Follow the Silk Road to discover Kyrgyzstan off the beaten track.
With snow-capped majestic mountains, wild whooshing rivers, and free-roaming horses, sheep, and cows, it doesn’t get any more picturesque than the lush pastures and coniferous forests of Altyn Arashan, Kyrgyzstan. Dust off your backpack, put on your hiking boots, and head to Kyrgyzstan’s northeast. This postcard-perfect alpine valley at 9,800 feet above sea level in the Tien Shan mountain range will take your breath away—and we have the photos to prove it.
INSIDER TIPBefore heading into the mountains, take the time to acclimatize. Karakol, Kyrgyzstan, at 5,600 feet, is a great place to hang around for a little while and offers many options for day trips.
Sheep are everywhere in Kyrgyzstan. In all sizes and shades, herds of sheep freely roam the area grazing on the lush green grass.
INSIDER TIPSheep milk is a great source of nutrition. With a higher fat profile, sheep milk is creamier than other milk and is delicious as fresh milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Where There's Sheep, There's Shepherds
And where there are flocks of sheep, the shepherd—or chaban, as they are called in Central Asia—isn’t far away. Nobody knows the trails in the Tien Shan Mountains better than them and their rugged, suntanned faces mirror both the beauty and harshness of the nomadic lifestyle.
Kok-boru is an ancient Central Asian horse game where riders try to score a goal by carrying a goat carcass into the opposing team’s pit. Exhilarating and dangerous, Kok-boru is the ultimate test of horsemanship and bravery.
After having enjoyed such a spectacle, have a dip in one of Altyn Arashan’s open air natural hot springs. With water temperature at about 122° Fahrenheit and filled with the healing powers of radon, the springs are pure heaven for the soul and aching joints.
The Tien Shan corridor, along the border between China and Kyrgyzstan, extends for 2,000 miles from west to east and is part of the extensive Silk Roads network. Covered by snow and ice, the peaks are between 13,000 and 23,000 feet high. Silk Road caravans favored sure-footed Kyrgyz horses on their journey to the Mediterranean due to their strength and endurance.
INSIDER TIPKeep a watchful eye, as rumor has it that about 20 endangered snow leopards are still roaming in the mountains.
To get a sense of what nomad life on the Silk Road is like, stay in a yurt. Erected and taken down in a couple of hours, yurts are cylindrical tents built with a wooden frame. Sheep wool supplies the felt used for the roof and walls.
Most yurt camps also have a larger yurt that is used as a restaurant where basic Kyrgyz dishes and tea are served.
Oromo, a traditional Kyrgyz pie, is made from flour, water, and salt and filled with finely cut chunks of meat, potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, or other seasonal vegetables. It’s hard to find Oromo on a restaurant menu. Don’t miss the chance to get invited to a Kyrgyz home to try this mouth-watering delicacy.
Add a touch of history and culture to your trip and check out the Lost City of Balasagun, a World Heritage Site, featuring Burana Tower. This incredible 144-foot-tall minaret is all that remains after Balasagun was plundered by Genghis Khan’s troops in 1218.
Burana Tower is guarded by a field of ancient stone statues—balbals. Balbals are typically carved out of granite and have the figure of a human being. The ones carrying a wine glass are believed to be Nestorians, a tribe of Christians who lived in Balasagun.