Kyrgyzstan is the ultimate backpacker paradise, a country where you can roam around at hearts content without any restrictions through consistent breathtaking scenery. People are exceptionally nice and welcoming, transport is easy, prices are cheap, food is good and the weather in summer is generally fine.
Like many of our trips the decision to travel to Kyrgyzstan was pure serendipity. Uri Engel the guide of Roi told him about his many trips there and we got hooked.
We flew from Tel Aviv to Istanbul and from there to Almaty, the former capital Kazakhstan. From here we took a shared taxi to the Kyrgyz border. Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world and largest land-locked country. Under its barren rather flat landscape, which is the quintessence of emptiness, it harbors immense riches. The complete opposite can be said about its much smaller and poorer southern neighbour, which possesses some of the worlds most dramatic mountains. Both countries along with an additional six Asian states belonged to the Soviet Union, and got their independence upon its dissolution in 1991.
The border crossing was crowded with Kazakhs on their way to Issik–Kul, the local, or rather regional, substitute of a sea-side for these land locked countries. After a quick border crossing we took another taxi to Bishkek the Kyrgyz capital. The driver had some difficulty finding the hotel I booked by Bookings.com. It turned out to consist of several refurbished flats in one of the crumbling soviet concrete blocks. We squeezed with our backpacks into the tiny dodgy elevator to ascend to the check in desk. We got a flamboyantly decorated flat with a great view of the snow-capped mountains at the outskirts of town.
Unfortunately neither the view of the snow nor the asthmatic air conditioner managed to relieve the almost unbearable heat.
Except the horrible heat Bishkek was a rather pleasant experience. We first exchanged US dollars to Kyrgyz Som in one of the many booths after finding the best rate. No commission is charged and it is also easy to change the money back. We next walked up the leafy avenues to the Ala-Too square where kids chilled off in the water fountain.
A huge red Kyrgyz flag with a sun in the middle is hoisted on a 45 mt. high flagpole in front of a similar sized equestrian statue. The sun on the flag is crossed by two sets of three lines, a stylized representation of the crown of the traditional Kyrgyz yurt.
In the evening it cooled off and we enjoyed excellent shashlik, some western style ice cream and bought petrol for our MSR dragonfly stove.
Trek nr. 1 – Over the Shamshy pass
The next morning we took a taxi to the Alamedin bazaar and after some shopping for food.
We then walked over to the East Bus Station and took a minibus to Tokmok. Alighting in Tokmok we were immediately surrounded by taxi drivers who offered to take us to the Burana tower, a derelict minaret considered the local attraction. We negotiated with one of the drivers to take us up the Shamshy valley for 1500 Som and boarded his ancient Audi. In Kyrgyzstan every trip by taxi, minibus or even bus starts with a visit to a petrol station where the passenger is asked for some advance on the agreed fee to buy petrol. In this case we also stopped for a pitcher of oil before heading up the valley on progressively deteriorating dirt roads.
The trek up the Shamshy valley and over the pass in not an official trek, but from all our treks it turned out to be the easiest to follow path. The mountain range south of Bishkek can be crossed via several valleys and we chose the Shamshy pass as its is “only” 3570 mt. high and we were still not yet acclimatised to altitude. There was almost no information about this pass, except half a sentence in our wonderful Bradt guide book. The taxi dropped us off in a small village and we asked for some directions and food in one of the houses. This was our first encounter with the amazing Kyrgyz hospitality.
The first few hours where still hot and relatively dry. When we stopped by the river for a picnic a Landrover with two soldiers stopped and we were asked to show our passports. This was the only occasion that we were asked for our identity until we left Kyrgyzstan. Towards the evening we started to ascend a narrower dell that became greener. We set up our tent by the stream and cooked dinner. At night we had our first rain but our amazing slater UL+ 2 tent kept us warm and dry.
The walk all along the second day along the lush dale was pure delight. After some hefty showers in the morning the weather cleared up and as we gained elevation the air got cool and fresh. Except two boys who galloped down the trail we didn’t meet a soul all morning.
In the afternoon we stopped for lunch and Eran made up some excellent tahini which we mopped up with delicious Kyrgyz round bread. While we were sitting by the brook a cyclist approached the opposite bank. Instead of crossing at a wide wade he tried to cross at a narrow and torrential place and almost lost foothold.
Eran jumped in to help him and rescued him and his bike. After he got safely to our side he told us that he is from Spain and has been cycling all over Kyrgyzstan for three weeks. After bidding the Spanish cyclist farewell we too had to negotiate some dodgy wet and icy crossings. We carried on and searched almost in vain for a flat camp site free of cowshit.
I woke up to a glorious morning in a green meadow by a rushing brook and while Eran kept snoring I had a couple of hours of great light.
After the sun reached our tent Eran also woke up and we broke camp and started to climb up to the Shamsypass. The green meadow soon gave way to grey talus covered with bright yellow poppies and many other flowers.
The trail was rather straightforward but as passes go, especially first ones, arduous nevertheless. We wondered how the Spanish cyclist managed to get his bike over the pass. Close to the top we met a friendly family on horseback.
From the top we enjoyed an amazing view up north, from where we arrived and down south, where we were heading. After the steep climb the descent was a sheer joy in somewhat indecisive weather of alternating rain and sun culminating in a glorious rainbow.
We headed towards several yurts that appeared on a plateau in the distance. Before reaching the plateau we had another wet crossing to negotiate. As we started to take off our shoes an elderly horseman appeared on the opposite bank and while his horse was drinking he waved us to wait. He crossed and than told me to mount his horse behind him and the horse carried us through the stream. He then returned and fetched Eran and carried him over in the same manner. Unfortunately this act of kindness didn’t save us from getting wet as the sky opened up to a vigorous hailstorm. We arrived thoroughly soaked on the doorstep of a yurt and were warmly welcomed.
The table was set with delicious home made jams, cream and butter and still warm freshly baked flatbread. Our hosts, like everybody here spoke either Kyrgyz or Russian and as we understand neither, conversation was a bit haphazard. A resourceful girls had a brilliant idea and pulled out a picture book and we communicated by pointing on pictures.
We drank hot tea and as we finished to eat our fill we were offered dinner of cooked vegetables and mutton. This was also our first encounter with Kumis – fermented, slightly alcoholic horse milk. Getting over our initial instinctive repulsion we started to like it a lot. Meanwhile the weather cleared for yet another wonderful double rainbow that seemed to rise out of a herd of horses.
Connected to the yurt of our hosts was an identical one where we were to spend the night covered with plenty of warm blankets. In the morning our hosts briskly pulled off the top dome of the yurt filling the yurt with sunshine and exposing the narrow wooden beams like the ones on the Kyrgyz flag.
After a hearty breakfast we parted from our lovely hosts after paying them 1500 som for lodging and food. The way gently descended to the river crossing the large plateau among herds of grazing horses and sheep.
We walked towards Shamshy and as we crossed the river we were approached by an ancient Audi driven by a guy we met last night in the yurt and who offered to drive us to Kochkor.
We arrived in Kochkor at noon and went to the CBT office. CBT stands for Community Based Tourism, a great local initiative that offers tourists various services and makes sure that the proceeds go directly to the provider. The office arranged us a homestay and the owner came and fetched us with his car. Kochkor is a small market town or rather a big village and relatively many tourists pass through here. Lodging seems however limited to several dozen homestays that CBT offers. I doubt that there is a hotel in town. Our homestay was a lovely spacious elegant house with good dinner and breakfast and wifi. The shower was a Jacuzzi but due to plumbing problems the toilets were a shed with a hole in the ground in the garden.
The town has one or two restaurants with decent food (and some German spoken) and a fruit and vegetable market. Huge melons and watermelons were soled out of lorries lined up along the main road. A bakery sold lovely fresh bread and general stores sold all kinds of food and other stuff. In the main square shared taxi’s could be hired to various destinations.
Trek nr. 2. – To lake Song Köl and back
Lake Song Köl is justifiably the ultimate Kyrgyz destination visited by most of the tourists who come here. As it is huge and most people take a 4×4 to its northwestern edge most of the lake remains as pristine as ever.
We hired a dilapidated Lada for 600 Som to take us from Kochkor to Kyzart. Uri told us that from here it is straightforward to cross the mountains south of the village to get to Song Köl. The climb turned out to be anything but easy. First we had to manage to get out of the endless fields, many of them water lodged, crossing canals and aqueducts. In spite of the elevation of 2300 mt. it was very hot After we got at long last to the feet of the hills we searched in vain for the path up. Some promising looking tracks soon petered out and disappeared leaving us to climb the steep grassy slopes. After much effort and tons of sweat we managed to find a real trail guiding us up the last part of the 1000 mt. climb. In fact Uri was right as it is indeed possible to cross these hills almost everywhere as there are not many cliffs and the slopes are manageable.
Once we got over the watershed all our troubles were over and forgotten. A herd of magnificent horses grazing on the pass greeted us and the hauntingly beautiful Song Köl lake unfolded in front of us. The 400 m. descent to the shore of the lake was easy and felt like in a fairytale.
In spite of the big effort we were lucky to miss the main path as we ended up in a jailoo that doesn’t seem to be frequented by foreigners. The yurt we approached was inhabited by an elderly couple and their grandson. Verbal communication was all but impossible but with the help of gestures we managed to converse pretty well. After a lovely dinner we decided to put our tent next to the yurt. They watched us putting up our high tech tent, however as it turned out they would have the last laugh. At night a huge gale rolled up from the lake and they invited us to join them in their yurt. Our tent survived unscathed thanks to first rate craftsmanship and materials of Big Agnes but as I feared that the wind would in the end shred it to pieces we took it down and retreated to the stable yurt. Even in the yurt the old man had to hold the rope that is fixed to the head of the dome so that the wind will not blow it off. To add insult to injury I got diarrhoea, probably from the dodgy mutton, and had to rush out to the storm. The dog followed me and to my disgust after completing my business the he greedily licked it up.
The storm blew itself out by the morning and the rays of the sun penetrated through gaps in the black clouds enhancing the already dramatic atmosphere. Our kind hosts refused to take any payment for lodging and food and we had almost to force a 500 Som note into the hands of the boy.
We walked down to the water line of the transparent mirror flat lake.As we followed the shore westwards the vista all around was absolutely surreal . After several kilometers we approached another jailoo, the one we were originally meant to reach from Kyzart. We were of course invited for some Kumis and some conversation before we headed back to Kyzart.
The path over the mountain was easy but the way to Kyzart was again much longer than anticipated. As we reached the fields of the village Eran got very sick. Fortunately we located some farmers with a car who drove us to the CBT guesthouse in the village. Here we got a room and food and the kind and helpful locals insisted we should use vodka to treat him. I declined and got coke instead which proved pretty efficient as the next morning he was as good as new.
While we were waiting for a car to take us back to Kochkor we had ample time to watch and photograph the serene rural life that unfolded in front of the CBT guesthouse.
We arrived in Kochkor in the afternoon and were sent to another homestay, which was also very nice. We also booked a two day horse trip to Köl Ükök for the following day. Waiting for dinner we walked to the outskirts of the village at the end of the road to admire the evening light painting the mighty mountains in pink.
Trek Nr.3 – On horseback to Köl Ükök lake
The CBT driver picked us up after breakfast and drove us a few km out of town to meet our guide and horses. We were pretty excited as none of us has ever ridden a horse before and felt that Kyrgyzstan is the place to give it a try. Eran got a white miserably looking horse, which was apparently ill. From all the thousands of healthy looking horses we saw in Kyrgyzstan this must have been the most miserable one. I got a nice brown horse and so did our guide. After a while Eran’s horse refused to go any further and the guide tied it to a rock and abandoned it. Now the guide was walking and we both were riding. After several hours of slow trot and a rather dodgy ascent which our horses negotiated surprisingly well the turquoise Köl Ükök lake appeared all of a sudden nestled between the hills with many glaciers in the background.
The path followed high above shore of the lake all along to its other end where several yurts were erected. After we arrived we had several free hours till dinner so we explored the wide glen trying to reach the glaciers and see whether any additional lakes hide behind the moraines.
For dinner we got fresh fried fish from the lake. Meanwhile several other groups arrived and we all slept squeezed in the yurt. From all nights ourdoor this one was the clearest and most amazing so far. The milky way and billions of stars were visible overhead. It was one of these meteor shower nights and in almost every photo I took I could detect the white lines of meteorites. We spent a lot of time outside taking photos until the freezing night air sent us back to the warm and stuffy yurt.
The next day we rode up to a small alpine lake encircled with grey cliffs and craggy glaciers and with a tiny sandy beach. The bog by the lake was a profusion of colourful flowers.
After dutifully photographing all the flowers for my friend Avi Shmida we returned to camp and started our way down. On the way we tried with no success to salvage the white horse. Our guide thus sent us down with some of his friends. As these were less patient they made us gallop our horses, which was a jumpy experience.
We arrived back in Kochkor and got our third homestay, which was the nicest of the lot. We had delicious dinner with the family in a yurt on their patio. An Irish girl and a French boy stayed there as well and as they spoke Russian it was at last possible to converse.
The second part of our trip will be described soon in a further blog.
Practical notes and equipment
All the information you will ever need can be found in the wonderful Bradt guidebook to Kyrgyzstan by Laurence Mitchell now in its third edition which I warmly recommend buying if you plan a trip (thebookdepository.com does not charge postage). Several decent topo maps of Kyrgyzstan are available but they don’t cover every part. Scans can be obtained by mailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
As far as equipment is concerned – Kyrgyzstan can be very hot in low areas and during the day but I would be much more concerned of the freezing nights and days high up (and almost everything is high up here). We used a great Slater UL2+ tent (Big Agnes) which kept us warm and dry even in prety rough weather. We used Blue Kazoo down sleeping bags (North Face), pads and Arcteryx thermal under wear. We cooked on the ever reliable MSR dragonfly and carried our gear in an Arcteryx Altra 75 (Eran) and an Osprey 65 AG (Michael). Both of us were very happy with our packs.
All pictures (except the top one which was photographed by Eran) were photographed by me on a Canon 6D full frame DSLR fitted with a 24-105 F4L lens. While the extra reach of my70-200 and extra wide of my 17-40 would have been great I didn’t want to carry them. I did however take a tripod which was handy for the amazing night skies. For these I took also a remote control.