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Discovering Burana Tower: Central Asia's Earliest Architetural Wonder

Just a stone’s throw away from Bishkek lies the Burana Tower — an 11th-century minaret that is said to be Central Asia’s earliest architectural wonder. It is also the only remnant of the ancient city of Balasagun and was later used as a template for other minarets in the region, including the famous one in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

With its rich historical significance, stunning architecture, and breathtaking surroundings, Burana Tower is one of the top destinations for travelers visiting Kyrgyzstan.

Here’s a travel guide to help you visit Burana Tower on your own from Bishkek without a tour.

The tower was initially constructed in the 11th century as part of the ancient city of Balasagun, serving as a minaret for a mosque. The city was an important stop along the Silk Road.

Over the centuries, the city declined. In the 13th century, it was largely destroyed by Mongol invasions and later by an earthquake. In the 1900s, the Russians dismantled the tower, repurposing the bricks for construction.

Finally, in the 1970s, a restoration project was initiated, leading to the recovery of the minaret. Although initially reaching a height of 44 meters, the Burana Tower, marred by both conflict and natural forces, now stands at 25 meters.

Nonetheless, it remains a captivating site amidst the picturesque Tian Shan mountains and golden fields.

Burana Tower. Credit: Adam Harangozo / Wikimedia Commons

Best Time to Go to Burana Tower

The best time to visit Burana Tower in Kyrgyzstan is during the spring and summer months, specifically from April to September. This period offers mild temperatures, blooming landscapes, and pleasant weather for exploring the archaeological site.

Summer, particularly July to September, provides warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours, making it ideal for climbing Burana Tower and enjoying the surroundings.

It’s important to note that Kyrgyzstan experiences a continental climate, and temperatures can vary widely. I went in mid-October and the weather was warm, perhaps a little too warm for comfort. The sky unfortunately wasn’t as clear as what I saw in some pictures; the mountains were obscured by clouds. This was the best mountain view I could get:

View from the road leading to Burana Tower.

How to Go to Burana Tower

Burana Tower is situated near the village of Tokmok in the Chuy Province of Kyrgyzstan.  It is approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) east from Bishkek. There are a few options to get to Burana Tower:

By Car

Renting a car is a convenient option, allowing flexibility in your schedule. Head east from Bishkek on the A365 highway, following signs to Tokmok. Once in Tokmok, follow signs leading to Burana Tower.

By Public Transportation

There is no direct bus from Bishkek to Burana Tower. First you must take Mashrutka No. 353 from Bishkek Eastern Bus Station to Tokmok. Apparently, you can also find them at the Western Bus Station, so pick the one that is most convenient for you.

Mashrutkas are shared minibuses that are a common mode of public transportation in Kyrgyzstan. They will only depart when they’re full and will make frequent stops to pick people up and drop them off.

At the Eastern Bus Station, there are many mahsrutkas heading to Tokmok, so you won’t have a problem finding one. The journey takes about an hour and a half, and costs 80 som.

Mashrutka No. 353 from Bishkek to Tokmok.

Once you arrive in Tokmok, prepare to be approached (or even hounded) by taxi drivers offering to take you to Burana Tower. They will typically offer a round trip, plus one-hour waiting time at the tower. This should cost you around 500 – 600 som.

I was initially hoping to find other travelers in Tokmok to share a taxi and split the cost with, but unfortunately I seemed to be the only one heading that way. Perhaps I would have had better luck if I had gone on a weekend or earlier in the morning.

Tokmok Bus Station

A taxi driver quoted me 1300 som, which I knew was too much, but I’m bad, I mean, really bad at haggling. I would have happily walked the 12 kilometers, but then it was already 1 pm, and I didn’t want to miss the last bus back to Bishkek. So I turned to my trusted friend Yandex (a ride-hailing app) and called a car.

The only problem was, I had typed in the wrong destination, which I only realized when we arrived, so not wanting to pay extra, I walked the last 2 km to Burana Tower.

At the tower, I was lucky enough to find a local traveler who gave me a ride back to Bishkek.

With a Tour

For those wanting a little bit more convenience, there are various online platforms where you can book private or shared tours. Some may also include city tours of Bishkek or excursions to other attractions such as Issyk Kul Lake and Ala-Archa Nature Park.

Things to Do at Burana Tower

1. Climb the Tower

The main attraction is, of course, the tower itself. Admire the intricate geometric carvings that showcase the craftmanship of Central Asian artisans from centuries past. Then, climb to the top for panoramic views of the golden plains of Chuy Valley framed by the majestic Tian Shan mountains.

Do note that the stairwell is steep, dark, and narrow. It requires some stamina to reach the top. Going down can be equally challenging. For some people, it may be easier to go backwards, so that you can hold on to the steps for stability.

The stairwell is not for the claustrophobic.
It may be easier to descend backwards.

But it’s all worth it when you reach the top, for the reward for your climb is not just the stunning view but also a profound connection with the past, standing on top of a structure that has weathered centuries of change.

The top of Burana Tower.

2. Observe the Balbal Stones

Surrounding the tower is an archeological site that now serve as an open-air museum. Scattered around the site, you’ll find balbals, which are ancient Turkic grave markers. Carved with meticulous detail to resemble human forms, these weathered figures stand as silent sentinels honoring the departed.

Each balbal tells a unique story. As you traverse the archaeological site, the balbals invite you to contemplate the lives and traditions that once thrived in that very place.

Balbal stone markers near Burana Tower.

3. Visit the Museum

There is a small museum housed inside a yurt near the tower, where you can find more information about the history of the region, as well as some archeological findings that were discovered in the surrounding areas.

4. Explore the Mausoleums

Apart from the Balbal markers, there are also a few mausoleums that you can explore within the vicinity. These tombs pay homage to the lives and legacies of important individuals who once inhabited the ancient city of Balasagun.

Burana Tower Entrance Fee

Entrance tickets to Burana Tower and the museum.

The entrance fee for Burana Tower is 60 som while the entrance fee for the museum is 50 som.

When I bought the tickets, I wasn’t asked whether I wanted to have both or only one of them, so I suppose every visitor is expected to get both. Anyway, the combined cost for the two tickets is less than USD2, so it shouldn’t be a significant concern.

Additional Info & Tips

  • The Burana Tower is open from 9 am – 7 pm every day. If taking public transport, plan your trip so that you can be back in Tokmok before 5 pm.
  • Have some local currency (Kyrgyz som) for transportation, entrance fees, and local purchases.
  • The tower and most of its surroundings are out in the open without much shade. Even in October, it was quite hot. Be sure to put on sunscreen, and bring a hat and sunglasses.
  • There is no place selling food or drinks near the tower. Bring your own water and snacks.
  • There is a toilet outside, but it’s basically just a hole on the floor. Bring your own toilet paper.
  • If you plan to hitchhike or find other travelers to share a ride with to and from Burana Tower, try to go during busier periods like the weekend or in the morning / afternoon when it’s not too hot outside.

Other Places To Visit Near Burana Tower

  • Tokmok: If you’re going to stay longer in the area, you might as well explore Tokmok, the gateway to Burana Tower. It used to be the administrative seat of Chuy Region. Some of the attractions you can find in Tokmok are Tokmok Historical Museum, Tokmok Animal Bazaar, and Semetei Hill.

  • Kegeti Waterfall: Located roughly 30 kilometers from Burana Tower, this waterfall stands at a height of 15 meters and flows all year round. In winter, it may get partially frozen. The waterfall is located in Kegeti Gorge that is famous for its natural reserve and alpine forests.

  • Kol-Tor Lake: A few kilometers from Kegeti is the spectacular Kol-Tor Lake with its impossibly blue water. The hue is caused by melting glacial waters mixed with loose sediments and crystalline rocks that give the lake its turquoise shimmer. The lake is situated at an altitude of 2,725 meters above sea level.

Kol-Tor Lake. Credit: Guliaim Aiylchy / Wikimedia Commons
  • Issyk-Kul Lake: Issyk-Kul is an endorheic saline lake in the western Tian Shan Mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan, just south of a dividing range separating Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan. It’s about 2-3 hours’ drive east from Burana Tower and is often combined together in tour packages. One of the largest alpine lakes in the world, it offers opportunities for water activities and relaxation.

  • Cholpon Ata: A resort town on the northern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul, known for its beautiful beaches and ancient petroglyphs.

Where to Stay Near Burana Tower

Burana Tower can easily be visited on a day trip from Bishkek, but if you prefer a more leisurely pace and spend a night in the vicinity, here are some accommodation options:

Welcome Guest HouseFeaturing a seasonal outdoor pool, a terrace, a garden, and free private parking, this guesthouse in Tokmok offers soundproofed rooms with free WiFi and quiet street views. From USD 11 for a Twin Room.

Gostevoi Dom Temirlan – Located in Kegeti, this property offers a garden, terrace, and free private parking. All units come with air-conditioning, a flat-screen TV, and a kettle. From USD 42 for a Triple Room with breakfast.

Gostevoi Dom Kol-Tor – This sustainable guesthouse features a garden, terrace, luggage storage space, and a picnic area. For visitors going on day trips to nearby landmark, the guesthouse also offers a selection of packed lunches. From USD 35 for a Double Room, with breakfast.

Final Thoughts

Whether you embarked on a day trip from bustling Bishkek or chose the leisurely pace of an overnight stay, this ancient gem is sure to leave a memorable chapter in your travel narrative. A visit to Burana Tower provides not only an opportunity to enjoy the picturesque landscapes of Kyrgyzstan, but also a glimpse into the rich history of the region.

The minaret stands tall, not just in stone but in the stories it tells—of empires risen and fallen, of Silk Road caravans that once passed through, and the resilient spirit of a land steeped in tradition.

Have you been to the Burana Tower from Bishkek? What was your experience like? Share in the comment section below.

Posted in Kyrgyzstan

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