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Jailoos and snow-capped mountains of Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s best kept secrets and a grossly underrated travel destination!

It is a pleasant and safe country with, arguably, the most hospitable people in the world. Its a great destination for nature lovers as it offers snow-capped mountains, raging rivers, glacial lakes, green jailoos with yurts and horses, and of course quaint villages with cozy guesthouses that serve tasty local cuisine - all available at very reasonable prices.

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HIGHLIGHTS of KYRGYZSTAN

Tash-Rabat Caravanserai
Visit the well-preserved 15th century stone caravanserai at an altitude of 3,200 m (10,500 ft) located in a stunning arena of mountains and green pastures.

Song-kul Lake
Spend a few nights in a yurt on a jailoo alongside a crystal clear lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Do hiking and horseback riding during the day.

Yssyk-kul Lake
Located at an altitude of 1,607 m (5,272 ft) in the northern Tian Shan Mountains of eastern Kyrgyzstan, Yssyk-kul, with its crystal clear waters, is the tenth largest lake in the world by volume.

Hiking in the Karakol Mountains
Spend a few days hiking through forested mountain ranges and steep passes, along snow-capped ridges to the incredible Ala-Kul glacial lake at 3,500 m (11,500 ft) above sea level, and then relax at the hot springs in the Altyn-Arashan valley.

Jeti-Ögüz
Stare at the incredible red sandstone rock formations known as the “Seven Bulls of Jeti-Ögüz” as well as the nearby “Broken-heart” rocks, both of which have interesting folklore explaining their existence.

Alslanbob
This small mountain village, surrounded by the world’s second largest walnut grove, is known for the great hospitality of the Uzbek and Kyrgyz people.
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TASH RABAT CARAVANSERAI
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.  

THE TOWN OF NARYN

Further north on the main road from the border the cozy town of Naryn makes a good stopover for a night or two. A homestay with a local family should be pre-arranged online via the CBT home stay network which extends over much of Kyrgyzstan. Homestays 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!


 
SONG-KUL LAKE
You came to Kyrgyzstan for many reasons. One of which, undoubtedly, is to spend a night in a yurt on a jailoo alongside a crystal clear lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Jailoos are the pastures where many Kyrgyz families spend their summers while grazing their livestock and living much as their nomadic forefathers did many years ago.


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 on a jailoo like a typical Kyrgyz. At this high altitude even summer nights are cool. In spring and fall it gets really crispy cool here while in winter, its a wonderland of snow with the lake surface frozen at more than 1 m (3 ft) thick. The frozen surface will be 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. 


ISSYK-KUL LAKE

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. 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 at the wider side of the lake you won’t be able to see the north shore!  The waters are crystal clean and significantly warmer than Song-Kul Lake. 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. 

HIKING THE TESKEY ALA-TOO MOUNTAIN RANGE TO THE GLACIER

Now that you have done the jailoos, yurts, horses, and lakes, another highlight of Kyrgyzstan is awaiting on the south eastern edge of Lake Issyk-Kul. From Bökönbaev take the minibus to the town of Karakol where you can arrange all the necessities such as tents, hiking gear, gas stoves and a highly recommended guide. 


Head south on a four to six day mountain hiking 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.  


KARAKOL TOWN AND JETI-OGUZ

In Karakol town don’t miss the wooden Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral which was completed in 1895. This beautiful wooden church was built without a single nail and has a magnificent facade and an ornate and gaudy altar inside. If visiting in late August, try one of the fruits of the old apple trees in the church grounds.  Karakol also boasts a Sunday livestock market which is a good place to see remnants of the traditional nomadic rural life of Kyrgyzstan.


Just 25 km from town in a southwestern direction is a lush valley with some striking red sandstone rock formations known as the “seven bowls 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… "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.

ARSLANBOB MOUNTAIN TOWN

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 snow-capped Chatkal mountains. Arslanbob is partly surrounded by the world’s second largest walnut grove so come in late September or early October and you will be showered in walnuts - fresh off the trees. Located in the Jalal-Abad Province 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 mazar (shrine or tomb) to Arslanbob-Ata, the founder of the village. Note that the suffix “bob” is a traditional practice used in this part of the world which denotes “traveller and explorer”. So obviously Mr. Arslan was a well respected traveller or 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. 


Kyrgyzstan is truly awesome and now ranks as one of Globerovers' favourite countries.


ESSENTIAL KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyzstan in a Nutshell:
This is one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world! Kyrgyzstan is a very pleasant and safe country with the most hospitable people in the world. It is great for nature lovers with snow-capped mountains, raging rivers, glacial lakes, green jailoos with yurts and horses, and of course, quaint villages with cosy guesthouses - all available at among the most reasonable prices on earth.

Getting There:
The most common route entering Kyrgyzstan is by land from China’s Xingjiang province, either via the expensive Torugart Pass or further south via the cheaper Irkeshtam border. Another alternative is to fly into the capital city, Bishkek, and from there make a circle around the country.

When to Go:
Kyrgyzstan is an all-year destination. While winters are very cold and snow makes driving hazardous, it is a beautiful time of the year to enjoy the frozen lakes, skiing and hot springs. Summers are extremely hot, while spring and autumn are great to do more extensive travelling by road, as well as hiking and enjoying the warms days and nights under the skies. 

Getting Around:
Public transportation can be cumbersome, but with a lot of patience it will be an exciting and very rewarding experience. Large buses are rare, so along the busiest routes it is common to take minibuses, called Marshrutka. Everywhere, including the less busy routes, is served by shared taxis.  

Where to stay:
Kyrgyzstan has a Community-Based Tourism (CBT) home stay network extending throughout the country. Prices of accommodation, meals, and transport are standardised and so is the quality of the services. Accommodation is generally inside the homes of local families, although some are in separate buildings or in apartments dedicated to tourists. It is not expensive and is an excellent way to experience the lives of the local people. 

Cost of travel:
For the international traveller it is one of the cheapest countries in the world, especially when taking into account the relatively high quality of products and services.

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