Winter travel in Kyrgyzstan is totally possible… and worth your while. Here are six epic experiences you can only have when you travel Kyrgyzstan in winter.
Kyrgyzstan is the Next Best Summer Vacation on adventure travelers’ maps these days. Grassy pastures sloping up to epic mountains, horses and goats and eagles (oh my!), nomadic yurts scattered across the sprawling steppe… man, why wouldn’t you want to travel to Kyrgyzstan?!
Though summer in Kyrgyzstan is undeniably gorgeous—I’m always down for a grassy green jailoo or two—here’s a secret unknown in the traveler world: winter in Kyrgyzstan is even more epic.
For context, that’s coming from someone who avoids cold like the plague. While singular layers of clothes are my jam, I’m a recent winter convert. Pining thoughts of warmer climes were fast forgotten while floating through pristine powder fields. Nippy noses are a nonissue when men on horseback are battling for headless goats among mountains. Frozen fingers take the back seat to eagles hunting live rabbits on the steppe.
Catch my (snow) drift?
If you’re hungry for off the beaten track winter adventures—and don’t mind a bit of cold—Kyrgyzstan is one of the most unique winter travel destinations on the map. Here are six reasons why:
Six unique (and epic) reasons to travel Kyrgyzstan in winter
1. You can ski/board all day, then kick back on pillow piles inside a nomadic yurt.
Ski chalets are all well and good (… and expensive), but as far as coolness factor goes, staying in a Kyrgyz yurt really can’t be beat.
No visit to Central Asia is complete without a stay in the iconic round tents of nomads. Felted for insulation and wrapped in skins for protection against the elements, they’re hardy enough for any season. Even winter.
While ski touring in Kyrgyzstan, we posted up in Boz Uchuk yurt lodge, four hours of touring/snowshoeing from the Boz Uchuk gorge entrance. To walk into the kitchen yurt after a long day of skiing was to pass through the gates of heaven: the wave of wood stove heat coupled with the smell of simmering lagman noodles was everything I could ask for after swimming through powder all day.
Winter travel protip: Invest in a surprisingly acceptable $8 bottle of Kyrgyz cognac in Bishkek or Karakol before heading out into the mountains. Personal research has shown cognac tastes better with a hint of chill.
#YurtLife was almost too good—some of us ended up skipping out on roaming around the area because the allure of warm pillows and bottomless chai was too tempting to resist. Luckily, we had to stay behind for avalanche safety training anyway. Ahem.
Winter yurt stays in Kyrgyzstan
The tricky part when planning a yurt stay in winter is that many families dismantle their yurts and move to the cities for work come winter. Don’t despair, that doesn’t mean your nomadic dreams are over!
Some yurt camps in Kyrgyzstan stay open in winter specifically for tourists, skiers or not. I recommend looking into…
- Boz Uchuk – arrange through CBT Bishkek or Karakol
- Jyrgalan Yurt Lodge
- Song Kul – arrange through CBT Bishkek or local tour operator in Kochkor or Kyzart
- Ak Suu Yurt Lodge
2. You’ll run into groups of horse riders battling over headless goats in the mountains.
Cabin fever at its peak? Nope, it’s kok buru, one of the favorite sports of Central Asian nomads.
Also known as buzkashi in neighboring countries, the game involves two teams of men on horses trying to get control of the ball—er, headless goat carcass—and haul it into a ring or area at either end of a field. Kind of like polo, but with a dead goat and far more intense battles on horseback.
Though the game is played throughout the year, usually at special events like the World Nomad Games, winter is the best time of year to see casual kok buru. From the edges of Bishkek to the mountains around Issyk Kul, kok buru games can spring up anywhere and everywhere. People aren’t as busy herding animals or working outside once snow comes. Besides, a little excitement to get hearts racing and the blood flowing is just what the doctor ordered for winter weather.
Winter travel protip: If you spot men on horses moving somewhere with purpose, don’t be afraid to follow them and ask what they’re up to. More likely than not they’re off to watch or play kok buru. They’re almost guaranteed to invite you along. (Or, in our case, to play in the next match. Uh…)
3. You can easily shred fields of untouched powder above ex-Soviet mining towns.
There aren’t many places in the world where you might need to skirt abandoned coalmines and dodge cows and kids riding horses to the sledding hill at the end of a powder run.
(Don’t worry, Kyrgyz cows aren’t particularly bothered by skiers. Or anything, for that matter.)
Jyrgalan used to be a mining hub in the Soviet era, renowned for curious coal that burned far longer than other types. Like many other villages in Kyrgyzstan, it took a blow with the collapse of the Soviet Union… but these days, it’s getting back on its feet as an adventure tourism hub.
The smattering of single-story tin-roofs is the perfect base to get your winter game on, Kyrgyz-style. Local homestays are scattered about the village, offering warm beds and delicious home-cooked meals to stuff even the hungriest souls after a long day in the snow.
Most impressive is how easy it is to get information about things to do in the area. The Destination Jyrgalan office, attached to the famous Alakol Guesthouse run by Emil and Gulmira, can provide all the information you need to plan the perfect winter outing.
Want to get up to powdery fields forever? No biggie: they know experienced guides who speak both Russian and English, and can hook you up with snow cats or snowmobiles.
Prefer to strike out into the snow for a winter hike? They know the routes, and can find you snowshoes and guides if desired.
Just looking to escape the cold by visiting a toasty Russian banya (sauna)? No problem. The cherry on top: Emil and Gulmira have cans of cold beer and cider if you’re in need of a bevvy to relax.
4. You can hike through fairytale canyons covered in snow.
No, really—Kyrgyzstan’s Skazka canyon is known in English as “Fairytale Canyon”.
Kyrgyzstan’s landscapes are striking at any time of year, but there’s something surreal about Martian landscapes blanketed in snow. Colored stones pop against the white snow, there are far fewer visitors because, y’know, winter, and if you’re a sucker for all landscapes stunning and natural—as I assume you are because you’re considering Kyrgyzstan—you’re in for a snowy treat. Words won’t do this point justice, so let your eyeballs savor these instead:
We bopped about the red rocks in Skazka (Fairytale Canyon) and Jeti Oguz. Both are on the south shores of Lake Issyk Kul, both are easily accessible by public transport or taxi, and both are guaranteed to make your jaw hit the floor. Or the snow. Whichever comes first.
5. You can ski for next to nothing, both in resorts and the backcountry.
Skiing/snowboarding can be damned expensive. (Especially if you’re just starting out and are essentially paying to be beaten up by a mountain for the first day.)
But in Kyrgyzstan, both beginner and backcountry skiers alike will delight in how affordable everything is.
An adult lift pass at Karakol, the country’s top ski base to the east of Issyk Kul lake, costs only US$17 per day. Renting a full ski or snowboard set (boots, skis/board, helmet, poles) for a day is $15 at most for the highest quality. A one-hour private lesson—the best way to learn in my opinion—is $10. The small ski resorts around Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, are even cheaper.
Y’all that’s nothing, even compared to other budget ski destinations. I’ve been to Bansko, Bulgaria, the current budget favorite in Europe, but in my experience Kyrgyzstan is even cheaper and far more beautiful.
And I’m just talking resorts right now; the backcountry is also relatively affordable. Round up a group of three or more people, and you can get a snowmobile ride up to the top of the mountain three times in a day for $65 per person. If you prefer to drive up in a snow cat—why not be cozy in a cabin on the way up?—it’s only $70 per head for a full day of riding with a group of six or more.
You can barely buy a dinner for that much money in Western ski resorts, let alone buy a single snowmobile ride.
Affordable skiing isn’t the main reason I recommend visiting Kyrgyzstan in winter—flights to Kyrgyzstan still aren’t the cheapest, and there’s more to Kyrgyzstan than skiing—but you can’t deny that it’ll be easier on your wallet once there.
6. You can go for a dip in hot springs surrounded by snow as herds of horses wander by.
Stunning as it is, winter is tough on the body. Whether you’re hauling yourself up a mountain on snowshoes, hurtling through powder and trees on skis, or walking back to your guesthouse from the bar in the freezing cold (a legitimate trek, in my opinion), a little warmth can work wonders.
Kyrgyz and Russian people are no strangers to winter struggles; there are hot springs and saunas all over the country to ease your aching muscles and thaw your frozen fingers.
Banyas—wooden sauna rooms where you can relax in sweltering heat—are available in many private guesthouses and towns in Kyrgyzstan for a nominal fee (think less than 250 som/$3.50 in Bishkek). Given I’m a fresh air and freedom kind of gal—toasty enclosed spaces freak me out—hot springs are more my style.
After days of skiing and snowshoeing (or, in my case, repeatedly face planting in deep snow) in Jyrgalan, we stopped at the Ak Suu Kench hot springs near Karakol.
The steaming water came in three pools of three different temperatures: pleasantly warm, hot, and so-boiling-only-masochistic-Russians-can-relax hot. Pan flute notes from the Kill Bill soundtrack floated dreamily through the steam (“The Lonely Shepherd”, very culturally appropriate). Beverages on sale included bozo (fermented millet mystery), chalap (salty fermented yogurt mystery), and tan (fermented milk mystery). A herd of horses wandered by as we soaked, nibbling at grass through centimeters of snow.
It was a little bit strange, a lotta bit scenic, and an experience I’d have trouble finding anywhere else in the world. As everything about winter travel in Kyrgyzstan usually is.
Yay transparency! I was sponsored on this trip, and they told me to add all this dry stuff to my blog posts. Hold on to your horses, it’s a long one:
This blog is made possible by the Sustainable Winter Tourism Development Project financed by the Government of Switzerland through the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and implemented by Helvetas Kyrgyzstan as well as by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Competitiveness, Trade, and Jobs Activity in Central Asia. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Lost With Purpose (that’s me!) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of Switzerland and Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation or USAID and the United States Government.