Kyrgyzstan: get prepared for a nomadic holiday
January 1, 1970
Who doesn’t love craziness?
It was an average winter day with minus 25 C degrees at the beginning of January 2017 when I was hiking in the Austrian Alps with one of my friends and a group of enthusiastic strangers. We were waiting for the open lift when our tour guide spontaneously started to share his plan for organizing an absolutely non-ordinary, special edition summer camp, a nomadic holiday in Kyrgyzstan. He hadn’t worked out the whole plan yet, just wanted to see if there was any interest in such kind of holidays. It is not so obvious that there is anyone in their right mind who chooses challenges on purpose for their vacation days instead of simply having a rest lying on the beach. You need to have the little devil inside whispering ‘leave your comfort zone, you will be thankful to me’, otherwise it is craziness. It was craziness indeed, but who doesn’t want some excitement in life? I fell in love with the word nomadic.
What can a hiking trip in Kyrgyzstan offer?
A place which is not yet crowded by tourists. National parks and gorgeous mountains which don’t give themselves easily due to the lack of infrastructure. Local people who are still unselfish and friendly and host you like it was their honor to have you as a guest even if they live in a much more humble way than you. The smell of adventure and unique experience. A place where money is not enough to get you to a scene where you can shoot your next best Insta photo without efforts. It requires sweat and blood to give beauty in return.
We couldn’t help feeling the excitement in a second. If you are not an Olympic sports hero just an average person but dream of doing something extraordinary to feel alive, you have to jump on these opportunities. The tour was available for application in a week and our names were on the list one day later. It was an easy decision. Until we realized what nomadic means in reality.
When you think you have prepared for the trip
Our flight to Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan was at the end of July with a transfer through Istanbul. Our trip was planned for 9 days, falling on hot summer days in Kyrgyzstan. However, we were preparing for all circumstances as we had accommodation in the hills in traditional yurts and tents and you can never know how the weather decided to change from one hour to the next. My friend and I are both spending most of our working hours next to a laptop, so we needed some properly planned and delivered training to get into a fit status before the trip. We did all of them conscientiously. We also bought the usually advised list of medicine, got vaccinations and packed all the necessary hiking equipment. We also had some prior hiking experience – absolutely at an amateur level -, but at that stage, we thought we were ready.
Huge learning when you go for a nomadic holiday
If you go to high mountains (and we went up to 3,800 meters) and you are prepared at 100% physically and mentally, it is the baseline. Really just the minimum. If you want to enjoy it, push yourself to 150% because you cannot even guess what the weather, the mountain, your fellows or your own body will come out with when you really don’t expect it.
Let’s see the beauty of the country
Kyrgyzstan is a beautiful country with breathtaking landscape, mountains with remaining ice caps, stunning turquoise lakes here and there with the unmissable wild horses grazing peacefully as if they were on paintings from the romantic style of the 19th century. You can also come across some hidden waterfalls and cheerful little streams giving always a new theme for one more photo beside the other hundreds. The national parks could easily compete with the Alps in Europe and the winner would not be much ahead.
How to prepare for the real nomadic circumstances?
The local currency is called Kyrgyzstan Som (KGS) and mostly USD and EUR is recommended for the exchange. If you spend your time mostly in the mountains, don’t change a lot because the food is not expensive, the local shops in the smaller towns don’t have a huge variety of goods, so after getting your daily water and food supply, there is not much left to spend on. Towns are not full of shopping malls and souvenir shops, so besides some really nice restaurants, you don’t need to worry about your costs.
Weather forecast and rain
If you hear it can change easily, you haven’t heard anything new. If the weather forecast says it might rain, take it seriously, it will rain. If you sleep out there in nature in a tent or yurt and there is not much fire around to warm up and dry your wet stuff, both your sleep and your whole next day can become a nightmare. A typical mistake is that you think your normal raincoat is enough, which is true when you only need it for an hour to grab a bus, run into a building or quickly rush home after work.
If it rains all day long in the valley and you have no chance to hide, you will pray for a poncho. It’s the best thing against long and heavy rainfalls because it covers your backpack, your dry stuff will be protected and it will not channel the water from your coat over your trousers and boots. A spat can also be your best friend to keep water away from your boots. These are basic equipment for such a trip, so never regret spending money on them. You couldn’t imagine how much they can add to your convenience in a nomadic holiday.
Heat & drinking water
Do not underestimate how much water you will need. The typical Kyrgyzstan landscape is the meadow with only a few lonely shrubs so you will only dream of the tall trees giving some shadow to have a rest. With a high temperature, the physical activity will demand to drink a lot more than sitting in the office with air conditioner. If you go on a two-three day trip in the mountains, get prepared for that you cannot take 6-8 liters of water in your backpack and it is not a life insurance to drink water from the lakes or streams crossing your path. Don’t drink from the stagnant water. You can buy special tablets before the trip which can purify the water taken from the streams but they need some time to disinfect the water so you cannot drink it immediately. The other option is that your local hosts in yurts can boil water for you in the morning, which will need some time also to cool down. So plan your water supply ahead and be conscious about your consumption. Check how much water is left during the day, because dehydration can destroy the whole trip, furthermore it can put your health in danger.
Sleeping in a yurt or tent
Even during summer months, sleeping in a tent or yurt is not wellness and five-star convenience, the temperature might fall significantly as soon as the sun goes down and nights can become really cold. After a whole day hiking, you will either need a really warm sleeping bag or at least great quality clothes, because you cannot know in advance how many blankets will be available in the yurt. Don’t try to compare your temperature limits to the local people. Besides not having a rest before the next day’s trip, you can also easily catch a cold or flu, making your journey more of a survival trip than a holiday.
If your hiking friends or your guide share a list of pills which are worth taking, take them with you. Getting cold, diarrhea, tooth ache – hell yes shit happens in the worst moment – are just a few examples when medicine – in the middle of nowhere – is your only chance to get back to civilization in one piece. If you are the brave type who wants to try out all the local traditionally cooked meals, it is even truer for you to be prepared for consequences. Your digestion might not be ready to take lots of new ingredients or spices, so if you taste something and your instincts say it is delicious but still somehow it is not for you, trust your guts, you will be thankful later when everyone else is cursing around you in pain. Our body knows when something is not good for us, we just usually shut it up, convincing ourselves with „we are in Kyrgyzstan now, we might not return again, so here is the chance now or never to try out local things, we will survive whatever comes”. Remember, shrubs and toilets are rarely seen on those land.
Toilet and hygiene
It is also worth mentioning that shrubs will soon become your rare but best friends in Kyrgyzstan’s mountains. They are clean and inviting compared to the local toilets as they are nothing else but big burrows surrounded by some plastic material so that you can hide a little from the world, but you can see everything left there by other travelers. I am not encouraging anyone to leave mess around, those toilets are created for a reason to protect the national parks from shit everywhere but at some point you might be desperate to return to your comfort zone for a short time and then you will feel the urge to look for a nice big shrub for the illusion of hygiene.
Okay, this section will be short. Simply forget about this luxury for a few days until you get back to civilization.
It might be really useful to check not only the current weather forecast but to ask the local people if it was raining in the past few days because streams can easily grow to a size where it becomes dangerous to cross them in your boots or on bare foot. If the drifting of the water is strong enough you might not see where you step and you can easily slip between rocks, getting all your stuff wet or even injure yourself.
You can also end up like me watching how the whole group is courageously cross the stream while you are thinking „Nooo, I cannot do this, no way, I will not get into the damn cold water to have my feet cramped in one second and then fall into the water in agony”. Good news is that local people shuttle on their horses, so with a little luck (or with your protecting angels on duty) you can catch and convince one of them to transfer you to the other side of the stream in return for some remuneration. It was worth for me all the pennies, I mean KGS at that moment.
Local people and their hospitality
Thinking back on our whole trip, I would highlight how helpful Kyrgyzstan people are in all circumstances. When we were sleeping in the yurts, they were preparing our breakfast and dinner, really delicious warm meals to restore our energies before and after the exhausting trips. They were welcoming and hosting us like old friends and offered all that they could. If you speak Russian it helps the communication a lot as in most places speaking English is not widespread yet. However, they are able to tell everything in the language of hospitality and kindness.
When should you choose Kyrgyzstan as a travel destination?
If you read through this whole long post about what can make a holiday difficult and inconvenient and you are still with me, you are that crazy type of person who will love this beautiful mountainous country. Don’t let yourself kept back by the difficulties, get prepared for them and go. Get the experience which your soul needs and the story you will tell to your friends and to your grand-grand children.