Kyrgyzstan, with its 7,000-metre peaks, glacial lakes and unique nomad culture, has the ingredients for a prime, off-the-beaten-path travel destination. It's also a former republic of the Soviet Union, evoking for many tourists images of crumbling concrete state-run hotels, onerous bureaucracy and customer service that is indifferent on the best of days.
But in recent years, Kyrgyzstan has built a positive reputation as a place for low-cost, home-spun tours through glorious alpine scenery. It is best to experience the country as the locals do - on foot or horseback, eating homegrown food and sleeping in yurts, the teepee-like felt tent that is a Kyrgyz icon.
The capital, Bishkek, is considered one of the greenest cities in Central Asia, with clean air, a centre full of outdoor cafes and occasional views of the mountains to the south. The city also provides a taste of the USSR; street names such as Sovietskaya, its statue of Vladimir Lenin and the hammer-and-sickle insignia on former government buildings all remain. The grand and spooky State Historical Museum seems to have left its exhibits unchanged for decades; half of the institution is dedicated to Lenin and the October revolution. Central Ala-Too Square is a good location for people watching; in the evening, tough young men show off at test-your-strength punching machines while couples croon off-key at mobile outdoor karaoke units.
But Bishkek is not the reason to come to the country. Thanks to the Kyrgyzstan Community Based Tourism Association, known as CBT, the rest of the country awaits. Founded in 2000 by Swiss organisation Helvetas, CBT operates independently with an entirely local staff. The association has created a grassroots network of small-scale tourism operators - nomads who own yurts in which tourists can eat and sleep, and guides and drivers who know the mountains - and can arrange personalised, inexpensive individual tours.
The city of Karakol, reputed to have some of Kyrgyzstan's most dramatic mountain scenery, and the area around Lake Song-Kol, where for centuries the Kyrgyz and their animals have spent their summers, are good places to head for.
Karakol was a Soviet garrison town founded in the 19th century, when the tsars expanded their empire to the border of China. The town has brightly painted houses and a gorgeous wooden Russian Orthodox church. It's also one of the centres of Dungan (ethnic Chinese Muslim) culture in Kyrgyzstan and boasts a Chinese-style mosque with dragon-head ornamentation as well as several restaurants serving Dungan cuisine.
South of Karakol are the Tian Shan mountains, which stretch into China and include Pik Pobeda (Victory Peak), which, at 7,439 metres, is the second-highest in the former USSR. At an altitude of 3,000 metres is Altyn Arashan, a valley where a Russian mountaineer named Valentin keeps a lodge. It's a former Soviet weather station and mountain rescue base that shares its picturesque setting with shepherds and their sheep in the summer.
Valentin's lodge attracts a small international band of tourists who hike among the alpine meadows. From here there's a view of Lake Ala-Kol, its minty blue colour contrasting with the sharp grey peaks.
At Lake Song-Kol, Ainura, a CBT representative, explains that most of the association's treks can be done by horse or on foot, or as a combination of the two using a packhorse. A four-day tour, including a guide, the horse, accommodation, food and transportation to and from the trailhead, costs HK$1,000 per person.
Our guide, Azamat, is baby-faced, about 170cm tall and looks closer to 14 than his real age of 18. He has a goofy machismo that appears to be part of the Kyrgyz national character and has strong links with their horsemanship. Azamat, who is looking forward to a new life as a university student in the capital, first rode a horse at the age of four and could gallop by the time he was five. 'If a boy can't gallop by the time he's six, it's a shame to his family,' he says.
We walk for six hours each day while Azamat rides behind. CBT arranges with nomad families at the beginning of every season to have yurts available for tourists, and the money they pay for the privilege (minus a 15 per cent CBT commission) goes directly to those families. Azamat has a wad of cash he uses to pay each family along the way. The food they serve offers respite from the otherwise repetitive Central Asian restaurant fare. Although fresh fish is available at the lake, much of the menu is sheep-based, as is the shepherds' existence: their yurts are covered with felt, the frames are held together with animal hide and the fire is fuelled by dried sheep manure.
The hills are rounded and green. On the approach to the lake, the scenery becomes more expansive over every rise, and at the lake itself - elevation 3,016 metres - the light becomes dramatic, shifting as clouds roll in and out. You can spend hours just watching the light play over the lake.
It is almost the end of the trek but Azamat has to head to Bishkek early to enrol at his university. We'd like him to show us the gallop he bragged about but when he rides off, towards his new life in the city, it is at a saunter. He is in no hurry.