All the Kul places

Posted on 2019-09-25

Song-Kul is a high alpine lake in the mountains at about 3000m above sea level. Often said to be one of the most beautiful places in Kyrgyzstan, much of its allure is due to its remoteness and untouched nature, partly preserved by the difficulty in getting there. All the roads leading to the lake are unpaved, and all routes in (roads, tracks, or otherwise) must cross high passes before descending to the lake. Around the lake, there are no permanent houses, only yurt camps where families herd animals on the high pastures in summer, some of which also host tourists.

Not wanting to do any more off-road mountain cycling, we initially thought of hiking to Song-Kul from Kyzart village, which is possible as a long day hike each way. However, Hannah had sprained her ankle a few days earlier and it had not yet fully healed, so when we met a French solo cyclist at our guesthouse who had booked a 3d2n horse trekking tour to the lake starting the next day, we decided to join. It turned out to be a larger group, with four other French travellers and three guides accompanying us. Some of the group had minimal horse riding experience, but the rest of us were complete beginners. Despite this, all we got was three seconds of instruction ("Turn left like this, turn right like this, go like this, stop like this"), and then we were off, expected to know how to control our horses on the long trek. This seemed to work fine for everyone except Hannah, who had a stubborn juvenile horse that often wanted to stop and eat or drink, but all the guides did was to shout instructions for the horse ("No eat! No drink!") without any instructions for the rider on how to actually control the horse. By the middle of the first day, Hannah's horse was lagging so far behind that one of the guides just decided to drag it along for the rest of the day. Not the most encouraging or confidence-building introduction to horse riding.

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - on the way to Kelimche valley

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - on the way to Kelimche valley

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - Hannah's horse being dragged into the yurt camp in Kelimche valley where we would stay for the night

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - Hannah's horse being dragged into the yurt camp in Kelimche valley where we would stay for the night

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - inside the "dining yurt" of our yurt camp in Kelimche valley where we stayed for the night

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - inside the "dining yurt" of our yurt camp in Kelimche valley where we stayed for the night

We spent the night in a yurt camp in Kelimche valley, and continued the next day over a pass to Song-Kul. Hannah swapped horses with Heiko on this day, and the juvenile horse also ignored Heiko at first, but after one of the guides whipped it, it became easier to control, so the trek went more smoothly. When we reached the wide pastures near the lake, some of the horses wanted to gallop, and the rest of our group was up for it, so we had no choice but to follow (we couldn't stop our horses even if we wanted to). With no knowledge whatsoever of proper horse riding posture, we held on to our horses for dear life as we bounced along uncontrollably. By the time we reached our yurt camp on the lakeshore, we were so worn out we spent the rest of the day resting, while the others were outside swimming in the lake and playing Kok-Boru, a traditional horse game. We preferred instead to enjoy the tasty food and to marvel at the construction of the yurts.

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - riding down to the lake

Horse trekking to Song-Kul lake - riding down to the lake

Our guides playing "kok boru", a Kyrgyz traditional horse game, after arriving at Song-Kul lake on our horse trek

Our guides playing "kok boru", a Kyrgyz traditional horse game, after arriving at Song-Kul lake on our horse trek

The next day, after more unclear instructions, horse dragging, and uncontrollable bouncing, we finally made it back to Kyzart in quite a destroyed state. We initially wanted to continue cycling the following day, but Hannah's sit bones still hurt so much we decided to take a rest day instead. On this day, we met a guide in our guesthouse who had just returned with another group, and he asked us about our tour. When we showed him videos of our group playing Kok-Boru, he (an older man and former English teacher) said, in a slightly critical tone, "Your guides were only playing with themselves". He then proceeded to show us photos of him teaching his guests Kok-Boru and other horse riding skills. We feel more validated now that we know we are not lousy horse riders, but we were just unlucky to have lousy teachers.

From Kyzart village, it was 30km of bad road due to road construction (20km to the Kyzart pass and 10km on the other side) before we hit the tarmac again. From there, it was mostly downhill to Issyk-Kul, another alpine lake at an elevation of 1600m and the largest lake in Kyrgyzstan. One of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, the northern shore is known for its beach resorts that attract many Russian and Kazakh tourists, while the southern shore attracts the more "intrepid" traveller. As we had time to kill (while waiting for our passports to return from Germany), we planned to cycle around the entire lake.

Bactrian camels along the road between Kochkor and Balykchy

Bactrian camels along the road between Kochkor and Balykchy

Many cyclists we met in Kyrgyzstan seemed to be be here for the mountains, taking the toughest route possible over high passes on invariably bad roads in remote areas. However, we lazy cyclists really enjoyed our days around Issyk-Kul, with its relatively flat and good roads, more developed tourist infrastructure, and no lack of good views, as the lake is surrounded on all sides by the beautiful, snow-capped Tian Shan mountains. Accommodation options in the towns around the lake were both cheaper and more comfortable than anywhere else we had been in Kyrgyzstan, and it was also relatively easy to find quiet places to camp right on the lakeshore. These conditions made for some relaxing days as we explored the area.

Our campsite on the lakeshore of Issyk-Kul between Balykchy and Cholpon-Ata

Our campsite on the lakeshore of Issyk-Kul between Balykchy and Cholpon-Ata

We arrived at Issyk-Kul in the town of Balykchy, a large but otherwise unremarkable town at the northwestern corner of the lake. From there, we started cycling along the northern shore, camping for a night before reaching Cholpon-Ata, probably the largest and most popular beach resort town on the lake. We have never thought of ourselves as typical beach people, but we actually liked it there, as we suddenly "blended in" as tourists. We initially planned to stay two nights to wait out a thunderstorm, but Heiko was also not feeling too well, so we extended our stay and spent a good amount of time relaxing on the beach.

On the beach of Issyk-Kul lake in Cholpon-Ata

On the beach of Issyk-Kul lake in Cholpon-Ata

Making our way out of Cholpon-Ata on a Sunday morning, we passed so many tourists (or expats) jogging, cycling, and even roller skiing along the road, that for a moment we thought we were in another country. However, we were soon jolted back into reality, as the smooth, wide road that started in Balykchy ended with the last of the beach resorts, and turned back into a narrow, patched asphalt road. After another night of camping on the northern shore, we soon reached the eastern end of the lake, where the road turns south to Karakol, the capital of the Issyk-Kul region.

People swimming in Issyk-Kul lake near our campsite between Cholpon-Ata and Karakol

People swimming in Issyk-Kul lake near our campsite between Cholpon-Ata and Karakol

We met several travellers who spoke of Karakol as a separate destination from Issyk-Kul, and this confused us initially. We realised later that this is because Karakol is actually quite far from the lake itself, and is more a "base camp" for treks in the surrounding Tien Shan mountains. We didn't do any trekking ourselves, but only explored the town on our rest day (during which it thunderstormed again). Home to an ethnically diverse population, the two main sights in town are the old Russian Orthodox cathedral, built from wood, and the Dungan (Chinese Muslim) mosque, that looks curiously like a Chinese temple. Unfortunately, Hannah sprained her ankle (again, same foot) while walking back to our guesthouse, so we extended our stay again, and this is when we learnt that our guesthouse owner was also the founder and pastor of the local Protestant church!

Wooden Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral from 1895 in Karakol

Wooden Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral from 1895 in Karakol

The wooden Dungan mosque in Karakol, completed in 1910 by Chinese architects and craftsmen, is built without any nails. Dungan is the Kyrgyz term for Chinese Muslims, a local minority group.

The wooden Dungan mosque in Karakol, completed in 1910 by Chinese architects and craftsmen, is built without any nails. Dungan is the Kyrgyz term for Chinese Muslims, a local minority group.

It must have snowed heavily in the mountains when it rained in Karakol, and the mountains looked even more spectacular when we left the town. We don't know what it is that attracts more "intrepid" travellers to the southern shore, but we can say for sure that the views from the southern shore are better, as the sun shines from your back when you gaze at the lake and the mountains on the other side. After another night of camping on the southern shore, we stopped by the Skazka ("Fairytale" in Russian) Canyon on the way to Bokonbaevo, a beautiful little canyon so named because of the otherworldly shapes and colours of its rocks.

Our day cycling out of Karakol was blessed with clear skies and this amazing, omnipresent view of the Kungey Ala-Too range of the Tien Shan mountains, that forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It had rained heavily the day before, and also snowed heavily in the mountains, making the majestic snow-capped peaks look even closer than before.

Our day cycling out of Karakol was blessed with clear skies and this amazing, omnipresent view of the Kungey Ala-Too range of the Tien Shan mountains, that forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. It had rained heavily the day before, and also snowed heavily in the mountains, making the majestic snow-capped peaks look even closer than before.

Skazka (Fairytale) Canyon, so named because of the fantastical shapes and colours of its rocks, in between Tamga and Bokonbaevo on the southern shore of lake Issyk-Kul

Skazka (Fairytale) Canyon, so named because of the fantastical shapes and colours of its rocks, in between Tamga and Bokonbaevo on the southern shore of lake Issyk-Kul

Lost in Skazka (Fairytale) Canyon

Lost in Skazka (Fairytale) Canyon

Just before Bokonbaevo, the road turns away from the lake and climbs into the hills up to a ~2000m pass (which we thought was highly unnecessary). After rolling back down to the lake, we camped one last time on the southern shore. From there, it was only a short distance back to Balykchy, but we decided to call it a day there as there was a thunderstorm (again!) forecasted that same afternoon. We stayed in a cheap hotel overlooking the lake, a fitting end to our tour around Issyk-Kul.

As our passports had still not arrived in Bishkek, we were in no particular hurry to leave, and ended up staying for three nights in Balykchy (while trying not to panic about our passports being lost). From there, it is a long downhill ride to Bishkek on some of the best roads in the country, which we covered over three relaxed days of cycling, stopping by the Burana Tower on the way. Just one day before arriving in Bishkek, our friend messaged us that our passports had finally arrived - what a relief, and just in time!

View of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, that runs south of Bishkek, as we make our way out of Balykchy

View of the Kyrgyz Ala-Too range, that runs south of Bishkek, as we make our way out of Balykchy

Petroglyphs in the open-air museum around the Burana Tower. The petroglyphs on display here have been collected from across the country.

Petroglyphs in the open-air museum around the Burana Tower. The petroglyphs on display here have been collected from across the country.

Bishkek is a relatively new Soviet-planned city with limited historical sights, that we explored in half an afternoon's walk. As usual whenever we are in a big city, we also did a fair bit of shopping for bits and pieces of gear and bicycle spare parts. We stayed with a Couchsurfing host, the first host we have had in a long time. We were surprised to learn that Russian is the main language here in the capital, instead of Kyrgyz (that is the main language in the rest of the country, as one would expect). After a few days in the city (and almost two months in the country), it was finally time to leave for Kazakhstan, across the border just 20km north of Bishkek.

Monument to Manas the Great on the Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, the main square in the city, with the National Historical Museum in the background

Monument to Manas the Great on the Ala-Too Square in Bishkek, the main square in the city, with the National Historical Museum in the background