and also the type of horse they give you to your abilities.

Tash Rabat is a 15th-century stone caravanserai and was once a main stop along the silk road
Tash Rabat is a 15th-century stone caravanserai and was once a main stop along the silk road

Day 14

A long driving day is ahead of you as you drive the 430km (ca. 6h 30min) back to Bishkek to catch your flight out of Kyrgyzstan.

Three weeks (21 days) self-drive itinerary

21 days gives you enough time to drive into the region around Osh - this is a bit of a difficult place to get to as there are simply so many mountain passes between this region and the other regions of Kyrgyzstan, which makes for quite a long drive.

Do the 14-day itinerary as described above. However, instead of driving back to Bishkek on Day 14, do a driving day towards Jalal-Abad. You can either try to get as far as possible on this day (to Jalal-Abad is 8h and 440km), or find a yurt camp on the way.

Day 15

Drive the remaining distance (ca. 6h, 510 km) to Sary Mogul - or the region around it, it does not really matter where exactly you base yourself for your day trips as long as it's within a 30min driving radius. Abdumalik Guesthouse is a good place to base yourself while you explore the region.

A horse ride is a must do activity when in Kyrgyzstan...
A horse ride is a must do activity when in Kyrgyzstan...
...and often the village dogs decide to join such an excursion
...and often the village dogs decide to join such an excursion

Day 16 & 17

We recommend you take two days to do two day hikes. Alternatively, you can do a multi-day hike to the Lenin Peak Base camp - but you do need to be very fit for that.

Day hike 1: Visit the Koshkol lakes. This is a moderately difficult, 7-8 hours and 22km day hike to a series of turquoise alpine lakes.

Day hike 2: Drive to Tulpar Lake and do a day hike from there - you could for example hike to the Lenin Peak First Base Camp. You should also consider spending the night in one of the yurt camps at the lakes, for example this one.

Day 18 & 19

Drive to Osh (3h 30min, 220km) and spend the afternoon as well as the next day there. The most prominent sights in the city are the Bazaar and Сулайман Тоо. Wander around the city to check out the many Soviet murals as well as the many mosques. Do a half-day trip to the ancient city of Uzgen.

Views of the Song Kul lake
Views of the Song Kul lake

Day 20

Start very early and drive to the Song Kul lake from Osh - this will take around 8h (430km). Make sure you arrive before sunset so you can get some nice views of the lake. This is a good place to stay.

Day 21

Drive from Song Kul back to Bishkek in time to catch your flight out!

P.S: We know this route - and Central Asia in general - is still a lesser travelled destination. So don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions, we're happy to help! Similarly, if you find the information here is outdated or we're missing something don't hesitate to get in touch) and we'll update it so fellow travelers can profit from this.

Make sure you check our our artice about an adventure 4x4 self-drive in the Kyrgyz Tian Shan mountains next!