BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan - With 24,000-foot peaks, glacial lakes, and a unique nomad culture, this country has all the ingredients for prime off-the-beaten-path travel. As a former republic of the Soviet Union, however, it usually evokes images of crumbling concrete state-run hotels, onerous bureaucracy, and customer service that is indifferent on a good day.
Yet over the last several years, Kyrgyzstan (pronounced KIR-gih-stan) has been gaining a reputation as a destination for low-cost, home-spun tours through its glorious alpine scenery. Visitors travel the way locals do: on foot or horseback, eating homegrown food, and sleeping in yurts, the tepee-like felt tents that are a national icon.
Aid workers, gold miners, and former Peace Corps volunteers had told me about the country's beauty and easy-going atmosphere. So when I got the chance to take a trip across Central Asia last summer, I knew I wanted to see Kyrgyzstan.
I recruited a college friend, Emily, to spend a couple of weeks with me. We met in the capital, Bishkek, and spent a few days exploring the city. It's famed for being the greenest city in the former Soviet Union with clean air, a center full of outdoor cafes, and occasional glimpses of the mountains to the south. In the evenings we got ice cream bars and people-watched at the central Ala-Too Square, where tough young guys showed off at test-your-strength punching machines and couples crooned off-key at outdoor karaoke booths.
In the city you get a little flavor of the old USSR; it still has street names like Sovietskaya, its statue of Lenin, and the hammer-and-sickle insignia on former government buildings. The grand, spooky State Historical Museum seems not to have changed its exhibits in decades; half are dedicated to Lenin and the revolution.
But Bishkek is not the reason to come to Kyrgyzstan, and so early on we headed to the office of the Kyrgyz Community-Based Tourism Association, known locally as CBT. Founded in 2000 by the Swiss organization Helvetas, it now operates independently with a local staff. The association has a grass-roots network of small-scale tourism operators - for instance, nomads with yurts where tourists can eat or sleep and local guides and drivers who know the mountains - and arranges personalized, inexpensive tours.
We knew we wanted to explore two areas: Karakol, reputed to have some of the country's most dramatic mountain scenery, and Lake Song-Kol, where for centuries the Kyrgyz have been spending their summers.
Karakol is a 19th-century Russian garrison town from the days when the czars expanded their empire to the border with China. It still has brightly painted Russian houses and a gorgeous wooden Russian Orthodox church. It's also one of the centers of Dungan (ethnic Chinese Muslim) culture in Kyrgyzstan and boasts a Chinese-style mosque with dragon-head ornamentation. Several restaurants here serve Dungan cuisine and its signature dish "ashlyanfu," a spicy, vinegary cold noodle salad.
South of Karakol are the Tien Shan, the great mountain system of Central Asia that stretches into China and includes Pobedy Peak, at 24,406 feet. We weren't that ambitious, so the local tourism information center recommended heading to Altyn Arashan, where a crusty Russian mountaineer named Valentin keeps a basic lodge at 9,900 feet. The former Soviet weather station and mountain rescue base shares a valley with shepherds who come to graze their sheep in summer.
The lodge attracts a small international group of tourists. We spent three days taking day hikes among the alpine meadows. One climb took us up 3,500 vertical feet to a view of Lake Ala-Kol, its minty blue color contrasting with the sharp gray peaks rising from it in every direction. We climbers agreed it was one of the most spectacular sights we had ever seen.
Then it was off to Lake Song-Kol, where we met Ainura, the local CBT representative. She said most of their treks could be done by horse or on foot. We chose to walk and get a pack horse for our bags. Ainura quickly put together a four-day tour, including a guide, horse, all accommodations, food, and transportation to and from the trailhead for about $130 each.
Our guide, Azamat, was a highlight of the trip. Baby-faced and about 5 feet 6 inches tall, he looked closer to 14 than 18, his age. He had a sort of goofy machismo that I came to understand was part of the national character, much of it connected with horses. Azamat first rode at 4 and could gallop by 5. "If a boy can't gallop by the time he's 6, it's a shame to his family," he said.
Our late August trek was his last of the summer before he was to head off to the capital to study computer science. He was not looking forward to city life and said he would miss the mountains. But he had bigger plans than mountain life can accommodate.
We walked about six hours each day, while Azamat rode the horse behind us.
CBT arranges with nomad families at the beginning of every season to have extra yurts available for tourists, and the money we paid (minus a 15 percent CBT commission) to eat or sleep went directly to the families (Azamat paid each along the way).
Yurt food was filling, tasty, and a great change from the otherwise repetitive Central Asian restaurant fare. Although we got fresh fish at the lake, much of the food is heavily sheep-based, as is most of the shepherds' existence: The yurts' wooden frames are held together not with nails but with animal hide, and the cooking fire was fueled by dried sheep manure.
As we got closer to Lake Song-Kol, the scenery got more expansive. At the lake itself, elevation 9,952 feet, the light was dramatic.
We were staying an extra day by the lake before a 4x4 came to take us back to town. But Azamat was riding back right away; he had to go to Bishkek to start orientation. As we said goodbye, we asked him to show us the gallop he had bragged about. But when he rode off, toward his new life in the city, it was instead at a saunter. He was in no hurry.
Joshua Kucera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.