Tips for trekking in Kyrgyzstan – A beginner’s guide
I love trekking.
From Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia, trekking is always a big part of my journeys.
For me, this is the only way to do real exercise during my long-term travels, besides disconnecting from blogging, social media and the world in general.
That’s why during my 2-month journey through Kyrgyzstan, a country with 90% of its land above 1,500 meters, trekking in the mountains was no exception.
From endless high-altitude alpine lakes to dreamy meadows filled with hundreds of wildflowers, breathtaking 7,000-meter peaks, and huge landscape contrasts, Kyrgyzstan is home to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.
Moreover, the Kyrgyzstan mountains are very accessible and, thanks to the very visible nomadic life, you can get a warm meal above 3,000 meters, at the most unexpected times.
Kyrgyzstan is the ultimate trekking destination.
The following Kyrgyzstan trekking guide aims to provide you with useful and insightful tips that, hopefully, will help you plan and choose the best treks in Kyrgyzstan.
In this trekking guide to Kyrgyzstan you will find:
Which trek should you do?
Do you need a guide or not?
How much does it cost?
For places to visit, read: Backpacking in Kyrgyzstan – 1 to 4-week itinerary
Which Kyrgyzstan trek is for you?
Insurance for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
I strongly recommend IATI Insurance: COVID-19 coverage + adventure activities + 5% discount
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Kyrgyzstan is a very mountainous region, which means that there are endless trekking opportunities for any kind of trekking experience.
I consider myself an intermediate-beginner, so all my suggestions fit within this experience range.
They are all challenging, multi-day, go up to 4,900 meters above sea level (maximum) and some of them require you to be self-sufficient, meaning that you should be well-equipped.
Archa Tör Pass (3-5 days)
Absolutely stunning. It goes over a 3,800-meter mountain pass, from where you get clear views of Mount Karakol.
This trek belongs to the Tien Shan range, taking Karakol town as a base.
If you don’t have many days to spend in Kyrgyzstan, this is the one I strongly recommend.
It’s gorgeous, very challenging and, most important, not many people do it, so you’ll have these mountains just to yourself.
For more information, read my full review: Trekking in Karakol – Archa Tör Pass trek.
Ala Kul Lake (3-5 days)
This is the most popular trek for anyone going to the Tien Shan mountains around Karakol.
Basically, the trek ends at an alpine lake called Ala Kul, located above 4,000 meters.
It’s also absolutely stunning but, if you only have time for one trek, I recommend Archa Tör because fewer people do it. By the way, if you wanted, you could do both treks at once, as the end of one is the beginning of the other.
Read the full review here: Trekking to Ala Kul
Kyzart to Song Kol (2-4 days)
An easy trek but very beautiful at the same time.
Most people come to Song Kul by car from Kochkor. However, I recommend getting there from Kyzart (located on the other side of the lake) on foot.
It’s a perfect hike for beginners, as there are plenty of nomad camps on the way and the only ascent is a not very challenging mountain pass.
Lenin Peak Base Camp (2-4 days)
Standing more than 7,000 meters above sea level, Lenin Peak is one of the most iconic mountains in Kyrgyzstan. Climbing it requires quite a lot of experience but any person can reach the base camp.
However, if you are seeking more of a challenge, you can also trek to the advanced base camp (4,900 meters).
That’s what I did and it was a freaking real adventure, as the advanced base camp is located right at the bottom of a 2,300-meter ice wall, which is where you start climbing towards the peak.
Tash Rabat to Chatyr Kol (2 days)
This trail is an ancient and very important Silk Road route.
Here you will find a pretty high mountain pass (4,000 meters) but, since the trail starts at 3,500 meters, it doesn’t look that high.
It’s a relatively easy trek but very beautiful as well. Just for a change, I decided to do it on a horse.
Read my full review: Horse riding along the ancient Silk Road route of Tash Rabat
Ala Archa Ak-Sai Glacier
For those who don’t have a lot of time, yet want to do a tough trek in Kyrgyzstan, Ala Archa is a National Park just south of Bishkek that also offers pretty amazing landscapes.
The most popular is a trek to Ak-Sai Glacier, located at 3,350 meters above sea level.
If you leave from Bishkek early in the morning, you can easily finish it in 2 days, 3 maximum.
Kyol Ukyok Lake (2-3 days)
This easy trek follows a trail that leads to two dreamy, tiny lakes.
It’s located east of Song Kul and you start from Kochkor.
Normally, only people who have plenty of time tend to do this trek. It’s the perfect hike for beginners, as there’s a nomad camp at the lake.
Keskenkija Loop Trek in Jyrgalan
Jyrgalan is the new alternative to Karakol, a more off the beaten track place for trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
The mountains in Jyrgalan also belong to the Tien Shan range, so the landscape is pretty similar to that around Karakol and, if you want a good 3-4-day trek, the Keskenkija Loop trek is one of the most gorgeous.
The conditions and difficulty of the trek are very similar to the Archa Tör trek, meaning that they go over similar mountain passes, have the same duration and are equally stunning.
For more information, read: How to do the Keskenkija Loop trek
Travel insurance for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
For trekking in Central Asia, you should get travel insurance with the following features and benefits:
- It covers adventure activities like trekking
- Good long-term plans
- Full COVID-19 coverage
And, for that, I strongly recommend IATI Insurance, because it gathers all the above, including hiking coverage, COVID-19, and readers can get a 5% discount.
Do you need a guide for hiking in Kyrgyzstan?
That’s a good question but, instead of wondering whether you need a guide or not, just ask yourself:
Do I have camping experience?
Do I know how to cook and use a camping stove?
Do I know how to follow a trail?
Do I have adequate camping equipment?
If you’ve never done any of the above, perhaps you should hire a guide for hiking in Kyrgyzstan.
Bear in mind that the mountains here are no joke, as the weather is highly unpredictable, nights are freezing and you’ll be hiking at very high altitudes.
Furthermore, here you won’t find the crowds that you may find in the mountains of Nepal but you might be trekking alone for days.
However, you don’t really need to be a professional at all.
Before trekking in Kyrgyzstan, I did some treks in Nepal, Ladakh, and Pakistan.
Not extreme hikes but just base camps and going over mountain passes.
I consider myself an intermediate-beginner.
I own a good tent and sleeping bag, know how to cook basic meals on a camping stove and can walk for hours.
I know that the amount of experience is very relative but, in the end, it will all depend on how confident you feel.
Staying in nomadic camps
However, the good news is that the mountains in Kyrgyzstan are very accessible, plus there is also a very accessible nomadic life, visible everywhere, in the most unexpected places.
For just a couple of dollars, you can stay at their yurts, have a hearty soup and a filling breakfast.
In treks such as Kyzyl Art to Song Kul or Kyol Ukyok Lake, you don’t even need to bring camping equipment because you can always stay in yurts.
In the other treks, you will find nomadic camps at the beginning of the hike, at the lower altitudes.
The further you go, the more you will have to depend on yourself alone.
Permits for hiking in the Kyrgyzstan mountains
Trekking in some areas close to the Chinese and Tajik borders may require a special permit.
These areas include Chatyr Lake, Lenin Peak, Kelsuu Lake and the most eastern part of the Tien Shan range.
Typically, it should be easy to obtain a permit but it may take a couple of days.
CBT (Community Based Tourism) got my permit for Chatyr Kul Lake and I am sure they can help you get other permits. Here’s their website.
For Lenin Peak, to be very honest, I didn’t get the required permit but nobody asked me for it.
Permit fees vary, depending on where you go. I paid $15 (non-urgent) for trekking to Chatyr Kul.
Just email CBT or go to any of their offices a week before you plan to go trekking.
How much does trekking in Kyrgyzstan cost?
Except for the few areas where you actually need a border permit, hiking in Kyrgyzstan is free, as the mountains are always free, unlike Nepal or Patagonia where you need to always pay an entry fee.
Therefore, if you are trekking independently in Kyrgyzstan and have your own camping equipment, you will only have to pay for your food.
However, if you decide to hire a guide and rent some camping equipment, here are the costs:
(Note that these are the average costs)
Tent: 150-250SOM (2.15-3.60USD) per day
Sleeping bag: 100-200SOM (1.40-2.80USD) per day
Cooking stove: 100-200SOM (1.40-2.80USD) per day
Gas: 350SOM (5USD). It lasts for 4-5 days, approximately
Trekking Union Kyrgyzstan has very good deals when it comes to rental equipment.
Here you can check their pricing list.
Important: Please note that the quality of the trekking gear is not as good as back home. Tents and sleeping bags tend to be pretty heavy and bulky and the cooking stoves are low quality. I always recommend bringing camping equipment from home. More information below, in the packing list section.
Local Guides and porters
Local English-speaking guide: 2500KGS (35USD) per day
Horse: 900KGS (13USD) per day
Porter: 1600KGS (23USD) per day
Cook: 2300KGS (33USD) per day
Staying in a yurt costs around 10-12USD, including breakfast and dinner.
Horse trekking in Kyrgyzstan
As you may know, Kyrgyzstan is the land of horses, a key element for the survival and development of the nomadic culture.
Kyrgyz people learn how to ride a horse from the moment they start to walk and it’s actually very shocking to see 3-year old kids riding those big horses so well.
Outside of the big cities, everybody rides horses and that’s why you can’t say you have fully experienced this Central Asian country until you do some horse trekking through some of the most beautiful mountains on Earth.
You can go horse trekking anywhere in Kyrgyzstan, for as many days you want.
Actually, we met a couple who did a 7-day horse trek around the Tien Shan mountains. That’s a lot of days on a horse!
However, after the second day, they were so tired of being on a horse that they actually walked and led the animals. Just take this into consideration before deciding to go on such a long trek.
For more practical information, read: Horse trekking in Tash Rabat
More information and tips for hiking in Kyrgyzstan
CBT (Community-based-tourism) – I always recommend CBT, which is a very popular tour agency in Kyrgyzstan that can arrange any kind of trek and activity.
They have offices in each and every town and offer the most competitive prices in the country.
One of their biggest advantages versus other agencies is that, wherever you go, they will always provide you with locals guides from that specific area or region.
TUK (Trekking Union Kyrgyzstan) – They are based in Bishkek and they offer plenty of tours all the weeks, with other trekkers usually, so they are the cheapest choice.
Pro-tip: Don’t book your trek in advance but wait until you actually arrive in Kyrgyzstan, as it will be much cheaper
Best season to go trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyzstan is a very seasonal destination. In winter, the whole country is covered in snow, which makes it practically impossible for trekking. The season lasts from mid-June to September.
The first trek I did was during the last week of June and, at high altitudes, it was still pretty cold and one day we even got heavy snow.
The unpredictable weather
Just to let you know: summer isn’t always sunshine, birds singing and happiness.
In Kyrgyzstan, the weather can go from a beautiful sunny day to a fierce storm in a matter of seconds.
In the Tien Shan range, from 3,000 meters upwards, the weather can get extremely cold, sometimes to freezing temperatures.
Even when we were there in July, occasionally, we found our bottles frozen in the morning. One day, it started to snow so hard that we passed from walking over a green plain to trekking in the snow.
By this, I don’t want to scare you but just say that you should be prepared. We had very good equipment with us, including a good tent, a warm sleeping bag and everything we actually needed.
I hated this. In almost all the treks we did, we had to cross countless rivers. In the Archa Tör trek, we probably crossed 20 rivers, no kidding.
Some of them were easy, while for others we had to remove our shoes or even cross on a horse.
Just keep this in mind and bring sandals and waterproof hiking boots.
Take water from the small side rivers
You should never drink water from the main river, as animals drink, poo and pee in it, but just from the tributaries.
If you don’t have Maps.me me yet, just download it to your phone now.
In case you don’t know what this is, maps.me is similar to Google Maps, with the main difference that it exclusively works offline and it shows trekking trails, including all trails I mentioned in the beginning.
It is free and extremely useful. It is the app I use the most.
The ultimate packing list for hiking in Kyrgyzstan (honest advice)
The following list contains, mainly, all my personal trekking gear, as well as a few extra recommendations.
Disclosure – The following Amazon links are affiliate links which means that, if you buy a product after clicking them, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. These small earnings help me maintain and improve Against the Compass
1 – Best backpacks for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
Backpacks are important, both for traveling and trekking and, if you want to do both, you need a backpack with the following characteristics:
- Big enough to carry everything, including trekking supplies
- Comfortable for your back
With all these features, my favorite brand is Osprey. They make very comfortable backpacks and have a lifetime guarantee.
Some trekkers claim that Deuter backpacks are great for trekking and long-term travel as well.
Which one do I personally use?
I personally bought an Osprey ATMOS AG 65 in 2018 and it’s the backpack I have used since then, both for trekking and backpacking. This backpack has a technology that makes you feel as if the bag is floating on your back, making it extremely comfortable.
For shorter treks or even to wander around cities like Bishkek or Osh, I recommend you bring a day backpack that is big enough to carry snacks and stuff like that but, if you want to travel comfortably, buy a compressible one.
A Sea to Summit Day Pack with Ultra-Sil technology is the best choice.
Here you can check more backpacks for short treks.
2 – Best camping gear for hiking in the Kyrgyzstan mountains
Don’t forget to bring a good backpacking tent (lightweight)
As I said, the weather can be very unpredictable so, if you travel to Kyrgyzstan to go trekking, you should get a tent with the following characteristics:
- Resistant – The weather in Kyrgyzstan is highly unpredictable
- Lightweight – You can’t really travel with a heavy tent on your back
- Packable – It has to fit in your backpack
Tents with those characteristics tend to be expensive but they are a very good investment.
Which one do I personally use?
I have had an MSR Freelite 2 since 2017.
I bought it on Amazon when I was backpacking in Pakistan and then my family shipped it to my Airbnb address in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, but it never arrived and looking for it at the different mail offices across Bishkek where nobody could speak English was a big adventure.
Anyways, the MSR Freelite 2 is a bit expensive, but we camped in the middle of a snowstorm and didn’t feel anything at all. Moreover, the whole tent weighs less than 1KG, so you will barely feel it in your backpack.
However, my model is relatively old, and the MSR Hubba Hubba seems like the latest model of mine.
If you want cheaper options, MSR has many different models:
Get a warm sleeping bag
Another very important element, perhaps even more than a tent.
At night, temperatures may reach below zero and you don’t want to freeze to death, right?
Furthermore, like with the tent, you don’t want to buy a 3-kilo bulky sleeping bag that takes half of your backpack.
Therefore, you should definitely get a sleeping bag with down insulation, as they are compressible, yet incredibly warm.
When we did the trek to Archa Tör, we got some snow at night, reaching around -5ºC. In the morning, our bottles of water were literally frozen and well, it was cold as f***.
For trekking in Kyrgyzstan, I recommend you get one in the mid-range budget and for that, Marmot Never Summer is ideal, quite warm (0ºC), and around 1.5kg.
Which one do I personally use?
I bought a Kelty Cosmic.
It is not the warmest sleeping bag ever but, it’s just enough for me, as it doesn’t weigh more than a kilo and, with a thermal t-shirt and pants, I was never cold and, at that price, you won’t find anything better.
A sleeping mat
Kyrgyzstan is home to lush, green meadows that are relatively comfortable to sleep on.
But it won’t be always like that.
Occasionally, we actually had to sleep on really hard surfaces and all I had was a shitty yoga mat that didn’t allow me to ever get a good sleep, so buying a good mat was my first investment after my trip to Central Asia.
Which one do I personally use?
I bought a Klymit Static V2 (in the photo), which has the following characteristics:
- It’s inflatable and quite comfortable (I camped in the rocky ground of Jebel Shams in Oman and slept quite well)
- It packs really small (see in the picture)
- It only weighs 463 grams
Mine is quite budget. There are other mats that also may keep you warmer, as they insulate you from the ground. A really good one is the Thermarest NeoAir, which besides keeping you extra warm, is also very lightweight and packable.
Camping stove multi-fuel
If you go trekking by yourself, you’ll know that camping gas is a must.
There are two kinds of camping gas: one which works with a separate gas bottle and multi-fuel.
The multi-fuel has the great advantage that it can be re-filled with any type of gas, including gasoline, white gas, or diesel.
That’s why this one is the best because you don’t have to rely on finding and buying gas bottles. I strongly recommend MSR Camping gas Multi-Fuel.
3 – Electronics & gadgets you might need for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
A Steripen (Water purifier)
In the mountains, you won’t have bottled water and, if you don’t want to get sick in your stomach, you should always sterilize your water.
Purifying water tablets work fine also but they taste horrible and, actually, they are not that cheap.
Steripen does the exact same thing with the added benefit that it doesn’t leave the horrible taste and it lasts forever. Best purchase ever.
A portable mini-espresso maker
OK, I don’t have this but I saw a couple who had it and it was really an edge.
For a bit of extra luxury, being able to have a good espresso at 3,500 meters, while admiring the views after waking up, is priceless.
It allows you to have an espresso by just pressing with your hands. It works with ground coffee and it is not very expensive!
A solar power bank
You want a power bank to charge your devices but, if you want to go fully eco-friendly, I recommend you get a solar power bank, so you can charge things even while you are trekking.
At night, there’s nothing else to do besides reading a book and, if you don’t want to carry them in your backpack, just bring a Kindle.
Books on Central Asia
Central Asia is an unknown, complex region, and, in order to make the most out of your trip, I strongly recommend you get 1 or 2 books for your trip, which will also prove immensely useful when trekking in Kyrgyzstan.
For that, check the 28 best books on Central Asia.
Why not getting a drone?
Buying a drone was also one of the investments I did after my trip to Central Asia and seriously, it is awesome. With a drone in the mountains, you can get unique perspectives, much nicer than with a normal camera.
I bought a Mavic Pro, as it is very packable and the camera is of great quality.
You will be able to take shots like this one:
To be honest, I don’t have one of these but, definitely, this is going to be my next trekking gear investment.
I am actually tired of having to drink from my bottle, as I always have to stop and take it out of my bag.
CamelBak has some really cool water bags which allow you to drink water without having to stop. This way you avoid dehydration and a potential headache.
More useful gadgets for hiking in Kyrgyzstan
- Trekking poles – I have never had any but if you like, you may also get some trekking poles and TrailBuddy is one of the most popular brands.
- A trekking hat – For the harsh sun, this is a must.
- A headlamp – An obvious item for trekking and camping at night.
4 – Proper clothing for trekking in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan
A down jacket
You want a packable, warm jacket and for that, down jackets are the best, not only for trekking but also for backpacking.
There are obviously many brands out there and I personally use Haglöfs, a Swedish brand that has very good quality, warm jackets at a very good price, much cheaper than North Face and similar quality.
Get a Gore-Tex windbreaker
And not only to protect you from the wind, but also from the rain.
I have had the same North Face windbreaker since 2017.
More must-carry clothes
5 – Personal items for trekking in Kyrgyzstan
- A pair of sunglasses
- Hand sanitizer
- Loads of sunscreen
- Biodegradable toilet paper
- Lip balm
- First aid kit (at least Paracetamol + something to take care of your potential foot blisters)