After 3 months in Southeast Asia we still had to decide where on earth we would go next. It’s a very nice feeling to have that freedom of choice: where are we going next?!
Our time in Sri Lanka made us want to go a little bit off-road; somewhere less busy where we could get lost in nature, a place to firmly leave our comfort zone. This is how we chose to head north to Kyrgyzstan … and there is so much to say about it!
Welcome to Central Asia
Central Asia, the last frontier for all travellers in search of complete old school travelling. Probably one of the last places on earth where English speakers are still the exception. The place where learning Russian will open doors and reading Cyrillic script is a must for getting by. So, after hearing good things only about this virtually unknown country, we landed in the capital city of Bishkek in the early hours of the day completely unprepared and ignorant of anything about the country. Of course, we knew Borat and that other movie we watched once, Tulpan in which a boy kept playing Bony M… but that’s in Kazakhstan right?
Ok let me tell you that most of my family can’t pin-point on the map where Kyrgyzstan is. So when we made it public that it was going to be our next destination a few of our family members freaked out and we received a lot of interrogative questions… except for my dad who was literally ecstatic about our plan. It turns out that Kyrgyzstan is a destination that is almost “on the map” for adventurous cycle-tourists. And my dad as a passionate biking traveller has always wanted to cycle the Silk Road route through Kyrgyzstan. At least we had one person on our side… believe it or not a lot of people confuse Afghanistan with Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan with Tajikistan and so on… and with the bad press (or no press at all) we get from Central Asia it’s not easy to convince people that it’s a fantastic idea to travel there with a 16-month old baby!
Off the beaten path
There is no doubt that South East Asia is a popular destination amongst families, and for good reason: it’s cheap, it’s accessible, and it’s been done thousands of times. We enjoyed our trip there but it’s busy. I love letting my little one run free for hours and there weren’t a lot of spaces to do so. There were stray dogs, traffic, random hazards, and mosquitoes; so much to look out for. After weeks in SEA I had enough. We all needed to get out of jam-packed streets, traffic, the smell of burnt plastic, and an overflow of attention (the joy of travelling with a baby!). And for all of these reasons Kyrgyzstan was a breath of fresh air.
There are very few places in the world where you can get totally disconnected these days. The increasingly widespread knowledge of English and the ubiquity of WiFi and smartphones has revolutionized the art of travelling. It has effective become difficult to get lost. In Kyrgyzstan though, we had to communicate in Russian or Kyrgyz (neither of which we spoke) and in most places there definitely wasn’t any Wifi.
Tourism is a relatively new industry there and most travellers who make it to this country are enthusiasts for the great outdoors. Do not expect resorts with organised tours and buses with guided groups. Nearly every single person we met had embarked on some kind of crazy projects: an English guy who solo cycled the desert of Kazakhstan on a $200 bike and nearly ran out of water, French couples hitchhiking months on end in seldom-visited parts in the world, or a Japanese doctor on his fourth continent in his 2.5 year-long trip. In comparison our 3 months in SEA looked pretty tame (although we were the only ones with a toddler in tow)!
What about accommodations and transport?
It is surprisingly easy to travel in Kyrgyzstan. Don’t get me wrong here: although travelling in Kyrgyzstan with kids is not suited for all, I believe that anyone can do it.
We got around mainly with the marshrutkas – a mini bus type of transport for which there isn’t any fixed schedule – jumping in one and hoping to reach the right destination. We also used shared taxis and hired a private driver at some point but these options are generally more expensive. All of these methods of getting around were scary as hell as people there are terrible, terrible drivers and, of course, don’t even think about a baby car seat. But it worked and we never had any problems… or accidents.
We slept in guesthouses and yurts. I loved the guesthouses as they are the real deal: a bed in someone’s house. In most places our hosts wouldn’t speak much English (if at all) and a translation app was a life saver. I have to say, Kyrgyz people are not the smiliest, happiest, easy-going kind of hosts. But they know how to cook, they know how to share and, most of all, how make you feel welcome.
Thanks to the Community Based Tourism (CBT) project, it’s possible to organise homestays, hikes, and horse riding in most towns and cities. We found them very well organised and helpful (they speak English too!). They are a bit pricey sometimes but you get what you pay for. We organised all of our yurt stays (copious amounts of food included) with them which allowed us to have authentic stays in some pretty remote places.
A destination for little explorer
People go to Kyrgyzstan for the mountains, the breathtaking jailoos (high altitude plains), and the possibility of being completely disconnected from the world. We slept in yurts, ran in the wild, wore flowers in our hair, and read a lot. Very simply, we spent quality time together.
I could see almost instantly in our daughter’s behaviour that she enjoyed the freedom of wide-open green spaces. She was happier, she smiled and laughed a lot and she was in total discovery mode, jumping in horse poo and chasing chicks in the jailoo!
Yes, Kyrgyzstan was our most pleasant destination with our busy toddler and without a doubt the highlight of our 5 month trip.