From Kashgar city in China’s western Xinjiang province it is a long but scenic road to the China—Kyrgyzstan border at the Torugart Pass at 3,752 m (12,310 ft) in the Tian Shan mountain range. A large part of the road snakes through a valley rimmed by impressive mountains on both sides and with a torrent of water cascading through a shallow gorge. While China border crossings are typically tough, this one is particularly so. First of all, tourists need to arrange government sanctioned private transport from Kashgar, which costs half a fortune compared with public transport for the locals. The service includes the mandatory driver and guide to handle the permits and the border crossing formalities.
After several checkpoints, including a drive through a “no man’s land” of several kilometres, you will eventually arrive at the point where your Chinese guide and vehicle will officially hand you over (along with your border crossing documents) to your Kyrgyz driver. No private cars are allowed to cross the border so you have to walk from the Chinese vehicle to the Kyrgyz vehicle. Once you are in Kyrgyzstan, it will be smooth sailing to a small rusty gate which the Kyrgyz border official will open with a friendly “Welcome to Kyrgyzstan” smile.
Drop in at the nearby lonely building to get your passport stamped by the Kyrgyz immigration official, who most likely will ask you to take a picture of him behind his desk as he rarely sees any tourists coming through his gate. Stamped passport in hand, hit the road to explore this lovely land of the Kyrgyz people.
En route to the first sizeable town of Naryn where you can stay over for the first night, take a short detour north of the main road to visit Tash Rabat, a well-preserved 15th century stone caravanserai at an altitude of 3,200 m (10,500 ft). The location is stunning and the caravanserai has an interesting past. Some historians claim that Tash Rabat originally served as a Nestorian or Buddhist monastery in the tenth century. In the times of the Great Silk Road, Tash Rabat served as a caravanserai for travelling merchants and their camels. It has also been used for centuries as shelters for refugees and hermits and as a tranquil place for studying religion.
While it has a big domed central hall surrounded by several smaller domes with underground transitions and various secret exits and prison cells, it lacks a large courtyard which is so typical of caravanserais in Central Asia. Ask the caretaker at the nearby yurt camp to open the steel gates so you can venture inside. Bring your flashlight along. It sure is an interesting interior.
Stay a night or two in one of the nearby yurts and rent a horse to ride to Lake Chatyr-Kul directly to the south. The lake and a 2 km (1.24 mi) buffer zone is part of the Karatal-Japyryk State Nature Reserve established in 1994 with the purpose of conserving the fauna and flora of the Central Tien-Shan mountain region. From October to the end of April the lake surface freezes with the ice becoming up to 1.5 m (5 ft) thick.
Town of Narin
Further north on the main road from the border the are the best choice in this part of the world. Families within this network know the importance of hosting the few tourists who make it out here and you will most likely be treated to a nicely decorated bedroom, sumptuous meals, and the warm hospitality for which the Kyrgyz people are known. As you lie in bed thinking of your first few hours in Kyrgyzstan, you will realise how much better is it here than back in China!
You came to Kyrgyzstan for many reasons. One of which, undoubtedly, is to spend a night in a yurt on a Get into your arranged car with a driver, and head north of Naryn to Song-Kul Lake.
Song-Kul Lake is an alpine lake at 3,015 m (9,900 ft) in northern Naryn province. The lake’s maximum length is 29 km (18 mi), its breadth about 18 km (11 mi), and extreme depth is 13 m (43 ft). Being at this altitude means the water is crispy cold — solid frozen in winter and crispy cool in summer. Take this into account, as you may need to come for a daily dip as there are no washing facilities where you will be staying. Your yurt, arranged through the CBT home stay network, will be waiting for you. A yurt is a seasonal portable dwelling structure with a wooden circular frame carrying a felt cover, which has traditionally been used by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia for ages.
Spend a few nights here while enjoying the traditional food prepared by the local yurt family, do some horseback riding, swim in the lake, go hiking in the nearby mountains, and just enjoy life melt away only by late May. The lake is quite remote so the nights will be very dark, which will reveal the most incredible night skies you have ever seen. Bring along your tripod and large battery pod to photograph the streaking star trails.
If you find the waters of Song-Kul Lake too cold to your taste, then head out in a western direction via the small town of Kochkor to the shores of Issyk-Kul Lake. This alpine lake is located at an altitude of 1,607 m (5,272 ft) near the northern Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan. Issyk-Kul is an endorheic basin lake (a closed drainage basin that retains water and allows no outflow to other external bodies), and is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume.
In fact, it is the second largest mountain lake in the world after Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It is also the second largest saline lake by volume, after the Caspian Sea. The lake has a length of 182 km (113 mi), a width of up to 60 km (37 mi), and it reaches a depth of 668 m (2,192 ft).
Standing on the south shore of the lake you won’t be able to see the north shore! In 2007, archaeologists discovered some remains of a 2,500 year-old settlement at the bottom of the lake. Signs of earlier settlements have also been discovered in shallow waters, which led archaeologists to believe that in medieval times the lake’s surface was about 9 m (30 ft) lower. Stay at one of the many small villages on either the south or north shores, though a highly recommended area is where the yurts set up in the summer near the small south shore village of Bökönbaev.
Perched right along the shores of the lake, the yurts are well removed from any noise in town. Relax in the cool waters and do some hiking in the nearby hills. In autumn the area along the shore is bathed in the glowing orange colours of the dwarf shrub ephedra equisetina when covered with berries. The larger shrubs called hippophae rhamnoides (common sea-buckthorn) add a further yellow-orange glow to the scenery. Lots of cherry-plum trees also flourish along the shores.
Now that you have done the trip which will take you through forested mountain ranges, snow-capped peaks, steep passes, the hot springs of the Altyn-Arashan valley, and the incredible Ala-Kul glacial lake located high in the Teskey Ala-Too Range of the Tian Shan mountains at the altitude of 3,500 m (11,483 ft) above sea level.
The alpine meadows are beautiful with the profusion of flowers and lush grass. Look out for a few waterfalls and don’t miss the Golden Eagles among several bird species that live in the area. While the trekking paths are generally in good condition, don’t attempt to do the trekking without a knowledgeable local guide. Over the rocks and gravel the path easily disappears and you may get lost!
On a five day trip you will need to hike about five to seven hours a day with a daily altitude gain of about 600 meters. Don’t exceed this daily gain as you may run out of oxygen! While trekkers worth their stripes should carry their own belongings, it would be a great relief for yourself to hire a local porter. Go ahead and treat yourself by hiring your own porter and in the process ploughing much needed money into the local economy. Upon completion of this strenuous trekking, relax for a day or two at one of the basic hot springs in the Altyn-Arashan valley, before heading back to Karakol town where you will appreciate the comforts of a nice soft bed, warm meals, and a hot shower.
Jeti-Ögüz & more jailoos
Just 25 km from town in a southwestern direction is a lush valley with some striking red sandstone rock formations known as the “seven bulls of Jeti-Ögüz.” This unique geological formation of sheer cliffs is composed of tertiary (66 million to 2.6 million years ago) red conglomerates – a rock consisting of individual fragments within a fine-grained matrix that have become cemented together.
The rock formations here resemble seven bulls and are underscored by a legend about how the rocks were formed. And so the legend goes… “A Kyrgyz Khan stole the wife of another Khan, who then sought advice from a ‘wise man’ about how he could take his revenge. The wise man advised the Khan that he should kill his wife and give the body to his rival – ‘Let him own a dead wife, not a living one.’ The Khan then arranged a feast where he sat next to his stolen wife. As nine bulls were being slaughtered as part of a ritual, he took out his knife and stabbed her in the chest. From her heart gushed blood which carried away the bulls down the valley where they came to a rest and became the cliffs…”
Nearby across the road is another interesting rock formation which resembles a “broken heart.” Legend has it that it resembles the heart of a beautiful woman who died of a broken heart after two suitors killed each other fighting over her love. Further up the valley along the Jeti-Ögüz river are a few jailoos with yurts and horses in the summer. Keep walking until you find your dream location and then just drop in at a cluster of yurts and ask if one is available for the night. Stay for a night or more, go horseback riding or just hiking around the beautiful mountains.
In Karakol market which is a good place to see remnants of the traditional nomadic rural life of Kyrgyzstan.
Reached via the lovely and peaceful capital city of Bishkek to the north, or the town of Osh to the south, the mountain village of Arslanbob is situated in the shadows of the snow-capped Chatkal mountains. close to the current border with Uzbekistan, the 1,600 residents are largely Uzbeks as many fled riots in Uzbekistan over the years at times when borders were more porous and less regulated. The few visitors to the village have a wide selection of about fifteen home stays which can all be booked online via the CBT home stay network website.
Stay at least a week and enjoy the local cuisine, friendly people, great mountain hiking, waterfalls, peaceful walnut forests, and an abundance of wild growing fruits in season. In the centre of the village, don’t miss the 16th century explorer.
While spring and fall are arguably the best times to visit this area, the local CBT tourist office is all geared up to take winter visitors on horse-drawn sleigh rides, downhill and cross country skiing, snow camping and horseback rides during the snowy months of December to February. While still in its infancy stage, Arslanbob has the potential to become an idyllic winter destination.
A few more photos of KYRGYZSTAN
Further Reading: Globerovers Kyrgyzstan blog post