When I first decided on my mission to go trekking in Kyrgyzstan alongside bicycle touring, I knew I would be venturing across a terrain that is largely untamed.
It is a region that’s rich in greenery, spectacular mountains and vast terrains of empty lands mostly passed in silence. Travelling to Kyrgyzstan - along with other stans - remains shrouded in mystery to a lot of people in the West and even other parts of Asia.
Over here, thoughts of materialism and our consumerist culture comes to an end. Few primitive belongings and the nostalgia of herders and nomadic people once travelling through these routes are bound to conjure up images of their expeditions as you trek in the shadow of the Tien Shan mountains.
Climate change is evident here even as you see them from afar and are not able to get a sense of their loss. It is known that glaciers in the Tian Shan Mountains have been rapidly shrinking and have lost 27%, or 5.4 billion tons annually, of its ice mass since 1961 compared to an average of 7% worldwide. It feels insurmountable to make sense of this as we get closer to wild places, but once you catch your breath you realise by 2050 half of the remaining glaciers will have melted. There is a sense of dread and hopelessness once you realise this and as you revel in the beauty of these remote landscapes.
Having spent a month in Kyrgyzstan, here are some of the stunning places where you get to trek independently or go over on a multi-day trek. From beginners to absolute mountaineers, trekking in Kyrgyzstan gives you plenty of moments and solitude to just be with yourself and your thoughts.
Treks near Bishkek
There’s absolutely no way to describe the beauty and stunning places of Kyrgyzstan and Kol-Tor lake steals your heart in a moment. The alpine blue lake and stunning mountain streams with wild grazing horses is quintessentially what describes the wildness of Kyrgyzstan.
Just 90km out of Bishkek (approximately 1.5 hours) to Kegety Gorge, lies a 7.5km trekking trail with an elevation of 900m that takes you to part of the Kygyz Ala too Mountain range, considered one of Kyrgyzstan most beautiful places with green meadows, and coniferous trees whistling in the wind.
The trail leads up a beautiful gorge with a small creek flowing down the middle and after walking several kilometres, you will have to cross the river and continue on the left side of the gorge. It is a steady uphill as you cross mountains after mountains, and then it opens up to a flat plateau with a small wooded area. We decided to camp here because we didn’t want to miss out on views like this and it was pretty tough to secure accommodations around the area unless you book it beforehand with the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan.
Camping alongside the turquoise lake with hardly anyone and seeing the horses wallop like mystical creatures are some of the best moments that stand still in my mind.
To get to Kegety Gorge on public transport, take a minibus from the East Bus Station towards the village of Kegety (50 som, about 2 hours). Just before you reach a junction into Kegeti, get out of the minibus and head down South. You can hitch a ride to the last 10km of the road like what we did or join the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan on a day hike for 400 som per person.
Ala Archa National Park, Ak-Sai waterfall (Day Trek) or Mount Uchitel (2 to 3 Days)
It is amazing how close the country’s national park is from the city. Just 40km away from Bishkek, the Ala Archa National Park is the perfect gateway to get in touch with Kyrgyzstan hiking trails.
The park covers about 200 square kilometers, and its altitude ranges from about 1,500 meters at the entrance to a maximum of 4,895 meters at Peak Semenova Tian-Shanski, the highest peak in the Kyrgyz Ala-tau range of the Tian Shan.
When I went in August, I visited the Ak-Sai waterfall which is a 6.4km one way trek that takes about 4-5 hours. The trail was marked and it was possible to go independently. The trail is an uphill slog at the beginning but slowly opens up a to a valley of beautiful wildflowers and nimble marmots. After the waterfall, it is a continuous hike up to Racek Hut where you will be able to see the impressive Ak-Sai glacier at an elevation of 3,300 metres. For confident hikers, you can try hiking up to Mount Uchitel at 4,527m high after camping the night at Racek hut.
Uchitel literal translation means “Teacher” in Russian. There was a running joke among the stream of mountaineers making their way to this watershed where they said that this mountain will truly teach you a lesson. Situated on the watershed of the Ala-Archa’s ridge in the Kyrgyz range, the trek beckons amazing views of the Kyrgyz ridge and on the Chui valley as well as the city of Bishkek.
The easiest way to get to Ala-Archa national park is to take mashrutka 265 (minibus) at the bus stop near the entrance of Osh Bazaar - you can look it up on Maps.Me. The minibus will take you to Kash-Kasuu, the closest village near Ala Archa and from there you can hitchhike to the main entrance.
Treks in Naryn & Kochkor
Kyzart to Song Kul
A land of nomads is not complete without a land of horsemen. The most famous and known lake in Kyrgyzstan is Song Kul lake situated at an altitude of 3,061m. It is known that Kyrgyz people know how to ride a horse before they learned to walk. It is no surprise to see them guarding their horses and commanding the horses to listen to them with occassional “choo, choo, choo.”
Many people choose to go horse riding or a mix of trekking during this trail as some sections may be steep in nature. Situated at 3,061 meters high, Song Kul is the second largest lake in Kyrgyzstan and one of the main touristic attractions in the country.
If you start from the small village of Kyzart, reaching the lake on foot takes about two to three days depending on how fast you walk. Alternatively, you could arrange for a tour with Apple Hostel in Kyrgyzstan or the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan where it is relatively cheap and they can take of your logistics.
There is no shortage of beauty in Kyrgyzstan, Naryn region. It is an alternative to the busy Song Kul lake and over here you’ll find nomadic herders offering you kumis (mare’s milk) or kurut (died yoghurt balls) in this two-day trek to Kol-Ukok lake.
Kol-Ukok Lake is nestled between two steep slopes in the Terskei Ala-Too Mountains which ultimately means “lake in a chest” due to the towering peaks that surround this lake. Staying in the yurts and gorging on some warm soup are some of the highlights of visiting this gem. It is possible to get your transportation arranged in Kochkor at their Tourist Office or CBT-Kochkor.
I didn’t get the opportunity to trek to Kel-Suu lake simply because it was far about 150km from Naryn and required getting a permit. However, I met travellers who mentioned how they loved this trek due to the interesting geological transformation where the lake was formed thousands of years ago due to a destruction of the mountain massive and how it was also close to the border with China.
It is one of the best places to go stargazing and stay at Jyrgal’s Yurt Camp for a simple Shepherd meal and comfortable beds facing the lake. Sometimes there are boats that allow you to take a short trip wedged between these rocky surfaces that may hopefully take you next to the Chinese border. It is almost 10 miles of a narrow lake enclaved between high granite walls.
Treks in Karakol
Ala-Kul Trek and Altyn Arashan
It is almost a missed opportunity if you come to Kyrgyzstan and not do a hike to the Ala-kul lake. However, the ever-changing conditions in the mountain may be a hit and miss for some people. For me, I waited for days for clear weather to go on this 2-day hike across alpine meadows, glaciers, loose gravel and to witness the high-altitude lake with my own eyes.
Unfortunately, luck was not on my side. I came across people who had to trek in 20cm of snow when the weather was not favourable. And I have met people who raved about the intensity of the hike despite doing the Annapurna Circuit. They claimed the incline was not as gradual and it can be harsh but you’ll come across stunning open views of the valley, experience some kind of vertigo and be enthralled by the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. The blissful end to the hike is the hot springs at Altyn Arashan that melts away all your soreness.
The Keskenkija Loop in Jyrgalan Valley
There were hordes of people making their way to Jyrgalan Valley after spending a couple of days in Karakol. Just 60km from the town, you’ll find plenty of transport options towards Jyrgalan Valley, a once Soviet mining village. Interestingly, I remember watching a documentary of how this valley has regain its lost splendour and is on the verge of opening up itself to tourism and adventure activities such as mountain biking, skiing and so on. Outside Online had a very interesting short film on this over here.
Thanks to the guys at Nomadsaurus and Goats On The Road, they have carved out a unique path across Jyrgalan Valley that will take you across some exquisite terrain, mythical mountains and swathes of green meadows in four days. It is obscenely beautiful and takes you to remote stretches (almost every place is remote and untouched in Kyrgyzstan) but this is one of those unidentified treks that is slowly gaining interest among intrepid hikers.
Treks in Osh and Alay Mountains
Tulpar Kol to Lenin Peak Base Camp (and Traveller’s Pass)
On the edge of the Pamirs comes the notorious mountains where mountaineers throng each year to make their ascent to supposedly one of the easiest Central Asia 7,000-meter peaks. But if you’re not a hiker and would prefer to have a walk in the park and still be met with stunning views of the Pamir ranges, a trek to Tulpar Kol lake and Lenin Peak base camp in two to three days is possible.
From Sary Mogol, it is a long walk exposed under the harsh sun to Tulpar-Kol Lake. It is possible to hitchhike or even get your driver to take you directly to Tulpar Kol. The largest of a string of 42 small lakes, Tulpar Köl stretches for nearly a kilometre in between the final small foothills and the first major ridge of the Trans-Alay range.
The quiet lake shore faces the CBT yurt which is a common stop to stay in a yurt or if you have your own tent, pitch one in their front yard. Lounging near the quiet lake shore while looking at the lakes in the distance and the towering peaks sprouting from all directions makes you feel insignificant among Earth’s glorious pinnacles.
Not far from there you’ll see Lenin Peak soaring far above. The next day you can make your way in 2 hours towards the Base Camp and enjoy a comforting view of the valley and Lenin Peak from the spacious tents as well as meet other mountaineers who regale their stories of summiting the peak. For a lot of people, the Advanced Base Camp is where the challenge begins and if you’re not up for it you could make it to Traveller’s Pass at 4,130m.
Koshkol Lakes Trek
After visiting the CBT office in Sary Mogol, it is evident that there are plenty of treks in the Alay mountains that remain boundless in beauty and silence. Lakes, glaciers, mountains running in different shades with snow, ash and gray, your eyes will blaze with conviction that Kyrgyzstan has tons of undiscovered sides.
One of them is the Koshkol Lakes trek that can be done in a day with 6-7 hours of moderate to strenuous hiking. The trek takes you through a series of turquoise alpine lakes, glaciers, gorges and the highest point of 4,195 meters. Along the way you’ll pass a yak-filled jailoo (high pasture), and enjoy views of Peak Lenin and the Pamir Mountains in the distance.
Treks in Jalal-abad
Every traveller and Kyrgyz person that I had met had raved about Sary Chelek stating that its the utmost beautiful and serene trek. Afterall it is a bioreserve that is known for 1.000 different plants and rare mammals such as bear and lynx.
It was known that Sary Chelek Lake appeared around 10,000 years ago as a result of a landslide. In 1959, the site was closed and controlled for research, and to protect the fauna and flora. It only recently became accessible to the public. A
According to Kyrgyzstan Travel, Sary Chelek is also known as “the yellow bucket” that was derived from a bee keeper. One day, a bucket of his honey fell into the lake, which gave it a golden color. According to another story, the name comes from the surrounding forest and trees, which take a beautiful yellow and orange tone in the fall. A trek to these gorgeous lakes often takes about a 5 to 6 days and it is worth considering joining the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan as they tend to keep the cost relatively low and make it a worthwhile adventure.
Resources & Trekking Organisations in Kyrgyzstan
A lot of people I met in Kyrgyzstan did their treks independently (including me) but if given the choice, there are trekking organizations in Kyrgyzstan worth considering that’ll make logistics easier for example treks to Kel-Suu, Sary Chelek or to Song Kul.
However, bear in mind that in most places they would expect you to bring your tent or rent one out which you could do at the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan, but if you prefer to stay in yurts, just bring a sleeping bag with you.
The Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan: Quite possibly the most comprehensive and easiest place to start with for all your trekking options. This organisation is responsible for promoting and developing the tourism and hiking trails around Kyrgyzstan. You can click on their ‘tours for a month’ to have a look at their schedule so you can plan accordingly. For renting their camping equipment, have a look at the list here.
CBT Kyrgyzstan: Known for community-based tourism in Kyrgyzstan, they’re a crucial set-up spread across the entire country. If you need independant tour guides to assist you with a trip, a great start would be with CBT Kyrgyzstan. Though in some places like in Bokonbayevo, they’re not great for their reputation and can be dishonest with the prices but across other places such as Sary Mogul, Osh, Karakol and Kochkor - they have been very helpful.
IndyGuide: Known as the largest community and marketplace for tours in the Silk Road region that also promote locals and their livelihoods. If you’re short on time, perhaps you can find the best deals over here.
Caravanistan Forum: I know a couple of people who organised their road trips and hikes via the Caravanistan forums. It is the easiest to place to connect and find people who would be interested in joining you to split the costs especially if you’re a solo traveller or a couple. Even if you need random questions answered about the terrain or weather, users are known to go above and beyond to help.
Best Time To Trek In Kyrgyzstan
The best time to go hiking or trekking in Kyrgyzstan is in Summer between June and August where yurt stays are widely available and hiking in the mountains are bearable to a certain degree. However, the weather constantly changes in the mountains and you can be stuck in a blizzard with 20cm of snow to boundless sunshine the next day.
While trekking in the mountains you’ll get an average temperature of 8 to 25 degrees and at night the mercury drops all the way to 0 degrees. If you’re Asian like me and is deeply sensitive to the cold, it is probably advisable to pack in layers from fleeces to down jackets. If you’re camping, it would be good to bring a sleeping mat - don’t make that mistake of bringing a flimsy one like I did.
Should You Trek Independently in Kyrgyzstan or Go With a Tour / Group?
The places in Kyrgyzstan are considered remote and you won’t find a lot of people on your trek but you’ll find people in hostels and guest houses going on similar treks with you. Since I travelled alone, I was never truly alone - I joined other people I met in the hostels and even met some when I took the local bus and was figuring out my way.
It is always better to have some company if you’re going for multiple days. Do not go alone if you’re an inexperienced hiker - the weather in the mountains are constantly changing and unless there are no known clear pathways or no yurts along the way, it would be advisable to join others in a group. There were even news where an Israeli girl went missing in Sary Chelek and was found dead. Not to be an alarmist, but unfortunate events do happen and it is always better to be surefooted and be aware of the trails in the region before arriving at a decision.
Apart from that, a trek in this part of the world is unique and it is that kind of place where the grass is verdant, the air is fresh and wholesome and the remote beauty reminds you of a place like the Canadian wilderness but somehow it still remains under the radar and that’s how it should probably be. A well-kept secret among the trekking community.
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