When to Go:
At lower elevations, spring and autumn are probably the best seasons to visit weather-wise - in particular April to early June and September through October. In spring, the desert blooms briefly, while autumn is harvest time when the markets fill with fresh produce.
Summer is ferociously hot in the lowlands, but July and August are the best months to visit the mountains. Cold rains begin in November and snow soon closes mountain passes. The ski season at the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base lasts from December to April. Note that winters are bitterly cold, even in the desert, and finding food can be a problem since lots of eateries close for the season. Many domestic flights are also grounded in winter.
This grand, rugged but very accessible gorge, 40km (25mi) south of Bishkek, is a state nature park offering dozens of walking and trekking possibilities, including hikes to glaciers and, for the serious mountaineer, treks to the region's highest peak. There are basic shelters scattered throughout the park but the best way to enjoy the area is to bring your own tent and supplies. You can use the Upper Ala-Archa Mountain Ski Base as a starting point from which to ski on glaciers, even in summer, though lifts only operate during the December to April winter season. Bishkek travel agents can arrange excursions to the canyon or you can make your own way there by car or by using the local buses. A small fee is charged at the entrance to the park.
Lake Issyk-Kul is a huge dent, filled with water, folded between the 4000m (13,120ft) peaks of the Kungey Alatau and the Terskey Alatau ranges. It sits 1600m (5250ft) above sea level and measures a huge 170km (105mi) long and 70km (43mi) across, making it the second-largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in South America. Health spas lined the lakeshore in Soviet days, but spa tourism collapsed along with the 'Evil Empire'. The lake was also used by the Soviet Navy to test high-precision torpedoes far from prying Western eyes. This was one of the reasons it was off-limits to foreigners until fairly recently, though the officially sanctioned opium poppy and cannabis plantations which once surrounded the lake may also have had something to do with it.
Today, the main reason to come here is to soak up the lakeside ambience, enjoy the thermal springs and remaining spas, explore some of the best hiking trails in Central Asia and try your hand at catching the local trout - allegedly bulking up to a prized 35kg (77lb). Mountain wildlife includes big cats, ibex, bear and wild boar, though a serious poaching problem exists, thanks to braindead Western hunters yearning to bag a snow leopard. Give yourself at least a week to explore this region and improve your leg definition.
Attractions in the lake region include the spartan Altyn Arashan hot spring development, set in a 3000m (9840ft) high postcard-perfect alpine valley; the immense, silent summer pasture of the Karkara valley; the extraordinary red sandstone cliffs of the Jeti-Oghuz canyon; and the excellent (and bandit-free) hiking trails into the Terskey Alatau, south of Karakol. The best time to visit is September, though trekking in the mountains is best between July and August.
Karakol, at the eastern end of the lake, is the principal town in the region, and is the best base from which to explore the lakeshore, the Terskey Alatau and the central Tian Shan. It's a low-rise town, famous for its apple orchards and Sunday market (one of the best in Central Asia), and its backstreets are full of Russian gingerbread cottages. It's best to bunk down with a local family (you'll be approached at the bus station when you arrive) rather than stay in an official hotel. Karakol is a seven-hour bus ride from Bishkek or a short hop by plane.
Off the Beaten Track:
Central Tian Shan
The highest and mightiest part of the Tian Shan system, the central Tian Shan, is at the eastern end of Kyrgyzstan, along its borders with China and the southeastern tip of Kazakhstan. It's an immense knot of ranges, with dozens of summits over 5000m (16,400ft), culminating in Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak), a 7439m (24,400ft) monster on the Kyrgyzstan-China border and the 6995m (22,944ft) Khan-Tengri, possibly the most beautiful and demanding peak in the Tian Shan, on the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border. The central Tian Shan is Central Asia's premier territory for serious trekking and mountaineering, and several Central Asian adventure-travel firms will bring you here by helicopter, 4WD and/or foot. July and August are the warmest months at these elevations but even then make sure you're fully equipped for the terrain, altitude and weather.
Bishkek to Kashgar via the Torugart Pass
Kyrgyzstan's primo trip for non-trekkers and the most exciting overland route in or out of Central Asia is the 700km (434mi) journey between Bishkek and Kashgar, in China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, via the 3752m (12,307ft) Torugart Pass. The pass is open to all visitors, but ranks of officials on both sides still make it hard, occasionally impossible, for individual budget travellers. The trip is not for everyone, since it's a long, cold and uncomfortable haul and is plagued by uncertainties and officials with their hands out. But it's the sort of absorbing and grandly beautiful trip you'll never forget once you've completed it.
If you refuse to be sidetracked the trip could technically be done in 15 hours in a sturdy well-equipped 4WD. You'd be a mug to rush though, since this trip reveals so much about the region's history, geography, people and wildlife. And besides, officialdom will probably make sure that it will take a minimum of two to three days to complete the journey. Note that you cannot get visas at the border and that the pass is safe and snow-free only between May and September.
Bishkek to Osh & the Kyrgyz Ferghana Valley
When it comes to landscape, the Bishkek-Osh road is a sequence of superlatives, taking in two 3000m (9840ft) plus passes, the yawning Suusamyr Valley, the immense Toktogul reservoir and the Naryn River gorge before entering the Ferghana Valley. It's not to be taken lightly. The road is rough, hair-raising and occasionally blocked by rockfalls and avalanches. Snow fills the passes from October until March; the road is kept open to cars, but is dangerous during these winter months. No regular buses traverse the whole route, so you'll need to change buses, probably at Toktogul. Note that there are frequent police checkpoints along the route since this is a major artery for drugs smuggled from Afghanistan into Russia. The ancient town of Osh has a fantastic bazaar and is a good base for trekking and mountaineering in the Pamir range.
You can arrange skiing, mountaineering, trekking and horseback trips with adventure-travel agencies in Bishkek. There are also excellent walking opportunities in the Ala-Archa Canyon and Alamedin Canyon, both rolling out of the Kyrgyz Alatau above Bishkek. Karakol on Lake Issyk-Kul is a good base for organising skiing and trekking in the Terskey Alatau. There are plenty of thermal springs, massage and mudbath centres around the lake. For serious adventure treks and mountaineering, the Central Tian Shan is your playground, but don't underestimate the hazards.