Stunning scenery, turquoise lakes, white capped mountains and clear starry nights. Our first week in Kyrgyzstan we’ve really been spoiled on an almost daily basis by everything beautiful mother nature has to offer. We can honestly say that the mountain scenery here has blown us completely away. Some very cold nights, getting thoroughly shaken and some basic accommodation were part of the deal.
Crossing the China-Kyrgyzstan border
We entered Kyrgyzstan from China crossing the border at the 3.752 meter high Torugart Pass. Officially foreigners are not allowed to take the only public transport option on this route and have to hire private transport which is ridiculously expensive (US$ 300). Because it would save us several days of traveling to get to this isolated part of the country and the scenery was supposed to be amazing we decided on going ahead with this.
A travel agent in the Kyrgyz city on Naryn we approached for some off the beaten path first days arranged everything for us. After being picked up by the Chinese partner in Kashgar the drive across the border was mostly on empty roads and through many checkpoints, the first one being before we got to Chinese customs, where we had to get out of the car and show our passports.
We were first in line at Chinese customs when they opened at 9 AM (Xinjiang time), but got delayed because our car was intensely scrutinized. Our driver and guide were in a constant hurry because the actual border normally closed at 11.30 for a very lengthy lunch break that could take up to 2,5 hours. After another checkpoint on the 100 km no man’s land drive between Chinese customs and the actual border (check number 4) we arrived just 10 minutes too late. Ugh.
We prepared for a long wait, but somehow our guide managed to convince the guards to let us through after an hour. A few kilometers down the road he could finally hand us over to our Kyrgyz driver and car which would take us to Kyrgyz immigration. Here our passports were checked twice. After a final passport check (the seventh) a half hour into Kyrgyzstan we were finally done with all the formalities. Yay.
Tash Rabat caravanserai
Our first destination in Kyrgyzstan was the remote small stone caravanserai at Tash Rabat (3.000 meters altitude). It’s not clear how old this caravanserai is but historians think that it must have been a strategically important stopover on the Silk Road. It’s very scenically located in the At-Bashy mountain range and despite its remoteness we were surprised at how many other travelers we saw here (still just a few dozen).
We stayed at one of the several yurt camps near the caravanserai, the only way of spending the night here. I had a splitting headache in the evening, but after a few Ibuprofen I slept like a baby despite the makeshift bed and drafty yurt (the heater was put on after dinner, but it died down during the night, causing us to strip down first and having to put on all our clothes again later when it got freezing cold in the yurt).
Picturesque Kol-Suu lake
A five hour drive across dirt roads got us to Kol-Suu lake, a high mountain lake at 3.520 meters altitude in the At-Bashi range near the Chinese border. To get here a special permit was needed. We stayed in a basic yurt camp this time at 3.200 meters. When we arrived in the early afternoon it started to rain and it got miserably cold, so going up to the lake was out of the question that day.
We bundled up in our clothes and lay in bed for a few hours just to keep warm. When the sun came out again at the end of the day we could see that a light dusting of snow had fallen on the higher peaks.
The next morning however was gloriously sunny (but cold) and we made our way by horse up to the lake. It was the second time in our lives we ever sat on a horse, the first time being about fifteen years ago in Guatemala. Eugénie’s horse was a bit reluctant to go on a walk and had to be pulled by the guide all the time but I got to ‘drive’ my horse by myself after a while. Although this wasn’t going too bad I’m not really cut out to be a horseman.
We only sat in the saddle for three hours and still I managed to get some serious chafing wounds on my butt (just like in Guatemala….). But it was totally worth it! This must be one of the most picturesque lakes we have ever seen. And no other tourist in sight!
Lake Issyk-Kul area
After driving five hours back and spending the night at a comfortable guest house in Naryn, we moved over to the Lake Issyk-Kul area. Located at 1.600 meters altitude, 170 kilometers long and 70 kilometers wide, it’s the second largest alpine lake in the world after Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru. Although mesmerizingly blue, the lake itself is not that exciting (it’s just a big expanse of water), but there are many beautiful sights around the lake.
Skazka Valley rocks
Like Skazka Valley (aka Fairytale Canyon), a crossover between Bryce Canyon (Utah, USA) and Zhangye-Danxia Geopark (China), with colorful rock formations in red, orange and yellow. It was great fun walking around here without the restrictions at the Zhangye-Danxia Geopark. We could go everywhere we wanted, though some of the trails were very steep and hard to negotiate.
We spent the night in the small typical Kyrgyz village of Tamga, two kilometers from the lake and a 1,5 hour minivan ride from Karakol. Here we visited the local cemetery, which was huge for a small town the size of Tamga. The biggest curiosity here were the yurt-shaped grave-frames and mounds of earth that marked each grave instead of a slab of stone.
The last few days we stayed in Karakol, a pleasant small city just east of lake Issyk-Kul that has been developing into some kind of a tourist hub in recent years. . We arrived at a festive day, Kurban Bayrami, the Feast of Sacrifice, the second most important Muslim religious holiday. The table at Askar Guesthouse where we’ll staying for five nights was full of food for neighbors paying each other a visit. We were invited to join, one of those pleasant travel surprises.
The city has some minor sights like the pretty late nineteenth century Holy Trinity Cathedral, the strange architecture of the Dungan Mosque and the animal market on Sunday (interesting but much less overwhelming than the one at Kashgar we visited last week).
Jeti-öghüz and Kök-Jaiyk
Karakol is also a good base for several one day or multiday hikes in the surrounding mountains and valleys. We first took a taxi to Jeti-Öghüz, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most photographed natural features. Jeti-Öghüz translates as Seven Bulls. The wind has eroded the red monolith into a shape resembling a row of bulls backs they say (we lack the imagination I guess because didn’t see this).
From here we hiked into one of the many beautiful Kyrgyzstan valleys, Kök-Jaiyk or the Valley of Flowers, named so because of the thousands of red poppies that bloom here in spring. But even without the poppies the now mostly green valley was very picturesque. The only drawback on a beautiful Sunday was that many locals drive their car up the dusty, bumpy road for a picnic so we had to eat a lot of dust walking up and down to the valley. It’s all in the game. To be continued.
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