When people knew I was going to kick off my “Silk Road” adventure across Kazakhstan & Kyrgyzstan, their response was generally similar, “Ah....Borat!”, which tells you how much of a hit the movie was. Kyrgyzstan, most people didn’t have a clue where on earth that was.
Before Borat the Movie in 2006, the general impression of “the Stan’s” was that of danger. After Borat, “the Stan’s” started to be perceived as somewhat an exotic destination. Today, “the Stan’s” are a relatively popular tourist destination (among Europeans). Though fortunately, they haven’t yet fallen to the tourist hordes the way Turkey and Morocco unfortunately have.
Central Asia is huge, and to be honest, with just two weeks, you’d barely scratch the surface. Still, two weeks is ample time to experience some of the regions key wonders and get you pumped up on visiting the rest of the “Stan’s” on your future trips.
This time, “The Girl” didn’t come along as she had already consumed most of her leave traveling in the early part of the year. Instead, I had the pleasure of having colleagues, both past and present travel together with me, and yes, it was a blast.
Kazakhstan is the worlds largest “landlocked” country and also the 9th largest country in the world.
It was once a part of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan, and centuries later, a part of the Russian Empire. After the breakup of the USSR in 1991, Kazakhstan is today the most economically dominant nation in Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan was once part of the Mongol Empire, the Qing Dynasty, and later, a part of the USSR. Like Kazakhstan, it was one of the 15 states that made up the USSR and gained its independence in 1991.
Among the 5 “Stans”, Tajikistan is famous for its Pamir Highway, Uzbekistan for its architecture, Turkmenistan for its “Gates of Hell”, Kazakhstan is a good mix of the 5, and Kyrgyzstan, is especially popular for trekking and is noted for having the most beautiful natural scenery among the 5 “Stan’s”.
The above is a table of the exact breakdown and miscellaneous costs you should allocate daily. I traveled in a group of four and hence the budget reflects that. You’ll find it’s a really comfortable budget to stick to, and adds up to a total of S$2,424. I’ve even included bribes!
The Stan’s are a pretty corrupted part of the world (we got fined on an average of twice a day).
If you get stopped and you’ve done nothing wrong, the law allows you to film them. The police fear tourists and their camera phones. Filming should be your first defense so you don't encourage the already corrupted culture.
But still, it’s safer to have a budget for bribes because it could mean the difference between a night in a cell in a country where no one speaks English, and carrying on for the rest of your trip.
Air-tickets start from around S$1,200, which is slightly more expensive than what you’d pay to fly to Europe. But getting around in the country is really cheap. S$2,500 for 2 weeks in Europe is do-able if you stayed in hostels and watched what you ate. But S$2,500, for 2 weeks in “the Stan’s”? You’ll live it up in hotels and eat without looking at menu prices.
1 USD = 390 Tenge (Kazakhstan)
1 USD = 70 Som (Kyrgyzstan)
Mains at a Restaurant = 800 Tenge or 120 Som
Beers = 400 Tenge or 80 Som
Accommodation = 20 USD per room (after negotiation) for a decent local 3 Star Hotel chain.
Bribes = They start off between 30 USD – 40 USD. But you can bargain them down to 15 USD. Locals pay just 7-8 USD per bribe.
I suggest you set off from Almaty in Kazakhstan, bite the bullet, and head for the furthest attractions first, which would be the Kaindy and Kolsai Lakes. It's around a 6 hour drive from Almaty, but once you get past this tiring day, driving back will be a breeze. You'll be able to stop and enjoy the rest of the attractions at your own pace as you take a slow drive back.
Almaty to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan will take you indicatively 4-5 hours depending on how congested the border is. Once you're in Kyrgyzstan, make Issyk-Kul lake your first stop, and stop by Song-Kul Lake on your return to Bishkek. You'll be driving an average of 5 hours a day.
I'll say this clearly, so no one has any doubts on what is required.
You MUST rent a 4WD if you're planing to attempt this itinerary in Autumn or Winter.
Don't be a smart ass or a scrooge and rent a 2WD hatchback or sedan just because you're trying to save money. You'll get stuck, end up having to abandon your rented car in a region with zero phone connection, and spend more money trying to get help as a result.
(Above) Us getting stuck in mud so soft we had to practically shovel and push our 4WD out. Imagine if you arrived in a budget hatchback; your holiday would have come to an instant halt.
We encountered this muddy obstacle 10km from Lake Kaindy in Kazakhstan. The ground is constantly muddy and soft from melted snow that falls at night.
(Above) Driving across a mountain range in Kyrgyzstan to get to Song-Kul Lake.
Our heart practically skipped a beat when our 4WD started sliding towards the edge of the mountain as we drove across snow covered roads without snow tires.
We had already rented a top of the range Toyota Sequoia, a 4WD with a 4L V8 engine anticipating dirt roads. It wasn't too expensive, $85 USD a day before spliting four ways.
It turned out that dirt roads were the least of our concerns. We weren't expecting snow as it was still autumn, but snow it did. Without snow tires, we had to contend with a combination of driving along dirt roads, soft "quicksand like mud", snow and ice.
Besides the renting of a 4WD, I'd highly suggest being competent at changing tires at the very least. Either that or buying a Breitling Emergency watch which has it's own satellite frequency so at least you'll have some means of getting help as there's practically no connection in either the mountains or grasslands.
[Attractions & Activities Kazakhstan]
1. Within Almaty
Arasan Baths is very likely, the finest bathhouse in all of Central Asia.
This was our first stop, to reward our cramped up bodies after a 7hr flight.
Despite its opulent feel, bathing in Arasan is actually pretty cheap. We paid less than 8 USD for indicatively 1.5 hours of bathing + the rental of miscellaneous items like towels and slippers.
The bathhouse is huge, almost the size of one whole city block, and houses a Finish Sauna, Turkish Bath, Russian Banya, Moroccan Hammam, and an ice pool. Men and women bathe separately, and massages start from $5 USD.
We aren't exactly the sort of guys who would enjoy spending hours walking around the botanical gardens. But in the heart of Almaty, sits one of the Kazakhstan's coolest parks; the Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen.
This attraction is a must visit, and is dedicated to and named after 28 soldiers who died while fighting against Germans outside of Moscow in their attempt to significantly delay the Germans advance to Moscow.
(Above) An eternal flame commemorates the fallen of WWII
The Park of 28 Panfilov Guardsmen is also home to the second tallest wooden building in the world, the Zenkov Cathedral, one of Almaty's last standing "Tsarist-era" attractions.
It is completely made out of wood with no nails, and I can attest is, more impressive than more than half the cathedrals I've visited in "Touristy Europe".
(Above) The light from the stained glass windows. It's certainly a colorful cathedral!
Kok Tobe is the highest viewpoint in all of Almaty.
We paid roughly $8 USD for a return cable car trip and were rewarded with 360 degree views of the city below and the mountain range in the distance. There is also an amusement park and zoo, at the top of the Kok Tobe mountain, making this arguably Almaty's favorite place for families.
(Above) The view from Kok Tobe. Just magnificent.
Shymbulak Ski Resort and the Medeo Ice Rink are the best snow sports destinations in all of Central Asia.
Standing at 3200m, this wonder of Kazakhstan with its white powdered slopes is just 30mins drive from Almaty and is one of the most affordable destinations on earth to kick off your skiing experience.
I didn't get to try skiing at Shymbulak as by the time we reached, it was pretty much closing time.
We had sort of got lost while driving out of Almaty city, and when we had reached the foot of the mountain, found that the bottom section of the cable cars were closed and we weren't allowed to drive up in our own car.
By the time we had finally arrived in the resort proper, it was rather near closing time, which was 1800hrs, and we abandoned the idea of getting any skiing done.
Zhibek Zholy is the main shopping street in Almaty.
It isn't for luxury goods shopping, so you won't find Rolex's and Birkin Bags here. It's more like "Bugis Street" in Singapore. Street side stalls selling paintings, soap bars, antiques, tourist trinkets, and a whole lot more of random stuff.
No prizes for guessing, but I didn't come out of Zhibek Zholy with arms full of shopping bags. All I walked away with was a magnet that cost just 0.70c.
2. Big Almaty Lake
Big Almaty Lake is the largest “tourist attraction” that’s nearest to the city of Almaty, just a 45min drive away, and very accessible.
If you were to visit on a typical tour by say a Dynasty Travel or Chan Brothers to Kazakhstan, Big Almaty Lake would definitely be part of it. It is to Almaty what the Eiffel tower is to Paris.
Sitting 2511m high, Big Almaty Lake is referred to as an alpine reservoir in the Northern Tien Shan Mountain range. It is a wonder of Kazakstan and depending on the time of the year, the water in the lake changes color from green to turquoise blue.
We arrived in Autumn, which wasn’t the prettiest time to see the lake. It was sort of like seeing your wife in the morning, you know she’s supposed to be pretty, but her hair’s in a mess at that moment.
And if you’re thinking “oh, this looks like a nice place to camp”. Save it. Camping near the area and swimming is prohibited as the water from the lake the main source of drinking water for the locals in Almaty.
There are soldiers patrolling to make sure no one does any funny business because reservoir aside, Big Almaty Lake is very close to the Kyrgyzstan border and they do get frequent illegal border crossings. We even got told off by the soldiers for not keeping to the designated trek!
If you’re not renting a car like we did, you can get to Big Almaty Lake by taxi or public bus.
The bus just costs a couple of USD but if you’re in a group, we’d suggest booking a taxi to and fro for between 20-25 USD including waiting time. If there are four of you, it’ll barely cost anything considering you’re visiting on of the country’s biggest attractions.
3. Charyn Canyon
Travel blogs and tour companies say it looks like the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
I guess it sort of does, but on a much smaller scale. I arrived expecting to be awed by how majestic Charyn Canyon was supposed be, but left kind of disappointed.
(Above) Taking a short walk through the Canyon
Perhaps it was because I’d trekked many Canyon’s in my lifetime that I wasn’t overly impressed by Charyn Canyon.
The actual Grand Canyon is without doubt a 100 times more impressive, but even less famous (by tourists standards) canyon’s in the Middle East or Asia like Oman’s Jebel Shams were way more breath-taking.
4. Kaindy & Kolsai Lakes
These lakes were for me, the biggest highlights of my trip and a key reason I had wanted to visit Kazakhstan. More so Kaindy Lake than Kolsi Lake.
The road to Kaindy Lake was tough. Our 4X4 SUV with its powerful V8 engine met an obstacle it could not conquer; thick mud, wet from melted snow.
As soon as we hit the mud, we got stuck. A combination of shovel work plus physical pushing got us out of the first mud bath. Then we encountered another, and another. On the 3rd mud bath our 4X4 started skidding.
We were on the edge of the ravine. If we stayed stuck, we wouldn’t reach our campsite. If we tried to push it through, we might go over the edge. It was truly a nail biting moment. Fortunately, a helpful local came to our aid and took the wheel while we pushed.
(Above) The Lake appears in shades of blue or green depending on where you're standing
Kaindy Lake is effectively a “sunken forest”, made famous for a number of dead spruce trees that stick out of the water.
It was formed following an earthquake in the Tian Shan Mountains back in 1911. A major landslide occurred creating a natural dam. Rainwater filled filled the “dam”, and limestone dust created its remarkable color.
Camping by Kaindy Lake was an amazing experience. It certainly “justified” our “eventful journey” and the pains it took us to get here.
[Attractions & Activities Kyrgystan]
1. Within Bishkek
For a capital city, Bishkek isn’t impressive. In fact, I’d go as far to say it ranks among one of the most boring capitals I’ve ever visited.
Like the rest of the former USSR States, you do see a smattering of huge soviet buildings and communist monuments. But by and large, there isn’t impressive architecture, the corrupt police are out to get you, and the traffic jams are bad enough to rival those in Bangkok.
If I were to sum up Bishkek in a few words, i'd say “just get out as soon as possible”.
Once you get out of Bishkek though, Kyrgyzstan is remarkable.
80% of the country are a mix of mountains and lakes. Everyday I was there, I found myself thinking, “this could be Europe”. But that’s not where it ends. Its plains stretch further than the eye can see, and here, you can fully immerse yourself in nomadic culture.
Think of Kyrgyzstan as Mongolia meets Switzerland.
2. Burana Tower
The Burana Tower stands as one of the last ancient minarets along the Silk Road.
It is the only remaining structure of the ancient city of Balasagun which was ransacked and destroyed by the Mongols.
It was our first stop enroute to the Issyk Kul and Song Kol Lakes.
If you're renting a car like we did, you’ll be glad to know it’s just an hours drive from Bishkek. And if you aren't, the Burana Tower is the most accessible day trip from Bishkek to an attraction that’s actually worth visiting.
Its entrance fee? Less than 2 USD.
Issyk-Kul Lake is Kyrgyzstan’s most famous, largest, and most touristy lake.
Every tour that goes to Kyrgyzstan includes Issyk-Kul and its surroundings. Russian’s make up majority of the tourists to this part of Kyrgyzstan.
Many treks start from Issyk-Kul, and in the summer, yurt camps sprout like wild mushrooms in Karakol, the places where the “adventure begins”. Nearing winter, because of the cold, the entire region resembles more of a graveyard.
I thought the Issyk-Kul region was nice, but I wasn’t overly impressed. Perhaps in summer, the region would become a lot livelier, especially during the World Nomad Games.
4. Song-Kul Lake & Yurt Stay
Song-Kul Lake is the jewel in Kyrgyzstan’s crown. It is an alpine lake, sits at around 3000m, and is the country’s second largest lake.
It’s easy to arrange tours to Song-Kul from a local tour operator, but the actual journey, is pretty tough. If you go by car like we did, you’ll have to practically cross a mountain range. That means, hours of driving on bumpy roads, or snowy roads in our case, and having a few heart stopping experiences trying to stop the car from careening of the edge of the mountain.
You can also get to Song-Kul by horse from the nearest town, but that would take you 2 days, albeit through some breath-taking scenery.
Song-Kul is where you’ll get to experience the nomadic experience proper. There’s no phone or WiFi reception for a start, so it’s just you and nature.
You’ll enjoy staying at one of the yurt camps by the lake, try horse riding, trekking and watch traditional horse games organized by the locals.
For us, getting to Song-Kul felt like we’d experienced a miracle.
While crossing the snowy mountain range, our 4X4 almost slid of the side. Next, our offline map started go crazy. It our current location and that of the yurt camp we were supposed to be staying at. And to make things worse, we had a fuel gauge scare. It looked like we were down to our reserve tank with no reception, no working GPS, no cars and no locals to ask directions from, and no idea where our yurt was. Whichever direction we looked; it was endless plains.
For a moment, thought we were screwed.
When we finally pulled up at our Yurt Camp after another hour of driving aimlessly along the plains, we jumped and shouted for joy. We would live to see another day.
[Food & Drink]
We did a mix of camping and trying out the local food, which didn't really agree with us.
From Singapore, we arrived armed with mess tins, pots and pans, and even a portable stove. We picked up food like sausages, ham and eggs from the local convenience shops, and in our group of 4, a couple of us (not me) were really good cooks and managed to whip up one of the best meals I've had camping outdoors.
Food in Central Asia is sort of a mash up of Russian, Mongolian, and Chinese food.
It's staples are Shashlik, a sort of skewered grilled meat, which we absolutely were sick of by the time the trip was over. We had meat overdose, and certainly mutton overdose.
Plov, which is pretty much like fried rice, cooked in mutton fat with chunks of meat.
Beshbarmak & Lagman, something like a noodle soup with horse meat or mutton. I enjoyed this the most because it tasted the closest to actual Chinese food which I was craving for.
Borscht Soup and Nan (bread), obviously influenced from
Manty, dumplings with meat resembling Ding Tai Fung's "Xiao Long Bao" but no where as tasty.
It was great to try Central Asian food. The only trouble was, it was tough to find anything else. We were stuck eating the same dishes almost every day.
In the main cities like Almaty and Bishkek, we did get some other choices. But once we left the city, it was pretty much the same menu with no pause button.
I will say this though, food prices in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are ridiculously cheap. We dined at one of the most expensive restaurants in the country and all it cost us was $8 USD each! In a typical mid tier restaurant, a good dinner with beers would add up to nothing more than $5 USD!
When I say a an itinerary like this will cost you S$2,500, I've already factored in that the typical Singaporean would insist on hotels, but probably wouldn't mind a night or two in alternative accommodation.
When I knew I was visiting Kyrgyzstan, I knew i had to have the experience of staying in a yurt; and we did. A night in a yurt cost us $10 USD, and that included dinner and the next days breakfast.
It's no hotel, but it's an experience even the most pampered among us would likely be game enough to try.
Sleeping in a yurt saw us enjoy the best sleep we'd had in ages.
There was light snow outside with temperatures below zero. In the yurt, we were comforted by the warmth from the stove, wrapped up like cocoon under layers upon layers of warm blankets.
After the fire in the stove burnt itself out, the yurt started to freeze up. But no matter, we were snuggled in our warm blankets, the cold only hitting us when we had to wake up for a pee break.
It’s been a while since I’d gone on a trip with a significant part of it “outdoors related”. We made a trip to the Decathalon sports shop and picked up sleeping bags for less than S$50, and a $30 easy to assemble tent which we stuffed in our backpacks.
The four of us huddled by the campfire, cooking, smoking, having beers, and chatting under a sky full of stars is an experience I’ll remember for a long time.
And now, we finally come to hotels, a Singaporean must have on vacation. I’m not being sarcastic here. I like hotels as much as the next person, and it was certainly great to get a nice warm bath after nights out in the outdoors.
The average price for a 2-3 Star standard of hotel was around 20 USD a room after bargaining. At times, we booked a triple room and paid 10 USD more for an extra bed.
There are few big-name hotels in Central Asia. Business hotels like Novatel, or Holiday Inn Express yes, but not the Ritz Carlton’s of the world. Still, I daresay the standards for a 20-30 USD a night sort of room are more than decent enough for even the most picky traveler.
Lets be honest here, the “Stan’s” are no longer as exotic a travel destination as say 10 years ago. If a typical tour agency in Singapore can organize tours to a certain place, I automatically become less keen to visit. And if I do end up visiting, I’d usually prefer to the visit attractions that the tours don’t particularly cover because a path trodden by everyone else before I have just takes the excitement away from it somehow.
Regardless, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are a part of the world that I’d really encourage more Singaporeans to visit. It is home to some of the worlds most beautiful backdrops, has an interesting culture, barely costs anything to visit, and offers a nomadic experience away from the real world that one can only get here.
But if you do visit, don’t waste your time going with a typical tour company from Singapore. Go with a boutique travel agency perhaps if you must. Still, I’d suggest doing it free and easy, it’s not dangerous. This isn’t Somalia or Iraq. Rent a car, or even mix it up by getting around the way the locals do for a day. And if you really must have a tour, get one from a local operator for a proper nomadic experience.
I don’t know about you, but isn’t visiting another country on vacation is to experience something different?
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