Emerging ‘It’ Place: Kyrgyzstan

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Landlocked, hidden behind the empty steppes of Kazakhstan and western China, and guarded by the dizzying peaks of the Tien Shan and Pamir ranges, Kyrgyzstan backs up its enigmatic reputation with formidable geography.

But lately the nation’s veil has begun to lift.

With visa restrictions eased and stability restored after a president-toppling revolution in 2010, tourism is growing by some 20 percent a year.

The allure here is Silk Road heritage, not urban grandeur: Seventy-two years of Soviet rule left its mark, from the decaying capital of Bishkek to the gauche beach resorts of Ysyk-Köl.

That’s OK—Kyrgyzstan’s heart beats beyond the brutalist architecture, out in the backcountry where nomadic life perseveres.

Nascent tourism projects offer the chance to stay in a herder’s yurt on a golden jailoo (pasture), hike through Arslanbob’s ancient walnut forest, or sip fermented mare’s milk at the caravansaries of centuries-old Tash-Rabat.

In the trekking gateway of Karakol, a coffee shop with Wi-Fi has opened—a rare Western amenity. “Locals can’t understand,” says Aikerim Oskonbaeva, owner of the traveler hangout, “why we don’t serve stewed sheep’s head.”

Insider’s Tip: Arrange home stays and local guides through a Community-Based Tourism group.

This article, written by Henry Wismayer, appeared in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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