Green stretches of forests, emerald blue lake and the cool mountain stream met with the occasional shepherd tending to his cattle and miles and miles of empty trails filled with wild grazing horses while trekking in Kol Tor lake. This is why Kyrgyzstan, a country whose endless beauty begs a slow study.
Not too far away from the sleepy town of Bishkek, you’ll find a wild path folded into the crest of Kyrgyzstan’s majestic mountains. It kind of felt like we had stumbled into a fantasy land where all our worries and life problems seem to end at the edge of this neon turquoise lake.
After a series of changed plans and a fortunate stroke of serendipity, I met a Czech guy who was eager to join in on my adventures of scrambling up loose gravel and green valleys to spend the night camping under a blanket of stars next to the wonderful Kol-Tor Lake.
The lake is located in a fascinating area (a gorge) in the Kungei Ala-Too range at an altitude of 2,725 metres above sea level. Famous for its unusually blue turquoise colour, we were convinced that this lake looked too artificial for it to be real. How is it that it is this blue?
It turns out that this turquoise shimmer is indeed real. As the glacial waters melt away along with soil, loose sediments and crystal-like rocks, they are merged to transform the lake and turns it into sparkles in a cool turquoise green-blue once the sun hits the lake.
The Start of The Hitchhiking Tales
As with all independent hikes in Kyrgyzstan, hitchhiking seems to be the norm to get from one destination to another. It is almost impossible to ignore the friendly faces, get lost in translation and be amazed by the army of kids that these local villages seem to possess.
We took the marshutka from the East Bus Station towards the village of Kegety for a 2 hour drive across a distance of 90km costing us 50 som each. Before a water crossing into Kegeti, we got out of the minibus and waited for about 10 minutes before a Lada car pulled over and dropped us at the village town. We ended up walking for 1 hour before reaching a mountain hut owned by the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan.
It was incredibly hot but we were determined to spend the night under a blanket of stars at the Kol-Tor Lake.
Trekking Alongside Needle-Like Coniferous Forests
We were meant to be trekking approximately 7.5km about 3 to 4 hours towards Kol Tor Lake, ascending an elevation of 900 metres. It was wonderful to cross streams, wonder if we were heading in the right direction and to stop to take in the still breeze floating between earth and nature’s best reserves.
The wind howls like ghosts reminding us of this acutely silent valley where it was just us and the swaying trees in the afternoon light. After crossing endless streams, we befriended a local Kyrgyz boy based in France who was bringing along his classmates, two french teenage girls who had no clue what Kyrgyzstan had to offer until they were invited over.
They thought these landscapes were unbelievable; the kind that you would see in a magazine catalog flipping through glossy images of lush green meadows and coniferous forest only to be awarded to Western destinations as opposed to offbeat Asian destinations like Kyrgyzstan.
Reaching Kol-Tor Lake
We keep at it. It became a never-ending series of uphill ascends that we wonder if we were almost there only to emerge at a false peak with no sight of the glacial lake.
We grew to crave the fleeting feeling of satisfaction from our efforts. Progress is definitely slow, not quite ice-age slow, but nearly. We came across people on horses trekking through these wondrous green valleys and their guide saying “Chu, chu, chu” to instruct them to follow his lead.
The hike from the valley floor is steep and switchbacked, so we had no problem stopping to take in the immaculate view of the vast forests filled with barberry and mountain ash. As we edged closer to another ridge, we could see a hint of the distant turquoise waters below.
We chased that glint of light and looked all around us; there were wild horses, goats and the the snow-capped peaks of the Tien Shan mountains waving to us through this beacon of light. I squint against the bright Kyrgyzstan sunshine.
We sat down to take a rest and we realised we have no food to last us through the night except for a bunch of snickers bars. Clearly, we were too excited by the prospect of the hike that we forgot all about our meals. We shared our adult misery with these two teenaged girls and they willingly parted ways with their extra nut bars. I wondered how lucky they were to trek at the young age of 16 and see beauty like this.
At 16, the idea of trekking was unheard of during my time — it was all about securing one’s future and ensuring I had a job, a college education and enough money to get married and settled down. The absolute Asian parent’s dream and clearly devoid of a journey of introspection.
Turning a Day Hike Into an Overnighter
We tottered around and saw another Swiss couple camping the night close to the lake’s edge. As we set up our tent and unwrapped our sleeping bags, we knew it would be a cold night since we were right next to the lake.
As night time came under shimmering stars, the cold penetrated my fleece and jolted me into alertness. I had no proper sleeping mat and I was freezing to my bones as I felt every tiny bump of the valley floor. After an hour of contemplation, I wanted to step out and capture the night sky but the cold wind froze me over. I wondered those who climbed often and get to experience mountain climbing and the cool crisp air, are they really awake in this bitter cold?
The Way Back
I reveled in the opportunity to wake up and see scores of native birds drinking the lake water, horses galloping in the morning light and see nature abound in all corners. We brushed our teeth, had our last remaining nut bar and took one last look at this place as we packed our stuff. It was time to head back — we descended the same way until we came to an open camp site and followed the trail on the left towards the waterfall via a narrow ledge filled with forest cover.
We stopped, photographed, look back and grinned each time we made a turn. It was wonderful to camp in nature and take a silent walk somewhere that not many people have heard of. As we reached the starting point of our hike, we asked the TUK-mountain hut for some water and since they were limited in supplies, few Kyrgyz drivers while waiting for their clients offered us beer and questioned us on our roots and origins.
It was the end of the walk and time to head back but this time it was truly hard to get any form of transport, we walked for one hour until we reached the village and hitchhiked to the bus stop.
How To Get To Kol-Tor Lake?
To get to Kol-Tor Lake independently and on public transport, take the marshutka (mini bus) from the East Bus Station towards the village of Kegety for 50 som each. Ask the driver to stop at the crossing before the river - tell him you would like to go to Kol-Tor. Hitchhike the last section from the road towards the village or until the TUK mountain hut.
To get to Kol-Tor Lake with a tour, contact the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan as they often organise weekend tours during the summer months for approx 450 som per person.
If camping is not your thing, you can stay in Guest House Kegety but do contact the TUK to make a reservation as it is almost impossible to walk in and book.
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